You can spend years learning how to write stories that someone will want to publish; you can analyze every story you read to the point where you draw the life out of it. One day you discover you are doing it--writing stories that someone wants to publish--and have done it.
In the process, you realize not only have you done it, you’ve done it your own way.
I don’t know if you can go so far and say you have a voice or something like that--maybe with enough work amassed you can see that, but one of the hardest things to do is to be objective about the work you’ve spent so many hours, days, and weeks on. So it’s always a surprise when someone does want it, though because you have done all the homework you shouldn’t be surprised.
The compulsion is still (for me) to go back again and look at what other writers are doing to see anew how it is done. I am always reading a lot of work, much that I am not always excited by, just to see if there is something I can learn from it (maybe, what not to do.) When you enter a dozen contests a year, the journals start arriving in the mail whether you want them or not. I usually don’t, but I paid my entry fee, and there they are. I read them anyway.
I’ve had this feeling on numerous occasions when I’m writing a story: that this one will get published. I don’t mean to sound arrogant or over-confident, but there is often a moment of clarity that seems to be the reward for the willingness to show up and do the work. That moment, out of nowhere, is sublime. And that moment isn’t exactly that certainty that it will be published, it is more a sense that “I know this story has the quality and the spark to be well-published.” Since it has happened a few times, I have to believe there is something to the notion.
In the best cases it’s when I’m writing the story, and I sense someone might connect with it; again, probably because you can recognize that quality when you read another writer (maybe 10 percent of the time) you begin to recognize that quality in your own work. Some might call this a voice and I suppose that’s what it is. I really believe this absorption in a wide variety of fiction makes finding one’s voice inevitable. You can learn and assimilate much by reading a lot and widely. It has less to do with reading “how to” books and more with reading good fiction.
On the other hand, I’ve spent months on stories that I’m quite sure will never see the light of day, but there is some reason I persevere with their doomed venture. I’ve come to learn to take my time. A story I started in May is only now shaping up, and I feel confident that it will resonate with someone. But that confidence is the best gift one gets for having written year after year when there was seemingly no one that was going to read your writing. That’s what the ten years on novel number two, forever relegated to a banker’s box of drafts in the closet, was for.