What to Read When You’re Writing

Here’s a question from a reader:

When you’re writing a novel, how do you know whether to read other books that are in the same genre as or otherwise similar to what you’re working on? They say that the best way to learn how to write is to read a lot, but at a certain point does reading actually put a crimp in your writing (because you are too conscious of what else is out there)?

My reader is working on a novel that she says “would probably be classified as post-apocalyptic fantasy (probably young adult, because the main character is a teenager).”

So here’s my experience with reading historical fiction while working on historical fiction:

Reading a limited amount of literary historical fiction has helped me figure out what kind of historical fiction I want to write and what approach I want to take to history. But I did read one book that I wish I hadn’t read (but not really, because it was a good book). It has enough similarities to what I’m writing that having read it makes me nervous. Will I accidentally steal the author’s ideas? Will people think I stole the author’s ideas?

On the other hand, I’m really glad I read “The Known World” in the earlier stages of writing my novel. It’s exactly the kind of historical fiction I want to write, a book whose characters and concerns could easily be transported to the present day but are also totally believable in the time and place of the novel.  (“Away,” by Amy Bloom, is that sort of novel, too.) But I never worry about stealing the author’s ideas, maybe because the details of the story are so different from mine. What I do worry about is, Am I being as honest as Edward P. Jones? — and that’s a good worry to have.

If you feel strongly about not reading stuff in the genre-you-think-you-might-be-writing, hold off till you feel like you want some inspiration. Then choose books you probably would have wanted to read anyway. When you finally get to the stage where you’re trying to sell your novel, you’ll do good to know what’s out there that’s similar to your book (so you can argue that yes, people want to read this stuff) and what publishers are generally looking for in your genre. But at this stage, I think you’re right to worry more about the actual writing of your story than about knowing the field.


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