Book group “rules”

Book group “rules”

About 12 months ago we welcomed a new member to our little book group. At least I thought we were welcoming, but it turns out that perhaps we weren’t quite as welcoming as I had imagined. Our new member has decided to quit, citing the need to get up incredibly early to catch the 5am train, but we all know that we could have done more to make her feel like part of the group.

It wasn’t all our fault of course. Sometimes people just don’t gel with other people and that’s ok. It’s probably really hard for a new person to join our group which has been meeting for about twenty years. We have a good understanding of what kind of books each person likes to read, and we often swap books that we think another member will like, but we don’t mind branching out into something new every now and then. It’s very boring to read the same kind of books all the time. I like to think we aren’t too narrow in our choices although we mainly read fiction.

The last book we read was non-fiction and was chosen by the new person and I found it a difficult and sombre read. I was glad I had read it, but it was an awfully dark book to read in the middle of a pandemic. It didn’t help that it was a true story. A horrifying tale of man’s inhumanity to man set on Manus Island. If you aren’t familiar with what happens on Manus Island, let’s just say that it makes me ashamed to be an Australian.

I expressed these views at our meeting. Perhaps I should have kept them to myself? Was she offended that I didn’t enjoy the book she had chosen? To be honest, it’s not a book that anyone would enjoy, but it’s an important book and I think I made this clear.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I’ve come up with some ideas (I hesitate to call them rules) on running your book group.

  1. If people don’t like the book you’ve recommended, don’t take it personally and don’t apologise. We once read a book that I recommended and loved, and my friend said it was “like eating cold porridge.” I thought her comment was hilarious. Some books are just not for you and that’s okay. You are allowed to love books that other people hate. It’s nice when everyone says “I loved this book” but it’s not necessarily desirable, and it’s definitely not mandatory. Some of our best discussions have occurred when half the group loved the book and the other half hated it.
  2. Try to give some space to the quietest person in the group. They usually have something brilliant to say if everyone else shuts up and gives them a chance.
  3. Communicate with the group in between meetings and don’t leave anyone off the email list or they’ll get miffed. Try to make sure that everyone “replies all”. Private messages just confuse things and leave some people in the dark about what is happening. Feelings can be hurt.
  4. Don’t try to keep the conversation completely on the book. Tangents are ok and sometimes very interesting. We’ve had some awesome discussions about the themes of books (motherhood, grief and loss, sexuality) and if someone had insisted that we “must go back to talking about the book” then these discussions would never have happened.
  5. Be forgiving if people forget what the book is or what date the meeting is. If you’ve taken on the role of unofficial secretary, send out a reminder. People are busy and have a lot going on in their lives. (This is actually a note to self. I get annoyed when people forget when book group is, but my life is relatively uneventful. Also, I put it in my calendar!!)
  6. Try to find ways to diversify your reading. There are some fantastic books out there that aren’t on the best seller list. Try reading some translated books, some classics, and some genres you don’t usually read. Also try graphic novels, YA fiction, poetry and memoir. You might be just on the verge of a great new discovery. Here’s a great blog if you are interested in hearing from different voices.
  7. Check that the library has at least two copies of the book before you recommend it. Not everyone has the financial means to buy new books.
  8. Also, it’s worth checking out what kind of book boxes your local library can provide. They often have multiple copies of books just waiting to be borrowed by book groups.
  9. Try to have some kind of system for choosing the next book. Our group usually has a list of books we think we’d like to read in the coming year but we still spend ages trying to decide what to read next, so this year we are trying a rotation method where each person takes a turn to choose the book. I’m not sure whether this is working for everyone, but it does cut down the time trawling through possible reads and it means everyone gets a chance to choose at least one book they like.
  10. Just to reiterate point one (and because a list of 10 points is tidier than nine) please remember that what you have in common is curiosity and a love of reading and that if no-one likes the book you chose, it’s okay. After all, it’s not as if you wrote it.

Do you have any suggestions to add?

What are you consuming?

What are you consuming?

A young girl is found dead in the forest and the killer is at large.

