‘Is this a Dagger I see before me?’ – Lessons from 30 years of writing

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Teeth on the canvas

Trying to make a career as an author is like a boxing match in a Rocky film. You come in with wild expectations, buoyed by mindlessly-optimistic rags-to-riches stories. You showboat your way to the ring, play to the crowd a little, maybe blow a few air kisses… and then reality punches you in the face. You get knocked down, get back up, get knocked down a few more times, and then, if you’re lucky enough to stumble to the end with half your teeth, you end up narrowly losing on points.

OK. So maybe it’s not as bleak as that. There are moments that remind you why you set out on this journey of self-flagellation in the first place. Finishing your first novel. Getting an agent. Seeing your debut in print. Positive reviews. Meeting readers. Meeting other writers (yes, that is a positive). Bestseller status. Awards. And so on and so forth.

Last year, Midnight at Malabar House, my sixth published novel, won the Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger. It is with a sense of poignancy that I now hand over the crown to another worthy winner. (Of course, like any normal author, I considered making voodoo dolls of the nominees and stabbing them repeatedly with a letter opener. But I’ve never been very good at handicrafts, so I’ve settled for being magnanimous instead.)

In this piece, written on the eve of the CWA Daggers awards night, I look back on 30 years of writing, unpublished and published. That’s a lot of getting knocked down and getting back up again. A lot of teeth on the canvas. Has it been worth it? Undeniably, categorically… yes!

Pre-publication wilderness

Mumbai, 2004. I’m standing at a hole-in-the-wall photocopy shop, a stray goat nuzzling affectionately at my crotch, traffic blasting by behind me. I’d been working in the city for seven years (having been born and raised in London) and I’d just paid a small fortune to photocopy thirty odd bundles of the first three chapters of my latest completed novel. I was 31 years old and I’d been writing since I was 17. This was the fourth novel I’d completed, the fourth I would send in to a hatful of British agents, bracing myself in advance for the inevitable fusillade of rejection letters that would follow. (I’d already collected enough of them to wallpaper the Great Wall of China. Twice.)

Everyone tells you that writing is about perseverance. What they don’t tell you is how bloody hard it is to keep picking yourself up off the floor each time a book you’ve sweated over for a year or more is rejected. It’s difficult to be zen when what you really want to do is drive round to the agent who’s just sent you another standard rejection note, drag them into the street like the cur they are, and pummel them in the gonads until they agree you’re the best thing to hit the literary scene since Hemingway.

I wrote my first novel aged 17, an epic SF comic fantasy in the vein of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I sent it in to several agents confident that my first book deal was on its way – along with the fabled Money Truck – thus proving to my parents how wrong they were to insist I go to university and get a ‘real job’. There was one small problem. The book was sh*t.

Fast forward 23 years and six more novels, of ever decreasing levels of awfulness. I know this because by the final entries I was receiving the odd rejection note carrying a few words of encouragement. I can’t thank those agents enough. That faint praise – as tepid as the light from a distant galaxy – nevertheless meant everything. I wrote literary novels, SF, romance… anything I thought might get me into print. It wasn’t until I decided to write something purely for myself, following a decade in India, that I was finally published.


At the age of 40, and back in London, I found an agent – Euan Thorneycroft at A.M. Heath, one of the oldest agencies in the country. A few months later, Euan called me at the office to tell me we had a four-book deal with Hachette for the Baby Ganesh Agency series, beginning with The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. I may have shouted. Possibly even soiled myself in the excitement. (A quite natural reaction, I’ve been assured.)

The series is set in modern India, aimed at fans of the wildly successful No.1 Ladies Detective Agency books, though mine are a little darker in tone. They reflect the ten years I lived in India, and my desire to showcase a changing, modern country. Chopra, a Mumbai policeman forced into early retirement and who must solve a local murder – while dealing with the unusual problem of inheriting a one-year-old elephant – is a mouthpiece for my own feelings towards the social issues I saw in a country being transformed by globalisation but weighed down by legacy problems.

Here’s the first lesson you learn. There are a LOT of books published. You think you’re up on a pedestal, the spotlight shining down on you and you alone, like Beyoncé at the Superbowl. Wrong. You’re not Beyoncé. Your publisher – and your publicist – is probably handling a dozen books out that week. Big names. New names. You’re just another horse in the stable. That’s not to be sniffed at, but it’s worth taking a dose of the realism salts before buying that velvet jacket, checking yourself in at the Dorchester, and inviting your chums around to gawp at your newfound status as a big literary wheel.

Having said this, I was relatively lucky. My publicist managed to bully BBC Breakfast into interviewing me. The book went on to become a bestseller, published in 16 languages and was picked by the Sunday Times as one of the 40 best crime novels published between 2015-2020.

I was on my way.

Navigating the publishing industry

Fast forward almost a decade. With eight books published, across two series, and a new three book deal – all with Hachette – I’m relatively settled in the industry… which is a bit like saying I have a berth on the Titanic.

I’m often asked: what’s the number one lesson you’ve learned? The answer is one that surprises most people, especially eager newbies, waiting starry-eyed for pearls of literary wisdom to fall from my lips. Bless their little hearts.

