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?

28 Responses to Every Book is a How-To

  1. Avatar
    Chris Storm August 23, 2017 at 5:37 am #

    So true Bob. We tend to internalize most everything in life-conversations, social settings etc. Even things that have nothing to do with us- a friend’s promotion, a family feud. We immediately ask what does that reveal about me? How do I compare? Selfish or not, aware or not, we are the center of our universe. Always longing to be better and happier and stronger, but never fully attaining that goal. But for the saving grace of Jesus! This is what distinguishes Christian Fiction from Fiction. Thx for reminding us!!

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 23, 2017 at 8:43 am #

      Yes, Chris, thank you. However, I don’t see how “we” can be the center of our universe. I am.

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    Judith Robl August 23, 2017 at 5:41 am #

    Absolutely wonderful post, Bob. Great perspective! Thank you.

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    Damon J. Gray August 23, 2017 at 6:22 am #

    Is this not why as each of us reads, we hear the words in our own voice?

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    Jennifer August 23, 2017 at 6:32 am #

    In many ways, this compliments Dan’s post yesterday about an “audience of one”. I don’t know if it was intended, but it definitely adds some clarity for those of us trying to define our audience.
    Thanks!

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 23, 2017 at 8:46 am #

      Dan Balow and I have always been complementary. And complimentary, too. He’s a little bit country, I’m a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. Like Donny and Marie. I guess that makes Steve Laube Michael Jackson. And Tamela Hancock Murray is Janet Jackson. And I think I’ve lost my train of thought.

      • Avatar
        Jennifer August 23, 2017 at 11:18 am #

        Haha! I’m rock and roll too, more like For King And Country. Drums and Guitars so I can keep my rhythm.

        Being a rockstar, I hate to stick to the country theme, but as I see it, Steve Laube is more like Johnny Cash. Wisdom and experience with a gentle touch. And Tamela Hancock Murray more like Reba McIntyre. Hers is a powerful feminine voice. Firm, yet maternal all at once.

        Oops! There’s my stop. Thanks for the ride on the lost thought train.

  5. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 23, 2017 at 7:05 am #

    Yes, Bob; and more.

    We’re all reading (and writing) to escape the karmic wheel.

    It’s so hard to believe that we’ve been offered Grace and so hard to keep in mind that once accepted, that Grace is ours to keep.

    We return to the same story told in a thousand disguises, hoping not that the ending will not be different but will be the same, as our karmic burden increases in spite of our best efforts. Our aethereal wings are feathered in lead, and we need the reassurance that lead can fly.

    We are Christian seekers on a Buddhist pilgrimage road, looking for that enlightenment that can only be found in the opening of our hearts, and in the complete surrender to Grace and Love.

    • Avatar
      Sharon Cowen August 23, 2017 at 7:24 am #

      Deep stuff, Andrew—“wings feathered in lead….” Love that analogy. Thanks for starting the discussion, Bob.

      I’ve attempted to write about the same/similar thing—Karmic is our animal nature—Grace is our divine. 2 creation stories in Genesis–one saying we are from dust (animals), the other we are “in the image of God”–grace and Divinity both in our bones, or as Paul said, “the flesh and the Spirit.” Neither can be eradicated. I think our only hope is taming the flesh or animal side. As David Hawkins said, ‘Our job is to find the blend’ not the duality. Paul encouraged we monitor our thoughts. “Whatever is good… think on these things.” The scientist in me agrees–are they emoted by the amygdala or thought through in the outer cortex of the brain? In my mind, we need to watch out for “the reptilian brain,” and label it for what it is, animal nature. Why do we still bite? Is the story we share about “fright or flight” or being “frozen?” Are the stories we share all amygdala based?

      • Avatar
        Carol Ashby August 23, 2017 at 9:01 am #

        Interesting thoughts, Sharon. Can one ever totally separate the contributions of amygdala and outer cortex, or is it more like the wave/particle duality of light, where both are always present, but the way we measure it determines which we see as dominant?

        • Avatar
          Sharon Cowen August 23, 2017 at 11:07 am #

          See what you started, Bob. Don’t give me that thing about you being “just a simple man.” I’ve read several of your books. I remember three or more languages were used in your Northkill series. This is just another language. You can handle it! 🙂

          Wow, Carol. What a great question! My guess is you are so right about “the wave/particle duality of light, where both are always present, but the way we measure it determines which we see as dominant.” In the case of the amygdala we’re dealing with chemicals released and it sure does take some doing, as we all know, to “tame” those chemicals, or at least bring them to consciousness, so we can say, “I’m feeling scared, or angry, or whatever,” and chose our response. Learning not to bite back when we’re bitten is quite a challenge for children and adults as well. What’s your secret?

