Some basic shifting tips....
Smoothly getting into first as in shifting down into it from a higher gear or as in taking off smoothly? The latter just takes practice feeling where the clutch starts to grab and letting it out in a smooth motion as opposed to just dropping the clutch (usually hard on everything anyway, but will cause a lurch or if really done badly, a stall to boot) . The former is a matter of blipping the throttle with the clutch in to rev-match where the gear will take the engine so it doesn't suddenly force the engine to surge to that speed (i.e. lurch/jerk is the result). While up-shifting, you wait until the engine drops to the correct speed and then let the clutch out relatively quickly or if you're impatient, you can slip the clutch to bring it down quickly and be on your way at the cost of a bit of clutch pad wear. Just dropping it at the wrong speed will mostly certainly result in a lurch/jerking motion which tends to make people nauseous.
Like most things, practice usually makes improvement. OTOH, I know some people that have had a stick for years and still jerk my head off when I ride with them, so I guess in some cases it doesn't and I wish those friends would do us all a favor and get an automatic or at least an automated manual. (Although that means no newer model WRX since they've eliminated automatics in the U.S. for newer models).
I've had 4 cars in 20 years of driving and they were all sticks. Clutch travel and pressure varied as well as stick throw and knob type, but they all more or less behaved the same way. I just changed my '11 to a short-throw with Kartboy bushings and it changed the feel of the shifter (shorter and tighter), but otherwise, it behaves exactly the same way. My '04 had a tighter/heavier feeling clutch (similar to my old '88 Z24) while the '11 has a much lighter feel (similar to my old '93 ProbeGT). Neither is 'better', although I prefer the lighter clutch in traffic jams.
I've driven friends' cars of varying make and some other test drives of other manuals. None struck me as really different other than the timing of the shifts and the above varying parameters. I've read many people talk about some cars they've owned being easier to shift than others, though. I'm guessing this had to do with how forgiving the engine was with dropping the clutch at the wrong speed, etc. and how much abuse the clutch could taking just dumping it, etc. and less to do with how the car would behave if shifted properly (whereby they all behave relatively similar...i.e. smooth).