Monday, July 31, 2006

Where did Joshua come from?

I write in first-person. I began this practice upon the recommendation of a publisher who rejected my first novel, Innocent People, but saw merit in the story.

But I am not Joshua. Or Evie. Or Brad. I develop my characters from a composite of my experiences, based on where I want them to go.

Joshua came mainly, I think, from my experience of teaching high school. I saw many young men like him--talented, full of potential, and completely lost.

Evie is a stereotype I created when I was young. The "fifty-year old woman." I've known very few people, personally, who fit the stereotype, but it remains. When my mother turned fifty, she mentioned my "fifty-year old woman" concept. But she didn't fit it--and she never has.

In two days, insha Allah, I will be fifty. I don't fit the stereotype either. I don't care about fashions or what other people think of me--except when it comes to my writing. I'm not Evie. She remains a decades-long figment of my imagination--though she has come to mean more than that to me.

When my next book, Turbulence, is published early next year I will talk about where Brad came from. But not yet.

My characters come from me, in the deepest sense. I have met people--often briefly--who inspire them. I take mental notes during all my encounters. And when I sit down to write, all those past experiences, those mental notes, come into focus.

Joshua comes from many different places. My concern for young men who lack direction. My experience with students who slouched through life. He comes from my experiences and my imagination. Amazingly, he has become a part of my life.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

"Muslims are people too."

Yea, I received a reply! Thank you, Sr. Safiyyah.

That's a great point. People seem to imagine Muslims as strange creatures. Covered and veiled women. Men with accents who keep shouting "Allahu akbar." Strange languages, dress, food, you name it.

But we're people. Most of us marry and have children. We all have feelings. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry. When we bleed our blood is red. And we do say Allahu akbar because we glorify Allah, who created us.

And we like to read. It's nice to read stories in general, but it's better to read stories about us. Finding characters with the same approach to life. Revealing that Muslims are never perfect. (As Ismail said in Echoes, "Being a Muslim doesn't mean being perfect. It just means you try.") Discovering characters who struggle with life here in the U.S., just as we do. And learning Islam from Muslim characters.

Thank you again, Sr. Safiyyeh, for your great comment. I don't know where everyone else is. But those of us who do show up need to keep it up.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Is anybody out there?

I haven't received any responses yet, which is a really frustrating aspect of blogging. I throw my words out there, but I don't really know if anyone is reading them. I did once try to install a counter, but I did something wrong because it didn't work. Technology and I are not exactly best friends.

Writing books is like that too. Weaving the stories without any assurance that the books will be read. Sitting in my livingroom, in my own world which no one else can see. Finally delivering my books out into the world and hoping they will be well-received.

The worst part, of course, is picking up a best-selling book and knowing I wrote better than that. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen.

Writing is an act of faith, I guess. And speaking of faith. What do you have to say about Islamic fiction?

(If you don't like it, say so. I've heard worse. I can take it.)

Monday, July 24, 2006

So what do you think?

I haven't heard from my readers yet about Islamic fiction. I'm still waiting.

What are you looking for when you pick up a book? And what comes to your mind when you hear about Islamic fiction?

In 1986 I heard, for the first time, about Islamic education. Immediately I imagined so many possibilities. Many of them have come to pass. Others I'm still waiting for. But there's time.

Do you remember when your teacher (if you grew up in the U.S.) told you to read the Diary of Anne Frank? It was very moving, wasn't it? How did it make you feel about the victims of the Holocaust? Didn't it give you a different perspective?

That's what Islamic fiction can do. Make Muslims real. Not just masked men carrying guns or veiled women who walk ten steps behind their husbands. It can make us real for non-Muslims who would like to know more about us but are afraid to ask, and must rely on the evening news for all of their information. And it can make us real for the Muslim kids who grow up in this country and hear, daily, about how terrible Muslims are.

When I decided to become a writer, full-time, I also decided that every book I wrote would reflect the lives of Muslims.

