Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Internal dialogue

Do you talk to yourself? It's not as bad as some people claim.

Do your characters talk to themselves? Do they carry on internal dialogues, loud enough for your readers to hear?

You can do a lot with an internal dialogue.

You can expose the hypocrisy of daily interactions. "What a nice dress," I said, smiling. I can't believe she wore that ugly thing out in public.

You can reveal important information about your character. "A car backfires. I jump. I don't know how long it will take for the memories to fade."

You can create a mood. "I walk into the house and kick off my shoes. It is so good to be home. I grab a Coke and sink into the couch."

Let your reader know what your character is thinking. It can be very revealing.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Jamal Ismail Adams

Jamal is the oldest son of Joshua "Isa" Adams and Angela "Aisha" Evans. He was named after his grandfather, Jim Evans.

Jamal is a calm child. He generally works hard--though he can find time to play a video game. He helps his parents. He thinks about many things but doesn't often express himself.

Jamal does not like conflict. He will not always be able to avoid it. But he will continue to approach life calmly, thinking before he acts.

Jim Evans would have been proud.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Leaner and meaner

"She walked over to the tree and looked up. She thought that maybe she saw the cat up there. The same cat she had wanted to catch all during the summer. It was a pretty cat. It reminded her of a kitten that she had seen at her grandmother's house when she was just a three-year old. That was a nice summer. She loved going to her grandmother's house. Her grandmother always made lots and lots of cookies, including some cookies which had big chuncy chocolate chips inside of them. But she didn't see the cat today. Maybe she would be able to see the cat again tomorrow."

What's wrong with this paragraph?

Plenty. It digresses. Many of the sentences are awkward. And there are simply too many words. Some of the sentences should be combined.

One of the greatest challenge for a writer is to say what needs to be said without overdoing it. It's not easy, and requires a careful eye.

Good writing requires the right number of words. Not too many. Always try to write lean and mean.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


She is the youngest of Joshua and Heather's children. Joshua wouldn't come to the hospital when she was born. He ignored her for most of her first three years. Then he realized how much he loved his daughter.

Jennifer is a princess. That's what she's been told since she was very small, and to some extent she always believes it. But she is not aloof. She cares for her family, and she pitches in whenever she can.

Jennifer is also a writer. A poet. A journalist. She may try to write a novel.

Jennifer is not the kind of girl to sit on the sidelines. As a child, she basks in her position as center of attention. As a teen, she challenges her parents. As a young woman, she willingly accepts new adventures.

Like her older brothers, Jennifer had a rough start. But she didn't let that stop her.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Jeremy was a sensitive child. Usually quiet, and often reading.

When he saw his father pray, he asked questions. He was the first of Joshua's children to become a Muslim, making shahadah at the age of ten.

Jeremy is grown now. He is ready for college. Ready for marriage.

But he will always be that shy, sensitve boy.

Monday, May 22, 2006

What's the point of it all?

A reader recently accused me of being too vague in my writing. I needed a conflict he could feel, not a weak character who muddles through life. His comments bother me because I think he's right.

I've said it before. A story needs conflict. An interesting character and fascinating events are good. Spiffy one-liners are fun to write. But without conflict, all that pretty window dressing is like a sports car without an engine.

So I've broken my own rules. Unwittingly, caught up in the story I wove. Broken nonetheless.

Fortunately, writers are not arrested for breaking the laws of literary expression. Not yet anyway. The prisons would be stacked to the ceilings.

That's what we all have to remember. What's the point? What's the conflict? What will keep the reader reading?

And try not to break the laws.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


Joshua's oldest son was born at an inauspicious time. His father was eighteen and his mother was seventeen. When he was five, his father walked away. His mother depended on him. And he never let her down.

Michael learned about life the hard way. Growing up with parents who hated one another. Becoming reacquainted with a father who had abandoned him. Being the man of the family.

