Climbing the Writer’s Pyramid


Let me start by telling you my favorite part of Stephen King’s ‘On Writing.’ In the early sections of the book, one of the main things that struck me, was his acknowledgment of his wife’s part in his work. Did you know that if it hadn’t been for her, Carrie probably never would have been written? (And if it had never been written, it never would have become a movie!) His wife literally pulled the crumpled pages of his first draft from the trash, and told him he was onto something. I love that he gives her that credit. Throughout the book, he presents his appreciation and love for her so simply, and yet, so sincerely. He explains that she is his Ideal Reader—when he writes, he writes for her; if he can get the right reaction from her, then he knows he’s got it! Can you imagine what it would be like to have your spouse be your Ideal Reader? Or is that just me being jealous because my husband doesn’t even speak the language I write in, let alone read it? At any rate, I love that King was so forthright with something that he could have easily decided was too personal to be in a book about writing. To me, that says something about his integrity.
Throughout the book, I continued to be astonished by the realization that what I go through as an unknown, emerging author is so similar to what he goes through as a famous, established writer. It makes me feel like part of the club, if you will. It gives me immense hope. Well, it did… until I read about his thoughts on the quality of writers. According to King, writers can be represented in a pyramid chart, where the base are the bad writers, followed by the competent ones, the good, and finally the great are at the apex. He makes a note that the great are only the elite, the ones whose work will continue to be read for generations after their deaths. Then he explains that no amount of practice or learning can turn a bad writer to a competent one. Likewise, no amount of practice or learning can make a good writer great. The only progress possible, he says, is to go from competent to good.

Now, with about 50 novels under his belt, King obviously knows writing. And he knows writers, both through his profession as a writer and through his past profession as an English teacher. Compared to him, I know nothing. I should probably take what he says as truth, and just move on. But I can’t. I disagree that bad and good writers can’t make those jumps to the next levels. Maybe that makes me naïve—or just an idiot—but I do disagree.

I believe that with the right amount of training and practice, a writer can always improve, no matter where she ranks on the pyramid. It’s like anything: the more you practice, the better you become. I mean, I probably would agree that you can’t transform a bad writer into a great one, but besides for that, improvement is always a possibility. It’s like me with golf; I have never played golf, and even my performance during the golf unit we had in high school PE (a million years ago) was an embarrassment. I’m fairly certain that my club never once made contact with the ball, let alone sent it anywhere near a hole. But if I practiced for two hours each day and watched some videos and maybe had a patient teacher mentor me for a while, wouldn’t I get better? I wouldn’t be challenging Tiger Woods to any matches (does he still play?), but I would improve. If I were dedicated enough to put in the time, my performance would certainly improve. So why wouldn’t it be the same for writers?

I’m gonna go ahead and label myself a good writer. And while I realize that it is highly unlikely that I can make it to great, I will continue to try. And I encourage you to do the same, no matter what field your passion is in. Can’t hurt to try.

And if you’d like a sample of my fiction writing (perhaps to make a decision about whether or not I should be calling myself a good writer at all!), please click here to join my email list. You’ll automatically be sent the four interviews I wrote for the women characters of my novel, Behind Picket Fences. The interviews were super fun to write, and I think you’ll find yourself wondering if they truly are characters from a book. Check it out.

More ‘On Writing’


I have now finished reading Stephen King’s ‘On Writing,’ and as happens with any good book I read, I’m sad that it has ended. The subtitle of the book is ‘A Memoir of the Craft,’ but really, it is so much more. He takes us through his writing and publishing journey, but he also gives his readers a look into his personal life, the life which formed him into the writer he is. He tells us about how, when he showed his mother the first story he’d written, her face lit up. Then just as dramatically her face fell when he admitted that he’d only just copied it. She encouraged him to think of his own story, certain that he could write something at least as good. He tells us that he and his wife were barely getting by when his toddler daughter spiked an incredibly high fever; they didn’t have the money for her medicine. Then, his first check for a piece of writing appeared under their doorway. He describes how his writing got him into trouble in high school when he created a satirical newspaper, making fun of a few teachers. Each event was a lesson in life, but it was also a step on his way to becoming the famous writer he is today.

