One could argue that plot, characterization, setting, and verisimilitude are the aspects which give a story lift. And yet, I’ve read–and written–plenty of tales that didn’t soar despite having all those noble attributes.
In my heart of hearts, as an old friend used to say, I believe it’s the quality of a writer’s voice that makes the difference.
A writer’s “voice”–to me, anyway–is the quality which truly distinguishes a written work. And it’s more than just the sum of its parts. Voice is what gives one set of words power where another set of words merely conveys information. Consider the following sentence (attributed to Hemingway, among others):
The line operates beyond the obvious. It evokes memories and stimulates the imagination. Six lousy words! But is that an example of voice? Yes, albeit not a very good one. That line may be good, evocative even, but so is: Jesus wept. Neither is quite long enough to become a bestseller on its own. A story needs more, a beginning, middle and end, at least. Voice is what makes those constituent parts less visible and more absorbing. Voice takes the commonplace and makes it not just readable, but special.
Where does this magical stuff come from? In a word: experience. You’ll have to do a heap of writing before you’ll find your own. But once you’ve grown comfortable with the way you stack up subjects and verbs, you’ll have established a foothold on your voice. Your manner of expression, your determination to dodge cliches, your pacing, the way you adapt sensory text to your will–all of it shades your unique voice.
There’s no recipe for quality prose. You can’t check off ingredients as you lob them like hand grenades into your story. Try to imagine someone writing that way….
Hey! See this sentence here? It’s got pathos, by cracky. And that one over there: it’s loaded with imagery; we’re talkin’ wasabi cheese fries, fer cryin’ out loud. Now I’ll just sprinkle in a little pacing, maybe some sexy dialog, and something funny. Wait! I’ve got it: a fart joke. Everybody loves fart jokes. And then–
At some point in your writing efforts, you’ll cross into a comfort zone. Getting the right words down, in the right order, with the right embellishments, will become second nature. Your work will have a feel to it that might be emulated, but never duplicated. You’ll still have to fix mistakes, ’cause those never go away, but you’ll have a much sharper eye for them. You’ll catch ’em faster, and fix ’em faster, too. It’ll all be a part of what makes up your voice.
You’ve just got to keep working at it.
Next up: a chat about dialog.