So that's what I think about Islamic fiction. But I'm still waiting to hear from you.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Islamic Fiction. Why?

I would like to remind you of the petition. If you haven't signed it yet, please do.

I would also like to hear from my readers. Why is Islamic fiction important?

Islamic Fiction--Petition

Every society has literature. In fact, literature tells you a great deal about the society. It is a way to pass on the values of the society in a relaxed and entertaining manner, and my guess is literature has influenced most societies more than many other factors.

Many of us are trying to create an atmosphere in which Islamic literature is accepted. Middle Eastern countries have had literature, Islamic and otherwise, for hundreds of years. But some Muslims still balk at the idea of Islamic fiction written in English. Literature which speaks to the people of the land, in their own language and their own cultural understanding.

If you support Islamic fiction, and I'm sure you must, please sign the petition.

The Islamic Writers Alliance is sponsoring a petition to call for publishers, distributors, and book retailers and wholesalers, particularly ones serving the Muslim community to produce and stock more Islamic fiction. If you'd like to sign (I hope you will!) please go to:

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Nat the prison guard

Nat is another character in Rebounding. Not one of my favorites, but he represents a very real sentiment.

Nat is a guard in a federal prison. The prison where Joshua is held on terrorist charges. He has a daughter who is fighting overseas. Like any father, he is worried about her. And, because the enemies she's fighting are Muslims, he's is suspicious of all Muslims. This is not uncommon either. It's not that Nat is a bad guy. He's just a very concerned father.

But Nat's love for his daughter blinds him to any good he may find in Muslims he encounters. Instead he is hostile and threatening. After all, that Muslim inmate may have connections with a soldier in the Middle East who has a bomb waiting for Nat's daughter.

The United States is full of Nats. Not bad. Just so wrapped up in their own worlds that they can't see the larger picture. They are unable to accept the fact that the majority of Muslims are normal people, trying to earn money and raise their families.

Nat is suspicious and very angry. It's too bad he didn't take the time to get to know Joshua. Joshua is also a concerned and loving father. Nat would be surprised by how much they have in common.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Life and Art

I've broached this topic a couple times before, but I think it bears repeating. How far can or should an artist go to reflect real life?

This is a special concern for Muslims because our moral sensibilities create barriers against the world. We don't want to expose ourselves to the ugliness. But can we pretend that it does not exist?

As I mentioned, there are words I will never use--either in speech or in writing. And there are topics I will never discuss.

But I do discuss topics which may make some squeamish. Suicidal thoughts. Depression. Anger. Marital discord and divorce. Rebellious teens. Terrorist accusations. Illicit attraction to the opposite sex. Spousal and child abuse. Alcoholism. I challenge anyone to show me these do not exist within the ummah.

We have two choices. We can sweep our problems under the rug and pretend they don't exist. Or we can openly discuss the issues and try to find solutions within the teachings of Islam.

Life is not always pretty. Must our words be pretty, or must they be real?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

How important are words, really?

I have grown sons who, unfortunately, have been exposed to some "bad words" through both work and college. I have an on-going conversation with my 22-year old who contends that the words I consider to be bad simply do not have the same clout they had back in my day. If he uses those words, he doesn't do it in front of me. But he confesses hearing them regularly.

I've noticed it too. It's difficult even to find a book to read without curse words. And I am constantly telling my kids, "They can't say that on TV." There are very few limits anymore.

So how important is a word? Is it simply an aggregate of letters with a commonly-accepted definition? Or does it have more power?

Listen to the leaders as they present their different viewpoints. Hear the words they use. Some choose their words very carefully. Some, such as The Decider, are often more careless with how they speak. But politicians in general understand the power of words. Freedom. Democracy. Mother and apple pie. Evil. With us or against us. They move the heart and stir people into action.

I believe words are very important. When I write I try to choose my words carefully, looking for just the right effect. Love, like, adore. Hug, embrace, hold. Walk, trudge, amble. It makes a difference which word you use, doesn't it?

