The post was here and the question from Samantha went as follows:
"Are you saying, Nicola, that one must be widely read in a particular genre before attempting to write for it? Up until now I have written humorous chick lit and very much enjoy reading this genre. But, all of a sudden, I am inspired to write YA, not so humorous, because the plot I really want to write about doesn't 'fit' an adult genre so well. So, am I supposed to read widely in YA before putting pen to paper?Oh, indeedly doodly!
... [removed bit] ...I guess it just niggles me a bit, because as writers we are always being told to 'write the story we feel compelled to write' - and now I feel I'm being told, ooh, if you aren't well-read in YA, how can you possibly attempt to write it.
Aargghhh! I'm sure you'll put me right:)"
[As an aside, the bit I cut cited Meyer and Rowling as two examples of writers that Samantha reckoned just "wrote the story they wanted" and weren't well-read in their genre. Actually, an Eng Lit grad and mother, JKR is well-read in her genres - fantasy / children's - and Meyer I haven't a clue about but in any case we don't learn anything if we use the very unusual to explain the ordinary. Besides, Samantha says - and I honestly know / care nothing about this but she may be right - that Meyer's publisher then "tailored the book for the market". Well, je reste ma valise: is that what normal authors want or can expect? No, it isn't. Thing is, both those authors hit a vein of success which cannot be predicted or planned and any attempt to use them to prove anything that relates to writing in general is unhelpful. Therefore, can we not [c]rabbit on about this in the comments below? I regard it as off-topic. We can talk about it another time if you must, and if you care nothing for my mood, especially since I gave myself three paper cuts opening Christmas cards this morning, as well as one Magimix cut.]
Right. Back to the point. Why did I say and why do I absolutely maintain that writers should be well-read in the books being currently published in the genre they are writing for? [And by the way, I'm not alone: Stephen King also says it in On Writing. Nor have I ever heard any published writer, agent or editor say anything to contradict it.]
First, why "CURRENTLY"? Why can't we just read old stuff? What's wrong with the good old days when people knew their split infinitives from their hanging participles?
If you are only reading bygone successes you risk one of two traps:
1) The Jane Austen Trap. Every couple of years there's a stupid fracas when a silly person sends a slightly disguised first chapter of a Jane Austen book to a publisher pretending that he /she wrote it; publisher returns it saying it's "not right for our list"; silly person jumps up and down in self-righteous glee, saying, "See how useless publishers are! They can't even recognise a classic when they see it!" No, stupid: Jane Austen is not right for their lists because publishers are not looking for Jane Austen, because if readers want Jane Austen they can read Jane Austen. Publishers want what readers want NOW, not what they wanted a million years ago.
2) The Enid Blyton Trap. There are, last time I counted, 5,739,841 aspiring writers out there who have decided that they'd like to write a children's book because they remember enjoying them so much when they were little. Well, all respect to EB, but she was writing in times of old-fashionedness, and, as well as writing in the style of those times, was unhealthily affected by the undesirable aspects of the day, such as classism, racism, sexism and Imperialism, as well as the more pleasant ones such as naiveté, absence of health and safety, and lashings of ginger beer. Things have changed, and the things you can, should, must, mustn't do are vastly different. So, if you don't read the modern stuff, when you come to write it you risk looking like some patriarchal buffoon who hasn't noticed that the Empire has fallen and there's gravy on his cravat.
So, why do we have to be widely-read in our genre? Samantha is widely read, but now she wants to write a YA novel and says she's not widely read in this genre. Can't she just go ahead?
First, I respect Samantha's reason for wanting to write YA - that the plot that she's thinking of fits YA. If she'd said she just fancied doing it, I'd have been more inclined to be crabbit: too many people simply think it would be easier than adult fiction. It's not. Just different.
However, I wonder how anyone knows the plot fits YA if they don't know much about YA books. It's common to think that simply having a teenage character makes the book YA. In that case, please read The Illumination of Merton Browne by JM Shaw. Or even the first chapter.
On the other hand, Samantha may well be right and her plot may beautifully fit a YA format. But she won't know that until she reads some, and not just any: there are many types of YA, so if hers is "gritty realism" she'll need to read some [for example] Keith Gray or Catherine Forde. Etc etc for other types of YA. And I'm not only talking about YA - the same applies for any genre.
1) not knowing the rules of the genre. Every genre has rules and if we don't know them we risk breaking them and looking silly [or not being published.] Rules are there to be deliciously broken or stretched but only intentionally and with reason. You can't do that if you don't know them.
2) not knowing what's already been done. It would be very easy for an author not to realise that a topic / voice / character has already been done to death or has recently been tackled in a high-profile book. You could look very ignorant. As Stephen King says in On Writing, "the more sf you've read, the less likely it is that you'll simply revisit the well-mined conventions...".
3) not writing in an original voice. Of course, not every story is or can be original in voice, but you could easily look very unoriginal or old-fashioned. Is that what you want?
4) not being passionate about what you do. And that dispassion will shine through. Stephen King again: "You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing unless it has been done to you."
5) not being able to show or feel total commitment to a career in this genre. After all, one book is not enough. Your agent or publisher will need to build a career with you and you will need to feel utterly comfortable with the genre if you are to write several books in it, consecutively.
6) failing to sell it to an agent or publisher because you cannot show knowledge and commitment in your covering letter, or because you appear shallow or ignorant in your approach. I agree that this would be easily overcome with common sense, but you would not believe the ignorance of this sort that I've seen in covering letters shown to me by agents.
7) remaining outside the world of your future fellow authors. Writers - real writers - read. I spend a lot of time communicating with other YA writers and I would quickly know if one of us wasn't up-to-date with what was being written. We recommend books to each other all the time - sometimes in criticism, sometimes in praise. I'd have a very low opinion of someone who couldn't join us in our own game and passion and yet who presumed to reap money from it. I'd call them a mercenary. What we read informs and redefines us; as readers and as writers. As a writer I want to be part of it, not outside looking in.
8) displaying disrespect for your fellow authors. So, you're saying their sort of writing is so easy that you don't need to learn anything about it? [Samantha, please don't take this personally: I am making a general point about risks for authors choosing not to read in genre. I am sure you're not disrespectful. Well, you'd better not be!]
9) displaying arrogance. Yep, I'm saying it again. Again, I'm not saying I think Samantha is but I'm saying this is the risk. You may not feel arrogant, but it's what a potential agent / publisher will think if you show that you don't read in the genre. It displays a sense of, "yeah, well it's easy to do what these crime fic / YA / pic book authors do - I can do that, easy as falling off a bike."
So, to anyone planning to write in a genre for which he or she does not have affinity, passion and knowledge, I say, don't. Unless you want to take a very very long time to become published. Or unless you want to rely wholly on luck. In which case, good luck to you because you'll need it.
Personally, I write for teenagers because I love teenage fiction and I feel very connected, through it, to teenagers, my readers. I don't know a teenage author who doesn't feel like that.
None of this denies the other truth: that we must tell the story that we burn to tell. I just question how would know how to write it brilliantly, if you don't properly know how that type of story works. And doesn't work.If you don't know the traps, how can you avoid them?
PS for any putative YA authors out there (Samantha?) - if you tell me what type of story it will be I'll recommend you three YA novels to read. You don't have to read the whole canon!
PPS please don't forget the lovely offer of a doubly-signed book, signed to you [or a friend of yours] personally by David Robinson and Alexander McCall Smith. They are coming, at my request, to sign the copies on Thursday, so you need to order by tomorrow. In Cold Ink is a fabulously interesting look into the minds and lives of many of the world's best authors and if it's a well-read person you want, look no further than David R, Books editor of the Scotsman!