Last week we got clear on the right and wrong types of problems for your book to solve, because not all problems need to be solved through a book! Hopefully now you’ve chosen a sticky problem for your book to solve.
Today, we’ll talk about how to effectively “solve” that problem in three distinct ways: by informing and instructing your reader. I call this your novel approach—your unique take on helping your reader over, around, or through that sticky problem. This is your chance to deliver on your promise to help the reader solve their problem.
Great books don’t beat around the bush; they make a bold statement about what problem they solve and how they’re going to solve it. They communicate this promise through the title of the book, the back cover description, in the book’s Introduction and/or Preface, and usually a few times throughout the book, too.
Take a look at some of these bold promises (hooks) from authors:
Hooks like these will catch readers’ eyes and might be enough to make the sale—but we all know that making the sale is where your job begins, not where it ends.
Have you ever read a book that promised to solve a problem—in other words, it hooked you with the assurance that it would solve your sticky problem? Since this problem is urgent, weighty, complex, and relevant, it’s highly likely you bought that book. If a book can solve a problem like that, it’s well worth the $20-30 you spent on it!
And then, once you started reading the book, were you disappointed? Maybe it offered a lot of stories of people who conquered that problem, but didn’t actually explain what those people were doing that made them successful? Maybe it went into explicit detail on the background of the problem, dissecting the problem six ways to Sunday without actually giving you practical advice on what to do about it. Or maybe it delivered shallow, surface-level, common-sense instructions that just barely started actually solving the problem.
I’ve experienced this all too often with personal development books. The author has identified a great sticky problem that I really want solved, and then they failed to deliver. It’s likely they fell short in one of two ways:
After you hook the reader, you have to fulfill your promise with your novel approach.
The first way to fulfill your promise is to inform the reader. Great books do go into detail about the problem, explaining all the ways that problem hurts and probably has implications even greater than what the reader already knew. They might use data and research to build a compelling case for the book, and/or explain the validity of their proposed solution, or justify the author’s credibility.
Authors often also need to inform their readers about mindset shifts that are necessary in order to do the work to solve the problem. Sometimes, a mindset shift is the solution to the problem, but more often it’s the first necessary step on the path to your resolution or approach.
When authors are also content experts (and if you’re writing about solving a problem in your field, you really should be!), they can delve into their expert knowledge and experience to inform the reader all about the problem and why their approach to solving it really works.
Importantly, informing your reader happens explicitly, usually towards the beginning of the book. In fact, when I’m helping personal development or self-help authors map out their books, I often suggest making chapter 1 the “problem chapter”—the chapter where you identify with the reader’s problem and help them understand the problem in a deeper way. Then we often make chapter 2 the “solution” chapter—the chapter in which we give an overview of the author’s framework/method/system and provide the rationale for why it works.
Your book doesn’t have to follow this pattern at all! But if you don’t know where to start, this is a useful place to start from.
The next, crucial part of fulfilling your promise to the reader is by giving them a framework, method, steps, or proven system/process for overcoming the problem.
Often you can see this method or approach reflected in the Table of Contents. For example, here’s the Table of Contents for Part Two and Part Three of The Grief Recovery Handbook (note that all of Part One is dedicated to unpacking the problem!):
Part Two: Preparing for Change: Starting to Recover [also note the straightforward title of this part!]
6. Your First Choice: Choosing to Recover
7. Setting the Guidelines
8. Identifying Short-Term Energy Relievers
9. The Loss History Graph
Part Three: Finding the Solution
10. What is Incompleteness?
11. Introducing the Relationship Graph
12. Almost Home: Converting the Relationship Graph into Recovery Completeness
13. What Now?
The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman
Here, you can see that the author lays out a path (which they’ve already revealed in Part 1 is well backed by research and experience) for “completing” your grief around an event in your life. If you’re someone struggling with grief, it’s likely that even looking at this Table of Contents gives you a sense of relief—thank goodness, there’s an answer!
This is the meat and potatoes of your novel approach; actually having a practical solution for your reader to follow. Structurally, if Chapter 1 was your “problem chapter” and 2 was your “solution chapter,” then Chapters 3 and on walk readers through your method/steps/system/process. Chapters might unfold chronologically, if these “steps” must happen in a certain order, or chapters might take the “pie” approach, where each chapter walks the reader through a different piece of the “pie.”
If you think of your sticky problem like a big brick wall standing in between your reader and what the transformation they want for their lives, then you can think of your novel approach like a demolition hammer or another tool to help them finally break through that wall.
But even then—your job as an author isn’t done yet. It’s not enough to give them a tool and hope that they figure it out. No, great books also show the reader how to use those tools with simple genius. This is the topic of next week’s article!