But Michael is smart and resilient. His greatest asset, in his early years, was his grandmother, who always gave him the attention he craved. Later, his strength is in his intellect. He could see through the problems, analyze them and cut them down to size. He lives with his head, not his heart.

The first born is always in a difficult position. The experimental child. The oldest, who must be an example to the others. The companion to his parents.

Michael fills his role well. He bounces back from his parents' mistakes, cares for his brother and sister, and builds a bond with both mother and father even when they can barely stand to look at one another.

A high-achiever. That's Michael Adams.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The soul of the writer

The writer has a story in his soul. A poem written on her heart.

The writer pays attention to words. Words matter greatly. Not large. Say huge. Not small. Say tiny. The right word makes all the difference.

The writer has ideas which must be born. To stifle them would only create stress and sadness.

The writer hopes to make a difference in the world. To create the story or poem which will touch the hearts of others and make them think. Not only think, but wish for change.

Some writers have made an impact. All of us strive. Not all will make it.

A writer perseveres. Sitting in solitude in front of the computer. Writing and deleting. Revising and rewriting. Submitting and hoping. Waiting, often for rejection. Submitting again.

Because a writer knows it is the soul that matters.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The New Life of Evelyn Adams

After her husband left her, Evie mourned for twenty-five years. Then, finally, she got on with life.

A bout with breast cancer scares her into action. Life is too short.

Evie is in her 50s when she reinvents herself. New career. New outlook. And so much more.

Even after 50, as long as we are still breathing, life holds many possibilities.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Finding a balance in your characters

Most of my main characters are Muslims. But I have some very solid characters who are also non-Muslims. This is natural if you are a Muslim in America. Non-Muslim family members, neighbors and coworkers are part of everyday life.

If you are writing about Muslims, do you make them all good? Absolutely not. I have been a Muslim for about 26 years, and I have met both good and bad people who call themselves Muslims. Also, no person is always good. Even the best Muslim I've known has some flaws and weaknesses. The challenge isn't to be perfect, but to be careful and sincere when you do make a mistake.

If you are writing about non-Muslims, do you make them all bad? That's even more ridiculous. In the Qur'an, Allah spoke of those among the People of the Book who worship Him, give regularly in charity, and pray. They are assured a reward. Who they are, and how many, is for Allah to know, not me. But I know I have met many people who do not call themselves Muslims, but they live their lives in submission to the Creator. Isn't that what Islam is all about?

In every group of people--every religion, every race, every nation--there are good and bad. And most people are neither good nor bad, but a combination of the two. Sometimes good, sometimes not, and always struggling.

Writers must be real. This applies to Muslim writers also. Reflect the world we live in.

Paradise is very nice. But none of us has seen it. Each of us hopes to go there one day. Until then, we have to make the best of things.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Mahmoud and Ismail

I have sons. Something interesting I've noticed about my sons is that they are very generous. They will happily bring a friend home and offer someone something to eat. They feel a special kinship with other guys their ages. And they have a tolerance for their friends.

I've noticed this isn't just my boys. Men in general seem to be more open-minded and more accepting. Women are often judgmental of one another. But men are more likely to accept one another on face value.

This is what I had in mind when I wrote the characters of Mahmoud and Ismail. Both are from Pakistan. Mahmoud is more quiet and serious. Ismail is a little younger and much less reverent. Both play video games and basketball, and eat pizza. They're guys, after all.

Mahmoud meets Joshua through work. They become good friends, and Mahmoud introduces Joshua to Ismail, his friend and roommate. Although Joshua is not a Muslim, he is accepted. He's a guy.

When Joshua leaves his wife, Mahmoud and Ismail are the only ones who will take him in. Even though he still has many habits. They are patient with him and accepting. Because of their friendship, Joshua becomes interested in Islam. Six months after moving in with Mahmoud and Ismail, Joshua converts.

