The other day, I lost one of the most important influences in my life and development. We’d been out of touch for years but teachers don’t expect people to stay in touch, not really. My literature professor, Jaysinh Birjepatil passed away recently. In his classes, I first read the works of Joyce, Kafka, Gunter Grass, Wallace Stevens, Baudelaire, Sylvia Plath and many more. Through his classes, I began to learn where the limits of storytelling were. The novels he exposed me to taught me about characterization, taught me about playing with voice, taught me about embedding dreams. The poets he exposed me to showed me rhythm, images and how to play in a conceptual playground of ideas. I don’t write what you would call “literary fiction” but the literature he exposed me to still influences every single word I write.
When I started reading more widely in genre fiction, I learned more about plotting. I saw tropes subverted and played with. I saw Nick Mamatas arm William Burroughs against The Deep Ones in Move Underground. I saw a contemporary urban fellowship of vampire hunters come apart under the stress of dealing with punk rock bloodsuckers in John Skipp’s The Light at the End. I saw a hero who was at once a leper, an asshole, a rapist and a messiah deal with the complications of saving a world not his own in Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. The architecture of possibilities got bigger and extended far beyond what I had seen on television or read about in the D and D tie in novels I had loved in elementary school.
I encounter clients and writers who don’t think it’s important to read in their genre. Recently, an author I know pointed out that someone had reviewed a book on writing claiming that it was out of date because they did not use writers of contemporary bestsellers as an example and instead used Elmore Leonard, a master of tight plotting and characterization, as an example. This was, excuse my language, one of the biggest heaps of horseshit I have heard in my life. He was then accused of being an elitist. If he’s an elitist, I am quite certainly one. I’m an editor. I’ve gotta be. If I didn’t like quality, I wouldn’t want to be a writer or editor. It’s good to have high expectations.
How do you get high expectations? You read really good fiction. Ulysses might not be your cup of tea but maybe The Big Sleep is. Maybe It or The Great and Secret Show. Even if you plan on being the next YA paranormal romance bazillionaire, you still need an edge and you still need something better than the other aspiring paranormal romance bazillionaires. And your way to get a leg up on them is to learn some dirty tricks from the greats. Remember that your genre started with the Bronte Sisters and Bram Stoker. Know gothic literature, see how to create that tension, learn about how to make your characters pop, and maybe find some ideas that haven’t been touched for awhile, dust them off, repurpose them and make them yours.
You need an edge. Knowledge of what’s hot is not enough. Imitating what’s hot can get you at best one hit wonder status. It will also prevent you from surprising your reader. Even if you’ve found something that’s been done before, seeing you do it better will get you a fan for life. Talk to writers in your genre and see who influenced them. Read essays about your genre. This book, Horror: The 100 Greatest Books, changed not only what I read but how I read it and how I perceived the genre. If you want to change the game, you have to know the players and how it is played. Knowing what’s on the bestseller list is good. Knowing your ass from your elbows is better.