Damyanti Biswas, Fiction Writer-Episode #281

Feb 6, 2024 | 0 comments

“…understand the difference between art and commerce. When you’re writing, you’re writing a piece of art, right? It’s your artistic side. But when it comes to whether you’re self-publishing or whether you’re traditionally publishing, it comes to looking at it as a product that needs to be sold.” ~Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is a Singapore-based fiction writer. Her short fiction has been published at Smokelong, Ambit, Litro, and Puerto del Sol, among others. And she’s the coeditor of The Forge literary magazine. Her popular blog damyantiwrites.com, where she speaks about the writing life and interviews publishing professionals, has been going strong over 15 years.

She’s the author of You Beneath Your Skin, an Amazon-bestselling crime novel, which has been optioned for screens by Endemol Shine. Her next crime novel, The Blue Bar was published by Thomas & Mercer USA. It received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Goodreads named it one of 2023’s Most Anticipated Mysteries & Thrillers. The sequel, The Blue Monsoon, is out now and receiving positive buzz from readers.




Read the Podcast Transcript

Steve Cuden: On today’s StoryBeat:

Damyanti Biswas: To understand the difference Between art and commerce. So once when you’re writing, you’re writing a piece of art, right? It’s your artistic side. But when it comes to whether you’re self publishing or whether you’re traditionally publishing, it comes to looking at it as a product that needs to be sold.

Announcer: This is StoryBeat with Steve Cuden A podcast for the creative mind, StoryBeat explores how masters of creativity develop and produce brilliant works that people everywhere love and admire. So join us, as we discover how talented creators find success in the worlds of imagination and entertainment. Here now is your host, Steve Cuden

Steve Cuden: Thanks for joining us on StoryBeat. We’re coming to you from the Steel City, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My guest today, Damyanti Biswas, is a Singapore based fiction writer. Her short fiction has been published at Smokelong, Ambit, Litro, and Puerto del Sol, among others. And she’s the coeditor of the Forge literary magazine. Her popular blog, DamyantiWrites.com where she speaks about the writing life and interviews publishing professionals, turned 15 this year. She’s the author of you beneath your Skin, an Amazon bestselling crime novel which has been optioned for screens by Endamal Shine. Her next crime novel, the Blue Bar, was published by Thomas and Mercer, USA. It received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Goodreads named it one of 2020 three’s most anticipated mysteries and thrillers. The sequel, the Blue Monsoon, is out now and receiving positive buz from readers. I’ve read both the Blue Bar and the Blue Monsoon and can tell you both books are exciting, beautifully written modern mystery crime thrillers set in the dark side of Mumbai, India, which makes the reading all the more fascinating and compelling. So for all those reasons and many more, it’s my distinct privilege to welcome the brilliant novelist Damyanti Biswas to StoryBeat today. Damyanti, welcome to the show.

Damyanti Biswas: Thank you so much. And I’m so glad that you invited me here. It’s a privilege.

Steve Cuden: Oh, the privilege is mine, that is for sure. So let’s go back in time a little bit. What caused you, of all things, to focus on as a writer? The notion of crime stories, mystery stories, where did that come from?

Damyanti Biswas: I fell into it, really. I began life as a literary, writer. And as you can see, I’m still on the board of a, literary magazine, which is the forge. So they do, literary short very different from crime. And, what really happened was I started writing a literary story, and it kept growing. And, then I took on a mentorship. I won a mentorship, from somebody from the berkbeck university in the UK. And she was the head of the ma m program. And while mentoring me, she was like, damyanti, what sort of novel do you think you’re writing? So I said, I’m writing a literary novel. And she said, well, you have an investigator, you have a series of crimes, you have clues. Don’t you think it’s a crime novel? And I was very disappointed in myself at that time. I was one of those writers who, when you begin, you have a lot of snobbishness in you, which is given by all your reading. Because if you’ve read very widely and if you’ve read all the Booker Prize winners, you keep thinking that’s the only kind of writing worth aspiring for. And I was actually quite disappointed and got entirely blocked. For six months, I couldn’t proceed on the novel. And then I said, well, this is the story that I need to write, because it just wouldn’t stop. So I kind of continued and I became a crime novelist. Definitely not by design.

Steve Cuden: That’s amazing, because you’re a natural at it. And I think that, the world is better off for you writing crime novels than trying to write literary novels, which, by the way, you can still do. There’s nothing stopping you from doing that, right?

Damyanti Biswas: Well, let’s hope so. Writing a literary novel is an entirely different beast than writing a genre novel.

Steve Cuden: What a great thing to talk about. What is the difference between a literary novel and a crime novel?

Damyanti Biswas: Well, the difference, I think, is small, but makes a huge impact, because I think a literary novel is kind of designed to make you think. So it’s not concerned with entertaining you. It’s not concerned with you at all. It’s concerned with itself. A literary novel is entirely focused on itself, and whether you understand it or whether you enjoy it is not its concern at all. Whereas a, genre novel, a crime novel, is something that the reader is coming to with a different set of expectations. They expect to be transported, they expect not to think, which is just the opposite. you can make the reader think even in a crime novel, which is what has happened in mine, because it does have that literary aspect to it, where I do raise questions. But you can’t do it at the expense of pace, let’s say, or that escape that we are talking about. So, yeah, the reader expectations are very different for a literary novel and a.

Steve Cuden: Crime novel, that is for sure. The reader expectations are quite different.

Were you always a writer when you were a little girl

And, I was curious what you thought the differences were, and I think that’s a fairly good explanation. Were you always a writer when you were a little girl? Did you think about books and writing when you were young?

