The short answer: I don’t know.
But I know what I like.
And, while some of the writing I love is richly decorated (eg. The Museum of Modern Love; ‘The Ceiling‘), if I set out to read an award-winning work, I am often left with a crusty sawdust feeling of, ‘Why?’
Some stories go no place, with characters I’m not interested in, only to be selected for accolades over others that make me laugh or sigh or cry. In these cases, perfect sentences seem to mean more than pieces that wring out (or feed) the soul.
Should technique matter over feeling, style over substance? Plot over character over place, over all of the above in some formula known only to the Illuminati of Writerly Things?
[Is there an Illuminati of Writerly Things?]
I am not the best person to extol the virtues of what is “good” writing or what makes for the perfect story. My first short story to receive recognition was only submitted to make up the numbers — because I had paid for three entries. I thought it was too quirky, not serious enough for a literary contest.
This story received third place in an Australian literary award and, soon after, publication in two overseas journals. Yet much-beloved others in my flock are battered by continual rejection, destined to face a wait of weeks or years or more. Or never.
So what really matters?
Lemony Snicket (aka “Dan Handler”) says that story should come first*, according to a 2014 Reed Magazine interview. But last week I attended a talk from a publisher who told a room of hopefuls that a sense of place is of elevated importance in Western Australian writing. Still other writers, editors, and publishers would preference the needs for solid characterisation, dialogue, pacing, source of conflict, ability to follow or subvert genre tropes…
If you follow everyone’s advice to the letter, if you have a well-drawn plot with a strong sense of purpose and place and real characters who speak believable dialogue, do you have a great story? Not necessarily. These elements alone do not make for magic.
I think it is like Etgar Keret told me: you need to write for yourself alone.
After that, if publication is what you seek, you’d better steel yourself for a bumpy road. Authors who don’t face a ton of rejection prior to publication are in a tiny minority.
Sometimes you’ll be lucky enough to engage a reader on your journey; other times, you won’t. Sometimes you’ll be edged out of publication by a bigger name, a more recognisable voice, a better story.
Remember that editors and publishers are human, and humans are individuals with different wants and needs. What might not work for one, may be just the thing for another. Good writing is subjective. But you won’t know unless you put your work out there.
A little tidbit I have picked up along my way is that there will always be a niche for your work, if you want it. It may not pay, and it may not bring prizes and fame, but there is a place for you and your unique voice. Just do your best, for you.
Here’s to you and your writing journey,
*On this note, Dan Handler’s mentor, Kit Reed, wrote an excellent book called Story First: The Writer as Insider in 1982. You can source pre-loved copies from AbeBooks.