Ask BHP: Is It Hard Not to Over-Analyze Books?

Our Ask BHP question this week dips into the personal reading habits of Bethany House staff: “As a publishing employee, can you turn off the analytical side of your brain when reading for fun, or are you always critiquing the story in your head?”

As someone who works in our marketing department, the main time I’m reading in Analysis Mode is when I’m reviewing a manuscript that we’ll be considering at our Publication Board, where representatives from marketing, editorial, sales, and rights discuss potential contracts with authors. For new fiction authors, we usually get the full manuscript weeks ahead of time, giving me a chance to read it so I can come prepared to discuss its strengths and weaknesses. Here are some of the questions I ask myself as I do so:

  • Does this seem to be a good match for our target audience? (Interests, spiritual/theological background, etc.)
  • Is this different enough to stand out without being so unique that it won’t appeal to readers?
  • How would this fit with other books we’re publishing?
  • Are the characters well-developed?
  • Is the middle of the story interesting enough to carry readers through?
  • After I read the first three chapters, what, if anything, makes me want to read more?

When I’m reading a book for fun outside of work, I obviously don’t feel the same kind of responsibility to go through a checklist like that. It helps that I also read in several genres outside of the Christian fiction I immerse myself in at work (nonfiction of all sorts, ABA mysteries and fantasy, middle grade fiction, literary classics…let’s be honest, basically anything with pages).

This might also be a chicken-egg conundrum: I’ve spoken with several editors who said they went into editing because they already had a natural bent toward analyzing and critiquing a story’s structure, characters, and plot. Working in publishing probably strengthened those skills, but it didn’t create them in the first place.

I think most of us would say that while we can’t exactly “turn off” the part of our brain trained by working in publishing—deciding if the cover makes the genre clear, admiring the author’s voice, predicting what might happen next—the better a book is, the easier it gets to set the technical questions aside and just enjoy reading. After all, if I’m not making a marketing plan for the author or evaluating the manuscript for our publication board, I don’t really need to be thinking about all of those things. All I really have to decide is whether I like it or not.

I probably am somewhat more critical, or at least aware, of the choices the author is making because I’ve spent the past five years in publishing, but “off the clock,” I’m a reader just like any other.

Then again, all readers are on some level, asking questions like “Does this opening chapter grab me?” “Is the plot too predictable?” and “Do I care about these characters, or do I kind of hope they fail because they’re so annoying?” Maybe you wouldn’t actually describe your reading process that way, but we’re all analyzing the story at some level. Hopefully not to the point where we can enjoy ourselves or get lost in a great story, but in a way that helps us appreciate what we love about our favorite authors.

Your turn, readers! What is it about a good book that makes it easy for you to turn off your analytical side and just enjoy the story?

6 thoughts on “Ask BHP: Is It Hard Not to Over-Analyze Books?

  1. I love reading…I hate predictable…but when you’ve read as much as I have it is usually hard to find anything new under the Sun! I love books that are so well written I feel I’ve been gone when I look up from the page, books that are so beautifully worded that I stop and let my mind and soul absorb the perfect phrase, books that are so interesting that I actually can not notice if they are perfectly written.

  2. I agree with Susan’s comments, but I can handle predictable if the storyline grabs me quickly, and if the characters are good and events that move the story along are interesting – those qualities can make me forget predictable. I read mostly historical fiction, and my pet peeve is when a plot is soooo bizarre and off-base that it’s unbelieveable for the period setting. I just finished The Earl and His Lady by Sally Britton where the two main characters had both lost beloved spouses, one recently, and they decided to marry to save her sons – had me in tears – I love it when a story can move me this way.

  3. A book that evokes emotion will make me put aside analytical thoughts. Even better is a book that will take you from one emotion to another and back again, rather than carrying you through the entire book on one emotion.

  4. I need a story that totally draws me in to avoid analysis mode. It could be characters, plot, or the raw emotion evoked by the story that will turn off that analysis button in my brain. I do a great deal of reviewing, and therefore I have a tendency to always be in that analytical mode versus just enjoying a casual read.

    Mary Koester

  5. A book that is different and has some meat in it besides boy chase girl or opposite. When I was a teenager I wanted romance books but now I like something that will touch me deeply. I don’t mind a little romance but I want it to have much more than that.
    Brenda Murphree

  6. I don’t read as much as I used to, but when I do, I’m looking for ways to improve my own writing. I’ll ask myself why this particular book interests me so much. And why another one doesn’t. I’m particularly interested in character and plot development. But I’m reading one right now (not from BH) that I knew within the first page or do was overdone. The author works too hard to make an impression, using too many “fancy” words. I can sympathize — I face that dilemma too. Partly that’s why I’m not doing much editing anymore. As a writer, I hate to tear another person’s brain child apart. But this book helps me to realize that a good editor could smooth out a lot of that. I wonder what the original manuscript looked like if the editor didn’t change these things.

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