Friday, October 26, 2012

Guest Blog: On the Value of Book Clubs, Part 1

Judith Stanton sez...While revising my latest novel again, it occurred to me I’d lost sight of my core readers—you know, the passionate obsessive-compulsive real human beings we writers long for, write to, and depend on to buy our books, recommend them to friends, buy more for birthday and holiday presents.

I work hard at my craft. My critiquing buddies who are steeped in good book-writing theory have scrupulously analyzed my current novel. My New York City agent and his brilliant interns also held under their microscope. They expected a blockbuster bestseller. I wanted one too. So do we all, perhaps, in our heart of hearts. But not at the sacrifice of our stories. Over several revisions, they suggested that I convert my adult Southern family saga horse story with a sabotage theme into—get this—

1) Young Adult fiction. Like National Velvet. Sooo not today’s teenage market. Maybe I should have invented a vampire horse!

2) A redo of The HorseWhisperer. So I read it and watched it again. Downer. It’s not about the horse, it’s about a not very interesting dysfunctional family (the central character a New York City magazine editor—guess who that appealed to!) It took Robert Redford to power it out of its improbable horse story and soap opera of a human tale.

Or 3) Get rid of the “horse stuff” altogether. Ditch the family saga, develop only three key characters into a sicko love triangle, and make it a thriller like The Girl With a DragonTattoo.

Lordy. The books and movies they pointed me to had only one thing in common—their track records—NYTimes Bestseller list (except Velvet but that’s longevity), blockbuster movies, and boatloads of money paid out to authors, agents, directors, and actors and a supporting cast of hundreds.

They were not my story. But my NYC agent seemed wildly out of touch with my horse story and the real audience I believed longed for horse stories.

But what if I was the one wildly out of touch with readers’ deepest dreams? So I asked myself:  what do readers want? And where better to find out than a book club? Clubbers read a book a month for the club alone. Big thick fat expensive books. Serious books. Award-winning books.
I asked about joining a couple of old, established book clubs within driving distance. But book clubs are limited to how many members can fit into someone’s living room, and they were filled.

Then a consummate reader and book-clubbers I’d known for decades had room in her busy life for a new club. She invited four gals, and I asked four more. Amazingly our friends knew each other. More amazing, one year later, I realize I’m getting exactly what I need. One night a month with voracious, articulate, open-minded readers. Their passion for story, character and style blows me away. Their tolerance—even desire for—brutal honesty validates my work.  Their freedom from theory and the technical details I’ve come to obsess over gives me freedom too.

So, fellow writers, think about joining a book club of real readers to get a fresh feel for your audience, to  free yourself from other writers, from agents and editors, and to rediscover the joy of reading. Not drafting. Not critiquing. Not revising.

But reading for fun, reading for adventure, reading to learn and laugh and cry and even worry—How is this character going to get out of that fix? Isn’t that where all of us writers started?

As my book club starts our second year, my fellow readers are directing me to books I never heard of. I’m finding a reawakening of my creative spirit that the only genius of a newly discovered author can inspire. On that note, if you haven’t read Elizabeth Spencer, if you haven’t even heard of her, buy her 1956 The Voice at theBack Door. It is as fresh and relevant today as it was then. It is said that the fiction committee nominated it for the Pulitzer Prize, but the overall committee awarded no prize that year—too controversial, perhaps. Which was a crime, and one we can rectify a bit by reading her now.  You can thank my book club for the recommendation. And think about joining one.
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Judith Stanton - Horse Woman, Author, Editor, and Lecturer
—Qualifying for the Olympics can be deadly for woman and horse.

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