When he discusses the technicalities of writing, King often refers to The Elements of Style, highlighting many of its rules. Avoid adverbs at all costs, for example. The difference with King, however, is that he is more honest about it: he tells you the rule, then a few paragraphs later, he breaks it. He points out his transgression, assuring us that sometimes, you just need that adverb… and that’s okay, too. I have recently read The Elements of Style, and although I feel that some of the rules are a bit outdated, I do think it will prove a valuable reference throughout my writing and editing careers; I recommend it to all writers.

King’s humor is sprinkled all over the book. When he discusses checking spelling and grammar and all that fun stuff, he warns that you should only use dialect if you ‘have a good ear.’ If you don’t have a good ear, “Then fuhgeddaboutit.” I could almost hear him laughing as I read this. He uses the word just a few times throughout, but each time, I laughed out loud.

The best thing King says about writing fiction is something that I’ve never heard articulated before, although I think this is how I feel myself. He says the story you’re writing right now, it actually already exists. It’s already out there somewhere, and your job as the writer, is to excavate it and set it to paper. It is a fossil, he says, and your job is to unearth it as carefully as possible, so that you completely preserve its integrity. Perhaps that’s why sometimes we can see it so clearly, and the words write themselves. I wish he had made any mention of how he felt seeing his stories represented on screen. So many movies just don’t live up to the book (from a reader’s perspective); I wonder if writers feel the same watching the screen versions of their books? Or worse, even, because it is their creation that’s been altered? And if they do feel cheated by the movie versions, how do they cope with it? But he didn’t go into any of that.

Obviously, King discloses so much more of his writing knowledge in the book, but I’ve given you some examples of what you can expect. My next post will be my last on ‘On Writing.’ I’ll tell you how King managed to incorporate love into his memoir about writing, and my biggest qualm with it. Keep your eyes peeled!

Regrets, In Life As In Writing


Have you ever done something that seemed completely rational at the time, but when you look back on it you’re like, What the hell was I thinking?

There is one incident in my personal life which comes to mind immediately. I won’t go into detail mostly because, to be honest, I’m rather ashamed of it. Before I give you the recap, let me just say, for those of you who don’t know me personally, that I’m generally a kind person. I believe in being compassionate, I believe in spreading love. I think anyone who knows me would say the same. But one day over twenty years ago, when I was a junior in high school, I was extremely mean to a girl. My intention, my rationale, was that by telling her off, it would make the boy involved (surprise, surprise, right?) see that he was a being a prick. Now, in truth, the boy was being a prick. But this girl, she wasn’t responsible for his actions. She was innocent… and I was just vile to her. I didn’t see it until sometime later. But I do regret it, and I hope that, wherever she may be, she will forgive me.

Recently I’ve had another what the hell was I thinking moment, although decidedly less regretful. It is a literary mistake I made with my newest release, Behind Picket Fences. And this mistake wasn’t made clear to me until some of my readers started making comments about the characters, asking why a Muslim character would act a certain way. “Ah…,” I replied in confusion, “but that character isn’t Muslim. I make no mention of any religious affiliation with her. Why did you assume that?”

It was the name, some of them said. Others, I think, simply assumed all my characters were Muslim just because I am Muslim. And while the latter reason saddens me because it forces me into a box that—no matter how much I grow as I writer—I may never escape, the former reason is my doing, and I must take responsibility for it.

For six out of eight of my main characters, I deliberately chose names that work across cultures. You’ll find plenty of Muslims and non-Muslims named May, Morgan, Mariam, Summer, Sidra, and Farris. My intention was that both my Muslim and non-Muslim readers would relate to the names. But, for at least some of my readers, this non-commitment probably did the opposite of that, leaving their vision of the characters undefined. Interestingly, this prejudice came from my Muslim audience; none of my non-Muslim readers mentioned this to me. I wonder if they feel they same.

