How to Organize a Book Club

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How to Organize a Book Club for Readers of Romance

by Pam Chun

More than 24 million women read romance novels (nearly half of all paperbacks sold in America) with sales of 5 million dollars per year. Shelf space in libraries and book stores is packed, and the turnover is rapid. Women's intense interest in romance fiction is the reason to organize a book club.

Getting Organized
Most libraries and booksellers have bulletin boards for notices of organizational meetings. Bookstore owners see financial advantage and will gladly promote such a club. After an initial meeting at a library or bookstore, the group may decide to meet in members' homes.

At the first meeting, members should elect at least two officers, a chairperson and a secretary to keep a membership roll with addresses and phone numbers. The group should schedule a time, place, discussion leader, and hostess for each meeting. Most groups meet once a month. Club members should generate a list of books that they intend to read so that booksellers and libraries will have them. Most clubs read paperbacks and trade them later at used bookstores.

Suggestions for Book Selection
* Select books from one romance sub-genre: classic, historical. Regency, series, contemporary, western, suspense, Gothic, time travel, fantasy, science fiction, young adult, inspirational, or multicultural.

* Select one or two books from each sub-genre.

* Select one prolific author and trace that author's writing from first book to most recent.

* Select authors who write about settings in the book club's locale.

* Select a multicultural romance.

* Select books written by RITA award winners

Biographical Information about Authors
At each meeting, the discussion leader should present a brief biography of the author. Sometimes publishers print this as flap copy. Most libraries have Reader's Guide to Women's Fiction, Contemporary Authors, and other volumes and computer programs that offer critiques and clues to the writer's choice of setting and reasons for a plot twist. The discussion leader might present titles and synopses of other books by the same author.

Discussion of Social Concerns
The discussion leader might prepare a list of social concerns that affect the characters and plot of a romance. Whether the setting is historical or modern, social concerns will primarily involve the heroine's relationships with most of the following people:

* Lovers in courtship and husbands in marriage
* Parents and siblings
* Children (if the heroine has any)
Secondarily, social concerns might involve a broader social environment.
* Conflicts between individuals in the community
* Social hierarchy
* Health and disease
* Threats of rivals or enemies
* Influence of religion
* Standards of morality
* Political and economic forces
* Education goals and career choices
* Social customs and etiquette
* Traditions of courtship and marriage

Discussion of Themes
The basic theme of any romance is that true love will find a way. However, the discussion leader might introduce some of following secondary themes:

* Conflicts between love and duty
* Death and renewal
* Alienation from family or community
* Love and Lust
* Survival during adversity
* Prolonged separation from loved ones
* Abduction, harassment, and rape

Discussion of Characters
Readers become acquainted with fictional characters in the same way they get to know real people. The writer uses physical description and shows the characters' emotions through action, dialogue, and exposition. To enjoy a romance, readers must strongly identify with the heroine.

The discussion leader might first ask if the author has characterized the heroine in a realistic way—

* Appearance
* Intelligence
* Strengths and weaknesses
* Role in society
* Her sexual experience
* Personality changes during dramatic scenes
* Love's transformation
* Reader identification

By contrast, romance readers usually admire an idealized hero like Rhett Butler or James Bond, rather than a dependable husband or boyfriend type. The discussion leader might ask how well the author has characterized the hero.

* Appearance
* Unique mannerisms (heroes usually have them)
* His cynicism about love and life
* Actions during dramatic scenes
* Voice in dialogue
* Strengths and weaknesses
* Why the heroine loves him
* Skill as a lover

Supporting characters are foils for the heroine. Never as fully developed as the hero and heroine, they either provide conflict, intensify the action, or provide support for the hero or heroine. Discussion might focus on one of the following secondary characters.

* Parents and siblings
* A stepmother
* The hero's "side kick"
* The heroine's former fiancé or husband
* Children from a former marriage
* The hero's old flame or the other woman
* A powerful man who covets the heroine.

Book club members might discuss the function of secondary characters:

Do they contribute humor suspense, tragedy, realism? Has the author characterized them well by description, action, and dialogue? Could they be eliminated?

Discussion of Author's Style
Romances contain much dialogue, which moves the plot more quickly than exposition. However, dialogue should be natural to a character and mimic the words of the cowboy as he courts the frontier school teacher just as accurately as it mimics the words of a feudal lord as he abducts the innkeeper's daughter and flees to his castle. If a character speaks a foreign language or dialect, most authors indicate it with only a few words or phrases.

Successful romance writers are not inhibited in writing about sex. Sexual conflicts range from virginal flirtations to eroticism. However, few writers still produce the "bodice ripper" novel. Because love scenes are climactic moments in a romance, a writer must be skillful in describing love scenes. These must convey bodies and souls engaged in passionate lovemaking. The book club might discus the following elements of an author's skill and techniques at writing love scenes:

Use of realistic dialogue
Characterizations of lovers
The narrator
Exposition and description
Action: fast or slow
Sustained tension from beginning to climax
Accuracy in depiction of historical or contemporary settings

Analysis of Sub-genres of Romance Novel
The Regency romance, set in England between 1811 and 1820, is a type of historical romance like Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, in which the hero and heroine engage in conversational repartee and social interaction without much sexual involvement. Typically, the heroine is a chaste virgin until her wedding day. Usually, she has lower social status than the hero, a wealthy aristocrat.

