If you don’t read, how do you know?

Over the past several months, I’ve been hither, thither, and yon, talking at conferences, giving library seminars, and reading queries, and I’ve noticed some consistencies:

Those who didn’t read
Those who were trying something entirely new

Those who don’t read

A number of the pitches I read and heard sounded unmarketable. So unmarketable that I asked who they felt would read their books. Um…well…head scratchie…

Ok, here’s an easier question, sez me, where does your book fit? Who’s your competition? Um…well…head scratchie…I have no competition because there’s nothing on the market like my book.

Ohhh…the exclamation point speech bubble pops over my head…how much reading have you done? Author’s eyes search the heavens…um, not much.

Pricey goes head bangy. How on earth can you know you have something unless you’re well read in your genre? I’ve heard all kinds of excuses – “I don’t want someone else’s book getting inside my head.” “I don’t have the time.” “Oh, that’s important?”

See, the thing that bugs me about these comments is that the writers aren’t taking their craft seriously. This isn’t an industry where someone decides to write a book and whamm-o, out pops a bestseller.Words come to mind: sacrilegious, hubris, certifiable.

Look at it from our standpoint; are we going to spend thousands on an author who doesn’t take his craft seriously. Sure, there are the odd accidental hits, but of those few, there are tens of thousands of books that aren’t hits. They have to make it the old-fashioned way; by understanding what it takes to be a writer.

And one of those elements to being a writer is understanding the unique qualities of your book. But you can’t know that unless you’ve read your competition. Believe me, at some point, an editor or agent will ask – and won’t you look the green jellybean for stuttering over your tongue?

Read, people! Know your competition and understand how your story fits in nicely with theirs, yet lends a new voice.

Those who were trying something entirely new

Then there are authors I’ve encountered of late who were trying to break new territory. I’m always happy to entertain these writers because they may be on to something quite cool. But what I’ve been seeing are those whose new territories reside on other planets. It’s like trying to blast a new tunnel through a mountain. Without knowing what’s on the other side, you have no idea how much dynamite it’ll take to do the job.

Breaking new territory in a book requires a lot of dynamite because it’s new. No one has done it before, so you need to have a solid foundation – meaning that there needs to be some familiarity to it. Take Stephanie Meyers…we already had vampires and we already had romance. But we didn’t have vampire romance. Voila! She combined two genres that the reading public is already familiar with and made some serious lemonade.

But I’ve been seeing things that I’m not sure the reading public is ready for quite yet because there’s no frame of reference. And even if readers are ready for plumber/alien romance, or vampire botanists, I’m not sure the genre buyers’ loins have been properly girded. In other words, it helps if the story makes sense. I love quirky just as much as the next person, but I’d like there to be a plausible reason for the story to exist.

And this comes from reading and researching your genre. After all, there are only so many rotten beagle secretary stories one can exploit, yanno?


5 Responses to If you don’t read, how do you know?

  1. Rik Roots says:

    “Pricey”?? I didn’t know Americans were allowed to do that with their surnames. (It’s common enough in England; maybe the campaign to take back our language is beginning to pay dividends – next up, getting America to put the punctuation to the left of the closing quote mark.)

    As for the something new … I know about this. I think marketing my book as a cross between literary fiction and science fiction has been a mistake – the readers of both genres seem to have a visceral dislike of each other’s books.

  2. NinjaFingers says:

    Hey, some of my work IS on other planets! 😉

  3. Actually, Rik, it was a bunch of Brits who nicknamed me Pricey, and it sort of stuck. We Yanks don’t do that names, but I thought it humorous. Good luck with the punctuation. You also drive on the wrong side of the road!

  4. Marisa Birns says:

    Writing is a craft that should be taken seriously. Have heard, too many times, someone say, “I think I’ll write a book.”

    Roll my eyes (not really, since I think that looks silly).

    When are you coming hither to DC?

  5. When are you coming hither to DC?

    Oh, le sigh, DC is one of my most favorite cities in the whole world. I spent huge amounts of time there when I was writing my novel. Definitely time for a return trip – it’s been too long.

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