Saturday, October 20, 2012

Meet the Literary Giants!

ROSEMARY HARRIS: Twenty or so years ago, I briefly belonged to a book club known as the Giant Literaries. The GLs were started by  one of my favorite people on the planet, an amazing woman named Becky whom I met while we were both working for Crown Publishers. I was sad to see her leave the East Coast  - but delighted that she met the man of her dreams and moved to the Bay area, where they still live.

Of course, she started another book group, this one called the Literary Giants and I've been jealous ever since. The LGs have been together for close to twenty years. They meet once a month and once a year they take a house at Stinson Beach and spend the weekend together. I went to a meeting some years ago and have always kept up with what they were reading and doing. Some of them even came to one of my events at the Oakland Public Library. (Here's a pic of half the table, some LGS are missing. Should have had the group shot before we opened the wine!)

This summer I told Becky (she's the gorgeous smiling blond second from the left) that my WIP was something of a departure from the Paula Holliday books and she made an extraordinary suggestion. The Literary Giants would read an early version of my manuscript and give me feedback. For someone who had never even let her husband read an early draft (that would be me) this was a nervous-making prospect. But I did it. Becky made copies, the group read my manuscript and this past Monday I heard what they had to say.

I knew there would be a lot of chat (and a fair amount of wine) so that afternoon I purchased a recorder, so that I wouldn't miss a word. I may be able to use it for blackmail. Will definitely steal great dialogue from it.

First off, I would fly to the coast once a month to meet with these gals! Fun, great cooks, well-read, accomplished, and dang if they didn't make a newcomer feel welcome. I think my book was sandwiched in between Cleopatra and The Lost Memory of Skin. I was honored. And they'd read the Dirty Business books, so they had a sense of my style.

We had a blast. I came armed with questions covering everything from the title to a possible name change for me!  Soon the chat was flying fast and furious. It was exhilarating to hear a lively group of women discussing characters and situations that I had created. And I got e valuable information which I will incorporate into the next draft. Needless to say the LGs will be thanked profusely in the acks!

So, JR writers and readers - are you in a book group? Have you ever had an author visit or Skype in? Do you have early readers? Has anyone ever used a group of readers as a focus group? Let's talk!

PS - And if any of you ARE in a book group, the JRs would be delighted to help you plan a discussion of any of our books - questions, topics, suggestions and even recipes!


  1. The Literary Giants sound fabulous.

    I'm not in a book group, but have two author visits scheduled, one the day after Election Day. I'm a bit nervous about it. They are women (and fellow Democrats, so we'll either also be celebrating or weeping) whom I like and respect and I'm sure it will go well, but I'm worried they'll put me on the spot about something.

    So maybe I'll use a tactic I invented on the spot when my brother-in-law (a writer himself) asked me a few weeks ago, "But why did X do X?" in my recently released book.

    I frankly couldn't remember, so I said, "I'm going to let you figure that one out, Dennis."

  2. I belonged to a local book group for university women for a long time. We read a lot of non-fiction and challenging fiction works. I remember very well when we read "Possession" by AS Byatt, and several people admitted they'd skipped the poetry. One person, who was shy, quietly declared that she'd joined the group to challenge herself, so she reads every word of every book assigned, "even the poetry." It was amusing at the time, but I think about her from time to time, doggedly reading every word of an assigned book because that's why she had joined.

    Our group occasionally did field trips to see authors. My favorite was to hear Dr. Paul Farmer speak at Villanova. We'd read Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains and someone finagled tickets for us to hear this talk, which was aimed at students. It was a very uplifting experience, to see young people listen with rapt attention to Dr. Farmer describe the quest to provide health care to the poorest populations of the world. He was charismatic and sincere, and all those college students were ready to jump on the bus. Gave me hope for the future.

  3. Book clubs with intelligent members who are great cooks and like wine? Check. I'm fortunate enough to be in two such. But what grand fun it would be to weekend together at a place like Stinson Beach!

    Both of "my" groups have been together for many years; I'm a Johnny-come-lately to both of them, although I've now been a member of one for 10 years, and the other one for about five or six. The first group is centered around a neighbor and friend who is a librarian, and originally, all the other members also worked at the library. Only one other member and myself have not. The other non-librarian tends to dominate this group's choices, and she is not interested in a lot of different kinds of work, which can be frustrating. But they are all great cooks. That group meets tomorrow, and we read Sense and Sensibility this time.

