I attend many writers’ conferences, as an author, speaker, and agent. As a result, I meet and become friends with many fine people and outstanding writers.
At a recent gathering, I enjoyed a spirited and stimulating conversation with an aspiring author who has a passion for reaching readers with the good news of Jesus Christ. I identify with that. But I’m not sure we ever got onto the same page, so to speak. As far as I can recall, some of the conversation went something like this:
SHE: People just need to know that Jesus is the answer.
SHE: I just wish they knew how much they need Jesus.
ME: Ah, I think you’ve hit on something there.
SHE: What’s that?
ME: It’s hard to write books that meet a need people don’t yet know they have.
SHE: What? What do you mean?
ME: You said, “I wish they knew how much they need Jesus.”
SHE: Right, exactly!
ME: But if they don’t already know how much they need Jesus, how are you going to persuade them to buy a book about how much they need Jesus?
SHE: I don’t follow.
ME: When people walk into a bookstore, they have some very real needs.
SHE: Yes, and first among them is a need for Jesus.
ME: Yes, okay, but they don’t know how much they need Jesus.
ME: So they’re not looking for books about how much they need Jesus.
SHE: They’re not?
ME: How can they? They don’t know how much they need Him.
ME: So if they see your How Much You Need Jesus book on the shelf, why would they pick it up?
SHE: Because they need Jesus!
ME: But they don’t know that.
SHE: That’s why they need my book.
ME: I think we’re going around in circles.
SHE: You are. I’m not.
ME: Let’s try this. Picture your reader.
ME: Female? Forty years old, maybe? Married? Two kids?
SHE: Sounds about right.
ME: She’s walking into a bookstore right now. But her car as she drove to the store was making a weird noise. But she and her husband are barely making ends meet as it is, so they can’t afford costly repairs…and she doesn’t want to say anything to make hubby angry. And he seems to be angry a lot these days. She’s pretty sure he’s going through some difficult things at work, and his new secretary—well, she doesn’t even want to think about that. She has enough to worry about, with her daughter’s cutting and the strange cigarettes she found in her son’s room the night before last. So she walks into the bookstore with all this on her mind, and she knows she needs—what?
ME: Could be.
SHE: Maybe marriage advice or parenting help. Maybe a break. Maybe an escape.
ME: Right. Those are her felt needs. Strongly felt needs. So do you think she’s more likely to pick up—and maybe even buy—a book about one of those needs, or something you know she needs but she doesn’t yet know?
ME: So…what is it you need right now?
SHE: I need someone to buy my book!
ME: So, if I were to write a book about how you need to clearly and forcefully connect with your reader’s felt needs, I would most helpfully do it by showing you that that is the most likely path to selling your book—right?
SHE, nodding slowly: Ohhhhh.
We talked a little longer, but I’m still not sure we got anywhere. And I certainly could have communicated better. But it seems to be a hurdle many of us—perhaps especially writers who are also followers of Jesus—struggle to clear. We must write books that meet needs—not needs that only the author knows about, but needs that are felt by our readers before they even see our book. Or why would they pick it up, let alone buy it, and read it?
Brennan S. McPherson
This is a great illustration of why Christian books are purchased by Christian readers. A lot of people dislike that or find that to be a negative, but God chose to work everything through the local church, and the best evangelistic and discipleship work happens through the local church. Why would we then be upset selling books to help the local church? Evangelism that “sticks” always happens through direct personal relationships. Ask 10 Christians why they’re STILL Christians, and they’ll point you to a consistent relationship in their life (father, grandmother, sister, etc.). So, if you’re not evangelizing or discipling in person, trying to do so through a book is not the primary choice given us in the Bible. And that’s for all the good reasons Bob listed above, and more!
L K Simonds
“This is a great illustration of why Christian books are purchased by Christian readers.” Amen, Brennan.
Rebekah Love Dorris
This post struck a chord in me, and your comment pitched that chord into full orchestration. Yes! Until we minister through the church, and not in competition with it, we’re never going to enjoy the success God has designed for His servants. Thank you for your comment, Brennan, and for the post, Bob.
I think you just helped the young lady write the synopsis for her book proposal.
Thanks, Bob. A wonderful illustration. The tension, at least it seems to me, is in writing what you are passionate about and meeting the reader’s needs. I can imagine the answer, but how would you apply this to a fiction writer? Audience analysis for both fiction and non-fiction? Do we write what the market “demands”–“needs”? Honestly, I’m just curious about your thoughts. I believe this has always been, and will always be one of those questions that may be interesting to discuss, but beyond that, is so hard to pinpoint (speaking here about the fiction writer, not the non-fiction writer–your point to that author is wise.)
Great question, Michael. Readers of fiction have needs to, but I think they usually read for escape and entertainment, and secondarily for other reasons (to learn something new, go somewhere new, think something new, etc.). But similarly to the nonfiction writer, the novelist must remember why the reader is reading (primarily). That’s why we lose them when we “preach” or let our agenda take over the story.
Needs TOO. I’m SURE I typed “needs TOO.” Drat.
Good catch, Bob
Thank you! This is the BEST example of how to explain “felt needs”. Bookmarking this!
Like explorers, the best writers journey to the center of their own needs.
For fiction, my approach is to get the reader to care deeply about a character. Then I let the reader watch that character struggle with the question of who Jesus is and whether following him is what they want to do, no matter how difficult or dangerous it might be to make that decision. My plots are set in 2nd century Rome, a perfect time and place for suspense about whether a character will make a choice that could end in death.
Most of my readers will already be Christians, but each novel would be suitable to share with a friend who isn’t but loves an exciting read. They are romantic adventure novels.
