Every single literary event I’ve been to has included the advice ‘read widely’ and, as someone who always has, I find this advice a little patronising. How can you write stories without reading others? But now, I’m going to swallow my pride and do the same.
There is no better time to find new books to read. All forms of media are inundated with lists of the ‘best books of the year’ and ‘best books read this year’. There are blog posts and podcasts and MOOCs and lists of lists. Pick a reviewer/ newspaper/ blogger/ genre and find yourself a list of books to balance onto your reading pile.
Why? The wisdom is twofold: read in your genre to improve your writing, and read in your subject area to research the period/ area/ belief you’re writing about. The latter is self-explanatory, so I’ll focus on the notion of reading to write.
Read authors and genres you enjoy and, while these will inevitably affect your style, writing in your own voice is easier than it sounds. I went to a writing workshop once where two of my fellow attendees had the same two-sentence synopsis, and both cited the same book as inspiration. But when it actually came to writing, the first pages they wrote in the workshop sounded nothing like each other’s, or the author they revered, as their own voice shone through. In short, they wrote how they wanted to write rather than how they thought they should write.
I end this post on a note of caution. In the same way you should write the way you naturally do, you should read what you’re naturally drawn to. The advent of the e-book has enabled dissection of reader habits previously unavailable. We can now tell which books people finish, and the result is unsurprising: books that reached readers by word-of-mouth were, on the whole, more likely to be completed by readers than those that were read because they were deemed a ‘must-read’ by industry judges (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/10/kobo-survey-books-readers-finish-donna-tartt). That’s not to say you should not write like Donna Tartt if you want to be read, only that you should write like her only if you’re part of the 44% that actually completed the novel and the (presumably smaller) unknown percentage of readers that enjoyed it. Only then can you truly say you’ve found your author hero(ine).