By Claudia Cangilla McAdam
A recent blog post I read on the Where Writers Win web site encouraged authors to include reader’s guides for their books. It’s something I’ve done for years, and I thought it might be fun to share what I’ve created, how I’ve gone about the process, and what impact that material has on my marketing as well as my readers’ experiences.
Whether they’re called Book Club Notes, Discussion and Activities Guides, or simply Resources, providing supplementary material for your book – at no extra charge! – is a way to give readers (and teachers and parents) much-appreciated added value.
Types of Reader’s Guides
- Back-of-the Book Material. Ten to twelve questions that spark thinking and conversation about the book as a whole may spur someone who didn’t think of your book as a book club contender to think again. Questions can deal with the book’s characters, plot, theme, or how the story impacted the reader.
- In-the-Book Teacher’s Guides. This was a must for my two-volume set of books, Portraits in Character, which was published for use in the classroom. The profile of each hero presented in the book concluded with “thinking questions,” “writing ideas,” etc. A writer for the educational sector who is good at putting together guides such as this can find a nice market for her work.
- Additional Information about the Story. This is back-of-the-book resource material that doesn’t provide discussion questions. I’ve used a page of my 32-page picture book The Mermaid’s Gift to include an author’s note that gives the history behind the subject matter of the book. For The Christmas Tree Cried (the story of the White House Christmas Tree), I devoted four pages in the back in order to situate the story in history. And the inclusion of photographs lent to me by the White House adds greater appeal.
- Separate Book Club Notes. I wrote one of these for my YA novel, Awakening. Adult book clubs and school classrooms alike have used it to dive deeper into this work of Biblical historical fiction. I also make available a teacher’s guide as well as chapter exams and answers. This book has been assigned as summer reading, been incorporated into schools’ curricula, and been used as an extra-credit reading option.
- Outside Resource Material. In my book A, B, See Colorado: An Alphabet Book of the Centennial State, I included back-of-the book information as well as direction to my web site, where I have assembled links to dozens of sites that allow my readers to investigate the locations photographed by John Fielder, whose pictures illustrate the book.
- Discussion and Activities Guides. I produced such a guide for both The Mermaid’s Gift and Kristoph and the First Christmas Tree. The latter book’s guide, for example, is fourteen pages and provides discussion questions and writing prompts as well as fun activities that teachers and parents can choose from, depending on the student’s age.
The Creation Process
If you enjoy conducting research, so much the better, when it comes to creating guides. Writers already do research for their works, and it’s not too difficult to pass some of that information along to their readers.
I particularly like writing Discussion and Activities Guides for picture books because it’s another creative outlet. I use bits and pieces of the book’s illustrations and other graphics to help to give the guide strong visual appeal.
By including things such as a vocabulary list, a word puzzle, a maze, and a craft, a writer can extend the book’s enjoyment for a child, and the process of designing the guide is a good starting place for the author to develop talking points for school presentations.
Some of the ways I use my guides in my marketing efforts include:
- Linking to the guides in an email in which I am trying to arrange a school visit. If the teachers can view the types of material I have already assembled, they know it’s less work on their part when they present and discuss the books with their students.
- Printing out sample guides. I like to have these available when I do a book signing. I can tell the adults buying the book that this guide is available for free through my web site. Everyone loves getting additional material at no added cost.
- Mentioning the guides in query letters. When proposing a new book to a publisher, I like to mention the fact that I write my own Discussion and Activities Guides (and I can link to one in an email). That’s an added benefit to a publisher, who would love to have this type of material, but doesn’t want to pay to have it developed. My publishers then have put links to the guides on their own web sites. Again, I believe a guide is a tool that can drive sales.
Those are just a few of the ways I use the guides I write to help generate school visits, to help promote my work, and to show potential editors/agents/publishers that I’m serious about supporting my books.
There’s satisfaction in creating this method of connecting author to reader. Just last week, for example, on a visit to my mother-in-law in a nursing home, the social director was reading to a group and discussing one of the stories in Portraits of Character (my father-in-law had donated a copy). It worked out so that I was able to sit in on the discussion that was being drawn from the guide for the book.
This week, I will be taking part in an elementary school book club discussion of The Mermaid’s Gift. In March, I have three school visits with middle-grade students to discuss Awakening. From interacting with senior citizens to little kids to young teens—I’ve gained much more than can be imagined. What a blessing!
What gets you excited about reader’s guides for books?
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By Anna-Maria Crum
From the title I bet you’re all expecting some writing exercises, but you’re wrong. Consider this a plot twist. I want to talk about ways of sparking your creativity by doing mindless activity, like swimming laps. When you do something repetitive that doesn’t require a lot of thought, it relaxes your mind. It’s almost zen-like. Plus it’s a great stress reliever.
After swimming laps I’m relaxed and energized at the same time. My mind is buzzing and all sorts of ideas pop into it. Sometimes even while I’m swimming a line of dialogue or a plot detail will pop into my head at the same time I’m mentally concentrating on four, four, four, then five, five, five—counting off the laps as I swim. Then the problem becomes remembering my idea and/or dialogue while I finish my swim. Confession—I sometimes lose track of my laps when that happens.
Other times I’ll get ideas while I’m driving home from the gym. Then I’m scrambling for a piece of paper to scribble on while I drive. Second confession—it can be difficult to read my handwriting when I do this as I prefer to keep my eyes on the road instead of the corner of the envelope I’m trying to write on.
