02 October 2015

Breaking Out Of Solitary

My first official post as a SleuthSayers contributor—my first big deadline here!—arrives at a busy confluence of events. The Fall for the Book festival, which I've helped run for more than 12 years at George Mason University, is still underway as this post appears (and battening down, scrambling to reorganize as a hurricane looms), and next week, Bouchercon begins down in Raleigh, and just a couple of weeks back, my first book came out (with all the busyness that entails), and on the same day as the launch party, I was a speaker at the Fairfax County Public Library's Book Club Conference and....
Well, the point of all this isn't that it's a busy time, but rather that I wanted to set up a focus on one of the elements that threads through all these various events.

My role at the library's Book Club Conference was to talk about how to moderate a book group—tips and tactics to help keep discussion going, keep the focus on the book (instead of the wine!), and keep everyone involved and engaged. Before I got into specific recommendations, however, I asked people what they wanted from a book club in the first place.

I already had my PowerPoint prepared—the next slide ready to provide my answer to the question—so I hoped that the comments from the attendees would jibe with my own thoughts and expectations, and it turned out they did. "I want to learn something." "I want to read a book I might otherwise not have picked up." "I want to see what other people thought about what we read." "I like getting together with friends." "I wanted to meet new people." Or even as simple as: "I wanted to do something different, and I learned that I liked it."

Here's the PowerPoint slide that I put up at the end of that part of the conversation:

And it's those bolded words at the bottom of the slide I want to talk about now—and not just in terms of reading, but also writing, another solitary act.

In certain circumstances, reading isn't a solitary act, of course. We can attend a reading; my wife and I can read to our son; and in fact, I read to my wife pretty regularly as part of our evening routine, as I talked about in a recent column for the Washington Independent Review of Books. But most of the time, reading is one person engaging with one book at their own individual pace.

Similar, writing can be a collaborative process, of course, but that image of the writer alone with her pen or alone in front of the computer is a persistent one for a reason. We engage with the page—trying to capture in words those characters and stories our imagination has conjured up.

The connection, then, becomes this: solitary writer --> piece of writing --> solitary reader. And in the process, there's also this connection implicit in that one: solitary writer --> solitary reader.

A book club provide the opportunity to expand that solitary reading experience into a shared one. What did you take from the book? What were your attitudes about this character? What did you think of the author's decision to....? And in the process, what emerges is: What did we think of....? —not a decision that will reach unanimity, but a conversation that serves to be bigger than the sum of its parts.

During all my years with Fall for the Book, there have been two types of moments that have struck me as central to our mission—and neither depends exclusively on the actual programming we've hosted year after year. Those readings and panel discussions are part of the larger engagement, of course: hearing authors read from or speak about their works. But what strikes me as more important is when a reader comes in holding a well-loved copy of a book and meets and asks a question of the person who wrote it—making manifest somehow the connection that already exists by virtue of those two solitary experiences I mentioned above, with the book as the connecting point. The other moment is when that reader turns to another person holding another well-loved copy of the same book and says something like, "Didn't you love it when....?"

A book club or a book festival serve to turn the solitary experience of reading into a communal experience, hopefully enriching connections and perspectives and understanding.

And for an event like Bouchercon ahead, opportunities exist not just to connect readers and writers but also to connect people within the community of writer. Networking is inevitably an important aspect of conferences. (How many people will be meeting with their agent or editor next week? How many will be looking for a new agent or courting an editor? How many might ask a writer friend to suggest an agent?) But beyond those more goal-oriented aspects, there's something more important that's gained by being not so alone—by meeting and greeting and sharing anecdotes with others who have elsewhere been toiling alone over those notebooks or in front of that screen, making physical and concrete those connections and that camaraderie that already exist in myriad ways.

I enjoyed your book. I admire your work so much. What you do—it matters, it meant something to me.

I just wanted to say that.


  1. Very best of luck with your book.
    But don't be modest, mention the title!

  2. Haha! Yeah, I should've done that, shouldn't I? But really wanted to keep the focus elsewhere...

  3. Good column, Art. I love talking with others about books/stories that I/we have read, and we do a lot of that at the writers' meetings I attend. As for the writing itself being a collaborative process, I've tried that only once, and found it difficult. I admire those like Preston and Child, who can do it so well, over and over again.

    It's sure great to have you here at SleuthSayers. Looking forward to seeing you at B'con.

  4. Thanks, John! I've never tried writing collaboratively, though I know some can. Josh Pachter, a good friend, has done many short stories in collaboration, and he talked with me about one, but I haven't followed through yet—despite interest. We'll see how it goes!

    Just opened EQMM last night to read your new story, but then Dash called my attention away. Looking forward to it!

  5. Good stuff, Art. And welcome to Sleuthsayers on your first official post.

  6. Art, I loved your 'solitary writer --->solitary reader' image/point. I'm now thinking how interesting that is, that both ends of the process are solitary, but there are a whole bunch of people in between, if you are with a traditional publisher.
    Welcome to our motley bunch here at Sleuthsayers!

  7. Oh, yes, Melodie -- indeed! Too many people in the middle of those connections, of course, the path toward getting the books in the hands of readers. But my comments weren't about the path to publication, merely the experience of writing and reading, the connection to the book (more of a rhetorical connection, to fall back on what I tell students in composition classes). But thanks for the other angle here!

  8. Art, welcome to SleuthSayers. You'll do well here.

    I remember meeting you for the first time in a convenience store at the St. Louis Bouchercon. We discussed writing $500 mini-mysteries for Woman's World magazine. Did you ever crack that market? If not, then John Floyd would be the one to talk with in Raleigh. He's sold several to them.

  9. I remember that meeting, R.T.! And no, I've still fallen down on submitting to Woman's World.... Bonnie Stevens was just talking about it as well at a panel I moderated earlier this week as part of Fall for the Book--and it reminded me I needed to try my hand at it. Thanks for another reminder here!

  10. I'll join in welcoming you to SleuthSayers--I've been here only a few months myself, but I guess that makes me enough of an old-timer to welcome newcomers. I enjoyed your column. It reminded me of one of the things I miss most about teaching--getting to discuss books and stories and poems I love with students, to compare their responses with my own, to argue with each other and help each other understand. It was fascinating, too, to discuss the same work with different classes and to see how much responses could vary from class to class and from year to year. In all my years of teaching, the challenge and the pleasures of those discussions never got old. (Grading stacks of essays, on the other hand, could get old pretty fast, and that's one reason I'm glad to be focusing on writing now.)

  11. My mother and her mother belonged to numerous clubs, some which they helped start. They named their book society Mu Beta, not that I have a clue how the name relates.

    Locally, the Morse Museum (famous for its Tiffany glass collection) provides the meeting place for a local book group with a twist. The ladies review new books with an eye toward purchases by their local library.

    As for non-solitary reading, my favorite is settling in on a sofa before a fire, my feet tucked under my girlfriend and vice versa.


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