And I wonder if it matters. The differences in stories that readers experience is part of the beauty of this art. There is a personalized dance that goes on between the writer and each reader. And each dance is both unique and authentic, lending to a very special reading experience. So does it matter that some of my readers attributed to certain characters a specific religion which I had not?  I want to say no. I want to say it’s the same as me seeing a character as skinny and you seeing him as muscular. I really want to say it’s the same as that, that it doesn’t matter. But in this case, at least, yes, it does matter.

It matters for two reasons: First, my target audience is not only Muslims; I hope to reach and touch non-Muslims as well. And well, if a reviewer makes a comment that all (or most) of the characters are Muslim, this may discourage members of my non-Muslim audience. Someone who was thinking of picking up my book might change his mind based solely on the idea that he may be unable to relate to any of the characters.

Second, as a Muslim, it is my responsibility—taken willingly or unwillingly—to represent Islam. What I mean by that is, people who observe my actions, both in my life and in my writing, will judge Islam based on my presentation of it. It’s like that incident twenty years ago in high school: It tears me up to think that that girl thought my religion permitted my horrible behavior. As for my writing, well I can have Muslim characters do forbidden things because in life, that happens. But I will never glorify it. I will never normalize a sin. And for that reason, it is vital that my characters’ religious affiliations be clear. (Honestly, I thought that not mentioning a religious affiliation was the same as saying, ‘this person adheres to no specific religion.’ But clearly I was wrong.)

My readers presented me with a lesson, and I have learned it, and will continue to learn more with each piece I write. And I hope that my writing will be the better for it.

Walking Through Spider Webs


I just started reading ‘On Writing’ by Steven King, and although I’m only a few pages in, I’ve laughed out loud at least three times. He recreates stories from his life (I’m still on his childhood) in a way which shows his readers how they helped him form into a writer. So it’s life and writing all in one; perfect for someone like me.

There is one story in particular that really spoke to me. He tells about a teacher who once told him to use his talent for something more worthwhile. After he recounts the incident, he writes, “I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent.”

This is certainly true for me. ‘Why waste your time writing this non-sense!’ he says to me every chance he gets. ‘You should write something that’ll make a difference, write about the political climate, something of importance, not just something for entertainment!’

What he doesn’t know—this person who is a valuable part of my life, who I love and cherish very much, and for those reasons, can’t resort to avoiding him (or beating him)—is that I do use my writing to make a difference. I aim to raise awareness of family and societal issues and attitudes which often go unnoticed. I do aim to teach through my fiction. But I do it in my own way. Some will get it, and others will not, but my intention is certainly there.

So if you’re an artist who has been told to devote your energy to a more useful cause, just know that you’re in the same company as Steven King…and me…and probably millions of other creators out there. Know that you’re in good company, and learn to walk through the belittlements the same way you’d walk through a spider web: At first it’s ‘Oh my God, what the ….? There’s a spider web in my face!’ But with a few waves of your hand, it magically disappears, and just seconds later, it’s as though it had never really been there. Brush off the negativity like you would a spider web, and raise your head high in the knowledge that even if the closest people to you don’t get it, you have your own motives for pursuing your craft… and those are good enough.

Room To Grow


It’s graduation season, and everywhere you turn people who were kids yesterday, are throwing up their caps, and slightly older youth are taking their first steps to independence (and trying to calculate how they’ll be able to pay off their college loans!). And because the truth is that time flies, soon, it’ll be my son who’s graduating and beginning his life as an adult. Well, to  everyone else anyway…I’m pretty sure my kids will always be little punks in my eyes. But I do pray that God grants me enough time on this earth to let me see them when everyone else considers them adults.

My son just completed grade eight, but because the school system here is set up differently, they will still be in middle school next year, when my nephew and niece – who are also graduating eighth grade – will be entering high school. Anyway…so a few months ago M had two of his friends over. At about seven or eight, one of the boy’s parents called him and asked him when he would be home, and how he would get there. I heard this side of the conversation:
‘I’ll just finish this game then leave. Maybe a half-hour.’


‘No, I can come home by myself.’


‘M will walk me to the tram station and I’ll take the tram.’


‘No, don’t come to get me. I can make it home by myself.’


‘Yes, I’m sure. Don’t come.’


‘Okay, I won’t be long. Bye.’

