Today, I want to extend some advice I continually try to follow in my pursuit of writing fiction: that you should be reading as much as you can, as often as possible. This of course extends to other storytelling mediums as well, whichever you want to be writing in. While this is probably obvious, what I feel can be overlooked, however — which I too am guilty of — is that you should read, watch, play, etc. as much outside of the genre you’re interested in writing about as possible.
I’m interested in a lot of escapist genres like fantasy and science fiction, and when I started reading more heavily there was this compulsion to read from that genre as much as I could. It was at this point a friend drove home the idea of just how important reading everything was. Limiting yourself to one genre gives you too focused of a mind, potentially trapped in the tropes, motifs, and clichés popular to the genre. If you want to breathe life into it, you’ve got to understand all kinds of stories. Want to inject romance? Read love stories. How about some elements of horror? Horror novels. Even if these aspects of your story are minor compared to your overall vision, understanding the greater craft behind those genre conventions can help make those moments even more effective.
A good example is something I learned about when comparing the romance and horror genres in a film class I took in university. Both genres rely heavily upon the idea of the “Chance Encounter.” The protagonist is going about their life, until they come across someone by chance and the plot is propelled in its genre’s direction. Obviously, what direction that is differs drastically between the two, one being more loving and emotional, the other horrific and violent. It is the context of the chance encounter that changes the story. It’s actually pretty disturbing when you realize that had Norman Bates in Psycho not been psychotic, the setup of Marion’s encounter with him had laid all the narrative groundwork for a romance.
Beyond making your narrative experiences as varied as possible, there’s another, more challenging thing to make sure you do: include the bad stuff. They review poorly, are littered with plot holes, bad dialogue, and read like they were slapped together in one draft. Just as much as you as you want to understand and see what has been executed well, you want to see it done badly. Learn from the mistakes of others, not just their successes. Sometimes you just have to see it and experience it to fully understand why something doesn’t work, so you can hopefully catch it for yourself in your own writing.
A problem I personally run into with this is I very rarely walk away from a book absolutely hating it (this is particularly a case with books for me). There’s usually something I can take away from it, even if a lot of its elements came together clumsily or just didn’t work. I think this is important too. Being able to pick apart and recognize what works and what doesn’t, even performing some mental salvage for the story, is a great way to learn for your own writing too.
Like the title suggests, I’m still very much a beginner, so I don’t mean this as some big revelation to blow you away. I do hope, however, that these advice posts are helpful to others still just starting out like myself.