Long before I started writing fiction, I belonged to numerous book clubs. For me, adding book-centered conversation to a glass of wine, snacks, and the chance to poke around in a neighbor’s house creates a perfect social event. Yet 90 million Goodreads members and the plethora of online reading groups suggest that many don’t even require an in-person component. They just want to connect over the books they’ve read.
In order to earn a piece of the book-club audience, which has the potential to serve as a a word-of-mouth marketing machine for novelists, I look here at some of my favorite questions from reading guides to glean what I can about how to meet the needs of of readers who hope a novel will generate great discussion.
Let’s give them something to talk about, shall we?
- “What interested you about the protagonist’s unique perspective?”
One of the things fiction does so brilliantly is to allow you to walk for a while in someone else’s shoes. Think The Girls by Lori Lansens, told in the alternating voices of conjoined twins. Or Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, narrated by Death.
I’ll never forget the third club in which I discussed Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, told from the perspective of an evolved dog who has observed crucial information for his beloved human, Denny, yet cannot effectively communicate it. At one point, a book club member who was profoundly deaf, and struggling to keep up with our excited chatter, waved his hands to get our attention. We looked over at him as one, as if surprised he wanted to speak. Forcing a vocalization, he said, “I am the dog.” Had goosebumps then, and have them again now while typing this—it was a powerful moment.
Book club members want a chance to look at life in a new way. How will your protagonist’s unique perspective help them do that?
- “Which character did you relate to the most?”
To inspire this discussion, consider orchestrating your character set around a timely or meaningful theme. One of my favorite examples of this is John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, whose cast is orchestrated around a woman’s reproductive rights. It features middle-of-the-roader Dr. Larch, who both performs abortions and raises unwanted children; pro-lifer Homer, one of the abandoned children and Larch’s reluctant apprentice; Homer’s love interest, who came to end her pregnancy; and the incest victim that inspires Homer to perform his first “in extreme circumstances” abortion. By giving us deep access to a range of characters we can relate to, such stories help us learn more about ourselves.
- “How did the story’s developing drama reflect something the protagonist was already wrestling with at the opening?”