Hi everyone, and continuing my new combined interview approach, I am chatting to crime writer Amer Anwar about his writing journey and drafting process.
Amer took some time away from writing to answer my questions on how he started writing, his writing process and what happens post representation, once your manuscript is with an editor.
Over to you, Amer…
1) Did you always want to be an author? As a child, did you have a turning point with a novel that made you go ‘Wow!’
I always loved to read as a child and write stories but it wasn’t until I reached my teens that I knew I wanted to be an author. I’d just read a novel called “Magician” by Raymond E. Feist and when I finished that book, I really did think, “Wow!” It made me feel so many different things: happiness, sadness, excitement, fear, joy, etc. I just thought it was an amazing thing to be able to do – to make people feel all of that just by putting words on a page – and I knew right then, that I’d love to be able to do that too. Of course, back then I didn’t see many people like me being authors, so it wasn’t something I really saw myself actually doing, but the desire never left me and, 20 years later, I gave it a go.
2) Did you enjoy English at school? Was there a set book you had to read that you loved?
Yes, I loved English at school, reading and writing stories to me was just so much fun – and writing stories was encouraged early on but in secondary school, the creative aspect was pretty much disgarded in favour of factual writing and essays, which wasn’t quite as enjoyable.
There wasn’t any set book to read that I particularly remember loving but then, by about the age of 10, I’d already moved on to trying to read adult fiction, horror novels by James Herbert and Stephen King. I didn’t always understand everything that was going on but I really enjoyed them all the same. I had a dictionary to look up any words I didn’t know, which helped me understand better and also did wonders for my vocabulary.
3) How did you find your literary agent? What was your journey like to becoming published?
Actually, I guess my literary agent was the one who found me.
When I started to write fiction again, as an adult, roughly 20 or so years after school, I began by taking writing classes. I’d had an idea for a crime thriller knocking about in my head for most of those two decades and during one of the writing courses, I had a go at writing the opening and didn’t think it was too bad. I’d heard of the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger competition for unpublished writers and decided to enter the first chapter. I had nothing to lose and, if nothing else, I’d get my first rejection, something I’d have to get very used to on the road to publication.
Anyway, long story short, that first chapter actually won the Debut Dagger award and brought me to the attention of agents, including the one I signed with.
Getting published wasn’t as straight forward. Even having one an award and with a top agent, once the book was finished it went out to about 30 publishers, all the big publishing houses and imprints – and it was turned down by every single one. Not because it was a bad book – all the feedback was good. It had great characters, a great setting, great action, great dialogue, great plot etc. etc. but no one wanted to publish it. What it ultimately came down to, and what no one really wanted to say, was that the book was just too “Asian.”
The closest anyone came to articulating that was with the comment, “I could never visualise it breaking out to a broad audience.”
I disagreed. I’d written it very much to try and appeal to a broad audience, anyone who enjoyed a fast-paced, exciting crime thriller. So I decided to self-publish it because I wanted people to read it and see what the reaction would be. Turned out, it was very favourable indeed. I was hustling the book around at various events, and at one of these, I met my publisher. I’d run out of copies that evening but I told her all about the novel and she asked me to send it to her afterwards.
I did and she read it and, within a fortnight, I had signed a two book deal with Dialogue Books.
When ‘Brothers in Blood’ was published, it went on to be picked by both the Times and the Guardian as one of the thrillers of the year.
4) What is your idea generation? How do you think up your ideas?
I had about 20 years to work on the idea for my first novel, Brothers in Blood. It started with the location. The book is set in Southall, west London. I knew I wanted to set a book there, it’s a place I know well and a prefect setting for a crime thriller. In fact, I’d been wanting to read something like that but no one had done it, so I thought I would.
Next came the main character. Then I needed a story for them. The germ of that was provided by a news story. Once I had those elements, I worked on weaving them all together.
For my latest book, Stone Cold Trouble, I actually had two separate story ideas I’d thought up but they weren’t really strong enough individually, so I tried putting them together which worked much better.
5) When you first got your agent, how did you feel? What can a writer expect through the editing process?
It was a great feeling to sign with an agent. I’d read a lot about the whole publishing process and knew how hard it could be to find an agent, so I was prepared to go the submission route and wait for the inevitable rejections – only I managed to sidestep that whole part by winning the Debut Dagger.
I signed with one of the most well respected agents in the country, which was amazing. Getting an agent gave me a lot of confidence in the novel I was writing and it really helped to spur me on, knowing that she believed in it enough to have signed me.
But … I’d only written the first few chapters when I won the award and it took me another five years to write and rewrite it until I felt it was good enough to send to her. Well, I might have thought it was good enough, and there were many things that were good about it – but it still needed work.
With the feedback I received, I went through the whole book again, editing and rewriting. After that, it went through another thorough edit and then it was finally ready for submission to publishers.
6) Once the editing process is finished with your agent, what it is like working with an editor?
I’m very fortunate in that my agent employs a very experienced in-house editor so that, as I mentioned above, the first couple of rounds of major edits were done there. Working with the editor was a really useful and valuable experience. I really saw how a good editor can improve your writing, not by making you change things necessarily, but by showing you how you can cut and trim bits to make the whole book read better. I really learnt a lot from it.
