There are several questions commonly raised by many new, and even not-so-new, writers that I think are tied together. One of them is "What's the secret?" These people want to know why those who get published rise above those who don't. They don't think it's a matter of a better story or better writing so much as a mysterious "in" that only certain people are privy to. They want to know how to join the fraternity, in other words. Whom do I have to know? If only so-and-so would recommend me to her agent. Why don't editors give reasons for rejections? My book is better than X; how come X got published? What's the secret handshake? What's the secret? Part of the secret is perseverance, getting that fiction writing is tough work, and facing that there are no shortcuts, but that's beside my point today. When asked this question, editors often say, "There's no secret. Just write a great book." Grumbling, the writer says, "Well, assuming I believe that's all [!!!] it takes, how do I do that?"
A related question goes like this: "How come Z got published when it breaks all the rules? They say you can't start with a dream, a prologue, weather, setting, dialogue, or backstory, and Z does it all. And then chapter 1 opens with the alarm going off in the morning! They say you can't info-dump in chapter 1 or much of anyplace else, and Z does. They say you have to present the conflict right away, and Z doesn't. They say the protagonist has to be likable but she's such a whiner, and the writing is full of adverbs and 'wases.' If I had even one of these problems in my story I'd get a form rejection. How did this ever get published?" I'm not sure how often writers get to, or dare, ask editors such a bald question, but when lamenting along these lines to fellow writers the answer they often get is, "You can do anything if you can make it work." Fine, but what on Earth does "make it work" mean?
I think it means two things, and those are also related. Neither are macro-things, such as conflict, plot, setting or POV, and even character isn't the whole answer. First, "make it work" means identifying with your character well enough (basically, climbing inside his or her skin as you imagine the story) that you are aware of all of the tiny increments and adjustments in his or her emotions as the story unfolds, and write true to those. We might call this micro-emotion. Fiction is at bottom an emotional experience. One of my new favorite writing quotes, by Les Edgerton, says "Emotion is the chief coin in the trade of writers." If the reader doesn't believe in the emotions, she doesn't believe in the story and it doesn't address her chief reason for reading. Get the emotions right, and she's hooked down to her very core. Second--and this term comes from Donald Maass's The Fire in Fiction--is micro-tension. What this simply means is moment-by-moment tension. Maass explains this so well that I'm going to quote him here. He says micro-tension:
"keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story but in the next few seconds. It is not a function of plot. This type of tension does not come from high stakes or the circumstances of a scene. Action does not generate it. Dialogue does not....Exposition...does not.... When you don't have micro-tension, you are slowly losing your reader. When you do have micro-tension, you can do anything." (Emphasis mine.) Great, but how do you achieve micro-tension? Maass puts his finger on this, too. It comes from emotions. But, because this is tension, it specifically comes from conflicting emotions, either between two or more characters or within the protagonist himself. Whether you're writing dialogue, action, or exposition, find the tension within the MC or between the MC and others in the scene, even if it's as mild as friendly disagreement or presenting two credible sides of an issue, and you can achieve that "What's going to happen next?" quality. This is how we can "do anything and make it work."
So how do we find "the secret?" (1) Learn the macro. (2) Learn the micro. (3) Accept that writing is a lifestyle and an identity, not something you do in that mythical "leftover time," which has been well covered here. (4) Persevere, and (5) Learn to submit to agents and editors professionally. If you're like me, (2) came last and is the final clue to the puzzle. I'm excited to have found Maass's good words to define and describe what's been stirring in my mind and spirit. I've found what I think is the closest thing there is to the secret! :)