Archives for category: writing

Alhamdulillah. So ten years ago, around this time, I tinkered with the idea of beginning a blog. It was my way of working myself back to writer-me.

And writer-me wanted to publish a book.

You know how they say persistence pays off? Well it’s true. Here’s proof on goodreads: (The blurb still needs fixing so ignore that) Saints, Misfits, Monster and Mayhem, Simon & Schuster/Salaam Reads – Summer 2017. (And, yes, that review is by my daughter.)

If you’re on goodreads and you’re so inclined to support the publishing of narratives not often seen in the industry, please click the green [Want to Read] button.

What brings tears to my eyes: it will be the first North American YA novel featuring a main character in hijab published by a mainstream publisher. 2017, guys.

It’s seems like a whirlwind of a publishing journey – from query to agent to book deal =  just a bit over 3 months – but I know it actually took ten years.

Because my book deal would not have happened without this blog and its readers. Thank you so much. And, alhamdulillah, truly.

 

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So excited about my current work-in-progress! It’s making me wake up EARLY.

Which is something I have to thank my last manuscript for. Among other things, these are some of the ah-has I had while writing it:

  • the amazing-ness that writing in the morning hours is
  • when you hit a wall, take yourself & your laptop to a new location; you will break through somehow (it can be as simple as writing in another room or, my favorite, an episode of writing in Istanbul, overlooking the Bosphorus)
  • imagery is so important to the process of acquainting yourself with a new world (or a discover-again world); use photographs as aids
  • if a certain part of your story becomes dead and you dread picking it up again, go back to where it was still enjoyable to write and begin again; if you don’t want to write it, no one will want to read it
  • liven scenes with sensory details
  • always plot with all the threads – be a fair writer
  • organization and set-up allows creativity to flow more freely; pantsing & plotting go hand-in-hand

I am not a multi-tasker. When I teach, I teach. When I cook, I cook. When I write, I roam the moors and shires of my mind, scythe in hand.

I can only focus on one thing at a time.

So when my puff-cloud of a dream of becoming published, anchored FOR THIRTY-TWO years, left Earth and embarked on a swift ascent in a manner uncharacteristic of cumulus matter (i.e. I signed with a literary agent within three weeks of submitting my manuscript), I kept on cutting construction paper and getting band-aids and talking about the differences between a square pyramid and a triangular prism. With weird mechanical calm.

Sure I shared with friends and family and my yoga teacher, but I didn’t SCREAM AND FLAIL AND GO INTO A HAPPINESS COMA – like I imagined I would when I cracked the code of getting someone in the industry to say, hey, this might be sorta good, this two hundred page thing she’s been working on for five years.

I am still waiting for the giddy.

BECAUSE, GUYS, EVERYONE, MY-SEVENTH-GRADE-TEACHER-MS. ZULTEK-WHO-STARTED-MY-WRITERLY-OBSESSION: MY BOOK MAY HAVE A CHANCE OF BECOMING PUBLISHED!

Let us back up and trace how it is that this white puffy wonder that is my writing aspiration snapped its sail to set off. (I’ll drop the cloud metaphor now that it’s getting unmanageable, like pirates are waiting to enter stage left.)

In 2007 I decided I wanted to return to pursuing my publishing goal. The one I’d chased since I was a child and gotten a degree for in the 90’s but placed on hold to parent two children and be everything else.

In 2009, I took a year off work to write. I wrote the novel that taught me how to write beyond a short story/article. It was bad. Very bad – it even had a scene where a silverfish (yes, the insect) helped the main character of a contemporary young adult novel make the decision that would bring the story to its climax. No it wasn’t magic realism. And no, the main character wasn’t on drugs.

Still I queried this thing because, damn, I’d worked on it for FIVE MONTHS! And wonder of wonders, out of the five queries + pages I sent out, I got two full requests – and from Writers House and ICM to boot! The lovely Tina Wexler read it ALL and suggested things I needed to work on and even offered to be there for a revise and resubmit. (I still cringe on imagining her face when the pivotal silverfish crawled in.)

I went back to teaching but also came back home to work. I read about what goes wrong in novels and what makes things go right. I went on a revision retreat in Boston with writing mentors. And I saw that this first novel was a trunk novel, the kind you put in a drawer and close tight.

