You Can’t Read the Same Book Twice
This came up in conversation with a good friend who wanted to read a draft of the book I’m currently putting the final touches on (and/or the one after that, which hasn’t been seen by an editor yet but is in pretty good shape).
My take on the issue is that I generally don’t want people* reading something that’s going to be a “real book,” because the final iteration is almost certainly the strongest, and people don’t usually want to read something twice.
[*Beta readers, which I use very sparingly, are a somewhat different issue.]
He and I had an interesting/informative discussion around this, and after trying to explain my thoughts, what I boiled it down to was this: No matter how hard you try or how well intentioned you are, you really can’t read the same book twice.
Not that you can’t read the same actual pages twice. To very good effect, even.
But… will it be the same story—to you, and to your reader-brain—the second time? With the same amount of resonance?
I’m going to posit that no, in some ways it may not be.
An obvious reason is the “aha! factor” will be largely missing. The big reveal, the who-dunnit, the shrewd turn of the screw, the unexpected reversal… none of these will have the impact they originally did upon the reader. Even if they forgot the details in the intervening months between reads, it’ll come flooding back as soon as they get one small bit of what should be foreshadowing (which becomes a full-on spoiler to someone who’s read the book before).
Also… the reader changes with the passage of time.
And… the story also changes in relation to contemporary norms.
And… in some way, the story changes the reader.
As writers, it’s important to realize that all of this really applies to our own work.
Which is why we want to choose carefully when it comes to betas. Not who the betas are (also an important topic we’ll dive into in another post) but when—in the story process—you involve them. Too late in the process (after everything is drafted and revised and re-written and polished and has one foot in the mail) and they almost can’t help you, except to say “I liked it,” or maybe “not my cup of tea.” Like asking for architectural input after the foundation is poured and the walls are up, right?
But there’s also a cost to bringing them in too early. Once they know the story—the surprises and plot twists—sure, they can comment on them. But when they read a more finalized iteration down the road, the work won’t have the same impact as the first time they read it. After a while—and after enough reads—a work seems to attain a certain inevitability about it, which makes it harder to imagine things being different than they already are.
One answer is to not bring them in until you feel the work is somewhat “readable,” as a whole, but not totally buttoned up. That way they can comment on how it works as a story. Realizing that their later reads will be more about the actual writing—including any new revs, of course—without as much information about how the story as a whole affected them. (Because they’ve already been inoculated against plot impact, as discussed.)
Another option is to use more than one beta, but only use each one once. Maybe get input from someone who’s good with story development early on and someone with more of a copy editor mindset for later versions, etc. (Really, this is a personal decision based on what you want from betas. Some writers want input regarding where the story should go, and others mostly just want to know if there were any sections that “didn’t work,” so they know where to focus revising.)
But the main thing to keep in mind—as a writer—is that this effect will impact your view of the book also. (For one thing, by the time it’s ready for primetime you’ll have been through it so many times that if you’re not careful, your brain will auto-correct any mistakes as you read.) But beyond that, when you know a story this well, you’ve built up a mental model of it that contains much more than is actually on the page. (Everything currently in the ms plus everything you’ve written then cut plus everything in your internal backstory plus everything you’ve ever thought about it.) It’s all there, in your mind… but it’s not all there on the page.
The nearly-impossible task is to read exactly what’s on the page and then make editorial decisions based only on that, ignoring all the other story-related stuff in your brain. Time away from the story can help here. As can relying on outside input for a more objective view. Which brings us full circle, to an awareness that because we can only read a story “for the first time” once, we should shepherd our early readers carefully.
Having said all this, I want to reinforce that re-reading a book is often really rewarding and valuable. (A worthy topic we’ll dig into later.) We have a librarian friend who has taught us the huge benefits of deep re-reading, and I have to say that yes, I really can get something new from each re-read of the same book.
But perhaps it’s not really the same book…
Or more to the point, perhaps I’m not the same reader…
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.