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Elephants, Murder, and India: My Magic Formula for Getting Published!

Author Vaseem Khan offers words of encouragement by recounting his road to publication.

Twenty-three long years, six rejected novels, over a million words, a decade in India, and a baby elephant – that’s the journey I made before my first novel The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra – Book 1 in the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series – was published. (The novel is about an Indian police officer forced into early retirement and unable to relinquish the final case of his career – the death of a poor local boy – whilst simultaneously confronting the surreal dilemma of taking in a baby elephant!) 

I say this not to dishearten the aspiring writer, but the exact opposite. If anything my story should inspire all writers, young and old, with the belief that perseverance pays off. Indeed, the first and most critical piece of advice I can give any aspiring author is this: make the transition from telling yourself that ‘one day I will become a writer’, to telling yourself that ‘I am a writer’. The great American novelist John Irving, as a novice author, once thought of packing it all in. Then he met a writer he greatly admired who advised him ‘anything else you do in life will leave you vaguely unsatisfied’. The rest is history.

I myself have had a wonderful career in the ‘real world’ and I continue to work full time. But never a day has gone by when I didn't chip away at my childhood dream. Each day of my twenty-three-year apprenticeship I spent time writing or editing, or simply reading books I thought would help me improve my skills. Mastery over pace, plot, characterization – all of this takes time and effort – there are no shortcuts.  

Once you have those skills what you need is a great idea.

For me that came on the first day I set foot in India. I went there, aged 23, to work as a management consultant to a hotel group based in Mumbai. I remember vividly walking out from Bombay International airport into a wall of searing heat. The first thing I saw set the scene for me, for there, milling around the taxi rank, was a clamorous group of lepers and beggars. Ten minutes later we stopped at a traffic junction and there was a tremendous thumping on the side of the cab. I turned to see a tall well-built man in a sari. My first eunuch. A little disconcerted by now, I turned my gaze to the mind-boggling river of passing traffic on the main road, with honking rickshaws, hooting trucks, whizzing motorbikes, cows, goats, dogs, and a seemingly never-ending stream of chattering humanity . . . and that’s when I saw the most surreal sight of all, for, lumbering through the chaos, came an enormous grey Indian elephant with a mahout on its back! Ten years later, when I returned to the UK, and decided to put all of those wonderful memories of India into a novel, I knew elephants would have to feature.

Although the book was very much a labour of love, at the back of my mind was the certainty that this unique combination of elements might well appeal to an audience with which, as a reader, I was familiar – those who love ‘cosy crime’. I also believed that the angle of a baby elephant partnered with an Indian policeman – all set against the backdrop of a vibrant, colourful, glorious India – would serve as a hook when marketing the book.

This then is the crux of it. In an ideal world agents and publishers would love to discover that mythical first novel that rewrites the rules, but the fact remains that the vast bulk of new books must bow to the laws of commerce: is there an audience for this book? Will it be easy to market this book? What’s the great idea or hook that we can use to sell this book?

If you can answer these questions, you are well on your way. All you need now is a slice of good fortune. 

For me, the adventure continues. The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra was selected for the Waterstones Book Club, and became a top 10 bestseller in the Times Saturday Review. I received a four-book deal for the series, and am currently out and about promoting the second, The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown, which is about the theft of the world’s most famous diamond – the Koh-i-Noor – originally mined in India during the Raj, and currently part of the British Crown Jewels. In the novel the Crown Jewels have been brought to India for a special exhibition. A daring robbery sees the Koh-i-Noor stolen and Inspector Chopra and little Ganesha, his elephant sidekick, are called in to try and recover the great diamond.

Here’s wishing you all a shorter journey to publication than mine!

Vaseem Khan first saw an elephant lumbering down the road in 1997 when he arrived in Mumbai, India to work as a management consultant. This surreal sight later inspired his Baby Ganesh Agency series of light-hearted crime novels. Born in London, he studied at the London School of Economics, then spent a decade on the subcontinent before joining University College London’s Department of Security and Crime Science. His passions include cricket, literature and elephants!

Find out more about Vaseem on his websiteTwitter, or Facebook.