We've all heard that you need to be well read in the genre in which you write. It helps to know the traditions and tropes, the things that have been overdone and the things you want to see more of. But what about reading outside your genre?
I mean, let's face it. No one has time to read everything they want to anymore. I know when I think about all the new books coming out, JUST in my genre of fantasy, it kind of freaks me out. And now I'm telling you that you need to read outside your genre, too?
Well, yeah, kind of. I mean, any advice I give always comes with that grain of "what works for me might not work for you," but hear me out.
If you listened to The Once and Future Podcast this week, you heard host Anton Strout and guest Martha Wells talking about this a bit. Yes, it's important to read your genre and be familiar with it. But if you ONLY read in your genre, what happens? I mean, if I only read epic fantasy, I'd see magic, and elves, and long journeys. Sacred items, battles, dragons. I love all that stuff, so what's the problem?
The problem is, if you don't expand your horizons, you get stuck in the same world. You end up writing the same thing as everyone else, because you don't even know there are other things out there. You're mind may be open to possibilities, but if it can't fathom what those possibilities are, then it doesn't accomplish much. And yes, you can totally solve part of this problem by going out and experiencing a lot of things first hand, but not everyone has an adventuring budget that can support this.
One of the awesome things about science fiction and fantasy is that they are the best of all worlds. In order for something to be science fiction, the story has to center around some aspect of science. If you take that science element away, the story falls apart. Fantasy is a bit looser as far as definition goes, but basically involved something that...well, isn't quite real, beyond just a situation. Different races of people, a made up world, some magic. And the storyline of good fantasy should weave into this speculative element so that the two are inseparable. But beyond the basic definitions, the plots of speculative fiction often dip toes into other genres as well, most notably mystery and romance.
Think about it. Juliet Marillier's "Blackthorn and Grim" novels are fantasy. They take place in an alternate Ireland, long ago, and have magic, fey, and other things. Because it's a fantasy series, there is time in the beginning getting the world established and introducing the two main characters. But at its core? The series is a duo solving mysteries. The same is true for the Simon Canderous series by O&FP's host Anton Strout. Simon is a paranormal detective solving mysteries in Manhattan. The difference between these books and the books shelved in the mystery section? They have monsters and other paranormal things in them. The same is true for countless science fiction novels, as well. Robert Sawyer's Red Planet Blues is a prime example, as are Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey, and Pattern Recognition by William Gibson.
On the romance end of the spectrum, what could be more basic? Two people meet and fall in love while having adventures. There's a huge range of how much of the romance you include in the story. Some series, like Elizabeth Vaughan's Chronicles of Warlands books, focus on the romance front and center, and while the characters definitely have problems to solve, some of which are no less than saving the world, they also have problems of the heart that play a very prominent role in the story. Usually a romance would have a happy ending, at least as far as the love story goes. Mercedes Lackey, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Melanie Rawn have stronger romances in their books, but Tad Williams, Terry Brooks, and Brad Beaulieu also have romantic subplots in their books as well. Robert Heinlein, Joe Haldeman, Simon Morden, and Christopher Wooding all are examples of authors who have romantic subplots in the science fiction. There are countless others.