A popular field of writing is self-help. So many people apparently have the solution for what ails us, and whilst many might scoff at the credentials of whoever the latest guru might be, everybody deserves their chance to get their message out there.
Our experiences, the choices we make in our lives, and the way our lives evolve from those choices, make us unique. No matter how alike we might be when compared to somebody, we are not alike. Even identical twins aren’t alike. Thus we all have something unique to say.
It may just be that our lives have equipped us to speak with authority about self-empowerment. For example, somebody who’s suffered from depression all their life, and then built a successful and happy life, may be perfectly qualified to write a self-help book about depression. An abused spouse who leaves their partner and rebuilds their life personally and professionally may be perfectly qualified to talk about surviving spousal abuse. A life coach who’s turned their life into a success and done the same for plenty of others could write a book about getting your life on track. There’s a genuine likelihood that anybody can draw on their life to produce a self-help book.
But the question is should we?
The market is saturated with people hoping to be the next Tony Robbins or Louise Hay. Read many of these books and what you’ll discover is nothing you couldn’t have worked out for yourself, given the time and inclination. So if this is a field you want to enter, where you want to make a name for yourself, you need to stand out.
How does one accomplish that, though?
Arguably the most important thing that an author needs to do is be original. Originality isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for fiction. If you think about bestsellers, they’re usually focused on a relationship (romantic or just a friendship), an action template, or a genre. The setting or some other aspect (or aspects) of the book might be original in themselves, but you can usually classify the type of story they’re going to be.
Look at The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. A young girl, Liesel, lives with foster parents during World War II. The family harbour a young Jewish man, and the girl discovers a love of reading at a time the Nazis are burning books. The story itself is narrated by Death, who touches upon the girl’s life early by claiming her brother’s life. Lots of great ideas there which haven’t necessarily been mixed before but, effectively, this is a coming of age story. You’ll find fiction, in general, is classifiable. The Book Thief sat on the New York Times Bestseller List for 230 weeks.
Self-help books, though, are either original or derivative. Now if a self-help book is going to be derivative, then readers might as well go to the source they’re deriving. Why bother with a copy? It might provide a different slant on the same message, but that’s all it’s going to be – a slant. It’s important if you’re aiming to deliver a message, it’s a message only you can deliver.
And whilst you might use other gurus as validation, your arguments, ideas, and exercises do need to be wholly your own. There’s little point writing something like, ‘Tony Robbins has a great exercise which I like to use, and it goes like this …’ Excuse me? Whilst you might be well-intentioned in why you’re citing this passage, you’re unlikely to get permission from Tony Robbins (or whoever the quoted author might be) to use their material. In this case, you’re impinging on their intellectual property. Most importantly, if I want to read an exercise that Tony Robbins is proposing, I’ll go read a Tony Robbins’ book or watch one of his DVDs. I’ve picked up your book because I want to know what you have to tell me.
This might seem to curtail you in your writing, but if all you have to offer is a composition of other peoples’ material, then either you don’t have anything original to say, or the only way you can articulate your ideas is through being derivative. You need to challenge yourself. Don’t articulate what you have to say as others have said it. Find what you have to say and discover how you want to say it. Consider avenues that are new and original and, most importantly, you. This doesn’t mean rephrasing those passages, but producing your own material.
Before you begin, sit down and map out what you want to say, produce exercises you want to use (and that are uniquely yours), outline the structure of how you’re going to deliver your message, and think about how all this is going to sit in your book. This isn’t something you can put together slapdash. You need to seriously think about it, delve within yourself, and if you find you’re being derivative, delve further.
There’s no formula on how to write any type of book. If somebody tells you there is, they’re trying to sell you something. There’s no ideal length to a book. You may be given guidelines that you can adhere to, a template you can wield into something manageable for you, but ultimately you have to find what’s right for what you want to say, and then work towards it.
If this is a field you’re planning on entering, don’t aim to become just one of the pack. You may have one shot at getting whatever message you have out there, so make sure it’s your message and your message alone.
Tony Robbins, Louise Hay, and all those self-help gurus didn’t get to where they are by peddling somebody else’s messages. They are who they are because they dared to be themselves, to find in themselves the message that was uniquely their own, and deliver that message to world.
If you do want to follow in their footsteps, make sure you do the same.