That first big break

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Eshwar Sundaresan

Eshwar SundaresanEshwar Sundaresan is Risha’s father, a difficult son, Bangalore-based writer, freelance
journalist, third-generation Mumbaikar, mixed-bag consultant, ghostwriter, an ex-corporate nobody, a counsellor-in-training and an introspective man. He is the author of Bangalored: the Expat Story and a few award-winning works of fiction. He is eminently Googlable.

Dear Aspiring Writer,

As you well know, the internet is already replete with advice on how to get published and eventually sign a million dollar contract. I see no point in adding a stanza to the sermon. Instead, let me try and describe – as briefly as possible – my own journey towards my first big break. It’s a decade-long saga.

I quit my day job in March 2003, and my debut novel Behind the silicon mask will be published by Westland sometime in Feb-Mar 2013. Of course, the gap was peppered with milestones. In 2004, I self-published a collection of short stories titled Wiser After under the Writer’s Workshop imprint. And in 2006, EastWestBooks published Bangalored: The Expat Story, a nonfiction title that took me 14 months to construct; in addition to good reviews, the work fetched me a grand total income of around forty thousand rupees.

Having a published book under my belt should have made things easier, right? In reality, the only difference was that the editor in Delhi who received my manuscript could now Google me and open my work feeling a little less sceptical. Yet, my queries were treated with shrieking silences and, if I was lucky, with a deadpan rejection letter. Meanwhile, my attempts to secure an overseas Literary Agent proved to be equally futile.

Frustrated, I decided to show the world that I could write by entering writing contests. This move paid some dividends. I won some of the contests, was published in anthologies and, on a grander note, my short story collection Age Old Tales was selected as the winner of the Oxford Bookstore e-Author contest in 2008. Since the adjudicating panel contained some movers and shakers of the publishing industry, I felt even more hopeful while emailing my manuscripts. A year later, a renowned editor in one of the biggest houses seemed animated about my manuscript (incidentally, Behind the silicon mask, the novel that finally gave me my break). Inexplicably, this person kept me waiting for the better part of a year before going incommunicado.

Six years into my journey, my frustration had turned into a semi-lethal cocktail of emotions that included rage, helplessness and desperation. Each passing day became a fresh opportunity to give up. The only thing that kept me going was my appetite for writing which, though dented and wounded, was still alive inside me. I had risked too much, lost even more, to admit defeat. So, yes, in the final reckoning, it was my obstinacy that made me stay on my chosen path. If you were in a charitable mood, you might call this trait perseverance.

Finally, when my novel was accepted in May 2012 by Westland (you can read about the various milestones of this particular manuscript in the Acknowledgements section of the book), can you guess what I felt? Relief. An overwhelming sense of relief. The elation that I expected to feel was absent. So was the sense of achievement. I was simply relieved to have a foot in the door. Perhaps this opportunity will allow me to write some more, fully live the life of a writer.

This, in a nutshell, has been my journey so far as a writer. It contained within it at least a thousand rejections. I wish I could tell you that that’s an exaggerated number.

In order to traverse this journey, I had to make my peace with a few stark realities. They are as follows:

1.      The world doesn’t need my books

Come to think of it, the world will still be functioning had Shakespeare and Dickens not written as much as a vignette. As a writer, it is your responsibility to create a demand for your books. For which you have to write really, really, really well. I started off with no illusions that I was a phenomenon. I had to work hard on my craft. Hard enough to start writing well, so that I would eventually be read widely.

2.      The publishing industry has a sturdy door and humungous padlock

I come across many writers who crib about the state of affairs inside the publishing industry. They point to writers who “got lucky”. True, there are writers who make one submission and strike gold. But guess what? It took James Joyce 13 years to get The Dubliners published. Still want to complain? Get in line behind all the other losers. The truth is that the world isn’t aching for your books (remember point 1?). The same goes for editors and publishing houses. They receive hundreds of manuscripts every day and you must give them a reason to believe that yours is publishable. And if you think pedigree or sparkling non-literary credentials matter and you don’t have either of those blessings, then you just have to try harder.

Besides, the sturdy door and humungous padlock just means that entry inside will feel even more special.

3.      Thick skin is mandatory

If you are still smarting by the comment made by your kindergarten teacher or if you still can’t overcome the embarrassment of failed adolescent crushes, I suggest that you resolve those emotions before considering a career in writing. Because you are bound to face similar rejections and invalidations here. In rare instances, you will be told why your work is being rejected. Treasure that feedback. Kiss the hand of the person who gives it to you. Right there, you have an opportunity to look at your work without self-absorption goggles.

While you are at it, surround yourself with friends who not only are well-read but are also generous with their time and honest in giving feedback. Beg these precious souls to read your work. They will save you the trouble of approaching an editor with substandard work. The more scathing their remarks, the more you will learn.

4.      Parallel income streams are crucial

Many new-age writers hold on to their day jobs. Like me, some others don’t. Which means that wannabe writers in my category must acquire marketable skills to keep the dream alive. In the decade-long journey I described, I practiced many vocations such as freelance journalist, columnist, technical writer, aptitude trainer, soft skills trainer, brand consultant, copywriter, ghostwriter, IT consultant (fire fighting mode), online design consultant etc. In short, I’ve written restaurant menu cards, other people’s autobiographies, training modules, Help Manuals, brochures, pamphlets, advertisement copy, brand strategy documents, vision/mission statements, website content, meeting minutes… each word I wrote made me more of a writer. No piece of writing was beneath me. This path worked for me. Find the path that makes your day or decade.

5.      More projects equal more opportunities

Novice writers may or may not write their magnum opus in their first attempt. It’s more probable that you will write duds in your first couple of attempts. The fact that you finished writing your duds makes you a writer. Many others would have given up. Just keep initiating and completing books. Not all books you begin will achieve their climaxes. One day, you will give a beautiful finish to a wonderful piece of fiction. And then, you can revisit your duds and polish them till they sparkle with the essence of literature.

Now that I have been given my first big break, I am ready with many more works: a novella, a sequel to the big-break novel, two collections of short stories, a half-written epic thriller and a basket of first chapters of works that will one day, I hope, be completed. If the market responds well to my first novel, I stand ready to release the next book and the next and the next after that… this isn’t an accident. When I felt despondent about my writing career, I wrote some more. And the more I wrote, the more optimistic I felt about my future. Seriously: a thousand words of seamless writing can easily negate the bitter taste of a rejection letter. That’s my learning. See if it makes sense to you.

6.      Luck/fate plays a role

The big break depends on you reaching out to that one editor who gets excited about your writing. The “got lucky” writers find that editor in their first attempt. I found my dream editor a full four years after Behind the silicon mask attained its current form. The universe is either random or logical. We will never know. All that a struggling writer can know is that he hasn’t cracked the underlying code. And he has to keep at it till something clicks for him.

7.      My choices make or break me

In 2008, some of my well-wishers and readers told me that I must give up on Behind the silicon mask. To them, it was a novel beyond redemption. Having assimilated and acknowledged their feedback, I took the seemingly drastic decision of rewriting it. I started anew with a blank screen, discarding the three-quarter million words I had already written (considering the dozen-odd rewrites I had invested on the novel). It was a perfectly illogical decision. All that mattered is that it made sense to me. I was convinced that I could salvage the novel if I took a fresh stab at it. That’s me. You go out there and identify the choices that make or break you. Listen to everybody, but do what makes sense to you.


So in essence, what am I trying to tell you? Perhaps this: if you want to succeed as a writer, then continue to write as much as you can, never stop believing in yourself and just keep at it till the floodgates open. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

Exactly my point. Good luck.



Category: Guest Column