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A. A. Dhand on Writing a Page-Turner

May 7, 2023
A. A. Dhand
May 7, 2023

We were thrilled to be joined by A. A. Dhand for a writing class this month with our writers. It was such an insightful session that we decided to share a little bit here on our blog! If you’d like to attend our future sessions with guest authors and ask your own questions, sign up to one of our creative writing courses. You’ll be able to watch back the full session with A. A. Dhand, and many other Q&As with bestselling and award-winning authors including Paula Hawkins, David Nicholls, Val McDermid, Tess Gerritsen, Kristin Hannah, Jessie Burton, Meg Rosoff and Katherine Arden.

During the session, Amit covered all kinds of topics such as where he finds story ideas, how he researches police procedure and how he approaches writing racial tensions in his fiction. He also shared great advice on structuring a masterfully paced novel, so we’re giving you a sneak preview here.

A fearless writer

Amit Dhand was raised in Bradford and spent his youth observing the city from behind the counter of a small convenience store. After qualifying as a pharmacist, he worked in London and travelled extensively before returning to Bradford to start his own business and begin writing. The history, diversity and darkness of the city have inspired his Harry Virdee novels, the first of which (Streets of Darkness) was published in 2016. This was followed by Girl Zero, City of Sinners and One Way Out, and a standalone thriller, The Blood Divide.

He has been called a fearless writer by the Sunday Times, while the character of Harry Virdee has been described as one of the most multilayered policemen in recent literature. Lee Child himself said of Streets of Darkness: ‘relentless, multi-layered suspense and real human drama make this a crime debut to relish.’

Below, we share some of the tips and techniques Amit shared in the session led by Tash Barsby, deputy editorial director at The Novelry and formerly Amit’s editor at Penguin Random House! We also have a few questions from our brilliant writers.

Thank you so much for joining us today. First things first: where did the idea for Streets of Darkness come from?

It all starts with the character of Harry. I knew I wanted to set a novel in my home city of Bradford. And I was also very aware that a crime drama featuring a South Asian detective hadn’t been done before. In fact, there weren’t any South Asian crime writers before I got published.

I wanted to create something that felt familiar – the crime drama, the police procedural – but unfamiliar at the same time. I looked at the market and was inspired by Tess Gerritsen, a medical doctor who wrote the Rizzoli and Isles series, which has a medical slant. So I thought, how can I bring my own unique experience of being South Asian and living in Bradford?

I was very aware that a crime drama featuring a South Asian detective hadn’t been done before. In fact, there weren’t any South Asian crime writers before I got published.

Streets of Darkness was formed from that initial idea of a formidable South Asian detective in a multicultural city like Bradford. And I fused fact with fiction to make it feel as realistic as possible.

Tess Gerritsen is one of the writers that you’ve admired. Do you have any writing heroes? Or do you try to create your own unique brand?

I’ve been inspired by Tess, and also Dan Brown – particularly his short chapters, and every chapter ending on a hook so you have to read the next one. I really like that fast pace of thrillers.

I’ve taken inspiration from that to create my own technique for generating a fast pace that keeps people turning the page.

I usually have three storylines – call them A, B and a very small C. My A storyline is always chapters 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11. My B storyline is always 2, 4, 6, 8. That way, you have to read two chapters to get back to the same storyline. If I end chapter one on a really big hook with Harry, chapter two won’t satisfy the tension or reveal the answer. Instead, we switch to the B storyline, and I end that on its own hook.

It’s not just the structure of the storylines; chapter length is also important. I always felt like I could read a magazine article in one sitting if it was two pages, but if I had to turn the page, I might say I’d come back to it, but usually wouldn’t. So when I started Streets of Darkness, I made every chapter 1,500 words or less – just short enough to keep reading. As I wrote the series, the chapters got quicker and quicker. So for Girl Zero they’re under 1,250. In City of Sinners they’re down to 1,100. And One Way Out is 900 words a chapter.

Are your chapters more scene-led or does each one move the plot forward or develop character?

Every chapter has forward momentum, but I don’t map them out beforehand. I’m a pantser, not a plotter. I have no idea what’s going to happen until I start writing.

I do always know the ending, but not necessarily know the ins and outs of how we’ll get there, or how my characters will behave.

This is how I think of it: if you and I both set off from Bradford to London, we’d know our destination, but we might take different routes. I might go straight down the M1, because it’s the quickest way to get there and I love pace. You might go down the A1 and have a slightly more scenic view.

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Tell us about your draft process. How many drafts do you tend to do? What do you focus on in your first draft?

Drafting and redrafting is a big part of my writing process. For context, it took me 10 years to get published. I wrote 1.1 million unsuccessful words in order to find the 85,000 that became Streets of Darkness.