But one character in it, the one everyone loved without fail, crawled out of the drawer.

She wanted her own story. In early 2011, I let her start it via a private blog. When her story started to take shape and form, I plotted it a bit and teased all the threads and wove them with equity a la J.K. Rowling’s most magnificent spreadsheet. I kept doing this: micro writing and macro planning and weaving, always in bits.

I worked on it for three more years. And it was done. I had two great critique partners and six beta readers.

They loved it but I didn’t. The beginning wasn’t working for me. One of my critique partners agreed that it wasn’t as strong as the rest of the book. But she couldn’t figure out what was wrong either.

So for another year, I worked on just the beginning. I vacillated between wondering if I was just hiding my fear of failure behind this excuse and knowing with certitude that I needed my novel to be in tip-top-silverfish-free shape before I queried again.

Last year, I decided to do a query-run. Again sent out 5. No bites. I knew the query and first pages had to be strong and, frankly, they weren’t.

In December, I wondered what it would feel like to not want to be a writer. I imagined the freedom. I did that for three days before I went sobbing back to the keyboard.

And in that reaffirmation of my dream, I found a beginning that worked better for me.

During March Break, I wrote a query I liked, no double-guessing involved. I sent it out before the break ended, figuring it would take about three months to know if my book had a chance – just in time for summer vacation, when I could spend more time on my writing.

Instead, I got a steady stream of immediate requests for the full manuscript from rockstar agents I’d considered untouchable. In shock, I complied.

Then, offers of representation! I cried and wanted to jump on the first one – which was from a highly-sought after agent I’d queried after I saw my pitch was working.

That’s when experienced friends stepped in. Published people who helped me hone in on what kind of a published writer I wanted to be. With their guidance, I allowed myself to envision my career as an author.

And with that in mind, I chose THE agent that fit my writerly-style and writerly-aspirations: John M. Cusick from Folio Jr. Literary!

johnmcusick

Guys, guys, guys, I have to gush here because I’m so thankful that I took the time to think things through and ask questions. John has insight, strong sales and industry experience but more importantly, he came with resounding recommendations, has a communication style that fits my impatient-bratty-self and most most amazing, he’s a writer himself! The kindred spiritedness that springs between writers – I’ve never found that with any other human species when the topic of writing comes up and with John, I got a strong sense of his true passion for writing and writers.

That’s who I want to begin my (please God, LONG) writing career with. I am so so so excited!

Okay, cue pirates. Enter moor, stage left, sidestep crawling insect, and start your story – I’m more than ready to write it down…

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photo by Oliver Dodd

 

P.S. Getting this far took a long time but it would have taken even longer without the many great writers out there who actively share what they’ve learned. I’m always willing to share what I’ve learned – both from them and from my experiences – so if anybody has any questions/wonderings, please do let me know. I’d love to help others with their own dream clouds.

Writers, listen to this until the very sweet slightly tedious end:

We are gathered here today, dearly beloved, to talk about beginnings. Why they sometimes suck. Well, for me.

Beginnings are introductions. And I’m an ambivert, bad at introductions, good when things get going, great when there’s action, awesome when it’s time to say good-bye and the exchanging of numbers, information and business cards are happening.

I’m shy and hesitant initially – because I don’t know if you’ll like who I am and what I offer. When there’s warmth and things are safe, I let myself be and then hopefully, you’ll like what you see.

My first meet with my husband was like that. I was quiet for the most part but then our second meet was in a bookstore and that’s safety-city for moi, so I was me. And we got married seven months later.

This pattern unfortunately presents itself in my writing. I’ve worked on this but it reasserts itself in every new project.

New writers need a leg in the door and that leg starts with a foot called the first five to ten pages. And this foot’s supposed to be your best foot.

Alas, my foot is not the prettiest.

I’ve read most of the recommended books on the importance of your manuscript’s opening and I’ve done the work (start later, ditch the backstory or weave it seamlessly, start with inciting incident, NO prologue etc) but beginning the beginning right is not my forte.

I know this because I’ve had the awful but lovely experience where a new writing teacher/professor/mentor reads my work with pen striking often in the initial pages, admonishing inks becoming sparse on the next few pages and then disappearing in the middle only to reappear at the end with a Bravo! or an A+ or an I can’t wait to read more of your work.

