I picked up a how-to business book the other day and read the first life/business lesson in it. Which is that the author, as a kid, learned from a rich man that while most people work for money, the rich make money work for them. Apparently, this book has sold millions of copies. Which means millions of its readers must now be rich, making money work for them and not the other way around. Or not.
I guess the question is, assuming the author actually embodies his belief about making money work – and millions of book sales suggest he does – can his book actually change the attitude of someone who has always believed you work for money? Well, probably not, but then it isn’t really designed to do that anyway. The author didn’t need the book, after all. He already had the attitude required. How-to books rarely actually talk about the thing they’re supposed to be revealing the secrets of. I suspect they’re designed more for people who enjoy myths and sermons and dreams about how a subject is popularly conceived to be, with just enough truth to sound authentic.
How-to books are for people who don’t really want to know how-to, but feel better if they can believe they know how-to, and they might just put it into practice one day, you never know, once the kids have gone to college and they’ve finished watching the box set of Game of Thrones for the seventh time. Because, well, you aren’t going to learn how to write like G R R Martin if you don’t study what he produced, are you? Even if he didn’t.
People who really want to how-to, are already how-toing, of course. They won’t need to read books written by how-toers for those who don’t really want to how-to in the first place. They might hear the author talk about the book on the radio for five minutes and that will be enough – both to steal the stuff they haven’t heard before but sense will work and to reject all the fake how-to bullshit he’s throwing in just so that he can sell the book.
I think how-toers receive how-to information in one of two ways:
They recognise the dull drone of someone who hasn’t actually how-toed themselves or has but is now making money from selling the ‘secrets’ to others, then wait a few moments to see if there still might be some accidental wisdom present that can be stolen; then switch off/move on as soon as they sense there isn’t.
Or they feel the sharp slap of reality around the chops, waking them up to something they hadn’t thought of before but, with a sting of excitement in the pit of their gut, know will work. It’s revolutionary, dangerous even; it will change them forever; it will make them uncomfortable; but it will work.
The real how-to book isn’t a book. For a book is structured logically, with chapters that lead on from one another, towards cementing the premise set out in the prologue and the blurb. The rich make money work for them . . . The maybe-one-day-how-toer settles in happily to have this edict proven to them logically over the next 300 or so pages. The real how-toer has already tasted this saying for authenticity and, after deciding that it only works in one dimension, spat it out and moved on to the next smash-and-grab.
The real how-to book is a non-stop series of events that manifest in both the mundane and the sought-after, which the genuine how-toer manipulates in order that they will change him towards being more connected to the things he needs to be connected to.
Or, to put it another way, if you aren’t a committed here and now how-toer (which doesn’t include anyone who truly believes they will be one day), you won’t actually hear/see/smell/touch/taste/sense any real how-to advice whether it arrives in a book, a film, an app, a church sermon, a YouTube video, a school lesson, a Lady Gaga song, or David Beckham’s various dolphin squeaks and bat radar soundings.
So, my how-to advice, which I intend one day to make into a series of books titled, “How to Really Want to How-to and Not Just Know How Real How-toers How-to”, is that before doing anything else you need to work out what it is you want to know how-to and how much you want to how-to.
But there’s a complication here when it comes to writing. Business how-toing is relatively straightforward in that most of the how-to is about making money. And if you want to make lots of money at writing, you’d probably be better off reading business how-to books than how-to write ones. One of the boringly predictable aspects of business gurus, after all, is that their advice, just like their suits, never really changes. The same could be said of certain blockbuster authors’ works.
Therefore, I think the question to ask is, would I rather:
a) Write just one short story that stays in the mind of anyone who reads it because of its emotional truth married with great writing style, anchored in a truly memorable main character? or
b) Sell hundreds of short stories which are adequate, maybe even win some awards, which cumulatively get my name known – but not one of which does what a) does?
The total how-tos of these are two quite different, even though they will share some technical how-tos. For one, it probably is possible to learn how-to do b) through books, workshops, imitation and so on. But b) requires a different kind of desire. One that isn’t easy to bookify. It’s about adventure and passion and the joy of bringing out the best of oneself; putting it into a form that entertains through shared emotion, not via sales tricks.