Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Readers' Discussion Guides--Make Your Own

A few years ago I joined a romance book club because I wanted to study the genre and also because it gave me an opportunity to discover new writers.  The club has since widened its range to include memoirs, the classics, and even the occasional mystery.  What we do prefer though are books that end well and happily, and yes, have an emphasis on a romantic relationship.  For that reason alone we still like to call ourselves the Romance Book Club, but ever since we moved our meeting place to a local Borders Books & Music, the store insists upon calling us the Ravioli Book Club.  Sure enough, once a month a large sign reserves a prime table in the cafe for us:  'RAVIOLI BOOK CLUB."  There doesn't seem to be any way to change the sign or the name, and by now I think we actually enjoy the surreal distinction of being the strangest book club in the store.

Similar to the way the club name "just happened" it also became my job somehow to find, print, and bring to our meetings the publishers' reading discussion guides for each of our monthly choices.  I love these guides.    They're very simple to find--I just Google 'em.  Not every book has one, but I wish they did.  Not only do they liven up our meetings, but they help me to think more analytically and deeply about what I'm reading, which always carries over to what I'm writing.  Which then made me think, I need my own reading guides too!

Several weeks ago I started work on two guides:  one for my Egyptian mystery for middle-grade readers, The Great Scarab Scam and one for my young adult novel, Better Than Perfect

Over the weekend I finalized them so you can read or print a PDF copy of each here:  Better than Perfect and The Great Scarab Scam.

While I was writing the guides, I thought that just like making book trailers before you publish, writing up your discussion questions as you work through your drafts could also help strengthen your writing.  Here are some of the points I considered:
  • When designing your questions, try to avoid anything that can be answered with a plain "Yes" or "No" without more qualification.
  • It's also important to remember there is never any "right answer" to a question, especially when writing a guide for children or young adult readers.
  • Characters are usually the most important part of your story.  Search for questions that encourage readers to explore why they could identify (or not) with your characters, for instance through profession, family issues, or personal challenges.
  • A good plot should present your characters with troubling choices.  Characters don't always act rationally or sanely when faced with a crisis.  Think of questions (and reasons) that revolve around why this is so for your own book.
  • Evaluating characters' choices can lead to "what would you do?" types of questions.
  • A good ending should leave the reader wanting more.  Create questions or topics that let readers imagine future scenes or alternative endings.
  • What does the book remind you of?  Encourage discussion of other writers and genres that point back to your book.
  • How do you want readers to possibly describe the overall mood, tone, or theme or the book?
  • Is your theme universal or could it only be true for one part of the world?  Think of questions that explore the locale of your book as well as any unusual bits of information you use to make your story unique.
  • What have your characters learned?  Or left undiscovered?
  • What would you like your readers to have learned?
  • Is the story believable--or not?  (If not, this could be a good time to fix it!) 
Not every guide you create needs to include all of these points, but they are certainly something to keep in mind while brainstorming both your manuscript and your questions.

Tip of the Day:  Search out reading guides for some of your favorite titles and start by answering the questions in your journal.  You might even want take this a step further by discussing the questions with your writing group if you don't already belong to a book club.  It's easier to write your own guide once you know the kind of questions you like to discuss, and which ones you find frustrating and pointless (not that rare of an occurrence, I'm sorry to say!).  And have fun:  discussion guides are meant to enhance the love of reading--readers should never feel they're defending a thesis or trying to pass an exam.

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