I’ve started with this because it’s one of those practices that groups either use already or have never experienced. Therefore, if you already use it this suggestion won’t help. Just skip it. (In any case, the best recommendation will be number 5.)
It’s all too common for one person to choose the book to read for each meeting or the writing exercise. Try this instead: it’s liberating to allow other members of the group to take responsibility for the next session, in rotation. This gives group members a greater sense of involvement, so it’s surprising to find so many meetings dominated by an unchanging leader or chair person. It must be a matter of psychology. Tell me about it.
You should have a rule, I think, that each person can only select a book they have actually read. They might not have liked it, they don’t need to find the characters sympathetic, but they must know that there is a lot in it to discuss. Reliance on reviews leads to disappointment and dissatisfaction.
This might look like a pain but it is really valuable. (It’s probably most useful for a reading group but there are things to learn for a writing group as well, because writing the opening to a new book is hard. This might help.)
Choose the opening few paragraphs from several favourite books and analyse them in detail. Be really picky. Look at the length and rhythm of the sentences, the imagery, use of commas, metaphor and technical vocabulary. Make comparisons across genres. Discuss what works and what doesn’t.
This exercise is so useful that I shall use it in my next blog post to analyse the opening to a successful thriller.
3. Re-read Goldfinger
Route descriptions can give great structure to a plot. Matthew Fort’s Eating Up Italy: Voyages on a Vespa serves up a delicious non-fiction example.
The route can be the backbone for a novel or a factual account, but if the route as described is too sketchy you may be missing a trick in your writing or fail to imagine the scene well in your reading.
To see how this can work if a route is set out in detail, check and write out the route that Goldfinger takes through France. Does Fleming describe it accurately? (Could you use it today as a route map?) Then try writing your own.
This one could be the hardest. Endings are hard to write. (As are openings. And that bit in the middle.)
This game is strictly for fiction, I think. Some people find it fun. The problem is, it needs someone in the group to select the book and find the point where reading must stop prior to the meeting, and it requires discipline on the part of the reading or writing group members.
The idea is to select a mystery. A stop point is selected close to the end, usually but not always just before the final chapter. Then at the meeting, predictions are taken how it will end, and in a writing group each member writes their own ending for comparison with the author’s ending.
Obviously, this is the game we all play in our head when reading Agatha Christie. (You won’t want to choose one of her novels, unless the aim is to demonstrate how her books could have different or better endings.)
The kind of book I would recommend for this kind of writing group exercise would be Saving Caravaggio by Neil Griffiths.
5. Go Away
Seriously, this is the best of the lot.
Many of the reading and writing groups that I have been in either met in the same place each week or in members’ houses. For a reading group, breaking away from the established pattern is helpful to avoid the group becoming moribund. Professionally led writing groups have long used the time away method, so its virtues are well-known.
- The group need to be in comfortable surroundings with a good supply of food and drink on hand.
- A location somewhat remote is probably a good idea since the aim is to concentrate on reading or writing. You need to discuss with others over an extended period, without the other normal distractions of a holiday.
- Accompanying partners who are not ordinarily part of the group can help to add breadth and new insights to discussions and should be welcomed.
- The period should be not less than a weekend and not more than five nights.
From my point of view, meeting in the wilds of Canada, beside a lake in Scandinavia, in a remote hill-top village in Italy, or a farmhouse in rural France, is bound to produce the best result, whether for a reading or a writing group. Depending on your home location, however, and even given the extent to which our friends in the US or in Australia are prepared to travel for a cultural experience, the cost and time of travel could be prohibitive. So instead let me illustrate the virtues of getting away as a group by recommending a venue from a 5 day visit I made in Devon, just an hour and a half from home. (It is just an example. I receive no payment if you should book to stay there with your group.)
By way of variation, I’m basing this recommendation on a stay as a non-participatory member not of a reading or writing group but an art group retreat. (I like to write about art and artists. As a writer not a painter, I was asked to supply an account for the Friends of the RWA website.)
The wonderful Shorland Old Farm, Challacombe, Devon, is a traditional Exmoor farmhouse, simply but tastefully decorated, and with extensive grounds. It is sufficiently remote to ensure concentration and group discussion but has internet and is close enough to a pub and shop to allow contact with the outside world. Sandy’s cooking is outrageously good, Mark makes sure that everyone is well looked after, and there are wood fires for the winter and a table large enough to accommodate 14.
This is the kind of venue you need to look for. I urge you to go out and find one for your own reading or writing group.
Do you have other suggestions for useful exercises in reading or writing? It would be good to hear them.
Don’t become moribund, get pepped up.