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.
By reading other types of novels, novels outside the genre in which you write, you can learn how to use the elements of your subplots in better ways. You can learn different ways of seeding in clues, or misleading readers, or rewarding readers with a bittersweet ending. You can learn more about relationships between characters, and how to pace things so a romance can have the best impact.
Reading literary novels can help you become culturally literate so you know how to best utilize events and turns of phrases, and you'll know what's come before, which books have become a part of our core dialogue as a society. Maybe you can find some clues as far as what makes a really good book that sticks with people over generations. You can find some themes to turn on their heads to create something new. Or you can run with a new take on an old trope.
It's not just reading different types of fiction that can help you with your books, either. Nonfiction can provide you with huge piles of raw material for your imagination to work with. Reading history can help you with world building. How did people really behave in the past? How did certain events come together to make a huge event happen? Is it really possible for one man to shape history? How long does societal change take? Reading science, of course, can help you with your science fiction, but I've actually found that my science background is even more helpful with my fantasy. How would certain species of creatures behave and develop? How would the geology of the world affect my characters? How can I portray the climate of my fantasy world in a believable way? How can I make my magic believable?
Reading outside our comfort zones isn't just utilitarian, however. It can be a lot of fun as well. It can inspire ideas you never would have come up with otherwise. You know that "We want the same, but different," thing that agents and editors always seem to say? Reading outside your genre is a great way to develop that edge of seeing the world in a different way than your colleagues.
So the next time you're in the book store, skip the SF&F section and boldly go to a section you've never gone to before. It will be worth your while!
Melanie R. Meadors is an author of fantasy where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She has edited two upcoming genre anthologies, MECH: Age of Steel and HATH NO FURY, and is the science and pop culture blogger at The Once and Future Podcast. You can find her at her website, melaniermeadors.com, on Facebook, and Twitter, @melaniermeadors.