Continued from Part I.
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The market today is different from a hundred, even fifty years ago. These days, it’s a bloated beast of genres, sub-genres and sub-sub-genres (I may’ve made this one up). So just where the hell do you start?
Here’s an approach you might consider trying. Jump online. Fire up your favourite search engine and type in something like ‘100 Best Books of all time’. Scratch around, find the lists that look the most reputable – y’know, the New York Times, the Guardian, Time Magazine. Read plot summaries and delve a little into each book’s background. You want to find out why these books have had such a strong impact on not just one, but several generations of readers. Note the big titles, the ones that reoccur from list to list. These are usually good places to start. Novels typically don’t develop esteemed reputations unless they have substance to back them up. While you’re doing all this you should be making notes of any books that sound interesting to you. Remember, it’s important to keep an open mind.
If there’s a specific genre you’re curious about, or a demographic of readers that interests or confuses you, modify your search to fit it. Try ‘Top 100 fantasy books of all time’, or ‘Best young adult novels’, or even ‘50 contemporary romance novels you must read before you die’. Try browsing the forums on Goodreads (a community website that all serious readers and writers should be a part of).
It’s also important to set yourself challenges. No new writer should consider a book beneath them, nor should they feel too intimidated to read something that seems daunting. In my experience, persisting with a difficult book intensifies the satisfaction you feel upon completing it. Sometimes it can take a little while for you to ‘get’ or appreciate a writer’s style, though of course certain books just won’t be your cup of tea at all. As with any skill in life, you have to be open and patient if you expect to grow.
Once you’ve devoted a serious length of time to exploring different styles, you’ll have gained the confidence to make an informed decision about what to read next. You might have to endure some difficult styles but, hey, now you can at least say you’ve tried them. You’re now reacting on firsthand experience instead of common perception.
Don’t worry if you read a few stinkers along the way, as they can help you identify what doesn’t work in a story. Sometimes this is just as important as knowing what does work. If you know what the pitfalls of storytelling look like, chances are you can avoid them when creating your own work.
Personally, I like to constantly change things up when I read. I enjoy sandwiching heavier reads between every two lighter ones. I find this keeps me interested enough to make reading a real priority.
So if you’re feeling brave, give this experiment a try and see how it reflects in your writing. Emulating different authors is a natural part of the process, even if the results aren’t what you quite expect. Experimenting helps distil a voice that is unique and your own. Maybe you’ll embrace the experience and pioneer some glorious Frankenstein of contradicting styles. If you do, feel free to send it to the guys at [untitled]. That kind of story might be just what they’re looking for.