They don’t go on being so critical on the openings of my subsequent pieces, but the uniformity of responses to my introductory set-ups have made a deep impression on me.

So I kind of play around with my beginnings a lot.

Is it a form of procrastination? I don’t think so – because I do send work out. Is it a form of perfectionism? Yes, that it is.

I try to console myself that other notable books have less than stellar beginnings. But they all made it in the door somehow. Their feet squeezed through.

Okay, back to pedicuring my MSs.

My manuscripts, all lined up. Ugh. Photo by Vern Hart

One day I woke up and I was in my 40s. Early 40s, but when did this happen?

I know the truth is that I forever will feel these four ages: three, seven, fourteen and twenty-one, with bouts of thirty-six. My husband pegs me as having the heart of the second of the ages I listed. After seven solid years of marriage, he’s still in awe of my marveling at simple joys and amusements.

But I think the feeling of forty is creeping up on me. So I anticipate the dawning of wisdom. I’ve heard that’s what happens during your forties. (As long as your forties are not the new twenties. Please God no.)

Looking back from this wisdom-awaiting position, I see my thirties were my pivotal years. I felt the most at peace with where I was headed, because I changed directions. I left my stagnant marriage, had a good divorce, as outlined in the Qur’an, and worked on my self, my deen and my relationships with loved ones. I started this blog in 2006 to capture some of the journey back.

I believe the work I did on finding the best me led me to be able to meet the love of her life. There was no bitterness or defensive chip on my shoulder when I went for coffee with my soon-to-be life partner. I presented myself, the one I’d uncovered.

So my thirties were beautiful.

And my twenties? They belonged unconditionally to my children – I sprang to be The Most Devoted Mother with gutso. I shoved myself, squashed myself actually, in tending to them. My early thirties taught me to balance me & them. My mid-to-late thirties forced me to balance me, the children and my husband.

What do I want of my forties? I want big wisdom. The kind that sees beyond the immediate situation immediately. Not after the fact, when the deed is done, and I’m holed up reflecting. Is it too much to hope for that first-aid kind of wisdom? The type that can stop the flow of blood, the flow of wrong decisions, word-choices, actions with paramedic calm?

I want my forties to be when I get published. Big-time published. I love writing too much to have it sit there accumulating in my dad’s old university bag from the sixties (because it is). In the ten years I’ve turned back to my craft, I’ve learned that I can be patient and that I can plod-on and that I can keep up. Now, it’s time to make my mark.

My son, in third year University, tells me that everyone’s talking about intersectionality. I looked it up and read about it. I couldn’t completely understand it, like I would’ve understood it when I was in University and my mind was in Derrida-land, but the seven year-old in me likes the simple intersection(s) idea. That my identity is made up of multiple identities, a series of crossed lines and the point in the middle is the me no one else is.

That’s the point from which I want to make my mark as a writer.

As a micro writer, I’m not used to revising in the way it’s understood to mean: re-working a draft to get to the story. This inexperience is due to the fact that I’m constantly chipping as I write; continuously re-reading, re-arranging, re-envisioning my words as I lay them down. Each time I open scrivener* to write a new chapter, I re-read my whole or most of my manuscript and cut/re-arrange as needed. (It can take hours to get to the actual writing part.) Each time I pick up from where I left off when my last complete thought finished, I have to back up and read every sentence before it. (Like the sentences in this paragraph were played around with quite a few times. Okay, maybe SEVERAL times.)

I’m not going to lament that all they teach you in creative writing/mfa programs at universities is how to write a tidy, lyrical short story and how different that is than writing an entire book with a PLOT. I think I’ve ranted on that enough in another blog. And anyways Ann Patchett does the lamenting way more brilliantly and with way more logical sense in her writing memoir, The Getaway Car – a must for every aspiring writer to read.

Short stories need a different sort of revising. Micro writers will find no discomfort in doing that sort of revising because essentially it’s what we already do: check the flow.

But a book now. That is one big unwieldy thing to keep still enough to check the flow on. Check the flow in all directions and with all threads.  Just thinking of all the times I’ve grappled with this makes me weary.

So I gathered my saved bookmarks of great revision tips and printed them out and bindered them up and they have become my personal coaches.

