Friday, December 7, 2012

THE LADIES OF THE CLUB



Writers crave feedback.  We’re like junkies, living for that reaction from the reader.  We work hard to elicit that gasp of surprise, that laugh, that tear, that bond with the characters.  We want to know our words have the power to move our readers.

So we seek out first critique partners and beta readers, then contest judges, and finally reviewers.  Not because we’re uncertain of our talents, though that may sometimes be true, but because we want to know:  did we get through?  Did we speak to you?  Did you hear?

It is so wonderfully gratifying to hear a resounding “YES!” coming back from an audience of like-minded readers, be they your critique partners or the Golden Heart judges or the SFR community that has embraced our new authors Pippa and Sharon.  But it is even better when that affirmation comes from a community of readers new to genre fiction in general.

I recently had the opportunity to share my Golden Heart®-nominated manuscript Unchained Memory with members of the Cultural Expressions book club of greater Richmond, Virginia.  The club, consisting of fifteen African-American professional women of a wide range of ages, has been reading and discussing books together for at least ten years.  My critique partner, Linda Thomas, is a member and made it possible for me, my book and the club to come together at the December gathering.  (Thank you, Linda!)

Unchained Memory is not like the usual book club selection for Cultural Expressions.  From what Linda and the members of the group told me, they tend toward weightier fare—historical nonfiction about slavery or African-Americans; African-American authors like Toni Morrison; biographies, such as a recent selection about Dietrich Bonhofer.  They did read Linda’s excellent self-published historical romance set in the Civil War, told from the point of view of an escaped slave.  In general, however, they tend not to read romances, even for their own pleasure (only one reader admitted to it when I asked).  And no one reads science fiction (although two did admit to being STAR TREK fans as kids).

SHOOT ME NOW!  SHOOT ME NOW!
So as I approached my afternoon with the book club I felt a little like Daffy Duck in those “Hunting Season” cartoons with Bugs Bunny.  You know the ones—where he and Bugs argue and he ends up saying, “Shoot me now!”  He spends the rest of the cartoon trying to sort out where he went wrong in the argument, only to end up in the same place—like, fifteen times.  In the end, he simply paints a target on himself, turns to the gun and says, “Shoot me now, shoot me now!”

But though I was nervous about my debut before the ladies of the club, in the end what I discovered was what every writer hopes to find.  I had made a connection, however unlikely, with this group of readers.  Ten of the fifteen women of the club were at the get-together, and they had all finished the book.  They had all connected with my characters and wanted to know what happened next to Ethan and Asia.  They got involved with the mystery and the romance.  They booed my villains and cheered my hero and heroine.  They even felt they knew my secondary characters. 

The internal conflict at the heart of the book was of special interest to several members of the group who work as Licensed Clinical Social Workers and in other mental health professions.   Ethan, my hero, is a psychiatrist who falls in love with his patient, a strict taboo in the profession.  One member, in particular, had problems with this at first and said she might not have picked up the book in the first place because of it.  But she kept reading (because it was a book club selection) and eventually liked Ethan so much she forgave him.  Besides, she said, this is not real life.

True.  It’s romance, where the internal conflict is often built around a societal taboo—the lord of the manor falls for the governess even though he’s still married to his crazy wife, for example.  Love is supposed to conquer that internal conflict.  The ladies of the club seemed to think I’d handled the conflict well enough by making Ethan and Asia agonize over the question, so they let me get away with it.  I got extra points for writing realistic therapy sessions and for making Asia a LCSW at the end!

The heat level of the novel was another major point of discussion.  Only a couple of the ladies were willing to say they appreciated the graphic nature of the love scenes in the novel.  Most said it was too much for them.  But they did understand when I explained that the paranormal romance market expected graphic sex to be part of the mix and that I hoped to capture some of that readership.  Then, too, if a specific editor says it’s too much and wants things changed, it’s a simple matter to tone down a scene.

And what of the science fiction?  Was the group turned off by the references to little gray men?  Only one reader said she skipped the sections set on another planet. The structure in Unchained Memory is such that she could do that with little loss of continuity, but that reader probably wouldn’t enjoy my second or third books, where the SF is more integral. The others were intrigued—some wanted more.  I was asked for recommendations for more science fiction romance.  (First on the list—Ghost Planet and Keir!) My little SFR-loving heart leapt for joy!

This group was not at all put off by the emotional beginning to the novel, in which Asia's children die in a fire.  They saw it as essential to the book.  And no one mentioned the fact that the book is written in first person for Asia's POV, third person for Ethan's.  Guess that didn't bother them, either.

In the end, it appeared I didn’t need to wear that target on my chest.  I guess it wasn’t duck (or author) season after all!  On the contrary, even though the ladies of the club would not appear to be my “core” audience, I had spoken to them.  They had heard me.  And with what I heard back from them, I’ll write with more confidence in the future.
Cheers, Donna

4 comments:

  1. Ooo, thanks so much for the recommendation, Donna! I'm not sure I'd have been brave enough to do what you did, but I'm constantly surprising myself, and how cool that you've attracted some readers to at least try some SFR.
    And yes. I, for one, want constant reassurance that the key elements of my story have come across. But any feedback is generally useful in some way.

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  2. Wow, Donna this was fascinating! Good for you for taking the plunge. Unchained Memory is such an intelligent novel that I'm not surprised they liked the psychological and conflict elements. And how interesting that they had no problem with one of the taboos (never kill a child) or the unique POV presentation on the part of the characters.

    I'll bet this was a huge confidence builder. I wonder if more pre-published authors should consider taking their work to a book club to get honest feedback. The outcome may not always be as positive as yours, but it seems to me getting thoughts from readers might have more value than feedback from judges and peers who have been steeped in the "You Can't Do That in a Novel" culture.

    Great blog post!

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  3. Donna -- first, Congrats on contracting with an agent. That's great! (been away too long, sorry)

    And that was brave to do what you did. So glad you had mostly positive feedback from the ladies of the club.

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  4. Actually, this may have seemed brave, but it was a very warm and welcoming experience. I do recommend it to anyone, if you can find a way to do it. The feedback was invaluable and it was a great way to expand my circle of potential readers. BTW, welcome back, Kaye. We haven't seen you in ages!

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