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In terms of novel writing, I tend to avoid my own genre, at least for the most part. Some of the reasons why:

Genre Blindness / Genre Trap: Too much reading of your own genre blinds you to the tropes and clichés used by the genre which then pervade your own work.

Writing Style Influences Here your own writing style and language use subconsciously begins to take on elements often found in the genre making your work less unique.

Losing your Ideas Perhaps paranoia, but seeing ideas you have or even half-formed ideas fully can kill them. A new idea is delicate thing and needs to be incubated from such things. Avoiding your own genre avoids this danger.

However, not reading your own genre is also making a sacrifice in terms of exposure to what works and what doesn't. Particularly with historical fiction this also means missing out on the tacit research performed by others.

What do others think? Am I doing the right thing here?

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7 Answers 7

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Is what you're doing working for you? Like, are you achieving your goals following this method? If so, then I'd keep doing it. If not, I'd switch.

I know that's a bit vague, but I think it might be pretty accurate. I agree that there's a risk of becoming derivative if you read in your own genre, but I also agree that you're missing out, not only on research and seeing 'what works', but also on understanding the market and what different publishers are looking for.

So it's kind of hard to know what to recommend without knowing what areas of your writing you think you need to be working on. If you're having a tough time understanding your genre, I'd say you need to read more from the field. If you're having a tough time being original, maybe you should avoid it.

Personal experience: I write romance, but I don't read it. It DOES make it a bit harder to decide where to submit my stories (I guess this wouldn't be a problem if you work with an agent), but I think it keeps me fresh.

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I didn't think this was a good answer at first, but having mulled it over a while, I keep coming back to it. Clearly there is no right or wrong here, so it must depend on oneself. That is woolly, but can be reinforced by making it goal driven. "Is it working? If not, switch". The hard part though is telling whether it is working. It would be good to explore a more detailed list of pros/cons. –  Panda Mar 24 '11 at 13:00
    
I think there is a lot of value in reading what you write, if only for comparison's sake. However, I would not recommend reading in the genre you write just to find examples. Each writer has a unique voice, and if you try to duplicate someone else's, then you lose the chance to use your own. –  Steven Drennon Jul 22 '11 at 5:04

I would say 100% you should be well read in your genre. There are several reasons why, but the most important is because you should become familiar with conventions in your genre.

Why is this important? Because you know what readers are likely expecting when they read your book. By being familiar with what those are, you are able to know when you can and can't break those conventions. Just like any master craftsman who knows their trade inside out can start tampering with the basics to create something new, so too can a writer who knows their chosen genre.

Remember, too, that you are writing for an audience, not just yourself, and that audience will be well-read, and are going to have expectations when they buy your book based on the fact that it's "Science Fiction", or "Crime", or "Horror", or whatever.

Also, you mention genre blindness, and writing style, but this is a result of you only ever reading one genre, which is not the same as being widely read in that genre. Reading widely in different genres is, in my view, essential to the craft of writing because then you can cross-pollinate different ideas.

Being widely read in a genre means you know what's gone before, and that can only be a good thing. I understand you said that you shouldn't crush half-formed ideas, but there is nothing worse as a writer to come up with an idea that you think is interesting and unique, only to be told, "So-and-so did this in the classic book XYZ." By reading widely in your genre, you should be inspired to tweak your ideas, change them so that they're not the same as someone else, build on them. Ideas are never static, and you should never be so rigid in your ideas as to fall over at the first hurdle when you discover someone has done something similar. Don't be crushed, be inspired! Do it different.

Hope that helps.

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I'm not sure you are writing for an audience. Slightly controversial perhaps, but many writers often say they write what they want to read, and trust themselves and their editor enough to hope the audience likes it. Once you start playing the tune you think people want to hear, I think you run the risk of loosing your own way. Perhaps worth a different question at this point... –  Panda Mar 24 '11 at 12:52
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Writing what you want to read is excellent advice, but if you're not reading in the genre, why write it? When authors say the wrote what they wanted to read, it's normally because they saw problems with other books in that genre, and that's only possible by being well-read, and being part of the audience you hope to appeal to. True, you probably shouldn't write what you think readers want to hear, but it's not really what I was trying to suggest. –  Craig Sefton Mar 24 '11 at 15:15

Your considerations are spot-on. Very nice question.

