I’ve used a reading group for three of my four novels, and those three have all benefited from the experience. The first novel, where I didn’t use one, showed it.
I’ve used my group (four friends whose tastes and intellect I highly value) for two things: 1) to reflect the tastes of regular readers, including telling me where they’ve gotten lost in the narrative, which characters ring true and which are formulaic, and whether I’m broadcasting future events. 2) To unstick me where I’ve gotten stuck.
I’ll give you an example of #2, since it happened just last week. The novel I’m currently writing, The Forever Game, goes into two worlds, the startup culture of Silicon Valley and the biotech industry. I don’t need to research the first one, having spent 30 years in it and written a book about it (The Ultimate Startup Guide, written with my former business partner, Carol Broadbent. The second one I know jackshit about. Luckily I was put in touch with folks at MIT who have helped quite a bit (as well as my co-author, but I’ll save that for another blog.)
The book as I outlined it needed a saboteur to the company’s effort. In outlining the book, I came up a few sabotage scenarios, with the appropriate characters involved. They made sense in the outline, but as the characters came to life, the sabotage scenarios made less and less sense as proposed. But I kept writing, believing that, as the characters developed, the right scenario would suggest itself.
Wrong. As we finished Part Two (of five) and started discussing Part Three, where the saboteur is introduced, both my co-author and I felt stuck. We could continue plowing ahead or call a halt until we were sure of both the saboteur and the type of sabotage. So we called in the reading group. One of them suggested a new character, which we all liked. The another member suggested that this character develop a crush on our lead character, and sabotaged the product not maliciously but so that they could then step in, save the day and kindle the romance. Bingo. I took their suggestions, developed the character and we’re back on track.
One note: the idea came from the group, but their ideas about the actual character didn’t work for me. After the call my co-author and I noodled about this character and came up with ideas that ran counter to the group’s. Which is fine, certainly for us and hopefully for them. So my guidance on using a reading group is this: 1) listen hard and with your ego tucked in your back pocket; they only have your (and the book’s) best interest at heart; 2) don’t respond immediately: take notes and let things germinate for a day or two; and 3) use only the parts of the feedback that work for you. They won’t be hurt. And if they are, then fire their asses and get a new group.