Amulya Malladi and Prioritizing Writing

Amulya Malladi A Death in Denmark

Amulya Malladi and Prioritizing Writing

This post is part of the monthly How Writers Revise series, where I talk with successful authors about their editing and revision processes, as well as the challenges and setbacks they’ve faced in their careers and how they overcame them. If you’d like to receive these and my weekly writing craft posts in your in-box you can sign up here.

Amulya Malladi has a master’s in journalism, works full-time as a vice president of marketing for a life sciences company; paints and sells her original artwork; and just passed her Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) level one and is prepping for her level two test at the end of this month.

Oh—and she is also a bestselling author with nine published novels that have been translated into multiple languages, including Dutch, French, German, Spanish, Danish, Romanian, Serbian, and Tamil. She won a screenwriting award for her work on Ø (Island), a Danish series that aired on Amazon Prime Global and Studio Canal+; and her most recent book, A Death in Denmark, releases March 28.

When I asked in our recent interview how she finds the time to do all of that, Amulya gave an unexpected answer: “Um, I think most people have the time.”

I blink, thrown for a moment. “Say more,” I blurt.

“I think it’s a prioritization thing. It’s not time; it’s prioritization—what do we prioritize?… As long as we can prioritize what is important, I think we can find time for it.”

Amulya admits she’s in the fortunate position of being an empty nester now, but says she always had a very understanding family who respect her writing time, even on family vacations (“Leave her alone,” she sums up their approach succinctly). “Mostly I’m able to find the time to do the things I want to do. I also don’t do things I don’t like to do.”

Those things might include not cooking dinner if she doesn’t feel like it, eschewing social engagements if she doesn’t really like the people in attendance, and even backing out of family gatherings if she’d rather be focusing on her writing or other pursuits.

“I end up spending time at work doing a lot of things I’m supposed to do, that I have to do: I have to sit in meetings with people, I have to do all of these things. So in my personal life, I do things I like to do,” she says. “I am prioritizing the things that are important to me instead of whatever is expected of me, which means that I’m probably not following a lot of societal norms.”

“One Day I’m Going to Become a Very Famous Author”

Prioritizing her writing has been Amulya’s MO since, as a book-loving 11-year-old, she tackled her first “novel,” a handwritten 50-page story she fully expected to be the start of her career as a bestselling author.

Her parents did not support those goals.  “They were like, ‘Go study; don’t write—this is nonsense.’” A cheeky, determined young Amulya told her mother, “You know, one day I’m going to become a very famous author and I’ll never thank you for it, because you won’t deserve the thank-you.”

She majored in engineering, but then made her “first decision as a grown-up adult,” when she chose to pursue a master’s in journalism, again against her parents’ horrified advice: “You’ll never get a job,” they told her. “You’re going to die broke.”

Visa concerns—Amulya is a Danish citizen born and raised in India—sent her into the corporate world, but she continued to prioritize her desire to write. She completed two manuscripts, taught herself how to edit them, and queried 93 agents over the course of two years in her early twenties—and then finally signed with an agent who sold what became her first published novel, A Breath of Fresh Air, in a two-book contract to Ballantine Books in 2001. (And no, she did not thank her parents.)

A third, fourth, and fifth book followed, with each contract coming a little bit harder as her books’ sales didn’t match her publisher’s expectations. “I wasn’t selling a lot of books. People would say, ‘Oh, would I have heard about you?’ I’m like, ‘No, of course you haven’t. I’m not freaking Dan Brown.’”

And then finally her publisher stopped making offers completely.

“I was heartbroken. ‘My life is over. I’ll never be happy again,’” Amulya recalls of her feelings at the time. “You know, ‘If I can’t do this, what am I left with?’” Five books in, Amulya thought, “I’m a loser. I’m a failure…. I’m a has-been.”

She stopped writing for a time—but soon found she missed it. She finished another manuscript, about surrogate mothers in India, found a new agent, and worked on extended editing and revision with her, while also serving as a Hindi translator for BAFTA-award-winning producer Leslee Udwin’s documentary India’s Daughter, a project whose disturbing subject matter (a horrific rape case for which the filmmakers interviewed the rapist directly in Tihar Jail) inspired Amulya to write a fictionalized version of the story, but further plunged her into a dark place.

So she began working on a more personal story, one that sprang from her mental state at the time.

“I started to write a comedy about depression because I wanted to laugh. It wasn’t supposed to see the light of day; it was just funny.”

Her agent, meanwhile, sold Amulya’s surrogate story—A House for Happy Mothers—to Lake Union in a two-book deal, but worried that her follow-up, Anatomy of a Rapist, was too dark to appeal to them. What else did she have? her agent asked.