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Here are some links if you are so inclined (mostly or maybe all from writers of Young Adult books):

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Revision Roadmap

Veronica Roth’s Revision Day One, Day Two and Day Three

Mary Beth Lundgren’s PDF of collected final revision checklist

Darcy Pattison’s 2 Amazing Ways to Revise Your Novel (And When to Use Them)

Maggie Stiefvater’s From Rough to Final: A Dissection of Revision

Janice Hardy’s The Spit Shine: Things to Check Before You Submit

Hope this helps other aspiring authors out there.

*and, psss, if you don’t have scrivener, get it! It’s a must for writing big things.

Love this piece about sending/putting your writing out there: The Art of Submission: Why we submit.

I discovered that literary journals consider things you’ve put on your blog as being in the category of PUBLISHED PREVIOUSLY. Which they then don’t accept as publishable pieces.

And since I have a few blogs I keep, my writing has been PUBLISHED PREVIOUSLY in plenty of spaces. (Who knew it was so easy to be published, huh?)

I’m hoping to merge my many blogs one day so I’ll do a link here to the brief one I kept while away from home; the first post:  Snowflakes in Doha. The blog is called Marvels & Oddities and it was an attempt to balance my positive impressions with my I-wanna-go-back-home impressions. The latter was my predominant penchant.

 

Never want to forget this book:

taro and the tofu

The first book that made me realize what a book was/is: a bundled-up world that one could slip into and once one slips out again, things looked different – a bit different or a lot – in the real world.

What a nice aha to get as a young child. I thank my dad for bringing home loads of books all the time. One of those loads contained this very special book.

It’s gone now but I hope to get a copy again one day.

Just seeing the cover induces coziness.

I feel so bad as I write this post title knowing I am about to be misleading…especially with a big, prominent BLOG WITH INTEGRITY button on my sidebar.  But I can’t stop myself…but just to be more “integrous”, I will do some nice disclaimers:

1. No I did not get my book published.

2. No I did not get my book published.

3. No I did not get my book published.  Yet.

There, now that I thoroughly ruined my post, I will just tell you that I feel like such an author – finally – after all these long years, yearning to be one…because of my daughter, who had to chose a poem to memorize and recite to her 4rth grade class from AN AUTHOR (search on the internet even, they were told).  I directed her to Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes even Shakespeare! but she asked me if I had written any poems.  I tried to get away but was forced to reveal that I had written some and that there were a few on my blog. Next thing you know, she was memorizing and practicing In Your Praise, tasbih in hand for proper effect.  When I tried to dissuade her, I was told that I am an author – my poetry is even on the internet just like Maya’s is!

At the beginning of December I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver in 3 days while recovering from surgery.  The only thing I could do was read.  I was astounded by her book – not blindly astounded, because I do have some criticism (like the depiction of the character of Rachel, the eldest daughter, was not humane – she c(sh)ouldn’t have been THAT shallow, that bad).    I was simply astounded in the sheer work it took to get something that realistic in terms of the socio-political/economic situation in the Congo (well, really the world) – yet still in fiction form – out.  Wow, she’s a powerful, strong, muscled writer.

I say this as I’m struggling to understand that writing is really hard work – sweat and all.  I think I had been flying by on inspiration on all my previous success in turning out little things here and there.  But to write something whole and big and substantial is as terrifying as giving birth for the first time.

I fear the one book I’m concentrating all my energy on right now is shallow and deplete of any contribution to the world.  But I so enjoy writing it.  Does that mean I’m shallow and ditzy (’cause the book is)?

The other two should hold my attention more.  One more than the other because it has the job of shifting people’s thinking in a monumental way (it was going to try to be one of those books).  It had such a lofty, precise goal that I kept trying to plot it and plan it just so – that I lost interest in it for a long while.  And then I read Kingsolver and saw that I was in no way fit to enter the league of writers of those books.

The third book is about a topic I know nothing about, am scared of and just writing because I’m recording a saga I’ve told over the years to my daughter and nieces and since it was their ultimate favorite from all other told stories, I undertook the duty of duly recording it.  But it’s one thing to make the kids you love believe you’re an expert on something you know nothing about and another to convince the rest of kiddom.  And the research makes me squirm and squeal.

