In a short interview from 2008 with the ever-reliable Clarkesworld, one of our finest living writers is astoundingly frank about what makes for good writing, and provides a ruthless diagnostic of the imaginative failures of the archetypal beginner:
In general terms, how does a short story work?
By engendering expectations and satisfying them. I told a student once to letter a sign and put it where he’d see it when he wrote: “I AM GOING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING COOL.” Later he reported that he had done it, and it had helped immeasurably.
Style and voice seem crucial to a short story but are easily turned into abstractions.
Style has become a bucket of worms, thanks to the deteriorating standards of the public schools. The chief style I see in student stories is American Illiterate. It shows up in published stories sometimes too. “Should an enemy warrior cross that line, kill them!” Well, that’s okay if the order-giver is an illiterate. Unfortunately, the illiterate is just about always the author. Other than that, the style should suit the story. Imagine The Wings of the Dove as told by Huck Finn. It would be funny for ten pages, but…
If you’re asking about the author’s voice, or the narrator’s, it’s so closely linked to style that I see no point in discussing it separately. If you mean the voice in which each character speaks, each must be different. The butler mustn’t sound like the footman, even though neither is an important character. This is one of those truths that students reject out of hand. They reject it because everybody sounds alike.
I still don’t know what to make of this part, but I find it fascinating that the same person can be simultaneously so pessimistic about the ubiquity of awful writing yet hopeful that good writing is simply a matter of perseverance. Could you imagine Marilynne Robinson or Joyce Carol Oates saying this? I suspect it has something to do with his own process of writing, which according to him consists mainly of revision:
Most would-be writers fail because they’re not willing to do the work and learn. They have a computer with a spell checker, and what more do they need? Everything they write should be bought and published. Almost anybody who’s willing to write a lot, to try to write well, and to market what he writes succeeds.
Most of writing is easy. Characterization and plotting, which seem to scare a lot of beginners to death, are easily learned and soon become almost automatic. The hard things are telling a good story and writing graceful grammatical prose.