Damyanti Biswas: I did not. I mean, I read a lot. To me, writers were not real people. I never thought of writers as somebody real. I thought books were just written and somebody wrote them and you just printed them. And I thought of them as, like, printers because I grew up in a small dust pole town in India where we didn’t really have libraries, where, books are very limited. I was very fortunate because my dad was an avid reader. I come from a really, underprivileged family where we sometimes had to make the choice between the budget for food and the budget for books, which led to a certain amount of conflict, let’s say. But, I did end up reading a lot, but I never, ever imagined I’d be a writer, because that’s a foreign thing, right? I mean, who’s a writer? And then you grow up in a family where, you have these financial restrictions. You try to get into a profession that pays you. And from the very outset, I knew, mean, it was not on my radar. And then I got married. I, moved from, India to Singapore, and I was a fashion designer in India, and I was in Malaysia. And, to get a work permit, there were certain issues I had to go back, et cetera, et cetera. And I had my husband, who’s been very kind and very supportive throughout, and he said, well, he’d read this book by Thomas Friedman called the World is flat. And, he said, well, this guy says anybody can do anything from anywhere. These were the beginning days. Know, the concept of globalization. Know, somebody’d written a book about it at that time. And I said, okay, why not? So then he got me a laptop. it was a second hand laptop, and it had two keys missing. I think it was somebody’s IBM thinkpad. And it had the keys I and y missing. And I was like, okay, copy paste from the Internet. And I wrote this article about, I don’t know, something, gardening, whatever. I don’t even remember what it was about. And, I was paid the princely sum of, $20. And, I was like, okay, I.

Steve Cuden: Got it made with the I and the y missing. You can’t even put your own name on it.

Damyanti Biswas: No, but that’s where I started with my writing. And if not for my husband, very clearly, I wouldn’t be a writer today. And I’m not even embarrassed to admit it. Because that’s the truth.

Steve Cuden: Did you get training anywhere for writing or did you just start to write?

Damyanti Biswas: Well, I did go for workshops in the sense that I went for tiny writing workshops in Malaysia. And then when somebody from the UK would come in, I would go for their workshops, and that’s how I got the mentorship with Bergbeck. So it’s mostly been online. The offline ones have usually been like, somebody from Curtis Brown coming down to Singapore. I was very fortunate with having those people coming down here, and they would usually have, like, a competition where people would kind of apply. Like, I don’t know, 500 people would apply and ten or 15 would get chosen. So by a stroke of luck, I kind of got into those. And then being at the forge, which is not just, literary magazine, but the forge is also a group of writers. And all these writers, they are published in some of the best venues. So reading and writing with them kind of helped me improve my writing. And I also took a lot of online classes. so I had literacy where I took tons of classes on plotting, characterization, all kinds of things.

Did you realize at some point that you actually had the skills to become a published writer

Steve Cuden: Did you realize at some point that you actually had the skills and ability to not only be a writer, but a published writer? When did that happen for you? Or how did that happen for you?

Damyanti Biswas: Well, that, again, is another story, because I was writing, you beneath your skin, which was my first published novel. you beneath your skin. I began in think, around 20, 116. I went to the UK, and I was taking a few workshops here and there. And at each workshop they tell me, do you have an agent? And I’m like, no, I don’t think I’m ready for one. And they’re like, would you like me to introduce you to one? And I was like, who would say no, right? I mean, you’d be really naive to say no. I was naive, but I didn’t say no. I just said, okay, yeah. And I was introduced to a few. And then when I was introduced to a few, I used to read a lot of blogs. And I kind of said, well, it’s not simple getting an agent. So I started querying alongside. So as soon as I got an offer from, somebody who I was introduced to, I kind of told everybody else, hey, listen, I have an offer. And that’s when I realized, okay, I am publishable. Because I got like, four agent offers and I picked one of them, and I was like, okay, that means if an agent thinks they can sell what I’m writing, that means probably I can write a novel.

Steve Cuden: I would say, that’s a really good clue, is when somebody in the professional world says, I can do something with your work, that’s usually a clue that you’re actually fairly good at it.

What for you makes a good story good? I ask lots of authors this question

What for you? I ask lots of authors this question, and I fascinated, to hear your answer. What for you makes a good story good? Why is this story a good story, but other stories you would abandon are not right. What makes it good for you?

Damyanti Biswas: Well, as a reader, it’s a different thing. But as an author, when I look at a novel, I would like to first of all see a if it interests me, because by now, if it doesn’t interest me, I have to read the same. Are we allowed to curse?

Steve Cuden: Yes, you can curse on this show.

Damyanti Biswas: Okay, so the same damn book 75 million times, right? And so if you hate the subject, if it’s already boring for you, then you’re going to hate it even worse. Like, by the time I’m done with my book, I never want to read it again. When people ask me to read at these readings and stuff like that, or at podcast interviews like this, they’re like, would you like to read an excerpt? And inside me, I don’t know, but outside, I’m like, sure. It shouldn’t be boring. it shouldn’t bore me at the outset. It should really grip me. It should be something that I really want to write more about. I should wake up in the morning and say, okay, what about this? What about this? What happens here? What happens here? So that’s, like, my first clue. And the second is, sometimes when I’m writing nowadays, I write from an outline, because if you’re selling professionally, you have to give them something. I might veer off from the outline. So when I write the outline and I find that the story doesn’t, I could finish it off in a short story. That’s another clue. Okay, this is not going to work in a novel. This is not going to go the distance. So these are the only two things, really, that I use right now. This might change, but right now, these are the only two clues that I pick up. And then out of that, I would give my agent, like, ten premises, and my agent would pick two. And then again she would say, write ten more, and I would write ten more premises. And out of all of that, we would kind of pick five, maybe I would have written 30 premises, she’d pick five. Out of which my editor would probably pick one and say, write more. I’m basically outlining the process of the blue monsoon to you. That’s what happened?

Steve Cuden: So it was a process of delivery and elimination. Delivery and elimination until everybody was on board and happy with, this is the story you should be writing?

Damyanti Biswas: Yes. Because it’s a marriage between art and commerce, right?

Steve Cuden: Yes, it is.

Sometimes I know immediately this is going to work. Sometimes I have to work at it

So do you think that when you’re already thinking about a new story, do you have some clue early on that, yes, this is really going to work, or do you have to work at it a long time before you’re convinced it really does work?

