Write for Narcissists

Every reader is a narcissist.

Hold on, there. Don’t get all mad and sassy yet. Let me explain

I often tell developing writers, “No one reads about other people; we read only about ourselves.” Go ahead and quote me, just be sure to give me credit and send me the royalties it produces.

Seriously, I think it’s true. For example, I read several memoirs every year. And many of them are about writers or  people who, say, quit their high-paying jobs in Manhattan and built a cabin deep in the Maine woods where they lived off the land and learned to speak to wolves and bears. Why do I read those kinds of memoirs over and over again? Because that’s what I am or want to do. Those books are primarily about me, not about the author.

Every reader who scans a bookstore shelf or a book-selling website is asking (if subconsciously), “What’s in it for me?” It’s not about the author’s agenda, but the reader’s needs. And any writer who doesn’t connect with the reader’s self-interest, implicitly or explicitly, is unlikely to publish and sell.

I met with a developing writer recently who said she wanted, in her book, to convince readers of their need for her message.

“Nope,” I said.


“Nope. Won’t work.”

“What won’t work?”

“Your reader hasn’t yet bought your book, let alone read it.”

“Yes, I know,” she said.

“So you can’t write a book to convince your reader that she needs your book.”

You’d have thought a daffodil had just sprouted out of the top of my head. She blinked. She shook her head. She asked me to repeat what I’d just said.

“You can’t write a book to convince your reader that she needs your book.”

I saw understanding slowly register in her expression. Then disappointment. “So,” she said, “I can’t help my reader see the need for my book.”

“No. You have to figure out what need the reader already feels. You can’t accomplish your agenda; you have to discover the reader’s agenda, and maybe look for an intersection of her need and your message.”

She leaned back in her chair. “But that—that’s going to change everything.”

I smiled. “Exactly.”


33 Responses to Write for Narcissists

  1. Avatar
    Janine Rosche March 27, 2019 at 4:09 am #

    I just graded a student’s presentation on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You’re right. Every good book I’ve read links to those.

    • Avatar
      Janine Rosche March 27, 2019 at 4:11 am #

      Physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, etc.

      • Bob Hostetler
        Bob Hostetler March 27, 2019 at 5:04 am #

        And donuts. Don’t forget donuts.

        • Avatar
          Carol Ashby March 27, 2019 at 8:53 am #

          Not donuts. Dark chocolate, which is even a scientifically proven health food. The evidence is presented in Plasma antioxidants from chocolate, Mauro Serafini, Rossana Bugianesi, Giuseppe Maiani, Silvia Valtuena, Simone De Santis & Alan Crozier, Nature Vol. 424, 1013 (2003), in case you want to read the original research paper. Or just name-drop it to impress your literary friends.

  2. Avatar
    Edie Melson March 27, 2019 at 4:45 am #

    So incredibly true and insightful!

  3. Bob Hostetler
    Bob Hostetler March 27, 2019 at 5:04 am #

    Thank you, Edie. Takes one to know one.

  4. Avatar
    Terri L Gillespie March 27, 2019 at 5:09 am #

    “No. You have to figure out what need the reader already feels. You can’t accomplish your agenda; you have to discover the reader’s agenda, and maybe look for an intersection of her need and your message.” BRILLIANT!

  5. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson March 27, 2019 at 5:32 am #

    Such depth in one statement! Great takeaway!

  6. Avatar
    Elisabeth Warner March 27, 2019 at 5:37 am #

    But….what if the writer is a narcissist?

    • Avatar
      Damon J. Gray March 27, 2019 at 6:17 am #


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      claire o'sullivan March 27, 2019 at 1:35 pm #

      Elizabeth –

      Ha, oh so true. It isn’t (I think) until someone in a beta group, etc., says it doesn’t speak to them. When you get a few more… then boy ya better listen.

      Think we do write from a bit (a lot?) of narcissistic beliefs, and glorifying God and speaking to the audience will be key. I browse books. Read the back flap, the first chapter (maybe) and decide even unconsciously if that book is ‘for me.’

  7. Avatar
    Barbara Ellin Fox March 27, 2019 at 5:39 am #

    This is a good reminder, thanks. But Bob it’s awfully cold in Maine in the winter and the bears hibernate.

  8. Avatar
    Nancy Lohr March 27, 2019 at 6:07 am #

    So true. I’m reading a memoir right now by a woman who is navigating her husband’s ill health. The story is painfully true.

  9. Avatar
    Damon J. Gray March 27, 2019 at 6:16 am #

    Spot-on brother-man. Not only do I “read about myself,” as I read, I hear it in my own voice.

    Yeesh! Can we be more self-absorbed or self-focused?

  10. Avatar
    Rhonda Dragomir March 27, 2019 at 6:22 am #

    I’m looking in the mirror, seeing my reader, and changing my focus. It’s an excellent change. Thank you!

  11. Avatar
    Sy Garte March 27, 2019 at 6:26 am #

    How would you feel about a guy living in the Maine woods, who chucks it all for a high paying job in Manhattan? Would that still resonate with you, in a sort of inverse way?

    Seriously, great post, Bob. Lots to think about.