This is how da'wah is made. Not through stern lectures and reprimand. Through kindness.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

A kind lawyer in a three-piece suit

When Joshua has problems with Homeland Security, his mother calls in a lawyer. An old friend of hers. Walter Thompson.

Walt, who is thinking about retirement, steps in and takes over the case. He investigates every possibility to have Joshua, whom he believes to be innocent, cleared of all charges.

Walt becomes an important person in Joshua's life. Not simply his lawyer. His friend.

Meeting Joshua changes Walt in ways he never could have expected. His world, which had been fairly narrow, suddenly expands. He sees a universe of possibilities.

Walter Thonpson is a great defense attorney, in the manner of Clarence Darrow. Caring for his clients. Willing to roll up his sleeves and plunge into the situation. Passionate about justice.

There are many lawyer jokes out there. I don't know many of them are true. I should ask my sister, the lawyer.

Walter Thompson transcends the stereotypes, and creates a very memorable character.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Losing myself

A few months ago I read an article about the spouses of writers. They all voiced the same complaint. A writer, even when physically present, can be very far away.

A non-writer, I don't think, can understand. How it feels to create families, societies, universes in your mind. How it feels to live in the world of your creation while attempting to navigate life in what others call "the real world." How it feels to successfully string together the right words to convey the meaning.

Writers, when we talk to one another, mention our spouses too. Overwhelmingly, most spouses of writers do not read their loved ones' masterpieces. Rarely, a husband or wife willingly becomes involved in the writer's work. More often, a husband or wife puzzles over the writer's strange behavior.

I feel sorry for someone who does not write and does not understand how it feels to lose yourself in words.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Telling a story, not preaching a sermon

Often, a writer will have an underlying motive for his or her story. A point to get across. This is fine.

The problem is when the writing becomes preachy. One glaring example is The Jungle, a classic written by Upton Sinclair. Sinclair's purpose was to promote socialism--this is glaringly obvious in a long speech delivered near the end of the book. But if you mention The Jungle, people don't think of it as a political treatise. Instead, The Jungle is notable because it exposed unsafe and unsanitary practices in meat-packing plants and led to the creation of federal food safety laws.

We have a great deal to say. But how will we say it? Through long lectures? I guarantee the reader will put the book down and never pick it up again.

Let's get real. Literally. Don't preach. No sermons. No lectures. Instead, we need to tell an engaging story with believable characters. They succeed. They fail. They learn. Eventually. No quick solutions. No miracles to whisk away their troubles.

This is why Upton Sinclair ultimately succeeded. Because he told an engaging story about an immigrant family struggling to survive. And he exposed real problems in the meat-packing plants, not through preaching but through examples. If John Doe is killed by human negligence, and your reader is able to identify with John Doe, or Muhammad, or Yusuf, or Ali, then your reader will get the message.

I'm still working on this. A very kind fellow writer just told me that a section in an upcoming novel is preachy. She's right. I need to go back to that section and rewrite. Same point. Different approach.

You want to make a point. Great. But make sure you don't forget the story.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


The youngest of three. Living at home, his brother and sister already moved on to lives of their own. Close to both mother and father. Quiet. Generally serious. Contented.

Until tragedy strikes. Then Marcus must learn how to survive through major upheavals. His family structure, his home, his life all changed by one event. And there is no going back.

Marcus is resilient. But he struggles. He relies on Umar and Joshua to get him through dark days. And the never-changing love and support of his mother.

Marcus will make it. But at the age of fifteen he learns how difficult life can be.

Monday, May 01, 2006

A strong beginning

People used to have longer attention spans. A book, or even a movie, could have a long build-up before getting into the heart of the action. With the coming of video games, computers, cell phones and microwaves, our attention spans have significantly decreased.

This means that a writer must get things going in the first few pages. Most readers won't stick around for twenty pages to see if something happens.

Start fast. Start strong. Grab your reader. Make him or her wonder what will happen next.

I remember going to three or four hour movies with intermissions. Those days are gone.

Powerful. Meaningful.