Damyanti Biswas: Well, it’s both, really. Sometimes I know immediately this is going to work. this is something that’s, oh, this has legs. And then I might just mash it with another idea. But sometimes an idea just grips hold of you. And I trust myself as a reader as well because I read pretty widely. So I know that if it interests me, chances are that it’s not going to be completely uninteresting for other people. And then I, of course, also go out and see what else is out there. Who’s written a similar thing?

Steve Cuden: Well, sure.

Damyanti Biswas: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: One of the hallmarks of your books, the two that I read, the Blue Bar and the blue monsoon, they’re chock full of conflict and action. You’re very good at writing action, and your stories are filled with conflict, which is exactly why people are gripped by them. And are you thinking that through? Is that intentional on your part, or is that just coming out that way?

Damyanti Biswas: Well, the first draft doesn’t have as much conflict, but, there’s one thing I do to set up the conflict at the very outset, which I think is the fuel that kind of propels my book, is that I kind of try to figure out who my main character is. And once I know who the main character is and if they are fascinating enough, then I figure out what it is that they want in life. What are their external wants? What’s their goal? Like, let’s say they want to get married. They want to solve this case. They want to win the lottery, something externally, and then what is it inside of them, inside their mental makeup. That’s kind of stopping them from getting there. So as the novel progresses, there is the want of the protagonist. Protagonist wants something, and then something’s stopping him. So what’s stopping him is also external. Of course. Maybe there’s an antagonist, maybe the circumstances, maybe there’s a tsunami. We don’t know. But there are a lot of forces that go against him. But one of the biggest forces that go against him is within himself or herself. M within herself. If she has a certain weakness, a certain wound a certain belief about herself, like, oh, I don’t deserve this. She wants to win the lottery, but inside of her, she’s so convinced that she doesn’t deserve it that she probably doesn’t go and buy a ticket. I mean, I’m just simplifying it, right?

Steve Cuden: As screenwriters, we call that a flaw. That’s a character’s flaw.

Damyanti Biswas: Yeah. So I do that a fair bit. And once there is this thing set up between what they want, what they need, and why they’re not getting it, the rest of it is like, scene by scene. Later, I go into the draft, and scene by scene, I see whether there’s conflict or not. But there has to be that very seminal conflict right in there. And if that’s not built into your log line and you do this in your screenwriting.

Steve Cuden: We do.

Damyanti Biswas: If that conflict is not baked into your log line, then the conflict is difficult to generate. I mean, you can have surface conflict and somebody punch somebody, but it just doesn’t have that heft that you need. The story doesn’t have that heft. You can add those punches later. like, scene per scene, whatever happens, you add in your red herrings or whatever it is. But the internal conflict has to be strong.

Steve Cuden: There’s nothing like a really powerful internal conflict, that is for certain. So describe a little bit. What are the stories of the blue bar and the blue monsoon? What the stories are more or less about your characters. What is the story about?

Damyanti Biswas: So, the blue bar, it’s gritty, glamorous mumbai. There is a, dynamic police inspector who is in love with a feisty bar dancer. And neither, of them know that they are being stalked by the same serial predator. So that’s what the blue bar is about. And the blue monsoon is about the same police inspector who is, trying to save the city and his wife, who’s wheelchair bound. And in order to do both, he has to solve a set of serial killings. So both involve serial killers, I have.

Steve Cuden: To assume, and I’m going to ask you, are you planning to write more blue books?

Damyanti Biswas: Well, yes. I already have the outline for the third blue book. Let’s see what happens.

Steve Cuden: And you’re going to continue the theme of using the word blue in the titles?

Damyanti Biswas: Well, that’s rather up to the publisher, really, because the titles, the author really doesn’t have as much control. But my publisher was very kind. They kind of had a back and forth, back and forth. Me, the title remained like, that was my original title, the Blue Monsoon. We kind of went with a variety of titles before we came to the blue monsoon. I knew that rain had to be part of it, and then I kind of thought blue had to be part of it. And we were like, blue Rain, blue this, blue that. And then finally it became the blue Monsoon, because I also ended up googling the title. And a lot of titles had books before, and I find that very annoying. I do not want my books to have this title, which is pretty possible.

Steve Cuden: Sometimes, as you probably know. you can’t copyright a title. You can trademark a title, but you can’t copyright a title, which is why so many titles appear repeatedly in movies and tv shows and books, because, ah, you can’t protect it. I think that these stories that I read would make outstanding movies or even a tv series or two. Do you have something, a thought like that in mind? Are you thinking about if someone were to come to you and offer you a movie deal, would you be interested in that kind of thing?

Damyanti Biswas: Oh, why not? I mean, I do have a screen agent, so, yes, I do have a screen agent in Hollywood who would like it. So any offers coming my way, I just send it to my literary agent who sends it to my screen.

Steve Cuden: Well, I think they would make terrific movies or a series, as I say. how do you know so much about police procedure?

Damyanti Biswas: I didn’t really. I actually went and interviewed people. It actually began with you beneath your skin, which was my first novel, where I learned how to conduct interviews. So by the time I was writing the blue bar in Mumbai, I kind of went through connections, friends or friends or friends, and somehow landed up, in a police station. Actually watched how policemen work, actually showed my plotline to a police person. I combed through a whole lot of, the newspapers. So the newspaper clippings, if you see in the blue bar and in the blue monsoon, that’s simply because I read a lot and they are very boring two line accounts, but as you could see, they are. And I put them in that voice, which say very little. But sometimes if you read in between the lines, you learn a fair amount. So I kind of get. They send the viscera for this. So I start furiously then reading about viscera and what happens, blah, blah, blah, and what happens, blah, blah, blah. And in India, the challenge is not just about the crime and catching the criminal. It’s also the challenge of the resources. We are a country of more than a billion. We’re the most populous country in the world. Mumbai or Delhi are some of the most populous cities in the world. And they are also cities where people come in and come out. So it’s not a city which is constant, so it’s forever pulsating. So every morning the population of the city grows, and every evening it shrinks. So all of these kind of add to the challenge, and I’ve kind of made that very much a part of. So I’ve not sanitized anything when I write about postmortems and things like that. I actually spoke to somebody who conducts these postmortems, and most of the times, they don’t do it themselves. They get, somebody who’s not trained in medicine at all to make a cut and take these things out, the organs, and they just kind of treat the human body like you would at a slaughterhouse. Not all, places where they do post mortems, but a huge majority. I kind of made those a part of the novel. I asked questions. I didn’t know so much about police procedure or forensics.

