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 clich├ęs 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.

Liz Selvig


Stacy Monson said...

I LOVE Golden Books, Liz. Thanks for the reminder. And maybe I'll see if I can't find some Trixie Belden books out there in the world (mine and my sister's fell apart from constant reading) to remind me of simpler days when I fell in love with having adventures with a BFF.

Nice blog. And thanks for a few giggles along the way.

LizbethSelvig said...

Hi Stacy!
Trixie! My cousins all read Trixie Belden books and I always thought she should get together with Alec Ramsay, the owner of the Black Stallion. Now there's an idea for fanfic ...
Thanks so much for stopping by!

Lynda Bailey said...

Wonderful post. I have a couple of LGB on my shelf, too. Thanks for the reminder to go back and read 'em.

I'm kinda the opposite of you. I buy books on writing, but never really read them. Books for pleasure? Oh, yeah. I have two going right now. One's a hard copy that's sitting on the back of my toilet. (No lie. That's when I read it. LOL) And the other one's on my e-reader for when I'm doing my cardio at the gym. And I only read it when at the gym - which motivates me to get to the gym, let me tell ya!
Have a great Easter weekend, my Unsinkable sista!
Big love!

Mary Strand said...

Great blog, Liz! It's very easy to NOT read as much as one would like or should. Too many excuses! Too much Sudoku to play! lol. But now you have shamed me -- to the extent such a feat is possible; heh heh -- and I'll try to start reading a new book tonight. Probably not a Little Golden Book, however. :-)

Boone Brux said...

The Color Kittens!!! I never knew the name but I used to read that one at my grandmother's house. I love Golden Books and completely understand your squeal. Great blog. Ahh, it brings back memories. What a great way to start my day. Golden Books, not just for breakfast anymore.

LizbethSelvig said...

Lynda, sista! I have started listening to audio books (since I don't yet have an e-reader, despite getting to try yours for a night) and I've found that I can even run to Susan Elizabeth Phillips :-) That definitely doesn't preclude reading in the loo, however. Maybe TMI but you can sit there a long time before somebody wonders if you're okay! Thanks for stopping by lovie!!

LizbethSelvig said...

Hey Mar!
No, I would never try to shame you out of Sudoku, Guitar lessons, Basketball OR writing--you really are busier than busy. But, yes, read a new book. And you're forgiven if its not a Little Golden Book :-)

LizbethSelvig said...

You brighten my day too! Not just for breakfast any more -- hahaha! But, hey, it wouldn't be any worse than reading cereal boxes would it? Glad you grew up with The Color Kittens too. I love that book. "There were all the colors in the world and the Color Kittens had made them." Awwww.

Tam Linsey said...

Golden Books! What wonderful memories! And what a wonderful post! Thanks for reminding all of us, Liz. It can be hard to justify reading when the toilet needs scrubbed and you've already spent five hours writing (which I generally love, so it doesn't feel like work.) I read on the treadmill at the gym, so I at least feel like I'm doing double duty while reading. But sometimes just curling up on the sofa is a necessary break.

LizbethSelvig said...

Hey Tami,
I'm learning to take the time whenever I can get it -- treadmill, bathroom, at night, in the car. I think I've finally convinced myself it isn't wasted time. But it's definitely hard!
Congrats on all your accomplishments with your book -- I have a feeling I'll be reading yours on the treadmill soon!!

Jody said...

Great blog! I remember reading the Golden Books. Can't remember any specific ones, but I read many of them in my childhood. It's funny how you talk about getting back into reading because that's exactly what I recently have done. I read at night though, driving my husband crazy because of the light. Yeah, I have a little reader light but I like the big light. ;^) Glad you found the book you wanted and a few others.

Ellen said...

I often wonder if becoming a writer hasn't made me a more demanding reader. More than just a lack of time, I find I just don't enjoy recent fiction as much as I used to. Or perhaps the style of what's being published has changed. At any rate, I've returned to more classic tales. Not necessarily LGB, but fiction from the fifties or earlier.

LizbethSelvig said...

Hey Jods!
I'm really lucky because my hubby can and will sleep through nearly anything including the light. I hold my book with one hand and rub the top of his head with the other. He doesn't complain about a thing - lol. Good on you for starting to read--it's hard to get back into the habit, but reading at night is exactly how I started. Thanks for coming!!

LizbethSelvig said...

Hey Ellen,
I kind of understand what you mean. I grew up with LaVyrle and love the lush, lyrical writing (as you well know). I'm sometimes disappointed at the brevity of the stories nowadays. I can see why you'd love the older stuff, though. In a way that's reading your genre--at least time period-wise!
You know I always love your insight! Thanks!

