Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Why You Should Read Your Genre: A Correction

by S. L. Duncan

I know what you want to know. You come here, browsing our various posts, searching for that elusive answer to the question we all asked ourselves (and whomever else would throw us an answer) when first starting out.

What, above all else, can I do to improve my odds of getting published?

There are a lot of answers to this question. A lot of books have been written that offer pages and pages of tricks of the trade and career advice. I've paid for one or two myself. Some of them may work for you, most will not.

But I want to offer you something more simplistic: buy a book in the genre in which you wish to write, and read it.

Revolutionary, right? Okay. Maybe not. You've probably heard it before. If not from me, then from any number of other authors. I’ve been giving that answer every time I’ve sat on a literary panel because, let’s face it, that’s usually the first question you ask. But I’ve come to realize, you’ve been taking my meaning all wrong.

And that’s my fault for not being clear. When I tell you to read a book in your chosen genre, I don’t mean do it so you can learn how those authors did it.

No, no, no. 

First, I’m not even sure by reading a book, you can figure out how that author writes. I could be wrong, here, but if you read my stuff you’re not seeing the process that got me there. The crap sentences. The cut pages. The endless redlining. Don't even look at my trunk. Not to be too cliche, but the journey is everything.  It's the hours learning your craft, the dedication and sacrifice. It's the party you missed and the nights of trial and error. The wadding of paper and the full waste basket. 

Let’s suspend belief, though. Let’s say, somehow, in reading an Andrew Smith novel you figure out how to retro-engineer his writing and learn how to write just like him. His nuance. His voice and word usage and sentence structure. That’s fantastic! Congratulations. The problem is, there’s already an Andrew Smith out there, and he’s doing just fine.

So, let me clarify and restate my answer. If you want to better your chances at getting published, go read a book in the genre in which you wish to be published. Read two. No, in fact, read a shelf worth. Now, in truth, you should be reading them already. And if you have been...well, you've had the answer all along.

And here, dear friends, is why:

You should be reading books in the genre in which you wish to be published because you should love those books; be dedicated to them. Starved to read the next one from your favorite author - if you can even pick a favorite author from the stellar line up of talent sitting in your bookstore's window. Because, here's the deal: if you’re unable to find joy in the books you read, there’s no way you’ll be able to instill that sense of joy in the books you write. That’s what distinguishes good from great.  This is a business of knife-edge margins. Publishers aren’t looking for good. They want the genuine article. They want great.

It boils down to being passionate about your work and passionate about the work your peers are doing. It’s the difference in the Sunday fried chicken dinner your grandmother made and the KFC value box number two.

Put your pen down, pick up a book, and turn a few pages. Find your joy in the words on them. Then take that joy and let it inspire your own words.

If it’s natural and real and honest, you’ll know it. As will everyone else that reads your work.

S. L. Duncan writes young adult fiction, including his debut, The Revelation of Gabriel Adam, releasing August 12th, 2014 from Medallion Press. You can find him blogging on and on Twitter.


Richard Pieters said...

Yes, with one slight disagreement. I think reading other than "you're genre" is as valuable. I read New Yorker short stories all the time. I don't write literary fiction. I wish I were that brilliant. But reading amazing writing by authors outside your genre is also, IMO, invaluable.

"Find your joy in the words on them. Then take that joy and let it inspire your own words."

That, I think, is the essence. No matter the genre. The joy in the words. Well said, Stephen.

cleemckenzie said...

When I first considered writing YA, I went to hear Laurie H. Anderson talk. She made a very interesting statement. She never reads in her genre. I took her advice and seldom read what others write for YA. I make the exception for friends and crit partners.

I prefer to read outside YA and now that I'm writing MG as well, I follow that same advice.

debi o'neille said...

This is a great post, but I don't let my reading steer my writing or vice versa. But, maybe I do. I read a little bit of everything except very graphic horror. I love to read fantasy, literary, sci-fi, romance, women's fiction, good nonfiction, young adult, middle grade, first readers, picture books, mystery, just about anything, if it's well-written.
Most often I write literary short stories, or short romances. I'm working on a mystery novel. I've written a young adult novel and a fantasy for middle graders. So who knows? I'm sure it has all influenced my writing, even though I don't start writing with any specific author's work in mind. This is an interesting post, and I'm glad to be your newest follower.

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