You should definitely be familiar with your genre. If you know enough to place your work within a specific genre, then it had better fit there well. Each genre has its own rules, guidelines, conventions, expectations, cliches, and fatal faux pas. Writing with little personal familiarity with the genre is very likely to be blundering around; even if you write a good book, it's very unlikely to be a good genre book.

On the other hand, you do not need to be an academic expert, and furthermore you do not need to be up to date with the cutting edge.

You don't need to be an expert because most of your readers won't be, and won't care about the academia - they'll care about the story. To take an example from my own home territory of SF/F, you don't need to be able to pinpoint precisely whether your story is a "proper" science-fiction piece and whether it has literary merit, or whether it should be categorized as "magic realism" or more "slipstream". You can, but you don't need to in order to write, nor in order to be read.

Nor do you need to be extremely up-to-date on your genre, aware of all the latest stories and authors and ideas. Partially because, again, a lot of your readers won't be, so they won't care. Partially because it's safe to assume that anything that's your own unique idea will be distinct enough from other things going on that it will have merit on its own. You should be aware of huge things, works that are massively popular (or notorious) - I can tell you that urban paranormal is different after Twilight, even though I've never read the books and I'm not a fan of the genre. When there's something big and current, you should be aware of that, and figure out if it affects your own work - it might; it might not. The Matrix didn't affect time-travel stories much, The Time Traveller's Wife did. But huge changes like that are pretty rare, and fairly easy to keep up with (particularly because you don't have to actually read even the genre-changing ones unless they directly pertain to your own specific work).


So, you should be familiar with your genre - to the extent that you could read a genre book, and express an opinion on whether or not it was a good genre book. That's the same judgment you'll be using to examine your own work. But you don't need to be constantly reading in your genre - it just doesn't change that fast. And if you personally find that reading in genre can cause problems for you, like the ones you detailed in your question, then IMHO you're quite right that it isn't necessary and can be avoided, if so you choose.

I'd consider reading in-genre very occasionally, just to "keep in touch," as it were. From your description, I don't think that would cause the problems you're concerned about, and I think it would be beneficial. But as long as you remain a good judge of how your writing will work within your chosen genre, anything else is entirely a question of what you like and what works well for you.

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Some good points. I imagine that this concern is even more relevant for sci-fi, where a lot of the entertainment is that you are pitching ideas (as well as narrative ofc). For sci-fi, I would imagine being better read in the genre is more of a benefit. Then again, I doubt Kazuo Ishiguro read a lot of sci-fi before he wrote Never Let Me Go. –  Panda Mar 24 '11 at 12:49

I think reading is important (as I said before: maybe more important than writing (as in "write, write, write, whatever and whenever, even if it's crap")).

Of course, your concerns are valid. Lets take them on one at a time:

  • Genre Blindness As other answers here have said, I think you'd mostly gain the opposite from reading genre books: you see what works (as you said yourself), which requires that you see what is used. (And "seeing what works" implies "seeing what doesn't")

  • Style Influences Always an issue, sure, but... you cannot eliminate influences completely anyway. Just read sufficiently different authors, and it will balance itself out ;-)

  • Losing Ideas Could be a concern. But then, no-one tells/told you to read all the time, even while writing your own stuff. Just separate your reading from your writing sufficiently. And of course, don't read when an idea grabs you: your idea, your own creation, has priority. Set everything else (not just reading ;-) aside and work on it until your satisfied that it's stable.

