There’s this very odd effect I’ve noted, the last ten years or so, that I wonder if it’s always been so, or just recently.
Feels like recent insanity, but it doesn’t mean it is. It’s entirely possible that this has been going on since the beginning of time.
What do I mean by insanity?
Well, from the Baen bar to conferences, I come across people who tell me they don’t read in the genre they write in, because they’re afraid it will taint their style. Though the BAD insanity are the people who tell me they don’t read ANYTHING at all because they fear it will make their style “less fresh.”
Now, I suppose there might be some justification for the first one, if you’re one of those sort of people who gets entire phrases stuck in their heads, but have bad enough memories not to remember where they got them. I could see where it would be safer not to read in the genre you’re working in (though it would also be very difficult for reasons I’ll explain.)
However, for those who don’t read at all for fear of not being fresh, I’d like to point out they should also plug their ears with corks, and try to speak a foreign language without having heard it.
You see, writing – stories on the page – aren’t the same thing as what really happens. If what you’re trying to write is “real life” at best you’ll end up with formless goo. At worst… At worst you’ll end up with the worst type of soap opera with all the more exciting bits of people having breakfast, reading the morning paper and maybe, just maybe, driving to work.
This is because fiction writing – any fiction writing, in any time, really – has a certain number of conventions and ways to go about telling a story. Heck, even if you read a lot, if you put on your writer’s hat for the first time, you might find yourself trying to reinvent the wheel. My own, rather specific bit of insanity was not realizing that stories were written in scenes. So, say my character had a fight with his wife in the living room. Instead of cutting off the chapter/scene and picking up in the bedroom, where he’s packing his clothes, no, I THOUGHT I had to show him walk up the stairs, step by step, then down the hallway…
Insanity? Sure. But I was in the critter’s head and he was doing this. So… I had to, right? And yes, I’d read books before. And written books before. It took me to book five to figure this one out.
But let’s say you’re not brain damaged in my unique way – most people who’ve read any novels would know better than to do what I did.
There’s other conventions. There’s ways to convey emotions; there’s tricks of narrating a fight; there’s … things you can only pick up subconsciously from reading.
And this is why I said although I understand – for people with bad memory – not wanting to read in the genre you’re writing in – it can get really difficult.
Let me explain. I read in multiple genres. I write in multiple genres. A certain amount of crossover is not a bad idea. These days, to be honest Romance is to genre writing what Country is to music. If you have a bit of crossover and can claim to be SF Romance, it’s as good as being Country-Rock – you just added a massive audience to your much smaller niche.
HOWEVER you don’t want to be writing mystery and using sf cues; or fantasy and using sf cues (guilty); or even SF with mystery cues.
I don’t fully know how to explain this, but there is a certain type of… Well, Kris Rusch calls them “reader cookies” for each genre. They’re not so much things that advance the plot or are extremely necessary. They’re things that the reader of a certain genre or subgenre will devour and be all happy about.
As I said, I read everything. But I’ve found that my early imprinting on science fiction means I understand science fiction readers better. So I know I can put “cool stuff in” because it excites me, so it will excite them. More importantly, my mind tends to think the way sf readers do, so when I give just an allusion to something, they usually follow along just fine.
Not so with fantasy. I spent years writing fantasy, but the truth is, I don’t read as much of it as I do science fiction or mystery. So, even though I read – and enjoy – Diana Wynne Jones and Pratchett, I keep giving my fantasy novels a “tone” of science fiction by being overly concerned with how and when things work, how and when they don’t, and how to explain them to people in a logical fashion. This for some reason means I rub fantasy readers the wrong way – at least people who read exclusively fantasy. I don’t even know how I do it, just like I don’t fully, consciously, try to hook the SF readers. Or the mystery readers.
Every time I try to write a new genre, it’s like learning to walk all over again, and I virtually have a breakdown over the book. You’re not quite a new writer all over again, but you’re also not fully an experienced veteran.
So, it seems to me it would be much easier to write a genre if you’ve read sufficiently in it to have an idea how things are done.
If you want an example of this, take a futuristic romance or a paranormal romance (if you read mostly sf or alternately fantasy) and read it. It will drive you nuts. I can’t explain it any other way than to say the writers not only reinvent the wheel, but they reinvent it in the wrong way. For readers of sf/f, it feels like I imagine it feels to a cat getting their fur stroked the wrong way.
It’s not wrong, of course. It’s not wrong for THEIR GENRE. It just feels wrong for OUR genre. These are not the same genres, but sideways steps. OTOH they are as close as you’re going to get to “fantasy written by romance readers.”
You can make the same type of miscue writing in a genre you don’t read/have never read/don’t like. (The ones I make tend to be more subtle, just because fantasy is where I’m least at home.)
Is it possible to do it? I don’t know. I was getting “accused” of writing romance before I’d read any, so I suppose it is? I just don’t think you’re going to grow your audience to its maximum potential that way. (Though, as the late Ric Locke was fond of pointing out, in the global market that e books open up, that might not mean anything.)
However, I guarantee that if you don’t read anything at all, your stuff will not be “fresh” – it will be virtually unreadable. It would be like never looking at a painting and trying to achieve the effect with your fingers and bits of dirt. Oh, sure, I can see someone painting a portrait that way (pastel is not much different) but not without ever having seen a painted portrait. There are conventions of rendering three dimensions in two you’ll be sure to miss.
While not knowing the conventions can result in some good innovations, the chances of that are the same as of an accidental mutation being beneficial to an organism. (No, I’m not disputing evolution. I’m just saying that out of millions of mutations most will be harmful, a good number will be neutral, but the beneficial ones are few and far between.)
Yes, you might come up with a really cool way to individualize dialogue. Unfortunately, we’ll never slog far enough in to find it, because your descriptions will be rendered in such a way we will not have the slightest notion whether your protagonists are mid-air or under the sea. (Yes, it’s possible.)
I’d advise you to read widely. I’d advise you to read the genre you aspire to writing, at least enough to know the conventions. Of course, I’d also advise you to read outside the genre, back and forth in time, and different cultures – even if nothing but your own narrow genre truly appeals to you, it will give you an appreciation for what’s essential and what’s decoration in the current conventions. (This is much like learning a foreign language will give you an understanding of your own.)
Yes – particularly when you’re a new author – you’ll borrow style without meaning to. Not as much as you think, mind – that’s an illusion – but if you read a lot of Heyer, your space society might end up talking in high-regency style. (Which might be a thing, who knows?) So don’t read anything that’s so distinctive that the porting of manners and expressions will hurt your book.
On the other hand, if you read nothing at all, you will fall down the rabbit hole of your own mind, and at the end of it, the only reader you’ll be aiming to please will be yourself. This is particularly a danger if you’re young and just beginning.
As Pratchett says of Edward D’Eath “he fell under his own influence.” It can be a killer.