I often wonder why we are attracted to this scenario when it’s such cliché. It seems that in nearly every new thriller another girl is found dead in the forest. How many forests are there in the world? And why is it always (or mostly), a young girl who’s been murdered? And more importantly, why do we continue to watch these shows and read these books when the world seems to be falling down around our ears. How has it become normal to watch the re-enactment of a murder as a way of winding down after a hard day at work, or escaping from the realities of the news?

I’m not judging you. I’m exactly the same. I’m looking out for that great new show or book that will take me away from a world where disasters are much too real and terrible things are happening. I recently watched an entire series on SBS in just a few days which I know isn’t anything unusual, people binge watch all the time, but it’s unusual for me.

Perhaps fictional murders are easier to deal with than real life. No doubt there’s a lot of psychology here (and a few PhDs in the making), but for my money I think that the fact that we know it isn’t real is somehow weirdly comforting. The mystery element of working out “who done it” engages our brain and takes us away from our everyday problems.

To offset my viewing choices, I’ve tried to expand my mind with some non-fiction titles during my time at home, but I’m still drawn to murder mysteries as they are just so consumable. It’s so easy to just keep reading, sometimes late into the night. The room painting project is suffering and so is the writing.

I wonder if you are drawn to murder mysteries in these strange times or whether you are after a good comfort read? I’m trying to alternate between books that inspire, educate or inform, and just pure escapism. I can churn through light fiction in a couple of days, but the more serious stuff seems to take weeks to read, even though it’s good for my mind and my soul.

I try not to feel guilty about reading light fiction, in fact I don’t know why I even think I SHOULD feel guilty.

There are enough things to worry about without thinking that your reading isn’t up to scratch.

After all, who’s judging? I don’t worry about what other people think but sometimes I get to the end of a book and feel like I’ve been eating fairy floss. I haven’t learnt anything, I haven’t filled up my brain with any goodness, I’ve just distracted myself for a few hours. I suppose there are worse vices but I’m conscious that my reading and viewing choices are a bit unsatisfying. A bit like eating too much ice-cream, enjoyable at the time but not very nutritious.

For me, the best solution is to find books that are compelling, well-written, but not too demanding. I’m quite keen on endings that are uplifting. They don’t have to have a happy ending, all tied up in a bow, but I do like to finish a book feeling that things will work out eventually.

Do you have any suggestions that fit those criteria? I already have a massively long TBR, but one can never have too many books to read.

The writer’s contract

The writer’s contract

I’ve just finished reading a book with a maddening ending. It was a well-constructed mystery with quite a complicated storyline full of lots of twist and turns and I was really enjoying it until I came to the end and found that ALL the clues were essentially red herrings and that the truth was something entirely different.

I think that when you read a mystery you are entering into a kind of contract with the writer. They feed you clues (a few red herrings are ok) and you try to work out who the baddies are and why they committed the crime.

At the end of this book I felt like I’d been cheated. No-one was really who you thought they were, and everyone was lying except for the lead character who’d really just been duped by everyone else. I wouldn’t have guessed the ending in a million years (which is ok, I’m not a detective) but I like to be able to look back through the story and see that the clues were all there if you looked hard enough.

I won’t name the book as it got rave reviews and I admire and respect anyone who can actually write a whole book, but all the same, it was disappointing. I might read another book by the same author as I liked her style and the lead was pretty quirky and interesting. It could have just been me that missed the clues, but I really don’t think so…

By contrast, The Wife and the Widow by Christian White has a really satisfying ending which you don’t see coming (and I won’t give it away) but when you look back you can see that it all makes sense. I read a review that said you could see the ending a mile off, but me, I didn’t see it at all.

This got me wondering where the term “red herring” actually comes from. According to this article, red herrings (being very smelly) were commonly used to train animals (horses or dogs) to follow a scent, but the term was first used in a literary sense by the British journalist William Cobbett in an article about the press allowing itself to be misled by false information. I guess that would be called “false news” these days.

I don’t like too many red herrings in books unless they are explained later. It’s too easy to throw in random clues that have nothing to do with the storyline. I especially hate it when people are described as ‘suspicious’ and turn out to be perfectly normal. Why tell us that someone is suspicious if they aren’t? It’s breaking the writer’s contract. I expect the author to tell me the truth and keep their part of the bargain, otherwise I just get cross.

