Something to Help You Breathe

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Many of you know that this month I’m racing to write 50,000 words of a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month. This kind of personal challenge requires dedication, dedication which I was worried I didn’t have. This fear was part of the reason why when I participated in the past, I wasn’t looking to ‘win’; I was just hoping to use the NaNo spirit to get ahead with my writing without setting any kind of word count goals. But this time around, something has changed.

My first day of NaNoWriMo this year, I sat in the chair for more than two hours straight, squeezing the ideas out of my head and onto paper. I didn’t have any sort of outline and the story in my mind was very vague, so that first writing session of NaNo was quite painful. But I made it. I reached the word goal for that day. The following day, I broke up my writing to two different sessions, making the effort more endurable. I haven’t missed a day of writing this month. And I think I’ve hit the daily word goal each day so far. Once I finish my writing for today, I’ll have reached 25,000 words – half the goal. Right on track! And I am loving it!

Not only am I loving it, but I feel better this month. I feel good, physically and emotionally. I’m in a better mood than I have been in a while. My kids will tell you I’ve been yelling at them less. (Well, they may not admit it… but don’t believe them!) And although I still go out or see friends rarely, I don’t feel lonely.

It might just be that I’m so busy trying to reach the daily goal that I have no time to be moody or feel lonely. But I don’t think that’s it. I think I’m in a good mood because I’m busy doing something I love.

So if you’re stuck in an emotional rut, find something you love to do, and do it. Do it for hours at a time. I enjoy writing, but you may like to draw… or paint… or read or swim or walk or…whatever. As long as you love it (and it doesn’t harm you or anyone else), spend your time doing what you love, and you’ll find that you will actually breathe easier.

And I’d just like to give a shout out to all those NaNoers who work full time or who are students. And a double shout out to those of you who work AND have kids to deal with! Kudos to you all!

(Thank you for reading. If you’re interested in reading some of my fiction, I invite you to join my tribe. Not only will you be kept up-to-date with discounts and deals on my books, you’ll get to read the first chapter of Behind Picket Fences, annnnnddd… if you join before Thursday Nov. 16, 2017, you’ll receive the first character interview for my work in progress. I love writing these character interviews, and my fans love reading them. So please, come be a part of my tribe.)

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Writing Tips

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Many writers, myself included, are busy this November trying to complete 50,000 words by the end of the month with National Novel Writing Month. As we’re closing up the first week of NaNoWriMo, I figured this was the best time for me to impart some of my own tips on writing. So without further ado, here goes:

  • Don’t stress about a title for your novel. For both of my published novels, I used working titles as I wrote and changed them when the final drafts were finally written. The best title will come to you once you’ve completed your book.
  • Don’t stress about names. If you can’t come up with a name you like, use a temporary stand-in: Husband, Brother, BFF, etc. Like with the title, the names will eventually come to you.
  • Don’t censor yourself as you write. Even if you feel uncomfortable writing a section and are SURE it won’t make your final draft, write it anyway. The first draft is not the time to cut; it is the time to WRITE.
  • Don’t edit as you write. Editing will come later, but this primary phase, this first draft, is just for writing.
  • Don’t be afraid to tackle the main scenes early on. We often worry, “If I write that scene now, what will I have to write later?” But don’t let that hesitation stop you. When you get the idea for a scene, write it. It doesn’t matter that your characters have not yet made it to that scene; they will. And writing that scene will probably help you keep up the momentum of the story.
  • If you get stuck, give yourself a break. Get up and walk around or do something else non-writing related for an hour or so. Once you get back to it, you’re likely to find that the ideas will flow.
  • Try writing using a pen and paper instead of your keyboard. The act of writing by hand helps increase your creativity, so give it a try. So far, I’ve written all 10,000 words of this novel by hand.
  • Don’t be discouraged when you know what you’re writing is crap. After all, you can’t find gold without sifting through mud. Just keep at it.

And my number one writing tip is: claim it! If you write, even if you never seek publication, you ARE a writer. Calling yourself a writer, claiming it, makes you take your craft more seriously. Say it: I. Am. A. Writer!

Good luck to all my fellow #NaNoWriMo2017 participants. May your imaginations run wild and your pens and keyboards be quick enough to catch up!

(Please like and share this blog post. And if you’d like to be kept up-to-date with any discounts or offers on my books, please click here. You’ll also get to read the first chapter of Behind Picket Fences, so don’t hesitate.)

