Why Self-Help Books Can Be a Writer's Best Friend

I read a lot of writing craft books. That makes sense because I'm a writer and I want my craft to continue to improve. I also read a lot of relationship books. Why? Because I write romance. Because romances involve two people, and in my stories, that means a man and a woman. I know how women think because I am one, but men, not so much, and in spite of what they say about themselves, men are not as easy to understand as they think they are. From my standpoint, it's vital to write them with as much insight as possible.

So why is it important to get men right? For one thing, it adds verisimilitude to our characters. I remember starting a story once where the hero, already married to the heroine, was talking to his buddy about wanting to start a family. His dialog included the phrase I want a baby. Now notice I said that I started this story, not that I read it. I didn't finish it because this scene wasn't about a guy. This was a woman in a hairy suit. Men want "a family." Women want "a baby." Plus, no guy, at least no straight guy, is going to talk to his buddy about this. In my opinion, this author had zero understanding of the male mind.

Here's another reason, and one I've never seen mentioned. Lots of young women read romances. In the process, they internalize a lot of what they read. They want the strong, dashing heroes they find between the covers. Wouldn't it be great if our books also taught them ways to relate to men that they could use in real life to make their relationships better? Ways that would help their guys be the hero they both want him to be? In order to do that, we have to write real men instead of those fantasy guys who only reside in fairy tales. Then again, maybe I'm the only romance writer who sees this as desirable. Or maybe others haven't really thought about it. I think it's a worthy goal.

Each of the books I'm going to look at are either written by men or rely heavily on interviews with men. They're not written in pseudo clinical language. The writing is accessible and even funny sometimes.
First up is:

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus 
by John Gray

Actually, any of the Men are from Mars books are worth your time.
These books are well balanced in their view of how men and women think, behave, and feel differently. Even though what I was looking for when I picked up the first of these books was insight into the male mind, I also got insights into my own gender. Perhaps even more importantly, I got a glimpse of how what makes perfect sense to me is confusing to a man. This is the stuff story conflict is made of, especially in romance.
So just to give you a taste, here are some snippets I think can stand on their on their own. These are taken primarily from Mars and Venus Together Forever.
If a man can put his feelings into action, he begins to feel more in control. By simply pacing back and forth when he is frustrated, he can find the same relief a woman might feel through talking.

~A great reminder to keep your man in motion when he's stressed.
For centuries, the sign that a woman was loved was her not having to ask. Now when a man appears to a woman as if he is not motivated to support her needs, it weakens her self-esteem and humiliates her. She feels that she is not worthy of her love.

~What's that famous (or is that infamous?) line women love to say? If he loved me, he'd know. Or the fight version of that line? If you don't know (what you did wrong), I'm not going to tell you. I do think however that the last line of this isn't exactly right. We don't feel unworthy of love; we feel as though HE sees us as unworthy. Maybe a minor point, but a telling one I think.
Gradually, I learned that when a woman is upset, she rarely has the ability to appreciate solutions. This is because what she needs then is to be heard, not fixed. In some cases, a solution makes matters worse by minimizing or even invalidating her feelings.

~Absolutely true. And a great way to create hurt feeling on both sides.
When a woman says she wants a sensitive man, she really means she wants a man who is strong but is sensitive to her needs. Quite commonly, a woman is turned off when a man becomes more sensitive than she is...If it persists too long, she becomes increasingly annoyed.

~I can't argue with this either. No wonder men are confused. Everything is a matter of degrees, but it's in those degrees that understanding happens. We want Alpha males, but with modifications. Knowing this helps us build that perfect hero for our heroine. And for our readers.
In one of the books, Gray also talks about how men and women earn/award relationship "points" which I thought was fascinating. Men, he says, feel that the bigger the gesture, the more points they should earn. Hence, flowers equal one point. A trip to Paris earns them fifty points. Women, on the other hand, give one point for each gesture. I don't think this is perfectly accurate. A trip to Paris, in my opinion is worth more points than flowers, BUT--and this is a but I think most women agree with--consistency is worth more a trip to Paris. The important thing here though is that men don't understand that this is how we see it, which gives a writer a valid way to create obstacles on the way to the happily ever after. 
There's lots of other good stuff. And by lots, I mean tons of insights that will help us build realistic men who are good guys but will still leave us lots of room to create conflict.

The Manual: A True Bad Boy Explains How Men Think, Date, and Mate--and What Women Can Do to Come Out on Top by Steve Santagati

According to the author, all guys have a little of the bad boy inside them. And honestly, we women like that. We especially like it in our romance heroes. This book can help you write bad boy traits and what your heroine needs to do to bring him into her arms and keep him there.

This book gives insights into the male mind in an amusing voice, but I also found a lot of little gems that will undoubtedly work their way into my stories. Here are some examples.

