Do you read? There was a time when I never thought I'd have to ask that question of a writer. Times change and with them writers and their habits evolve. Today you're more likely to hear a group of writers rave on about the latest movie they've seen than talk about their latest read. While I understand all the reasons writers give for their near-obsessive chatter about movies, I confess I don't understand this compulsion to trade movies for books. I can't tell you how many times I meet writers who admit they haven't touched a book in months or years but want to write a book. Why?
Yes, I understand screenwriting and movies are great for understanding structure and scene development. They're great to tap today's cultural pulse. But unless you understand the difference between a movie and a book and how that translates into writing, you may be hurting yourself. Each has its own strengths. Each can be helpful in developing your knowledge of writing. But if you're going to write a book, for heaven's sake, do read. A novel or a short story has its own peculiarities, its own domain. As a writer it's good to get to know the landscape. Looking at a map is helpful but it's not enough. You'll miss that wonderful creek or the new road that replaces the old dirt road everyone keeps talking about.
The question of what you read seems to be the follow up question. Do you focus on the top 10 novels in your genre and say the hell with everything else? Or do you choose 2 or 3 top writers in your chosen genre? That's good as far as it goes but what about the other genres? Can you learn anything by reading outside your box? I think so.
William Faulkner didn't write romance but he knew the value of relationships and how they play out with the reader. Why else commit the boy-meets-girl structure to paper writing it over 500 times? Stephen King translates daily life onto the page and makes it real enough for readers to lose themselves in the worlds he constructs. He taps into our fears and plays them out across his literary landscape and the readers take them as their own and follow him. Like many writers of the past, Michael Crichton spun new science discoveries and extrapolated them into the future creating bestseller cautionary tales. Lawrence Block, Harlan Coben, and Dennis Lehane don't just thrill us with the latest in serial killer techniques but probe the human psyche for the reasons why men do the evil that they do.
Each genre has stout pillars that support the tales and serve as guideposts for the readers. Mapping their layouts and then reading to see how each writer makes the generic landscape his or her own is one reason why it's important to read. Read Tom Clancy or Jodi Picoult. How did they put their own stamp onto a generic form? Why did so many readers respond? Read as a writer but more importantly read as a reader. And above all, please don't wait for the movie.