Hearing this reassured me; earlier that day I had been questioning myself, doubting that I was parenting responsibly. “Is M really ready to take the tram alone? To figure out which stop to get off? Yes, I went over it with him a thousand times. But what if he misses it? Will he know what to do? Should I be going with him? No, he’s old enough. He is not old enough! What if he gets mugged in the tram? Oh, God. What’s the right thing to do?”

It’s a tricky age, really; they’re too young for us to let go, but too old for us to be there, holding their hands. As a parent, I know I need to give my kids room to grow and experience new things and take their own steps…but it’s so very worrisome. I was comforted hearing that I wasn’t the only one going through this. Hearing M’s friend talk to his parents, I felt better knowing that we all have those same doubts. When I was M’s age, I didn’t live in this environment, so I don’t even have a reference from my own youth to guide me. And even though my brother and my best friend have kids M’s age, they, too, live in a different environment; the suburbs are not the city. As long as they remain in the suburbs, their kids – like myself in my youth – won’t even have the option to consider public transportation. It’s my call, and I feel a bit reassured that M’s friends’ parents are making the same decisions.

But even though I let M take the tram, I am so immensely grateful that he doesn’t start high school for another year. High school is a wonderful, exciting, scary, horrible experience all rolled into one! And I want to protect him from the ‘scary, horrible’ as long as I possibly can.

For the record, M’s friend left our house before the half-hour was up even though they hadn’t yet completed the game.

I pray for my kids and yours…I pray God protects them always. I pray they continue to be clean, honest, compassionate souls, and that life doesn’t jade them, and that bad influence has no power over them.
God, protect our youth; shroud them in Your Grace.

On Writing

old-1130732_640for on writing

I know that most writers will tell you they write every day. They will encourage each other to do the same. Well, I don’t write every day, but every day I do perform some kind of activity that will help me improve my craft. Sometimes that’s reading. Other days that’s keeping my senses open to the world around me and taking notes. Still other days, I follow through with lessons in one or two writing courses.

I’m very interested in learning about screenwriting. I feel like maybe one day I’d like to write a screenplay. Maybe. Maybe it’ll be an After School Special (do they still have those??) or a Lifetime feature presentation. Maybe. In order to make that happen, however, I’ve decided I need to learn about screenwriting, since I have zero knowledge of the craft. I found a promising online intro course, but although I was super psyched about it, I was a bit disappointed by it. It was only two weeks, each week about 16 lessons, but it was filled with theory. And on top of that, the four instructors all had differing perspectives on those theories. I still have a few lessons left before I complete it, and I believe they will focus more on the mechanics of screenwriting, but I’m really hoping that this will give me the bases I was hoping for. I did learn, however, that screenwriters actually leave OUT a lot of detail. The instructors repeatedly stated that the screenwriter has to leave room for the director’s vision and the actor’s artistic expression. This was news to me, to be honest with you. I kind of see the writer as the main creator of a film. I know directors get the most attention, but I always found that rather strange. But I’ve learned that’s part of the business; the writer gives the story, but so much of the details are simply left out, waiting for the director’s touch and actor’s grace. (I have decided to continue to disagree with this notion until I find myself in the position of a director and have to tell the writer to back away. But that’s just me.)

The second course I’ve been taking is a sort of intro to writing fiction. I was looking for something more advanced, but I figured I should see what’s being said at the intro level. And I am very glad that I did. There is one very important piece of knowledge that I’m a bit embarrassed to confess that I didn’t know: every great story must begin with a great character. Character comes before everything else. So far, in all my fiction writing, I have first focused on the plot, then on who would fit the role. But a great story, one where your readers are emotionally invested, will always be fully focused on the character; plot will just naturally follow.

I am implementing this very staunchly in the novel I’m now working on. I know what my protagonist looks like, I hear her when she speaks, I know what kind of ice-cream she likes, that she hates slow drivers, I know her favorite childhood memory and favorite cartoon character. I know her inside out. Okay…so…that’s a lie. But I WILL know all this stuff (and so much more) real soon!

