When I was in 14, I would have answered that question with: good mastery of language and creativity. Now, I would categorise the necessary skills in two categories: language and storytelling. Creativity is more like the very essence of any art. If skills were flowers and foliage, creativity would be the roots. That being said, you can consider it a skill if you want to, it’s a free world.
Language speaks for itself: you have to master grammar, punctuation, spelling, syntax and *drum roll* style. No, style isn’t just the product of coincidence, there are rules to follow, too. The better you know them, the more efficiently you can break them to create your own aesthetic. Examples of style rules would be not to insert 4 adjectives and 3 adverbs in a 15 words sentence, to vary the length of your sentences, etc.
All of this can seem obvious, but to quote On Writing Well: “Few people realise how badly they write.” So let’s do our homework and study style. Every writer does in one way or another.
Which leads us to storytelling, woo! The one part I almost completely ignored until very recently. You read that right: I tend to obsess over details such as style and forget the big picture. Besides, the story itself is the very reason I started writing in the first place, it should be pretty straightforward, right? Yeah… not so much.
There are many ways to break down storytelling. Larry Brooks breaks it down in 6 core competencies: concept, characters, theme, structure, scene and voice. I prefer to break it into smaller chunks: concept, characters, conflict, setting, theme, voice, tone, structure, scenes and audience. Although this last element is much more abstract than the others, there is something to be said about the wisdom of perfectly adapting your story to your target audience.
Knowing this helps me self-assess my own storytelling skills to know what my weak points are.
It also helps with estimating a story’s difficulty. If you’re a learner like me, consider that if your first attempt at novel writing is a high-concept high fantasy series, featuring characters with mental health disorders and an unreliable narrator… you might as well try to self-diagnose cancer. I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m just saying you might not have the tools to make sure you got it right.
A good educational approach is generally to focus on one difficult element at a time.
The good news is that in today’s world, the amount of self-help available is virtually limitless. It can come in the form of how-to books, writing blogs and websites (I’m a fan of Writer’s Digest), creative writing courses or workshops, etc. Reading extensively also helps a lot. But then you also have to write, try things, experiment, have fun. Awesome! Those are all of my favourite activities!
I’m leaving you on one of my favourite quotes by one famous author I unfortunately can’t fully appreciate (I’m sorry; I get why he’s great, but then he’s so depressing).
It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.