I recently ran into a writer of romances who was very proud that she had written and published three books (an entire trilogy) in a single year. It reminded me of Truman Capote’s famous quote when someone pointed to the best seller status of Valley of the Dolls. Now there’s no question but that Capote was a literary snob who really knew how to say something snide. Still, his comment that Jackie Suzanne was not writing but only “typing” is pretty memorable.
It’s possible to write a book pretty quickly, particularly if it’s been simmering around in your head for an extended period of time. But remember, that’s a first draft. I think the real challenge in writing is tweaking the book once it’s written to make it even better and maybe even memorable. I’m not sure you could do that and still write and publish three books in a single year. It is possible certainly to write three books that read reasonably well and have interesting plots, but would that alone make you want to read the books again?
So, what makes a book memorable enough to make you want to read it a second time or even a third time? Why are there some books that I routinely look forward to re-reading year after year? Here are some things I look for in a book that make me want to re-read it to the point that I can almost quote entire sections?
PLOT: Clearly the plot has to be interesting enough to keep me reading. Ideally, there are interesting subplots that beautifully meld together so that the sum total is greater than the parts. I also enjoy enjoy discovering subtle foreshadowing elements in a plot that I can appreciate upon re-reading the book. As a novelist, I can appreciate how cleverly the writer plants these unobtrusive signposts that later ring all kinds of bells for any reader who remembers them. Stephen King is a master of plotting. I’ve re-read his 11/23/63 several times and see something new each time.
CHARACTERS: There are certain characters I think of as real people not only because I’ve read about them so many times, but also because they are fleshed out real people with flaws that make them even more likable. Sometimes it’s their distinctive voice and sense of humor. I really like the John Corey character Nelson DeMille created. I once worked in a police department and Corey reminds me of some people I met there. His sense of humor still makes me laugh even though I’ve read the same jokes each time I re-read the books in which Corey appears.
SETTINGS: It’s always fun to be thrust into a setting completely different from your real world setting. Whether that’s the imaginary world of Harry Potter or Dune or even the real but exotic Ethiopia that Nelson DeMille describes in his new book, The Quest, doesn’t matter. I tried to describe modern Cairo in Egypt Rising. That required me to rely on my memory of my trip there but also on several guidebooks I used to fill in gaps in my memory. It also required me to study maps of the city.
USE OF LANGUAGE: Some books scream “literary novel.” Nowadays some of those books seem overwritten. Still, there are some popular modern writers who offer books filled with rich language without making their novels seem stuffy or unreadable. Ann Patchett does a wonderful job describing the rainforest in State of Wonder. Each time I re-read that book, I catch something I missed the first time.
Finally, there’s something comforting in picking up a favorite book, one that you’ve read many times before. The fact that you know what’s coming doesn’t prevent you from enjoying the anticipation of what will happen. The thriller you read the first time worrying that a character you like might be killed is different now that you can enjoy the story because you KNOW that your favorite character will survive. When I re-read some of Michael Connelly’s mysteries, I can enjoy Harry Bosch without worrying something will happen to him. I can enjoy the way Connelly plants red herrings, possible suspects, while planting enough clues so you feel satisfied when he reveals the real killer. I re-read Faye Kellerman’s books often, and I find I appreciate them even more the second or third or fourth times. Since she has a couple who reappear in several of her books, I can enjoy retracing the development of the relationship between Rina and Peter.
As a reader, I look for books that I hope I’ll enjoy enough to want to re-read them. I write novels with the hope that they’ll become a reader’s good friend, someone the reader will want to visit again and again.