Somerset Maugham wrote, “There is an impression abroad that everyone has it in him to write one book; but if by this is implied a good book the impression is false” (The Summing Up).
Far be it from me to add to Maugham’s words, but I’m going to. So I guess it be not far from me, after all. I would say that many people (maybe not everyone) have a book in them, but relatively few have a marketable book in them. Much of the difference is in the writer’s perspective.
Many of us approach the task of writing because we have something important to say, without giving a moment’s thought to the reality that readers and book buyers don’t necessarily care about what we care about; they care about what they care about. That may be a tautology, but it’s worth remembering.
We can all profit from the apostle Paul’s example. When he visited Athens in the first century, we can be confident that he wanted the Athenians to know Jesus. He wanted them to know truth. He wanted them to know that God loved them. But notice where he started them on the path to such knowledge. He stood among the philosophers in the Acropolis on Mars Hill and said:
It is plain to see that you Athenians take your religion seriously. When I arrived here the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines I came across. And then I found one inscribed, to the god nobody knows. I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re dealing with.
The God who made the world and everything in it, this Master of sky and land, doesn’t live in custom-made shrines or need the human race to run errands for him (Acts 17:22-24, The Message).
Some preachers and scholars think that Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill was a failure, but I don’t think so. Paul found an entry point. He recognized his listeners’ hopes, dreams, and needs. He didn’t start with his agenda; he started with theirs.
That’s so important for anyone who wants to write and publish a book. Many of us orient our books from our perspective instead of the reader’s. We jump right into what we want to say and expect them not only to pay hearty attention but also to pay cash for the privilege of reading what we write. But readers—the vast majority of whom you’ve never met, remember, haven’t had the opportunity to be impressed and charmed by your personal magnetism—have their own agendas. Even when they’re walking into a bookstore or going to Amazon, the hopes, dreams, and needs at the forefront of their mind are theirs—not ours.
I fairly regularly ask writers, “Why would I want to read that book?” The title and subtitle may identify the theme of the book while ignoring my hopes and dreams. The hook may promise me something totally unrelated to my already-felt need. The author’s overall approach may be clever; but if it solely or mainly reflects what the writer wants to say rather than what I (the reader) long to hear, it may never reach the reader at all.
Any writer who has a marketable book in him or her asks, What’s my reader’s agenda? What is he or she looking for? What is my entry point?
Or, put another way, Am I writing like Paul?
[Feature photo: By Valentin de Boulogne – Blaffer Foundation Collection, Houston, TX, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=596565]
As he spoke on Mars Hill, I wonder, did Paul think his words would speak centuries into the future? I suspect he was focused only on the moment. The audience beyond Athens probably existed in God’s eyes alone.
Wow. Thank you!
I need to read this every day. Thank you.
You expressed that idea to me at a writer’s conference once during a one-on-one interview. I consider it one of the best pieces of advice a writer could receive. Thanks!
What she says may be true if you want a marketable book. This is not my objective. I lean on the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
And it has worked for me. My goal has never been making money.
If we choose to write like Paul,
the cards we’re dealt, we’re meant to play
in giving those who read our all
on the winding road to yesterday.
We’re made out of our history
and readers have their private cares;
the writer’s job’s to let it be
of value here and there and everywhere.
We strive to hold the reader’s hand,
with a day-trip on the reading offer.
In my life and theirs, we’ll reach the land
where in faith we can come together.
Things we said today may yet cause pain,
but we’ll encounter God in Penny Lane.
I’ve thought about what I want the reader to get out of the book, but I haven’t spent as much time considering what the reader expects to get out of the book. Thanks for your insight.
I like the way you put that and I need to evaluate my writing that way.
Paul’s message is my message, too. It wasn’t Paul writing, it was the Holy Spirit within him writing, and I pray that the Holy Spirit will completely influence my words, too. My goal is to connect with Millennials through fiction and lead them to Paul’s words, really God’s words. I can’t do that without starting where they are, so your message is on point this morning. Thank you for that!
Great post! It’s definitely got me thinking.
Good points. It caused me to think back to my college Speech class, and the various types of speeches. Paul’s speech was one of persuasion. Perhaps a motive to inspire could fall under this category, as well, since the goal is to elevate the person’s perceptions on a subject, with actions to follow.
Thanks, Bob, for this post. It’s informative, entertaining, demonstrative and persuasive. ?
If anyone asked me why my reader would want to read any of my books, I’d tell them, “Because they want to read a good story, full of love, suspense, and a little mystery without worrying about the words or scenes they would encounter. Beyond that, I’d hope they’d read for inspiration and assurance from a story of God’s mercy, protection, and love.
To answer that last question, I don’t aspire to write like Paul. The Holy Spirit leads me to write. But I’m not Paul. What goes into the writing of my books is what God has lead me to write. As long as I have peace about that and have done my best, using all the helps that He has brought my way in the way of critiquers and editors, I’m happy with what God does with my books. Daily prayer goes into my writing and every phase of the process, even after the book is published.
I am very glad that I had signed up for these blogs. I am a newbie and need all the knowledge, and insight that other authors, editors provide. These blogs are written from an author’s Christ centered perspective, which is very important in this day and age.
Thank you for your commitment to Christ,
Wow! This was so good and thought provoking. Imagine to be like Paul and have your writings read and discussed centuries after your death.
As a college writing teacher and an editor, also a reader of the King James Version, I would FLUNK Paul for his writing skills. His messages are PRICELESS, but why write 20 short, easily understood sentences if you can write almost a whole chapter in ONE sentence with innumerable side comments and clauses (Ephesians 1:3-14)! And why use sentence structure that baffles understanding except under the most careful scrutiny (“From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.”) Really?
That’s how Paul writes in KJV. Was it King James’ scholars that made it so difficult and run-on, or was that the preferred sentence structure of Paul’s original Greek? If anyone knows the answer, I would be thrilled to learn it.
Paul was an amazing man and saint, incredibly courageous and full of love, to whom we are greatly in debt. But a great writer?
Kathy Sheldon Davis
Well said, Bob Hostetler! I applaud this. Some may believe they’re called to write, others may not have the calling to read what they write (or buy it).
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Bob, great posting, as always. You make some very thought-provoking comments. Why would someone want to read our work, indeed?
Bob Hostetler, this is really good.
Keep posting brother.
Thank you, Bob; I’m sitting down this next month to set down an historical account of a world class place in Acadia National Park. It happens to be the ancestral home of my great great grandfather. Working there, I get asked “who are the Jordans?” Why is it called Jordan Pond? I know the answer and it’s filled with mystery, intrigue, heartbreak and triumph. But without understanding a potential reader’s agenda, it’s nothing more than a genealogical record. I’m taking your words to heart as I craft this particularly personal but necessary account. Blessings!
Excellent example. Actually, he’s the ultimate writer example, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not that his prose is elegant or non-windy, it’s that he captured and delivered the message spot on and consistently.
But more to your point, like Mars Hill, Paul brought this same message consistently:
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 [Full Chapter]
[ Paul’s Use of His Freedom ] Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. …
HIS market was the Gentiles. Context is king. He made that very plain and wrote persuasively. If he was writing just to satisfy his inner muse, well … he may not have been published.
Here’s to all of us. Most of us don’t have anywhere near the platform he had, so maybe his strength as a writer didn’t matter as strongly. He relied heavily on persuasive writing and stepping into his neighbors shoes.
So should we all. Unfortunately, we need to be stronger writers than he was!
Paul is my favorite Apostle. When writing blog posts or editing my children’s story, I will ponder, “Write like Paul.” Thank you, for this insightful read!