What about you? Is there anything that drives you crazy?

A new coat of paint

A new coat of paint

I’m currently renovating our spare room which involves removing some very old wallpaper. We’ve been living here for 24 years and it’s always looked a bit tatty, but in the last few years it’s been looking more and more sad, so it’s definitely time for a spruce up.

My back is playing up (the result of not enough exercise and a chronic lower back problem which flares up now and then ) so progress is slow. But now that I’ve started, I can’t give up.

I’ve always been very stubborn so that’s nothing unusual.

Today while I was working my way around the room, I was thinking about the time I made video about a peer support program at one of the local high schools. This entailed going to a sport and recreation centre with a group of 14-year-olds for the weekend. At the time I had a frozen shoulder so I could only use one arm properly. I couldn’t lift my left arm above my head without shrieking with pain but nevertheless, I went out in a zodiac (inflatable boat) and filmed them learning to kayak. I also videoed them abseiling and doing a high-ropes course and I was glad to have the excuse of being one-armed so that I didn’t have to admit that I was afraid of heights. I sent the little hand-held video camera up on a pulley and one of the trained staff filmed the kids in close up, trembling as they inched their way across the high wire. I remember one boy freezing in the middle of the rope, petrified that he would fall even though he was wearing a full harness. I felt for him and his obvious anguish, mixed with embarrassment.

The point of the weekend was to train the kids to feel confident about talking to their peers about their personal issues, including their attitudes towards drug and alcohol consumption. The idea was that they would relate better to their peers than the teachers and would be able to positively influence their choices. They were a hand-picked group who were either natural leaders or thought to be “at risk”, the idea being that being involved in the program might be good for them. The local police sent a terrific youth liaison officer on the camp and he talked to the kids about his experiences of picking up young people off the street who were so drunk that they could hardly stand. He was an amazing speaker and they listened closely to everything that he said.

I interviewed every single young person at the camp and I still have the raw footage. I wonder where they are now? They would be all grown up, about 32 by my calculation. I wonder how many of them made it through adolescence unscathed and if the training program helped them to think differently about themselves or helped them make different choices? I wonder if just being singled out as a “leader” made them feel special enough to protect them from the peer pressure that so often results in disastrous consequences.

Who knew that stripping wallpaper could be so thought-provoking?

As I throw the yellowing floral wallpaper into the bin, I think about all the choices we make in life and how great it is that we always have the chance to start over with a new coat of paint.

We Are Not Ourselves – book review

We Are Not Ourselves – book review

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to focus long enough to read an entire book.

It’s incredibly hard to concentrate with so much going on in the world and although escaping into a book seems like an easy thing to do, in reality you need to choose exactly the right book in order to be transported into that parallel universe that a good book can provide.

I’ve just finished reading “We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas. I put off reading the last chapter because I didn’t want it to end, but I was also a little bit nervous in case it just trailed off. Some novels do that, it’s as though they don’t quite know how to finish. I don’t like endings to be too tidy and twee, but I do like books that give you some sense of things being put right with the world.

It’s a lengthy book (600+ pages) about a marriage between two very different people. Eileen comes from Irish immigrant stock; Ed is a college professor with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. But it’s not just about navigating his illness, it’s about all the ways that relationships evolve over time. It’s about love, death, and birth, and finding compassion for yourself and others. The blurb on the back says that it took the author ten years to write and it’s easy to see the time and effort that went into crafting this novel.

I have a soft spot for books of this kind. You’ll find them frequently in my lists of favourite books and I think this is because I like to know what happens to people as they grow and change. I like to see how people mellow as they age, and how they start to think about things differently. I’m also very partial to books that remind you about what really matters.

At the end of the book, the son reads a letter from his father which says…

When the world is full of giants who dwarf you, when it feels like a struggle just to keep your head up, I want you to remember that there is more to live for than mere achievement. It is worth something to be a good man. It cannot be worth nothing to do the right thing.

Matthew Thomas

Being a good person has value. Good reminder.

Forget Platform—Build a Bridge

Another great piece of writing advice from Allison K Williams. I read everything she writes. She’s always good value.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

There are three big myths about platform.

