Good afternoon readers! Yes, I know today’s post is a little late. Just a tad. And that’s for a reason. The same reason, in fact, it might be a bit rougher than normal: I’m ill today, but didn’t feel like skipping a week of Being a Better Writer. So my mind is a little muddled.
What am I muddled with? Sore throat, stuffy nose, and headache. Oh, and fatigue. Nothing serious. Just enough to make me feel all “blegh” and desire more sleep than normal. So today is not going to be a writing day. But I really didn’t want miss a Being a Better Writer installment, so I dug through Topic List #22 looking for a topic that hopefully wouldn’t take too much brainpower to write up and found one.
Really quick, and with no real smooth transition however, I do want to note the awesome amount of Five-Star reviews that dropped for a couple of books over the weekend. It was a small explosion, actually. One of them, for Starforge, had this to say:
Florschutz at his best … If you haven’t read Starforge–or the UNSEC trilogy as a whole–you owe it to yourself to rectify that injustice.
So yeah, feeling pretty good about that!
Anyway, it was a good weekend for reviews and in general, me coming down with my cold regardless. But, since my brain isn’t quite up to the ordinary task of weaving words together, let’s dive right into today’s topic and talk about whether or not you should read the pillars of Sci-Fi and Fantasy/
Okay, so I hear two immediate questions coming from the audience with this one. Most from different parts of the audience, though some overlap exists, and both equally important.
The first question I’ll tackle is “Wait, reading? But this is an article series on writing. Who cares about reading?”
The answer here is most definitely “You should!” Anyone, and I will stress that with anyone who wants to be a writer should also be doing lots of reading. That’s how we learn what good writing is. It’s such an important part of writing, in fact, that we’ve got a Being a Better Writer article on the topic. So if you had this question, go read that. You’ll notice some overlap with today’s post, but ultimately something you must take away from that post (and today’s) is that you will not grow well as a writer if you don’t read.
And yes, I know this is a concern. I’ve very literally, more than once, had someone tell me (in person or over the web) ‘Ugh, but I hate reading. I don’t have to read to be a good writer.’
Unfortunately, that’s not true at all. While it’s possible that after several decades of trial and error, they may have learned a few things to put them at the starting point most others would begin at just by reading a few books, that’s a low chance.
You want to write? Read. Plain and simple. Read and learn.
Now, the second question many probably uttered is a bit more on topic—though no less important to answer—and something we’ll need to discuss. It’s something around the lines of ‘”But what are the pillars of Sci-Fi/Fantasy?”
That is an excellent question. And also something we will need to address. Because … Okay, here’s the thing. If you were to go to an online forum and pose the question “Hey, I’m looking to read the Pillars of Sci-Fi/Fantasy to help with my writing, what should I read?” you would drown in literature. At best.
At worst, you’d start a few fights. See, some people really feel strongly about what a “pillar” may or may not be. Or that a book they really like should be a pillar, because in their opinion it’s better than all those other “pillars” even though they haven’t read them (No joke here; seen it).
Basically, if you turn to most internet forums for “What’s a pillar of X genre?” you’re going to end up with a few good suggestions, a lot of edge case suggestions, and all total probably more books than you’d be able to read in a few years.
Again, I’m not exaggerating with that statement. I have seen newbie writers show up on online places asking for book recs because they want to be “well read” in a genre before writing for it, and be given a booklist so vast that they noted it would take them several years to complete. To which the forum replied “Hey, that’s okay, you’ll be ready to write several years from now then!”
No. Bad advice. Do not pass go. Do not collect any money. In fact, that bad advice needs to give that writer back his time, since they were telling said poster not to start writing until they had read every book in their list, which was several hundred long.
Does it sound to you like that poor writer is getting any writing done anytime soon? No, it doesn’t, unless they wised up and stopped listening to the forum that declared they needed to read all of those books before starting.
Worse, to add insult it injury, a good number of those books likely weren’t at all what that writer was looking to write, and while they may have been good reads, they probably weren’t helping them improve their own craft to the extent a more focused book would have.
So then, before we’re too far off in the weeds, what is a pillar of a genre? Well, here’s where I’d disagree with a lot of folks online. A “pillar” of a genre isn’t something that’s just a favorite of the one recommending it. For example, I love The Icarus Hunt, and I recommend it regularly to folks who want a good Sci-Fi Mystery novel that teaches by example how to dole out puzzle pieces. But is it a “pillar” of Science-Fiction?
Well … No. It’s just The Icarus Hunt. It’s a dang good novel, but I wouldn’t call it a “pillar.”
So then … what is a pillar of a genre? Well, here’s where we get into a some nebulous territory because for one, there’s no real consensus. So you may disagree with what I post and state here, and that’s fine, because there is no answer that, to my knowledge, writers of the genre have come together on to agree upon. There’s just a gradual consensus, where if you asked a bunch of Sci-Fi authors at LTUE what some of the “pillars” of Sci-Fi were, they’d use a similar criteria to arrive at their answers, but they might have slight deviations in what those criteria were.
So, recognize that my definition may not be the end-all, but is merely as I see it, an attempt put words to a common sort of “approach.” With that, here we go:
A “Pillar” of a genre is a book which has had substantial impact on the genre itself, to the degree that it has entered into both the lexicon of what that genre is and gained acknowledgement from the public sphere.
