Most serious writers have joined a writing group at some time, meeting on-line or face-to-face. But have you ever thought of forming a book reading group - to improve your story writing skills?
It's another thing entirely.
A book reading club will not only open your eyes to what your fellow writers think about your work. More usefully, it will show you what your readers are looking for! Novelist Anna Castle tells us how to do it.
It’s a familiar lament: writers don’t read enough. I can’t even enjoy mysteries - once my favorite genre - the way I did before I started writing them. The parallel advice is equally familiar: writers must read widely across genres and deeply within their own. Besides, isn’t a love of reading what made us start writing in the first place?
I tried to recapture the magic by joining a mystery book club, but found the comments of the other members shallow and/or confusing. Those non-writers couldn’t tell me why they liked what they liked or why they sometimes read the last chapter first. (Shocking!)
The solution is obvious: form a book club for writers. You can rediscover the fun of reading fiction while improving your writing craft.
Here’s how to get started.
1. Create a small pool
You want members who write what you write, generally speaking. All genres have conventions, aka reader expectations, even literary fiction. You’ll explore genre-specific topics like the sexual tension in a romance or red herrings in a mystery. The ideal group will include members who write in different sub-genres. Why? I explain that in the next section.
The club should have between four and eight members. Fewer and you feel a bit forlorn; more and you break into sub-groups. Whether they’re published or unpublished writers doesn’t matter, but you do want people who are serious about writing and finishing works of fiction.
How do you fill your roster? Try Meetup.com. Ask prospective members to send you a link to their book or some sample pages to make sure they’re legit. Or an ad or news item in your local newspaper should bring in members.
2. Cast a wide net
Read everything from psycho-killer thrillers to craft cozies. (Substitute your genre’s equivalent.) You’ll learn something from each one, especially with a passionate advocate in the group. Take turns choosing next month’s book or story and make an effort to climb out of your reading ruts.
It may surprise you to discover how some conventions merge from sweet into salty or from silly into satanic. Debating the limits of gore, sex, humor, polemics, fantasy, or soliloquy will help you understand who your readers are and why they like what they like. More importantly, it will help you understand why you write what you write. And how to write it better.
This is the very best part about analyzing books or stories with other writers. It’s easy to dismiss genres we don’t like as trivial or low-brow, until you’re drawn into a discussion with a person you respect who really loves the stuff.
By noting what your fellow readers enjoy or hate in a story you’ll gain a wealth of tips for writing your own story in a way that will engage the reader.
3. Don’t dish
OK, you can dish - a little. We’re only human. But the purpose of the club is not to trash books or stories by people you disdain; it’s to develop your critical faculty and become a better writer. That may have the pleasant side effect of making you a nicer person at writers’ conferences - a result not to be sneered at.
We have a rule in my own group of not reading books by friends or members of local writers’ groups, for two reasons: first, to avoid the pitfall of personality, and second, to allow us to express our opinions without constraint.
Famous Local Author may be a wonderful person who tirelessly serves the whole writing community, yet you may have legitimate issues with her antiquated ideas about pace. Overwrought by double macchiatos, you may say things that could be hurtful if carried back to her, as they inevitably will be.
So don’t read Famous Local Author’s books in your club. Read the similar books of a stranger to address those pacing problems.
4. Establish ground rules
You want these so you can break up heated digressions by saying, “Wait! Wait! We’re supposed to be talking about the book!” Rules give you something to turn to quickly before everyone goes back to arguing about Famous Local Author’s recent divorce.
Of course, if everyone in your group is a fellow writer and you’ve agreed to read each others’ books, you must have rules. But you really need just three: be nice, be candid, be constructive!
Try to get your club to focus on the fundamental elements of fiction: character, plot, setting, and language. Given the conventions of the sub-genre, how did the writer handle these components? What worked? What didn’t? Why or why not? Be as specific as you can.
Be polite. Try to go around the circle once, giving each person a chance to deliver their comments uninterrupted, before breaking into a free-for-all. This is nearly impossible, but writers need goals, right? At least give the slow talkers some extra room. They might well have the key to unlock your current block and they’ll stop coming if they never get to talk.
5. Keep it rolling
Here a few more tips for success from my own experience:
- Meet in some neutral place: a coffee shop, quiet bar, or cheap restaurant where they don’t mind lingerers. You’ll want about 2 hours and you have to be able to hear each other. Meeting in people’s houses gets to be a burden. You have to clean and fix food, and evict your co-habitants. We’re writers, remember? Who’s going to do that cleaning?
- Make sure you’re all on the same page with respect to alcohol, if that’s going to be part of the mix. Sober people find drunk people very boring and drinkers consider teetotalers to be wet blankets.
- You need an organizer and a backup. Do once-weekly reminders. Be aware that some group members may be social media dinosaurs and keep communications simple. Email is probably best.
- Pick a regular meeting time. Once a month is plenty. Once you succeed in negotiating a schedule, write it in stone. Trying to re-arrange meetings to accommodate special cases will derail your group.
- You may have to reserve your meeting place. My local coffee shop has a room for such things, but you have to book it months ahead.
- Keep the numbers up.
Don’t wait too long to recruit a new member after someone drops out.
But don’t stress if you’re down to just two for a time, doggedly meeting
every month, while Jane spends a summer abroad and Harry gets through
that consulting gig. They’ll be grateful you kept the group alive when
they come back. And so will you.
And approach it both as a reader and a writer. Ask yourself: as a reader, what do I like or dislike about this? And as an author, how would I have written it? You’ll soon discover that it doesn’t matter what you, the author, were trying to achieve. It’s what the reader perceives that matters.
A book reading club can open your eyes to what your readers are looking for!
What has been your own experience of reading - or writing - groups? Have they helped the development of your writing skills? Or hindered it? What are the do's and don'ts of success when commenting on other peoples' stories - or when exposing your own work? Share your thoughts in a comment below. Every comment gets a fast, thoughtful response!
Anna Castle writes the Francis Bacon mysteries and the Lost Hat, Texas mysteries. She’s earned a series of degrees - BA Classics, MS Computer Science, and Ph.D Linguistics - and has had a corresponding series of careers - waitressing, software engineering, assistant professor, and archivist.
Writing fiction combines her lifelong love of stories and learning. Find out more at www.annacastle.com.
Posted by Anna Castle. Posted In : Guest Posts