    The other group has a very different dynamic. The core members are either family, or longtime friends--like 35 year-long friendships, again, except for me. They are all well-educated, and tend to choose much more esoteric titles. I've gotten exposed to a lot of books I'd never otherwise have read with this group, and the discussions are always fascinating. Two of the members are blind, so it's imperative for the person choosing the next book to first check the library for audio copies. There are also a couple vegetarians, so we always have a meatless food choice on our menus. And wine, natch! Our next book in this group is The Particular Sadness of Lemon Pie.

    I've offered to get an author to Skype into the library group, but they have never expressed interest. The other group has a more diplomatic book-choosing method--the person holding the meeting gets to choose the next book--so I don't get to choose more than one a year, sometimes less. But it's a great idea in theory.

  4. Rosemary, how lucky you are to have such a wonderful group to analyze your work and give you honest feedback! Would that we all could have such! Really helpful critique groups do exist but they are rare - Some of us, like moi, have a couple of excellent first readers or writing partners - it is a rare gift and I treasure such a find! Thelma in Manhattan

  5. Thelma,
    And you're lucky to have the early readers..this was scary for me. Karen, I think there may be a concern that members would have to shower the writer with praise and pretend to love the book even if ythey didn't! I told the LGs not to hold back and i got some very interesting insights. One in particular...they seemed to really appreciate one irritating character because "everybody knows someone like him."

  6. I guess that's true, Ro. But any time you have a critique group, isn't that a potential pitfall, that you'll have more than your share of sycophants?

    The one member in the library club I mentioned who is picky about books would be unfailingly honest about her particular take on plot, characters, etc. You might actually not want her input, she's so honest. But most of the members of the other group would not be shy about expressing their opinions. They seem to have the ability to really take apart the books we read. I can't picture any of them having qualms about sharing their thoughts and insights, even with the author.

  7. I love my book club! It's relatively young - 7 years this month. Before I moved here, I as in a gorup for 8 yrs -- and it's been going nearly 30 yrs now! We rotate houses and the hostess chooses the book, which means some choices that aren't my taste and others that are brilliant discoveries. They've never critiqued my writing, though ... .

    Karen, I chose The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake last July. I loved it, of course, but group reaction was mixed -- which makes for livelier discussions than when everyone likes the book! In fact, the best discussion ever was a book we all hated -- a brand-new member chose a stinker and felt so badly, but it really was a great discussion!

  8. Message for Julia: I'm trying to send you my blog post, but I keep getting bouncebacks from your email--"temporarily over limit" or some such. Do you have another account I can send it to? Thanks.

  9. Leslie, that's been my experience, too, that reading a hated book can generate some of the best discussions. We had a situation like that not long ago. One of the librarians wanted to read The Marriage Plot. She loved it, and everyone else detested it. But what a discussion! I learned a lot that day, about writing, about publishing (male author, bleh), and about my book club sisters. It was a wonderful way to spend a gloomy afternoon.

  10. Hi Ro,

    That is great that you are connected with your group. I have just joined the Tucson chapter of SinC and hope that I will find a similar writing group here. It was a fun coincidence to read your post while waiting for my first meeting of SinC, Tucson! I am taking it as a great omen.


  11. Karen et al,
    I don't think I would like being in a critique group so i've never done that. These are a group of non-writers who were just giving me feedback on the story. I think I'd hate hearing weekly or monthly criticisms from other writers!

  12. Hi Ro,

    Sorry I misunderstood. But it still think it's great to have a group like that. I don't want to be part of the critical group whatever it's purpose. I'm not ready for that... not sure if I ever will be. But I do like being a part of a group with similar interests!


  13. Ro, sounds like a great group!

    I've been in a great small writing group for years, and we give each other book recommendations, as well. I used to run book clubs when I was director of a university women's center, but I haven't been in one for years until recently joining the Women of Intrigue book club at a new bookstore in KC, Mysteryscape. We're focused on women mystery/suspense/thriller authors and major characters. That gives us a broad sweep. We horse-trade books and authors until we come to a consensus on which we'll do over the next several months--we meet monthly. So far, it's pushed me to read some new-to-me authors, and we've had some interesting discussions.

    I've met with two book clubs and have two more scheduled. One of these was a national book club, and my meeting with them was a teleconference. I want to be able to Skype with clubs in other parts of the country, so will probably get a new laptop next year with camera and Skype capabilities.