Now, that last bit? That’s where I differ from a lot of modern “critics.” Modern critics (and even readers) have been quick to call books that have just come out a “new pillar” of Sci-Fi and tried to push it as such, even as said books have fallen by the wayside and quickly slipped further from a collective consciousness that they never entered in the first place.
Basically, my standard says that time matters. Books like Dune, The Lord of the Rings, or Starship Troopers (the book, not that awful movie that had nothing to do with the actual book) have all entered into the collective consciousness and have remained relevant and recommended to this day. There are hordes of books, stories, and settings that have modeled their elements off of what was created in Dune, The Lord of the Rings, or Starship Troopers. Or, for that matter, Dracula. Talk about entering the publuc sphere.
But here’s the thing. My definition also includes things like Star Wars and Star Trek. And while some elitists immediately scoff at that declaration, declaring those “plebian works,” here’s the thing: They’re remembered because they did something right that no one else had done that way before.
And if you want to do that thing right with your story, shouldn’t you at least check that pillar out to see how they did it?
Now, as some may disagree with my definition of what a pillar is (even though it’s a lose one), they may also disagree with what I’m about to say, which is with regards to the ultimate question posed by today’s title: Do you need to read the pillars of Sci-Fi/Fantasy? Because my answer is “Yes … but also no.”
Look, you should read the pillars of Sci-Fi and Fantast. For fun even! And yes, you should read some of them early in your writing journey.
But you don’t need to read all of them. In fact, I wouldn’t even say you need to read all of the ones that relate to what you want to write. Not right away.
You should read a number of them. You should give yourself the background to understand why people gravitated toward Dune, or what The Lord of the Rings does so well that it’s remained a classic for so long.
Yes, you should read the pillars. Not all of them, at least before you start. And you probably should focus at first on pillars that are going to overlap with what you want to write and teach you something. But you shouldn’t avoid them.
And even if the book isn’t … amazing (because some people find Dune dry or Lord of the Rings overblown), focus on what you can learn from it, on what impressions they made and how. Then, learn to adapt or apply that in some way to your own writing.
The pillars are pillars because they’ve stood the test of time and stayed with us. They broke new ground, and did so in a fashion that still causes people to seek them out. And if you can understand that and apply it to your writing, well …
Let me make a comparison using film: Citizen Kane is heralded as a classic of cinema. A pillar, if you will. Now a lot of people today watch it and wonder “So why is this so famous? It seemed like a lot of average movies I know.”
The truth is that Citizen Kane invented many of the common shots and framing techniques that we now take for granted. It was so influential that it was like putting windshield wipers on cars: Once someone figured it out, everyone did it.
Understanding how it became the first? That’s useful to film students. They study Citizen Kane to see how the needs of the production caused it to create a “look” that all modern film still mimics almost eighty years later. It’s a “pillar.”
We can do the same with the pillars of Sci-Fi and Fantasy writing, or with any other genre we wish to write. Every genre will have its pillars. And if we want to write in that genre, and write well, we should seek some of them out and see what makes them pillars of that genre.
In turn, this will allow us to apply that knowledge to our own writing in that genre, building upon what those pillars have accomplished—or striking out to new ground they never touched, or both—to create something that will resonate with those who read it.
Now, one last little note before we end. This is not a statement for you to stop writing while you’re doing all this reading. I’ve heard some use it as an excuse, saying ‘But I want my writing to be the best, and I need to read this to make it the best.’
Your writing will never grow to be the best if you “stop” each time you think there’s something new to learn later. We only put what we’ve learning to improve our writing into effect by practicing, not by gathering a bunch of knowledge and applying it all at once.
So yes, read pillars. But don’t stop writing while you do. Keep reading and keep writing. Think about what you’ve read, and why it resonated or was impactful. Don’t automatically apply it to what you write, but consider if there are things from it you could add to your writing, lessons you could learn.
Keep growing, and keep reading.
Good luck. Now get writing. And reading.
And again, apologies if the post was a little scatterbrained. I’m not firing on all cylinders today.
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3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Should You Read the “Pillars” of Sci-Fi/Fantasy?”
One of the problems about recommending Great Groundbreaking Works is that they may have led the way in opening up certain genre or plots (or simply been the one people remember as the leader when there were many others around the same time), but they also were part of the author’s early works, and therefore not as practiced or polished as what came later.
(I suffer from this myself as a writer.)
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I feel similarly. Groundbreaking, Revolutionary, Important, or Genre-Defining; none of these are necessarily the same as Polished, or even Good. Keeping in mind a lot of what are considered Pillars were written in the 30s or the 50s, and many of them have content that would not fly today. Then too, many of the pillars were written as disposable pot-boilers. I’m not saying that the authors didn’t put the effort into the work, but things written for pulp magazines and small genre presses were not always “quality at all costs” stories – even if they did go on to become pillars of the genre.
Thanks for posting, and I hope you feel better soon. I agree about reading and writing. I also like your take on the pillars–reading them to see why they made the unique choices they did which wound up making them influential, and also reading them to learn how to do something similar in your own writing. At the same time, there are also personal pillars–even if a book isn’t considered a pillar by many people, it could still be just as valuable to you if you find yourself very impacted/inspired/engaged by it. This has happened to me with children’s books (of all things)–sometimes these personal pillars pop up in the least-expected places!