Myth #1: platform = social media followers

You may have seen writers on Twitter with statistics like “20.1K followers, 20K following.” Some writers build these numbers with “#writerlift” posts (everyone follows everyone else), or use apps to mass-follow hundreds of accounts, hoping they’ll follow back.

That’s not a platform. They have racked up numbers with people they can’t actually engage with. They are followed by people who clicked as reciprocation, not genuine interest.

Even truly impressive social media followings seldom translate to actual book sales. Social media numbers reflect, rather than cause, popularity.

Myth #2: platform = going viral

Only sometimes! If you’re writing memoir or nonfiction, writing a “hot essay” can get you a book deal. For literary fiction, a powerful short story in a great literary magazine can get you an agent.

Or it may not. You can’t control what’s going…

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One thing you can do to improve your writing

One thing you can do to improve your writing

A few weeks before I started my long leave, I was walking past a coffee shop on my way to work and I had an overwhelming desire to go in and order scrambled eggs and a large flat white and just sit outside in the sunshine watching the world go by.

It seemed like a much better option that going into the office and facing a barrage of emails and work requests, and it was at that precise moment that I realised that I was really a bit over going to work.

Every Monday morning I would sit at my desk and feel slightly overwhelmed at the big “to do” list in front of me, especially since many of the tasks seemed to be the same things that I’d been doing for the last few years, with very little impact.

I started to realise that perhaps I was just going around in circles, preaching the same sermon about the need to simplify projects, systems and services to a mostly deaf audience.

No matter how many times I tried to say that we were making things too complicated, it seemed that there was a strong desire for wordy inaccessible documents and for reports so obscure and protracted that only the most enthusiastic reader would ever make it to the end.

Making things simple and understandable has been my whole life’s work and in reality, it’s been a failure. People like things to be complicated. It looks impressive. It makes you seem smart.

It’s bad for the community, but really, who cares? Apart from the community of course.

Recently, my friend Sue sent me a link to the new strategic plan for our local Council. She had bravely tried to read it (and make sense of it) and was despairing about the poor writing, overuse of trendy meaningless terms and general inaccessibility of the document. It was obvious that although the stated purpose of releasing the draft document was to encourage “community consultation” it was written in a way that clearly prevented this.

We had an interesting conversation about whether these documents are written with the intention of being deliberately obscure, or whether the tendency to write like this is driven by ignorance, or just people thinking that this is what you are supposed to do. A combination of one or all of these I suspect.

My friend highlighted the extensive use of ‘weasel words’ (words that people use when they are trying to avoid telling the truth) and also sent me a link to the awesome bullshit generator which I love for its awfulness.

The tool is designed to generate bullshit for your next meeting, proposal or interview with your boss. You press the button and out comes a stream of unintelligible, meaningless phrases that sound oh so impressive but mean absolutely nothing. What’s really alarming is that I’ve actually seen some of these phrases used quite recently.

I know that writing is hard for many people. The rules of grammar are sometimes confusing and inconsistent, and many people feel daunted by the prospect of writing long documents.

But there’s one thing that you can do to improve your writing straight away.

Don’t try to sound impressive, just try to be clear.

Don’t fuss about your writing style. Don’t try to sound smart. Just say what you want to say.

Often when people write very wordy documents, I ask them to tell me (out loud) what they are trying to say. Unsurprisingly, they are often able to articulate that very clearly. Then I say, just write that down. What you just said was clear and concise, so just say that. It’s easier than you think.

Things I miss about being at work

Things I miss about being at work

I’m on a six-month sabbatical from work. This seems like a strange thing to say as we rarely use the term ‘sabbatical’ in Australia unless you are an academic or other high-flying type.

Most people in Australia would say they are taking long service leave, or they are having a long break (known here as leave without pay). There are very generous leave provisions for public servants in Australia and I’m grateful for that and the many other benefits of living in this sunny and clean environment, but I don’t want to sound too smug.

I thought I’d better check whether sabbatical was the right word to use and found that Dr Google describes it as…

“A break from work” during which employees can pursue their interests, like traveling, writing, research, volunteering or other activities (or even rest). During that time, the employee is still employed at their organisation, but they don’t need to perform their normal job duties or report to work.*

So yes, I’m taking the opportunity to pursue my interests (writing and research) and getting plenty of rest, but I’m not currently doing any travelling unless you count going to Kmart to buy some new slippers.

