Beware Writing Rules #3.
Read, read, read.
This is another standard you see everywhere. Editors and agents say it. Writing teachers and authors say. All the time. It would be hard to throw an e-pebble at the internet’s pages on writing without hitting that one several times. It’s become almost a litany.
But what does it really mean?
What do these Read-sayers say it means? They say that in order to write well, you need to not only be widely read, but you need to have read everything in your genre.
One of them declared openly in print that if he met you, and you were an aspiring sci-fi/fantasy author who’d never read any of his books, he would turn his back on you and walk away from you, because you wouldn’t be worth talking to!
So, this means a writer is supposed to spend vast quantities of their time reading, reading, reading new books all the time. New books are released by the hundreds all the time, and so your job would be to keep on top of them. Millions of books have been published already. It would be your job to read them. Doesn’t this sound like an agent’s job, not a writers?
Is it really a writer’s job to know what’s been written before you?
A sci-fi author in my area tells a great story of how he met a young man who’d just sold his first novel as a three book deal to a major NY publishing house. When the young writer described his story setting and concept, the more established author immediately thought to himself, thank goodness this guy never went to any writers or critique groups, or we would have told him that his idea was long played out and would never sell. But it did sell, and got a high print run to boot. This goes to prove that we writers have to be careful about being too well-read and so well-informed that we outsmart ourselves out of getting published.
What happens when you’ve read all the vampire novels you can get your hands on? You either get stuck in a rut and your concept of a vampire becomes an amalgam of all the commonalities of the vampires you’ve read. Or you put your own spin on them. But it’s the same if you’re a novice. If you haven’t heard many vampire stories, your tale will either draw directly on what you’ve little you have heard, or you’ll come with a fresh, unique take. So is it the knowledge of the undead that makes the crucial difference here, or how the writers applies that knowledge? Is it how much they’ve read, or what they do with what they’ve read?
Some writers become great from heavy application to their genre, and others from coming onto the scene without the limiting preconceptions of it.
Writers do need to wear multiple hats. They need to have a wider skill set than some other professions. You have to span the creative and the practical, imagination and reality, be artist and business person. You do need to read, and you need to write. And you need to study craft. And you need to learn to rewrite and edit. And you need to learn about the publishing industry. And how to market. And how to make your readers happy. You need to know how to run a home-based business and all that that involves. You need to know how to sign a good contract. Give a good reading. Reach your audience. Etc. It’s a herculean endeavor. So ask yourself, do you then also need to read, read, read?
Chances are, you became a reader before you became a writer, and your love of reading is what sat you down to try out this whole writing idea in the first place, so maybe instead of feeling like you have to read to become a living card catalog, read for the love of reading you’ve always had.