What book clubs can teach authors

My novel, The Paris Effect, was written with book clubs in mind so it’s probably not 100% surprising that more than a dozen reading groups have chosen it as their book of the month.

However, I am still overwhelmed when the groups invite me to their meetings. What a huge gift to hear reader reactions firsthand. So many questions! So much sharing! Everyone always laughs about the crazy “dieting rules” and especially the crazy stuff that happens to Amy in Paris. Everyone always wants to know if the Paris catacombs are real (they are). Amy’s story of yearning to escape–from her food issues, from her life–has prompted some fascinating and even touching personal stories. I am always humbled.

Flo book group 3

Even better, though, is that book clubs have taught me tons about fiction writing. Every time I spend an evening with a group I am inspired anew to really think about what people look for in a book. (And by “people” I mean real readers, not other writers.)

So far, I have identified five major “must haves”:

Some humor. If a book makes you laugh, or even just smile, that book has gone a long way toward justifying its existence in the world. Book clubs in particular gravitate toward stories with humor (maybe because it’s more fun to laugh together).

Some action. We all admire beautifully sensitive, elegantly crafted novels but most people also need something to happen. As in, readers want to be told a story. Novels without much action or discernible plots can be worth reading but they are much harder to finish. Book clubs tend not to be crazy about them, I think because the members are usually busy people, many of whom only have time to read ten or so pages at a sitting.

Some information. Book club members seem to be especially curious about the larger world. They love learning new stuff about history, music, art, culture, science, geography and more. If they can learn it while being entertained (for example, like while reading a novel), then so much the better.

Some art. Novels are an art form and all humans appreciate art that is beautifully produced. Yes, we can enjoy (sort of) a poorly written story–if it has simply tons of humor, action, etc. But it turns out that most of us enjoy a book infinitely more if the language is pleasing to us. As a word person, I was thrilled to find that writing still matters.

Some emotion. Most book club conversations center around which characters they rooted for and which they definitely did not. In fact, that’s the biggest thing I learned–that readers need to get emotionally involved in a story; otherwise, why bother? Unless you are feeling something real, it is just too easy to put a book aside and not pick it up again.

Now that I write all this down, it sounds kind of obvious. Of course readers want a well-written story with engaging characters and an interesting plot. But, oh, when you are writing, how easy it can be to neglect action in favor of background, or forget completely about the importance of comedy.

Which is why I now find that while I work I think about these five “must haves” all the time. Not only that, when I shared them with my own book club, we found that they are a good jumping-off point to evaluating most any book, fiction or non-fiction.

So, thank you, darling book clubs. You have no idea the impact you’ve had, and how often your words continue to ring in my head.

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“A Paris few casual tourists see”

When I lived in Paris I sometimes wrote for the Paris Voice, an English-language newspaper for anglophones living in France.

The Voice still exists, lo these many years later, and did this write-up about The Paris Effect (referencing Rules for the Perpetual Diet, the book’s original title). It is below. My favorite part is about the “Paris few casual tourists see.” It’s true–Amy experiences a lot of crazy (tho entirely possible) stuff during her week in France.

“Rules for the Perpetual Diet, ” a new novel by K. S. R. Burns, tells the story of 10 days in the life of Amy, a perpetually dieting 29-year-old who yearns to escape her small life in Phoenix for a bigger one in Paris. Plagued by a plethora of dieting “rules” (there are 33 of them), and dealing with a demanding husband as well as the recent loss of her best friend, she surprises herself and does manage to escape, only to discover a Paris that few casual tourists see—not the romantic Woody Allen Paris but a multinational, multilingual Paris of street hustlers, puddles of pee, diesel fumes, and thieves. A Paris where, like Amy, you can be robbed, stalked, arrested, and almost kidnapped. But where you can also encounter kind strangers, learn to eat raw oysters, and go on risky escapades to the forbidden catacombs.

Burns is a Seattle author, whose previous book, “The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl,” is based on her own experience holding over 50 jobs in 4 countries over the past 40 years. She lived and worked in France for 3 years. She is a former writer for “Parisvoice” and currently writes a weekly jobs advice column for “The Seattle Times.” K. S. R. Burns, is her “fiction name.” Her non-fiction is under Karen Burns.

Kirkus Reviews described “Rules for the Perpetual Diet” as a “can’t-put-down book.” Midwest Book Review called it a “fun, vigorous read.” It is a suspenseful, moving, and at times hilarious tale about love, loss, motherhood, Paris, food, and finding yourself that you would love.

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“fun…amazing” – 3rd review

Thrilled to be reviewed in Moira Redmond’s popular and enormously clever blog, “Clothes in Books.”

It focuses on, yes, the clothes characters wear in books. What a great niche! Part of the charm of this blog is that Redmond manages to find photos or illustrations that perfectly capture the mood of the book she’s considering. She sure succeeded for The Paris Effect; the photo of a model striding along, swinging a tote bag and wearing a “fingertip-length black trench coat” is absolutely perfect. Fits my mental image of Amy to a T. And the photo of a gritty Paris street, the Sacre Coeur looming overhead, is equally wonderful.

In addition to her popular blog Redmond is a book reviewer for The Guardian, meaning she reads a LOT of novels. So I was very pleased when she remarked about mine, “Best just to enjoy it. It has a very twisting plotline – you never know what will happen to Amy next, and (unlike so many books) I had no idea how she was going to end up.”