From Difficulty to Kindness

 

 

incense-smoke-heart.jpgDuring one of my summer visits to Egypt before I moved here, my aunt’s friend’s house was broken into. The thieves took everything. They took the blender, the fridge, the oven, the washing machine. Everything.

The woman’s husband walked in from work one day and found her crying as she juiced tomatoes with her bare hands.

Coming from a middle class American household, my immediate reaction was, “Wow, that totally sucks. Why don’t they buy new appliances?”

My aunt looked at me and spoke with the condescension of those who know to those who do not. “With what money?”

“With their savings,” I said.

She let out a sardonic laugh. “Here, there is no such thing as savings.”

No savings? Really?! What would these people do now?

It was a foreign concept for me that people could work and not have money in the bank. Not because I come from a wealthy family, because I do not. But because I do come from a family where savings was a given. There was always money in the bank for emergencies. My parents saved to send their children to college. When we needed something, we could always get it. Alhamdulillah.

But that middle class is not the middle class of developing countries. Here, most middle class get by paycheck to paycheck and there is no such thing as emergency funds. If you need money unexpectedly, you have two options: You either borrow from friends or family (often from many people at once), or you simply go without. How many cars don’t get fixed because there isn’t the money to do so? How many appliances don’t get replaced because there isn’t the money to do so? How many medical procedures aren’t performed because there isn’t the money to do so? Far too many. When my third son was born almost three months prematurely, I didn’t have the money needed to cover the hospital expenses. If it hadn’t been for my parents…well, you get the picture.

We are all naïve of the experiences we have not lived through. We think we can understand them from afar, but our empathy at seeing a difficulty is not nearly as potent as our insight once we experience it. This is why people tell you you won’t understand what it’s like to be a parent until you become one. This is why most activists have firsthand experience of their cause, and others move to the geographical heart of their issue so that they, too, may experience it.

I do not point out the differences of people living in America to those in Egypt to claim that one country is better than the other. In all of my work, I do not highlight difficulties to dwell on them nor to lay blame. I highlight them to inspire

Last year when I held a book signing at Books on the Square in Providence, RI, one of the listeners told me she appreciated what I was doing. “What you’re doing is great,” she said, “because as artists, our job is to inspire.” She was just visiting the bookstore that day by chance, but I feel truly blessed at having met her, because what she said is exactly on point.

“Our job is to inspire.”

There is so much depth to that phrase. Our job is to inspire other artists: to inspire them to express themselves and bring out the best of their work. Our job is to inspire our children: to inspire them to reach their full potential and beyond. But more important than all of that, the reason I mention the differences I’ve discussed above, the reason I highlight difficulties in my writing, is to inspire for the hope of a better world.

I write about not having the money to cover hospital costs, or dealing with the concept of victim blaming (like in Normal Calm), or dealing with infertility (in Behind Picket Fences) to inspire my readers to think and feel. Through my writing, as in how I live my life, I aim to inspire gratitude. And kindness. And compassion. Because even if gratitude, kindness, and compassion do not lead to solutions to the problem, they still make the world a better place.

Don’t you think?

 

 

 

Figment or Fiction

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I recently met with one of my great aunts whom I hadn’t seen in many years. Last time I saw her she was independent, living alone, summering on her own, and enjoying her life in general. During this visit, she was someone else. She’s recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and she’s become thinner and more frail. I think this was my first encounter with someone with Alzheimer’s. I stayed with my aunt as her daughter and my mom left to run a quick errand. As they were getting ready to leave, my aunt got anxious and asked her daughter in an almost frightened voice where they were going. Her daughter threw her purse back down on the couch, clearly having seen this type of separation anxiety from her mother before, and tried to tell her that she wasn’t going far and would be right back. The behavior reminded me of a new mom dropping off her child to preschool for the first time, the child upset at being left behind. Only in this situation, the mother was the one upset that her daughter was leaving and the daughter was at her wits’ end by her mother’s clinginess.

They were gone for maybe half an hour, maybe a bit more. During that time, my aunt would reply if we spoke to her, and she kept a smile on her face. She didn’t engage in conversation the way she did before the decline of her health, but she wasn’t completely reserved either. She did, however, ask us three or four times where her daughter had gone. And when they got back, her face lit up, relieved that her caretaker had finally returned. Their roles have now been reversed; mother has become dependent on daughter. And while I understand that this happens, that often our parents require our assistance in their old age, it still makes me sad. Yes, it’s part of life, but it still breaks my heart.

