Then there are people who read almost everything put in front of them. Literary fiction, sci-fi, comic books, horror, historical fiction... And yes, that has been my reading list for the past month! Everyone has things they can't get excited about, but most writers I know fall into this latter category: we'll read just about anything as long as it's good.
So, if we're not a sci-fi gal, or a historical fiction guy, how do we decide what to write? Especially if publishers are going to expect us to stick more or less to the same genre with each book? I've struggled with this before (Do you read what you write?), but this past year I've managed to stumble across some good answers, so I thought I would share those with you.
Betsy Lerner in her book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers encourages writers simply to look at what they read, especially at what they return to over and over again. I found this advice maddening at first, given my omnivorous appetite for books, but on reflection it made more and more sense. There are commonalities in the things I love. It's not a genre, unfortunately. I can't get off so easily and say I want to be a realistic, literary writer. But the books I love do have plenty of similarities.
John Truby in his book The Anatomy of Story (which I reviewed two weeks ago) has a more general approach. He encourages writers in search of an idea to make a list of "everything you would like to see up on the screen, in a book, or at the theater. It's what you are passionately interested in, and it's what entertains you." Agents do this frequently in trying to describe their interests to potential clients. Why can't we as writers do the same?
Then there's this genius writing exercise from genius author Laurie Halse Anderson. Make a list of the things you're most afraid of. Use one in a story. Talk about a foolproof way to inject passion into your writing!
This past month I've done all three of these exercises. And combined them into one giant list of the things I'm passionate about (passionate with love or fear, all the same list!). So when my current idea was ticking off several items on the list, I knew I had a winner. Further, amongst all the commonalities, I was beginning to get a very good sense of the type of writer I wanted to be. Even better? The list is a keeper. I can see dozens of other ideas emerging from it.
Do you have a clear and defined genre? If not, how do you decide what to write? Any other suggestions?