An open letter to my literary friends

Yesterday I went for sushi with a friend of mine who’s clever and tongue-in-cheek witty. She loves Haruki Murakami and has dark humor. Today I read a blog post from another friend – a simple scene about relationship conflict (who’s going to pay the bill) but written in a fun, engaging style. I don’t doubt that both are better writers than I am.

Which is why I keep telling them to write books. Short books. Erotica. Romance. Anything. Because the people writing books, and the people making money writing books, are not the world’s best writers. Ok, some of them are pretty good. But a lot of them aren’t. They’re just writing.

They’re committed. They get better, they study and research, they learn the skill of crafting plot. People talk about inspiration or creativity but that’s mostly a non-issue with fiction: you don’t start “coming up with ideas” until you have a problem. You’ll never know whether you can do it until you’re stuck on chapter 19, where a character needs to do something but there’s no reason for them to do it. Or two characters are on a date but something has to happen to piss them off and make them fight and break up.

Writing a novel isn’t a flash of insight, it’s the slow, plodding work of solving thousands of little problems. If you want to be a bestseller, you have to make the choice of writing in a popular genre and figuring out what common elements books in that genre have.

Can you do it? Absolutely. Sure it will take a huge amount of time, but what else have you been doing with all your time recently? Reading classics? Arguing about the future of literature over coffee?

Be the fucking future of literature. Spend a year – ten if you have to – and write a novel. There are few things as satisfying or as worthy of the attempt and successful publication of a book.

I guess literary writers are afraid of putting themselves out there and failing: probably they “don’t know what to write about” and are only good at self-involved nazel-gazing (aka: literary fiction). If they don’t have a tragic, true life story, they don’t feel they have anything meaningful to say. But those stories aren’t really what the world needs or wants anyway.

Take all that beautiful, introspective, soul-crushing writing and put it into a more exciting/exotic scene: maybe a spaceship, maybe a dystopian small town. Throw in some AI or monsters, a villain, a love interest. Let the beauty of your writing be supported by a plot that gets people to read and appreciate it. It doesn’t have to be pulp fiction, if you want to keep it ‘realistic.’ But you do need some basic story arch and character development, and a lot of conflict between characters with opposing goals.

Literary writers are also skeptical of self-publishing, and may not be the most entrepreneurial-minded. But I hate seeing them waste their potential in ordinary jobs, being interested in writing but lacking confidence in their abilities.

I’ve also been told recently, however, that I’m a “Poso”: an enthusiastic, positive person who thinks everything is possible, and that I can’t really connect with other people’s deep fears, problems or inhibitions, and that my “you can do it!” advice is ultimately unhelpful and kind of annoying.

That may be true. Your life is your own, and you can do whatever you want with it, and I hope you’ll be very happy with your choices.

Want to write a book? What’s holding you back? Answer in the comments.

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book editor turned book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors write and publish bestselling books. FREE GUIDE: Sell your work without selling out.