I used to think it would be awkward to care for another adult. That I would be embarrassed to, say, bathe someone or help someone in the bathroom. But recently I was blessed to be given the chance to help my aging mother-in-law. Yes, I used the word blessed, because during that time, she needed someone to be there for her, and God chose me to be there. It wasn’t an embarrassing experience at all; it was truly humbling. I am humbled every time I pass by an older person who walks with a cane or walker. I am humbled every time I help an older person retrieve an item that they dropped. I was humbled to help my mother-in-law. And I was humbled to spend those few hours with my aunt. I am humbled by these experiences because I know that once upon a time, these people were as physically and mentally agile as I am now. And one day, I will probably be in their place. I praise God for the blessing of my mind, for the blessing of my body and independence, and for the blessing that both my parents are healthy and independent. Praise God. I pray He continues to shower us with his blessings for all the days of our lives.

Just a few weeks before this visit with my great aunt, I saw an uncle of mine who is also suffering from memory loss, but this seems to be onset by his medications. My cousins told me he sometimes talks about people they don’t know. It made me remember when my best friend’s great aunt, in her final days, kept mentioning a young boy—Nicholas—although there is no Nicholas in their family at all. I wonder where these names come from. Is it possible they are childhood friends, names of people they loved decades ago? Or are they simply figments of their imagination? Is it possible they were not figments but another part of their imagination…

When I write fiction, I live with these characters that I’ve created. They become a part of me—I cheer for their victories and cry at their defeats. They become so close to me that I wonder if one day—when I’m older and my mind starts to lose its edge—I’ll expect them to walk through the door. Or I’ll tell my grandchildren about them, never really aware that they only ever existed in my imagination. Is it possible that I’ll become so connected to them that in my old age I will mistake them for friends and family? I wonder…

 

To NaNo or not to NaNo

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The start of October always brings with it a certain melancholy for me. I miss autumn in New England. I’m always Homesick in Autumn.

But often that melancholy is overshadowed by the anxiety I get when my newsfeed starts to be overloaded with posts about National Novel Writing Month. I mean, NaNo isn’t until November…why are you pressuring me so early?! My stomach gets a little tied up when I consider all the technicalities of NaNo: Can I really get in over 1600 words per day? Will my kids leave me alone so that I can at least try?! Can’t I just neglect…I mean ignore…. I mean…oh forget it, there’s no escaping them! Perhaps I should show myself mercy right now and decide against this avoidable source of stress.

But the truth is, despite the anxiety that creeps in on me in October, NaNo doesn’t stress me out. I’m actually always happier, more fulfilled while I’m participating in it. Each year I tell myself that my goal is not to meet the 50,000 word target, but rather to get in a good amount of writing each day. I enjoy the word sprints and the overall NaNo camaraderie. I love that I make writing a priority during that month. I just love it.

So, I probably will participate. (I’m looking into nerf doors to drown out the sound and the inevitable banging).

But, oh my God, I haven’t planned anything! More stress!!

Not really. I don’t tend to outline my novels. Yes, I have a direction and ideas, but I love letting those ideas discover what’s in store for us. So I’ll probably just continue working on the project I have at hand. Or maybe I’ll get a better idea between now and November. In fact, the idea for the next bestselling novel stopped by the other day! It was awesome. I’m sure it’ll be widely read and make millions! The only problem is, it slipped away before I had a chance to catch it!

Too often, I let life get in the way, and my writing gets pushed to the background. NaNo is my chance to make it a priority again. And the truth is, most of the time, I like what I write. I was just re-reading the character interviews for Behind Picket Fences, and I found them rather entertaining.

If you’re doing NaNo this year, connect with me on Facebook and we can have virtual coffee as we do word sprints.

(Thank you for reading and liking this post. If you enjoyed this piece, you may enjoy reading an excerpt from Behind Picket Fences. Click here to read the first chapter.)

An Unsatisfied Reader

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My aunt has been a longtime fan of Danielle Steel. I think she’s read every one of her books.

While she was reading her latest pick, Magic, she told me it was a real page turner. She suggested I read it, basically to see how such powerful buildup is done. I didn’t hesitate. I’d never read a Danielle Steel novel before, but I was looking forward to it. I knew there was something to be learned from such a successful author. I anticipated a great story and great writing. You don’t always get both in a book, but with acclaimed authors, you certainly expect both.

Now, I’m not a particularly picky reader. I like lots of different genres: sci-fi, young adult, crime fiction, historical fiction. I even read a Western once and I loved it. Yes, I do tend to stick with general fiction with themes of family, love, and overcoming hardship, but even when I venture away from my “usual,” I am rarely disappointed.

