Writers are made up of five elements. The good news is, you already have them – all you need to do is identify your weak spots and fix them. Here they are in ascending order of importance – so start at the bottom and work up.
I've said it before and I'll say it again – it's overrated – but there's no denying it helps. Some people are just naturally better than others at some things. It's not the end of the world, it just means that those of us less blessed have to work harder to achieve what we want. There are always going to be those who are better than you but that's no excuse not to keep at it – they may squander their ability while you are putting the hard work in – by the time they start to use it you may already be ahead of the game. Talent is just a short-cut. Who's to say the scenic route isn't better anyway? Besides, you'll know how you got there when you get there – which means you'll be able to do it again, and again, and again.
Somewhat over stressed in writing manuals and the blogosphere and there's a good reason for that – it's the craft, and craft can be understood and explained - but it's not as important as the attention given to it would suggest. You are probably already thinking of a handful of atrociously written but best-selling and well-loved books. We've all been there, wondering how the hell such-and-such got published - but the truth is people don't buy books to marvel at technique, it's what lies beyond the words that they're interested in – we just have to make sure our words don't get too much in the way.
The good news is there's no magic – this is something we can study and learn and practice until we are as good as we want to be.
We know what we like and we know what we'd like to write like – which means if we can get enough critical distance from our work we should be able to at least know when it hasn't hit that mark, even if we haven't fully developed the skills to get it there.
But we're also talking here about the reasoning mind – the ability to construct plots and rationalise character, to critique our work, to exercise taste – to make artistic and thematic choices. Essentially it's the ability to recognise that something is bad, why it's bad, and more importantly, how to make it good. You've probably got the first one down, you'll get better at the second by practice – join a critique group, it's far easier to see and understand someone else's bad writing – and the third, well, that's the subject of this blog post, and this blog in general.
This is the hot-bed of your ideas, the raw materials from which to cultivate your stories. Without this, no amount of craft will save you, no amount of critical faculty will allow you to be the great story-teller you could be. The best stories are those that have been incredibly imaginative.
Most people think of imagination as hard-thinking but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about tapping into your sub-conscious mind. The things you dream about. The ideas you would run with as a child before society embarrassed you into conformity. You have to break that wall down. You have to tap into all that craziness that's going on behind your sensible head. How? Well, each to their own, but here's a few ideas: dream diaries, free writing, free association, meditation; and here's some more.
The ancients believed that your 'genius' was your guiding spirit, the thing that led you to greatness. Those who achieved great things would have a powerful genius to guide them. It was only later that people began to think of individuals as geniuses, rather than genius being something outside of ourselves or something that was a part of us. I like the ancients' view better – it means we all have genius. There's a little piece for everyone.
It's what some writers call their 'muse', something that comes to them when they are in the white-hot heat of writing, when the words flow and inspiration burns hot behind them, where you know what you are writing is some of the best you've ever written. But it's also when you have an idea that is so powerful it reduces you to tears, when you make a cognitive leap that you can't explain, when your rational and sub-conscious minds work together in harmony – when you imagine what it would be like to travel at the speed of light...
So how do you tap into your genius? How can you summon your muse? I believe that by pursuing excellence in our craft, developing the artist within us, by breaking down the walls to our sub-conscious and freeing our imagination, we'll eventually find that little genius-child we locked away when we decided to grow up. The person we really are. Let's free him, take him by the hand and let him show us the world as it really is.