The Skill List Project: Reading Voraciously

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. This time around, we’re looking at the hugely important skill of reading voraciously—reading widely in order to expand your horizons.

Reading For the Love of It

From time to time, I see diatribes from writing teachers who say they have students who don’t read—students who say they desperately want to be writers, but who simply don’t read books or writing of any kind. Apparently, this problem is rife among would-be poets: they want to write poems, but feel no need to read poetry by anyone else. In fact, these would-be poets seem pained by the very notion of reading either the classics (“Too old and boring”) or more contemporary work (“Too mundane or convoluted”).

I’ve seldom run into would-be SF writers who don’t read SF. However, I’ve met many beginners whose reading is very limited. They only read Heinlein…or they only read Tolkien and books exactly like Tolkien…or they can’t bear to read anything that wasn’t written in the last two years.

It makes me shudder. How can you write if you don’t love reading? And how can you love reading if you turn up your nose at 99% of what’s ever been written?

Of course, no one has time to read everything. Long ago, I faced up to the fact that there are countless good books, new and old, that I’ll never get around to reading (not to mention numerous books that aren’t good but that I should still read for cultural literacy—Twilight, I’m looking at you). We all have to be selective, and it’s tempting to stay inside our comfort zones: only reading books that are similar to books we’ve enjoyed in the past.

But that’s not loving books. That’s loving the memory of books—nostalgia for the way some book once made you feel. Loving books means being excited that you might make a new discovery. Your reading might grow.

Loving books means keeping an ear to the ground (e.g. through blogs, web sites, social media, and other sources of book reviews) in search of suggestions for what to read next. Loving books means checking the “What’s New” shelves at your library. Loving books means deliberately expanding your horizons beyond SF: mysteries, li-fi, romance, wuxia, science, history, politics, religion, poetry, plays, essays, and experimental none-of-the-above. Loving books also means reading outside your own subculture: books by people from different countries, different times, different classes, different ideologies, different sexual outlooks. Loving books may well mean strolling through the library and picking things off the shelf at random.

Inevitably, some of what you pick up won’t be rewarding enough to justify a large investment of time—you may read ten pages, then put the book down. That’s why I think it’s important to make a habit of going to the library; if you insist on owning every book you read, you’ll only make safe choices for fear of wasting your money. Writers really really have to break every habit of playing things safe.

Grist for the Mill

Why read outside your comfort zone? First, because there’s a lot of great stuff out there that you won’t find otherwise. Second, because it’s bad for the soul to refuse to read something merely because it was written in another country, or because it’s about people who believe things you don’t. Walling off your mind is another terrible habit you have to break.

But most of all, reading widely gives you material to write about. Years ago, I was a judge for the Sunburst Award, a prize given annually to an outstanding Canadian SF book. We judges had to read every fantasy/science fiction book written by Canadians that year…and the experience made me aware of how much different people brought to the table. Some writers quite obviously knew nothing outside their genre—the only material they had inside their heads was the same old stuff, used and re-used by other writers in the genre for the past umpteen years.

The most interesting writers, however, wrote about things I’d never seen before. The winning book dealt with violinmaking, and the process of canonizing Roman Catholic saints, and puppetry, and Commedia del Arte (as well as time travel, magic, and magic realism). In other words, the book had breadth and depth. The writer knew things I didn’t, and he put them on the page. That gave the novel a fullness and remarkable solidity…as opposed to the shallowness of so many other contenders.

The moral of the story is simple: writers ought to know stuff. They ought to know a lot about a lot of things—not just the stock material that’s been used in the genre for decades. You have to read widely, not just inside your favorite stomping grounds.

Other Suggestions?

I’m going to stick with reading for at least one more blog post, because I want to look at the skill of reading as a writer (as opposed to reading as a reader). Specifically, I want to talk about methodical reading, aimed at learning how to write better.

In the meantime, I’ll once again turn the podium over to you. What kind of reading do you think is important? What are the pros and cons of breadth of reading vs. concentrating on a particular genre? Do you have any tricks for finding good books outside your comfort zone? Have at it!

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