Have you ever met a writer who doesn’t get excited talking about books? Anyone who knows me will know that it’s a subject I’m passionate about, and there’s nothing I like more than dissecting a story with friends, listening to their recommendations, and sharing my own. So it was a no-brainer to find a book club near me. I’ve been a member for 5 years, and each month we read and review a book which the library selects for us and supplies.
I love the thrill of receiving a book which I haven’t chosen, I look forward to our meetings and debates, and I’ve really enjoyed making new friends who share my passion for reading. But what I never expected was how much going to book club would benefit me as a writer.
Here’s what I've learned:
1. It encourages me to read more broadly:
Ok, that’s obvious, but no one has been more surprised than me at how much enjoyment this can bring! Granted, there have been books which I’ve gritted my teeth to get through, but by pushing myself out of my comfort zone I’ve discovered really talented authors whose books I never would have picked up if they hadn’t been on the reading group list.
It’s also clarified in my mind why I dislike certain genres, and why I adore women’s fiction and romance.As a writer, broadening your literary horizons can only be a good thing.
I believe it keeps your writing fresh, and it’s pushed me to read more books each month as I try to fit in the book club book on top of my usual reading.
2. People rarely have the same reaction to a book:
There are usually around a dozen of us at each meeting, and I’m fascinated by how varied our reactions are to the same book. There’s usually one person who hated it, two or more who tried it and gave up within the first chapter, and at least three who loved it with a passion. It’s fascinating to hear all the different views and interpretations. And when we unanimously enjoy a book it’s a rare thing.What does this teach me as a writer?
It’s impossible to please everyone all of the time, so write to please yourself. Write the story you want to read with characters you care about.
Which leads me onto the next point…
When we discuss a book we talk about the characters as if they’re real people. We judge them, we admire or pity or loathe them – we often respond to them in an emotional way. But if that emotional connection isn’t there, it follows that we don’t enjoy the book – or even stop reading. “I just didn’t connect with him/her…” is something I often hear at book club meetings.
As writers, we can get caught up in our fictional worlds and settings, and it’s easy to become tangled up in plot twists and complexities, but it’s worth remembering that what readers love is a character they can identify with or who intrigues them and they feel compelled to try and understand (Note: characters don’t have to be likeable, morally flawless or heroic to do this).
If you focus on your characters, they will drive the story and carry readers along with them, and exceptionally well-drawn characters will stay in readers’ minds long after they’ve forgotten the story.
There are so many books I feel I ought to have read or am curious to read, and of course I don't need to belong to a book club to do this. But discussing the classics at book club is more interesting than a solitary read because other people’s interpretations add to my own.
It’s also interesting to reread the classics I read as a teenager with an adult’s perspective. My reactions can be extremely different – but then, I’m a different person now.
Classics are the foundations of today’s writing, and it’s interesting to analyse them and understand why they've stood the test of time.
Despite all the pressure on writers to hook readers with the first line, there are a lot of books out there which haven’t immediately grabbed me (I know – this is so subjective). But what I’ve learned is that sometimes a story or its characters can grow on me. They may not start with a bang, but by midway through the story I’m totally invested in them. As a result, I’m more aware of the type of openings which hook me and those which don’t. In fact, the less effective the opening, the more obvious it is what doesn’t work for me.
Readers are the people we write for, and if you want to understand them, there’s no better place to learn than a book club.
Have you ever belonged to a book club? I’d love to hear about your experiences…
PS: My local library supplies book groups with free books each month. If you’re thinking of setting up a book group, it might be worth looking into this kind of service. The benefits for you are obvious (free books!) and you’ll also be supporting your local library. I've previously blogged about libraries here.