Like many aspiring writers, Ambika Vora-Nagino encountered a stream of rejections (150, she estimates) from literary agents and publishers for her debut novel. Despite this, Ambika persevered on her young adult fantasy for 5 years, while pursuing a full-time career as a management consultant with McKinsey and Deloitte in Tokyo, Japan.
Securing a book deal
Creative writing at the time was a catharsis of sorts, a place for Ambika to freely express herself in English outside a challenging client-facing work environment that was almost entirely in Japanese.
Writing under the name A. A. Vora, Ambika secured a pre-emptive book deal with an advance in the mid 6-figures (very large for a debut fiction deal) from Penguin Random House for a fantasy trilogy featuring “a hard magic system” inspired by Indian philosophy and Japanese manga, or graphic novels. The first volume of ‘The Fifth Realm’ series, titled ‘A Spin of Fate’, is due for US publication in summer 2024 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, which views the trilogy as a young adult title with clear adult crossover appeal.
“The consulting mindset helped me refine my storyline and magic system because there’s a practice at the firms I worked in of questioning everything,” says Ambika. “You develop the habit of constantly asking ‘why, why, why’ until you get to the essence of why something is the way it is. So every magic system rule, plot point, and character decision or action was dissected to its root cause until I felt it robust enough to make both logical sense and engage the reader in the story.”
A native of Mumbai, India, Ambika studied Economics and Japanese at Princeton University in New Jersey, and went on to pursue consulting jobs with Deloitte and McKinsey, both in Tokyo. She earned an MBA at Cambridge Judge Business School, which she credits with helping her compartmentalise – an essential tool for a management consultant dreaming up fantasy plot lines in her spare time.
Spinning complex ideas to create a literary magic system
“When crafting the trilogy’s magic system, I was essentially in the role of a make-believe scientist studying make-believe particles and their make-believe interactions,” Ambika explains. “But I had to create rules that followed a logical consistency within themselves and also enabled the magic system to drive the narrative forward in a compelling way.”
Polo Orozco, Editor at G.P. Putnam’s Sons, who obtained US rights to ‘A Spin of Fate’ for Penguin Random House, says the trilogy bears resemblance to the blockbuster ‘Grishaverse’ fantasy series – which inspired the Netflix television series ‘Shadow and Bone’.
“Reading ‘A Spin of Fate’ on submission, I immediately latched onto the 3 main characters in the story,” he says. “But it was Ambika’s complex yet streamlined worldbuilding and the propulsive plot, where alliances between factions keep shifting à la ‘Game of Thrones’, that took my breath away.
“Ambika has a gift of spinning complex ideas – be it the universe’s ruling system or the characters’ internal struggles – into highly entertaining stories with great emotional depth. The read stayed with me long after I read the last page. ‘A Spin of Fate’ will appeal to core Young Adult high fantasy readers who like ambitious worlds, high stakes and action, and their books steeped in folklore.”
From a young age, Ambika was captivated by fantasy titles – some favourites including ‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘The Wheel of Time’, ‘His Dark Materials’, ‘Naruto’, and ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’ – and had a deep passion for creative writing. However, societal expectations and the pursuit of academic excellence led her on a very different path. “In India, the emphasis was on hard sciences and mathematics, as they were considered key to securing admission at prestigious universities. Despite my interest in creative writing, I was discouraged from pursuing it – which is something my high school English teacher and I are still slightly bitter about.”
Using a consulting mindset to assist with creative writing
A manager at McKinsey shared Ambika’s passion for high-fantasy novels, offering thorough and structured feedback on drafts. Together, they even made a rough population simulation for a magical universe that factored in such variables as immortality.
“Definitely overkill, but a lot of fun,” Ambika recalls. “The purpose of this was to estimate the size of an army that would be a universe-wide threat, which we calculated as a certain percent of the total universe population.”
McKinsey’s culture also taught Ambika how to actively seek and absorb feedback, in both consulting and in writing. “I learned to shed my ego, to not be afraid of tabling a deliverable – be that a client presentation, or my own manuscript – and redoing it from scratch. The firm fostered this mindset of continuous improvement, which was invaluable when it came to iterating on my story.” Ambika says ‘A Spin of Fate’ went through at least 6 drafts, with multiple main characters removed or replaced entirely, and ended up a very different story from how it was first written.
Ambika still lives in Tokyo with her husband, toddler, and dog Fëanor – the latter named after a character in ‘The Silmarillion’ by J.R.R. Tolkien, whose books were swathed in soft magic in contrast to Ambika’s hard magic as inspired by American author Brandon Sanderson, who melds science fiction with fantasy. She has worked since January 2022 in digital transformation and change management for a European multinational pharmaceutical company.
“As a consultant, I did a few healthcare projects, which felt the most rewarding and meaningful to me,” says Ambika. “But I wanted to go beyond strategy and fully immerse myself by joining a company in the space.”
Meticulous planning pays off when it comes to trilogy timeline
Ambika credits her consulting background for honing the meticulous planning skills that helped secure a trilogy deal. “As a consultant, I have an unhealthy obsession with Microsoft Excel,” she says. “So I laid out the entire timeline, and all plot points for books 2 and 3 – by chapter – in this multi-tab monstrosity of a spreadsheet. My publisher was considering a duology, but once I shared the ending and why I needed three books to get there, they agreed to a trilogy.”
Among the details captured in those Excel spreadsheets: a glossary of worldbuilding elements and what chapters they first appear in, to ensure new terms and concepts are dispersed through the manuscript; numerical tables for extra magic system limits; and a table for characters’ specific speech patterns, verbal and physical tics.
“The plot points for the entire trilogy were arranged similar to a McKinsey-style dot-dash outline for each chapter: the first line contained a high-level summary of the chapter, with bullets for each main event that occurs and sub-bullets listing supporting details. Which is sort of how we structure skeletons for slide decks in consulting.”