And what I learned in that very difficult journey was that my first draft is about finishing. It’s about going from A to Z without stopping to worry about plot. I’ll never finish if I start tinkering before the first draft is done.

Before I explain my process, let me be clear: this is very unusual. I don’t want anyone to think this is what all writers do, or how they should write a novel. In fact, I’ve never met anybody else that does it this way. It’s a chaotic way to work. I won’t talk to my wife and I won’t see my children and I’m totally, totally obsessed with it. It drives me crazy and I wish I could do it a different way, but I can’t.

I’ll never finish if I start tinkering before the first draft is done.

But this is what I do. I think about the plot for a long time before I start. I store lots of images and lots of facts in my mind. I write down very little and I wait until my head is exploding with ideas, because I want to write at pace so that it reads fast.

When I’m ready to start, I binge. I go into what I call fifth gear. I’ll write a couple of thousand words in the morning, a couple of thousand in the afternoon and a couple of thousand at nighttime. That’s 6,000 a day. I’ll binge that for seven days, and have 42,000 – half a novel.

I never go back and look at it. It might not make sense. I don’t really care. I just want the momentum to keep taking me forward.

And then I pause for a week and let my brain get full of more ideas, and then I do it again for another week. In two or three weeks I have a first draft.

Of course, I would never show anybody that first draft. I’d be horrified if anybody saw it.

It’s a chaotic way to work. I won’t talk to my wife and I won’t see my children and I’m totally, totally obsessed with it. It drives me crazy and I wish I could do it a different way, but I can’t.

But then I go back and look at the story, and figure out why characters are behaving in certain ways. I do the five-sense test: sight, touch, sound, smell, taste. I make sure I have enough to make it feel three-dimensional because that first draft is totally wooden.

Then I start the second draft immediately. And that’s probably what most people would call a first draft. I flesh out the story and infuse the three-dimensional 5-sense test. That takes about a month.

So I probably spend about two months on a ‘first’ draft, and then leave it alone for eight weeks. I won’t look at it or even think about it.

After eight weeks, I open the drawer and start reading, and it feels like somebody else wrote it; very new, very fresh. And I’ll start editing, which takes around a month, and then it’s ready to send to my editor.

Do the three storylines have different protagonists? How do you construct them?

Chapter one begins with my detective and the big question. He’s discovered a dead body and has to figure out what happened. For example, in City of Sinners, it’s a dead girl hanging from the ceiling. The big question of what happened to her is at the heart of chapters 1, 3, 5, 7, 9.

Chapters 2, 4, 6, 8 typically centre around family drama with Harry: he’s alienated from his parents, he’s got a child, he wants to have a family again, he’s navigating racism from the brown community.

And then the C storyline only comes up every five chapters or so. It relates to the A storyline, but in a way that you don’t really see until the end of the novel. For example, in Streets of Darkness, the prime suspect is an ex-BNP activist who’s just been released from jail. So to tell the reader more about him, I tie the C storyline to him, which makes it relevant to the A storyline as well.

Can you tell us more about your redrafting process?

I know that my first draft will be roughly 100,000 words. I’ve never gone to print with a manuscript over 85,000, so when I start editing, my non-negotiable priority is to remove 10–12,000 words. 10 to 12%. I know it’s overwritten. I call that noise – all the words that you don’t need, all the description.

Everybody can remove 10% from a first draft.

My publisher will then cut another 10,000 out. I’m edited quite hard for pace, and so sometimes I’ll be given back 75,000, and I build that back up to 90,000, and then we edit again.

It might sound scary, but everybody can remove 10% from a first draft. In fact, I usually go back and get rid of another 5% after four weeks.

Then you have something really pacey. You can see the storyline screaming off the page.

A huge thank you to A. A. Dhand for a fantastic session! For more insightful events, join us on our creative writing courses. Not only will you get unlimited access to all of our live events with authors, agents and other publishing professionals, but you’ll get the support and guidance you need to turn your idea into a brilliant novel. With one-to-one coaching and structured daily lessons to guide you every step of the way, writing a novel is every bit as joyful as it should be. We cover everything from the big story idea to writing cracking dialogue, from character development to structuring your story, and so much more. There’s never been a better time to start.

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A. A. Dhand

 A. A. Dhand was raised in Bradford and, after living in London and working as a pharmacist, he returned to start a business and begin writing. Bradford’s history and complexity inspired his Harry Virdee novels. As well as the four-strong series, he has published one standalone titled The Blood Divide. The Sunday Times called him a fearless writer, and he has garnered praise from fellow crime writers like Lee Child.  

Members of The Novelry team

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