Payal Doshi has a Master's in creative writing (fiction) from The New School, N.Y. Having lived in the U.K. and U.S., she noticed a lack of Indian protagonists in global children’s fiction and one day wrote the opening paragraph to what would become her first children’s novel. She was born and raised in Mumbai, India, and currently resides in Minneapolis, Minn. with her husband and 3-year-old daughter. When she isn’t writing or spending time with her family, you can find her nose deep in a book with a cup of coffee or daydreaming of fantasy realms to send her characters off into. She loves the smell of old, yellowed books. Rea and the Blood of the Nectar, Book 1 in The Chronicles of Astranthia series is her debut middle-grade novel.
In this post, Doshi discusses the sometimes-disheartening process of querying a novel, how she used rejection to fuel her passion for writing, and much more!
Name: Payal Doshi
Book title: Rea and the Blood of the Nectar
Publisher: Mango and Marigold Press
Release date: June 15, 2021.
Genre: Middle-Grade Fantasy
Elevator pitch for the book: Rea and the Blood of the Nectar tells the story of 12-year-old Rea Chettri from Darjeeling, India, who goes off on a secret and thrilling quest as she portals into the magical and whimsical realm of Astranthia to find her missing twin brother. An #ownvoices middle-grade debut about learning to make friends, fighting for what is right, discovering oneself, and understanding complex family dynamics. Perfect for fans of the Aru Shah books and The Chronicles of Narnia.
What prompted you to write this book?
When I sat to write this book, I thought to myself if Lyra Belacqua, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, and Percy Jackson can have incredible adventures, why can’t a kid from India have them too? As a kid, I loved to read but I never saw myself in books. A girl like me never got to be the hero, have magic, or save a realm. I wanted to change that. So, I decided to write a fantasy story rooted in Indian culture that had kids from India who went off on thrilling adventures and became heroes. It’s a story I would have loved to read as a kid and one in which I saw myself.
Diverse representation, especially South Asian representation, is a mission close to my heart. I believe all kids should see themselves represented in books because each kid should know that they can be the heroes of their own stories. I want South Asian kids to feel seen when they read my book, feel joy and pride for their culture, and know that their stories deserve to be celebrated. At the same time, I wanted to write a story that all kids would enjoy regardless of color, race, nationality, and culture. So, there’s a mystery that needs solving along with an exciting quest, a ticking clock, dark family secrets, unforgettable friendships, a fantastical world, and my favorite, magic!
How long did it take to go from idea to publication?
Oh, it took a long time! I knew from the get-go that I wanted to write a fantastical adventure mystery where a sister goes in search of her missing brother and eventually rescues him by overcoming a number of obstacles. Halfway through writing the first draft, I realized I was going to need some guidance on the elements of craft and storytelling. I was a business major and being an avid reader was the only credential I had for writing this book (not that you need to have credentials) but I felt that I needed the extra help. So, I enrolled in the MFA program for Creative Writing at The New School in New York where I learned terms such as inciting incident, show don’t tell, effective dialogue writing, learning how not to ‘head hop’ from character to character, and most importantly the importance for having critique partners and beta readers. Through this journey, the core plot of my story did not really change as much as my execution of it.
About eight years after I had typed the first words of this story, I finally had my manuscript ready and polished. Unbeknownst to me that was when my biggest ‘story change’ was to come. Manuscript in hand, I began querying for agents in November 2018. At first, it was great. Most of my queries turned into full manuscript requests. But by mid-December, the rejections started to come in. One of the criticisms I kept hearing was that my book was too long for middle grade. Typically, the word count for middle-grade novels is between 50,000-70,000 words while mine was 91,000. I was heartbroken. I had a choice to make: continue querying or pull my book out, edit it down by 20,000 words, and then give it another shot. If I chose to edit the book, I would have to significantly rewrite parts of it since I had to remove one of three POVs. Adding to the daunting prospect of a massive revision, I was pregnant!
As hard as it seemed, I knew it was the right thing to do. During the last two months of my pregnancy, I cut down 23,000 words and rewrote large sections of the book. Once my baby arrived, I sent the manuscript back to my beta readers to see if the new revisions maintained plot, pace, and character growth. After I emerged from that newborn haze of hormones, sleepless nights, and baby cuddles, I dove back into my beta readers’ feedback and by September 2019, I began querying again. Long story short, I signed with my publisher on January 2nd, 2020! My publishing journey ends with the ever-important lesson: No matter how hard it gets, don’t give up.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
The most surprising part of my publishing journey came after two years of querying when I’d reached the point where I had accepted that my book was not going to find any takers. I was utterly heartbroken, but I found the courage to come up with a new story idea and write an outline. Three days after, I received an offer from my publisher. The lesson I learned was that I was so focused on selling my first book, Rea and the Blood of the Nectar, it embodied whether I considered myself a success or a failure. And in the glaring light of failure, I realized my passion was writing stories, so if one book didn’t work out, I would try with another and keep going.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
Yes, a few!
- Readers will be surprised to learn that my first draft which I wrote nearly ten years ago, all 70,000 words of it, was written with white characters who lived in the English countryside! It was only when my writing teacher pointed out my lack of Indian characters did I realize how much the books I had read (and loved) growing up had subconsciously trained my mind into thinking those were the only types of stories people wanted to read. I wouldn’t change the books I read as a kid, but I sure would have loved to read books with characters that looked like me. This is why diverse representation is vital because underrepresented kids should also see themselves in books, see themselves as complex characters, and should grow up knowing that their stories are equally important and wonderful.
- I’m a 70 percent plotter and 30 percent pantser and I love researching and outlining.
- I’m not a writer who can successfully do writing sprints or churn out a large chunk of words. I’m a "take each day as it comes" kind of writer and I don’t set word goals. I’m thrilled if I get 500 words or 1500 words in a day—it’s not about how many words I can write in a session, it’s about trying my best to write every day or as often as I can, which sometimes can be just once or twice a week.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
What I most hope for is that young readers from all backgrounds see my book as an exciting fantasy story (not one only meant for South Asian kids) filled with characters that can relate to and hopefully love reading about. I also hope that South Asian kids feel seen when they read this story, know that their stories and culture deserve to be shared and celebrated, and that they too can be heroes who go on incredible adventures and save realms.
If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?
My advice to aspiring authors is to believe that the story they are telling is important and that no matter how hard it gets to keep writing until they reach that final period. First drafts are notoriously hard to write and are meant to be terrible. But it’s much easier to mold a fully written story than to keep revising and perfecting what has been written only to have an incomplete manuscript by the end of it. For authors, my advice is to put yourself out there no matter how uncomfortable and tedious it might seem to establish your author brand and promote your book. In today’s digital and pandemic world, there is no greater champion for your book than yourself.