Recently I’ve seen a lot of forums, websites and discussions talking about the “secret ingredient” in fiction; the elusive element that will instantly turn any schlock into a best-seller and bring the author fame and fortune.
Is it angst? Is it dystopia? Is it an emotionally unavailable vampire? Or perhaps some idiot with a zipper mask? What do I need to insert into my novel to make it suddenly awesome? What formula do I follow to create this ‘secret ingredient’ that will bring readers running, handfuls of their hard-earned money clutched in sweaty fists to be enthusiastically thrown in my direction?
The answer: You don’t.
Why? Because there is no secret ingredient.
In my deeply limited (probably stupid) experience, there are three things you need to write a good story.
1: You need a modicum of talent. And by modicum, I mean not very much. You need to have ideas, of course, and perhaps an ear for the way people speak, and an eye for how that might translate onto the page.
2. You need a butt-load of work ethic. Despite what people will say to the contrary, writing is hard. It’s a job. It’s a craft. It’s a skill that can be learned, but you really have to work at developing it. It doesn’t come overnight, and you have to get a lot of words down before they start to look good.
Besides the labour intensive development of your craft, writing a story takes a lot of work. To get down one hundred thousand some odd words, then spend the rest of your life editing them until they begin to take the shape of something resembling a story, is no easy task. People will claim “Oh, writing is easy for me!” And I would be willing to bet their stories haven’t been edited properly, and probably look like they should have been written in crayon.
3. The final ingredient you need is honesty. Big heaping, steaming, pulsating piles of honesty. Firstly, you have to be honest with yourself to know when your story sucks and you need to re-write it. Secondly, and more importantly, you need to write your story in an honest manner; meaning, you have to be true to yourself.
Being honest means writing the story that you want to hear in the manner you want to hear it. If the story that speaks to you loudest is a rollicking tale about a purple elephant named Dave, who hands out cupcakes and fatherly advice, then write that damned story. Not everyone is going to want to read it (I’m afraid I probably don’t want to read about Dave), but that story is going to speak to someone else just as loud as it does to you.
There is no secret ingredient. There is no magical formula. There is no grand cosmic handshake that is going to make you an instant success. The only things you can rely on are, sweat, effort, and ink-stained blood.
Or that’s the story I keep telling myself anyway.
As always, thanks for reading.