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April 9, 2009

Sandra Gulland: How a Book Club Changed Me as a Writer

Posted by carol
Book clubs typically read and discuss an author's work after it's published. Sandra Gulland calls on some lucky groups to offer feedback on her novels before they hit the shelves --- including her latest, Mistress of the Sun, which imagines the life of Louise de la Valliere, mistress of Louis XIV. In today's guest blog post, she shares why she finds these book club critique sessions so important.

Sandra is also the author of a trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte: The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe and The Last Great Dance on Earth. And if you're planning a book club jaunt to France, on her website she shares suggestions for places to visit related to her novels.

A meeting with a particular book club in 1997 was enormously important for me, a turning point in the way I worked as a writer. My first novel, The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., had been published a few years before and I was in the last stages of writing the second in the trilogy, Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe. I'm in the habit of giving the manuscript to readers at various states for critical feedback, but somehow, I didn't feel it was enough. Long before, in my previous life as an editor of novels for young adults, I would pull together groups of teens to discuss a manuscript. What I learned from these discussions invariably astonished me. I wanted that intense editorial focus now, for my own novel.

Driving home from the book club meeting, it suddenly came to me: book clubs were what I was looking for. Book clubs were ideal critical readers. I contacted my publisher the next day: would it be possible to set this up? No problem! A group was contacted: they were thrilled. My publisher made the required number of copies and sent them off. As with my teen reader groups, I instructed the book club to tape-record their discussion. I sent them a letter, briefly telling them what I needed to know: where the story slows down, where the reader begins to skim. Of course I also wanted to know the parts of the story they loved, but that would come of itself, in their talk.

A month or so later, I got a slim cassette in the mail. Anxiously, I put it into the tape player and listened --- listened to a book club discussing my book. I listened without moving through all of it. There was joy expressed, squeals of shared delight over certain scenes, but there were also groans of dismay over certain sections. I felt sick.

I went to bed and hid under the covers. The manuscript was due in a few days: how could I fix it? As the sun came up the next morning, I grabbed the manuscript, pulled it into bed with me and began reading. Suddenly, I understood. "No wonder they were having trouble!" I thought. The opening chapters were turgid, slow-going.

That day, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. The opening chapters were slashed. I retrieved an earlier, better opening, revised it and set it in place. I went through the tape a second time, listening for other spots of difficulty. I read through my pages, evaluated, decided and revised. In days, a new, and much, much improved Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe was ready to send out.

I have since made it a practice to have not one but two book clubs review a manuscript at the very last editorial stage. My editor tells me I'm brave. Rather, I'm a coward. I would hate to have a novel go out into the world without first having being strengthened by this "test of fire." Better before publication, than after, when it's too late to make changes.

---Sandra Gulland