04 Mar 2015

The Bountiful Benefits of Book Groups*

Writers are often encouraged to join writing or critique groups, but I’ve never heard any being encouraged to join Book Groups.  So today I’m saying – whether you’re a writer or not, but especially if you are a writer – join a Book Group!!!

I love reading, but haven't ever spent as much time doing it as I’d like.  That’s particularly frustrated me recently as my To Be Read pile has been growing exponentially. 

“I never need to find time to read. When people say to me, ‘Oh, yeah, I love reading. I would love to read, but I just don’t have time,’ I’m thinking, ‘How can you not have time?’ I read when I’m drying my hair. I read in the bath. I read when I’m sitting in the bathroom. Pretty much anywhere I can do the job one-handed, I read.” J.K.Rowling

When I first came across that quote I was initially amazed by and jealous of the amount of reading Jo Rowling does.  Later I became challenged and inspired by it.  So I set myself the New Year’s Resolution of reading 2-4 books a month – much as I love the idea of reading a book a week, I'm realistic about the demands on my time and decided not to set the bar too high.  As it happens, in January I read 4 books and in February I actually read 5, so I'm doing alright so far!

Book Groups are the perfect way to make yourself read, if you need an excuse to do so.  They’re also fantastic for getting you reading across a wider range of genres than you’d naturally choose to – which is helpful otherwise I’d never touch anything other than children’s and YA!  Last year I joined a small Book Group and so far I’ve read a crime thriller (Appletree Yard), a graphic novel (Palestine – kept forgetting to look at the pictures though coz that’s not how I “read”) and a classic that really should have been read many years ago (To Kill A Mockingbird). 

I also recently started going to another Book Group, one that I’ve been wanting to go along for years, but until setting myself this reading resolution have never got around to it.  Crazy!  What could be better than talking about a book while slurping a Black Forest Hot Chocolate in the best chocolate shop/café in Sheffield the world?! 

The book this month was “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn and the discussion was wide-ranging and stimulating.  People shared what they liked, hated and thought – much more fun than the critical literary dissection I endured enjoyed at university!  It was also absolutely fascinating as a writer to hear what other people get out of a book.  I’m already very aware that once a book is published, the writer has no control over how it’s received.  People will interpret it in their own way, given their own personalities and experiences, and see things in the story that weren’t deliberately intended.  On the flip side, some people won’t see themes or symbols that the writer thought they were communicating quite clearly.

I’m really excited about having my thinking stretched by a variety of books and other people’s opinions on them in the coming months.

“Reading is the creative centre of a writer’s life.”  Stephen King

As well as being hugely enjoyable, all this reading has a massively useful application, as it’s the way my writing improves most – the ultimate practical lesson in the craft of writing.  If I read something and like how it’s done, I can then try to replicate it in my own work.  That doesn’t mean I plagiarise anyone’s writing or dull the uniqueness of my voice down with theirs.  Rather I observe their skill in action and try to develop that skill myself.

For example, I recently read Berlie Doherty’s “In The Company of Ghosts”. Ghost stories aren’t usually my thing, but this was too beautifully written not to be read (and besides it was winning YA prizes, so it counts as vital research!).  The main character, Ellie, is a painter so she sees everything in vivid colours.  No red, yellow and orange here, we’re talking amber, gold, russet, etc.  Not long after finishing the book I was editing part of my WIP and came to an image I’d described as blue and green.  It didn’t do it justice at all.  Now it’s sapphire and emerald and the beauty that changing just two words brings to the sentence and description is huge!  Berlie Doherty’s book helped me to see the world of my book in a greater variety of richer and deeper colours.

The brilliant thing about Book Groups is that if you want to go along to one, but can’t find one in your area or at a time to suit you, then it couldn’t be easier to start your own.  All you need are a couple of other interested people – friends, colleagues or even strangers from a poster in a shop window or on a library noticeboard.  You could meet in each other’s houses, or like my small Book Group in restaurants (such a hardship), or like my bigger Book Group in an amazing chocolate shop (even greater hardship)!  You can meet at whatever time and as regularly as suits you.

Books, (new) friends and food.  What could be better?!

“Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns.  The least of all should be polite society and what it expects.  If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”  Stephen King


* Apologies for another title alliteration using "B"s two posts running – if I have to alliterate next time I'll try to find another letter of the alphabet!

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