#GuestPost: Why writers need book groups by Helen Matthews. @HelenMK7

Today I have an interesting and enlightening post on writers and book groups by Helen Matthews, author of After Leaving the Village. Information about the book and the author follows, after the post itself so read on and see if you agree with Helen or not.

Why writers need book groups

Writing can be a lonely existence. Living inside your head, closeted with the laptop, and snarling at family members when they ignore the ‘Writer at Work’ post-it note on your door and bring coffee, are all sure signs we need to get out more. 

So, where to go? Writers’ groups are a lifeline with tough love, honest feedback, supportive friendships and – frequently – alcohol. But, when writers meet to discuss work in progress we normally wear our critiquing hats. We get our kicks from drilling into the details of the writing, focusing on the trees so we don’t see the beauty of the wood. In our workshop sessions, we miss out on the reader’s thrill of getting lost in a novel for pure pleasure.   

All writers are urged to read widely and most of us don’t need telling. To expand our reading choices and keep up with trends, we need recommendations from other book lovers. These days you don’t even need to leave the house because there are book clubs on social media, particularly Facebook. I’m also aware there are book clubs in libraries, workplaces, colleges, and even postal groups, but I’m going to talk about two types of book group I’m familiar with: local groups that meet in person and book groups on Facebook.   

Let’s start with book clubs that meet in person – perhaps in a pub or in someone’s home. I confess it took me a long time to get around to joining one. I was wary because some had such bad press.

 “You’d think they could at least mention the book,” was a complaint I heard frequently, from people whose groups were thinly-disguised social gatherings. Don’t get me wrong – I love to go out, meet friends and socialise but, if I’ve committed to reading a book, not of my own choosing, I’d feel really cheated if my group didn’t even bother to discuss it.

Finally, I found a book group that was right for me. Members engage with the books and are prepared to talk about them, over a glass of wine, for a full two hours. After that, everyone’s ready for a social chat. My group’s been in existence since 1996 and, when I joined around five years ago, they gave me a spreadsheet listing all the books they’d read over those years. As I skimmed through it, I cross-checked their back list against my own reading and found many books I’d read but an equal number I’d yet to discover.

I’ve learnt so much from my book group about a reader’s perspective on fiction and this has helped me with my own writing. Here are some of the reasons why:

I’m lucky that my book group goes way beyond a Marmite reaction to the books we read. If they say they like, or don’t like, something about the book, the writing or a character, they’re able to explain why. This helps me identify and understand weaknesses and plot holes in other novelists’ work that annoy readers. I wish I could say this helps me to avoid falling into the same mistakes – but at least it raises my awareness!

Writers must learn to cope with crippling self-doubt so it’s reassuring to be reminded you can’t please all of the people all of the time. People are looking for very different things in their choice of fiction and the novel that you, as a writer, are labouring over may be disliked by some people. Some readers are plot-driven – they want a good story that gallops ahead without too much effort. Others are attuned to strong, realistic characters or prefer a more thought-provoking or literary read. In my book group we read everything from commercial psychological thrillers to award-winning literary fiction and classics. No one feels embarrassed to admit they struggle with Hilary Mantel, but many others love her books.

At meetings we have wide and thought-provoking discussions that often go beyond the novel we’ve read. Novels with strong or multiple themes are especially good for prompting debate and this suits me because I like to write about contemporary themes in my own work. Discussion also sparks new ideas and imaginative directions that I file in my memory and may return to later.

Members of my book group have diverse tastes. We don’t limit ourselves to fiction but have also read memoirs and biographies. Sometimes I’ve had to wade through books about witches (not my thing) or 800-page historical novels (life’s too short) but reading outside my preferences is a discipline that teaches me new techniques I can use in my own writing.

Writers who skimp on research do so at their peril. Members of my book group have different careers and professions. They’ve studied a variety of subjects and some have spent chunks of their life living overseas. Everyone brings their own experience to a work of fiction and their eagle eyes often identify factual inaccuracies or research lapses! This reminds me to be extra meticulous in my own research and to get important facts checked by an expert.