I have also found walking as an idea generating activity. I used to take a dictaphone with me when I walked my dog. I got some very strange looks from the people I passed. The problem, I discovered when I played the tapes back for transcribing, was that I automatically changed my voice for each character. I had no idea I was doing that. And there is no way I can stop myself (I’ve tried) so I don’t dictate anymore. I’m afraid someone might call the people in the white coats to take me away. I just spend the time thinking now.
Another idea generating activity is driving. A couple of years ago I was driving back from Fort Collins to Denver and I decided not to listen to the radio. Instead, I decided to think of a plot for a novel. I had been trying to come up with a plot for several months. The previous two years I was editing stories I’d written and hadn’t started anything new during that time. Unfortunately, I discovered it was really hard to switch out of edit mode after having been in it for so long and turn on my creative mind. Driving did it for me. No sooner had I turned off the radio and started to think than an idea popped into my head. An idea that was so big I quickly realized it was a trilogy. By the time I got home I had the basic outline for the first book plotted. I hadn’t tried to write anything down while driving since I was on the freeway and it was snowing. It didn’t matter. I was so excited by the idea that my mind was electric. Nothing was turning it off. When I sat down to write the outline, it was all there.
I’m putting this paragraph in a different color because it’s an example of what I’m talking about. I finished this blog last night. While I was swimming my laps this morning I thought of something I want to add to it. I wasn’t thinking about the blog at all. I was concentrating on what lap I was on. And on lap 8 it suddenly popped into my head that I hadn’t explained how I think this process works. Boom, the thought was there. So obvious. If I could have I would have done a head slap, only I was busy doing the crawl (freestyle for those of you under 50). Here’s how I think it works. Our minds are cluttered with all the things we have to do during the day: I’ve gotta take the dog out, I’ve gotta get the kids to school, I’ve gotta get to work, I’ve gotta whatever. Our minds are so noisy with all these things we’ve gotta do that we can’t hear our subconscious tell us about the neat idea its come up with or the solution to the problem we’re having with our protagonist. Doing something repetitive or mundane quiets the mind so the subconscious can get through. It gets rid of all that stress that’s messing with our thinking and in the quiet, an idea can grow and bloom.
So, exercise and repetitive activity is good for the mind, your body, and your writing. Give it a try. You may find yourself inspired.
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By Laura K. Deal
The deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman got me to thinking about how easy it is to admire the giant talents as they fully express their artistic visions. Beyond just enjoying their work for what it is, there’s the awe of their complete engagement with their art. While many factors determine how well-known an artist is, there’s no requirement for fame to answer to the demands of our creative work, even when that takes us in unexpected directions.
I’ve always been a fan of well-written memoir–the struggle to understand self through the lens of memory and reflection is akin to any other struggle for fuller self-awareness. Over the years, I’ve written some of the stories of my life, but I haven’t ever struggled through the long process of actually finding within those stories the truth of who I am and what shaped me. So when I came across Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, I read it in hopes of deciding whether that’s a path I want to commit to or not.
The book draws on her years of experience teaching and writing memoir, and she uses other memoirists’ examples to good effect. I’m still not sure I would undertake writing a memoir for publication, but as I sit at a creative crossroads, it’s tempting to consider trying it just for my own understanding. I grapple with my angels and demons every day, so why not try to discover where they come from, and what they’ve been trying to teach me all these years?
Reading Karr’s book, I learned a lot about craft and what to consider regarding this literary form, but I also found resonance in a quote she offers from G.H. Hardy, a mathematician and memoirist who wrote of what he considers his small contributions to the field:
“I have added something to knowledge and helped others to add more; and these somethings have a value that differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them.”(Quoted by Karr on p. 217)
What better quote to encapsulate how I feel when I consider the work of artists who enjoy great success in the world? I may not have their success, but if I have done my own work faithfully and honestly, I have added something to the world. So I tip my hat to the giants, grateful for their work, and dig a little deeper into my own.
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by Denise Vega
I have the privilege of being part of the launch of the Regis University Mile High MFA in Creative Writing. It is a low residency program and we had the first residency January 4-10. I am a mentor for Young Adult Literature and was among some high-powered talented whose words flowed and bumped and created deep and powerful meaning.
I was in awe.
And incredibly inspired. I’ve never taken any formal poetry classes, but I used to love creating images with words, infusing them with meaning and ending up with something far more powerful than any element by itself. Listening to poets read their work sparked something inside me; I wanted to play with language like that.
I have done some of that in my books, but I have also loved the pure joy of writing well-rounded characters that are real and true and funny all at once. My current work-in-progress is much heavier and does have more poetic/literary writing in it and a part of me felt like I was coming home.
It started in the first craft seminar I attended, taught by Kathy Winograd, a writer of poetry, creative nonfiction, essay and more. She had some wonderful exercises that really ignited my imagination and creativity and I felt a stirring of something dormant making its way to the surface.
I spent one of my breaks rewriting some early sections of the novel, feeling the excitement of infusing a new approach to the work. It was thrilling and I can’t wait to get back to it!
I highly encourage writers to take a class outside their category, genre or type of writing. Get out of your comfort zone and try something new or return to a type of writing you haven’t tried in awhile. See where it takes you. See how it makes you feel.
No matter what happens with it, I’m sure you will come away a better writer.
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