Posted in Book Stuff

*For everyone who has to revise…again

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: it won the Pulitzer prize for 2007, today number 544 on Amazon more than a year after being published in paperback. That is the kind of success that authors crave. And how did it come? Fast, easy, cranking out book after book, as authors also crave?

Five years after writing eight hours a day, he had seventy-five good pages and a lot of crap.

It was like I had somehow slipped into a No-Writing Twilight Zone and I couldn’t find an exit. Like I’d been chained to the sinking ship of those 75 pages and there was no key and no patching the hole in the hull. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, but nothing I produced was worth a damn.

He failed every day for five years. He despaired. He put the book away. He tried to think of anything else he could do instead of writing. He wept. He didn’t even care anymore about writing a great book, just a readable one. One night he dug out the manuscript, deciding that if he could find one good thing in it, he would keep going. This is where he finds the golden line and it inspires him, right? No–he found nothing of worth in it other than the above mentioned seventy-five pages.

But he went back to it anyway. For two more years it was a futile task. But then something started to take shape, seven years from when he’d started, and in another three years, the book was finished. Something beautiful. A beauty that was recognized.

And he says:

Junot Diaz, photo by Christopher Peterson, Wikipedia Commons
Junot Diaz, photo by Christopher Peterson, Wikipedia Commons

You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway. Wasn’t until that night when I was faced with all those lousy pages that I realized, really realized, what it was exactly that I am.

(Full story here.)

Someone might find this story discouraging–after all, the prospect of ten years of labour! But not me. I’ve already been there, as you know if you follow my blog. Instead I’m heartened because a fellow writer says it’s worth it, not only for the success which he couldn’t know that he would find, nor can I or any other writer, but for the thing in itself: “you keep writing anyway.”

Thank you Junot. You wrote honestly from the heart, and in doing so, put your hand out to me and every other writer who despairs at midnight.

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h/t Sandra Gulland



Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

12 thoughts on “*For everyone who has to revise…again

  1. Junot, I love you! 20 months in, halfway through second draft, having just acknowledged that there will be a third draft, I do actually feel better hearing this.

    Lillian, you are also my hero – putting the quality of your books first before the need to finish and get them out there. You are an inspiration. My only question is, “How do you cope with the question ‘When will it be finished?'”. I’m hearing that a lot lately.

    1. Thanks so much Charlotte. 🙂 I think you bring up a really good point. People ask all kinds of intrusive personal questions of writers that they wouldn’t ask, say, lawyers or dentists. Nobody asks lawyers: how many clients do you have; how much money do you make; do you have any celebrity clients; are you as good a lawyer as J.K. Rowling’s lawyer? But now you have an answer to the question. Tell them that Diaz’s last novel took ten years; Geoffrey Eumnides’ (Middlesex) took seven; Ann Michael’s (her previous one was Fugitive Pieces) took thirteen. I will, too! Let’s deflect these questions away from ourselves and then turn around and ask questions of the person asking. People generally prefer talking about themselves anyway.

  2. I love him, too. The Morville Hours, one of my all time favourite books took Katherine Swift fourteen years to write. There IS an equation that goes time and trouble spent equals quality in the long run. Very inspiring post, Lilian!

  3. Well, I’d really like to read that book now! What an inspiration this post is. Not that I’m a writer, or a fiction writer, at least, but the general principle of sticking with what you love no matter what is a great one.

  4. I really needed to read this – for the last few days have been feeling as if every photograph I’ve ever taken and every word I have written so far is appalling crud. I seriously considered rewriting my blog bio and calling myself just a flop rather than an artist, a poet or a wordsmith.

  5. Lilian, you don’t know how much I needed to read this right now – thank you. So glad to be here catching up – happy anniversary for the 26th, btw, 12 years is a wonderful milestone (that photo of the curving road in the woods reminded me very much of the long drive into my college outside Victoria on Vancouver Island – talk about a rush of nostalgia for those long-ago years). I *loved* The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and had no idea until right now that Junot Diaz had such lows on the road to its completion. It helps so much knowing something that looks so effortless took ten years of painful work. Ten years! Oh boy. And yes, it’s also great to know it’s okay, because I’d just keep doing it anyway.

    1. Di, I’m glad it fit the bill, and welcome back! I didn’t realize you went to school in Canada. Far from here, yes, but my friend’s son is there right now. This isn’t called world wide web for nothing.

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