How We Measure Success?
“Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” – Carl Sagan
When I learned that Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka had won the prestigious 2022 Booker Prize I imagined the sensation of success he must now be feeling. To achieve this coveted writing award is a huge honor for any author but is it ever enough?
Is it enough to rest on his laurels, lay down his pen and not have to write again? I don’t believe so. His publishers will now be encouraging him to move onto the next book. They will pressure him to produce another bestseller that will rock the world and make squillions of dollars. They will urge him to emulate this amazing feat, and he will do it all over again.
Recently I had the pleasure of reading his prize-winning book, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. Written in 2nd person with the voice of a man who has just discovered he’s dead this book wouldn’t usually be my choice of genre. But the many excellent book reviews I read were enough to convince me it was worth reading.
With its macabre setting of ghouls and cadavers hanging around buildings and bouncing off cars, headless corpses hacking away body parts, and deathly creatures lurking around every eerie corner, it was an incredibly well constructed book.
The plot was compelling, and I was hooked, frantically flicking the pages (or listening on Audio until the early hours.) Each of the living characters and the dead ones had their unique endearing qualities (and listening on Audio I enjoyed each unique Sri Lankan voice).
Even the protagonist’s decadent lifestyle as a gambling, promiscuous gay guy involved in dodgy deals and shady people, could not deter me and I fell in love with the character, Maali Almeida and his enchanting lyrical prose.
Despite his shocking descriptions of death and the afterlife, the ghouls and headless corpses, the author has succeeded in blending genres. He has created characters and moods that are both heart-breaking and hilarious, often in the same sentence, allowing this reader to laugh, cry and laugh again.
No Guarantees of Success
Shehan Karunatilaka self-published his debut novel, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew only to see it picked up later by Penguin (UK) and win the Commonwealth Prize.
His earlier success failed to guarantee a queue of publishers knocking on his door, eager to pick up his second book. Instead, International publishers balked, worried that the book’s Sri Lankan politics and mythology were too confusing for Western readers.
After writing The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, Shehan Karunatilaka’s route to fame was far from easy. The manuscript, then called Devil Dance, was shortlisted for a Sri Lankan prize in 2015. Five years later, it was published by Penguin India as Chats with the Dead.
Finally, a small publisher in London called Sort of Books agreed to take on the novel with further revisions. In an interview, Karunatilaka said he spent two years “tinkering with it” to make sure “someone who knows nothing about Sri Lanka and eastern mythology” could follow the story.
Writing for Others
Although I haven’t experienced this level of success, as a writer I understand the pressure of writing for other people. We face constant challenges trying to meet the criteria set by others.
- Write a manuscript for a novel, make it at least 85, 000 words, not too long, not too short.
- Reduce that short story sometimes 20,000 words other times 10,000
- Flash fiction should be less than 1,000 words but can also be less than 500
- Add a synopsis of 300 words sometimes more, sometimes less.
Can you tell us in less than 25 words why you write what you do?
Writing for Ourselves
- Children are told to write stories, to allow their imaginations to run wild.
- During our teens we are encouraged to keep journals as therapy to help make sense of our world.
- As adults we write for creative expression, to put down on paper what we are feeling inside.
- When we write we unleash the pure joy of tapping into another world of endless thoughts, ideas, and possibilities.
- As we venture into places we’ve been or are yet to go, we discover characters who sometimes resemble those we know or those who are about to unfold.
Do we measure our success purely by the end result? Or do we measure it by what we feel and express as we’re writing?
Often, we write to serve others, to inspire and enlighten, to uplift ourselves and those who read our words.
One day we may receive the desired accolades. But overall, we write to create pure magic from what we feel in our heart and soul.
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