As an author and a publisher, I review dozens of stories every week. Having published about two million words on the last couple of years, I am occasionally asked what writing tips would I give to upcoming writers. One of the most important pieces of wisdom I have gleaned is that there is really no way to answer this properly for everyone in all circumstances, but I’ll give you some thoughts.
Many writers need to understand that there isn’t a great deal of interest out there in what they commit to paper/screen just for its own sake. There’s a therapeutic value in that kind of outflow of ‘stuff’, but that’s about all. If you want to write so that readers — real, living human beings — are attracted and inspired, you need to understand readers in general and your readers in particular. There’s a difference — not everyone by any means is going to be interested in what you write, but there will be a sub-set of people who will be VERY interested in what you offer. Who are these people? What makes them tick? What are they looking for exactly? What are they NOT looking for?
If you can find the crossover area between what you absolutely love writing and what YOUR readers absolutely love reading — the ‘sweet spot’ — then you’ll get sales and find your fanbase.
It's all about finding your own voice.
Keep writing until you confidently find that sweet spot, which is when you find your own voice. That may take 10,000 words, or it may take a million words, but you’ll know it when you hit it. It’s that moment when words are flowing through you like Niagara Falls and you are proud and joyous and know that you’re reading something you’ll be happy with, even if it seems no one else is. And that's when someone else will be happy too.
You see, you won't really know what it is that you're offering readers until you find your own voice. So you can't honestly reach the 'sweet spot' until you know what you're doing.
There's a correlation between these two things: the ‘sweet spot’ of you loving your work and readers loving it too, related to the finding of your voice.
It all comes together. But ONLY when you have written enough to find your voice. Find that special unique voice which by definition only belongs to you and you have then a much better chance of finding those people who want to listen to that voice.
As far as what makes a story brilliant, that very much depends on who the reader is. There’s a kind of sequence when I read a new story: firstly I have to feel in capable hands. This comes in the first few sentences when you sense that this writer has reached that point described above when they are confident in their own voice. It’s as easy to spot as it is listening to a song sung in the right key by a good singer. No matter what the subject matter of the story, part of me relaxes a little and I say to myself ‘Ah, this is going to be good.’
Conversely, when reading something by a writer who hasn’t yet reached that ‘sweet spot’ point, I am thinking ‘OK, let’s get through this and see if it gets better.’ Some stories do; others fail within the first few sentences.
Then, while in competent hands, the next step is when the writer surprises me. Not in a bad way, like ‘Oh, I didn’t see that disappointment coming’ but in a good way like ‘Wow! That was cool!’
I remember reading a book by a well-known author some years ago and thinking ‘OK, this is reasonably well-written’ but feeling that the writing was telegraphing to me who the bad guy was going to be. I said to myself, ‘Nah, this author has too good a reputation for the bad guy to be that bad guy — it must be someone else. This will be a cool surprise!’ And then it wasn’t: the bad guy was the character who I thought it was going to be. Flop, even though the author’s name was big.
On the other hand, I recently read David Bowmore’s The Magic of Deben Market and was caught off-guard several times — I thought I knew what was going on, but I had absolutely no idea. And then smash, pow, wham! the stories kept hitting me like that all the way long, including one really big whiz-bang moment towards the end. That book left me with a kind of electricity which still tingles. Just an example.
I get to see a lot of really cool writing by many authors, and I usually try and grab them and publish their work so that others can experience what I have experienced. But you can tell immediately the ones who need to write more — in some cases, much, much more — until they find their own voice.