Published authors give lots of advice to aspiring writers, but universal among that advice is this: You have to read a lot, and you have to read widely.
Reading Within Genre
My initial response to this advice was…immature at best.
I was working on the first draft of my novel, back in high school, when I decided that all the classic literature I had been assigned would fit the bill, and that I would stop reading sci-fi and fantasy altogether so that no one would ever accuse me of stealing my ideas from other genre authors.
That meant, in 1999, I gave up Sword of Shannara, from which I had been learning the rules of world-building. I stopped reading Harry Potter, which had been teaching me which reader expectations could be broken, and which could be reinvented. I abandoned my beloved Star Trek serial novels and The Wheel of Time, which were teaching me how characters can develop over a series. And, so very unfortunately, I built up such anxiety over the idea of accidental plagiarism, that even after the novel was finished, I didn’t read fantasy for years and years.
By which I mean…I didn’t pick up another fantasy novel until 2007, when my brain was so worn out from writing my MA Thesis and reading academic literature that I was desperate for a refuel. I just needed something fresh. Anything that didn’t have a colon in the title.
I read Twilight. No, I know. Then I read The Southern Vampire Mysteries, with Sookie Stackhouse. Much better.
And a magical thing happened. I pulled out my ‘wizard novel’ from high school and started to rewrite it. Not only that, but I allowed myself to stay open to fantasy literature.
The notebooks of my PhD experience, then, look very different from those of my MA work. The margins are filled with character design and world-building, because reading fantasy simultaneous with my academic work put me in the state of mind where I could draw parallels between reality and fiction. I ditched a whole shelf of dusty history books to make room for Neil Gaiman, Scott Lynch, Susanne Clarke, Ransom Riggs, Gail Carriger, and Seanan McGuire. I read fantasy on my lunch breaks in the archives, on the train to campus, on the days when grad school overwhelmed me. Fantasy became my lifeline, and the balance to my non-fiction pursuits. In fact, my academic writing became more narrative and accessible.
All because I went home, to wizards and vampires and ghosts. So. Please, learn from my mistake. Read withing genre, learn the rules and then break them, and build out your writing, and your life, in the company of authors you love and stories that heal you.
Read other genres
That said, I do not regret at all any of the classics I read. I learned a lot about pacing and mystery from Arthur Conan Doyle. Mark Twain taught me about humor and the beauty of the ordinary. Charles Dickens taught me what not to do. The transcendentalists–Thoreau, Alcott, Emerson–inspired my reinvention of magical systems. And Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, and Alice Munro changed my life in small but important, excruciating ways.
All these folks show up not only in my fantasy writing, but also in my dissertation. And, I should note, my dissertation shows up in my fantasy. Theorists like Michel Foucault, John Law, and Bruno Latour gave me new ways to look at and critique the world, and the 19th century documents I pulled from the archives helped me write more believable dialogue.
My point here: Every good book gives you the opportunity to expand the way you think, cultivate new sympathies, and build an empathetic view of the world, so, the more you read, and the more widely you read, the better chance you have of bringing something new, different, and magnificent into your life and into your writing.
Where to start?
First, read within your genre, because chances are that’s what you really, truly love. Then, do a bit of writing and look for weak spots.
If you find that you struggle with characters, I cannot recommend enough that you read romance. Romance gets a bad rap. But excellent romance—truly thought-out and often unconventional romance—is the stuff good characters are built from. You can’t write books built on blooming partnerships without understanding conflict, character development, organic plotlines that extend from ongoing, growing connection, and raw emotion. Look for romance where the plot extends beyond “will they won’t they” into “how do we live this life together.”
If you find that you struggle with world-building and plots, I’m going to have to recommend that you read good history. You don’t have to read a ton of it, but at least one narrative survey of world history will give you lots of ideas about world-building—there’s nothing stranger and more amazing than our own reality and the unexpected ways in which parts of the world connect and disconnect over time. Then pick one good biography, to quickly study a life lived; one good analysis of a singular historical moment, to watch how events unfold; and one weird history that plays with hypotheticals, contingencies, or theories, to see how many questions you can ask about your own plot.
And then read literally everything else.