Written by A Guest Author

Case Study: How I Broke Into Traditional Publishing As A Debut Author

By Nev March

This is part of our ongoing series on how authors published their first book. You can read our other stories in this series, here, here, and here.

“And you’re going to speak at the Edgar Award Ceremony. You’ll go first, before the Edgars,” said Mystery Writers of America director Margery Flax.

Jaw drop. I had never imagined this.

Growing up in Mumbai, I’d written short stories and had two accepted by Target, a children’s magazine. Writing wasn’t considered a ‘serious’ career, so I completed degrees in economics and came to the US as a grad student. I got married and worked in pharmaceutical commercial operations for the next two decades.

With a young family and full-time job, I wrote in tiny increments at night, carving out an hour here and there. By 2006, I’d completed four historical novels and traded chapters online for critiques. But I didn’t have the time to understand the publishing industry or the writing business. Desperate to make some progress, I attended a writing conference and pitched to an editor at a major publisher. She responded with a R&R (Revise and Resubmit) letter, but I lacked the skill to make the changes. Life was stressful: meeting work deadlines and caring for a two-career family. I focused on my boys, eight and ten, with many extra-curricular activities.

In 2015, my team was laid off. I was devastated. My sense of self-worth had got entangled with my salary. After a year of consulting projects and desultory interviewing, I returned to my passion, writing fiction, and joined a writer’s group at the local county library. Each week I listened as members read their writing aloud. It was six months before I offered a small piece of flash fiction for their feedback.

Over the next year I wrote fiction, and memoirs of my experiences in Mumbai and the US. The group’s input was nurturing and honest. I learned to accept feedback, to know which to keep and which to pass over.

Then I received an urgent message from my parents. Mum’s uterine cancer had returned. I took the next flight to Mumbai. Over the next few years, I went back and forth for my parent’s medical needs, often spending months in hospital with one or the other. I remembered Stephen King’s adage: art serves life. Nothing is ever lost, each experience enhances our understanding. I studied craft books —Strunk and White, Gotham Writers Workbook, Donald Mass’s Writing the Breakout Novel and many more.

In 2017, I read an article about the 1891 Rajabai Tower tragedy and remembered my family discussing the deaths of the two “Godrej girls”. I’d been a teen at the time, and believed they’d died a decade ago. In fact, 90 years had passed since they fell from the university clock-tower in broad daylight. Their deaths had been ruled suicides, but our small Parsi community had never believed it.

I wondered, what if a detective did solve the mystery? The family was very private—perhaps they kept the results to themselves. Who might they have hired to investigate these deaths? A soldier, invalided out of the army could have the chops for it. An Anglo-Indian man, who could enter society circles as well as the dingier parts of India? And just like that, Chapter 2 of Murder in Old Bombay played in my mind like a video recording that was waiting there.

I wrote frantically, obsessively, because the scenes in my head kept replaying until I wrote them down. I brought each short chapter to my astonished writing group and over 70 weeks, revised them. And I kept working through books on writing.

To market my novel, I joined two Writers Digest webinars on writing query letters. I submitted queries full time to 116 agents (from Directory to Literary Agents, and Poets & Writers website) who represent mysteries. Rejection and silence followed. With the sense of entering a lottery, I entered MWA’s contest.

Then two agents requested my full manuscript! One phone call with Jill Grosjean convinced me that she was right for me. Three months later, I received the phone call from Margery Flax: I’d won. My novel would be published by Minotaur, an imprint of Macmillan, the world’s largest publisher of detective fiction.

Such astonishment, such delight! Murder in Old Bombay was an Amazon’s Editor’s Pick. The New York Times listed it as one of the “Best crime novels of 2020”. It was a finalist for six national awards including the Edgar and Anthony. Our audiobook won an Audiofile award and was an Audie finalist. Readers wrote to me!

My lucky break—winning MWA’s contest came after years of learning my craft and the publishing business. My sequel, Peril at the Exposition was published this July. I’m now writing Book #3 and teaching creative writing at Rutgers-Osher Institute. It can happen. I’m living proof.


Bio: Nev March is the first Indian-born author to win Mystery Writers of America’s award for Best First Crime Fiction. Her debut Murder in Old Bombay was an Edgar finalist. Her sequel, Peril at the Exposition is also published by Macmillan Publishers. She writes about identity, race and moral boundaries. You can visit her website here.

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