Today, Crossword announced the list for its annual Popular Choice Award for the Crossword Book Awards 2014. Among the books that readers can choose is Private India by Ashwin Sanghi and James Patterson. Private India certainly makes my list of favorite reads for 2014. The thriller set in Mumbai during Navratri explores the mind of a serial killer and violence against women. I was privileged to experience some of Sanghi’s wit and wisdom during the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

3 Es of Ashwin Sanghi

Although now one of India’s best-selling novelists, Ashwin Sanghi started his career as a struggling writer who was forced to self publish after being rejected by every major publisher in India. Publishers told him that no one would read a crime thriller with a mythological twist. The Rozabal Line went on to sell lakhs of copies and earn Sanghi the moniker “The Indian Dan Brown.” Sanghi appreciated the comparison and hoped that one day an American writer will be called “The American Ashwin Sanghi.”

What’s Sanghi’s secret to success? Simple. He strives to do only three things:

The session certainly did all those things.

The Private India writing process

Private India is part of James Patterson’s wildly successful Private franchise of thrillers. Other books have followed Jack Morgan from the US to London, Berlin, and Sydney. Private India is the franchise’s first foray to the India subcontinent, and hopefully not its last.

Like other Private books set outside the US, Private India is a collaboration between Patterson and another writer, in this case, Sanghi. Typically, James Patterson completes the outline; the partner writer colors inside the lines. Drafts are exchanged, and then the editor reviews the final content.

For Private India, however, Ashwin Sanghi outlined the story. Initially, they had set the target word count at 75,000 words, but when the outline reached 15,000 words, it became clear that the completed book would be much longer than anticipated. After the outline was set, Sanghi wrote the first draft. Patterson revised that draft. Before the editor reviewed the manuscript, Patterson and Sanghi had exchanged three full drafts. Patterson and Sanghi interfaced over Skype or via conference call about once a month. Since both writers tend toward scene-driven narratives in which chapters change as the scenes do, the two worked well together. Sanghi’s biggest challenge was sticking to Patterson’s required 1000-word limit on each chapter, which he strictly enforces.

I liked the idea of a word limit for each chapter. The limit takes the terror out of writing a longer piece if you think about it as a bunch of shorter, limited word count pieces. After all, a 65,000 word novel is really only 65 1000-word blog posts. Right?

Sanghi’s writing process

While Sanghi uses a corkboard like many writers to brainstorm ideas, most of his initial work happens in an Excel spreadsheet with three simple columns:

Sanghi said by the time the outline is complete, he has most of the story written. When I read Private India and The Krishna Key, I felt as if the chapters were written backwards, with the end written before the rest of the chapter. Now, I know why. Sanghi has the hook in place before he begins writing the chapter.

Question time!

During this session, I asked the following question:

What are the greatest challenges facing Indian writers who want to move beyond India’s borders? Should they even want to?

India is the third largest English-language book market in the world, so truthfully Indian authors don’t have to go outside India to find success. Sanghi did see that moving beyond India’s borders as he has with the Private franchise does have its challenges.

First, the markets are quite different. In India, romance novels, campus stories, and “chick lit” dominate, whereas thrillers and crime fiction dominate the US best-seller list. What sells in India does not sell in the US. Indian writers have not traditionally written much crime fiction. Sanghi and Ravi Subramanian have blazed a trail in that genre in India. Their books are most likely to cross beyond India’s borders simply because the content suits an American audience.

Second, when writing for a global audience, a writer can’t make the same cultural assumptions that can be made for an Indian audience. For example, Private India takes place during Navratri. An Indian audience automatically understands what that means, but for a global audience, that festival must be explained. When choosing character names, Patterson and Sanghi decided that each character’s name would begin with a unique letter. For example, Santosh Wagh, the main Indian character, is the only one whose first name begins with an “S”. The names were also fairly short and easy to pronounce. Thus, the book doesn’t have any Jaikrishnans or Subramanians. The name game is one I am wrestling with as I begin to write my book. My rule: if I can’t pronounce a name easily, I can’t use it. My biggest challenge: Ensuring that I don’t give a Gujarati character a Bengali name. An American audience would never notice the difference. But, an Indian audience would instantly recognize a rookie writer.

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