          • Avatar
            Carol Ashby August 23, 2017 at 3:19 pm #

            What’s my secret, Sharon? If you mean my secret for keeping outer cortex dominant over amygdala, I remember Whose I am and what He paid to free me from my natural (amygdala-dominated) self. Like light, humans have a physical/spiritual duality. I can choose with my mind to let the spiritual be more important than the “natural” and respond as Jesus taught. I can choose to forgive instead of strike back. It’s the Holy Spirit who gives me the power to do what is the opposite of what I would naturally choose. The more I do it, the easier it becomes. It’s like the old adage says, “The dog you feed the most is the one that grows stronger.”

            • Avatar
              sharon August 23, 2017 at 5:01 pm #

              Yes, Carol, and thank God for amazing grace.

            • Avatar
              Carol Ashby August 23, 2017 at 5:09 pm #

              Amen!

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler August 23, 2017 at 8:48 am #

      “Karmic wheel,” “amygdala,” talk like that is way above my pay grade. I’m just a simple man.

  6. Avatar
    Rebekah Love Dorris August 23, 2017 at 7:24 am #

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

    Very true. When I read Jolina Petersheim’s The Alliance, I stayed up half the night because I had to know what would happen if an EMP destroyed MY world.

    When I read Chris Fabry’s The Promise of Jesse Woods, I stayed up all night because Jesse Woods was plenty of people I’ve overlooked all my life, and suddenly I cared about them.

    When I read Tessa Afshar’s Bread of Angels, I stayed up reading because I needed what her father told her. Plus it was a crazy good book.

    Any book that’s impossible to put down (especially if it has Thoene on the cover) speaks to something deep in me. That’s why I read. Even more, that’s why I write fiction: because I have something I want to transmit to my children they might not hear in a lecture.

    Great post. Meme coming up. 🙂

  7. Avatar
    Carol Ashby August 23, 2017 at 8:27 am #

    I think there’s truth underlying what you say, Bob. Every Christian has people they care about deeply who don’t yet follow Jesus. My novels follow the faith arc of at least one main character through the transition from sometimes hostile unbelief to faith, and that occurs in a way that even a non-Christian can follow the logic driving the character’s transformation. You could even share the book with a friend who doesn’t believe, and they could become emotionally invested in characters struggling with whether they should.

    Each is a story about how our love and faithfulness can inspire another to open his or her heart to God. They focus on forgiveness, even when it seems impossible, and faithfulness, even when it might cost everything. They include conversations like I’ve had or would love to have with people I truly care about, and they end the way I would love to have mine end. I wouldn’t want to go through the challenges I drag my characters through, but I want the ending they experience. If that’s how I feel, maybe my readers feel that, too.

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    Kathy Cheek, Devotions from the Heart August 23, 2017 at 10:35 am #

    As a devotional writer, the most common feedback I receive is acknowledgement that I understand what they have been through in similar life experiences, or similar challenges that test or strengthen our faith. Readers do like a message that resonates close to their heart and gives them hope.

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    Jaime August 23, 2017 at 11:03 am #

    I totally agree with you. People are reading to better reach something within themselves, be it an escape they long for or clarity for an issue in their life. I think that is why I enjoy writing so much, especially devotionals. I love helping people find their track.

    Except now I’m a bit concerned with why I’m interested in reading about people with personality disorders, or who are similarly troubled. I promise, I’m not a closet narcissist! Lol!

  10. Avatar
    Nancy Jo Jenkins August 23, 2017 at 3:09 pm #

    I really enjoyed Bob’s column and found it quite enlightening. Thanks, Bob and the Steve Laube Agency.

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    Deb Santefort August 23, 2017 at 7:42 pm #

    Interesting!

    I just finished THE LIKE SWITCH by Jack Schafer, which explains that we like people who make us feel good about ourselves.
    Yesterday, I started CONTAGIOUS by Jonah Berger, which points out that we share ideas and products when the act of sharing makes us feel good about ourselves. I can’t help but apply these lessons to writing and marketing!

    Perhaps,

    – We read books about ourselves

    – We like them IF they make us feel good about ourselves

    – We tell others about the books we’ve read IF we think it makes them perceive us in a favorable way

  12. Avatar
    Deb Santefort August 23, 2017 at 8:46 pm #

    Thanks for getting me thinking. I just rewrote what I had in mind for my back cover. I love this blog!

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    Bryan Mitchell August 24, 2017 at 6:25 am #

    Thanks Bob

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    Joann Claypoole August 24, 2017 at 9:24 am #

    Thanks for the great post, Bob. I loved this interesting insight into our writer’s world and definitely believe our stories take on new life with each book we read.

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