Men are prone to a state known as "tit dizziness." It comes on often, many times a day, and puts us in a mild stupor, completely distracted from the tasks at hand. A number of sights can induce this affliction. Examples include:
  • buttons pulling on a blouse;
  • a hint of cleavage;
  • a top hugging the outline of a woman's breasts; and
  • visible bra straps

What I like about this is that romance novels tend to use the same triggers over and over, but this adds a few other options.

While under this mysterious spell of the breasts, men have wrecked cars and fallen down stairs.

I love this because I can picture these scenes. Would I consider writing such a scene? Hell, yes. I write rom-coms.

If your man spontaneously hugs you in public, look behind you. Sometimes there's a girl he wanted to check out.

Now there's a great move. Maybe not for my hero, but for his best friend or even one of the heroine's best guy buddies, it's a gem.

One of the hottest things a woman can do in a skirt is arch her back as she pushes luggage into the overhead compartment on a plane.

This is an action I never would have thought of on my own, but it's in my head now, and when the opportunity arises, I'll likely use it (or some modified version.)

There's lots more in this book. Things like ways guys approach an attractive woman. Places they look for women. As a writer, I'm always looking for ways for my characters to meet. Be sure to keep your writer's cap on as you read this book because there's lots of good stuff that can spark ideas.

Why Men Marry Bitches: A Woman's Guide to Winning Her Man's Heart by Sherry Argov

Don't let the B word in the title throw you off. The author doesn't mean you have to be a bitch to get a man. But she does believe that women who give a man everything get nothing in return. I think she's mostly right, but while she advocates a few of the same things, this isn't a book like The Rules. This is about understanding men.

This book caught my attention early when she wrote in the introduction:

I heard a lot of critics say, "Women should never play games." From where I sit, this is very amusing because it implies that men are always compassionate, altruistic, and honest--and in no way play games with women. The reality is that men stretch the truth and strategically omit critical information all the time in order to have their cake and eat it too.

I've never been a fan of game playing, but that observation is spot on. Men know exactly what women want and they play to it. Women can do the same thing, but to do that, they need to understand what men really want long term. As writers of romance, we also need to understand that, and this book is a good tool in that quest.

This book is replete with the differences in how men and women communicate about relationships--the she says/he hears or she does/he thinks stuff. Some of it will be stuff you recognize. Some you won't. One thing I recognized that some women might not is the section about men deliberately annoying women to see where they stand. She says:

Whereas women see no logic in pissing someone off, men see it as a testing tool.

Don't believe it? It's true.

My dad's best friend tells a story about how he and his wife went to my parent's house for dinner. The men decided to go to town for some unremembered reason. Before they left, Mom said, "Dinner is at one o'clock. Don't be late." So the men went to town. They were back in plenty of time, but Dad parked up the road, and they talked in the car until they were good and late. The sole purpose for this maneuver was to annoy my mom. A key thing to keep in mind about this is that my parents had been married for a good thirty years. So yes, men do this. The author talks about what a man learns from your response, but considering the story I just told, I suspect what they're looking for depends to some degree on what stage the relationship is in. After 30 years of marriage, my dad certainly was not looking for the same thing a guy looks for two months after he meets a woman.

According to the author, early in a relationship, a man may use this technique to figure out what he can get away with and how hard he has to work at getting the woman to forgive him. Are roses enough? A romantic weekend away? A trip to Paris?

Regardless, you can use this bizarre (to us women) male behavior in a story to create complications. Even if it doesn't seem like something you want your hero to do, if you show the man's best buddy doing it, you can create a contrast between the relationships that makes your hero look, well, heroic.

Or you might use it as a way to illuminate a past relationship. That ex-boyfriend who always turned on the charm with every waitress they encountered and made the heroine feel like she had to work harder to get his attention. There's dozens of ways to make this work in a story. And as an added bonus, you get to learn the correct response to this attention-getting behavior. (Which, BTW, my mom got right.)

Relationships are important which is why so many books on the topic get published. Here's a few others, in no particular order, that I've found worthwhile over the years.

When Your Lover Is a Liar: Healing the Wounds of Deception and Betrayal by Susan Forward, Ph.D.

Why Men Won't Commit: Getting What You Both Want Without Playing Games by George Weinberg, Ph.D.

How to Make a Man Fall in Love with You: The Fail-Proof, Fool-Proof Method by Tracy Cabot

How to Break Your Addiction to a Person by Howard Halpern

He's Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys by Greg Behrendt

Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man: What Men Really Think About Love, Relationships, Intimacy, and Commitment by Steve Harvey

So what do you thing about relationship self-help books? Have you ever read one?


  1. Lots to be used here!

    That's quite true: you'll never hear a guy say "I want a baby." It sounds so foreign, whereas "I want a family" feels plausible.

    1. I think men envision the kid they can play catch with which is why a family appeals to them but babies not so much.

  2. Wow, great advice. I agree with you about role modeling behaviors that will make young readers more successful in love. I recently read a romance that has me worried. The heroine was such a doormat and took on so much verbal abuse from the hero, yet she still keeps trying and is eventually rewarded when she almost dies saving his life.