Leave your comfort zone as a reader to improve your writing
By Rob W. Hart
[box]This is my reading list currently:
- Inside Scientology, by Janet Reitman
- Neuromancer, by William Gibson
- The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien
- When October Falls, by Christopher J. Dwyer
- God and The State, by Mikhail Bakunin
- Drag Queens at the 801 Cabaret, by Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor
Well, those are the top couple of books off my to-be-read pile, but it’s enough to illustrate the question I’m about to ask.
What do they have in common?
It’s a mix of fiction and non-fiction. There’s an Irish guy who wrote classics (O’Brien) and a self-published guy from Boston who writes noir (Dwyer). Inside Scientology came out this month; God and The State was published in 1882.
A couple years back, I wrote to an author I admire and asked him for writing advice. He sent me back a (pretty amazing) bulleted list, which is currently tacked up on the wall next to my desk. And one of the things on that list stays with me, very strongly.
Read a lot, but not just what you like. Read outside your comfort zone.
I tend to skew toward noir and hardboiled fiction, because I enjoy it, and it’s the genre of the book I’m writing now. So that means I read a lot of classic crime writers, like Hammett, Chandler and Thompson, as well as the current guard, like Vachss, Huston and Swierczynski.
But earlier this year, I read – and really enjoyed – Anna Karenina. It was a big commitment, because it’s not a light read, in any sense of the word. The writing is very dense, there’s something like 40 characters who all have three or four different names each, and it’s more than 800 pages.
There were no witty private eyes or femme fatales. Just a lot of Russian aristocrats pretending to be French.
I read it because it’s so far from what I tend to read.
You can find good writing and inspiration everywhere, in every genre, and you will learn so much from reading as far and wide as you can. If you’re a guy, read books by women. If you’re straight, read books by gay authors. If you’re white, read books by black and Latino writers. If you write YA, read noir. If you write noir, read YA.
If you read a lot of crime fiction, pick up some Tolstoy.
You have to get out of your comfort zone. Otherwise you’ll suffocate.
In fact, here’s an assignment for you. And it’s going to seem daunting, but you’ll be fine.
Go to the library and wander around the stacks. After a little while stop, reach up, and pull down a book. Have you read it already? If not, that’s the next book you should read.
It may not be good. You may not enjoy it. But you also might find a hidden gem you wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise. Regardless, it will mean good things for your writing.
Note from Emlyn: I reviewed Anna Karenina on my personal site earlier this year, check it out to see what Rob's talking about.
About this post's author:
Rob W. Hart is a writer with a background in PR and journalism. He just completed his first novel, Apophenia, and maintains a blog about books and writing at blogduggery. You can also find him on Twitter.