Another important thing that I was very aware of before the course but had ingrained in me even more is the importance of carrying a notebook and taking notes on our surroundings. You never know when you’ll meet the perfect character; perhaps while you’re waiting in line at the bank and his bright green pants catch your eye. Or while you’re pulling into the grocery store and the little girl’s bouncy curls distract you. Or the smell of freshly baked bread leads you into the bakery and you discover that the heavenly loaves and pink flowered cakes were perfectly designed by the most muscular arms you’ve ever seen. Take it all in. The sights, the smells, the sounds, the tastes. Take it all in and write it all down. You never know when your next character will reveal herself to you.

And here’s a bit of writing advice from me. During the online launch of my book, one attendee asked me what I would advise my younger self. Well, my advice to my younger self, and my advice to all aspiring writers, is to own that title of writer. There is no minimum age to be a writer. There is no minimum number of published works necessary before you can use that title. The only thing needed to use that title is that you write. So write. Be a writer. And DECLARE it. You will find that you will be more dedicated to your craft once you start seeing yourself as a writer.

Gotta Love Family


Yup, that’s the view!

Funny how one week away from home can throw off your routine! We went away to visit my grandmother in a place called Ein Sokhna, on the Red Sea. The water there is so calm and clear. My kids caught a bunch of starfish and sand dollars, not to mention the number of shells they collected! If it weren’t for the ferocious mosquitoes which attack at night, it would have been a perfect vacation.

The internet there is not too stable, however, so I’m behind with blog posts and a couple of online writing courses… and I feel like it’ll take me twice as long to catch up. More writing related things on my to-do list!

As soon as we got back I started preparing for the online launch of my upcoming book, Behind Picket Fences. I practiced reading Beautiful, the poem I was planning on reading as well as the excerpt from the novel, until I finally got them right. (Well…that’s what I thought anyway. Listening to the recording, I think I could have done a much more effective job with the poem. You’ll have to give it a listen and let me know what you think!)

A few minutes before the launch starts, I sit down and adjust my computer and log into the event and everything is set up. Then I happen to notice that my parents are ‘attending.’ The reason I notice this right away, is because, despite the fact that all other attendees have their videos turned off (as they should), my father has his on. So he’s just sitting there, leaning back in his chair, focused on his computer screen..and everyone can see him! They can’t even see me! Then, despite all attendees being muted, I hear my mom say, ‘It’s supposed to start now.’ Oh, but that’s not all, folks! A few minutes later I look at my screen — the one the hostess of the launch is showing to all the attendees — and instead of it saying ‘Hostess is sharing her screen’ it says ‘Ali Hegazi is sharing his screen.’ I kid you not, people! I saw the stock page he had on his bookmark bar and all the news webpages he follows! I chuckled and thought to myself, ‘Yup, that’s just about right. My dad’s gonna ruin the launch.’ A couple of years ago when my dad went to visit my brother at his dental clinic, my brother had him wait in his office until the previous patient was finished; my dad spent those few minutes on my brother’s computer. A short while later, the receptionist goes up to my brother and tells him that the computer system is down! Apparently he had upgraded something in the system, and the upgrade didn’t go too smoothly. But we all have those moments, right? Where would we be without a little family embarrassment/entertainment?

Luckily, his sharing of the screen didn’t last long and the launch went well. I had been worried my internet would act up, but it behaved itself. Hasn’t been behaving since then, mind you (and I can’t blame it on my dad, either!), but I was relieved the launch took place without any technical glitches. We picked two winners to receive signed copies and announced the pre-order incentives, not to mention the Q & A session where attendees asked me all sorts of questions! I love helping out other writers, so that was my favorite part of the launch.

In case you missed it, you can watch the online launch here. The pre-order incentives are the current discount price at Amazon and Barnes and Noble, which will revert to full price as the official launch date (July 1) approaches. So if you’re interested, order your copy today to take advantage of the 25% discount! The other incentive is the character interviews that will go out once a week for four weeks (starting June 1), but these are only available to those who subscribe to my free newsletter. So if you’re interested in learning more about the women of Behind Picket Fences, make sure you sign up here.

In my next post I plan on spreading some of the knowledge I’ve gained through the online writing courses I’ve been taking…stay tuned!