Ask Bethany House: What Marks a Discerning Reader?

It’s a new year, and I’ve gotten some great questions for our Ask Bethany House series in 2018! (If you’d like to contribute a question, it’s not too late. Send it in to our survey.)

Here’s our first one for January: “How would you define a ‘discerning reader’? What kinds of things do they observe about a book, its quality, its depth, its characters that make authors and publishers know that the reader has really invested in the story?”

What a fun question! First, I’d like to start off by saying that authors and publishers love to hear that you enjoyed a story—that it entertained you or took your mind off your worries or made you want to take a trip to the setting or made you think or laugh or cry. All of that is great, and also relatively simple. No need to get fancy.

That said, if you’re looking for ways to read like a writer or editor—either to get better at noticing why you enjoy a book so you can leave more specific reviews on blogs or retail sites, or maybe even to learn how to write a novel yourself—here are my tips.

  • Savor descriptions. It’s gone out of vogue to put in long blocks of exquisite prose describing every blade of grass the hero can see, and that’s probably a good thing. But when you notice some excellently crafted details about the setting or the expression on someone’s face, appreciate them, and maybe jot them down to quote later. (Booklist’s starred review of A Refuge Assured called it “almost overwhelming in its sensory detail,” so that one would be a great place to start.)
  • Notice the symbolism. I remember telling Elizabeth Camden that I loved a moment where her heroine in With Every Breath examines a “paperweight with a daisy blossom that would remain forever frozen in silent perfection inside the glass” because it was a great symbol for the issue that character was struggling with. She was delighted that I’d noticed the little detail she’d slipped into the story. You can obviously go overboard with this to the point where everything is a symbol (when it really wasn’t meant to be), but it’s fun to be on the lookout.
  • Take a look at word choice. I believe it was Melissa Tagg who said at a writing seminar that there’s a big difference between a door “painted a bright cherry red” and one that’s “streaked with blood-red paint, curling off in disrepair.” In one, you’re in a happy scene, in the other…look behind you to make sure the murderer isn’t coming. Often, loaded adjectives and verbs give scenes a certain atmosphere. The author chose those words carefully. Enjoy them!
  • Watch those secondary characters. Most authors have strong, well-developed protagonists, but the novels I love the most spend time making you care about the minor characters too, even if they rarely show up. You get the sense that even they have quirks and histories and personalities. I noticed this in Becky Wade’s True to You in particular with the heroine’s co-workers.
  • Admire a good plot twist. Not every story needs one of these, of course, and they might actually feel jarring in some genres. On the small scale, though, it’s fun when a character says something unexpected but perfect, or a secret is revealed at the end (as in many Beverly Lewis books). For big-scale, jaw-dropping plot twists, I’ll always recommend Patrick Carr…The Wounded Shadow, the last novel in his Darkwater Saga, is coming out in April and I can’t wait!

I could go on and on with often-overlooked aspects of great writing and recommend dozens of books that demonstrate them, but I should probably keep this post to a reasonable length. Whether you are a detail-noticer or just a happy-ending lover, a discerning reader is one who knows just which books to put on the keeper shelf…and which to get out again for a re-read!

Now I’ll turn it over to you, oh readers. Is there an aspect of a story that makes it a standout to you? Anything in particular you love to see in the books you most enjoy?

4 thoughts on “Ask Bethany House: What Marks a Discerning Reader?

  1. My idea of a great book is one that I think of for weeks. I want the story to go on and I think of ways to add to the story for days and days. I love those books! I also miss reading about those characters’ lives and what is happening with them today. They have become a part of my life. I have a series stuck in my head now that I would love to read more of. I think I finished it around Thanksgiving. Ha! It was a great series.

  2. I agree with Jill Prestel’s assessment…..describes me to a tee! A story with a good sense of humor always wins me over, as well as stories that have a sense of realism. I realize it’s fiction I’m reading, but I like to feel the story could be real. The perfectionist in me makes sure time periods line up correctly with a series….sometimes they don’t.

  3. I love it when authors make a reference to something I enjoyed, such as Pride & Prejudice quotes or a landmark in a beautiful city. It makes me feel like the book is personal.

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