Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#13: Reading Outside The Box

by Seanan McGuire

Today’s essay is going to be a little bit different, because today’s essay is going to be just as much about being a reader as it is about being a writer. Reading is an enormously important part of writing. The temptation to say ‘oh, I can’t take the time to read that, I’m a writer, I have to be writing’ is always going to be there. Most writers are essentially junkies; our drug of choice is putting words on paper. Cheaper than most of the things you can buy on the street, but very time-consuming, and like all junkies, we can get resistant to things that might get between us and our fix. Even when we do make the time to read, the temptation to say ‘I’m just going to stick with what I know I like’ is intensely high. It’s also intensely bad for us. So here’s what we’re going to discuss today:

Read outside your preferred genres. I'm an old-school horror girl. I love fantasy and funny genre fiction. I read more books on epidemics than anyone outside the CDC really needs to. But that won't make me grow, so I also read trashy crime thrillers and westerns, hard science fiction and romances, and pretty much anything with a plot that looks like it might hold my interest. Seeing what they're doing outside your comfort zone will help you understand what's inside your comfort zone much, much better.

Because our topic is a little less cut-and-dried than some of them, we’re going to be taking a slightly different format today, defining genres and discussing things that may qualify as ways to step outside of them. I’m also going to try to offer alternatives, in those cases where the genre is one that tends to alienate those it doesn’t embrace. Hopefully, you’ll be able to look at the options I offer and come up with a few options of your own.

Make sense? Excellent. Let’s begin.

What Does ‘Genre’ Mean?

I’m going to start big and get small, because that seems like the best way to do this without possibly missing something. According to Dictionary.com, a genre is:

“Of or pertaining to a distinctive literary type.”

That’s nicely vague. Wikipedia, on the other hand, says:

“A genre is a loose set of criteria for a category of composition; the term is often used to categorize literature and speech, but is also used for any other form of art or utterance.

Genres are vague categories with no fixed boundaries, they are formed by sets of conventions, and many works cross into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions. The scope of the word "genre" is sometimes confined to art and culture, particularly literature, but it has a long history in rhetoric as well. In genre studies the concept of genre is not compared to originality. Rather, all works are recognized as either reflecting on or participating in the conventions of genre.”

Well, okay, then. Basically, a genre is any set of criteria which can be used to group a selection of literary works together. I’m going to define various genres and sub-genres throughout this essay. Feel free to come up with genres of your own. Remember that larger genres can contain dozens or even hundreds of sub-genres, and someone who proudly proclaims their love for your favorite genre may have absolutely no books or authors in common with you.

Big Mama Spider: Fiction vs. Non-Fiction.

Our first two genres are fiction and non-fiction, both of which are the Big Mama Spiders of the written word. Practically anything you can get your hands on is going to fall cleanly into one of these categories. (I say ‘practically’ because some things, like, say, an annotated translation of Beowulf, will skirt the line a bit. It’s a fictional work in a non-fictional structure. Never say that we can’t complicate things around here.)

As a writer of fiction, it’s important to read fiction. Reading fiction will help you learn how pacing, flow, characterization, and dialog all work. You’ll do a lot of this learning through osmosis. Early in your writing career, there may be a fine line between ‘osmosis’ and ‘outright theft,’ but that’s okay; that’s what editors are for. Reading will help you learn what works, and writing will help you learn to do it in a style that’s entirely your own.

As a writer of fiction, it’s also important to read non-fiction. Non-fiction is full of amazing facts about the world, many of which are totally new to most of us. I’ve never read a non-fiction book that didn’t teach me at least something. Not only that, but non-fiction books can make amazing references -- the entire reference section is considered non-fiction -- and reference is really what’s going to make your fiction come alive. If you want to write realistically, you’ll need to know what you’re talking about.

Reading fiction can give you technique. Reading non-fiction can give you ideas. Both of these things are vital.

The Age of Man: Children’s Stories, YA, and Adult Literature.

Here’s another big meta-genre, if you will: the divide between the perceived ‘reading ages’ that various books will be aimed at. The three genres I’m defining here -- Children’s Stories, YA (Young Adult), and Adult Lit -- will contain both fiction and non-fiction books. (You can absolutely argue that these aren’t ‘real’ genres, since they’re definitions of reading level, rather than type of story. For the purposes of this essay, I’m calling them genres, because each of the categories has important ‘why you should read this’ associations.) You can find almost any type of story in any of the three, although there will naturally be variations.

Children’s Stories are the books and tales aimed at kids under the age of twelve. A great many of the classics fall into this category -- Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, just to name a few. It may seem like children’s non-fiction wouldn’t be as helpful to an adult author, but actually, it can be a great way to get your foot in the door of an unfamiliar topic. The magazine Muse is aimed at older kids, and is full of fun, factual information that’s sparked several story ideas and research paths for me. The facts are still good, even if they’re presented in primary colors!

YA (Young Adult) Literature contains the books and tales aimed at teenagers and young adults. This is a genre that’s been growing by leaps and bounds in the last several years, and now contains a wide range of books in an equally wide range of genres. There are some amazing things happening in YA. Because YA effectively spans ages twelve through nineteen, you can find things in that genre written for a variety of reading levels and covering a wide range of subject material. Rejecting YA books because they’re ‘written for kids’ has never been a good idea, and it’s getting less clever every year, as more and more authors discover the amazing things happening there.

Adult Lit covers everything above the cut-off age for YA. It’s the largest of this particular set of genres, and will include most ‘serious literature,’ as well as most of the more technical reference materials. This doesn’t make it better. It just makes it bigger, and means it eats up more of your average bookstore or library.

Are You Going To Keep Going?

Nope. I could literally spend the rest of the day defining and differentiating genres, but it would give me a headache and probably make everyone want to beat me with sticks. I mean, here’s a partial list of genres:

Science fiction, fantasy, horror, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, supernatural romance, space opera, romance, modern romance, historical romance, western, historical fiction, adventure, thriller, medical thriller, drama, poetry, reference, mystery, historical mystery, general fiction, giant sharks eat tourists, horrible diseases kill everybody, anthology, classics...

I could keep going. And I could sub-divide every one of those genres fifteen or thirty times, depending on how fiddly I wanted to get. (Yes, disturbingly, you can even sub-divide ‘giant sharks eat tourists’ at least three times.) There are so many books out there already, and so many books being written every year, that as long as you’re willing to read in two or three genres, you can read and read and read and never leave your comfort zone.

Please note that ‘can’ and ‘should’ do not mean the same thing.

It’s important to remember that exciting things are happening all across the spectrum of the written word. New trends develop, new ideas come to the forefront, and new things are pioneered, sometimes in surprising places. Remember, indirect speech was rare before Jane Austin. There are no literary tropes that didn’t start somewhere, and by constantly stretching yourself as a reader, you can constantly stretch yourself as a writer. You may not realize it’s happening, but you’ll still reap the rewards.

Where Do I Start?

There are a lot of great resources for finding books. Ask your local librarian. Ask friends who like unfamiliar genres what they’d recommend. Ask your local independent bookstore clerk. Wander around the Internet looking for ‘if you like X, then you’ll like Y’ lists. No two people will give you the same set of suggestions, and there’s something fabulous to be found in all of them. (Personally, I like wandering through the bookstore new releases section and seeing what jumps out at me. I’ve brought home some weird, weird books that way.)

Whatever you do, don’t pigeonhole yourself. There’s a whole wide world of wonderful literature out there.

Go get to know it.
© 2009 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue will be published by DAW in September of 2009.

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