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.
how to write book club questions, Mississippi authors, Mississippi contemporary fiction, Mississippi novels, writing book club questions
Ellen Morris Prewitt
We shall see. 🙂
This is fascinating, Ellen. As usual you go above and beyond to make your craft excellent . . . even to the point of doing research to learn how to write book club questions! I’m hanging my head, as I realize I spent about an hour writing my discussion questions for my latest novel JOHN AND MARY MARGARET. Now I’m wondering if my questions did have an “agenda” as you mention trying to avoid. Here’s an example from my questions: #9 “If you grew up in the South, how did the desegregation of the schools in the 1970s affect your life? For White readers: did you, or your children, leave the newly segregated public schools to attend private schools, or did you stay in the public schools? Would you make that choice again today, and why? For Black readers, were you or your children involved in forced integration and busing in the South, and if so, how did it affect your or their lives?” It’s interesting, but I’ve met with about five book clubs so far to discuss JOHN AND MARY MARGARET, and only one of them used the Discussion Questions as part of a guide for the meeting. In fact, I have found that book clubs rarely use the questions when I meet with them, so I wonder how many book clubs use them when an author is not meeting with them. What has your experience been? Thanks always for such a wonderful post.
Ellen Morris Prewitt
This is really interesting, Susan, and it made me think of the book clubs where I’ve been a visiting author. You’re right–a facilitator led the conversation, and I was simply there for input. Of course, for those books I didn’t have book club questions. The examples of your questions seem exactly like what I’m reaching for: questions that make the reader think more about themselves and their experiences as engaged by the novel. <3
This post was so interesting to me. As a poet, writing book club questions is not something that I have ever had to consider.
I was especially drawn to your second step, especially its grounding in servant leadership and theological thought. It reminded me of contemplative dialogue principles, which I learned about through the spiritual study series “Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton.” Each person speaks from their own experience while the others listen, concentrating on what the speaker is saying, not what they themselves might want to say. The idea is not to respond to or challenge what someone else has said but to share one’s own thoughts and honor the viewpoint and feelings of others. It was initially difficult for members of the group to really listen but developing that skill has made a huge difference in my life.
I have never been in a book club reading novels but I expect that a dynamic that involves deep sharing and listening would be beneficial for all.
Ellen Morris Prewitt
The Thomas Merton steps sound much like the Parker Palmer circle of trust that Servant Leadership used. I also found, in a seminary class I took based on this model, it was VERY difficult for the students not to debate. They were there in school to shape their beliefs, I think, and that meant interrogating others on theirs. Some hadn’t gotten it even at the end of our 10 months together. :0
In the method we were using, you could ask someone who was speaking to tell the group more abut their experience or viewpoint, but, as you say, it was not a debate. The goal was always to listen to the speaker not to challenge them or try to convince them otherwise. To be clear, I don’t think the method itself came from Merton but it was definitely an outgrowth of the contemplative tradition.
Ellen Morris Prewitt