But I was disappointed with Steel’s Magic. While the story was ok, the writing was not. It seemed to have been written by an amateur and edited by someone with even less experience. Words were often unnecessarily repeated within a given sentence, and the flow of the narrative was sometimes discordant. The characters, while clear enough to be realistic, did not stay with me.

As I found myself delving further into disappointment, I started to wonder what was wrong with me. This is an author who has sold hundreds of millions of books. She’s probably won awards. Why wasn’t I enjoying her book when so many people loved her writing?

The answer came to me in the form of a rating for one of my own novels shortly after I’d finished reading Magic. The reader—who had a very strange username like Lmnopwxyjz—gave my book a one star rating with no review. I’d like to believe that this is a mistake, that  some little kid was playing with her mom’s tablet and through a series of random clicks managed to sign up to Goodreads using that anomalous name, land on my book and highlight one star. I mean, my kids have done similar things…it could happen! I know, I know…not likely. The truth is that it was probably a legitimate reader who simply didn’t enjoy my book.

And that’s totally fine.

While writers (and artists of any kind, actually) hope that our work will resonate with everyone, the truth is that that notion is the fastest route to feeling like a failure. Each and every person has his or her own likes and dislikes, and there is no way you can cater to them all. Not everyone likes caviar. Not everyone likes mangoes. Not everyone likes chocolate. I know! THAT sounds outrageous! I mean…chocolate?!

But that’s the truth: not everyone likes chocolate. And not everyone likes Danielle Steel books. And not everyone will like mine. That’s the way taste works.

So, I keep writing for my intended audience, and hope that they remain intrigued. And if some readers from outside of my audience happen to enjoy my work, well then that’s a wonderfully surprising win.

But what about me disliking Steel’s book? What does that say about me?

It says that I, too, have my own taste, and don’t mind one bit if I differ from her hundreds of millions of fans.

Being in the minority makes me unique; it does not invalidate my opinion.

 

Fun With The Kids

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I haven’t written a blog post in almost two full months. Partly I’ve been working on my novel, but mostly it’s because I really want to post something light, funny maybe, and lately, with the distressing state of the world, I haven’t felt that way. But the other night, I had a great time with my kids…

We just subscribed to our free month of Netflix. I know, I know, Netflix is old and I’m so behind. But I wasn’t even sure how it would work here in Egypt, and quite frankly, I totally plan on cancelling before the free month is over. Anyway…so we watched our first movie the other day. We chose ‘The Prince of Egypt’ as our first pick. I was rather disappointed by it all. The makers did it a disservice to the film by removing almost all religious context from the story. Throughout the entire movie, I kept having to tell the kids, “Well, that’s not the real story; that’s not how it is in the Qur’an…and probably not how it is in the Bible.” Disappointing.

After that let down we needed something funny. Scrolling through, we found ‘Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.’ Now, most parents would not encourage their children to watch a movie about a young student who ditches school and goes all over Chicago having a grand-ol’ time. Most parents would not want their kids to get ideas about how to deceive their parents, how to trick their school administration, how to take their parent’s car without permission…and after all this, never get caught. Most parents are far too responsible to expose their children to all of that….

Well not me! As soon as I saw it on the list, I yelled out, “YOU GUYS HAVE TO SEE THAT! It’s such a good movie!”

Clearly, there is something lacking in my parenting skills…but whatever! Now’s not the time to dwell on that…

We had a blast watching Ferris as he played sick, fooling his parents and his friends (not his sister, though!). We loved watching him take the restaurant reservation for the ‘Sausage King of Chicago,’ then sneak out without his father seeing him. His rendition of ‘Twist and Shout’ on the parade float was well appreciated by all (although, the kids probably liked it just because I was making a fool of myself singing along!). They loved watching the beat-down Ed Rooney chase after his car as the tow-truck pulled it away! I wonder if they wished the same fate upon their own principal?

We laughed the whole movie through. It was a great time. And for that, I’m gonna go ahead and count it a parenting win. Not because it was a good choice (because who are we kidding?), but because we spent time together, laughed together, and hopefully, they’ll remember that more than any of the specifics of the movie. (I know, I know…not likely. But it could happen!)

Thank you for reading my post. Please give it a like. If you’d like to read some of my fiction, simply click here to read the character interviews for the women of my latest novel, Behind Picket Fences. The interviews were super fun to write and I think you’ll enjoy them. Again, thank you so much for your support.