Tennis players watch tennis on TV. Football players study tape of other teams. Musicians listen to the popular trends in music. Chefs watching cooking shows.
The point is that if you want to excel in anything, you not only have to devote yourself to practicing that thing, you must also study what others have done before you. It goes without saying that writers must spend an enormous time writing. I think the axiom is that you must write a million words before you actually start writing anything good. But in all of that writing, you must also balance reading.
My books are mostly paranormal/supernatural, with some fantasy and modern urban elements. What I devour the most, however, is fantasy. I also have an appetite for horror. I’m not into teen paranormals. That’s why my books don’t read like teen paranormals. How I write has become a reflection of what I read.
What you write will reflect what you read, too. So you should not just read any random thing. You need to be purposeful in your selections. I think I can break up the categories for you a little.
First, you need to read the kinds of things you want to write. If you want to write fantasy, you should read lots and lots of fantasy. If scifi, then read lots of scifi. Get to know the quirks and intricacies of the specific genre you want to specialize in. Each genre is a little different (more on genres another time). So live in what you want to write. Become a part of that world. Learn who the great authors are and what makes them great.
Maybe you’re interest is in fantasy, but you find that most fantasy books don’t fully resonate with you. Try something else. Try paranormal, scifi, horror…find what resonates, then read that. You might discover that your sweet spot in writing is a combination of elements, like I did. There are fantasy paranormals, fantasy romances, fantasy horrors, fantasy scifi…you name it, and there’s a “sub-genre” out there. When you find your sweet spot, devour it.
Somewhere you’ll find an author that is a true reflection of the writer you want to be. When you find a specific author like that, read as much of them as you can. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and in the beginning your writing will take on the tones of the author you most admire, before you eventually develop your own style and voice. So pick good favorite authors.
Don’t pick all classic authors, though. You’re a modern writer and you need a modern style. That was my problem when I was starting. I wrote like a combination of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Edgar Allen Poe. Nobody wanted to read my work until I updated my style. So I read lots of Peretti, Dekker, and good mix of independent writers you may have not heard of. My style changed, because it began to reflect elements of what I was reading.
Second, you need to read both classic and contemporary. Writing styles have changed. It’s good to know and geek out about classics like The Hobbit or The Time Machine, but as great as those books are, the sad fact remains that they probably would not have been published today in their current forms. Writing style has changed. So you must also spend a lot of time reading new stories, new authors, new writing.
Unfortunately, you may find that some of the new stuff pales in comparison to the classics…but that’s the way this animal called “publishing” works. More on that another time too. Twilight is certainly no Dracula and Eragon is certainly no Lord of the Rings. So it’s good to know the classics and the modern versions of your preferred genre. Study the classics for their story development and creativity. Study the moderns for stylistic construction.
Third, you need to at least be familiar with what’s popular right now. You don’t always have to read everything that’s popular…I mean, I don’t. Some of the popular stuff is really bad writing and honestly not worth your time. But these things are popular for a reason. These stories resonate with readers, regardless of the poor quality of the writing. And before I begin to sound too cynical, let me clarify that not all popular writing is bad writing. Some of it is quite good. The point here is that you need to familiarize yourself with the kind of writing that readers are attracted to, with the focus being on learning how story elements resonate with readers. So know what’s popular, maybe read some of it, and try to understand what makes them popular.
Things like If I Stay and The Fault in Our Stars resonate because they are honest about life. Twilight resonates because it paints a love story in a new and exciting way.
I was trying to get my first book published when Twilight was most popular. So I read Twilight. I wanted to know why it resonated with readers. Readers are fickle though. What is popular right now may change by this time next year. Most people are over sparkly vampires now.
So don’t obsess over what is popular. Don’t say, “Holy cow! Dystopian steampunk is really popular right now. I need to drop everything and write about air machines and the end of the world!” Relax. Next year paranormal martians may be popular. Just be aware of what’s going on, and if something really popular comes out that’s close to what you’re working on, it would probably do you good to take a closer look at it.
So create a “to be read” pile and fill it with a great mix of books that you know will help you better understand what you want to write and how you want to get there.
Go read something. And then go write something!