Shutting one’s mouth is more important than sheer craft.
I know a lot of grammarians: people who have strong opinions on the Oxford comma, dangling participles and ending a sentence in a preposition. Me, personally, I care most about clear communication, with grammatical concerns being a distant second place. Sadly, you can probably see it in my novels. Sentence construction isn’t my number one writing skill.
When I’m introduced to a writer, I don’t put much stock in their sample work. I hate to say it, but it’s true. What I care about more than anything in the world is whether or not they’re able to listen to those around them. If we get all the way to the end of a writers’ group or a con together, and I’ve seen them shout over everyone else around them, that only tells me one thing:
They are unlikely to be a very good writer.
It’s my single source indicator. It’s probably unreliable and deeply flawed, but there you have it. I’m going to be unequivocally clear here: I think one’s abilities as a writer are directly proportional to one’s ability to care about fellow humans. Empathy, compassion and comprehension are the key traits for me.
A believable hero is common, because I think a lot of writers focus on protagonists similar to them. A believable villain, on the other hand, isn’t nearly so easy to come by, and can make all of the difference in a story. Yes, they’re opposed to the hero, but a truly good antagonist is someone we can understand, not a mustache-twisting straw man for an abstract concept.
How well does a writer treat people in that writer’s daily life? How much time does that writer devote to listening and comprehending the motivations of others? Does a writer shut down a discussion when a disagreement happens? Does a writer punch down?
Writers who can’t listen to other people, who go through the world with blinders on, are unlikely to replicate it. They can rely on twists and cleverness, but the characters on the page are unlikely to come alive.
And hey, maybe puzzle plots and twists are your bag… But they’re not mine. I’d be interested in your opinion. Drop me a comment!
Image: Ear, by Flickr user Simon James, used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.