Thank you for the reminder. If I’m stranded in the desert, until I get some relief from the scorching sun and get some water to quench my deep thirst, there’s not much else that I’m going to acknowledge as very important. I build a relationship first by helping to supply a person’s immediate needs, then I can move on to helping them feast from a full banquet table. Jesus is our best example.
Damon J. Gray
I wrestle with this a bit. From a logical point of view, your point with the impassioned young lady was spot-on. I suppose we all walk around with leaky need buckets, though I intensely dislike Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
But consider that I just finished reading Ravi Zacharias and Vince Vitale’s Jesus Among Secular Gods. Riveting! I am also working my way through Lydia McGrew’s Hidden in Plain View. Again, fascinating and educational.
I don’t see that either of these is meeting any felt need of mine unless we identify education and information as that need. These books do not help me overcome pain, fear, chaos, abuse … I just find them interesting.
Is there a place for a book that simply informs and educates, or does there always have to be some felt need being addressed? I’m not really arguing the point, but just asking for clarification?
(BTW, this same concept is being taught for speakers. Speak to felt needs.)
For my two cent’s worth, wanting to learn something or reading books just because a person “finds them interesting” can be a felt need. I know it’s not on the level of needing food or money to get the car fixed, but it’s still there.
So, would you say that you don’t feel a need for intellectual stimulation?
Thinking some more about this, it seems to me that the most desperate needs are ones that people don’t want to have, and will go a long way to deny.
“I’m going to die, and I don’t want to.”
As I write this I’m in more pain than I could have ever imagined bearing, and the objective prospects look decidedly grim…but on the other hand, I’m happier and more hopeful now than I have ever been, and that’s because I’ve learned that not knowing the future, and embracing that uncertainty, is the key to real freedom. Death may come this afternoon, or a year from today, but life is happening NOW.
But there’s the rub, because for most folks, ‘now’ is a cage; they want the assurance of that bright tomorrow.
Certainly I did, in the days before all of this. If someone would have tried to hand me a book called, “Terminal Doesn’t Mean Dead” or some such, I’d have shied away, because even the act of touching the thing could bring bad luck.
So I think that it’s almost impossible to give, this answer to the unwanted need, because it requires the reader to look at that most fundamentally frightening demon, Mortality, and not blink.
Andrew, as far as “Terminal Doesn’t Mean Dead,” go for it. You’ve had experiences most of us will never have, like last week’s visitation.
Norma, thanks! One of the weirdest parts of this journey is that a lot of people are kind of upset by the fact that I’m cheerful, and not put out…either it’s something of a challenge to them, or they think I’m a peabrain happily unicycling on the edge of the abyss while juggling vials of TATP.
The truth is that God’s freely-given grace really does abound…and we overlook most of it, trying to invent our own.
“But there’s the rub, because for most folks, ‘now’ is a cage; they want the assurance of that bright tomorrow.”
So very true; certainly true of me. But even knowing better, it’s hard to stop wanting that assurance.
Shannon, for what it’s worth, I could not have stopped wanting that assurance until it was taken from me.
It’s experiential; when tomorrow disappeared, the Almighty was finally freed to show me beauty of Now, and the fact that it’s truly all we need.
So maybe the cage we build to define ‘Now’ also holds God. And we are the keepers of the key.
“So maybe the cage we build to define ‘Now’ also holds God. And we are the keepers of the key.”
A lovely thought. Thank you!
Profound point, Andrew. Some needs are not best met or addressed with written words.
Bob, this is a need that’s best met with an arm around the shoulder, and eyes bright with tears.
And bravery for me, when my courage fades and I need to borrow yours.
L K Simonds
This passage from Isaiah 65 comes to mind,
I was sought by those who did not ask for Me;
I was found by those who did not seek Me.
I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’
To a nation that was not called by My name.
How do we convey in fiction Jesus saying, “Here I am, here I am,” so that He is found by those who do not seek Him? Only the Holy Spirit can pull that off!
Amen, L. K. You hit the nail that shows why prayer is an essential part of writing. My prayer partners are key when I’m writing spiritual scenes, and their collective wisdom drives the editing.
Thank you for this reminder from Isaiah 65. In the fiction I have written and am writing, proclaiming without preaching has been the premier challenge. This post speaks to the hearts of most of us as we reach out to the lost. It matters not whether we are speaking to a co-worker or writing for a broader audience.
This is important – reaching the needs your reader has, even if it’s not their ultimate need. Years ago, before I accepted Jesus, if you had told me my real need was Jesus I would have laughed in your face. I didn’t need or want a Father God in my life. Fathers hurt me. It took lots of listening, talking, and assessing my situation before I reached a point of realizing that I needed Father God and that He was not an abandoner or abuser. Our books need to entice the relationship with God, not bash a person over the head with it. In my case, probably a Christian publisher won’t publish my memoir because my audience is not Christian, but those who got side-tracked into the occult and new age. I have to give them enough information about my time in that in order to have the creds to tell them about Jesus.
I just repeated your ‘ohhh.’ I’d been struggling emotionally with my agent’s request to remove Scripture (I did, don’t get me wrong here).
My fMC fears many things women have gone through or are going through. Those indeed are the people I want to reach.
But I went overboard. The title of the book could be misleading and running into preaching… well, that’s as near-about a lie as one could do to a non-believer, causing a negative reaction toward Christianity.
I think that sums it up. Trust the agent.
Thank you, so very timely.
This is why I say trick them with Christian fiction. Real life problems that people maybe struggling with and they discover Jesus is the answer they didn’t even know they were looking for. And most people are looking for an escape, so they will try a novel before a nonfiction book.
Diane Virginia Cunio
This article struck a chord. Thanks for the advice.
Your post really made me think, Bob. As a relatively new blogger, I want to meet needs of readers.