Thursday, April 24, 2014

7 Tips for Writing Book Club Fiction

When Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees was released in 2002, it met with encouraging yet modest sales. It was only after book clubs started discovering it and recommending it word-of-mouth, over the course of the following year, that it accumulated the kind of readership that would push it onto the New York Times bestseller list, where it stayed for two-and-a-half years.

The book club craze isn’t over—in fact, it’s in a boom. The New York Times recently estimated that five million Americans belong to book clubs. Publishers understand the boon that the book club movement represents, and will often give books designed to meet this market additional support at the publisher’s website. These titles often have staying power. I just heard of a club reading The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, which also came out in 2002. For the math-impaired, that’s twelve years ago. Especially with book club fiction, a title need not be out three months then die a quiet death as so many cynics attest.

This post is for authors who might like a piece of that action.

Book club members get creative about reading!
This one recreated Penelope Sparrow's fall onto
the baker's car in The Art of Falling

As someone who has led four different book clubs, participated in many more, and authored a novel marketed as book club fiction, I have some considerations you might want to take into account.

1. Join a book club. Not every book makes a great book club pick, and your club’s trial-and-error will give you a handle on that. Meanwhile you’ll learn to appreciate getting to know people through books, gain ease in entertaining differing opinions, and get a handle on what drives a great discussion.

2. Write about an issue that matters deeply to you. I remember one club that chose to read an early Lisa Scottoline mystery. By the time the club met we could recall not one of the character names. Our discussion lasted three minutes—a quick, “when did you figure out the murderer?— before we moved to food and wine. Compare that to another mystery, Elizabeth George’s Deception on His Mind, which incorporates themes of immigration (Pakistanis in England), arranged marriage, and necessary secrecy. George's passion for these issues gives clubs a lot to talk about.

3. Orchestrate your character set around that issue. While my debut, The Art of Falling, is a widely relatable tale about a woman seeking her authentic creative contribution in the world, it does so through the lens of what we can and can’t change about the talents, dispositions, and bodies we were born with. The many ways my characters relate to their bodies and to food pave the way for revelatory discussion.

4. Don’t spoon-feed the reader. Give clues about character motivation and let your readers figure it out. One of the surprises for book clubs when I talk to them is how often I’ll answer a question with, “Maybe she just didn’t know that…” They laugh and say, “You’re the author. Don’t you know?” Heck—I don’t know my own motivation at times! One of the great joys of art is interpretation. Don’t rob your readers of this opportunity to enter into and own your story.

5. Don’t tie up all the loose threads in your ending. A favorite book club question is, “Where do you see these characters another five years down the road?” If you’ve included an epilogue that told them, you’ve taken away another chance for them to co-create your story. Instead, think of your ending as a way to create emotional resonance while addressing the main story question.

Here a book club member created a display
about the fastnachts featured in The Art of Falling

6. Add discussion questions. If your publisher doesn’t plan to put the questions in the back of the book, there’s no reason you can’t put them on your website. My publisher has a book club site that includes a downloadable discussion guide, recipes, and food and drink pairings. You could do this too.

7. Devote a page at your author site to book club interaction. This shows that you are devoted to your book club readers. Here’s mine. Depending on your book, yours could include bonus discussion questions, a video, recipes, maps, photos, or related articles and facts. Book clubs often like to add a creative flair to their treatment of your book, so why not encourage it by asking them to send photos? Invite book clubs to interact with you and give a contact link so you can set up in-person or Skype visits. If you can find out the members’ names in advance, you can mail the organizer personalized and signed custom bookplates as a lovely and much appreciated way to thank them for choosing your book.

Book clubs are comprised of avid readers who recommend their favorites to other clubs. Don’t overlook this important market.

Have you met with book clubs, or been in a book club chat with a guest author? What was your favorite part of that interaction?

Click here to read more about the difference between book club fiction, women's fiction, and literary fiction.


