To write for a magazine, you need to read the magazine and learn what they publish. To write mystery novels, you need to read mystery novels. What you read is an example of what to write. The somewhat popular advice to read bad books isn’t all that great. The bad books you read by accident are enough. You don’t want to learn to write bad books.
When you find an author that you feel is doing it right, that’s a good author to keep reading. When they write in the same field or genre as you, read every book of theirs you can find.
What are some other considerations when picking what to read for an influence on your writing?
Find Out What Sells
Learn what sells well and what doesn’t to maximize the marketability of your own work. The best sellers aren’t afraid to advertise on the cover of the book. When you search online booksellers, you will see plenty of book covers. Many have the current hits on their front page.
Define What People Want in Your Genre
Every genre has story elements that readers expect to find in every novel. It’s in your best interest to know what those elements are. The simple solution is to search the name of your genre and read up on what must be there. You’ll learn the basics and that’s all you really need to know.
You can also take it deeper. The book summaries given at the top of pages on bookseller sites are simple plot summaries. What are the plots popular for the genre you want to write? At their most basic, plots present a problem and the steps that resolve it.
In horror novels, for example, the problem is a killer or monster and is resolved after many of the good characters are killed and the protagonist has killed the antagonist. You could go places by creating plots based on the bestsellers. I don’t mean full plots. Instead, what is the basic pattern used for their plots? To continue the horror example, the most common story is a group of teens who die because of different character flaws. Instead, how about a story with a group of young adult couples on a hunting and fishing weekend? The characters have found careers and spouses, but they will still have character flaws. These will be different flaws than teens.
Another horror plot example is the hidden supernatural monster that’s killing people until the protagonist gathers enough information to kill it. What if the hidden monster is just the original owner of the house and he’s hiding in secret rooms he built when he owned it. These are examples of the simplistic plot lines I’m suggesting you gather. From these, you can create a more detailed plot unique to you.
If you write non-fiction, the plot is a plan for how to reveal information. If you’re writing a book on software testing, for example, the problem is how to test software quickly and effectively. One type of plan explores how test scripts are created from documentation. Another type shows how to test using exploratory investigations. An intro book will look at both of those planning types and more. Learning about successful outlines (plans, plots) used by past writers gives you good leads on how to plan your own non-fiction book.
Following winning plots and outlines is a way to improve your chances of producing a winning plot of your own. What about creating stories with your unique stamp on them?
Breaking the Rules to Break Out
Game designer Hideo Kojima was the exception to the rule. He made the Silent Hill game without watching horror movies. I know it’s not a novel, but art is art. Kojima said he put in what he thought would be scary. As a result, he didn’t follow the pattern of the leading survival horror games at the time. Instead, he created a dark and dirty world that got even worse when the evil took over. Silent Hill is a visualization of the world of nightmares.
By ignoring what was already out there, Kojima produced a winning franchise. You can do that too, by experimenting with your plots. Maybe you will produce something terribly bad. Isn’t it worth the effort for a chance to be a great writer?
Using Multiple Genres
Consider writing something that crosses genre boundaries. Those kinds of books can be a hard sell. The readers don’t get what they expect. If the secondary genre is one the reader doesn’t like, they may never read another book by you. To make matters worse, pulp fiction commonly uses multiple genres. Not only will you be risking alienating your readers, you could look like a hack.
When the second genre has only a mild influence on your book, you might get away with it. For example, Steven King’s Dark Tower series incorporates multiple genres and has been very successful. I found it hard to get into, but it was a good ride.
What About Old Books?
Writing styles that were popular in the past often don’t fly any more. You might think it’s a bad idea to read older novels in your genre. If you don’t read the old hits, how will you know that your new innovative style isn’t one that’s already been and gone?
The basic plots of old books can still be good, but a few things have changed. Readers will no longer wait while you spend 50 pages exploring the protagonist’s character. They don’t want to wait for the action. You need to present a problem right on page one, even if it’s not the main problem of the story.
Another problem with older novels is the long descriptions. Those aren’t popular any more either. Description needs to be developed as the action happens. By reading both old and new hits you will learn the differences.
All writers were readers first, just like you. Read the books you enjoy and you will pick up plots and writing techniques that others will also enjoy when you write. Deliberately learn what works in what you read and you will learn even faster. I don’t want to suggest sucking the joy out of reading by writing book reports and analyses. Just write a few notes on what worked for you after you’re done a book. Better yet, be writing while you read and use what you learn in your writing. “Read it to write it” is good. “Read it while writing it” is even better.
Article by Ivan Izo.