Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Book Clubs: What to Ask Before You Say Yes

Let me start off by saying that I love being a guest author at book clubs. First, what makes a better party than a roomful of book lovers? Second, they've all read and loved my book, mostly. And last, there is always something yummy being served, usually chocolate and sometimes wine.

My first several experiences at book clubs were true love-fests and so much fun that I couldn't imagine anything that could sully the experience. I was wrong. Feel free to learn from my experiences.

While pressing toward the deadline on my second novel, I took time out of my writing day to attend a book club at a local church. I stepped out of my usual writing gear (exercise togs) and into street worthy clothes and stashed a box of my first book in the van, just in case the ladies needed copies for all of their friends.

I arrived in the lovely fellowship hall a little breathless and a bit anxious to get back to my writing—such is the tug between promotion and deadlines. The ladies, white-hairs all, moved with the unhurried grace of those who have long since stopped wearing a watch. They offered coffee and a slice of day-old white cake from the grocer. In the course of sweetening my coffee, more ladies sauntered in, curious about the newcomer.

“I’m the author of the book you read this month,” I said to satisfy their questions.

“Oh that, I don't read the books."

“No matter, I’m just glad you came.” (I’m not from Minnesota, but I am capable of being as nice as a Minnesotan but not a Canadian, even under great stress.)

As the ladies found their seats, I was but an eavesdropper on their conversations. Soon, I realized, I was the only one present who had read my book and wanted to talk about it. The meeting never convened in a conventional sense, so I waited the requisite hour and made my excuses.

You would think from that experience I would learn to ask if the group will read my book before accepting an invitation to attend a book club. I did not. I was too flattered to be invited to the oldest book club in Denver to even consider asking. 

I rehearsed my talk until I had it memorized before I drove 250 miles to spend the night in my hostess’ palatial home. After a lovely dinner at a French restaurant (yes, I was feeling the part of the celebrity), I watched television with my hostess. During a commercial, I asked, “The group sounds quite large. Will they break into smaller groups to discuss the book?”

The woman didn't look away from the Snugglie commercial. “Oh, we don’t need to do that. None of us have read the book.”

Ugh. “Ah,” I said, picking my words carefully. (I didn't want to give away my outlandish assumption that they had read my novel.) “Then I’ll just talk to them about how I came up with the idea and a little bit about the story.”

“Exactly. Then they'll know if they want to read it.”

Ohhhhh, my job was to sell my book to the book club, a very different task than what my prepared talk would accomplish. It was meant to provide background to the story and to fuel their questions. 

I excused myself from television watching to go to bed at 8:30 and rewrite my talk. 

The next day’s crowd was unprecedented. Not even our governor’s wife had attracted such a crowd for her children’s book. If I was going down in flames, I was happy to have a large crowd to cheer me on.

Happily, the talk went better than I could have hoped. The ladies proved a generous audience with easy laughs and applause. Not only that, they bought me out of books. All through the long drive home, I repeated and repeated the question I should have asked: Do the members of your book club read the selection before the meeting or after? Either answer is fine, but it helps to know ahead of time.

I highly recommend you ask the same question. There are as many different ways to share a love of books as there are book clubs.

I was the guest author at another book club in the home of a local woman. As the guests arrived, I was delighted to discover we had many common friends and acquaintances. After a lovely lunch, I sat in that special chair, just as Katy had talked about on Monday, and answered their many questions. I had them cowed into believing me to be a true wordsmith and creative genius. They were eating out of my hand, until…someone asked what I meant by a phrase I’d written in my first novel. 

“Huh?” I said, smartly.

“Let me read the passage to you,” and she did. “What does that mean, really?” The way she sharpened her words put me on the defensive and my brain froze.

“Read that line again, please.”

She complied.

My brain was a glacier, a very, very slow-moving glacier. “It’s been awhile since I wrote that. Can I get back to you?” I gathered her contact information, ran home, reread my own novel, and confidently answered her question.

Lessons learned: 1) Make sure everything you write makes sense, so you’ll be able to answer the tough questions, eventually. 2) Reread your older works now and again to keep them fresh in your mind. I never dreamed I would forget a word of my first novel, but when I was attending this gathering to talk about book #5, specifics of book #1 were a bit foggy.

If you read the comments on Monday, you may remember that an overzealous neighbor made a list of six negative criticisms of my first book and read through them all at one of my earliest book club appearances. I believe that asking an author to come to a book club without recompense (I’ve never been paid, but I've sold books) and to spend time away from her family and/or her writing time should be enough. An author shouldn't have to sit through a negative critique of her book. That’s just not polite, by any state’s standards. So I would also ask a potential host/hostess if the group critiques the book in front of the author. I know Susie Finkbeiner has been told to expect just that this coming spring. I’m sure they’ll all love her book (Paint Chips), but there’s always that one person who relishes finding a typo or a lapse in logic. Perhaps you think differently about this, and I would love to hear your comments.  I think.