Morgan O'Reilly said...

Hurray for reading!! It is hard to let go of the internal editor at times, but I find that's what helps me learn what NOT to do in a book. Also, by reading you learn a whole lot without really working at it. Grammar lessons are reinforced. Pacing, cadence, plot, settings, psychology... all these things seep in while we're enjoying a good story.

How else are you going to know what readers want these days? Writing like LaVyrle, Kathleen Woodiwiss or Babara Cartland won't cut it these days. Head hopping is no longer allowed. People want fast, easy reads. Love the classics, but get with it on current style.

I've been inspired many times to write a "different" character by reading one in someone else's book. They encourage me to stretch beyond my comfort zone.

Yes! I think writers should read. I'm on track to read 200 books this year. I'm working on #77 right now. And before you all hiss at me, I'm empty nesting, so I've got the time. Didn't always have it, and boy do I love the luxury!

Great blog!!

Barbara Longley said...

I read at least a book a week, and sometimes more.

LizbethSelvig said...

Morgan and Barb,
Indeed you two are my inspirations for this revitalization in my reading life. I doubt I'll ever reach the 200 book mark (bookmark :-) but I will definitely shoot for one a week. Maybe if I quit sewing -- or playing FB games?
You guys rock!

Tiffinie Helmer said...

Great post, Liz! When I get buried with the writing and all I seem top write is crap, I turn to reading. Reading either reinforces that I'm a great writer, because there are some badly written books out there, or the story will make me fall in love with writing again, because the book is so good.

LizbethSelvig said...

You said it perfectly! I just can never forget that I wanted to write because I fell in love with good writing! Thanks for a wonderful insight!

Laura Breck said...

Oh, yes. My old Golden books are in an airtight container in the garage along with other relics of my youth.

Great post, Liz!

LizbethSelvig said...

Thanks Laura! A safe place for Golden Books is very good. I'm hoping for grandkids to bequeath my collection to!

Alison H. said...

WONDERFUL post!! I have boxes of fabulous childrens' books in my basement. I bought my daughter copies of all my childhood favorites and quickly came to love her favorites, too.

I've also recommitted to reading for pleasure. I still feel a little guilty, and it's hard not to pick out mistakes, but the rewards are well worth it.

LizbethSelvig said...

Hi Alison!
It sounds like you and I share all of that in common! I have all my kids' books on shelves and I still love to pull them out and remember the hours reading to them!
Thanks so much for coming by!

SlingWords aka Joan Reeves said...

Oh! I love Little Golden Books. Still have a cupboard full from when the kids were little. Now I read them to their kids. A couple of them are from when my husband was a toddler.

Lynn Lovegreen said...

I loved LGB and al the others you mentioned. And don't get me started on the Nancy Drew books and the SE Hinton and Judy Blume and all the others that kept me reading until I got to the "adult" ones like Jane Austen.... Maybe you're right; each of us has to rediscover what got us reading in the first place. And thanks for reminding us that we need to keep reading even when life threatens to take that time away.

Anonymous said...

Sigh, Little Golden Books, what a memory. Thank you, for taking me back there to the first books I treasured and reminding me of the books I need to read to make treasure of.

Ana Morgan said...

You are right, Liz. I don't read enough for the same wrong reason: too tired, should be writing, don't want to know how bad I am. Yet I've always loved a good story, from Mike and MaryAnn to Dorothy and Toto, to Claire and Jaime.

Amy said...

You are amazing, girlfriend! I used to read a book in about two weeks, since i started writing my own i am reading about a sentence a day...hoping to finish my "for fun" read by 2013. thanks for remining us how important it is to feed the first love....reading!

Kathleen Eagle said...

How do I love Little Golden Books? Let me count the ways. First, tis the season for Great Grandpa Bunny Bunny. I haven't seen that one in a while, so, Liz, if you see it, snap it up for me. I'll pay double. My favorite LGB is The Pokey Little Puppy. I've bought that one many times. My little sister used to make me read that one to her over and over again. Those books bring back golden memories. Thanks for reminding me. I need a new copy of TPLP.

Nan Dixon said...

What a great post! Of course - my favorite books were the Jungle Books - by Kipling. Who doesn't love a mongoose that keeps a family safe?

I unfortunately read too much without enough analysis. I try to anylze the GCM and then I find myself lost in the story. But I d get a ton of books read!

DeNise said...

Great post, Liz. Thanks