My dear writing friends,
If you’re an aspiring science fiction or fantasy writer, you want to create something fresh and different for your audience. But while we may come up with a few truly original innovations, the fact is many of our ideas (as well as our writing style) have their roots somewhere else.
If you only ever read one genre (the latest dystopian novels, for example, or a handful of YA fantasy series), you’re like a seedling with shallow roots, feeding off of the same conventions and ideas as everyone else in your genre. Chances are high that you’ll grow to look mostly identical to the seedlings around you.
How much better it is to be like a tree with deep roots, pulling fresh inspiration from a variety of sources—including different genres, styles, and historical eras than your own.
In other words, to stand out as a speculative fiction writer, you need to read differently.
It’s not my intent to give you a list of recommended books in this post (though I may mention a few titles I particularly like here and there). Instead, I’d like to propose an approach to reading that I think will help boost your creativity as a science fiction or fantasy writer:
Read mythology and legend
Classic Greek mythology is a great place to start. So many major literary ideas in Western literature stem from these odd and fascinating stories—think Pandora’s box, Icarus falling from the sky, the Labyrinth concealing a forbidden monster—and the story ideas they can spark haven’t been exhausted yet!
If nothing else, a familiarity with mythology can give you some clever names to use for characters, places, and technology in your novels. (Confession time: with the exception of Nikterra, all of the Kavannan centaur names in Escape to Vindor are lifted straight from centaurs mentioned in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)
Of course, the Greeks weren’t the only ones with a rich mythological heritage. Depending on your interests, branch out to other mythologies and folk traditions, such as Celtic, Native American, Central African, Hindu, Japanese—a whole world of magic and heroes are out there for you to explore and draw inspiration from.
Pick your favorite period of history (or just pick something that sounds interesting) and dive in. True stories about civilizations can help you understand how real people think and act—and it’s not always in the neat, predictable ways you learned in elementary school. Governments start off well and then turn toward corruption. Cultures may be great in one context and terrible in another. Communities make baffling mistakes that only make sense when you examine what people believed and feared at the time.
Understanding how people groups actually think will help you create fictional cultures that are more nuanced and authentic. As an added bonus, you can sometimes find larger-than-life figures, such as Napoleon or Cleopatra, who can become great prototypes for heroes or villains.
Read “The Classics” – but not all of them
It’s not hard to find a list of “Literature Classics” or “Books Everyone Should Read” and quickly get overwhelmed. Here’s my recommendation: find a list and pick whatever books sound most interesting to you. Not a fan of Charles Dickens? Have no taste for Hemmingway? No worries, skip them and find someone you do like.
But even just reading a couple of books from these lists can really expand your horizons. There’s a reason these books have stayed popular all these years—they may surprise you by how relevant and insightful they are. For example, my understanding of human psychology was enhanced by reading masterpieces such as Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy) and Cry, the Beloved Country (Alan Paton), even though they’re set in completely different countries and eras than my own.
Not sure you want to commit to a long novel? Several classic writers—including Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne—wrote excellent short stories and novellas that can give you a taste of their writing style and ideas.
And don’t tell anyone, but … abridged versions are okay. You can enjoy a book like Les Misérables and skip all the parts about the Paris sewer system and you’ll be just fine—trust me. If you want to access the wonderful stories of Shakespeare but get hung up on the 16th-century language, get a modern translation. No one’s going to check up on you—it’s for your own reading enhancement.
Want inspiration for mystical landscapes or alien cultures? Read publications like National Geographic and Smithsonian that highlight interesting people and places right here on Earth. Most of my best ideas for the people of Vindor came not from other fantasy works, but from stumbling upon non-fiction articles about archeology or sociology. (The Rikeans’ underground city of Elnat, for example, was directly inspired by ruins unearthed in Turkey.)
If you write science fiction, it’s also good to keep up with new discoveries in astronomy and technology, since these can inspire great plot ideas.
Read your genre from different time periods
All right, now we’re getting to the stuff you probably already enjoy reading—but with a twist. Instead of just reading the latest and hottest books in your genre, go old-school and get back to its roots. Learn techniques from those books that have stayed interesting and engaging over several decades.
For fantasy, some of my personal recommendations include the influential works of George MacDonald, who wrote in the mid-1800s and arguably founded the modern fantasy genre; The Hobbit (1937) by J.R.R. Tolkien; The Last Unicorn (1968) by Peter Beagle; Wizard of Earthsea (1968) by Ursula Le Guin; and The Neverending Story (1979) by Michael Ende.
Since science fiction isn’t my genre (at least not currently), I’ll confess I haven’t read this quite as deeply, but I would recommend the works of Isaac Asimov (1920s-50s); Out of the Silent Planet (1938) by C.S. Lewis; The Martian Chronicles (1950) by Ray Bradbury; and A Wrinkle in Time (1962) by Madeline L’Engle—one of the earliest young adult science fiction works.
A few other thoughts about reading
- First of all, I don’t want to imply that you can’t read your current favorite authors, or that every single recommendation above is required somehow. What I am saying is that when you mix up your reading diet, you can boost your versatility as a writer.
- Are you a slow reader? For several years I had trouble finishing novels because I overthought all of the details and read at a crawl. My lifesaver has been audio books. Seriously. Having to follow the pace of the audio book reader speeds up my reading time while not diminishing what I get out of each book. Plus I can power through huge novels while driving or doing household chores, so I get extra reading time in.
- Not ready to buy all of these books, especially the ones you’re not sure about? The local library is your best friend! They’re certain to have most of the classics mentioned above, and they’re free. And the librarians virtually never ask if you skipped parts ?
- Finally, deepening your reading not only makes you a better writer, but it can make you a better person. All that exposure to new ideas can make you a better thinker and more able to relate to other people from all backgrounds.
So, my writing friends, get out that library card and go to town!