Thursday, January 12, 2023

7 Rules of Book Club: Best Practices for a Writers' Book Club Focused on Craft


One of the best ways to hone your writing skills is to study mentor texts. And it can be even more enlightening to study mentor texts with other writers, whether it’s in person or over Zoom. (I recommend Delia Ruiz's post from last month on how to start an in-person book group.) For a number of years, I’ve co-lead two craft book groups, and in the process, we’ve discovered some best practices for making the most of a writers’ book club.

1. Read with an open mind

It can be very tempting to react only as a reader. We all have immediate and visceral responses to books, whether we love them or hate them. But you can learn from any text by examining sections that worked for you and sections that didn’t work for you. Some elements give you new tools for your writing toolbox. Others show you what you might want to avoid. So even if a book isn’t a favorite, be open to learning from it.

2. Focus on craft. 

In your discussion, try to stay away from “I loved it!” and “I hated it!” responses. Even groaning, “I couldn’t get through it!” isn’t helpful. Dig deeper and get to the WHY. Why did you give up on the book when you did? What made you struggle as you were reading? What elements worked for you? Which parts made you feel things? Answering these questions, and looking at elements like setting, plot, pacing, characterization, or chapter endings, for example, can keep your discussion focused productively.

3. Remember the author. 

We’re writers, which means we’re people. And we of all people should remember that every book was written by a person who loves it. It also might be that someone in your group knows the author. Discuss each book as if the author is a close friend. Be respectful. That doesn’t mean you can’t express criticism, just do so in a way that doesn’t denigrate the author.

4. Check for genre. 

As you approach a book, identify what kind of book it is. What is the author setting out to do? Evaluating a thriller based on romance conventions is unfair to the book. They’re trying to do different things. Also, call back Rule 1: be open to learning from genres other than those you write in. I’m working on contemporary realistic fiction, but I’ve learned a ton about worldbuilding from studying fantasy, for instance.

5. Writing is "effective" or "ineffective" not "good" and "bad." 

In your discussion, evaluate the craft based on whether it was effective for you or ineffective. “Good” and “bad” are so general as to be useless, and those words assume universal standards where there may not be any. (“Good” and “bad” also tend to raise the temperature in the room, and the goal is to discuss rather than attack and defend.) 

In our SF/South SCBWI middle grade book group, we often start with each person in the group sharing two things that they found especially effective and one thing they found ineffective. It gives each person a chance to participate up front, and opens a number of directions to take the discussion.

6. The power of "for me." 

When you respond to and analyze a text, you are starting with your own experience as a reader, and then analyzing according to your experience as a reader and a writer. Individual books have readers who love them, and if a book isn’t doing it for you, it might be that the book is just not for you. Couch your criticisms with “for me” or “I found” to leave the discussion open to different perspectives.

It can be helpful, too, to discuss who the book is for. What kinds of readers would love this book? What would they love about it? These questions can expand your view of a book beyond your own reading experience.

7. Apply what you've learned.

One of the most powerful questions to ask is “How will this discussion affect your work in progress?” or, rephrased, “What techniques will you take away from this discussion into your future writing?” I like to end discussions with this question. It helps summarize what the group has learned from the book, and it gives each person a concrete craft tool to take with them.

I love the camaraderie of reading with others, and I always learn something from another’s perspective on a given book. I hope these seven rules guide you to richer discussions and deeper craft.

Anne-Marie Strohman writes stories for children of all ages, from picture books to YA. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s presented at SCBWI events in multiple regions, and she founded, co-edits, and writes for the blog KidLit Craft ( She’s the current Scholar-in-Residence for the SCBWI San Francisco/South region. She’s a member of three different book clubs and has gotten really good at listening to audiobooks at 1.4x speed.

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