A First-Hand Account Of What It Takes To Write A Novel And Get Published In India

Posted on August 12, 2016 in Books

By Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind:

About 6 years ago, I quit my job in financial services to write a book.  It was not the most obvious choice in the world. It required a fair amount of back and forth; on most days it was more ‘back’ than ‘forth.’ I credit (I can never really blame my parents) the dilly-dallying to upbringing and the fact that we are taught to think stability, to think feet-on-the-ground even as you oil the hinges of your wings.

An aside on the wings:  it’s an exploratory pair. They don’t always take me above the clouds; sometimes they just take me off solid ground, which may not be a good thing always, but I love my pair!

I always knew I wanted to write – something – limericks, little stories, pages and pages of blank verse, things that would keep me in touch with writing. I blogged rather unsuccessfully, (it sucked, that’s why), for a little over three years and during those, what I’d like to call – the blog years, I wrote a ‘week-end’ book. So, every Friday night I’d open a file titled, “Fuck Off Skeptics” and write.

My writing journey has been one that even I marvel at. That is saying a lot because I mostly remain an unfulfilled writer. I am not as good a writer as I aspire to be and that is a rather frustrating place to be in. Don’t get me wrong. I am a good writer but what I want to achieve in terms of creating an outstanding piece of work that I will marvel at (not others, me, ME!) will take a lot of work, for I am my biggest critic.

In order to engage with writing craft, I applied and got accepted to the Asian MFA offered by the City University of Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the MFA got into some heart-breaking bureaucratic hassles (read: idiots rule the world) and is no longer on offer.

The MFA, to me, has been a provider of many things. Amongst other incalculable life lessons, the MFA has been the polisher of my craft, the enabler of my writing discipline and has been that cohesive force that brought about the completion of my novel.  My MFA mentors helped me shape a good novel out of loose scenes and an over-arching narrative that was making archaic sounds but had no voice to speak of.

Nurtured by the MFA, my week-end novel turned into a full-length manuscript. The novel was then tentatively titled (and I am not proud of this title!), “The Disposition of Fortitude.” Loosely translated, to me it meant “The Behaviour of Strength.” The novel’s title stemmed from my wonderment over what really constitutes strength. Can a person be considered truly strong when there is no external adversity when the world around is peaceful, that is to say that, there is no war, no fear of governmental imprudence or the fear of imprisonment and no general feeling of physical insecurity and impending doom? Am I a strong person? I didn’t know. I don’t know. I decided to explore. I, therefore decided to set the novel around the 1930s when India’s socio-political situation was different, more turbulent and therefore, presenting a seemingly tougher life for an average civilian. A ‘nation’ was scrambling for identity, for independence. Again, was India a ‘nation’ before British colonisation? Sunil Khilnani, Professor and Director of South Asia Studies at John Hopkins University writes that “The British had long contended that India’s pre-colonial history lacked unity or particular meaning and that without the British rule to enforce cohesion, there would have been no India to speak of. This high imperial ideology is briskly encapsulated in one of Winston Churchill’s famous slights: that India had no more claim to being considered a country than did the equator.”

The Journey To Publication

Once I completed the work, the next logical step was to look for a publisher. If you are a writer aspiring to get your novel published in India, here’s an image for you to mull over. You go to all those literary festivals where renowned Acquisition Editors take the stage and speak into a microphone with élan and tell you that, “Yes, we are always looking for fresh, new writing,” and you go home convinced that they are, in reality, looking for ‘you’. You go straight to your computer and type away furiously, for days and with a click you hit ‘send’ and it’s been six months now and you’ve been hitting the ‘send-receive’ button on Microsoft Outlook and you hear nothing from anybody. Recognisable?

That was me for the longest time until I found Kanishka Gupta, Asia’s largest literary agent. I was intrigued when I saw that he had a 90% success rate and from initial enquiries, I came to understand that he had no qualms about representing new, unpublished writers as long as the work was good. He also represents an impressive list of writers, some 400 of them! Further, his novel “The History of Hate” was longlisted for the Man-Asian Literary Prize. Who better to turn to than a writer-turned-agent who had both goodwill and sway in the Indian publishing industry?

Fresh after winning the Commonwealth Short Story Special Prize (2011) and armed with a full-length manuscript, I emailed him the first three chapters of my work along with a brief synopsis of my novel. He wrote to me almost immediately, “I am not enthused. I think I’ll let this one go.”

I remember a sinking feeling in my stomach and I rather naively, called him up. (This is something I did on impulse. Calling up an agent, out of the blue is never really a good idea or so I am told now.) I said I want feedback. He forwarded my work to one of his editors, Rahul Soni. Rahul wrote, “The manuscript shows an immense amount of promise but, apart from the early chapters fails to deliver satisfactorily – owing more to story and structure than language and writing, which is, for the most part excellent.”

I reworked the story, wrote and rewrote many parts of it, fixing plot holes and working around the structure. Kanishka eventually agreed to represent this new avatar of my novel. After 9 mainstream publishers rejected my work, I was extremely dejected but he believed in the book. I remember how one day he sent me an email that had no content, only the subject line, “I am on it. Keep the faith.” I wrote back to him, “Whatever may be the outcome, I am grateful for your faith in my work.”

Rechristened “The Heavens We Chase”, my novel was accepted for publication by Roli Books under their India Ink Imprint and will release at the end of this month.

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