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The One Surprising Fundamental That All Writers Need

As a writer, you probably thought that you only needed a limited range of skills to survive, right?

If you were to list out those skills, you might put ‘typing’ at the top, as most writers these days use keyboards to write with. Perhaps, thinking ahead, you might also put ‘social media skills’ on the list: it seems as though today you need to be able to operate the basics of Facebook and the like to get your name out there, even if you have a traditional publisher behind you.

You might also have listed ‘interpersonal skills’ if you were thinking of the human contact you might need to be successful at along the way - talking to editors, talking to agents, talking to publishers, talking to the public buying your books, and so on.

One skill you might not have listed is ‘writing’.

You may have assumed, along with by far the majority of writers out there, that ‘writing’ was a given. You know the language, you learned it at school; you have the ideas, or you wouldn’t be contemplating writing as a career in the first place.

It’s true that many writers have those basics in place as they begin. What many fail to recognise is that there is more to ‘writing’ than simply putting ideas down onto the page.

I’ve spoken to writers who have devoted their whole lives to the practice of writing, given up jobs, set aside time, written hundreds of thousands of words, churned out manuscript after manuscript, put together whole series of novels, all the while assuming that they knew how to write, that ‘writing’ was a matter of sitting down and generating words, sentences, chapters, books, and that success as a writer would somehow follow if one just had the persistence to get enough written.

I’ve read manuscripts from writers who believed that they were ‘onto a good story’ and who had spent many months writing their life’s work in their spare time, convinced that their story was solid and powerful and worth telling.

Unfortunately, most of the manuscripts were either turgid, shallow, shapeless, meandering, superficial, derivative, almost incomprehensible or some combination of those attributes. Reading them, I could occasionally tell that the writer loved what he or she was doing - sometimes there were sparks of quality, sometimes there were whole scenes which had some worth. But in by far the majority of such cases, the material was utterly worthless.

Except possibly as a first draft. It might be possible to turn anything into a quality piece, given enough re-drafting.

What had these writers missed?

It’s a sad fact that what they had missed was very easy to miss. They had missed that the action of writing words on a page based on what one thinks frequently results in poor quality from a reader’s perspective.

They had missed that there is more to writing than ‘writing’.

To use some analogies, someone who can ride a bicycle isn’t necessarily capable of performing circus tricks on a bicycle; someone who can swim isn’t always going to be able to beat an Olympic record; someone who can bang a drum isn’t guaranteed to be asked to join the Rolling Stones.

Writing words on a page based on the ideas in one’s head is a beginning. But to do so with the product of a successful story at the end is not certain - there are skills, techniques, competencies, which good authors have either developed over time or learned from others. In fact, there’s a whole underlying language, utterly different in nature from the one the words are written in, which successful fiction speaks and which readers hear even when they are not aware of it.

It’s possible to glean these techniques from the writings of master authors through the centuries; it’s possible to learn them by reading a great deal; it’s even feasible to develop them on your own, after a huge amount of practice, providing that you don’t assume that simply putting words onto a page is enough.

How Stories Really Work has done some of the job for you. It takes what master authors have done through the generations and reduces that all down to a set of straightforward tools that you can immediately use to improve and upgrade your writing.

The rest is up to you: are you going to learn how to be a writer? Or are you going to assume that you already know everything that you need to know?

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