When the manuscript was eventually bought by my publisher, there wasn’t all that much they wanted to change. There were some minor things and it went through line edits and copy edits to really try and get all the little detail right, which was all very painless. I have to say, I really enjoy the whole editing process. It’s the first draft I find the hardest part.
7) What is the publicity process like? How do you feel when you go on tours promoting your novel?
I love the whole publicity part of promoting a book. You spend so much time on your own when you’re sitting writing it, that it’s great to get out and meet people and talk about it. I was a bit nervous at first, as it felt quite alien to get up in front of lots of people and talk about myself and my work but I think I managed to get used to it fairly quickly and now I love doing events. I also have a fantastic publicist who really looks after things and makes sure everything is OK.
8) What is the marketing process like? Do you get given covers and titles to choose from for your books?
The marketing process was really inetersting. It’s really great to work with a team of people whose job it is to help promote your book. They really know what they’re doing and have great ideas.
I originally self-published my first book, briefly, before it was bought by my current publisher. The book went through edits with them and then got its new title, ‘Brothers in Blood.’ My publisher came up with the new title. I didn’t really have a hand in it – but, fortunately, I love it, and it fits the book really well. I was able to give some thoughts on the cover too.
With the second book, I came up with the title, ‘Stone Cold Trouble,’ quite early on, and everyone loved it, so it stuck and I had a little more involvement with the cover, thanks to my editor and the fabulous designer who worked on it.
9) When you sit down to write, what is your planning process? Do you have a set word count?
I didn’t have any plan or process when I started my first novel. About halfway through writing it, I found I needed to know what had happened and when in the story, so I wrote out a retroactive plan. That led me to roughly plan ahead for the rest of the novel, or at least, as far ahead as I could. I didn’t know what the ending was going to be. Fortunately, when I got to the end, I managed to come up with a way to tie everything together.
For ‘Stone Cold Trouble’ I decided to plan the things out from the start. It was a very loose plan though, only a sentence or so, for what I thought might happen in each chapter. Because it was so loose, I didn’t have to stick to it and just chopped and changed it as I went along. It also allowed me to work out some of the story beforehand, so I was a bit more confident during the writing process.
I try and aim for 1000 words a day when writing, though it doesn’t always happen. Some days I manage less and on others I can keep going past the target. I don’t beat myself up about it if I don’t make the 1000, just as long as I manage to get something done.
10) During lockdown, how has your writing changed? Are you currently working on a new project or editing your last novel?
I was actually in the final editing stages with ‘Stone Cold Trouble’ when lockdown happened, so it didn’t really disrupt my writing much in that sense. Once that was all done and dusted, I wrote a short story for an anthology, which was good fun. It was the first short story I’d written in about 10 years.
Then, I went back to work on a standalone thriller I’d started before ‘Stone Cold Trouble.’ Somehow I found I had less time to write during lockdown than I had before. I think maybe my routine and rhythm had been thrown off. Anyway, I was trying to make progress on the new thirller and then things came up around the publication of ‘Stone Cold Trouble,’ after which I found out that what my publisher really wanted next was another Zaq & Jags book.
So I’ve shelved the standalone again and am now working on ideas for the thrid book in the Zaq & Jags series.
11) During lockdown, what have your TV habits been like? Do you have a favourite drama that you watch religiously?
I think I have actually been watching a little more TV during lockdown. A lot of it has been catching up on stuff I missed while I was busy working on my books, so I’m quite behind on some things. I’ve always been a massive film and TV fan, and enjoy watching a whole load of different things. I really couldn’t pick any particular favourite show but things I’ve really enjoyed and am realliy looking forward to new seasons of include; Better Call Saul, Kingdom, The Mandalorianand most recently Cobra Kai.
12) When you write, do you listen to music or do you prefer silence? If you only listen to Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury or Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you choose and why?
I need silence to write, so that my imagination can fill it with both words and pictures.
I listen to quite a lot of music doing other things though and especially when I’m thinking about writing but not during the actual writing itself. I tend to listen mainly to music without words though, so film scores, classical and now even video game scores, some of which are really amazing.
My go to radio station is an internet station called Cinemix, which plays film scores from around the world. I’ve discovered so much great music though it.
Thank you for your time this afternoon Amer, it has been a pleasure to interview you.
Bio: Amer Anwar grew up in West London. After leaving college he had a variety of jobs, including; warehouse assistant, comic book lettering artist, driver for emergency doctors and chalet rep in the French Alps. He eventually settled into a career as a creative artworker/graphic designer and spent the next decade and a half producing artwork, mainly for the home entertainment industry. He started taking writing classes in the evenings and wrote the opening chapters of a novel which he entered for the prestigious CWA Debut Dagger competition, in order to receive his first rejection – only to win the actual award.
Signing with an agent, he went on to gain an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London. Amer’s critically acclaimed debut thriller, Brothers in Blood,was published in 2018 by Dialogue Books and was picked by both the Times and the Guardian as one of the thrillers of the year. The eagerly awaited follow-up, Stone Cold Trouble, was published in September 2020 and was a Times, Observer and Living Magazine Thriller of the Month and a Sunday Times Crime Club pick of the month.