Confession time: I don’t read in my genre very much. Cross that – I don’t read critically in my genre very much. Let’s face it, it’s not exactly a chore to read a romance novel, but I’m terrible at making the time to really think about what I’m reading, analyze it, and learn from it.
What does it mean to read critically in your genre? First off, it means picking books that are actually in the same market as what you’re writing/querying. So me reading a historical romance when I’m trying to sell a futuristic romance? Not super helpful.
Why is that important? Imagine you’re trying to sell a cookie. The first thing people ask is, “What kind of cookie is it?” Whatever reply you give, your cookie had better have some basic elements if it’s going to be accepted. You can’t advertise something as a chocolate chip cookie unless it has a) chocolate chips, and b) some sort of cookie-like baked product surrounding those chips. Reading in your genre is a way of learning what those fundamental elements of that genre are and making sure you’re being truthful in claiming your book would be positioned correctly there.
Second off, it means thinking before you read, as you read, and after you read.
Before you read: Have some questions in your mind. What kind of conflict drives the book? What archetypes do the characters fall into? How does the author lay out backstory, space out turning points, and wrap up remaining questions? How does she draw you in?
Basically, know ahead of time what you want to learn.
As you read: Take notes—this could be as simple as highlighting passages if you use an e-reader or placing post-it notes if it’s a physical book. Be aware of turns of phrase that catch your eye. Look for all the conventions of your genre and observe how the author uses them or circumvents them. Notice how you feel as you read. When your heart seizes in your chest and your ribs hurt? Take a second to figure out specifically how the author got you to feel that way. When you’re wearing that cheesy grin? Make note of the specific line that evoked that reaction.
After you read: Don’t just put the book away. Look back at the questions you had when you started and see if you answered them all. Decide if you liked the book or not, and more importantly why. Look for the good and the bad. Even a disaster of a novel will probably have a couple redeeming qualities and even a five-star book you will re-read a million times will have a weakness or two. If you hated it, pinpoint a couple of qualities or story-telling elements that made you hate it—and take pains to avoid those in your own work!
In the end, reading critically in your genre doesn’t take all that much more effort, but it means learning in your leisure time and improving your craft while still getting a break from the blinking cursor in the middle of your manuscript. Who wouldn’t want that? Bonus: books you buy to analyze as a writer can be counted as business expenses on your taxes. Score!*
Personally, I’m starting the new year with a fever that’s made it difficult to concentrate on my writing and a brand new Kindle Paperwhite that my hubby got for me for Christmas. I’m taking it as a sign to practice what I preach and do some reading…and some thinking.
* As always, when it comes to your finances, consult a tax professional, not a romance writer who’s hopped up on cold medicine. Seriously.