I frequently hear marketers refer to themselves as story tellers.

As a marketer by trade, and someone who's worked at a major ad agency, been part of creative advertising campaigns, and also a fiction author, the meaning of "story telling" is something that carries a lot of weight. I don't love to see it thrown around casually.

Story telling in the way marketers describe it, is short, punchy and to the point. It's the:

And it can usually be achieved by explaining a small story, that puts the listener into a mindset of imagination - it gets them to think creatively about what their life would be like if they had this product, for example: "you're a busy mom. you don't have time to take out your cat's litter. that's why catlitter.com will do the messy work for you." The core of it is that there's a pain point - whether that's time, identity, money - that the product will help you solve. It's also a way to differentiate your product: so that whenever a buyer is making a choice from a metaphorical retail shelf, they are putting you into one category "good design", or "works really fast" or whatever, so that whenever the buyer goes to buy something, you'll be top of mind.

Story writing is a completely different craft. Most commercially appealing novels are:

I've written a personal review for every book I've finished over a 10-year period. Everything from fiction novels, to romance, mystery, to history, to current affairs, business books, parenting books. Anything. The only thing that I found over the years that distinguished a book that was a "time pass" that I quickly forgot about, and a "this will stay with me a while" book was: world creation. The non-fiction writers who sucked you into a new way of thinking, or the fiction writers that created an entirely new world.. those are the ones to stay with.

So are there any commonalities between story telling and story writing? Empathy. Empathy for another's pain point is at the core of "story telling" as defined by marketing. Empathy to be able to create believable characters and dialog that inhabit another world is the core of "story writing".

“In her debut novel, Priya Doty has produced a fun, hugely compelling novel about self-discovery and solving a centuries-old mystery at a yoga retreat in India.  Part beach read, mostly thriller, a great-page turner.”

Johnny Diaz, author of Boston Boys Club and Take the Lead

"Recently unemployed and perpetually single and pressured to get married by her pushy Indian family, Jaya Gupta finds herself at a crossroads. The novel sets in motion when Jaya learns about her family’s hometown in India, where they owned a plot of land that’s now an ashram in India. The plot of land was stolen from them many years ago, and, interested to learn more about the town where her family comes from, Jaya makes a bold decision to set off on a six-month trip to the ashram to learn yoga, unaware of the dangers that are lying ahead . . .

Sometimes serious, sometimes funny, Finding Warrior Pose is both a fast-paced novel à la Dan-Brown with its unexpected twists and turns, but weaved throughout you’ll find important themes: courage and self-exploration; family and social issues; redemption. Priya Doty has created a world you wouldn’t want to leave, a world filled with action, lifelike dialogues, and relatable characters. You’ll stay up all night wanting more and more and more."

Jeremy Taylor, author of the Cornerstone of Happiness

This was a gripping and galloping page-turner that had me captivated from beginning to end. I found so many brilliant nuances slyly planted by the author which revealed additional rich textures of the characters, their intertwined relationships, and their harrowing journey sublimely juxtaposed against the splendors of India. I did not want this story to end!

Debbie Chinn, author of Dancing in Their Light

Finding Warrior Pose has a cover! 

Finding Warrior Pose has a cover!

Learn the back story about what I write about, the book, and how the cover was designed and selected.

Fun Asian Stories: I’m a fiction writer, covering the experience of being Asian American, and Indian American, both in the US and in other places including in India. While everything I write is fiction, it is very much inspired by my personal history, and the fact that I spent so much of my years crossing cultures: raised as an Indian American in Texas and Saudi Arabia and India and Chicago, becoming an adult in New York City, marrying a man from the South, and traveling to 30 countries on 5 continents.

While I've always been a writer, I didn't start crafting real stories until well into my 30's. I tend to write things that are fun and take me out of the headspace of the day to day. My general point of view is: if I'm not having fun writing something, chances are the reader isn't having fun, either. That's why my focus is on writing fun asian stories.

So what is Finding Warrior Pose about?

