I was asked recently by a cousin whose book group is reading No News is Bad News, the second in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series, if there were book group questions.
The short answer? “Coming right up!”
I admit, it’s not something I immediately think about providing — weird journalism hours since 1983 means I’ve never been in a book group — and my publisher didn’t ask for any. After Cold Hard News came out, a series of questions and comments from a cousin whose group read it (different cousin, big family) prompted me to come up with some questions for that book, along with some involved commentary to go with each question.
This time around, though, instead of giddily thinking about all the things someone might want to know about the background that led to the questions I formed, I thought more deeply about the point of book discussion questions, no matter what book they’re for.
In general, they should be questions for which there are no wrong answers. The purpose should be to spur further discussion and possibly make readers look at the book from an angle they hadn’t considered before.
One question I’ll never include: If the book were made into a movie, who would play the characters? I know from experience that’s a big one with book groups and readers in general. I joked recently on Facebook that, at the risk of making readers hate me, it’s a question I don’t enjoy answering. Why? It has to do with how I write, how my head works and how reading works. I don’t go into a lot of detail about how characters look when I write them because I believe that readers’ imaginations are fertile enough to draw their own picture and I don’t want to get in the way of that. Some characters in my books are more detailed than others, but none are extensively detailed. When I’m asked that question, I never have a good answer, because the pictures in my head are of my head and I’d no more compare one of those characters to an actor than, well, I would compare myself or my mom or my boss to one. The question stalls me as I struggle to come up with something to please the asker, but I never can follow through because I can’t come up with something to please me.
That said, I realize readers will play that game, and that’s fine with me. Once they’ve read the book, the characters they have in their heads are theirs to do with as they please.
One big resolve on my part was that the questions I’d come up with wouldn’t invite negative responses about the plot, the writing style or choices I’d made. For instance, “Did the flashback scenes confuse you?” or “Do you feel any characters didn’t ring true?” or “What were the holes in the plot?” I don’t know if such questions are the norm, but I’d be nuts to set off a discussion that had the sole purpose of criticizing the book. I figure if people have issues or don’t like it, they can easily make those points without my help.
In the end, my biggest goal was to prompt readers to think about the elements of the book that were important to me when I wrote it. I want readers to feel something and be drawn in. Did that work? If so, how? So the questions are designed to prompt that type of discussion. But I also know people want to talk about things that aren’t as deep. A little less English-classy. What they liked, reactions to characters or what the characters do. The — ugh — plot (toughest part of writing for me). So some of the questions are geared toward those type of things.
I know enough about how such discussions work to understand that they’ll veer off topic. I think that’s great and hope it spurs more questions. I’d love it if book groups sent me their own, or told me how it went.
The most important thing to me, as always, is that people are reading my books and care enough to talk about them once they’re through.
Isn’t that what all writers want?
To see how I did, go to the book group page on my website, maureenmilliken.com.
Maureen will have a reading and signing at The Children’s Book Cellar, 95 Main St., Waterville, Maine, 10 a.m. to noon, Saturday, July 23. Come by and say hi!
Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. No News is Bad News, the second in the series, was released earlier this month. Follow her on Twitter @mmilliken47, on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, and sign up for updates on her website, maureenmilliken.com.