Why do writers talk about the craft of writing? Because writing is a craft, with certain learned skills. Inspiration is not enough to create a compelling story. If you’re going to be a professional writer, you must learn those skills and respect the craftsmanship involved in becoming a selling writer.
Sometimes writers may work all their lives to learn these necessary skills in order to tell their stories in a way that will garner them a publishing contract. Perhaps, if you aren’t selling yet, it’s because you haven’t learned enough of the required techniques or haven’t practiced them enough. In other words, you just haven’t written enough words.
Dean Koontz said a couple of decades ago that a writer must write X thousand words before anything can be written worthy of publication. What that X is varies from writer to writer.
Just what are these skills one must learn in order to be a selling writer?
I think Jack E. Bickham, author of Writing Novels That Sell hit the nail on the head when he said, “A story is the formed record of a character testing conflict, told from a point of view.” In his book, Mr. Bickham discusses each of these elements - formed record, character, conflict, viewpoint - at length. I urge you to read this book if you can find a copy (it’s out of print).
Briefly, formed record means an author controls the material. There is a formal structure. There is a consciousness of narrative principles. Classical ideas of dramatic architecture are followed. In other words, great stories just don’t happen.
A character is not just a person. In fiction, a character is a creation of many things. A character is an exaggeration of a real-life person in some respects. A character is much easier to understand than a human being, because their “tags” and traits, their attitudes, internal and external wants and needs, their conflicts are played on the stage of our minds. Often, it’s much easier to understand what makes a created character tick than to understand why your spouse gets depressed during the holidays. Or it should be much easier. That’s the author’s job: make the character understood by the reader and make the reader want to know the character.
Conflict is the driving force of fiction. Conflict is struggle. It is a fight that plays on stage for the reader. Yes, sometimes conflict is a character at war with himself, but this isn’t enough. There has to be an external conflict driving the external plot and reflecting the internal struggle. Don’t confuse adversity, which is bad luck, with conflict.
Point of view, is the scale that makes the story someone’s story. Viewpoint is necessary to fiction, because a reader wants and needs to identify with someone. The reader wants to cheer for someone and relate to the story. Viewpoint is a carefully wielded skill by the writer. A writer must make careful decisions about what kind of viewpoint to use, whose viewpoint to use, and how to use that viewpoint to not only relate the events of the story but also reveal character to the reader.
If you are just starting out, your writer’s tool box probably has lots of empty space. Add these skills as quickly as possibly, and you’ll be well on your way to writing salable fiction.