In Finding Warrior Pose, the protagonist Jaya Gupta, is sent on a quest. The story starts with her in a bit of a pickle, having lost her job and having no real dating prospects, being badgered weekly by her family about her life. When her grandmother uncovers a loose tie to a world-famous yoga ashram back in India, she browbeats Jaya into going. And so, Jaya is off to the yoga ashram for a six month sabbatical. She finds a love interest, meets new friends, and she gets to do some really cool travel to places like Goa. But, she also encounters a great big, supernatural mystery at the yoga ashram, which puts her and her friends' lives in danger, and that sets her off on an adventure across northern India to unravel the source of the mystery, and save herself in the process.

Early readers have said this is a fun and quick read, and the travel adventure of it particularly grabs them – and reminds them of their own travels to locations like Bali, India, and Thailand. That’s why in a way, I’ve come to describe this book as a bit like a cross between Eat Pray Love (the travel and self discovery) with the Da Vinci Code (the uncovering of a secret to solve).

Read on to see how the cover was designed and tested

I found a great visual artist, Matina Korologos at Lutema Photo NYC. She also did the cover of an independent fiction novel called Caligula's Kitchen, written by James Terminiello that I really loved, and part of what stood out was how unique the cover was.

We looked at other authors for inspiration who write from a similar perspective and fiction genre. I was fascinated at the outset by the enormous importance of colors in south asian writers' books. The use of color has meaning in Asian cultures, connoting everything from growth, health, life, marriage, death. I was also intrigued by the use of symbols. Symbols telegraph meaning, and since the cover has to succinctly convey the entirety of the novel and create interest, all in one visual, the choice of symbols to reflect the novel matter.

Here are some of the authors whose covers (and work) inspired me.

Kevin Kwan, for showing with Crazy Rich Asians that yes, stories about Asian culture could be totally entertaining. He's like the grand-father of all of this.

Novels from authors Gus Lee, Jesse Q. Sutanto, Sanjena Sathian, Sonali Dev, and Mia P. Manansala because each of them had aspects of their covers that I really dug, from the use of color, to the use of symbols to tell their stories in a rich and succinct way.

I was also inspired by the book and reading community on instagram, and some of the creators which conjure up the best visuals of how enjoyable it is to be a reader. A few of the feeds and people that stood out are below (though I have to say that there are probably 50 more that I could think of to call out - seriously book bloggers are the best for inspiration).

Picking the key symbols ultimately was how the cover was designed. Working with Matina, she recommended we look at imagery such as yoga and something to convey the places where the novel takes place, NYC and India. We quickly landed on an image of Warrior Pose One in yoga, which aligned to the book's title. We also chose a silhouette style to convey some of the mystery of the lead character getting "lost in" the place she was in.

Last but not least, how we tested the book

As a digital and growth marketer, I know that small tweaks can really change the trajectory of what is successful and what is not. I also got a ton of practical tips on testing from Ricardo Fayet and his team at Reedsy who are an awesome resource for all the writers and budding authors out there.

To run the test we ran 5 different cover options as a Facebook test for 5 days, spending $5 a day, with broad targeting to the types of people and interests that would appeal to the novel. In retrospect, I could have spent even less than $5. Even $1 would have been fine!

The covers tested (that didn't win) are below.

The first two were unbelievably cool: juxtaposing the city of NYC and the image of the Empire State Building with a temple from India to show the character's progression from one place to the next.There was also a banyan leaf motif in one of them. Unfortunately, these tested the worst! I'm pretty sure in retrospect that the reason they tested the worst is because they were (1) too detailed and (2) didn't have enough color contrast. In a busy environment with many posts and sponsored posts being shown at you on a screen, they didn't pop.

The second two were also unbelievably cool, and I was obsessed with finding a way to show the character lost inside the image of the New Delhi's Red Fort. I didn't love the orange and green color contrast. I was amazed to see that the option with the thicker green band, the 4th one, tested the best. In retrospect though, I think it tested the best because it (1) had a color contrast and (2) because it showed a frame and some blank space.

So if there are any lessons learned here, I think it's that covers that have some blank space, and some color contrast, are probably going to do better.

And with that, we get to the final cover option, the one that was chosen at the top of the page. I think it has all of what the testing showed worked best: a high color contrast between the purplish maroon and yellow, and a lot of open space. Matina was able to work in subtle imagery of a goddess statue behind the warrior posed woman, which I thought conveys the mystery and depth of the story, without getting too busy.

Finding Warrior Pose publishes May 2022

Subscribe to the newsletter for next month's blog, which will be on the subject of travel, and follow me on Instagram for more updates as the book readies for launch!

