Let’s face it. For struggling authors, marketing and selling a published novel is at best a necessary evil—about as much fun as reading the Congressional Record (which, thankfully, I no longer have to do for work). We all tackle the marketing chores in whatever way we can because we know we have to, all the while hoping we’re not badgering and offending those on the receiving end of our too-frequent pitches.
But there’s one part of the process that is wonderful: Being a guest at a book club. What could be better than sitting around with a dozen people who have read your book and found enough in it to spark a substantive discussion? I was lucky enough to do several of these after my first book came out, and this week I got to do one on my recently published second novel, Hawke’s Return.
What always impresses me about these sessions is how carefully people read, how attached they can get to the characters, and how insightful they can be. I always leave a book club meeting feeling I’ve learned a great deal from my readers, and I’m up half the night thinking about how to use that knowledge to make the next book better.
Many of the people at this week’s meeting had read the first novel in my Jonas Hawke series, and I was thrilled to hear that they had become attached to several of the returning characters, so much so that I took a little grief for killing off one of them. Fortunately, that made my readers even more sympathetic to the surviving characters, who were also in mourning.
A few asked questions about what they felt were some loose ends that were never resolved. “I guess you did that to save something for the third book,” one said, “and now you’ve got me waiting for that.” I was glad to hear that, but the truth is, some issues will never be resolved. I don’t subscribe to the notion that a book or series must end with everything tied up neatly in a bow. That’s not the way life works, and I try to write realistic fiction. Some matters will never be resolved. That’s especially true of the main dilemma in Hawke’s Return.
I like to use fiction to explore difficult ethical dilemmas—the kind that offer no easy answers, leaving good people to disagree as they struggle to figure out the right thing to do. Through no planning of mine, the issue in Hawke’s Return proved timely because it involves alleged sexual harassment, and at times our discussion veered into current events, a sign of the book’s relevancy, I felt. In my plot, a sixteen-year-old girl accuses an official of a charitable youth help group of pressuring her for sex. It’s his word against hers, with no way of corroborating what happened. As Jonas investigates, it becomes clear that neither accuser nor accused is being honest with him. He doesn’t want to risk keeping the official in a position where he can victimize other young people, but neither does he want to ruin the career of a man who may be innocent.
There are other relationships and issues, and we talked about them all, often with me getting important insights on how others view my characters. That was mostly very rewarding because these readers recognized a great deal of what I was trying to do. “It worked,” I told myself, with more than a little satisfaction.
But there was also someone who pointed to one scene that disappointed him because it felt a bit awkward and didn’t move the story forward. That hurt because he was right on target. It was the scene I struggled with the most when I was writing the book and I was never really happy with it.
The best news for me in the end was how deeply these readers feel about many of my characters, both those that appeared in the first book and one I introduced in the second book, an eight-year-old named Max. This is particularly important when you’re writing a series, and I was happy to assure them that Max plays a prominent role in book three, which is now in the hands of my publisher, who is shooting for a release date of September 2018.
Because of what I learned last night, there are some changes I’ll try to make as we edit that third book, and that’s the real value of a book club appearance. Authors, especially relatively new authors, truly value the feedback – whether it comes at a book club meeting, a short note, or reviews on Amazon, which are increasingly important to new authors. That’s true when the review or feedback is mixed or even negative. It may sting for a day or two or three (of course it does), but a good writer will keep coming back to it in hopes of learning something that will make the next book better.