Steve Cuden: So you’re then a deep researcher, both in literature, et cetera, and also in terms of interviewing people and getting right in the thick of it, so to speak. Is that, something that requires, a lot of planning? And do you have to spend a lot of time figuring stuff out before you even can begin to construct the novel?

Damyanti Biswas: Well, for me, I kind of do a lot of research through reading. I mean, Singapore has some of the best, libraries in the world, so it’s very well staffed. And nowadays, with Google, I think we have the kind of advantage for research that if you know how to do the know, you know the right keywords, you know how to figure out what’s what, you can read papers and you can get enough to, kind of make the skeleton of a book. But then to fill in the details, you do need to go out there and, speak with people. And I find, that there’s no replacement for that. I mean, somebody who tells you, these little details, which can, it’s like it creates that lifelikeness of the book, because if the reader believes that one of your details is right or it’s striking and they remember it, then they tend to trust you. And once the reader trusts you, then you can lead them wherever you want. Then you can put your red herrings, and the reader would be like, nodding away and saying, yeah, this is what it is. In a way. You have to earn the trust of the reader, and then at the end, you kind of do the payoff so that the trust pays off. But, yeah, research is, to me, you have to do things which earn the reader trust.

Steve Cuden: Do you also read a lot of mystery and crime novels?

Damyanti Biswas: I do. Yes, I do. And, I kind of try and keep up with what’s coming out next. Nowadays, I even blurb other authors so I can read. I mean, that becomes part of the task. So I hardly ever say no to people who ask me for a blurb. If I can read it, I will read it and see if I can, because everything teaches me something. Each new book I read teaches me something.

Steve Cuden: Well, that’s true. I have to kind of assume you’ve spent a lot of time in Mumbai as well.

Damyanti Biswas: Yes, I have. I mean, a, long time back, I interned there, so I spent time there. And for the blue bar, I spent quite a fair bit of time there.

Steve Cuden: How many languages do you speak?

Damyanti Biswas: two indian languages. The Hindi and Bengali, which is my native language.

Steve Cuden: And what do you write in? Do you write in English?

Damyanti Biswas: Oh, absolutely. my school was an english medium school, so we were taught everything in English. So English is almost, the first language I use, because I was never really taught my native tongue. Because if you grew up in an underprivileged family, you’re told you need to get a job. And in India, which was a colonized country, and our minds, which have been colonized over 200 years, we were taught that English is a better language instead of just another language. So even now, learning English and knowing English is considered a. Yeah, I mean, you almost can’t help it.

Steve Cuden: Well, you write as if you had been born in America. If I didn’t know what your name was and I hadn’t seen a picture of you, I’m not sure I would have known you were anything but an american.

Damyanti Biswas: Well, a lot of it was taking it because when I first had my conversation with my agent, because I do write very. But a lot of my writing is UK English writing, because that’s the schooling. Because after India was colonized, a whole lot of britishism. I mean, the first books I read were british. I mean, I grew up on british books. I mean, I did read some Enid lighten as well, like, things like that. So we grew up on those books we didn’t grow up on. I read very few books written by Indians when I was a child. So I only read either books in English, which were English. So I was reading Shakespeare when I was 13 or 14 years old. I was reading Bernard Shaw when I was 16. No, I was lucky, because I had my dad, who kind of bought those books, and then I was reading all the Russians in translation. I was reading Emil Zola. I was reading Bohe. so I was reading magic realism. So I was reading all of that. So I did not read in anything but English till the time, I think I was 18, when I taught myself, my own native tongue, because my parents were not interested.

Steve Cuden: You taught yourself your own native tongue?

Damyanti Biswas: I had to, because the writing of it and the reading of it, I still cannot write in my native tongue. I can read in it. I’m fluent in reading it. I’m fluent in speaking it, but I cannot write in my native tongue because I was never taught that. So I do write better English than I write my own language.

Steve Cuden: You write extremely excellent English.

Damyanti Biswas: Yes. A lot of the Americanisms. Sorry. is from Kurtzie, my agent, because I told my agent, I said very clearly, I’m a brown writer writing about brown people for a white audience. You are a white person, and this was exactly the conversation. You are a white person, so you must translate brown into white so that they get it and they get a flavor of what brown is like, but in a language which is more accessible to a white reader. Simply because I’m writing a thriller, I’m not writing a literary novel. If I was writing a literary novel, I wouldn’t have bothered, because the audience is different. They are more concerned with meaning in thought and all of those things, so they are not bothered by a little bit of a hiccup in language. But if you’re writing in the genre, then people want to be entertained. They’re not as keen on understanding meaning and language, so you have to make it very easy for them. And even then, for the first book, I didn’t have a glossary, et cetera, and that got me a lot of reviews saying, we don’t get it. And in the second book, I have the glossary. As a result, there’s a list of characters, and there’s a glossary, and there are author notes and there are explanations. And as a consequence, a lot of people appreciated that because they were like, I wish I’d known. I would have done it for blue bar, as well.

Steve Cuden: There was a little bit that, as I was reading that, I didn’t know what you were talking about, and then I would find the glossary, and then I’d get it, but not much. I thought you wrote in a way that was translatable to anyone who didn’t know anything about indian culture, didn’t know anything about indian, language. I thought that was very good, the way that you did it. So let’s talk for a moment about the development of each story. Where do you begin? Is it you come up with a character thought? Is it a plot? Is it some scene in your head? Where do things usually start for you?

