For most of us, our enjoyment of writing grew out of our love of reading. Some wanted to continue a story that someone else had written, so they write fan fiction. Some people write because they enjoy the process of storytelling that they’ve seen in other books. Personally, I write because of the world building I enjoyed in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and all the authors that have followed in his footsteps.
Regardless of how they came to write, it’s extremely rare to find an author who doesn’t love to read. What’s more, most authors write in the genre that they love to read the most. But I commonly see the advice “Don’t read in the same genre where you’re writing.” The reasons given vary. Sometimes it’s because you will adopt a particular author’s writing style. Others are afraid that you’ll borrow characters and scenes whole cloth.
Regardless of the reason, it’s bad advice.
One of the most important things for you to do as a writer is to read in your genre. Not just for your enjoyment, but also to be sure you’ll understand the expectations of your audience. In any genre, there are going to be books that nearly everyone has read, even if they don’t normally read that genre. Authors like Nicholas Sparks, Stephen King, or JK Rowling are well-known enough that at least some portion of your readers will be comparing you to them.
Maybe the biggest names in your genre aren’t people you want to emulate. Maybe you’re trying to go an entirely different way. Maybe you can’t stand their books. But you still need to read them.
You have to know what they did and why they did it. You have to see their storytelling style, how they build suspense, how they handle character development. The reason is that your own audience will be familiar with the genre and recognize when you use a cliché. They’ll know the common tropes and will even be expecting them in certain places. If you write without those tropes, that needs to be something that you do on purpose.
Right now you might be thinking, “But Luke, I already read in my genre before. I know these things. I’m good.”
You’ve read before, but did you read looking for the common themes and ideas between the books? Did you know that in romance every book has to (at least somewhat) have a happy ending? Did you watch for pacing and tone? Did you notice the average length of chapters?
Don’t get me wrong. These warnings exist for a reason. You can certainly draw too much from the novels that you’ve read.
For example, as much as I loved his books, Brad Magnarella was very obviously borrowing from The Dresden Files in his Professor Croft series. It may take active effort to avoid copying the idea of a wizard investigator with an obnoxious cat who is hounded by a female detective who doesn’t quite believe in magic and a secretive group of wizards who think he should have been executed but showed mercy, but Magnarella could have done better than simply moving him from Chicago to New York and making him a professor instead of an actual private investigator.
The goal of reading in your genre is to look for themes, not characters or plots.
Tolkien is a great example. Nearly every fantasy writer today is drawing from Tolkien to some extent, whether that’s copying from his races or intentionally subverting his themes. But a modern fantasy writer who refuses to read Tolkien to avoid being influenced is just being foolish.
So read in your genre. If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, pick something from the bestseller list. Amazon makes that easy. What’s important is that you know your genre, to make your writing the best it can be.