The historical romance, by far the most popular novel, has settings prior to 1950. Some historical novels have become classics like Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, and, Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber. The historical writer displays adequate research based on biographies of famous people and history books for authentic description of settings, clothing, weapons, transportation, and housing. The characters and plot reflect social, political and religious milieu of the novel's setting. However, embedded in the heart of the historical novel is a passionate love story.

Most western romances can be classified as either historical or multicultural. In a classic Louis L'Amour western novel, the main character is a rugged, stoic male who survives physical hardships without benefit of romance except for an occasional visit to a brothel. When a love story becomes the central conflict, and the main character becomes a woman, the scenario changes. The western heroine must be strong and resourceful in her home on the range. There, she is not shackled by social conventions; so she is free to express her sensuality, Heroines exhibit traditional American values of hard work, loyalty and respect for the environment.

Closely connected to the western-romance is the multicultural romance. Until recently, most romance novels had Caucasian heroines. Today, however, one of the most popular heroines in romance novels is a Native American. As with any good historical novel, writers must research settings and tribal customs for authenticity. Stereotyped Indians do not appeal to modern readers. Other popular romances include novels where the heroes and heroines are African American and Hispanic characters.

The contemporary romance is popular probably because readers identify with the heroine. Conflicts that thwart the lovers include problems with the heroine's job, her family, a former mate or lover, or social status. Heroines are usually sexually liberated although not promiscuous. The hero is charming, handsome and athletic but has hidden emotional wounds. The heroine typically rises from rags to riches or from insignificance to social status or career success.

Contemporary novels rely on current events and realistic settings as a backdrop for the heroine's story. Many romance writers live temporarily in the setting of a novel they are writing. Some do medical and technological research if those issues are involved.

Category or series romances have certain guidelines. These novels, with either contemporary or historical or settings, come in two lengths: a short manuscript of 60,000 words, or a long manuscript of 80,000 words. Most have a plot formula: woman meets irresistible man; emotional sparks fly; they acknowledge their love; circumstances tear them apart; they reunite and resolve their problems; they commit themselves to marriage.

Some authors write for several different "lines," a term by which publishers to identify a romance series and the degree of emotion and sexual tension that is involved in the novels. Many authors have several pen names and write for a variety of publishers or different "lines."

The suspense romance, built around a love story, may have a modern setting that involves mystery, intrigue, and fast action. The Gothic romance has elements of the occult with a modern or historical setting in an isolated location, a gloomy castle or mansion. Typically, the hero's role is part of the mystery. Even though the heroine at first perceives him as a dangerous enemy, she is drawn irresistibly to him. In the end he saves the heroine's life or reputation, and they consummate their passion. Novels in this genre are modeled after Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.

Additions of science fiction, fantasy, and time travel romances deal with other worlds, other times, and exotic places. Authors of sci-fi romances create a universe based pseudo-scientific knowledge as the setting for a love story. Settings and plots involve space travel, scientists in laboratories, and robotics.

Authors of fantasy create an imaginative setting. "Low" fantasy refers to settings that have no connection to natural law, for instance a dream sequence. "High" fantasy refers to magical settings in which plants and animals are personified. The hero and heroine possess supernatural powers and interact with mythical creatures like fairies and elves. Authors of time travel romances begin m res media and move settings in flashbacks and flash forwards to accommodate reincarnations of the heroine. This allows for numerous love affairs in exotic settings with a variety of virile, handsome lovers.

Religious bookstores in every city sell inspirational romances. They follow the traditional formula of man meets woman; emotional sparks fly, sometimes in anger, but always with attraction; problems and separations prevent their union; but at last they submit to love's call and solemnly dedicate themselves to marriage. As in the Regency romance, the heroine is chaste. She may be a young virgin, a spinster, or a widow with or without children. As a rule, she is pious and relies on religious faith to guide her. Often the hero is worldly, even a scoundrel, whose life is transformed by his love of the heroine. Certain sexual taboos exist in the religious romance. Readers expect the lovers to express affection and tenderness during courtship as their relationship blossoms. However, readers prefer to use their own imaginations about what goes on behind the married lovers' bedroom door.

Readers of romance novels are optimists. They believe that relationships between men and women are natural and good, that intuition and emotion are the keys to finding true love, and that sharing love is the way to happiness. These popular novels provide an escape from stressful realities that many women face today. Together, members of the book club will learn to discriminate between well-written and poorly written romances. After reading, analyzing and discussing these novels, perhaps a member of the club will be inspired to write one.

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