Saturday 17 April 2021

In praise of book clubs by Tracy Darnton

I’m in a zoom book club with some other writer friends. We started when general events were getting us down and some of us (me!) were struggling to concentrate enough to read, what with one thing and another. Eight months in and it’s been a massive motivator in getting me to read more books. We alternate YA and MG, and I’ve loved our discussions. 

It’s a safe space where we can share our reactions to the books we’ve read – whether we’ve loved them or truly don’t see what all the fuss was about. It gets us reading slightly outside our age group or genres, reading books we wouldn’t necessarily have picked off the shelf ourselves.

And of course we’re reading as writers too. We ask ourselves questions to help our own writing – did we care about the characters? Has an important issue been dealt with responsibly? Successful prologues, epilogues? Was the contract set up with the reader at the beginning of the book fulfilled? And my own particular geeky interest is how the author has chosen to end the book – all tied up in a bow – or more nuanced and ambiguous? Have we felt short-changed by a book which has a sequel, or are we desperate to read on?

We look at the craft and how the writer has sneaked in pesky back story, avoided info dumps, or achieved authentic dialogue. We also think about the cover, the blurb, prize lists. Which of us read a verse novel differently from prose – what even is a verse novel…?

And the question I’ve found most interesting – maybe because I’m just editing my next thriller – is if you were the editor on this, what would you have done differently? In a bookish ‘Sliding Doors’ scenario, I’ve loved hearing what each of us would have chosen to do, how the book in our hands could have turned out in a myriad of contrasting editions.

As you’ve seen, we’re not short on opinions, or questions. But the ones provided by authors can be a good jumping off point to get the discussion going.

I find writing book club discussion questions for my own books a useful part of the development of the book. Does anyone else find that? It helps me to crystallise what the book is about, to think about the balance between characters and to focus on aspects of interest to my readers, who are at the stage of life where they are asking questions about self and society.

So here are the discussion questions at the back of my latest, The Rules, about a girl on the run from her prepper dad – and I think we’ve all learnt the answers in 2020/21 to questions 5 and 6 and had an opinion on question 13…

  1.  Amber says at the very end that she was the hero in this story. Do you agree?
  2. Did you like Amber at the beginning of the novel? If so, did you still like her at the end? Does it matter if a character is likeable or not? Can you still feel empathy for them?
  3. Why are characters like Will drawn to the Rules and to a character like Amber’s father?
  4. Could a society based on the Rules ever succeed?
  5. Do you think that constantly dwelling on disaster could have a major emotional effect?
  6. Should we all be acquiring skills or kit for after a SHTF scenario

  7. Amber says her mum became a shadow. How did that happen?
  8. Do you believe that Amber can ever escape her upbringing?
  9. What are your thoughts about the way Josh lives his life? Is it by choice or circumstance?
  10. Do you think Josh felt used at the end? Will he and Amber see each other again?
  11. Did Amber take an active role in her dad’s death, or did she let it happen without trying hard enough to stop it? Does that alter your view of her guilt and responsibility?
  12. Look at the structure of the story: a present storyline mirroring the opening of the advent calendar with flashback scenarios based around the Rules. Why was it told in this way rather than chronologically?
  13. When is it OK to break rules? What about breaking the law – can it ever be justified? 

For the next thriller, excluding the ones which are major spoilers, so far I’ve got:

·         How are games used in the book?

·         Is everyone hiding their true selves?

·         Do the adults behave any better than their kids?

I’ll continue to add to the list as it goes through edits.

As a reader, I like having questions like this, though I appreciate they’re not to everyone’s liking. When I’ve just finished a book and have a burning desire to speak to someone else who’s read it but no one is available, a quick flick through the questions helps me gather my thoughts on the book.

So back to the book club. And the pleasure it’s given me through lockdown. I’ve certainly deepened my friendship with my fellow members. You get to know someone in how they react to a book. You want to share book recs that you know they’ll love to read and you trust their judgment in recommendations to you.

One day soon we hope to meet In Real Life again, and swap books, agree and disagree, and interject in person in a way we can’t on zoom. Maybe a sneaky hug or two. And definitely some cake.

Tracy Darnton is the author of YA thrillers, The Rules and The Truth About Lies. She loves a good book club.

You can follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton.


Penny Dolan said...

Tracy, your children's book club sounds such a very good & helpful idea that I admit to feeling slightly jealous.

It must be a great way of meeting friendly faces, as well as encouraging you all to take the time to study the books more deeply and in a professional way, beyond the publicity buzz. There aren't many opportunities for that sort of analysis within adult book group conversations.

Often I'll read such titles sppedily as an enjoyable bedtime (or insomniac) book, promising myself I'll read more analytically in the morning . . .

Savita Kalhan said...

I love the sound of your book club! And like Penny, I am also a little jealous of having a group to do the things I've been doing solo over lockdown - it would have been so much more fun to discuss YA and MG titles with other writers. And I don't ask myself half as many questions as I should about my WIP, so I will amend that. Thanks, Tracy, great post!

Tracy Darnton said...

Glad you both get where I'm coming from, Savita and Penny - I realised it sounded a bit like 'work' or a uni workshop but it's all run as a very frank discussion with lots of laughter.