When my agent sold my first novel to Warner Books, the contract stipulated that I was to write a sequel. Despite The High House being the third book I had completed, (first two unpublished) I suddenly found myself asking the question of how one writes a novel. Prior to that time, I had started with an idea and wrote until the book was done. It occurred to me that a more methodical approach might be useful.
Since that time, I have critiqued a number of beginning writers' works, which led me to think about how one becomes a writer. Some people are fortunate enough to write professionally from an early age—they seem to possess an intuitive gift at producing commercial fiction. Most don't. Many do not become published until their 30's or 40's. Not being able to work on one's craft full-time plays a role in this, I think, but another aspect is simply the sheer number of skills a novice has to develop in order to sell his or her work.
What skills do you have to master to become a writer? And what is mastery, anyway? My definition would be when you reach a point where you can write any story you want without having to consciously concern yourself with sentence structure, style or dialogue. Not that you won't be dealing with these things; it's just that they come naturally enough not to interfere with what you're trying to accomplish. You know the rules and you know when you can ignore them, or break them altogether. That frees you to work on the higher problems of plot, pacing, and characterization.
So, how does a young writer shorten the time it takes to become salable? I've spent a lot of time thinking about that question. In the next sections, let's briefly look at how you can reach that point as quickly as possible.