Many people have asked me if I wanted to cancel my leave given the Covid situation, but to be honest, I was grateful not to have to think about work when the whole pandemic thing started. I was too busy panicking and trying to figure out if we would survive (so far so good) and I was finding it extremely difficult to concentrate, so I was glad when my holidays started.

But now that things have settled down a bit and restrictions are easing; I’m starting to feel guilty about my lack of writing progress and general inability to start working on any of my lofty goals (making a podcast, writing a book, starting a newsletter).

I’m struggling with not being at work.

As well as missing my co-workers (who are very nice), I miss the tasks coming into my inbox – please read this report, please write a briefing note, please review these survey questions. At work you don’t have decide how to spend your day, the work comes thick and fast. Sometimes it’s something you enjoy doing and sometimes it’s tedious, but there’s always lots of it. My favourite tasks are the ones which involve editing other people’s words to make sure they make sense. I think I would have loved to have been a book editor. Maybe in my next life…

Being at home with lots of time on your hands means that you have to be very deliberate about your choices. I think this is what is trendily known as being intentional. It strikes me that living an intentional life requires a lot of effort and is intellectually demanding. You have to choose between activities that help you make progress and those that are just using up the hours until you’re allowed to have a glass of wine or watch that new show on Netflix.

You have to avoid going down rabbit holes like reading reviews of every mattress-in-a-box that’s currently on the market and downloading sample chapters of every new bestseller that’s being released in May, many of which you have no desire to read.

It means actually reading the books you were planning to read when you had the time. Yes, that time is now folks, so get reading, but it also means taking the time to rest and reflect on what to do for the rest of your life which is very tiring, I can tell you.

If you are working from home or retired, on leave, or between jobs, I hope you are doing well. Maybe you are trying some new things or just trying to survive as best you can. Whatever your situation, stay safe.

*The concept of the sabbatical is based on the Biblical practice of shmita, which is related to agriculture. According to Leviticus 25, Jews in the Land of Israel must take a year-long break from working the fields every seven years. A “sabbatical” has come to mean an extended absence in the career of an individual to fulfill some goal, e.g., writing a book or travelling extensively for research. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbatical

Editing is a gift to your readers

Editing is a gift to your readers

My plan to do more writing during my six months off has been going quite well. Some days I’m quite productive while others are spent procrastinating by doing avoidance activities such as ironing and cleaning out cupboards.

I love the peace and quiet, but sometimes I feel quite restless. It’s not that I particularly want to go anywhere, I just miss the structure that being at work gives your day. I’m also missing the learning aspects of being at work, so I’ve been entertaining myself by doing an online course in non-fiction writing. It’s a free course on Teachable led by an instructor who is really quite arrogant and rude to his colleagues. I couldn’t bear to work with someone like that, but he does seem to know what he’s talking about. He’s had four books on the New York Times bestseller list, so who am I to criticise?

I’m learning quite a lot. I’m about halfway through, and it’s usually at about this point that I get bored and/or find some kind of excuse to avoid doing the hard graft. Most of the content is delivered as pre-recorded webinars but they are often quite drawn out and repetitious which I find frustrating. My editing background makes me want to snip out the parts where they go off topic or just start waffling on about nothing.

Yesterday I discovered that you can play the videos at double speed which makes it a bit easier to get through the content. I find it easy to listen to audio at a fast speed and still understand what they are saying.

Even though I’m very critical of other people who find it hard to get to the point, it’s something that I know I’m also guilty of. Often this is because I don’t know what point I’m trying to make until I’ve got something down on paper.

Many writers claim that they write to make sense of what they are thinking. The very act of putting something down on paper forces you to get to the nitty gritty of what you are trying to say, but sometimes you have to approach it from a few different angles before it becomes clear, even to yourself. I guess that’s where editing comes in. You should never be afraid to edit out extraneous material, no matter how hard it was to get those sentences out of your brain and down on paper.

