Reading outside your box: Grisham and Bradbury

When it comes to rearranging your reading activity and choosing books to which you feel no affinity, here’s the reaction you might have:

“I won’t like it, so what’s the point? I could be writing instead!”

What’s the point? That was my reaction when I first heard the “read outside your genre” mantra. Shouldn’t I be reading books that are written in the style I’d like to use or that inspire me to write?

The point became clear as I read the advice on writing websites and from writers I respect:

You will grow as a writer.

So, I took the advice and I’m glad that I did. Once you take the jump outside of your reading box, you may be as surprised as I was by what you learn.

Writers are encouraged to read as a way to improve their writing skills.  Reading outside the box — the genre in which you write — is a sure-fire way to not only challenge yourself with a different story type, but also to learn more about the craft of writing.

Here’s a look at two books out of my box and the take-away from the experience.

The Firm (legal thriller)

John Grisham is one of the most successful novelists ever. What is he doing to bring on that success? That was enough to make me curious to read his work, besides learning that he is a Sunday School teacher.

I was not thrilled about reading a thriller, and you may have the same distaste for another genre. Why not decide to read that novel as a writing textbook and learn a few things? Call it The Anatomy of a Novel, as I did.

I took notes as I read The Firm. Lessons on character and story development filled my notepad. I saw the story arc and wondered how he chose names and locales. The”how-to” for the ups and downs of a protagonist were clear as spring in this story. I noted the conflict and tension, and saw in action all the writing terms I had learned. The genre was out of my box, but I learned about writing novels from a master. It was well worth the read: I had 13 pages of notes when I got to the last page.

The Martian Chronicles (science fiction)

Science fiction was the genre of least interest for me, yet reading The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury changed my outlook on the genre. Chronicles is a remarkable collection of stories that will take your emotions on a roller coaster ride.

The chapter entitled “The Wilderness” is one of the most uniquely written love stories I’ve ever read.

And the opening sentences to “The Fire Balloons”:

“Coming out of space was liking coming out of the most beautiful cathedral they had ever seen. Touching Mars was like touching the ordinary pavement outside the church five minutes after having really known your love for God.”

I’ve missed beautiful writing such as this because of my preconception of the science fiction genre.

Then there are the creepy scenes in The Martian Chronicles that don’t require graphic descriptions of violence and gore to make your skin crawl. Bradbury sets it up and leads to the frightening ending in such a masterful way that you don’t have time to prepare for the shock. You take it and think Wow, I didn’t see that coming.

From a forced assignment to a can’t-put-it-down read — an experience that happened only because I read outside my box.

So, writer, be sure to include this challenge in your life. Expect the unexpected when reading outside your box. Every writer will bring a unique flavor to a genre. And take note that challenging yourself to read a genre you normally don’t pursue could lead to a new love. I plan to read more of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction novels, now that I’ve rediscovered his work.

[Note: I began writing this post on Tuesday and was sad to learn today that Bradbury had died, 6-5-12, at age 91.]

What experiences can you share from reading outside your box?


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4 thoughts on “Reading outside your box: Grisham and Bradbury

  1. Hi Darla, When I heard about Ray Bradbury, I thought of you b/c I knew you had just read Martian Chronicles. Although I’m saddened by his death, it’s wonderful to think that someone new will discover his work everyday. It’s beautiful to know that his legacy will live on.

    The Firm was one of the first Grisham novels I read. I also recommend The Client and A Time to Kill. However, for me, I found that after a while his stories became repetitive, since many focus on similar themes (young/inexperienced lawyer, impossible case, strong opposition etc).

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    1. Bradbury lived a good long life — 91 years and writing until the end. He helped to establish the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, which begins tonight. I’m sure they’ll be honoring him, and I plan to attend at least one event (SB is my hometown).

      Grisham: Thanks for the tip. It turns out that my sister is a fan, so I’ll be borrowing from her library — probably The Client. Then I think I’ll move on to another genre.

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  2. Very sad news about Bradbury.

    Great post. It’s so true how reading different genres help our writing. When I’m actively writing my novel or short stories, I read books in a genre different than what I’m writing. This helps me maintain my own style and voice. But it also helps me feel like I’m learning something new, and I don’t have to be taking copious notes. It’s just reading something I usually don’t freshens my outlook.

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