I don’t pretend to have all the answers to this question, and it is a question I often think about. But, I suppose it’s fair to say that I’m learning about what it takes, and trying to build the skills that I’m lacking. Having said this, let me give you my current thinking about writing skills.
First of all, a writer has to be fluent in the language in which s/he is writing. In my opinion, an extensive vocabulary and a thorough understanding of the rules of grammar and syntax are essential. Vocabulary is important so that the writer can select the words that convey just the right nuance of what she is trying to say. Because good writing is literature, making grammatical errors can make the author seem illiterate. And if grammar is about the use of words and phrases, syntax, which is about the structure of sentences, is also very important. Of course, the rules of grammar and syntax can vary from language to language. In German, for example, the verb is often placed at the end of a sentence, after the subject and object.
It isn’t just about writing in one’s mother tongue. For my two step daughters, their mother tongue is Italian, but from the ages of 7 and 9 they have been immersed in English: at school, with their friends, and their step-father. Now, they are both totally fluent in English, and their mother says that their Italian vocabulary and grammar has not kept up. So, if they ever decide to write, they will probably do so in English.
So much for the universal requirement to be a writer. If one is going to be a writer of fiction, several other skills become important: creativity and voice. Creativity is about the ability to present interesting and different characters and situations. Having a ‘fertile imagination’ would be a part of the creative skill, but, as I’ve said in other posts, the characters and situations should be interesting and different, but they should also be credible. If they are not credible, the writer will lose the interest of her readers. If the situations and characters are not interesting and different, they may well be just boring! Voice is about the projection of the characters and situations onto the page. It’s about the use of language to make them come alive. Part of voice is the ability to project feelings, emotions, personalities and values: subtley but clearly. Voice is also about being a good story-teller, about setting the scene so that it seems real to the reader, and about making the reader reluctant to put the book down.
As our publishers are constantly reminding us, being successful as a writer of fiction is about more than language skills and writing techniques. It is also about marketing. Successful writers have niches that they serve. J K Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, specialised in imaginative books for young people. It will be interesting to see how she does in writing adult fiction. The relationship between the writer and his niche is essentially a marketing relationship. The writer understands that niche market sector, and he presents a brand that the market sector comes to know and love. The author, whenever s/he is interviewed or appears before live media, is always selling her brand to her market sector. (So a successful writer is also a good salesman.)
Finally, there is that illusive but all-important commodity: luck. It’s about meeting the right person at the right time. That chance meeting (all else being equal) can make the difference between a best seller and an also-ran!