We are right to be dazzled by stories of authors bursting onto the scene with debut novels to win major prizes or become bestsellers; such spectacular successes are indeed newsworthy, because they are rare. But let’s not lose perspective; these writers haven’t ‘come from nowhere’. Behind the fairy tale successes you will find backstories of years of hard work, diligence and determination.
The ten-year overnight success
Joshi’s The Henna Artist was hailed as an ‘overnight’ success, yet as she has pointed out in many interviews, that success was built on a manuscript development process spanning a decade.
Joshi had been toying with a book idea based on her mother’s life and an early draft became her thesis for an MFA. A few years after graduation one of her thesis advisors contacted her to see how the writing was going. Joshi had had a break from writing, but the advisor put her in touch with an editor, who read the manuscript, and Joshi worked on those recommendations for the following year. The advisor then sent the work to her agent, who agreed to take her on.
The agent worked with Joshi for several more years, honing the story, trimming and tightening. There was major culling. After getting through that process, the agent suggested it was now ready to send to a developmental editor. The editor came back with fifteen pages of suggestions. That feedback knocked over Joshi’s confidence and her will to keep rewriting. She put the manuscript away. For a year.
When she revisited it, and reread the editor’s advice, she could see how encouraging the feedback had been, and she pushed through the next draft. Finally her agent agreed it was ready to submit to a publisher.
The nub of it is that it takes time to master the craft: ‘It took me 10 years to really learn how to write The Henna Artist, how to layer it with all of the complexities, and how to grow a character in order for the story to come alive and make it meaningful to so many people,’ (Hafsa Lodi, ‘Author Alka Joshi on the art of writing and an exciting Netflix acquisition’, N Arts & Culture, Jan 21, 2022). While there will be a differing levels of natural talent and experience that writers bring to their projects, you can’t bypass doing the work.
Writing takes practise and the more you write, the better you get at it. You can think of your time spent on unpublished manuscripts as an apprenticeship. My use of the plural – unpublished manuscripts – is deliberate. Very few of the published writers I know or have worked with found success with their first book-length manuscript. Alka Joshi’s story with The Henna Artist caught my attention not because of the ten years it took to develop the work to a publishable standard (which is common) but because it was her first completed manuscript (which is uncommon). In most cases, the ‘debut’ novel is the writer’s second or third manuscript, or sixth or seventh.
Most writers have a literal or metaphoric bottom drawer containing manuscripts set aside at various stages. The hard truth is that the first ‘developed’ manuscript, the one you have worked and reworked over a number of years, may not be the right one to submit for publication. It can feel excruciating to let go of something you have slaved over for an extended period, but it can also be liberating to set it aside if you are able to see that your future as a writer does not depend on only one story.
Sometimes you run out of ideas or run out of energy for a particular story you’re working on. If so, set it aside. Sometimes you can see a problem but can’t find the solution. Sometimes you can’t even find the problem, but know it is there after multiple rejections. Set it aside. You can always come back to it later. I know several writers whose first manuscripts, after significant rewriting, have turned into their second or third published books.
Keep in mind also that for many writers their debut novel was not the first thing they had accepted for publication. Publishing short stories, essays or magazine articles is an accepted and encouraged pathway to support the pursuit of a book contract: it’s considered part of the apprenticeship. I don’t know how many manuscripts Douglas Stuart exiled to the bottom drawer before submitting Shuggy Bain, but he had honed his writing skills with stories and essays appearing in major journals, including The New Yorker.
‘Fully formed’ voices don’t appear out of nowhere, they arise from sheer hard work. And Douglas’s voice would not have appeared at all without dogged determination. It has been widely reported that Shuggy Bain was rejected by over 30 publishers in the US and UK before it was picked up. I’m sure there was tweaking, trimming and revising between the first rejection and the eventual offer of a contract.
I’m all for celebrating writers’ successes – the fabulous ones that grab the headlines, the quiet ones shared over a private toast. But let’s be real about it: no writer – however many books they sell, however many awards they receive – gets there without persistence, commitment and patience.