Most writers have probably heard that to improve their craft they should read widely, even outside of their genre. While there are many who do this without hesitation, there are some who find it painful to venture beyond the comfort zones of their favorite genre. In the past, I was also guilty of this latter habit.
My favorite genre has always been horror. My bookshelf had no diversity among the authors that sat atop the shelves. One would only have to look at my titles to see that Stephen King was my favorite author. I had heard the advice to read widely and avoided doing so. Eventually, I received some books a friend was throwing out. While sifting through the boring non-fiction titles in the pile, I came across some John Grisham books. I knew he had a reputation for writing novels about lawyers. While this did not appeal to me in the least (I have a distaste for lawyers, which is a long story in itself), I took them anyway. Who would turn down free books, right? The two Grisham books I took with me were, King of Torts and A Painted House. One night, after having finished yet another Stephen King book and feeling like reading something very different, I scanned the books in my queue and saw A Painted House. I pulled it from the shelf and began reading it.
Never have a enjoyed a book so much! I was delighted to find that John Grisham had written a superb non-lawyer novel. It was like a revelation to me. After finishing that book, I read Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. Yet another great book that I should've read in high school but didn't due to ignorant stubbornness. Since then, I've gone back and read many more classics that I never enjoyed when I was younger. I have also extended my tastes, purchasing books from so many different genres. From satirical to crime/drama to literary. Recently, I read Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men after watching the movie and found the book, as thin as it is, to be a gem of a story.
To look at my bookshelves now, one would see a very diverse landscape of book titles. I find myself looking back on the various genres with an extreme sense of joy. I've knocked down the walls of my favorite genre, left the narrow confines of the comfortable and walked into the daylight, experienced the really great and the awful. My writing has begun to reflect changes from the new experiences I've had when reading authors like McCarthy, Bradbury, Huxley, Orwell, and Faulkner, to name a few. I've seen how more notable authors handle character development, desciption, dialogue, pacing, themes, symbolism, and mood. It helps me identify the flaws in my own work and that of other writers.
Since this epiphany, I no longer find myself in Barnes & Noble, scrounging among the familiar aisle searching for quality horror novels. Instead, I walk down the unfamiliar aisles, scanning book titles and covers for something intriguing. I read the back cover and, if it sounds at all interesting, I find myself buying books by authors I may have only vaguely heard about in the past, if at all. Most times, I'm satisfied with the new books I choose and the story they have to tell. Other, less often times, I find that what I've read was disappointing or outright horrible. But, even these bad books have their own lessons; mainly, how not to do something.
When meeting new writers, I like to discover who their influences were and how widely they read. More often than not, I learn that they only read a certain genre and are hesitant to venture outside of it. While I can certainly understand this hesitation and apprehension, I try to encourage them to break out of that habit. Sure, you can learn how other successful writers in a genre do things. You can even see what's been done to exhaustion and steer clear of those pitfalls, but to not expose yourself to the other stories out there is to rob yourself of an excellent writing education. Reading such diverse material will shed light on new techniques that can enrich your writing and strengthen the skills you, as a writer, bring into your stories.
So, if you're one of those new writers flailing in a shallow puddle trying to learn to swim, let me implore you to come over to the ocean of diverse literature. Wade in. The water's fine. Really, it is. And, I'm sure you'll learn plenty.