Friday, 24 June 2011

Rereadability

Over a year ago, I wrote a post called Unputdownability, which considered how to write a compulsively readable children’s novel. Lots of people seem to have got rather good at this in the meantime, and I often see comments on Amazon from young readers discussing how quickly they raced through a book. I remember leaving my own eleven-year-old daughter a copy of Skulduggery Pleasant at 8am on a school day and returning at 6pm to find that she’d read the whole thing!

But, as much as I want to write the unputdownable novel, I do feel a pang of sadness at the idea that my book might be tossed away so quickly. With children’s authors averaging one novel a year, that’s a long time to wait before my next one comes out. Will a young reader even remember my name once that new book makes it to the marketplace? It’s true that this problem becomes lessened as a writer’s career progresses – if I love the new Marcus Sedgwick novel, for instance, he has a ten-year back catalogue for me to peruse. But for a debut author, it’s tough to make a reputation that will stick.

Looking back over the comments on that earlier post, I saw one mentioning rereadability, which I thought was an excellent way to keep your work alive in the reader’s mind. Imagine if, in that year, a teenager reread your book four or five times? Then they would certainly remember you. But then I hit a deeper problem – what makes a book rereadable? Is it just the fact that it was readable in the first place? So I don’t claim to have any answers on this one – consider what follows as discussion points rather than hard-and-fast rules.

  • Brevity - A short book is going to be quicker to read, and reread. Certainly, when I’m selecting a book or a film from my shelf, I’m always drawn to the shorter ones. But is that only a time-poor adult problem? My daughter has just reread Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the third time in six months!

  • Being Either Really Memorable or Totally Forgettable - I’m certainly more likely to reread a book if I remember bits from it I really liked. Memorable characters, dialogue and scenes draw me in a second time. Paradoxically, though, I’m also likely to reread a book if I don’t remember anything about it – that’s like experiencing the whole thing anew. Sadly, in the latter case, I may get halfway through and remember why I put it down the first time.

  • Clever Plot Construction - Much is made of films like The Sixth Sense and Inception, of which the posters will say: “You just have to see it a second time!” By having a massive twist or a mind-bendingly complex plot, such films ensure that patrons will buy another ticket so they can explore what they missed on the first viewing. Of course, you can do this with books too, but I think it’s a harder trick to pull off. Readers are very adept at flicking back and forth through a book, picking out those little clues that you thought were so carefully buried. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t books with an amazing twist at the end that makes you see the whole story in a different light. Please feel free to suggest some in the comments.

  • The Feelgood Factor - Books that make you laugh or feel good are definitely going to promote rereadability. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of days when I feel like something weighty, but a comedy will always hit the spot, regardless of whether I’m feeling up or down. Again, this is maybe an adult thing – teenagers seem to have an endless appetite for darkness and death at the moment.

  • A Terrific Ending - I can’t stress how important it is to end a book well, especially when you consider rereadability. No-one is going to wade through the whole thing again if the resolution isn’t rewarding. I wonder, for instance, how many people read The Knife of Never Letting Go when it first came out, and then didn’t look at it again until Patrick Ness had finished the trilogy?

Ok, there’s your starter for ten. Is there a formula for rereadability? Or is it simply a case of writing a completely brilliant book in the first place? Your comments, please.

Nick.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for expanding my comment into a whole post, Nick!
    Writing: I think writing something re-readable, that stuck around for ever, would be amazing.
    Reading: apart from Harry Potter, I find my best re-reads are usually, not always, older books - I recently re-read Moonfleet, and it was totally fresh. Quite often re-read The Hobbit, too.

    Lesley Moss

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  2. That made me think of the authors I re-read.

    There's Louis Sachar - his entire ouvre - my favourites being Holes and Dogs Don't Tell Jokes. I had a hankering to re-read the Sabriel books by Garth Nix again yesterday. I remember coming to the end of the trilogy andthen heading straight for the first one because I wanted to start again.

    And then there are the Mortal Engines books - I love most of them and re-reading reveals more of the world that I might have missed. And then there are the short stories of Ray Bradbury - I re-read them to savour the lines.

    Which is the same reason I continuously (as in always dipping into) re-read my fave Geraldine McCaughreans - Not the End of the World, The White Darkness and the two Stop the Train books. The language is such a joy.

    Having said that, I also used to re-read the reveals of my favourite Mills& Boone books by Charlotte Lamb, usually involving an amnesiac discovering her true identity ... the bit in the Prince and the Pauper whenthey swap places ... the opening of Desire Lines by Jack Gantos with its delicious description of Florida as rotting cheese slowly dissolving into the Gulf of Mexico or even a few lines of any Jenny Valentine book - with its wry and loving characterization.

    These are the re-readables, it's about endless insight, surprises, reveals and luscious language that is a pleasure to revisit again and again.

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  3. Interesting post.... I wonder if a book is re-readable for the same reasons that an episode of Blackadder is re-watchable or a bar of chocolate tastes just as good as the last bar - because you enjoy the journey even though you know what will happen. Sometimes you enjoy it even more simply because you know what will happen/what it tastes like. Chronicles of Narnia do it for me, amongst others, but if you could bottle the feelgood formula, I don't know what would be in it. It's something to do with a deep connection - you recognise something in the story that you feel speaks to you personally.

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  4. Hi Nick
    I'm trying to get rereadability into my picture books but I think that's a different type of rereadability. Mostly based on the fun of the language and how the words can help to structure the emotional reactions of the children.
    My most re-read book is Harry Potter. I'd love to know why! My second is Lord of the Rings and my third is His Dark Materials.
    Sometimes I think it's like re-visiting old friends, so maybe it's an emotional link to the characters.
    But I've also re-read a lot of the classics and I used to re-read Agatha Christie because I could never remember who did it.
    Oh, and Jeeves and Wooster too, for the fun of the language - and the characters!

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