Monday Motivation: The long and arduous road to publication
Do you need reminding that writing is a difficult business? That there is no guarantee of success – at least the success measured by successful publication and a steady rise up the bestseller lists? That while it’s difficult enough to find a publisher, it can be even more difficult to find an agent? That even authors with multiple books under their belt, sometimes find it impossible to get the next one published?
If you were floating blissfully in some heaven in which writing comes naturally, followed, just as inevitably, by publication, let me tell you the story of Douglas Stuart, the author of Shuggie Bain. He’s 44 and Shuggie Bain is his first novel. It has just been declared the winner of the 2020 Booker Prize, which comes with what I’m sure is a very welcome cheque for £50 000.
Sounds like the sort of fairy-tale that I’ve just been insisting never comes true, right? First novel. Booker prize. Mmm. Well, there’s slightly more to the story than that.
In an interview I heard with Stuart the day after the prize was announced, his interlocutor said that he believed that the manuscript had been turned down a dozen times or more before Picador finally picked it up.
“Actually, it was ‘or more’,” said the glowing author. “It was rejected by thirty-two publishers.”
He told The Independent’s Martin Chilton that “rejection is an integral part of being a writer, whether it’s from an agent, a critic or readers. It’s an important lesson for any writer. I’m not sure I understood that at the time but I definitely do now.”
And as for the book having flowed smoothly from his fingers to the screen, well, that too was a fiction. “It took me ten years to write it,” he said. At first, he didn’t allow himself to believe that what he was writing was a novel, “because it was too intimidating,” he told the New York Times. He began by writing what turned out in the end to be Chapter 22, then Chapter 4, then Chapter 37. He wasn’t sure of the story. But he did have in his mind, throughout the process, the powerful image of his mother, an alcoholic who provides the novel with it’s powerful emotional focus.
His first draft was 900 single-spaced pages long. Over the years he trimmed it by more than half.
And as for writers needing long periods of uninterrupted time to compose their masterpieces, Chilton notes that “Stuart was writing in his spare time while working as a fashion designer, piecing the novel together in early-morning writing stints, or on the subway to and from work, or during summer holidays in the Catskill Mountains.”
So there is the fairy-tale version of writing, publication and recognition – and then there is the real version. Which in a paradoxical way is a fairy-tale of a different and even more inspiring kind.