There are a lot of old writing saws that are passed around, and usually there’s at least a little bit of usefulness even if I don’t specifically agree with them. Often the problem is in how people interpret them (see: Murder Your Darlings). But I ran across one recently that just baffled me.
Someone told me that he’d been told “never read the genre you write.”
Now, I guess if I stretch, I can see the rationale behind that–don’t let your thinking be shaped by other people working in the field, be your own perfect snowflake and flower and whatever. But…come on. Some of the best and richest work in writing has been in response to other published work. Trying to write, say, space opera without having read anyone else’s attempts at it is like trying to make a chocolate cake from scratch without reading anyone else’s recipes. Our peers, especially our contemporaries, inspire and motivate us. Someone writes an awesome space opera? You want to write one better. What’s more, your fans are reading all those other books too, because they like space opera. So when you put this super-clever twist in your book, or use this super-awesome image you thought up all by yourself, and you didn’t read “Space Opera 3011” which used the same twist and image, guess who’s going to think you did?
Look, I’m all for being a snowflake. But any artist will tell you that the way you learn to be better at your art is by watching the people who did it really well, and who are doing it now, and figuring out how they did it. There are going to be a few people who will be completely demotivating. Do not read Cat Valente’s work and expect that you will be able to do that unless you are currently ten years old and living in a library, because otherwise she has a head start on you. But there’s a lot of good stuff being written in lots of different fields that you absolutely should be reading. It will tell you what is being done, what isn’t being done, what works, what doesn’t work, and what the big movements are in the field. Maybe someone’s just published a “Space Opera Vampires” short story, and your “Space Opera Werewolves” novel is perfectly timed to break in. Or maybe there have been a hundred “Space Opera Werewolves” novels and you’re going to have to work a lot harder to push your unique vision of it.
But whatever level you’re working at, you cannot ignore the other work in your field. That is one piece of advice I cannot agree with.