There’s this convention, or maybe it’s some kind of unofficial dictate, that if you’re gonna write in a genre, you better be reading stuff that’s less than two years old. Doesn’t matter if it’s crime, fantasy, science fiction, westerns, what have you, the command from on high is: Don’t read anything old.
Well…I beg to differ, at least to an extent.
Okay, yeah, you need to know where the market’s at. That makes sense. But to neglect the older stories in the field? I’m not so sure about that.
Here’s why I say that.
Reading the latest ignores the pioneering work that went before it. What I mean is, if you ignore the masters who started it, whether it be Max Brand, Zane Grey, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald, you’re ignoring a huge source of inspiration.
On top of that, you risk repeating something that’s already been done.
Yeah, there’s that old saying that there are only (three) (seven) plot lines (it depends on who you read/listen to), and that we’re doing our own variations of them over and over. I get that. My own story somewhat resembles the show Breaking Bad in some details, though on most others it doesn’t.
But besides the risk of repeating something, however unintentional, there’s the fact that these people are the Grand Masters. I couldn’t tell you the number of hours I spent enjoying Asimov’s Foundation series, or Heinlein’s Future Histories (not to mention such seminal classics as Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers). How can you not learn when you sit at the feet of the masters?
And you don’t have to limit it to the masters of your chosen genre. I write crime fiction, but I’ve learned from Louis L’Amour, Stephen King, JRR Tolkien, George RR Martin, Larry Niven, Terry Brooks, Joe Haldeman, and countless others.
I take a bit here and a bit there, then I make something all my own out of all those bits.
I’m not saying I haven’t learned from the modern masters, because I have. I’ve mentioned Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, and Don Winslow on here so many times you might be getting tired of hearing their names. But they’ve had a huge influence on my writing style and the way I voice various characters. Michael Connelly and Don Winslow in particular had a strong influence on Spree, my forthcoming novel, especially when it came to the voice I used. When I was telling the story of the stoners, I took inspiration from Don Winslow, and when it came time for the cop’s POV, it was Michael Connelly. And all of them influenced the way I tried to keep the story moving forward.
One of the main reasons I wanted to write this post, though, was because of what I’m seeing in speculative fiction right now. The shelves are full to overflowing with various versions of paranormal/urban fantasy/dark fantasy/…etc. etc. It’s nauseating, to tell you the truth. I used to love that subgenre, but now I just wish it would go away already. I want some good old fashioned lasers and space-battle-science-fiction-space-opera or military sf. Let’s stop with the vampires (please God!) and witches and werewolves and other things that go bump in the night. I mean, I wrote one of these damn things before it became popular, and I wouldn’t submit it now for anything. I don’t want to see another one on the shelf, not even mine.
About the only way to get into good old skool sf is to delve into the Star Wars series of books (and I won’t hesitate to recommend the first ones, for sure, such as Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy, which rumor has it might be the new Disney additions to the franchise).
Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that if you read only new stuff while ignoring what came before it, you’re doing yourself and your potential readers a great disservice. You might be able to take a germ of an idea one of the masters threw away and make it your own, give it a new twist that will reinvigorate you and your writing.
Or you might just enjoy yourself.