Every Book is a How-To

C.S. Lewis famously said, “We read to know we’re not alone.”

I think that is true. But I have long subscribed to a similar statement that I see as sort of a corollary to “Lewis’s Law.” It is this:

No one reads about other people. We read only about ourselves.

Feel free to quote me. And send me royalties.

But you might say, “How can that be, Bob? I read a lot of romance novels. They’re fiction. They’re not about me at all.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do you read romance novels?”

“Well, I suppose it’s because I like to believe that love can conquer all.”

“Is that your story?”

“No, not at all.”

“But you’d like it to be?”

“Yes, absolutely. I hope that—oh, I see what you mean.”

I meet many people at writers’ conferences who are writing a memoir. But I’ll tell them it probably won’t work, at least as a conventionally published book, if it’s solely about them and their experience.

“What do you mean?” they often ask. “What else would it be about?”

“Let me ask you this: I read several memoirs every year, and many of them fall into the same general category, a ‘We quit our high-paying jobs in Manhattan and built a cabin in the Maine woods’ or a ‘We sold everything we owned and started over in the wilds of Alaska’ sort of story. Why do you think I read that kind of book, over and over?”

“Because it’s something you would like to do?”

“Exactly. I’m not reading about other people; I’m reading about myself. My dreams. My longings. My hopes. My interests, regrets, fears, and beliefs.”

After such a conversation, some writers get it, and some don’t. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, humor or history, article or book, you don’t read about people and things outside yourself; you read about the things inside yourself.

That is important to remember if you write for publication. Whatever you write, you must ask yourself who your reader is and what this piece of reading has to offer him or her. How is it not merely your story but also—and most importantly—their story? What will it promise and impart to the reader? And how can it be written to touch or teach that thing (or things) inside?

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