Allow me to preach to the choir a bit here. Most book club attendees will be in complete awe of you. Whether you like it or not, they will consider you a celebrity of sorts. That means you should pass on the spinach salad before speaking, but more importantly, this is a time to check your ego at the door. When they tell you they loved your book, simply thank them. While sipping or munching, get to know your fellow book lovers. Ask the attendees questions about their work, their families, their dreams. Connect with your audience as book lovers and friends, even if that means recommending another author’s books. In short, grab this opportunity to serve and to encourage the folks who have come out to meet you.

Can you add questions to this list? What do you ask book clubs before you agree to attend their meeting? What books have you read with your book club lately that has spurred great conversation?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Tucking this all away and praying I'll be able to use this advice in the future.

~ Wendy

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

If you have book club questions at the back of your book or online, I think it's helpful to stick to those, if possible. Like having a cheat sheet that you probably know the answers to. You can provide them beforehand if they like. Of course, it doesn't stop someone from going off-topic, but the facilitator may agree to steer the conversation back to keep on track. Maybe??

Jennifer Major said...

About once or twice a month I have my picture alongside a column in the newspaper. That means at least the guy in the print department knows who I am. Fame, baby, insane levels of FAME!!!
I'm not in a book club, but if I were, I'd expect us to know the book before we took up our time and the writer's, to discuss it.
I'd ask how the idea came about. No, I did not say "abooot".
Why this genre? What is your favourite way of killing a bad guy?

Sharon K. Souza said...

Patti, your transparency is always so heartwarming. And hilarious at times. This post made me laugh and cringe. 250 miles? And no one had read the book? So glad you sold out of books. And I know you made fans. Not just because of your writing, but because of your sweet "realness."

Marian den Boer said...

I've been thinking about joining a book club. Didn't realize there was such a wide variety in that category.
Loved your post.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

You have given me some GREAT ideas. Thank you so much, Patti! I really like the last paragraph. I think that it's easy to get into the "me, me, me" mentality when people want to know so much about us. It is so great, however, to be a reader and have a real, human conversation with an author we admire. Kind of like what goes on around Novel Matters. Thank you all for that!

Megan Sayer said...

So is there an "ideal" type of book club for an author? Probably one where people have read the book. I'd like to know more about what "perfect" would look like. For an author, that is.

I cannot BELIEVE you had to drive 250 miles for people who hadn't read your book. Wow.

Patti Hill said...

Wendy: It's so good to see your sweet face at Novel Matters. Definitely learn from my mistakes!

Debbie: That's wise advice! If you don't have discussion questions in your book or on your web site (gasp!), definitely have a list of great questions prepared--that you know the answers to--and have them ready to email to the host or hostess of the book club.

Jennifer: Trust me, people look forward to reading your articles and hope to meet you. That's just how this work. Our readers make a connection with us--we shouldn't be surprised as we are barring our souls!--and like seeing us in our "real" lives. Your idea for preparing questions is ingenious. As for MY favorite way to kill a bad guy--potato salad left out in the hot sun. If he doesn't die, he'll wish he had.

Sharon: I should have made this a road trip with a friend. Will you be available for the next one? That route would take us over TWO 11,000+ ft. passes. I've run into snow in October and May--and all months in between. You have to be part Indiana Jones to be a writer in Colorado.

Marian: I've been in three different book clubs. Loved them all! And they were all so different in how they selected the books and discuss them. ALL of them read the book before the meeting.

Susie: I wish I could go back to the first days of my writing career. I've learned so much. I'm embarrassed that I considered myself God's gift to readers. I did. I really did. Picture me red faced.

Megan: I have a dream book club made up of writers who read to learn about the craft. I do read for pleasure, but it would be so much fun to dig into a story with other writers. Anyone?

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Goodness. Gracious!!! Oh, I'm cringing for you, and at the bad manners of people who'd invite you to go out of your way for them and then behave so appallingly! Oh dear. I'm not sure which is worse, the kangaroo-court critiquer or the old ladies who barely noticed your presence among them. At least the group in Denver were interested in you as an author and bought your books. Still - my heart would have plummeted too to hear no one had read the book.

Book club hell - who woulda thought.

I really love your final comments. And potato salad for killing a bad guy? You had me in stitches. Next time some unmannered person critiques your book to your face, just smile sweetly and pass em the potato salad... ;)

Patti Hill said...

Karen: The writing life has made the world a broader place filled with witty, talented, gracious people. I'm very thankful for the opportunity to be part of the community, and I love my readers. There are aspects of the job that can open us up to humiliation and a world of hurt, if we have placed our hope in perpetual affirmation, not the blood of Jesus Christ. Yes, try to avoid these awkward situations, but if something comes up we haven't anticipated, filter your experiences through the gift of humor. Laugh at yourself before anyone else can.