That’s my take on a physical book group. What about the book clubs on social media?

In the last twelve months, I’ve joined four book groups on Facebook.  A couple of these are very active and I confess I hang out in them, chatting to other members, when I should be working, writing or editing. These are closed groups, run by one or more administrators, who are first line defenders against the bots, trolls and spammers and all the other kinds of haters, who spoil the online experience for others. The administrators deserve the highest praise because they ensure the book clubs are calm, comfortable spaces where everyone is respectful. Some of the groups specialise in one specific genre of fiction, for example, UK Crime Book Club – which does what it says on the tin. Others cover all literature and the excellent Fiction Café Book Club is in that category. 

So, what is their value for a writer?

Their main aim is to share a love (and opinions – positive and negative) of books, through recommendations and reviews.  Misguided authors might join, thinking they can pitch their books to a captive readership BUT must proceed with caution. If you wade in and start posting ‘Buy my book’ along with Amazon links (known as ‘dropping spam’) without participating in the group, you will get a warning and your membership may be terminated. Online book clubs have strict rules. These may include a dedicated page where authors can post details of special price offers, or a certain day or time when you can blow your own trumpet. If you have exciting news to share outside of these times, the etiquette is to contact an administrator and ask for permission to post. If approved, your content will then get the badge ‘Posted with admin permission’.

For me, networking with readers and other writers has been the most valuable aspect of belonging to a social media book group. We all support one another. More experienced writers can often answer questions or give advice about publishers or agents. Like any relationship, a subtle approach is best and soon you’ll build a new bookish network.

Social media book groups offer live events where authors can talk to an audience using Facebook Live. The Fiction Café Book Club hosts an Author Live Q&A every Sunday evening. Members post questions in advance and the author answers them on camera. I’m hooked and try to watch every week. I’ve even appeared in one myself and found it a great way of connecting with potential readers and building skills in answering impromptu questions from the audience.

Whether you’re a writer or a reader, book groups are a place to share your love of books and discover authors. If you an enjoy an author’s work, why not start a conversation? Begin by liking their Facebook page or following them on Twitter. Sharing their publication news or writing book reviews are hugely important for all authors. And if you are a writer yourself, maybe one day they will do the same for you. 

About the book:

Two women. Two villages. Different destinies. Odeta’s life has shrunk to a daily round of drudgery, running her father’s grocery store in a remote Albanian village. One day a stranger from Tirana walks into the shop and promises her a new career in London. Odeta’s life is about to change, but not in the way she expected. Journalist Kate lives on a quiet London street and seems to have a perfect life but she worries about her son Ben, who struggles to make friends. Kate blames the internet and disconnects her family from the online world so they can get to know their neighbours. On a visit to her home village in Wales, Kate is forced to confront a secret from her past. But greater danger lies closer to home. Perhaps Kate’s neighbours are not the friendly community they seem.

Buy link: Amazon UK

Throughout August this book is only 99p when bought as an ebook through Amazon.

About the author:

‘After Leaving the Village’ was published by Hashtag Press in October 2017. It is my debut novel and won first prize in the opening pages category at Winchester Writers’ Festival. My novel is a gritty contemporary suspense thriller so won’t suit all tastes but it’s been hailed by reviewers as ‘very much a novel of our times’ and ‘powerful’…one of the reasons ‘why it has been endorsed by anti-slavery charity, Unseen.’

I’m now an ambassador for the charity and available to give talks at festivals, author events and to local groups about the themes in my novel. 

As a writer, I often ask the question – how can a life change in an instant? Sometimes this leads me to explore some dark places. I’d love to know what you think, so please leave a review.

I’ve won several short story prizes and my story ‘Coal’ was published in Artificium literary magazine. You can read my writing and travel blogs over on http://www.helenmatthewswriter.com where you’ll also find my contact details and can tell me what you loved – or hated – about my novel.

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