Friendships are the single most important ingredient for both your sanity and your survival. It’s a lonely business, but it doesn’t have to be. One of the most wonderful things I’ve learned about the writing community is how friendly it is. Most of the time we share a grisly esprit de corps, comparing war stories as we send another book out to meet the machine guns of literary No Man’s Land. When good news comes along, we clap each other on the back, and hope it’s our turn next. We’re a bit like the Amish – we’re clannish and build metaphorical barns together, such as when we turn up to each others’ launches, the token author among the bemused mob of friends and family who thought they were coming to a birthday party (or a wake). Or when we rampage through a quaint English village hosting its first lit fest after we’re told the bar has run dry.

I’ve been particularly astonished by the support those established in the industry – authors, reviewers, editors, agents, booksellers – have been willing to offer newbies. Alas, I don’t have space to mention all the wonderful friends and lovely gestures over the years. I’d also be mortified about missing someone out – beware the brittle-egoed, slighted, slightly-unhinged author! (Anyone remember Jack Nicholson in The Shining?) But suffice to say that, if I’ve achieved anything today, it’s because – to use the words of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois – of the ‘kindness of strangers’.

Five lessons I’ve learned…

OK. I see not everyone’s sold on my Forrest Gump ‘life is like a box of chocolates’ argument. You cynical so and so’s. So what practical advice can I offer? Here goes:

#1 – Themes matterMidnight at Malabar House is set in 1950s Bombay. Persis Wadia, India’s first female police detective, is consigned to Malabar House, Bombay’s smallest police station, with a gang of fellow ‘undesirables’. And then the murder of a prominent British diplomat falls into her lap… The book is more than a crime novel. It explores India at a turbulent time, just a few years after Independence, Gandhi’s assassination, and the horrors of Partition. Persis is operating in a paternalistic environment, in an era when few women were given license to pursue careers. I invoke these themes in the series because I believe they can teach us something about the society we live in today. Publishers  love a theme because they know it can elevate a book above the crowd. It gives marketing departments something solid to work with. Themes are everywhere in crime fiction. For instance, in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy Stieg Larsson showcased his favourite theme: violence against women.

#2 – Be different, but be the same – The industry works on a phenomenon known as ‘comping’ – of comparing new acquisitions to previously published books to determine sales potential. Why else do you think so many books, covers, and titles are similar? Don’t get me wrong. Originality is always valued. But, often, your next great idea needs to be similar enough to an existing idea that, in a publisher’s mind, it can attract a current audience, but also be just different enough to pass muster as something new, with the potential to attract a wider readership. By all means, write the next Gone Girl or Rebus, but what is the fresh angle you can bring to it?

#3 – Learn from Hemingway – In my early thirties, I set myself the challenge of reading one hundred of the greatest literary novels ever written. I selected them from the Guardian and Telegraph’s lists of such novels, and Booker, Pulitzer and Nobel prize winners, classics and contemporary works: Ulysses, 1984, The Tin Drum, Catch 22, Schindler’s Ark, Money… I could go on. The project took five years, and I made notes as I went. No writing class could ever have taught me as much. Jaded agents and editors are turned on by quality writing. Well written prose stands out. A turn of phrase. An acute observation. A scene handled deftly. You can’t afford to squander a good idea by submitting it in substandard prose.

#4 – Characters matter more than plot – Sacrilege? No. Publishers know that a great character is more profitable than a single great plot. Great characters encourage loyalty and facilitate a series of novels. Secondly, if readers fall in love with characters they will forgive the occasional plot inconsistency. The trick is creating characters that stand out. Decide early on what is the unique persona, insight, skill, or approach that your protagonist can bring to an investigation that makes them worth following. Persis is India’s only female police detective, ruthless and single-minded in an environment that undermines her at every opportunity. She works with Archie Blackfinch – an English forensic scientist from the London Metropolitan Police. But this is post-Raj era India. An Englishman and a headstrong Indian women?… It can’t work. Or can it?…

#5 – Don’t be afraid of borrowing stuff that works – My last novel was The Dying Day, the follow-up to Midnight at Malabar House. M. W. Craven, CWA Gold Dagger-winner calls it: ‘The Da Vinci Code meets post-Independence India.’ In the book a 600-year old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy goes missing from Bombay’s Asiatic Society. As Persis investigates, she uncovers a trail of cryptic clues, including riddles written in verse… and then she finds the first body. Dan Brown’s series has sold 300 million copies for a reason. In crime fiction, there are many tried and trusted formulas. We can all learn and build on the work of others. Not copy – but take a leaf out of. If you want to see this in action, please do invest in a copy of The Dying Day… Another thing I’ve learned – authors need to be forthright about selling their work!

What lies ahead?

The times they are a-changing. A piece like this wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the dreaded ‘d’ word now permeating the publishing industry… No, not drunkenness… Diversity.

I’ve never thought of myself as a ‘pioneer’, though in some respects I, and many others, have established a beachhead for authors of our background. In my opinion, the industry is making a genuine attempt to tackle the issue of inclusivity. But it’s not as straightforward as just publishing more authors from underrepresented communities. For instance, the reason it has taken so long for British Asian crime writers to find their feet is not entirely to do with risk-averse publishers. In some part the dearth of such writers is because Asian parents (including my own) react with horror at the notion that their progeny might willingly embark on a profession that might see them eventually busking on the Underground to make ends meet.

Perhaps the truth that lies at the heart of the current debate on diversity in the arts is that the only thing that really matters is that we all share a singular dream, to enrich the world with stories that spring from inside us.

We are here; we have a voice; and we are delighted to be a part of this fraternity.

My quarterly newsletter contains articles, competitions, giveaways, short stories, book news, and recommendations. Simply register here

Find out more about my books here at: www.vaseemkhan.com

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