So that’s it for my writing whinefest.  Back to my ditzy novel.

Once upon a time, there was a time when there squeezed through the bustlings of my day a little bubble (pink, faintly bubble-gum smelling) of time – just enough to write something down…and, lo and behold, with some key-tapping, it would be something that could be read by readers out there somewhere. Oh whither that bubble?

I miss blogging.  But I don’t miss writing as I’ve been doing that pretty consistently since my official year off work began.  My book, well, bookS now (when one takes a snooze, I turn my mind to the otherS) is/are coming along slowly but surely – with Allah’s help.

But I miss blogging because when one is blogging, keeping up with reading bloggers and discussing things, you’ve got your finger on the pulse of what we’re about – in real-time, in actual-history.  And now, to be shut away (even if by choice), it feels rather peculiarly lonesome.

One of the bloggers whom I used to lurk at before I launched on my own, Ali Eteraz, just came out with his book, Children of Dust.  I haven’t had the chance to read it – but as he was a captivating writer, I think I will need to pick it up.  I am still holding out that he takes up writing a book he had once described called The Poverty of the Prophet.  As I remember from a brief excerpt he published, it was unique in its ability to so compellingly capture the moving simplicity of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

While I am tapping away on my story, I am constantly trying to rein my cart in before the horse…I so want this year to be fruitful in finishing a book.  Even if it does not see the light of publishing day, I feel like that song by the beatles, blackbird…I was waiting all my life for this moment to arrive… to become a writer.

Well, I like to think I became a writer in grade seven when my homeroom teacher, who had the reputation for being the strictest in the school, called me to her desk on the first day and asked in a stern voice if I really did write the “What I did this summer” essay on my own.  I quakingly said yes.  For two weeks, she watched me carefully every time we got assigned something to write and then finally, called me again to that majestic desk and handed me a paper marked with an A+ and asked me if I knew that I was a writer.   I quakingly said no.  I did not know anything definable about myself besides Muslim, girl and perhaps, brown? Muslim Brown Girl.  Now Ms. Z. made me Muslim Brown Girl Writer and it felt good.

So this moment has arrived and I try to take the pressure off by devoting all my energy to making googly-eyed breakfasts for my daughter and packing heartier, healthier lunches for my son, and growing more in gratitude to the Merciful One for the love He allowed to fall into my life through my awesome husband,  and by having so much fun with the condo:

 (and my favorite, the beginnings of a library!)

but the moment has arrived – to write, to finish and to have and hold: A BOOK.  Written by a Muslim brown girl, insha’Allah.

(But please remember, I still miss blogging.  And I’m thankful that some of you still miss me and keep googling commonplacer.wordpress only to find nothing updated…I so sorry.  Perhaps, at that point, you can say a prayer that I finish my book. 🙂  )

Yesterday was like a heart rate chart. Up and down and up and down.

It officially began with a down when I snipped my finger (the one next door to pinkie) while I was cutting sticky notes for the students to use during their social studies projects to pretend they were real researchers (you know, walking around with books with yellow strips sticking out all over the place with their jotted notes on them). The bleeding wouldn’t stop and had the kids all tizzied up. Some had their mouths open in fascination (the scientists), several were running to tell others (the reporters), a couple had rushed to the office to get bandages (the doctors), one had brought tissue over to press the wound (the paramedic), two were reassuring me and informing each other they had experienced such cuts before and survived (the Oprahs), one was examining the scissor’s sharpness (the forensic investigator), a couple were muttering darkly about its sharpness (the unionists), one special guy was announcing the fact that there was such sharp scissors around a school wasn’t good at all (the lawyer), three were asking me if I was ok over and over (the therapists), four were still working hard on their projects after shooting a single steely glance at all the commotion (the CEOs) and a handful, a precious handful, were patting my arm with tears in their eyes (the gems). And all I was thinking was… a cut on my newly empty ring finger? I can get a poem out of the tragic irony.

Such is the mind of (the writer).

Ali Eteraz of the eteraz series fame (the forum: eteraz.org and blog: eteraz.wordpress.com) “bestowed” Disconnected Verses with a link on his extremely popular blog. I introduced Disconnected Verses in a post below but failed to mention I write there as well.