I am new to the Grishaverse. For months, the insanely gorgeous cover of Shadow and Bone has been taunting me on Instagram. I have bookmarked this cover and saved it, thinking “if and when I finally find the perfect person to design the cover of my book, I want it to look this amazing.” But it was this weekend that I finally got to dive into the new Netflix series. Now, a full three episodes in, I am struck by the question that the main character, Alina Starkov, keeps getting which is “What Are You?”.

Alina is a half breed. She’s half Shu. Which makes her look different enough to not be the same, whilst not so different as to be a complete foreigner. And in some ways, the series at least, sets her up to be an outsider, by virtue of the way she looks and by the virtue of what those looks and the racial make-up that it represents mean.

This question that Alina is dogged by is one I’ve also had to answer to: “what are you?” There are so many flavors of this question that have followed me throughout my life, if perhaps less dramatically, but not any less impactfully.

 Will I be looked down upon for not having a Texan accent?

That was my concern in Kindergarten in Houston, Texas, worried that others would notice my lack of a twang and think that I did not belong. This is my first memory of knowing that I was different, which isn’t so long after the path of my memories begins.

What tribe are you from?

 

In high school, a well-meaning woman in the bathroom of a dance studio in Glen Ellyn Illinois, actually asked me what tribe I was from, thinking I was native American after I told her I was Indian.

Where are you from? No, I mean, where are your parents from?

 

A classic question that was pitched to me in my early 20’s at Buckingham Fountain in Chicago. If memory serves it was Taste of Chicago weekend, and it was probably meant as a pick up line, but fell slightly flat, when the answer I gave was: Chicago.

I mean, you’re not really American, so you get it

 

The Europeans I met in grad school said this one a lot. And it was delivered as a compliment, as in, hey, we can all band together because we are all of the world where have experienced some version of lack of resources or lack of domination that allows us to be friends.

Go back to your country!

Thanks to our former President, millions felt completely valid in taking back their country for themselves, and one of his acolytes, complete with a MAGA hat at a Walmart in rural Pennsylvania, delivered this line while whizzing by on a motorized scooter.

Americans do things this way

 

That’s what a lot of the adults around me growing up said. They, although they had their citizenship, did things one way, and of course Americans, implying Americans who had been there longer than them, did things another, less desirable way.

What started with George Floyd last summer, and what brings me back to the cultural zeitgeist of the Shadow & Bone series, is this: we are now experiencing the othering of American culture, in which every single person now believes that they in fact, are an other.

You’re an other if you’re a white Republican, coasting against the grain of the liberal elite. You’re an other if you’re LGBTQ+ (Happy Pride!). You’re an other if you’re a millennial and you’re an other if you’re not. But just as frequently, you’re an other with a cross over. You’re an other white Texan with a collection of guns and half Chinese grand babies. You’re a Filipino-American who absolutely loves to go camping and wear Carhartt.

And perhaps it is the case that the othering of society IS the goal, in which every single person is empowered to be exactly who they are, with all the overlapping identities and affiliations, posited at different points of time, that this implies.

It is a truism of New York City that what makes you cool here is being unique. You’ve got some unique way of being? Cool. We’ve got a place for you. You open up our hearts just a little bit, when we see you dressed the way you are, acting the way you do, out in public, just living your truth.

Friends, I do not know where Alina Starkov’s journey will take her, but I assume she will come into her own, grow into herself and find her presence in the world. And perhaps that is what we need now, is to embrace every aspect of our otherness that we can grasp, and scream at the world that our otherness is in fact a power to be harnessed and not a thing to be washed out, and turn it into our own.

Open Air Vegetable Market

It’s Mother’s Day, and perhaps because it’s Spring, I’m thinking a lot about how vegetables – the preparing and cooking of them – factored into my relationships with the maternal influences in my life.

You have to start with 1980’s India, where vegetables arrived from the sabzi mandi (vegetable market) raw and imperfect.