Damyanti Biswas: Well, the blue bar started with a workshop exercise where somebody said, write about somebody who is being watched, but they don’t know they are being watched. And then Tara, kind of walked into the screen for me and I saw her at a crowded railway station wearing a, fantastic blue sequin saree, looking stunning amid, all the sweaty, know, the rush hour crowd. And I was like, who’s this woman? And why is she wearing this sari? And then who’s watching her? And why does she have to leave within three minutes? So that first chapter is, in fact, a piece of. It’s a vignette. It was an attempt at a flash fiction. And then I sent it to my then agent in the UK, and he was like, oh, this is interesting. Why don’t you look into it? And I looked into it and it became a novel, became the blue bar for the blue monsoon. Of course, there were a lot of heads other than mine, which kind of were, part of the creative process. But the beginnings were. I heard from, my yoga teacher, of all people, who said that, there were, people who come by in his street to buy hair. And I was like, buy hair? What would you mean? And he’s like, yeah, when you comb your hair, you have some hair fall. So if you keep that hair and you keep storing it in a packet, my wife just sold a packet of hair for a dozen teaspoons. And I was. And, you know, I didn’t know. So I kind of went in and looked at. I immediately began researching, saying, what about this know where, what, how? And then I realized that India is the world’s biggest exporter of virgin hair, which means the untreated hair, right? Hair which has not been chemically treated. And that kind of started off the blue monsoon for me. And, yeah, that’s where the idea came from.

Steve Cuden: Well, it’s very interesting, it seems to me, the way that you’ve expressed that, that things just come to you. Are you actively trying to find new ideas in your mind or do you just let them come?

Damyanti Biswas: a bit of both. I mean, I do try to find the ideas, but they are usually in my old notebooks, so I sometimes do even now. But I used to write a whole lot by hand and I have, like, an entire cupboard full, and that’s like a 4ft tall cupboard, which is entirely stocked with my handwritten notebook. So sometimes when I’m looking for ideas, I’ll kind of look at my own pages and then something comes out. Because I did, write a lot of flash fiction. And the thing with Flash is you have to fit in a lot within a page. So you could fit in a novel within a page. I mean, I could. If I had to, I could write an entire story. As in I could indicate it in 200 words. I could do an entire life.

Steve Cuden: Really?

Damyanti Biswas: Yeah, I could. I have. And that’s something that then is like a mini outline, right. And then I can just use it.

Your first novel took 15 drafts. Is that typical for you

Steve Cuden: What’s your technique for developing characters? Do you do a lot of preparation on a character or do you just let them flow too?

Damyanti Biswas: no, characters when the character comes on screen. I’m a very visual writer.

Steve Cuden: Yes, you are.

Damyanti Biswas: I can smell it. So I get like a full five senses experience when I am seeing something. It’s like a complete hallucination. I just need to write it down. So when that happens, that’s when I know that I need to ask questions. And then I do write a lot of questions. So before I write an outline, I spend weeks, doing what I call pre writing. So I would write about the character before the character comes on the screen of the novel. So before they enter the first page, we all come. There are certain things that shape us. So nature and nurture. So certain things are by nature, but what happened due to the nurture, so the entire background. So I would write about them when they are like five years old, when they are twelve years old, when they are 17 years old, depending on what are the events that are shaping them, what happens to them. And I don’t just, write one line, I write entire scenes, so fully fleshed out scenes as if they would be in my novels. And I send these out sometimes as, every month I send out a short story for my readers. So it’s usually those. So I don’t really have to write new ones because those are my pre writing. So if you subscribe to my newsletter, you would find a lot of backstories of the people in my novels. So you get an explanation, a detailed explanation of who’s what. So I do that. And this is even for my minor characters.

Steve Cuden: So you’re deep into it before you even start to write, the novel itself. You know who these people are.

Damyanti Biswas: I have to, otherwise I cannot write the novel because I would usually finish the draft in a month. So the blue bar. I wrote the 90,000 words in a month.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

Damyanti Biswas: But, yes, I did. That’s fantastic. I wrote it. But the thing is, I knew who Arna ah, Ventara were by that time, and it was not the final draft that took another, like, seven or eight drafts.

Steve Cuden: Is that typical for you? Seven to ten drafts somewhere in there? Is that normal?

Damyanti Biswas: Well, the blue monsoon had the least amount of drafts because I wrote it in less than one year. From conception to editing to everything, it killed me almost, because I was like, oh, God. But, yeah, the first novel took 15 drafts. You beneath your skin took 15, and I rewrote them. So, I mean, I changed points of view, the narrative points of view. It was in first person, then it was in three people, then five people, then two people, then back to five people. So then obviously that means a rewrite, right? So I did that with the blue bar. There were six or seven. And by the time, it went to my editor, she was like, oh, this is a very polished manuscript, and, this won’t take too long. And that was the editorial call. And then she sent me an edit letter, and she’s like, this is the shortest edit letter I’ve ever written. It’s just three pages. It isn’t much. All you have to do is take the first one forth, chop it up, take it out, and then feed it into the rest of the novel.

Steve Cuden: Nothing to it.

Damyanti Biswas: it was much. So we did that.

Steve Cuden: Well, I was very glad to hear you say that you’ve visualized things very well, that you’re a visually oriented writer. me too. In all the writing I’ve done, I m think of it as a movie playing in my head. That’s how I see it. And then I think of myself as a reporter reporting from the field as to what I see. Is it similar for you?

Damyanti Biswas: Absolutely. I think of it as kind of taking dictation, like, the words and everything, they come to me. So I can’t write till I write. And that’s why it’s hard for me to write, to dictate when I’m writing. Like a lot of writers are able to dictate. But for me, each word leads to the next word, to the next word. So I find that I can actually think that it’s coming from a different place. So dictation and writing come from different places. I can dictate an email or a blog, maybe, but to dictate a novel is very, very hard.

Steve Cuden: How difficult is it to develop a love story? A really believable good love story in the middle of a bloody murder mystery.