I learned ages ago that when I write lyrics (I'm a (wannabe ;-)) songwriter too), I don't do so just after having listened to some music, because the influence of what I just heard is too strong (actual experience). So, I take a break. And then get my mind into songwriting mode (actually, it does this on its own, whenever it feels like, damn thing ;-))

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I take it you are in the "you should read a lot from your own genre" camp then? –  Panda Mar 24 '11 at 12:31
    
I think you should read a lot. If you want to call that a camp, then yes, I'm in it. Whether it's your genre or not doesn't really matter. But how are you supposed to learn the conventions, the tropes, of "your" genre? (I mean the good tropes, of course ;-) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Mar 24 '11 at 18:48

After reading the questions, I have one question: Are you serious? You want to sell cars, but you have no clue about the different brands, the different models, which series is very often in the garage, because it's crap, which cars are reliable even after 200,000km, what extra is worth paying for and why and and and.

Who, who is right in his mind, would buy a car from you?

After reading the existing answers, I was puzzled even more. You do not know your market, you do not know your readers, but you want write for them?

You cannot write in a genre, if you do not know the genre. Only exception: you invent your own genre. (And that's a questionable idea.)

Take a genre you dislike. Romance, thrillers whatever. Sit down and write a novel in it. I'm interested how far you will get. And no, half knowledge is not any better. A writer reads a lot. A lot in the genre he writes in. (Yes, also in other genres, which include non-fiction for fiction writers and fiction for non-fiction writers. But that's only a bonus.) Know what you write about or do not write about it.

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Do you think the only way to 'know' about something is to read other people's versions of it? I think you're absolutely right that people who focus on SELLING cars, or anything, need to know the market. But I don't think 'car salesman' is a good analogy for writers. If anything, we are the car designers, and as workers in a creative field, I think we focus on making the best product, and the one that is true to our vision. –  Kate Sherwood Mar 23 '11 at 10:43
    
I disagree and agree... hey, that's how I work ;-) I disagree with the salesman analogy (as I said elsewhere, I hope and think this site isn't for "professional" or "commercial" writers only). I agree with "Writers read. Lots. And in their own genre too". –  Jürgen A. Erhard Mar 23 '11 at 11:09
    
I don't think the OP is necessarily implying the complete lack of knowledge you're assuming here. And writing is a lot more amorphous than car specs - I think most authors would have a tough time explaining why their books are awesome, re-readable, worth paying extra for, etc. Should I not buy their books? Consider, instead, a car manufacturer - they want to make the best car they can; knowing precisely what cars others are making is helpful, but not necessarily crucial. Of course, not wanting to know how anybody has made cars ever would be rather problematic :P –  Standback Mar 23 '11 at 11:42
    
@Stand: It's called market analysis. If you do not know, why people buy the cars from the other manufacturers, what they do wrong, what right, you are running out of business fast, I promise you. @all: You can change car seller to surgeon, not keeping track of the medical research results. You can use any profession. Writers are not different. The OP will fail miserably if he keeps going that way. –  John Smithers Mar 23 '11 at 15:17
    
@John Smithers - you're a big fan of absolutes, I think. Me, not so much. I can tell you from personal experience that I've had quite a bit of success selling in my genre with hardly reading in it at all. I'm not saying I don't read at all, but I don't read within my genre. I guess that's the problem with working in absolutes - all it takes is one contrary example and your argument is gone. –  Kate Sherwood Mar 23 '11 at 20:33

This will vary depending on what your objective is; do you want your stories to fit within genre conventions? Do you want your stories to buck conventions, but not totally?

I find myself in the second category, so my reading regimen is about 70:30 outside versus inside the genre, and the materials in the second group tend to be the more odd specimens. In particular, I try to read books that challenge me - in terms of style, characterization, description, plot development or structure, and to do so it requires searcher beyond the borders of what I write myself.

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Yes, good point on where you want to sit. I don't want to write a by-the-numbers genre novel, hence why I am taking this appraoch. –  Panda Mar 24 '11 at 12:36

It depends on your attitude. Juan Luis Guerra, a famous musician from my country, I've heard state he listens to his genres so he is aware of what's being used too much, and avoid it.

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