What are you reading right now? — well, aside from this post, smarty-pants. What’s on your nightstand, or wherever you keep your open book? What’s your preferred genre? Do you ever read outside your genre?
If you’re a writer, you should.
I write Contemporary Women’s Fiction and Romance primarily, but I read Mystery, in all its subcategories, including Suspense/Thriller, Literary, Fantasy, and Historical. I learn something from everything I read, every author, even if it’s as simple as how not to do something.
I was thinking about this the other day while I was preparing for one of my speaking engagements coming up in a couple of weeks. Despite the fact that I tend to write light-weight comedy/dramas, some of the elements of what I’ve learned from others can be found in my writing style, incorporated into my technique and as second-nature now as breathing. Other things I’ve learned, I’m still trying to master. But I always learn.
From the mystery/suspense novels I’ve read, I’ve learned how to build tension, how to plant ideas and red herrings, and how to create effective, realistic bad guys (my favorite of my “bad guys” is the journalist in The Cat Lady’s Secret). In a more direct, practical lesson, I discovered how to write a great fist-fight scene when I read The Black Dahlia, a noir Police Procedural by James Ellroy, and used what I learned in The Simulacrum.
I learn how to elevate my writing by reading literary novels. Most of the time in comedy/drama, you’re not looking for “elevated.” But there are times in my novels when I want poignancy, which I’ve learned from reading Literary more than any other genre. I can see what works, how to get away from not just naming the emotion, not just describing it in common terms, but truly illustrating it. My favorite example comes from America, America in which the author Ethan Canin illustrated how a character would do things just as his beloved wife did before she died, and how he’d brush a hand across the apron she’d left draped over the oven handle. All action. No wavering sighs, no solitary tear. Pure, poignant action.
Fantasy, my newest love, teaches me to stretch my imagination, think outside the box, bring in the improbable and make it possible. I love this — still learning it, but love it.
Historical teaches me creative ways to describe setting, because to put the reader into the era, setting is more important than in contemporary. I read one recently that was so effective at this, I expected to go to town and see women in Oxford shoes and poodle skirts. The techniques used by these writers can be used in any genre. You’d think I’d learn more about this in Fantasy, but often the fantasy world — and the Sci-Fi world — is so fantastical that the scene requires far more description than what would be required in more “earthly” settings.
Authors who capture my imagination most are those who excel in some aspect of writing. William Landay, in his Court Procedural/Mystery Defending Jacob, created the most effective “unreliable narrator” you’ll ever see. I don’t think even he realized it. In our interview, he indicated he didn’t understand why I called his character unreliable, because the character was honest in everything he presented. Honest with everyone, that is, except himself. And since the entire story is told in his POV, that’s a major point.
Searching for Grace Kelly, a recent WF Historical release, provided me with the most exemplary multi-female characterization example to date — and it’s written by a guy! Michael Callahan presented three women, totally different from each other, and he nailed the personalities. I’ve seen great characterization before — like in Lisa Gardner’s thriller The Survivors Club and others, but this guy surpassed everyone. I’m anxious to read his again.
Billy Coffey, in his Literary, In the Heart of the Dark Wood, illustrated a POV no one uses anymore — omniscient. I analyzed his technique in “A Study in Omniscient POV, Part One” and “Part Two.” It’s tricky. There are rules involved. There’s a difference between deliberate “head-hopping” because of the POV rules and “head-hopping” because the newbie author hasn’t learned the rules yet.
I don’t know how many times I’ve used Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road as an example of writing technique and rule breaking. Truly masterful.
Okay, I could go on and on, but you get the point. When a novel captures the “writer” in you and says “This is how you do it!”–listen. Pay attention. Take notes. Try to emulate. Many techniques employed by authors of other genres can be tailored to match your genre. Don’t be afraid of them. And don’t be afraid to explore those other genres. If you read only the genre you write in, soon you’ll sound like all the other authors of that genre. Dare to be different. Dare to learn.