Damyanti Biswas: The love story was really, not intentional. It was part of, Arnav’s story. It was part of Tara’s story. So when Tara came on the screen in the first line, in the first page, when she comes in wearing the saree, and who’s watching her? My first thing was, maybe it’s the guy who loves her and he is watching her. Maybe he’s actually a stalker, and maybe he’s the villain, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And then from there, I was, no, no. And then that line came in, know, somebody makes a heartbeat faster. And I was, no, no, that’s not that guy. And somehow I knew that it wasn’t the villain. So I said, who is it? So Arnav actually came from Tara. And once Arnav and Tara came in, I was like, oh, what is their story? And that’s how the whole thing happened. I really didn’t intend for it to know any kind of love story.

Steve Cuden: So the characters, classically, writers talk about getting to a point where the characters begin to take over and speak to you, and you’re just sort of interpreting what the characters are telling you. Does that happen for you?

Damyanti Biswas: once I’ve done my pre writing, yes. Because by the time I’ve done my pre writing, I know these people a fair bit, like almost as well as I know my husband. No one can know anybody else entirely. They will surprise you. After 20 years of marriage, somebody could surprise you. But, I know at least that much. So the character is still capable of surprising me. And I think I’d let them do it because, to me, what is the character telling me what to do? It’s a part of my subconscious. Right. And my subconscious is so much more. It’s powerful, and I trust it. I trust my subconscious, I trust my instincts, because really, they haven’t really led me wrong. So I kind of feel the more I trust it, the stronger it becomes is how I look at it.

Steve Cuden: What would you say are the common errors that young novice novelists make that prevent them from making a sale? Can you think of anything that they ought to do differently or think differently?

Damyanti Biswas: Well, it’s so hard to a. I would say it’s not correct to make a correlation between the errors made and the sales not made. Sometimes you make no errors and you still make no sales because of the list. The editors already, the agent already has, or the editor already has, and they already have something in mind. Their vision of the market is different. So sometimes people kill themselves, kind of looking for validation from publishing, saying, I’m not good enough because nobody could sell me. But that’s really not true, because art and commerce are very different. You could have written a very good story. and even though I’m a traditionally published author, I go on to say that sometimes, editors don’t see it till they see it. You hear so much about an author who never sold. And then. I mean, there were people who rejected JK Rowling, right? Eleven people rejected her before the twelveth person was persuaded by his daughter to pick it up. Right? That’s what the legend is. So, the thing is, I think this does a lot of damage to writers equating being published with being good. I’m not saying everybody who’s published is bad. I’m simply saying that what is saleable at a certain moment of time may not be saleable at another moment. So if you took a book from 25 years ago, which was an international bestseller number, one, you try and sell it today, it’ll not sell.

Steve Cuden: Like, timing. Timing, yeah.

Damyanti Biswas: So it’s. A lot of people ignore the role of luck and timing, so that, for sure, if you look at errors, I would say, not knowing enough, the market. So you need to know what’s out there and what’s being. You have to kind of be clued in to what agents are looking for. So, look at all the MSWL lists, look at. Interact with authors nowadays, with Twitter, kind of diminishing. Get into slacks, get into discords like connect, network. So if you don’t network enough, you don’t know what’s going on and what’s what, and you follow certain people, you figure out what is going on in the publishing industry. You read the publisher’s marketplace, you figure out what is selling, who’s selling it. And the way I found my current agent was to actually go and see what’s selling and see who has sold stuff which is closer to what I write, and then look, at those agents and query those agents. So work your way back instead of just blindly going in. And it’s all about strategizing.

Steve Cuden: So you actually do a great deal of thinking about how you’re going to approach whatever it is you’re approaching. The market, publishers, et Cetera. You’re strategizing that out. Is that right?

Damyanti Biswas: Well, I have no choice. I’m a brown author, sitting in Singapore trying to get published in the US. So, I’m quite aware of what I have taken on. So I know that I have to work four times as much to get one fourth the distance that somebody would get if they are in the US. And let’s be straight. If they’re a white author and it’s not changed. If you look at the data, it’s still not changed. Publishing is still overwhelmingly white, and we are making a lot of noise, which kind of leads people to believe that it’s a change. Everything has changed. And now is the white authors who are struggling to get published. But the fact is, everyone’s struggling to get published, and non white authors are struggling hard.

Steve Cuden: Authors have struggled from the beginning of.

Damyanti Biswas: Time, millennia, because it’s economics, right? The supply is much higher than demand at any point in time. So whenever the supply is higher, then obviously it’s not the seller’s market, is it? It’s the buyer’s market.

Steve Cuden: Right, exactly. So most writing, most publishing comes with a certain amount of pressure, usually personal pressure, to finish. You may be on a deadline, which is an imposed kind of pressure, et cetera. When you have pressure on you, whether it’s from yourself or from someone else or some other thing, do you have any tricks, or techniques for handling that pressure, what do you do?

Damyanti Biswas: I happen to be a sort of person who kind of thrives under pressure because I think that’s the kind of thing I grew up with. You grow up in a smaller household with limited resources. You do kind of grow up to be one of those stringy, tougher kids, right? And who do have to, if you have to survive, you have to kind of thrive under pressure. So for me, I suppose I have that training since childhood. But on a day to day basis, what I try to do is I try to just say, okay, let’s not look at the whole thing. Let’s look at what’s the easiest thing I can do. What is it that I can get off my list the fastest, and then I do a few. And then that kind of makes me feel like, okay, I can do a little bit. So I kind of hack at it. Hackett. It hacketted. I try and actually put my head in the sand. I don’t look at the whole thing. I don’t look at the entire pile of things I have to do. I have a long list, and then I just keep ticking. Just the smallest one off the list. And actually it’s all about inertia, right? So you have the inertia of rest. So you stay in rest. So the idea is to get me into the inertia of motion. So once I’m in the inertia of motion. I start getting things done. So stress reduces.

Steve Cuden: Is that a difficult thing on some days, to get that inertia going?