When I was working, I was often the recipient of very long emails (brain dumps) where people just put all their thoughts down without any thought for the reader. It always reminded me of that old adage “I would have made this shorter if I’d had more time”. I guess they figured that their time was more valuable than mine, or that I might really appreciate knowing all the details of how they arrived at their final position. Usually I didn’t really care that much, I just wanted to know what they wanted me to do. Cut to the chase! Sometimes the backstory is relevant, but you need to be judicious about which details add value and which are just fluff or a description of your thought processes. This can be hard if you’re not used to editing your work.

If at all possible, I recommend not pressing send on your email straight away or running it past another reader to make sure it makes sense. We used to do this all the time at work and it’s really helpful. A little bit of time gives you perspective.

My point is not to get too precious about your words. If you care about your reader (and you should definitely care) then take some time with everything you write to consider who will be reading it and what it is that you are really trying to say.

Please don’t send me your chain letter

Please don’t send me your chain letter

I was ranting to my husband this morning about all the “tasks” being assigned on FaceBook whereby people are asked to post pictures of their favourite albums or book covers WITHOUT ANY EXPLANATION!

I was annoyed because I couldn’t understand how posting a picture of a book you loved, but not telling me why you loved it, doesn’t tell me very much about who you are and what you like to read. It’s a bit like going to book group and then not being allowed to talk about the book.

My husband gently explained that the requirement to post without comment was designed to lower the entry barrier so that people could participate without getting too anxious or feeling judged about their choices. He said it takes a lot of confidence to express your feelings and opinions and the ‘rule’ about not making comments makes it easier for people to join in.

“It’s all right for you and your family” he said. “You can all write, and heaven knows you all have opinions and aren’t afraid to share them”. Too true. We all have a lot to say and we aren’t backward in coming forward, as my mother used to say.

Chastened, I’ve had to change my stance on this FaceBook phenomena.

A friend has tagged me to share five of my favourite books and I can’t wait to do just that. I did complain about not being able to make any comments, but she said I could do whatever I liked, which is good because I’m not very good at conforming to rules.

I thought briefly about sharing the titles of books that I’d like to read, rather than books I’d actually read, just to make it more interesting, but that might confuse people so I’ll try to stick to the rules as much as I can. If you’d like to know which books I recommend, there’s a list here.

On the other hand, I have yet to be convinced about the value or worth of all these email chain letters that are going around. If you aren’t familiar with these, then let me explain that they usually ask you to share something with a person you’ve never met and then send the request on to 20 of your friends to share with 20 of their friends. The idea is that you’ll get a number of recipes, inspirational quotes or poems from people that you’ve never met. It’s a bit like pyramid selling without the selling.

 I thought I was the only person who dislikes chain letters, but it turns out that I’m not.

My friend said that she had received one about sending inspirational quotes to support and empower women, but she didn’t understand quite what she was supposed to do (the instructions weren’t very clear) so instead of feeling good about herself she said she felt stupid and uninspired.

Nothing is more disempowering that feeling dumb.

Another friend chipped in and said that she loved the idea of supporting other women, but she didn’t like the vaguely threatening tone of the email or the time limits. She also said she felt bad for women who don’t actually have 20 friends. What if you only have five friends?

Chain letters often contain high levels of emotional blackmail. If you don’t send the email on you will “break the chain” (be a bad person) or you’ll suffer some kind of bad luck.

The chain letter craze started in the USA in the late 19th Century and often involved people distributing cures for various ailments or asking for small amounts of money.

It may surprise you to know that chain letters asking for money (even small amounts) or any kind of valuable goods are illegal in the United States and were banned in Queensland in 1935. The other states of Australia thought that they were a craze that would die out naturally, with one prominent NSW Police Officer stating, “there’s a fool born every minute but there’s a limit to the credulity of the public”. I often wonder about this given that people still seem to feel obliged to send chain letters on, even when they don’t want to.

I’m not suggesting that a recipe swapping chain letter is by any means illegal, but they can be annoying (especially if you get the same one three times) so please don’t send them to me.

I think the intention behind empowering women with inspirational quotes is lovely, so if you feel like sharing some love, just send a nice email to your (five or more) friends. They don’t have to be women. I’m sure they will appreciate that you are thinking about them.

Alternatively, just put your nice inspirational quote on FB or Instagram and share it with the world.