Staying on Track

Many authors belong to a book group, for a number of reasons. One is a love for reading books, which often predates writing, but another is to listen to others’ reactions to a book that you all read. Emerging from the bubble of your take on a book can be an enlightening experience, sometimes a rude awakening. You want to know how different people felt, though, because a number of issues that are raised are germane to what you’re writing.

A common problem of a book discussion is wandering onto topics unrelated to the book at hand. Most people don’t understand how characters and themes are related, for one example. They only know whether they liked the main character. So once the motley assortment of opinions are raised, the talk may veer into an aspect that several people noticed, such as antisocial behavior. A book club member will discuss an example of an individual they know personally, often to highly humorous effect. That can lead to other personal stories.

Another common reason for drifting off the path is related to theme. A novel may cover a juvenile delinquent, say, and a member starts to discuss what they know about jails and recidivism (criminals returning to prison). That can lead to a form of competition about what members know about the jail experience, often engaged in by males in the group. Pretty soon ten minutes have gone by, and half of the group has their chin in their hand, bored by spouted knowledge they already basically knew.

As an author, you can research topics you don’t know, and you’ll find out much more accurate information that what someone recalls off the top of their head. What you can’t do is find out how others are reacting to a book if you’re not talking about the book. So it behooves you to keep the group trained on the main goal. 

The best way is to be prepared before the group meets. Draw up a list of questions about different aspects of the book. These lists are easy to find. You can look up, in the back of many books, the publisher’s suggested questions for book groups. You can look up online what other groups have asked about the book. Sparks Note and the like contain similar ideas. 

A group discussion is going to stray—that’s almost guaranteed. Yet you can cut it short, without being a jerk, by casually asking the next question on your list. It is likely that a bored member will respond with alacrity, bringing everyone back in line. Fewer ego rants = more provocative opinions for authors.

Exercise: You don’t have to be passive about creating lists. As you’re reading proposed questions, think about your reaction—and what you’d like to know about how others reacted. When you do that, you can tailor the list of questions to address what you’d like to know about issues related to your book.

“The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.” 

—Mark Twain

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.