Kathryn Craft
is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service, and the author of The Art of Falling, a novel by Sourcebooks. Her monthly series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the Storm. Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

29 comments :

  1. Looks like they had lots of fun!

    Kathryn, did you write your discussion questions at the back of your book? Or was it a bit of a brainstorming session with your publisher? They are really good questions. Lots of, ahem, food for thought.

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  2. Haha—appreciated the pun, Elle. ;) Yes, I wrote them, thanks. My publisher did give me guidelines for constructing them, but honestly, I'd wanted to discuss this story with readers for so many years that when they said it was time to write up the questions I sat down and typed up 22 before thinking I'd better read those guidelines! At which time I read, saw that I was on the right track, and typed up several more.

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  3. I hit a road block at #1: to paraphrase an idol of mine, I'd never belong to a club that would have me as member. Oh, and are those donuts in that display? Hmmm, let me rethink that road block.

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    1. At the end of a long day, the promise of food and drink adds much to one's desire for a book club experience!

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  4. The first stumbling block for me is writing a book club type of book. I don't. Most clubs, I've noticed, have more literary leanings in their choices, and I am strictly a genre reader and writer with no intention of changing either. As far as joining a book club, I'd have to read the recommended book, and as a writer, my reading time centers on the type of books I write and supporting those who write them. I certainly don't diss the clubs, and it'd be great to have one of my books chosen, but I have as much chance of that as one of my books being an Oprah choice. Be nice though. Did love The Secret Life of Bees. The location was where I live, so that was fun too.

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    1. True enough—not all books are meant to inspire deep thought. We need our distractions and entertainment as well!

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    2. On the other hand, Kathryn, there's no reason why genre fiction can't inspire deep thought. Mine address important issues, but they still wouldn't fall into book club categories.

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    3. Okay, now I'm confused! Why not? If it can inspire deep thought, and you can create questions that inspire discussion surrounding those thoughts, why not put those questions on your website and suggest the read to a few clubs? As I pointed out in the post, using Elizabeth George as an example, there is no reason to discount genre fiction as a book club read if it incorporates issued that can be discussed. As a matter of fact I believe Scottoline has moved in that direction herself.

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    4. Maybe because I also step over boundaries like language and sex not quite behind closed doors that book club readers prefer not to deal with. I could be wrong.

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  5. I did provide questions for each book in my Mythikas Series.I've had several requests for "what happens next" to my girls. I've always heard a great book makes people wonder what happens to the characters after the last chapter.

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    1. I prefer books in which the ends are not tied too tight for that very reason, Diana. It's fun if people get the same sense of how a book ends, even if they see it playing out in different ways. Makes it feel like the story isn't over, and like the characters are still living on.

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  6. I joined a book club up here after I was approached (at a conference somewhere else) and asked if I'd speak to the group about being an author--not my books in particular. One of the members encouraged me to join the group (by repeating many times that they had a GREAT breakfast at their meetings). I've been with them going on 3 years now. Out of all the books they've chosen, I've enjoyed maybe three (and one of those was a suggestion I'd been making since the book came out, but they have to wait until there are enough library copies available for loan, which is usually a year+ beyond publication). It was genre fiction, but almost everything else is either "literary" or nonfiction. It has forced me to read outside my comfort-enjoyment zone, but what I write isn't likely to be considered book club fodder anywhere, and I can't imagine writing that kind of book. I've looked at the other 2 library book club groups, and based on their reading lists, I've never been tempted to join. And since this is a library-based group, they don't buy my books. I donate copies to the library, so if they're going to read them, they check them out. In fact I had one member approach me with a huge grin saying she was finally going to read one of my books because she found it at a used book sale somewhere.

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    1. Thanks for sharing that story, Terry. We've read some books that challenged me in the likability department as well, but thanks to input from others, I always come away from the meeting with a deeper appreciation of what the author able to accomplish. I was that way with the film Black Swan—didn't really "like" it, but my son brought up so many interesting points on our twenty-minute walk home that we talked about it the whole way!