Damyanti Biswas: Oh, it’s almost impossible. And I talk about it a lot on my social media. I’m always there complaining how I can’t do things. And it’s not because I’m a window by nature, which maybe a little bit I am, my husband will tell you. But it’s also because I think the writing process and the writing life is glamorized to an extreme by movies.

Steve Cuden: Sorry, Steve, you’re correct. That’s quite okay.

Damyanti Biswas: But it’s true. So people kind of think that all you have to do is go to a coffee shop and drink some fancy coffee, and then suddenly you write this entire manuscript in a matter of months, and then you have a friend who introduced you to an agent who suddenly gives you a million dollar deal, and then you go on these book tours, and you have your life made, and then you find your true love, et cetera, et cetera. But I really like to keep the process deglamorized, because really, because we are in publishing, we kind of feel that everybody knows what goes on within it, but actually, no one does. It’s very insular. Even some of my best friends don’t really know what goes on in my life. And it’s almost impossible to explain, because unless you’re in the process, you don’t know what’s going on.

Steve Cuden: Most writing is you in a room alone. That’s my experience has been, is me in a room alone. I assume it’s the same for you.

Damyanti Biswas: Yes, it is. And sometimes it is not. Because sometimes it’s my agent in the room with me, metaphorically, or my editor in the room. Because when you’re writing genre fiction for traditional publication, yes. But also, I think a lot of writing nowadays is, also you have written it, but then you’re also involved in the selling of it, necessarily, especially if you’re in self publishing. So writing is not just writing, unfortunately. I wish we could all just stay in one room and do nothing else. But especially if you’re self publishing, you do have to do a lot. And nowadays, even if you’re traditionally publishing, you have to do a lot.

Steve Cuden: Do you have ways that you, can stay disciplined once you’ve gotten that inertia going? Or does the inertia take care of itself until you’re just too tired to go on?

Damyanti Biswas: Well, yes, I need discipline in kind of remembering to eat and sleep. So that’s where my husband comes in, I’m not very disciplined. He reminds me that I need to eat, and he reminds me that I need to sleep. Once I’m in motion, it’s difficult for me to do.

Steve Cuden: You get into what I and others will call the zone, where time just flies by and it’s hours later and you realize that you’ve just been lost in that zone. Does that happen for you?

Damyanti Biswas: Well, it happens to me mostly when I’m on social media, but we’ll not talk about that. Not time stuck. But, no, I’m joking. But yeah, in writing sometimes, especially when I’m getting to the end of the novel, I’m not fortunate enough for that to happen every day. I’m the sort of writer who has to kind of struggle, struggle, struggles especially, I think, because now that I read myself, I feel like my subconscious is convinced that something you’ve not struggled for is not worth the win. So I’m trying to change that, because that’s my mindset, that’s what I’ve grown up with. But now I know that it’s possible for things to come easy to you because your subconscious has already done the math. You just have to trust it and go ahead with it. For me, I’m not one of those writers who finds joy in the process of writing and stuff like that. I’m one of those writers who has to write, who’s kind of compelled to write and must write. It’s like when you were a kid, you would fall down and you would get some sort of a scar, and it’s not healed over, it’s not become a scar yet. And you keep picking at it. You know, you shouldn’t pick at it, but you pick at it, but you shouldn’t pick at it, but you pick at it. You can’t stop. that’s what writing is for me. It’s not a very pretty metaphor, but that’s exactly what it is.

Steve Cuden: So you’re a writer that picks at the ideas and picks at their ideas, and they just.

Damyanti Biswas: I pick it myself.

Steve Cuden: I think at yourself still.

Damyanti Biswas: It hurts. It’s not pleasant, it’s not nice, but I can’t help it. So I do write. I mean, there have been times when I’ve said to my husband, I’m not writing another word. I’m stopping here now. I’m done.

Steve Cuden: And he just laughs because the next day, it’s already, working on your.

Damyanti Biswas: I’m up at dawn doing something about it.

Steve Cuden: I am having the most marvelous conversation with Damianti Biswas. She’s been on the scene for just a short while in terms of novels, and I highly recommend that, if you like crime and mystery novels, that you certainly go out and find both the blue bar and the blue monsoon. I think you’ll enjoy them as much as I did. So I’m wondering, in all of your experiences, are you able to share with us a story that’s either weird, quirky, offbeat, strange, or maybe just plain funny?

Damyanti Biswas: Thank you for the shout out, first of all.

Steve Cuden: Oh, my pleasure.

Damyanti Biswas: Very kind of you. One of the things that happened to me, quite recently, in fact, was I met someone and, they were like, I can’t tell you which part they liked, but they like a certain part of the novel and they liked a certain character and they fell in love with that character and they kept on telling me about it and I was like, hm. Uh-huh. And it was actually based on them.

Steve Cuden: Oh, wow.

Damyanti Biswas: I had changed the gender and the age and whatever, but, yeah, they didn’t know. They had no clue that that’s why they were liking the characters so much.

Steve Cuden: They like themselves.

Damyanti Biswas: They were themselves. it was them, but I didn’t tell them.

Steve Cuden: Oh, that’s very funny.

Damyanti Biswas: I was, like, internally, I was, like, smiling, but I was, on the face of it, I was like, thank you. Yeah, very nice.

Steve Cuden: Do you find yourself basing characters on people you know?

Damyanti Biswas: well, I guess we all do, but in my case, I kind of take one characteristic from someone, another from someone else. So, for example, if it’s a villain, for sure, I give them a characteristic, that I have myself or someone else has, which I really like. So then I’ll, not be so judgmental about the villain and I’ll not kind of hate him throughout because that’s not my job. So I do that. And then if it’s a protagonist, I would give them either one of my annoying characteristics or an annoying thing that someone else has who I do not like. So then the hero doesn’t become like this. Everything is good sort of a person. So, yeah, I do. But I take bits and pieces of people. I don’t take somebody wholesale and put them in. But this was, a very minor role. The person who kind of really liked this minor character, this was a very minor role, and it was entirely them in that half a piece.

