Monday, 13 February 2017

How Book Club Helped My Writing by Sophie Claire

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…

3. Characters are everything:

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.

4. It allows me to read the classics I missed:

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

5. I’ve learned to be patient and persevere with a slow start:

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.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Getting it Done and Dusted by Cheryl Lang

I’ve finished my book, Lemongrass, a contemporary novel of approximately 85,000 words, set partly among the Greek Islands. I’ve read through and altered, deleted and added words and sentences I think might improve things. All this has been directly on the computer. Now I’m printing it out and going through it again. So why is it that reading the printed word throws up so many more anomalies?

I’m finding silly sentences like this: ‘The wind was stronger by the lighthouse and just offshore cormorants were drying their outspread wings on some rocks.’ It gave me a laugh, imagining the cormorants detaching their wings and putting them on the rocks to dry! There has to be some fun in the process. I have changed it now.

I also find that I have a bad habit of repeating a word, either in the same sentence or close by. The trouble is, I don’t always pick it up.

I’m also, hopefully, aware of continuity. It’s a bit disconcerting when you get halfway through the story and wonder if you’ve changed a character’s name or given too much information in one go.

Once I’ve been through the printed version, I’ll transfer it all to my kindle and read it on that for a different perspective. I hope to pick up any inconsistencies at this time and check the timeline is tenable. At this stage I hope to have a viable story.

And oh, the doubts! Is my male character strong enough? Likeable? Is the heroine's story interesting? Is the whole thing workable? Have I given enough background for the pair? Too much? Too little? Have I trickled it through the story and not as an information dump? It’s her story, told from her point of view, but should I make it dual points of view?

Doing the research is something I really enjoy. I'm drawn to exotic locations and love finding out facts relating to the area I want to write about. That usually leads me down further, diverse paths, but I have to be careful to only pick out details which are relevant to the novel I'm writing. There is so much information out there. I love it when I have a sudden question, like, where would I be able to dock a super yacht in the Mediterranean? Somewhere that has depth of water, sea room - a marina perhaps? Or a harbour big enough and with facilities. If I dig deep enough I usually find the answers I want.

Photos are particularly useful. When you’ve never visited a place and want to set a scene there, there are endless sources for photos and videos to help you out. However, travelling to a location is far better, as long as you make notes.

So, for my next novel, I’ll really need to visit Malaysia, or maybe, Vietnam or Mauritius! The list goes on.