It’s been said many times but cannot be said enough: good writers read. They read all the time. Just as painters often study the masters in order to learn and understand their craft so too writers. But most novice writers make the mistake of struggling to set pen to paper without knowing the subjects that have already been approached by better and more experienced writers. Along with learning her craft, reading enables the writer to avoid writing about well-worn subjects or to take a different approach to them.
Years ago, I once wrote a story about a child struggling to cope with her mother’s mental illness and the affect this had on the tenuous bond which held her family together. I treated the subject, I thought, with sensitivity and was certain that it’s shocking and emotional conclusion would wow the editor of the literary magazine to whom I had submitted my story. Instead, it was rejected. At the time, I was stunned. It was only until I began reading more that I understood why it was rejected: there had been plenty of stories written on this subject alone (including with child narrators) and done with far more finesse and skill than I had accomplished. The subject was, in short, cliched and over-worn. I’m quite certain that the editor of this particular magazine had a slush pile on her desk with stories based on the subject of mental illness alone. How boring or disappointing it must have been for her assistant editors to slog through my manuscript (if they even got that far) only to discover it was no different than all the other stories they had read before.
If I had read more I might have known already that this subject was well-worn and exhausted. The importance of reading offers the writer the opportunity to know what is out there, what has already been published, the angles in which said subject has been approached, and whether or not said subject has been overdone. Read as much as you can, find out what subjects have been exhausted. Knowing these things will give you a better idea about what stories haven’t been told or approaches that haven’t been tackled yet. For instance, is there a subject that you’re really interested in writing about that hasn’t been approached in the way you hope to approach it? If so, then go ahead and write that story. But you cannot know for certain that what you’re doing is groundbreaking unless you are familiar with the ground you are breaking.
In short, it’s important to read as much as possible. Read the stories of your favorite authors or even authors you’re not familiar with. Check out the review section of your local newspaper to get ideas on what to read. If you’re interested in a particular genre, such as science fiction or romance, read the popular authors of those genres and familiarize yourself with the conventions of those genres. Read anthologies. Anthologies are wonderful since they offer a wide range of writers with which to familiarize yourself. For instance, once a year Houghton Mifflin publishes The Best American Short Stories series, a compendium of short stories published within the previous year.
While many of the writers published in this book tend to be well-known, a few newer and emerging writers also make it to the list. At the very least, The Best American Short Stories provides an opportunity to see what is being published today and what is considered the cream of the crop. Read literary magazines as well. Most bookstores, including Barnes & Noble, have a good selection of literary journals in their magazine sections. And of course, there is always the local library. If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, ask your librarian. She’ll be more than happy to help you discover different authors out there that might be to your liking.
Another good idea is to read the submissions outline for magazines to which you’re interested in submitting your work. Editors tend to be pretty vocal about what they’re tired of seeing in the submissions section or what they don’t need. Familiarize yourself with what is out there so that you’ll have a better idea of what is publishable and what is not.
Of course, there are no guarantees for anything. Even the greatest writers in the world have suffered through rejection slips during the beginning of their careers. But by understanding what is out there, the novice writer eliminates the mistake of writing about cliched subjects, or at the very least, pursuing them from a different, more interesting, and provocative approach.