  12. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser March 27, 2019 at 6:41 am #

    This thought’ worth a second look,
    and, you know, it’s kind of funny;
    the reader needs to need my book
    ’cause I need the reader’s money.
    It all goes back to Mary’s place,
    listening, caring for her own heart
    and refusing to get in Martha’s face
    for trying to wreck the better part.
    Jesus understood this well,
    ‘to thine own self be true’,
    and I guess this is why he did tell
    us, “I came and died for YOU.”
    He didn’t just die to break our sin;
    He died so He could live within.

  13. Avatar
    Karen Ingle March 27, 2019 at 6:48 am #

    Profound. As a freelance writer embarking on a book project, I have lately been struck by the parallels between copywriting for business and fiction storytelling. The customer/reader is the hero, and the seller/writer is the hero’s mentor on their journey of discovery. We do indeed need to write for narcissists.

  14. Avatar
    Jennifer Mugrage March 27, 2019 at 6:57 am #

    Luckily, there are MANY common features in the human experience. If we write with wisdom and honesty about the human condition, our work is likely to resonate with many readers.

    For example, I read The Poisonwood Bible, about a dysfunctional family of Baptists who go to the Belgian Congo in the 1960s. Now, I am none of those things (except dysfunctional), but I tell you. The female characters were a mother and 4 daughters. I honestly felt as if I *was* three of them. Like, “That is me!” The author doesn’t know me, but she wrote with insight, drawing on her own experience.

  15. Avatar
    Richard New March 27, 2019 at 7:20 am #

    So whatever adventure I write, it has to be in a form that the publisher recognizes as what a reader is looking for?

  16. Avatar
    Debby March 27, 2019 at 7:23 am #

    Makes me think about my recent book purchases and WHY I bought them. What a great blog post today! It’s not always about me/us, is it? We want THEM to say (either consciously or unconsciously): “Hey, I want this book because I think it will help ME; entertain ME; inspire ME.” Thank you for such insight.

  17. Avatar
    Kathy Bruins March 27, 2019 at 7:34 am #

    I never thought of it that way, but it makes sense.

    Thank you for the insight!

  18. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser March 27, 2019 at 8:48 am #

    As a reader I am carried
    to a world no longer mine,
    where my future was not buried
    and tomorrow will be fine.
    I don’t want heroic struggle,
    I do that every day.
    I need a shiny bubble
    and unicorns at play.
    You might say I want escape
    and you would be dead right,
    to don another’s boots and cape
    and slip into the night.
    Let me pretend to be a cad,
    not one trapped in a life gone mad.

    • Avatar
      Jennifer Mugrage March 27, 2019 at 11:49 am #

      So true. When we are going thru a really hard time, the last thing we have energy for is someone else’s tragedy.

  19. Avatar
    Regina Merrick March 27, 2019 at 8:56 am #

    And this is why we write books that we would want to read! Excellent post – I wish I had written it . . . 😉

  20. Avatar
    Brennan S. McPherson March 27, 2019 at 9:46 am #

    Such a good post, Bob!

  21. Avatar
    Linda Riggs Mayfield March 27, 2019 at 10:17 am #

    When Dan Balow was still a Steve Laube agent, I met with him to pitch my book at a conference. I’ve been trying to internalize the significance of one question he asked me and my response ever since, and your post today exactly “nails” it. Thanks!

    Dan asked me WHY I wrote the historical novel series, and I was caught completely off guard. I hadn’t even thought about the why. I went into full teacher mode. I said I think there are things most people don’t know about history that they should that they would consider more palatable if it were embedded in fiction. That off-the-cuff answer was completely honest and very revealing. It was all about ME sharing what truths I thought readers should learn through my fiction. ZINGER! But fiction isn’t curriculum. I need to be thinking about what the reader already wants to know and meeting that need. I’ve read that the Bible verse that says, “Bring up a child in the way he should go…” might be better translated that we are to create within the child an appetite or hunger for the way he should go. THAT’s when he won’t depart from it. And that’s more like what the writer of fiction needs to do than my poorly considered remark was, too–with each glimpse of a cover, notice of a title, or reading of a page, the readers should develop more of an appetite for or desire for what’s coming next, and it’s our job to make sure what comes next is good.

  22. Avatar
    Sherry Stacy March 27, 2019 at 10:24 am #

    The sprouted daffodil was unforgettable. I love your blogs, a fun and informative read always.

  23. Avatar
    Mary Sheldahl March 27, 2019 at 11:26 am #

    You hit a homerun with your insightful statement that writer’s need to intersect with a reader’s need and a writer’s message! I’ll be bringing this thought to my critique group and shifting my writing as I grapple with this new mind set.

  24. Avatar
    Ellen Engbers March 27, 2019 at 1:15 pm #

    I like it!

  25. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D March 28, 2019 at 1:18 pm #

    Fascinating! I hadn’t thought of that before!

  26. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver March 29, 2019 at 8:12 am #

    I was going to say, “I like your way of stating helpful advice.” But that wouldn’t appeal to YOUR narcissistic bent. So instead, I will say, “Your way of stating advice is so helpful.” .

    Thanks for making it palatable. And…I’m glad I’m no further in my WIP. Now I don’t have to go back and re-write everything!

  27. Avatar
    Ann L Coker March 30, 2019 at 7:21 am #

    Your thesis supports the number one rule in writing: “Reader First!”
    I’ve decided I need to get up before 5 AM to read your blog and get a reply. 😉

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