I recently got the urge to re-read some of the books I read as a kid, specifically the Lewis Barnavelt series by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland. The initial thought that triggered my recollection of the series bears some thinking about. In this case, it was the illustrator (Edward Gorey) whose work I recognized and made me jump back three decades to recall those novels that he also illustrated. Though I don’t think the writer has much control over the choice of illustrator (if any), it can make a difference in the long-term if all I did was see a drawing one time and instantly jump back in time to other novels that only had a handful of his illustrations in them. If I could jump back that quick over all the books I read (including graphic novels and lots of illustrative works, etc.) and still land on a particular book or series, it’s an emphatic testimonial to the novel itself.
While Edward Gorey’s work is certainly memorable and I’d recognize it anywhere, there were other characteristics of the Lewis Barnavelt books that made me remember them so easily over three decades, such that I didn’t Google Edward Gorey right away, but thought for a minute until the name Lewis Barnavelt came to my mind. It’s not the most common experience with me that I’ll remember characters’ names, even protagonists, over a long period of time. I might not even remember some details after only six months; for me to remember that easily over three decades is special.
I don’t think I ever gave those books any particular mention over the years. I read them once and enjoyed them immensely, and that was it. I never repeated them, like for example the Hardy Boys books I had (and still own most of), which were repeated many times. I suppose I would have repeated the Lewis Barnavelt books if I owned them, but I got them out of the public library and I never repeated any of those for whatever reason.
So what was it about these books that were so special to me? The mere thought of them brings back an instantaneous feeling of contentment. A scene comes to mind with high levels of clarity: Lewis is going to bed in a house he’s never lived in before…late at night…reaching into his large suitcase to dig out a favorite book to read and a box of chocolates that traditionally went with reading…remembering the chocolate smudges on pages that the character remembers through my eyes…anxiety over the new location but comfort in knowing that the book and chocolates are here and I’m warm and content in bed and everything will be all right.
Later, after reading it again, I was delighted to discover that scene and confirm it all. I also saw that it was wintertime in the book, and snow outside while Lewis was in a warm bedroom with his book and chocolates. Treating an anxious situation with your favorite things while being inside during the cold weather (coming in from the cold) is one of my favorite settings of all time, and not nearly just for reading. Feeling the character’s situation and immersing myself into it personally is an act that can keep the memory of that story alive forever. The more I felt I was reading a familiar situation the more ingrained into my mind it became. Such that I had little effort to bring it up again three decades later even though I had not reinforced the memory in any way at all since.
While my purpose here is to list the elements of the story that made it last, I noticed one that the author probably has no control over at all but I’ll list it nonetheless. As I mentioned, I got these books out of the library. What was notable was that it was when I was ten years old, and I went to the library by myself. That first year of getting out books were magical to me, because I eventually saw the library as a magical place. By myself. At one point I remarked that it must be really wonderful to be able to make a book like the ones I was reading then. Later in life when I started writing I remembered those observations and endeavored to want to please that ten year old version of me.
Figuring out how to target when a potential young reader is going to discover your book while experiencing an independence about reading at the same time is impossible. Or is it? Is there anything in your story that might hook a reader at around that same time in their life? Could your story make a young reader feel better about going to the library by themselves? I distinctly remember that it wasn’t right away that I felt so empowered about the library and discovering the treasures therein. I think the books had something to do with it.
My conclusion to these observations seem to be forming a revision pass. One pass through your draft during revision time just for singularity. Ask yourself, of those in your audience (of any age), what is in your story that will literally take them away to where they need to go? They might be:
- A ten year old who was just happy that his mom let him go to the library by himself and take care of his junior library card (me & Lewis were the same age and had lots to relate to).
- A parent, teacher or librarian would be good to query about this; when does the independence start forming in readers and how? Lewis and I were totally in sync.
- A post-graduate student who has been working for inadequate grant sponsorship for too long and needs rescue (either to those wanting out of academia or reluctant to leave it). Dan Brown has undoubtedly rescued many.
- An administrative assistant tired of the daily chores of an office and often having to carry the world on their shoulders (extremely high readership factor).
- A teenager who’s not in a hurry to get out of high school because of knowing where they’re going, or in too much of a hurry because of where they already are.
- A newly-retired careerist looking for a new adventure. I’m thinking they would have loved Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka, but how many newly-retired people read it?
I think this is an important step, after the majority of your revision is done. See if there is anything you can change after asking questions of your potential audience. Maybe add a little more detail to let those particular readers know that this character and them are one and the same. This is a delicate balance, because remember that the reader doesn’t want to be reminded of their daily drudge anymore than they would at a party. You could let them know that you do the same thing for a living and just pass along enough details to commiserate together. Getting them to laugh at the inside jokes only they would know is effective at the party; it might work in your story.
The pairing of character feelings and experiences in your writing with the potential readers doesn’t apply only to protagonists; supplemental characters qualify as well. Any pairing that’s possible is worthy of looking at.
Lastly, this revision phase is likely to be mostly thinking by you, and then applying whatever changes you think might be necessary. The goal is to imagine some of your audience, and doing whatever you can to connect to them. This story is for them, and your character wants to reach out to them.
Afterwards, I like the idea of making the story singular. Something that makes each scene stick that someone can relate to. In the Lewis Barnavelt scene above, there wasn’t any particular reason for it to be wintertime outside. Yet some mention was given to it enough for me to want to come in from the cold. The relief of it is intense and carries through to the reader. Maybe there’s an emphasis to certain scenes by things like that. Having pizza at exactly the right time, etc. Reward the reader by rewarding your character, etc. Let that ten year old protagonist go and get Chinese take-out by himself.