Never Ask a Natural

Haruki Murakami explains how to become a better writer:

“Hello, Mr Murakami. I’ve always enjoyed reading your books. Currently I’m a graduate student, so I’ve got to deal with reports, presentation planning, and emails and letters to professors, and anyway I have to write a lot of compositions. But the fact is, I’m really not good at writing composition. But be that as it may, if I can’t write I can’t graduate and I’m in a tough position, so since it can’t be helped I do my writing while struggling and groaning. Is there nothing I can do to make writing easier? If you have any advice, like what you’d find in a composition primer, I would be most grateful for it.”

Considering that getting into graduate school in the first place is no mean feat, we’re going to give Ms Sakurai the benefit of the doubt and assume she has a decent head on her shoulders, problems with the pen notwithstanding. Also, having shown the wherewithal to recognize her own academic shortcomings, plus the initiative in reaching out to someone who appears to be a more-than-qualified mentor, we’d also say she’s got the commitment and work ethic necessary to overcome her difficulties.

So how did the famous author respond?

“The act of writing is the same as sweet-talking a woman, in that you can get better, to an extent, with practice. Fundamentally, though, your abilities are determined by the talents you’ve been born with. Well, anyway, do your best.”

Haruki Murakami’s advice, Japan Today, 23 Jan 2015

A lot of people ask a lot of writers about how to become a better writer, seeking to learn the secret about making writing less painful, completing a book, writing something that a lot of people want to read, or writing a bestseller. And while Murakami’s answer is effectively the only practical one, I would provide a little more detail on the basis of my experience.

  • Practice and experience makes writing less painful. Eventually, it becomes almost automatic. When a writer is in the groove, he is barely aware of his own thought processes at all. John C. Wright describes the inspiration that substitutes for them as “the muse”, one might not unreasonably call the experience “dancing with the muse”. This is something I have very rarely experienced and never with fiction, but I have occasionally observed it in writers I’ve edited.
  • Completing a book requires nothing more than focus and determination. I wrote A THRONE OF BONES in one year. It took nearly seven years to complete A SEA OF SKULLS, mostly because I had other priorities interrupting my focus. It won’t take that long to complete the trilogy.
  • Writing something that people want to read requires getting out of your own head and actually paying attention to what other people think and do. It requires empathy, and if one is inclined toward solipsism, putting a firm restraint on the tendency. I can’t tell you how many authors have told me “I think a lot of people would like to read a book about [insert obviously stupid idea that is of interest to virtually no one besides the author]!” And it’s almost impossible to get a good author to write what will actually sell instead of whatever he feels like writing. I do this much more with my non-fiction than my fiction; on average, non-fiction sells better anyhow.
  • Get lucky or take the ticket. Be aware that most “bestsellers” are manufactured and fake; do you really believe Hillary Clinton and Katie Price are two of the most successful post-2000 authors in the world? If so, Ron Desantis has a mountain of his #1 New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, Wall Street Journal, and Amazon bestselling book, THE COURAGE TO BE FREE, for you to take off his hands. Published just seven months ago, the current sales rank of the paperback is #1,073,496 on Amazon.