“Well, you know, I wrote this funny thing about Copenhagen,” Amulya told her reluctantly. “And she goes, ‘Let me take a look.’ And I was like, ‘It’s in really poor shape.’ And she goes, ‘No, no, send it to me, let me take a look.’ And she looks at it, and she goes, ‘This is great, fix up the first 50 pages, and I’m going to send it to Lake Union.’ I was like, ‘Really, this book?’”

That became her second Lake Union title, The Copenhagen Affair—a book that was optioned by Warner Brothers in a production deal with Lily Collins and Mindy Kaling just days before Amulya and I spoke.

Her latest, A Death in Denmark, a mystery about a Danish PI written less for Amulya’s deliberate desire to try a new genre and more because “I wanted to go to Copenhagen, and I wanted to kill a politician,” just received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.

“I’ve had so much fun writing this book,” she says. “It was so much fun.”

Amulya’s Advice for Authors

I tell Amulya that doing what’s fun sounds like a theme in her life, and ask if it’s her guiding tenet for her writing career.

I love telling a story. I love writing that story. I love telling myself the story. I want to enjoy that process,” she says.

And yet: “I still feel like it’s such a difficult career. I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to sell a tenth book. You know, selling my ninth book was hard; selling my sixth book was harder than selling my first book. I am that writer who’s sitting in midlist hell. I just want permission to write. I keep saying, I just want to sell enough books so that somebody will keep buying it, and I can keep writing.”

Amulya offers wonderful advice for authors in our full interview, which you can see here—including a variant on “Don’t quit your day job”—but not just for financial reasons: More immediate job satisfactions can offer an author “wins” in their life, she says, that can help keep the creative fires stoked with the often interminable delayed gratifications of publishing.

And she touts the crucial importance of editing—which pleased my little editor’s soul: “You have to love editing. Don’t believe the myth that oh, if I edit it too much, it’ll take the essence away. No, it’ll just take the garbage away. Just do the editing.”

I asked Amulya to talk about her editing and revision process in her own words:

How Amulya Malladi Revises:

Write Drunk. Edit Sober. (And Forever)

It’s a cliché to use Hemingway’s famous quote to write drunk and edit sober; but it’s something I truly believe in. For me, it is during the process of editing when the story actually takes shape. I write, I read it out to my husband, I delete, I edit, I write, I read it out to my husband, I delete, I edit…and ultimately, I end up writing The End. The first draft is the judgment-free draft. This is where I don’t beat myself up because I had to backtrack fifteen times, delete three chapters because I took a wrong turn—it’s also my freedom draft. I always feel like it takes me forever to write the first draft because I have to navigate my weak plotting muscle.

Despite all the writing, editing, deleting I do in the first draft, it’s a mess. But it’s a mess that tells me what the story is, who my characters are and how, most importantly, how it ends. I write The End and indulge my need to feel victorious by not going back and looking at the mess for several days. But there always comes a point when I know that I have to get back in the office chair and get to work.

I feel like I edit endlessly.

The second draft is when I clean up, remove the uncomfortable sentences, fix the holes in the story, and make sure that I didn’t change the name of a character midway. (Search and replace is an amazing thing).

Then comes the third draft. This comes right after the second because I’m feeling very uneasy about all the edits I made and I’m sure I have destroyed my book. I call this the “on the verge of a nervous breakdown” draft. At the end of this edit, I feel better and almost human.

I print the book at this point, and it sits on my desk, catching dust while I do other things.

There is always a point when I give up on procrastinating and get to work. I do a hard copy edit. This is painful because sometimes I’m making so many changes that I’m handwriting pages and pages of additions.

Then I have to put all the edits into the book—which sends me right back to “verge of nervous breakdown” mode. I also stop talking about which number draft I’m in. I’m convinced the book is terrible and I shouldn’t even send it to my agent.

Finally, I reach a place when I’m convinced that I can’t stand to read the book anymore and off it goes to my agent.

And, yes, then we go back to editing…yet again and then it goes to my editor and we edit it again and again…

Find out more about Amulya:

2 Comments. Leave new

  • I love that she queried 94 agents in 2 years. Tons of advice I can use. Interesting, too, that it became harder, not easier, to find a publisher, because her books weren’t meeting sales expectations. You always think, if I can just get this first book commerically published…
    Thanks for this. 🙂

    • I love hearing authors’ stories–it’s so illuminating to see how persistence and determination really are the backbone of building a successful, long-term career. And I also love showing how the career is always one of ups and downs–as you said, it’s so common to think, “Man, if I could just get published I’ve made it!” But it’s often a more convoluted journey than that. That’s a reason I often talk about knowing why you do this, what fulfills you about it–because that’s the engine that keeps you going in the downtimes. Thanks for watching–and writing!


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