A Different Way to Write Book Club Questions
I am nearing the end of my Beta reader feedback on In the Name of Mississippi. Thus, in complete blind faith that I will find an agent for this manuscript and, unlike my last three agents, they will sell this novel about a groundbreaking civil rights lawsuit, I’m moving on to the next step. In the Name of Mississippi is contemporary fiction, which is often read in book clubs. So I’m drafting book club questions. How do I approach that? Googled it (of course), but the answers didn’t live up to my expectations.
Recently, I participated in a book club discussion of THE YELLOW HOUSE by Sarah Broom. The memoir was the 2021 selection of One Book One New Orleans. The discussions were extraordinary. (OBONO is an extraordinary organization; pls follow the link to see what I’m talking about.)
In these discussions, we didn’t talk about which characters we liked or the quality of Ms. Broom’s writing. The questions took a radically different approach. Every question in the two sessions I attended were designed to draw us into the emotional high-points of the sections under discussion.
To get to those same types of questions, I did three things.
My 3 Steps to Book Club Questions
First, I set my intention to be part of a conversation that’s been going on for generations. The initiators of this conversation are Mississippians writing fiction about race. I researched other authors in that stream to understand where my position is in the flow, and then I launched.
Realizing it’s a conversation I want set my second step. I turned to the best conversational advice I know. This meant abandoning any idea of steering the book club questions to my “themes.” Instead, I took the Parker Palmer approach of never asking “agenda” questions, i.e., questions you think you know the answer to. I learned this approach in my years of participating in the Memphis School of Servant Leadership and particularly participating in the initial Formation Class featuring this method at Memphis Theological Seminary. This approach encourages the person to think more deeply about their own positions, not yours. Most importantly, it palpably puts the energy of the conversation squarely where it belongs: on the person answering.
Third, I picture in my mind the scenes in each chapter (okay, I’ve occasionally had to cheat and open the document, but, honestly, I’ve gone over this manuscript SO MANY TIMES, I can mostly picture them.) I then focus the book club question on the point in the scene where it quivers. This is a term I got from my very first and most favorite writing mentor, Rebecca McClanahan. It refers to the emotional highpoint of the scene. I then ask the question embedded in that emotion. The end result (so far) is three questions per chapter. When I finish, I’ll remove repetitive questions and cull down to those I feel are getting to the essence for the reader.
The effect of this approach is that I’m not haranguing readers about the racial themes in the book. Nor is the goal to have “difficult conversations.” I hope to meet people in the places where the book has stirred them.
I’m just starting this process. I’ll let you know how it goes. I wanted to share it with you now because so many of you who read this blog are on the path of getting your (latest) wonderful work published. Y’all can tell me what you did for your book club questions, offer refinements, share what has worked for you.
After all, we are all in this together. ❤️
ps The bitty dog is doing well. Here she is in her brand new hat, price tag still on.