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    2. Some of the discussions have been interesting -- usually the non-fiction or literary ones get scores at the far ends of the spectrum; people either like it or didn't. I enjoy listening to find out how 'readers' see books, since as a writer, I'm reading things from an entirely different vantage point. Interestingly enough, the one book that scored top marks across the board was the genre fiction one we read last month--Suspect, by Robert Crais.

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  7. Excellent advice for when I get back to writing my book - busy writing mystery games at the moment!

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  8. Very helpful post, Kathryn. You have been so gracious to share all the insights you have gained in the past couple of years of getting your book under contract and then released. In today's post I especially liked:
    "One of the great joys of art is interpretation. Don’t rob your readers of this opportunity to enter into and own your story."

    I tweeted that as a quote, but had to modify it just a bit to get it and your Twitter handle in under 140 characters. (smile)

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    1. Thanks so much for tweeting that, Maryann! Modification for length forgiven. ;)

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  9. Hi Kathryn! Thanks for this post - I loved the book clubs I've been a part of in the past. So... do you think there's a place at the book club table for fantasy and science fiction? Asking for a friend.

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    1. ps - that's me, Fran. Blogger's doing some strange login things...

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    2. Hi Fran! My guess is there are entire book clubs devoted to to this. My club reads widely and we chose a SF one time just to push ourselves out of our comfort zone. Also see my comment to Larry, below. Thanks for stopping in!

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  10. From the comments, it seems you certainly hit some concordant notes with your post, Kathryn. I think I do write club-friendly, thought-provoking novels, perhaps none more so than my math, mentoring, and mystery novel recently released (The Four-Color Puzzle) fraught with issues of appropriate and inappropriate relationships.

    The bigger dilemma for many indie authors is not how to write for the book club audience but how to reach them. Our books can be all but invisible as is; being discoverable by that niche of readers is extremely difficult. Over the years, only once has one of my books has been picked up by a club. (They purchased 10 copies but the leader trashed it in their newsletter. Too bad.)

    How do independents find book clubs and come to their attention?

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    1. Larry, one way is to purchase marketing through M.J. Rose's Author Buzz—their Book Clubbing package gets your advertorial in front of the right eyes. It's pricey, though, so be forewarned.

      Another idea: There are many book clubs are on MeetUp.com, and this is something Fran's friend might consider as well. You can search "book clubs" in your geographic area or genre, hunt down the contact person, and make your pitch.

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  11. These are great ideas, coming from a reader that is in a book club. As our club is a little older, we read a lot of books from our era, in fact currently reading Strange Birth by Julian David Stone, juliandavidstoen.com is his site. This book is set in 1950's NY and about TV and how it was really starting to boom. It's great for us as well all can relate to that time.

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    1. Fran warned us that OpenID was doing strange things today—I'd say so! Anyway, thrilled to have a comment from a book club pro—thanks for stopping by!

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  12. What a great post! Fantastic info, Kathryn.

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  13. Fantastic post Kathryn! And one that I hope inspires folks that they can start their own book club -I did with 6 ladies. I had never been in one and we just made it up and it works for us. And we had out first visiting author at our club last night. Yes, it was YOU, Kathryn Craft of The Art of Falling. And leaving so many open-ended questions in this book did indeed inspire much feisty debate over issues in the book - and the ending. And the discussion guide is key in the back of books as this is what we use to tailor our book club discussion - and those questions often lead to other questions raised. Thanks for coming to our book club - but gee, wish I'd thought to do some cool displays like you've had at other events. Love the falling Penelope!

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    1. But Donna, seriously, you were creative with all that great food! Thanks for having me. And I cannot argue with you—that was some impassioned debating! Nothing more glorious for an author than to see someone argue on behalf of a character she created. It was great fun!!

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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