Cucumbers require salting to remove bitterness. At least, the ones you bought in the open-air market, that had not been modified and specified to grow just so. So, as an eight-year old, I would sit with Nani after our breakfast, nashta, every morning in the summers when we visited, at her kitchen table, with its plastic sheet covering the nicer table cloth, preparing the cucumbers she loved to eat. She would cut the top off a cucumber, dab it in a pile of salt, and then rub the salt into the rest of the cucumber’s body. One by one. I asked her, why do you need to do this, and she said that the salt would work its way through the cucumbers, and make them less bitter to eat. The cucumbers were served as a salad with tomato, sprinkled with lemon juice and salt, and made a truly delicious and refreshing and water replenishing side for lunch later in the day, the main meal.

Peas, showing up in the ever-popular Punjabi dish, mattar paneer, needed shelling. You see they arrived to the concrete aangan, the doorstep, still sitting in their pods. To me, an American kid, pea pods had only ever been associated with Chinese food. The best stir fries had those fresh pea pods and baby corns and water chestnuts, the last two coming out of a La Choy can. But for mattar paneer, with its rich tomato broth that would drip down the sides of our buttered potato parathas, Dadi needed them shelled. So, she and I sat with our legs crossed on the ground in the front of the kitchen, in the courtyard, where we could catch a bit of breeze in the waning heat of the afternoon as dusk came on. Periodically, Dadi would separate the peas from the pods by tilting her stainless-steel tray so that the peas rolled downhill towards one place and then transport them to a bowl. Between Dadi and I, because her main language was Punjabi, and because my seven-year old language skills were not yet that advanced, this was a pretty awesome way to hang out.

Brussel sprouts were a specialty with my mother in law, a Southerner. The kitchen was her domain, and she insisted on no help other than entertainment and conversation while she cooked. We’d sit, as two adult women, getting to know one another, and discuss the best places to buy things, and the finer points of whether to buy vegetables at Aldi or Trader Joe’s or Sam’s Club or Patel Brothers and which were fresher and better all around. Now the brussel sprouts she made were not the sort that I ate growing up in the Midwest, frozen then boiled, that even lemon couldn’t mask the smell of. These were fresh and crunchy. Her recipe, which she kept on recipe cards in the pantry, included craisins and mustard and salt, and they came out on the table, served crunchy, roasted, salty and sweet.

Eggplant has become a signature dish for my own mother, bharwan baingan, or stuffed baingan. Now the sort of eggplant we ate growing up was the typical Indian kind, baingan bharta, which is a roasted, mashed eggplant with tomato. But then the new stove arrived and she wanted to use its roasting feature, and there were new varieties of eggplants showing up at the store, now that my mom had ventured past the American grocery stores to the Mexican grocery store, where the real veggies are sold. So, my mom decided to experiment and what she ended up with was a series of small eggplants, filled with a spice concoction that I will never fully intuit, sewn shut and roasted. They held up so well, that even when my mother visits me now, in New York, she carries them wrapped in wax paper packets, frozen, on the plane, and they still come out soft and spicy and oily, a true flavor explosion you have to try.

Butternut squash, after some trial and error, will be the vegetable that perhaps my daughter will associate with me. I simply love orange vegetables – squash, but also pumpkin and sweet potatoes. They are easy to cook, healthy, taste good, and have just a little sweetness. We figured out early on that our toddler too, really likes the sweet texture of butternut squash, and so boiling it, mashing it, instapotting it, and really doing anything with it, has become her favorite. I, unlike my grandmothers before me, buy it pre-cut, and packaged up in plastic, from the store downstairs, and still I complain it is hard to find the time to cook!

So why do we do it? Why shell the peas, salt those cucumbers, will brussel sprouts into a well-tasting vegetable, devise spice concoctions, and search for the perfect vegetable for our toddlers? For the enjoyment of it, obviously. Happy mothers’ day.

“I feel like a lot of Indian Americans are going to relate to bits and pieces of this book.” Deepti Sahrawat and I discuss the multicultural fiction novel Finding Warrior Pose. Deepti’s Pop Culture Prisoner podcast usually breaks down the drama on Bravo reality shows (Family Karma, Real Housewives) but today, she took a break from that to talk to an Indian writer about the writing process, our experiences of being Indian American, and the one time she went to India to cure an incurable disease.

My colleague and all-around inspiring woman, Daphne Leroy, is building a community called Descendants of Hope. Her aim is to shine a light on the successes of first-generation immigrant americans who have reached heights their ancestors could never have imagined, thereby inspiring all immigrants and their descendants to reach new heights. She was kind enough to feature me on her Friday Follow series.

