Yesterday, I got involved in some commenting focused on the question of if genre writers need to be “close” readers of their chosen genre. It’s an interesting topic, so I thought I’d offer it up here for further discussion, commentary. Close reading is basically reading with an analytical eye, breaking down a story and examining its individual parts. While it sort of goes without saying that you should read within the genre you write, it’s not quite so simple as that.
Some folks will say to read as much as you can in the genre you write. This isn’t bad advice, but I don’t believe that it’s particularly necessary to do so. Reading cross genres is also important also. On a surface level, reading in your genre helps to give you a sense of what is out there and what readers are picking up. There are reasons beyond just good marketing for best-selling books. Something about them appeals to a broad range of the readership out there. The question is why? Close reading is a method for doing just that. Analyzing plot, pacing, character, voice, and so forth are needed to see just what makes the book tick. While reading for pleasure is also good and necessary, just finding a book you love and saying, “I want to write something like that” is not enough. After reading a book for fun, reread it with the eye to examining why and how the author did things. Why were the characters so fabulous? Was it the way they talked? Was it the arc of character development throughout the story? Was it the fact that they didn’t do what you expected? Look at everything. What an author did is not as important as how and why. Focusing on the what will tend to make you write something that is too similar to what you read.
Do this in other genres as well. If you write fantasy, read a thriller or a romance. A lot of successful books blend genres. I wrote Deadworld as a paranormal thriller. Honestly, I’d never read a book shelved with urban fantasy. I read more classic fantasy and thrillers. Little did I know that a good chunk of what is coming out that is labelled urban fantasy, is really focused on crime fiction. They just have a setting that involves the supernatural. Butcher’s “Dresden Files” is a prime example of this.
Anyway, the point is, unless you read with an analytical eye, you won’t gain a clearer understanding of how the genre works. Publishers do tend to go in trends, but I believe the building blocks of a genre pretty much stay the same. So, break them down. Look at them closely to see what makes the books you really like work so well. The one caution about this is trying to examine an author’s voice. Voice is a unique quality to every writer, and you run the danger of trying to “sound” like another author if you aren’t careful. Focus on the other elements. Read and read wide, because every genre has its own unique qualities that you can learn from. Good authors in those genres do those particular things well. Study them. Learn from them. And keep practicing your craft.