Thursday, April 21, 2011
The DUH of Reading
WARNING: This post may contain ridiculously obvious statements causing head-banging and eye-rolling among some writers. If you are reading fiction in as much quantity as you desire, you can safely skip this column.
The DUH of Reading
The other day I went to lunch with some non-writing friends—smart, professional women who understand I’m prone to fits of uncontrollable talking and also know I write in isolation so have a few other mortifying-to-be-around behaviors such as correcting the grammar on chalkboard menu-special signs. What they didn’t know is that I squeal over books. I admit, the books they found me squealing over this day were Little Golden Books. Even so, I was wounded—and astonished—by their reactions.
We were in a gift shop filled with classy, adult-oriented items like napkins that read, “Margueritas: They’re not just for breakfast anymore,” and what did I home in on? A rack of the above-mentioned Little Golden Books. Please understand, these were nothing less than classics. I’m not even lying. I found the original Color Kittens (my copy lost its cover years ago), and several other LGBs I read ragged at my grandmother’s house when I was a kid like, Doctor Dan the Bandage Man, and The Happy Man and His Dump Truck.
“I used to read one called, Nurse Nancy,” I said. “I wish I could find ...” I spun the rack and … there it was!
That’s when I squealed.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” one friend said, and I assured her I was not, this was the coolest thing I’d seen in a long time and I was going to buy four of the treasures.
“Oooookay,” said the other friend, and with complete seriousness added, “You are very strange.” (I want it on the record that SHE bought the marguerita napkins, so what was SHE talking about?)
I love my Little Golden Books. I’ve read them several times since bringing them home and putting them on my Keeper Shelf. In fact, I have more kids’ books than I can count in my house, and I still collect them. Why? Because these are the books that taught me to love reading. To love a story that made me feel happy or excited. Children’s books are, in my opinion, the most important books on the planet.
Fast forward from my Nurse Nancy days to when the Little Golden Books were replaced by The Black Stallion books, then Harlequin Romances by the gross, then LaVyrle Spencer, then, then … THEN, I knew I wanted to be a writer. So, I screwed up my courage and started to write.
You know what happened? Slowly, so slowly I barely noticed, I stopped reading very many books just for sheer joy. (Even procrastinating from my own writing I didn’t read—I cleaned the bathroom.) My reading material was reduced to books by Donald Maas or Debra Dixon. I did get to read wonderful stories by critique partners, but the point wasn’t to savor them, the point was to hand out opinions so I could get opinions on my work handed back to me. It was a very rare Susan Elizabeth Phillips or Lisa Kleypas that crossed my eyes. (Crossed my eyes??)
Excuses? I had a million of ‘em:
1) I don’t have time to waste reading, I need to write.
2) I can only read when I go to bed at night and I fall asleep so fast it isn’t worth it.
3) I can’t read other writers or it a) depresses me because they’re so good or b) depresses me because they’re so bad and they’re published anyway
4) I can’t read because I’m always in edit mode and I find all the mistakes and it’s no fun.
Etcetera. I was reading only three or four books a year and not seeing how much I missed the ones I wasn’t reading. Until, one day, I realized how envious I was of the question: “Who is your favorite romance hero—the one permanently on your keeper shelf?” and I had no answer except Mike Mulligan (who had a steam shovel named MaryAnn). And, thank the Lord for him, but I needed to get with the program.
The point of this is that I’ve learned there IS no excuse to stop reading if you’re a writer. I’ve recently started love affairs with every writer I can find in my genre and am working hard to learn what my (I hope) future fans love. I’m also reading any other genre that looks interesting. It’s very empowering. And it’s FUN! (Note: here’s where the head-banging, eye-rolling thing happens.) And, wait for it…it’s not just fun, it’s necessary.
You can’t write if you don’t know what’s out there. You have to read in your genre—no arguments. You will improve, you’ll be reassured, you’ll be more creative.
Even more important: you can’t write well, if you don’t read widely. Romance, like all genre fiction, has its tropes, it’s clichés if you will. Think steely blue eyes, chiseled jaws, and rock hard pecs. Other genres—sci fi, literary, women’s fiction, Little Golden Books —have their vocabularies too. Read them all, learn from them all. Be the writer who “brings it all” to your work.
And that’s the ‘duh.’ I don’t know how I came to the conclusion that I didn’t have time for fun reading. I’ve learned more in the past six months by reading for pleasure than from fifteen chapters of Writing the Breakout Novel.
So, if you aren’t taking time to read very much anymore, consider this an invitation to re-start. If you are, you’re well ahead of me and more power to you—I’m on my way to catching up.
Right after I finish The Color Kittens.