There's a moment in Samuel R. Delany's About Writing, (and forgive me for paraphrasing, but I have lent my copy out) where, in speaking about the importance of reading, he says that the book you are currently writing will only ever be as smart as the smartest book you read while you are writing it.
While I'd tweak the timing a little (smartest book you've ever read, rather than smartest book you're currently reading), I agree completely with the sentiment.
I am, in case this is news to anyone reading this blog, a bit of a process junkie. I love to read about writing - books, blogs, interviews with people. I like to learn about things, and I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so when I started writing, I started reading All the Things related to writing. The one piece of advice that I've seen consistently given, is read. Read All the Things. The more I write myself, the more important I think this very simple piece of advice is.
And when I say "all," I mean ALL. That's where things get tricky.
Most of us who write are readers. Voracious readers, the kind who are never without books, the kind who read the ingredients on the cereal box growing up until we were allowed to bring books to the breakfast table. And most of us have favorite kinds of things to read. Which means that the first sorts of things we write are going to look a lot like our favorite books - lesser versions of Tolkien, or Conan Doyle pastiche (or if you're me, when you are at Clarion, Neil will sit you down, and very seriously say, "Kat. No more Shakespeare.")
While we're not bound by "write what you know" we will write like what we know. In a way, that's fine: we all stand on the shoulders of giants. We just can't speak with their voices.
I've found the best way of finding my own voice is to read outside of my comfort zone (well, to live outside of it, really, but that's another post for another day.) To read in different genres, and to specifically seek out things that I've dismissed in the past as being, for whatever reason, not my sort of thing. To read things where I have to focus on what I'm reading, where reading is work, and a challenge.
It's helped me on multiple levels. On the most practical, it lets me avoid the problem that sometimes happens when someone who obviously has never read anything in Genre X decides to write something in Genre X.
But the best way that reading promiscuously has helped me is that it helps me think differently. Thinking outside my comfort zone is the best random idea generator I've ever found. It reshapes the pathways in my brain, and helps me see and connect things differently. I write better when I'm reading things that actively engage and challenge and frustrate my brain.
That's not to say I don't believe in reading for entertainment or comfort, or that I think those forms of storytelling are any less important or less worthy. That's also not me saying that a smart book can't provide comfort, or a comfort book can't be smart. But what I am saying is that if you want to keep improving your writing, keep looking for the smartest book.