There is a lively discussion that always follows this question when it’s asked within groups and communities of writers.

But, before I can answer this question…

I need to first explain why I write.

I write because it is a way to give form to the need to express emotions that are hard to describe. The story becomes a vehicle to work those emotions out. The process of writing untaps all kinds of images, experiences, ideas, thoughts, and that process is fundamentally satisfying. Perhaps I’ll explain more about this on another blog post.

So when do you know it’s time to begin writing something, really?

I know it is time to start writing when it becomes difficult to read someone else’s book, or watch someone else’s movie. When I find myself wanting to imagine a world to get lost within, perhaps a big library overlooking a manicured garden on a rainy winter afternoon, that is when I know. When you seek not only the escape of a story, but also the control of your own story, that is when it’s time to start writing.

I got to this point of wanting to daydream my own story a few times before, and on the second episode it led me down the path of writing the multicultural fiction novel, Finding Warrior Pose.

Now let me share a few things about my path to becoming a writer. First, despite having a great liberal arts education and a master’s degree, I have taken exactly one creative writing class – in high school. Second, although my profession does require me to write, that writing tends to be technical in nature – writing positioning documents or website copy and such. That is to say, aside from my ability to imagine and a life-long love of reading honed at libraries by the age of 8, I really have no special talent or ability to write.

But what I did have was other people’s advice. Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird remains for me the ultimate guidepost.

Because writing a novel is overwhelming.

When I began, I first started to sketch out some character ideas and describe the characters in a word document. I then created in Microsoft Excel a possible plot, with a row for each section of the plot and a column series that included main characters, and then I tried to plot out each chapter and what would happen. I then went back and also kept embellishing the character’s descriptions and who they were.

Once I started writing, I quickly found out that there is no substitute to actually writing. Yes, it was obviously fine to imagine a possible plot scene on the subway when I had ten minutes, but it rarely ever led to completed writing. Sure, I could put “write every day for 20 minutes” on my to-do list, but procrastination and the fear of a blank page could be debilitating. All that said, though, the only way to write my novel would be to actually write it, and that meant sitting down to my computer to write, without the TV on, with the Internet access turned off, without any distractions, for some set period of time on a regular basis. Knowing that I only had to focus on one task that day, that half inch picture frame assignment of writing as Annie would call it, made it bearable. Because I did not have to mentally solve “everything” about my book, I just had to do that one little task. Most times my writing sessions would net maybe 500 words. But I kept doing it. Every time I sat down to write, I’d inch the story along, well, half-inch the story along.

Once I sat down to write is also when Annie Lamott’s second piece of advice kicked in, about shitty first drafts. You see, what often happens to me is that I start out just really weak. This is the same process when I run. Most runs, instead of feeling like a beautiful, gazelle like creature gliding through my run listening to music and smiling like I’m on a Nike commercial, I feel instead like a clunky fool, wearing mismatched clothing, clodding about on flat feet, bad posture and knowing that this would only be a max 15 minute run and it would all feel bad and miserable and it would be terrible. Writing was no different. I’d stare at the page wishing I could do anything but write, coming up with all sorts of procrastination chores. But here is Annie saying – “hey that’s ok, it’s totally ok to have the world’s shittiest first draft”. So I got really used to embracing a terrible, terrible shitty first draft of a half inch picture frame. I gave myself the “out” to let the quality and judgement go. That was the only way I could start, was from the very ground level.

But anyway, the last, crucial piece of advice is that when you start writing, what I did was put a time on it. I would say: I will write for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes, rarely any more than that, and whatever time I gave myself, I would suffer the fear of the blank page, the mental exhaustion of trying to tie a story together, the lack of diversion of the internet, and I would agree with the nasty, know it all voice that said this was a totally pointless exercise, that I might never finish the book nor publish it, and it would probably be terrible and no one would care, but all that being said, since I’d committed to spend this 20 minutes pounding out some writing, I might as well not be totally pathetic and get to it.

“It doesn’t have to look pretty, it just has to get done”. - That was what an onlooker cheered at me at mile 20 of my first (and only) marathon race. I was sweaty and beginning to decompensate, but it stuck. If you want to start writing, it might not look pretty, but if you put your mind to it, it will get done.

Stories from an Asian Perspective

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