For the Love of Books

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I have loved to read ever since I was a child. My parents were not in the habit of reading to us, and I don’t think they ever really encouraged us to read either. My dad has always been a math and science guy, so he stressed those subjects. Literature? Not so much. Growing up, neither of my brothers liked to read. And if he didn’t have a degree saying he’s an actual, real life dentist, I may even argue that my older brother doesn’t even KNOW how to read! Just kidding. He totally knows how to read…I saw a Dr. Seuss book on desk when I was there over the summer.

Anyway, in my case, I think it was the influence of my teachers that taught me the love of reading. I don’t remember vividly, because it was so long ago (and I have four kids, which means my brain cells are probably more fried than if I had been a druggie), but I do vaguely remember story time. I remember sitting in a circle with the rest of my classmates and listening to teachers read. My guess is, that’s how I learned to love reading.

But now, my kids don’t get story time at school. And only one of them is showing any interest in reading. I really want to nourish this love, but unfortunately, we don’t have public libraries here. And although I may be able to download books onto his tablet, I feel that digital books are just substandard, especially for kids. I don’t want him on a device, sucking up whatever kinds of waves they have and have not yet discovered being emitted from those things. I don’t want his reading time to be screen time. But the bigger problem is that I simply can’t afford to buy him a paperback book every few weeks. But I can’t afford to have him lose this interest either. I am torn.

So I’m trying to find free e-books, and I can read (at least partly) to them. My kids enjoy that; even my teenager enjoys it when I read to them. I do voice acting, which really keeps them engaged. The problem is it’s very easy to get out of the habit when our routine gets thrown off due to traveling or whatever, and it is very difficult to get back in the habit, mostly because it takes my kids FOREVER to get ready for bed.

But tonight, they did it. They got ready (relatively) early, and we had time to read together. We started The Wind in the Willows (because it was free!), and even though the language is a bit beyond them, and the digital version has no illustrations, they enjoyed it. And so did I.

Now we have a different problem altogether. I mean, do YOU know the difference between a mole, a badger and an otter? Google has already caught me looking up rifles and Dallas and trolls and recipes for cinnamon rolls (which turned out pretty good, actually) and folding furniture and all sorts of madness this week…guess we have to add furry creatures to the list now, too!

(Thank you for reading and liking this post. For a peek at some of my fiction writing, please click here and I’ll send you 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.)

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The Blessing of Bad Writing

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I’m working on my third novel, and praise God, I’m actually moving along at a reasonable pace. So much so, that I’m not even stressed about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) being less than a week away. I’m already in the groove, already have my daily writing time allotted. I’m actually hoping that if I can maintain this discipline, and continue to make my writing a priority, I may be able to finish this novel before the end of the year.

There is only one problem: it’s complete crap. There are some scenes I’m literally cringing at just how awful they are. My second novel was a vast improvement—in terms of writing— from my first. I see it, and many of my readers do as well. And I love that. Naturally, I’d like this one to be even better. But I wonder if I’ll be able to make that happen. And that doubt makes me hesitate. And when a writer hesitates, she can easily get off track, lose momentum. So what to do?

Stop thinking and keep writing…even if it is crap. It sounds almost counterintuitive, like I should really take a break and reevaluate, but no…any professional writer will tell you, sometimes the crap has to be spilled on the page in order to get to the gems. Fixing the bad writing, taking out the useless scenes, improving the language, all that stuff gets done with subsequent drafts. The first draft is the brain spill draft; write it as it comes to you, no matter how horrible it may seem. Maybe there are two conflicting scenes, and you’re torn between which to choose? Write them both; once more of the story reveals itself to you, you’ll know which one to keep. (And you may even be able to use the other one in a different project.) Can’t think of the perfect word to use? Leave a blank space; it will either come to you later as you write or during your editing.

Really, that’s what NaNo is all about; writing, writing, writing, never stopping to edit. And that’s really why so many people can ‘win’ it. NaNo isn’t about producing a publishable novel; it’s about maintaining the motivation to write daily—through the good and the bad—to get so far ahead, you can’t possibly quit, and to give yourself a first draft that you can then re-write and edit into the next bestseller.

That’s what I keep telling myself anyway. I’ll keep you updated.

 

For a peek at some of my fiction writing (some of my better stuff; I promise it’s not crap!), please click here and I’ll send you 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.

Climbing the Writer’s Pyramid

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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’

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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

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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

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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.