Steve Cuden: I think that’s brilliant. So last question for you today, damianti. You’ve already given us all kinds of wonderful pieces of advice along the way, but I’m wondering if you have a solid piece of advice or a tip that you like to give to those who are starting out in the business, or maybe they’re in a little bit and trying to get to the next level.

Damyanti Biswas: Well, I think one of the most important things, and I’ve touched upon this a bit just now, but to understand the difference between art and commerce. So once when you’re writing, you’re writing a piece of art, right? It’s your artistic side. But when it comes to whether you’re self publishing or whether you’re traditionally publishing, it comes to looking at it as a product that needs to be sold. So, a lot of people ask me, which do you prefer, traditional publishing or self publishing? And people would say, since you have traditionally published, you would definitely want to go that way. And I would say, no. I would say, look at your work. So traditional publication, at least now, these days, the last ten or 15 years, has been bestseller driven. So they are targeting an audience who reads, let’s say, five books a year and all the way to an audience who reads like, let’s say, 30, 50 books a year. Whereas, self publishing is niche driven. They are targeting somebody who’s reading in that particular niche. So it could be like, let’s say something like I heard the other day, dragon romance or prehistoric romance or whatever it is, it’s very specialized and niche, and that’s what that reader is looking for. And they are, reading 300 books a year. They’re reading two books or three books a day sometimes. And those are the people that you can only target through self publishing, because traditional publishing will not publish something like that because you have a smaller audience, but they are buying a lot more books, which can keep you, the person as an entrepreneur, happy, but it will not make penguin random house happy. So you need to figure out where exactly your book falls in the spectrum of things. So is it niche? Does it have the potential to be a bestseller in the sense that is it something that would appeal to a much wider audience? And there’s nothing wrong with. Either there’s nothing wrong with traditional publication, or there’s a lot wrong with traditional publication, but there’s nothing wrong with self publishing. So it’s like you have to figure out a what it is that you want, right? Like, what’s your goal? So if you are in self publishing, you know that you will not be, going into the same kind of award situations, or it’s going to be a struggle to get into, libraries and bookstores. That struggle is reducing these days, but it’s still more of a struggle. So you need to know what it is you’re trying to do. How much money you want to make? How much money do you have to invest? So, like, for someone like me, who didn’t really want to invest a lot of money into it, traditional publication was a lot more intuitive. Plus, I write very complex, very wide spectrum kind of novels, so it’s not as if these novels would have done so very well for a niche audience. Maybe after I’ve got my own audience, after a certain number of years, I’ll definitely consider self publication. So you need to know what your book is. You can’t just, kind of take it through a cookie cutter process, saying, it worked for this person, it worked for that person. So it’ll work for me. No, because every story is unique. Every storyteller is unique. And you need to figure out who exactly your audience is and strategize from the very beginning and look at it exactly like a business person would.

Steve Cuden: That is fantastic advice, especially for young artists who usually don’t understand the business end of the business. whatever the business is in the arts, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a novelist, a screenwriter, a dancer. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the business end of the business. It can be very difficult to succeed. And so I think that that’s tremendous advice. Now, I’m curious, if you are a writer and you aren’t sure what your niche is or, what it is that you do, is it helpful to then give it to others and let them tell you?

Damyanti Biswas: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you cannot decide what your work is by yourself, because you’re not the target audience. The target audience is the target audience. So you need to figure out who those people are simply by trial and error. And it’s not going to happen overnight. No self publishing success has happened overnight. No traditional publishing success has happened overnight. Maybe a few seem to have, but you would see that somebody who is becoming a bestseller at 24, has been writing since they were ten, and probably has been clued in by a variety of factors, has gone to such a school, or has had a certain number of privileges. There’s something. So the math has to add up. So you have to kind of make that effort from the very beginning to show your work to as many people as possible, in the least annoying way possible, with the least amount of entitlement and the most amount of humility going in, and try and see if you can get feedback on your work. And the best way to do it is to offer to just read. I mean, that’s really the best way in publishing. I think the more you are willing to give free labor in terms of just reading or volunteering or what have you, the more people will be willing to kind of take a look at your work. So if you have a local writing organization show up, volunteer, assure, do whatever it is that you have to do to make some connections. Because if you make those connections, then people will be more open to reading your work instead of just showing up somewhere and just saying, here’s my manuscript. Can you just read it and give me feedback? And that’s happened to me. A lot of people just show up and say, can you just give me a blurb? And I don’t know them from Adam, and I’m struggling with my own life, my own workload. And in the middle of it, who would I pay more attention to? Somebody with whom I have some sort of connection. Because publishing is run by humans, and we are all struggling, underpaid, mostly frustrated humans. So you have to show your work, but do it, put in a lot of work yourself. Show other people that you’re willing to help out, that you’re a good literary citizen, and then publishing becomes very welcoming of you if you go in without entitlement. I mean, that’s really personally been my experience.

Steve Cuden: Well, such excellent advice, Damyanti Biswas. This has been just a fantastic hour plus on StoryBeat, and I cannot thank you enough, and I wish you all the success and luck in the world with, the blue bar, the blue monsoon, and every book that you write after that. So I thank you mightily for being on the show with me today.

Damyanti Biswas: Thank you so much, Steve, for having me, and the pleasure is mutual. I’m so, so happy that I got to talk to you. it’s always a delight to talk about the writing process. I enjoy doing that, and there’s very few people I can do it with. So thank you for the opportunity. Thank you so much.

Steve Cuden: And so we’ve come to the end of today’s StoryBeat. If you like this episode, won’t you please take a moment to give us a comment, rating, or review on whatever app or platform you’re listening to? Your support helps us bring more great StoryBeat episodes to you. StoryBeat is available on all major podcast apps and platforms, including Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Tunein, and many others. Until next time, I’m Steve Cuden, and may all your stories be unforgettable.

Executive Producer: Steve Cuden, Producer: Casey Georgi, Announcer: Javier Grajeda
Social Media: Mina Hoffman, Design & Marketing: Holly Reed, Reed Creative Group


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