My writing has improved because I participate in a book club. No matter how poorly crafted the book under discussion, I find value as a writer when I attend the Avid Reader’s Book Club. These die-hard readers have taught me volumes.
Through my book club participation, I’ve learned that readers hunger for edge-of-your-seat, page-turning tension. Moreover, they want a book that’s honest and a story that’s believable. Readers are discerning. They are smart. And they are tough.
Our club rates books on a scale of one to five. Out of 102 books, how many have received a unanimous top rating of five from all group members? None. Zero. Zip. On of our highest rated books, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, only achieved 6 out of 11 “five” ratings. And 55 out of 102 books didn’t receive any “five” ratings at all. Think about that for a moment. That’s over fifty percent of the books we’ve read.
Our top-rated books show that subject matter isn’t the issue. We’ve had topics ranging from the experiences of three girls in Africa (Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver), a woman swapping lives with her grandmother and vice versa (The Mirror by Marlys Millhauser), and the childhood experiences of a boy in Cuba during Castro’s overthrow (Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire).
So where do writers fail their readers? Unlikable characters for starters. Readers want to rally behind someone they sympathize with. But even a fantastic protagonist won’t pacify the readers’ thirst for action. And giving these enthusiasts an ending that meanders into oblivion is sure to ruin even the best prose.
Why are readers so hard to please? Perhaps readers are too demanding. They tend to draw on their own experiences to measure the accuracy of a book. Readers want characters to react to situations in a way that is consistent with how they think the world works. It is sobering to realize that life experiences are so varied that to achieve this reality for every single person is probably impossible.
And yet these women keep devouring books like a bowl of chocolates. Why? Some like engaging in wide-ranging discussions about relevant issues to society. Others want to read novels they’d never pick out themselves. Some merely want to keep reading a priority in their lives. For writers like me, it’s an opportunity to learn what inspires readers to read.
My book group has taught me to endeavor to find universal experiences that will endear my characters to all types of people. Book group discussions have forced me to ask “How can I add tension to this scene?” and “Should I end this chapter as a cliff-hanger?”
I keep waiting for an author to produce a book that achieves that unanimous “five” rating. After a decade, that degree of excellence still remains elusive. I am grateful for the high standards of readers because they have made me a better writer. They are a tough crowd to please. I wouldn’t have it any other way.