I received an email yesterday from Harry of Jericho Writers in which he quoted from George Saunders’ book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, a book about reading and writing. Saunders wrote: “I’ve worked with so many wildly talented young writers over the years that I feel qualified to say that there are two things that separate writers who go on to publish from those who don’t.
First, a willingness to revise.
Second, the extent to which the writer has learned to make causality.”
Harry’s email is quite lengthy, so I’ll summarise the points that he and George Saunders make.
First, about revising. Harry says, “The most frustrating writers I’ve ever dealt with are ones who come to us with a really strong manuscript, which they then don’t revise. I remember one writer in particular who had a genuinely interesting and well-written manuscript. It needed a brisk haircut, three or four weeks in the workshop, and it would have been ready to meet some agents. And – it never did. It never got there.”
From my point of view, revision is essential. Painful, yes at times, but if there’ a good editor, if we’ve listened to him/her, and if we’ve taken on board her/his points it is just self-destructive not to follow the advice we’re given.
What about causality? Harry makes clear that he’s not talking about the causality that one can observe on a billiard table: predictable physics. He is talking about the events that are caused by humanity – by the characteristics, the values the hunches, the emotions, the values of individuals. This richness is what makes a story interesting. It’s when a character does something unexpected, but understandable, and that throws the plot off its expected course. Or perhaps it is the character’s surprise reaction to an expected development. This kind of causality is easy to say, but not so easy to bring to life. Our characters themselves must have real depth, uniqueness and some internal conflicts to make this kind of rich causality work.
While we’re on the subject of what differentiates writers who get published from those who don’t, there is an interesting lead article in the Spring 2021 issue of The Author entitled “Winner Take All” by Robert H Frank, who says, “Whether a book becomes a bestseller depends on many factors, perhaps the most important of which is whether it’s any good. But as millions of authors are painfully aware, many good books never achieve bestseller status. By far the strongest predictor of whether a book of given quality will become a bestseller is whether it was written by an author of earlier bestsellers. If an author’s book succeeds, they become a more attractive client for a high profile literary agent. That means their next cash advance will exceed the previous one by an even larger amount than it would have, which will create additional pressure on their publisher to publicise their new title more aggressively. And so on.”