This bestowal caused a serious spike in the DV blog stats. Depending on your view, the link could have been a swish from the fairy godmother’s wand or a drive-by shooting. Let me see, do I want a quiet, cozy spot to try out some creative writing ideas with a few like-minded people or a good-sized audience of readers to give you the honest goods? See what I mean – depends on your comfort zone.

I, for one – with one eyebrow raised at his characteristically wry title to his post on DV: They Don’t Write as Well as Me – thank Ali for highlighting the creative collaboration of a few Muslim writers. We’ll have to wait to see how it affects our comfort zones (ok, my comfort zone – since I can’t speak for the other 3 extremely talented and confident young women who really run DV).

Speaking about links, a link from Irshad Manji’s website to this blog (with the tabloidish title “I am Biased Against Her – Muslim Canadian Blogger”) created a lot of hits for my review of her film, Faith Without Fear, Profiting from the Fear of the Faith – as well as some drive-by shooting type comments which I’m still holding in the comment moderation queue while I ponder on the importance of freedom of speech verses the freedom of owning your own blog. Check out the (civil) discussion in the comments. Through it I was able to add to my links roll a brother who runs a blog from B.C. : Abdiel – Islam on the Wet Coast; relevant, well-written commentary and reviews – including a look at Faith Without Fear…definitely something to check out.

I’ve started writing fiction again recently – and I’m finding it unbearably hard. REALLY unbearably hard. I have about 3 “Great” Canadian Novels started (actually, though I’m a staunch Canadian, I prefer them to be called 3 “Great” American novels – sounds much better for reasons we all know too well) and they’re all dying of neglect. Number 1 is all mapped out with 2 chapters done and yet I myself was so bored with it that I couldn’t imagine anyone picking it up to read voluntarily (hmm, could have made great high-school English reading requirement material), Number 2 is in the infancy of a really compelling 2 paragraph introduction which I read over and over wondering how I can go on writing in such a clipped, no-nonsense way when I’m mostly the opposite of that and Number 3 is written in little bits here and there, in this notebook and that hard drive – that to collect them all would make a great novel in itself.

I was going to give up and go back to my forte of writing short stories but when I tried that too recently, I totally stunk at it as well! While doing my degree in creative writing, I had no problems sticking to the job of churning out amusing little tales with wistful endings and being the only Muslim and practically the only non-Caucasian in the program, I had the monopoly on exotic settings/characters which wowed my fellow aspiring scribblers and profs. They wanted to know more all the time and so I delivered more – fast and furiously, often seizing upon anything in the room I was writing in as my muse. Green Peppers! Mustard Seeds! Hijabs! Mom’s Old Blue Frilly Suitcase! They all figured prominently in my stories and somehow caused my supervising professor to think my writing was fit for publishing. Nah, I didn’t dare send my stories off because I knew real good fiction comes from the authenticity of life as you’ve lived it mingled with the freshness of your perspective. You know, like when Jo of Little Women and Anne of Green Gables begin to write real good fiction (sigh, my writing heroes sure are impressive).

So here I am. I feel like it’s time. I’ve reached a point of authenticity. I hope I have a fresh perspective. And what am I turning out? A short piece of fiction with 3 characters who can’t stand being in the same story. No matter how much I’ve tried to wrestle them to fit together, they keep straying. I’ve never been much for drafts and my successfully workshopped stories were all one-draft creations but I’m appalled to say that I’m working on the 7th draft of this one story and still it STINKS! The daughter in the story is elusive and clipped and no-nonsensical (hmm, is there a common theme running in my characters here?), the father is too obsessed with the state of his soul, the mother is wistful and lovely beyond words (and she really is getting beyond words) and they all want out to tell their own stories. Oh yeah, to complicate matters, flitting in and out are also a horse-loving Southern woman who drives an old jalopy with embarrassing bumper stickers pasted all over, a newly-arrived visa student who speaks in formal, cliche-riddled prose while trying to woo the no-nonsense girl in totally informal ways and a homeless woman who torments the dad with her silence.

For some morbid reason, I won’t give up on this story. And for some morbid reason, I won’t let the characters out of the story. Maybe I should just give them more space and let them roam a whole novel. Shudder, I wonder where that would end up…definitely not as a “Great” American, er, Canadian Novel.

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