Anyway, you’ll have to go to her site for the rest. (Please note that this review was written when The Paris Effect was still called Rules for the Perpetual Diet.) Stay and look around. The vintage illustrations are to die for.

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“A fun, vigorous read” 2nd review!

I have a soft spot in my heart for the Midwest Book Review. They are based in Wisconsin, after all, the state of my birth. And they reviewed my last book (The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl).

So I was thrilled when they agreed to review Rules for the Perpetual Diet! Here it is:

Rules for the Perpetual Diet
K.S.R. Burns
www.ksrburns.com
Booktrope Editions
9781620156261, $15.95 pbk / $3.99 ebook

It’s not a diet plan per say and it has little to do with nonfiction but Rules for the Perpetual Diet is a novel covering ten days in the life of a diet-obsessed twenty-something woman who perpetually struggles with weight gain and loss. Sound familiar? Well, don’t get too comfortable: the familiar is about to be turned upside down as Amy’s opening line snags attention: “Kat is dead. I am not. What I am is hungry. And majorly pissed off…”

In a few lines Burns has captured what all too few novels manage to grab: reader attention. And that attention continues as Amy plans a trip to France in an effort to avoid thinking about food (really??) and finds herself in a new world both strange and familiar at the same time.

Rules for the Perpetual Diet is replete with humor: “I had thrown the tea and the muffin into the trash can and now – how is it possible to want food at such a time? – I could eat a cow, an elephant, a house, the planet.”

It’s also replete with the culture of France, the agonies and connections of family and relationships, and one feisty woman’s interactions with life: “If I were here with William I wouldn’t have got my purse stolen. I wouldn’t have barfed up my breakfast in the street in front of the Cafe de la Poste. I wouldn’t have been stalked by the Sacre-Coeur biker jacket guy. But I wouldn’t have met Margaret either. I wouldn’t be sitting here, inside a real French apartment, the guest of a real Parisian resident, digesting oysters and slugging back Montrachet in the middle of the day.”

As readers move through the story, one surprising facet is uncovered: its ability to subtly but insistently insert the elements of a diet plan and insights into self-image, motivation, and food obsession within the course of a winning story of Amy’s struggles.

Threads of humor make for wry observations and fun moments that take serious encounters and turn them on end: “…news flash – you can’t lock self-storage lockers from the inside. This is probably the first thing that people who try to live in them learn. I experimented with jamming the mechanism with a toothbrush but it didn’t seem secure, and neither did a shoe, and neither did a two-pound sack of elbow macaroni, so I ended up moving the entire collection of boxes. Then I sat down and waited for morning, staring at my protective wall of food. I will donate it all to some worthy charity soon. Or, better yet, throw it out. Why should people who need to take charity have to eat crap?”

The story is about food and obsession – but it’s also about Amy’s discovery of her self outside of food, love, and life’s slings and arrows. It’s about her breakthroughs of what she needs in life and what she needs to lose – physically and figuratively. And, ultimately, it’s about baggage and change. Woven within the story of her personal revelations is – yes – insights on diets, how they work, and why they don’t.

Any female reader struggling to understand rules of engagement and dieting will welcome this unusual blend of a fictional story, a feisty, believable protagonist’s journeys, and the underlying purpose and realities of dieting and weight loss that all combine to make for a fun, vigorous read.

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“A lovely ode…” 1st book review!

Every author sweats reviews. So it was with joy, and relief, that I announced my first review for The Paris Effect.

It’s from Kirkus and it’s below. If you want to see it at the Kirkus site, click over to here. (Note that the review was written when The Paris Effect was still called Rules for the Perpetual Diet.)

In Burns’ (The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, 2009) novel, a perpetual dieter decides, after her best friend dies, to follow through on “The Plan” they had made to go to Paris.

Recommendations for writing a can’t-put-down book: Make your protagonist funny, introspective or complicated—better yet, all three—as well as someone whom readers will immediately recognize and feel compassion for. That compassion has to hold up no matter how dubious the protagonist’s choices. For 29-year-old Amy Brodie, the decision to go to Paris is hardly questionable, but how she goes about it is. While her engineer husband is away on business, she sneaks away from their Phoenix home and boards a plane, intending to use cash she has stored away and to lie to her husband during daily phone calls. “Kat’s death, William’s wanting to start a family, the siren song of food—I traveled ten thousand miles…to get away from those things,” she says. Food, or the avoidance of it, controls every aspect of Amy’s life. She lives by a set of dieting rules. Rule No.11: “abstention is easier than moderation”; rule No.25: “feast your eyes first.” Of course, Paris isn’t exactly the best place to avoid carbs; neither is it a great place to avoid self-awareness. The Plan doesn’t go quite according to itself, and before long, Amy is trekking through Paris’ underground with a ragtag team of Frenchmen and sampling buttery croissants. Although Burns excels at the “rules” of good writing, her well-crafted novel is too moving to be formulaic. Amy’s struggle through her grief is touching, as is her feeling of being trapped. “Being demoted from independent working woman to dependent unemployed spouse can freak out a person” she says. “I want to get away from this life that has somehow become my life.” Her attempt to escape never stops being an absorbing adventure—not until the gratifying final moments, when we find out whether she succeeds.

A lovely ode to Paris, friendship, spontaneity and forks—both on the plate and in the road.

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