Writing is 40% sweat and toil, 40% technique and 20% other. I’m just making up these percentages but the proportions are near enough. It’s the other, the ephemeral something that can’t be taught.
When I started writing, my prose was purple. What’s meant by purple? It was so laden with description and adjectives that the action was lost in the story. My stories were convoluted, meandering and possibly lacking in tension. I don’t even have the earliest versions; they’re long gone or lost in a file somewhere. But I remember those first critiques from the creative writing class I took at UBC. Subsequently I probably went to the other extreme, removing all adjectives and most descriptions to the point of having talking heads and the reader not being able to see anything that was happening. But I was paying attention and learning and trying new ways of writing.
The next year I was accepted into the Clarion Writers workshop in Seattle and I have to remember that had I had exhibited no writing skills they probably wouldn’t have taken me. Presuming they had more applicants than spaces, that is. Clarion showed me I was low on the writing ladder, in terms of skill, but I was probably one of the people who moved the farthest along the ladder, while others stood still. I didn’t have as much ego back then, and therefore could learn more. 🙂 I had a lot to learn.
Over the years I worked on my skills, learning punctuation, grammar, plot and story arcs, tensions, dialogue, lacing in descriptions, etc. That was part of the sweat and toil. The other part includes researching your markets, reading guidelines, either writing pieces to suit (if there’s a theme) and submitting submitting submitting. Perseverance all the way, in learning to write and in getting work published. I would be nowhere if I’d given up after the first 100 rejections. And I cannot count how many rejections I’ve had.
But what makes a good writer? It is these elements I’ve mentioned. But it is also that ephemeral something. It can be voice, the way in which you tell a story. It can also be the story; how have you imagined it. Take a story about a bear that morphs into a human and in the process loses the ability to maintain the love he had but in the end replaces it with power to cover the loneliness. Give that plot to ten people and have them write a story. In almost all cases you will have very different stories from each person.
I once had an editor tell me my story could have been written by a cipher. I pondered that comment for a very long time and never forgot it. I wondered exactly what he meant and now I’m pretty sure I know. A story written by a cipher has no personality. Artists of every description develop style, whether painters, or dancers, or writers. It is both what individualizes the work but it can also pigeonhole you when your audience/fans always want something done in the same style. We can change our style but keep our voice the same. We have different ways of writing; wordy, crisp, rambling, descriptive, emotive, etc. And sometimes our style is our unique way of seeing things, the story itself.
Indeed, what makes or breaks a story is very ephemeral. Selling depends a lot on the likes of an individual and I have pieces that had been submitted numerous times, being rejected every time before they sold and had good reviews. You can’t really teach this ephemeral voice to a person except to say practice practice practice. Write all the time, study other writers, experiment and maybe you’ll develop a voice or style or personality. Mine is shifting and sometimes I’m not sure what it is. You can’t pluck this from a jar, nor plant it in your brain. You just have to keep trying.
Oh, and one last note. I’ve just sold “It’s Only Words” to Des Lewis’s Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies out of Britain sometime this summer.