It always surprises me when students say they don’t like to read in a genre similar to their current work in progress. I’m the opposite. Writing a memoir about walking the Camino? Step one is to read every memoir I can get my hands on written by other people who have walked the Camino. Want to write a fantasy novel for kids? Now there’s an excellent excuse to immediately run out and procure an armload of fantasy novels for kids.
I don’t worry about accidentally stealing ideas – I have plenty of my own. I don’t worry about imitating someone else’s style – I try to find the widest possible range of voices and approaches when I’m reading. That pretty much eliminates any worry that I’ll find myself adopting another author’s writing style. Besides, by now I sure hope I have a style or voice I can call my own!
When I read books and articles by other people I analyze them to death. It’s the only way I can think of to see what works and what doesn’t. Do I find myself completely engaged in one account of a Camino trip and utterly bored by another? Why? What makes some writing so compelling and other writing so meh? I enjoy it when an author’s personality shines through, especially if the writer has a sense of humour. I like lots of anecdotes mixed in with my doses of hard facts. But, I do like those facts to be there as well. Does the author use sidebars to pull out the factual bits or roll everything into some kind of overarching narrative? As I read, I hold my observations up against what I’m trying in my own writing. Then, when I’m writing, I try different techniques, modifying to suit my own story and what I’m trying to accomplish. In recent years, I’ve found I’ve started reading almost exclusively non-fiction, but the range of approaches to non-fiction is almost as broad as the range of subjects covered. On one hand, that’s very liberating – there is no ‘right’ way to come at a project. On the other hand, all those choices mean it can be pretty overwhelming to figure out what the best approach might be.
What about you? When you start a new writing project do you shy away from reading related material? Or do you seek it out and immerse yourself in the works of others who have explored similar paths before?