Words carry emotions. We need to choose and use them very deliberately.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Writers and social issues

There are many reasons why people choose to write. Dreams of wealth, hopes of fame, an irresistible urge. Many of us write because we hope to make a difference.

History is replete with novels which have changed social conditions. When Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Lincoln introduced her as "the little woman who started this big war." "To Kill a Mockingbird" highlighted racial prejudice. "The Jungle" changed the way America slaughtered meat.

Money and fame would be nice. But the best reason I can think of for writing is to make an impact and change hearts and minds. There are plenty of issues to write about. The current crisis in the Middle East is fertile ground. So are continuing racism, poverty, pollution, abuse--the list is endless.

I believe writers have an obligation to society. If the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, then we need to arm ourselves and get to work.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Joshua's hometown

Joshua is from Chicago. I chose that city after researching different places. Chicago seemed to be the right fit. And except for the traffic and pollution, I like Chicago. I lived there for three months back in 1978. It wasn't quite as crowded then.

As I write the Echoes Series, I've tried to stay faithful to my locale. Including special characteristics of the city. Brad grew up on the South side, so he's a White Sox fan. Joshua prefers the Cubs. Chris is focused on salvation and doesn't think much about sports.

At times I have actually perused the Chicago Tribune clssifieds to find the right houses for my characters. My husband and I spent a few hours in Chicago today. I enjoy driving through my characters' neighborhoods and picking which houses would suit their personalities.

I enjoy reading stories which contain details about the location. And I work to do the same in my stories

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Jared White

When Joshua needs a lawyer to help him fight an unusual lawsuit, Walt sends him to a tough young lawyer who won't give up, even in the face of difficult odds. Jared White.

Jared is a fairly young man, in his early thirties, who has tenacity and a strong sense of justice. He is an American Muslim convert who believes strongly in his faith but is not overtly religious. He is the kind of lawyer who wears jeans and eats pizza at his desk while reviewing documents and planning his case.

Jared knows American society and what it will take to win. And he won't give up.


I almost forgot about him. He's not quiet, exactly, but he doesn't want to cause trouble. He's easy-going, self-confident--maybe not the kind of character I would build a story around, but he's great for support.

What makes Peter special is that he married Heather. And he gave her the love she always wanted. Unlike Joshua, her first husband, Peter can make Heather feel important and loved.

Peter is an artist. He teaches college art classes--Heather was one of his students. They have a daughter named Brianna. And a condo full of art.

Peter gets along well with Joshua. He gets along well with everyone. When Joshua and his wife, Aisha, talk about Islam, Peter asks questions. He's open to new knowledge and experiences.

The only thing annoying about Peter--at least, what Joshua finds annoying--is his cheerful banter. And his attempts at silly little jokes. Joshua is still far too serious for all of that. Which is why Heather is much happier with Peter than she ever was with Joshua.

But Peter's quirks can be forgiven. He's good to Heather, Brianna and his three stepchildren--the children Heather and Joshua had during their short and difficult marriage. He's friendly. And he's always ready for a new experience.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Writing a series, part 3: the problems

When you write a series, each book must fit into the series as a whole and yet exist on its own merits. I would say that is the greatest challenge.

How to be original and yet maintain a connection? When I write, I'm tempted to fall back on the same phrases I used before. But this won't work--at leaet not if I'm writing for a different character. Each character must have his or her own voice.

Another challenge is to be consistent. In Echoes Joshua said he liked animals--blaming his mother for the fact that he never had a pet. In Rebounding, I made sure he had a pet. More than one pet, actually.

I write clues in one book which lead into the next book. But I don't know if the readers like this. Or would they rather have all questions answered in the current book?

The last book will be the hardest. For one thing, I have to decide how to say goodbye to my characters. And by the last book I have so many secondary characters that it would be hard fo rsomeone who hasn't read the ifrst four books to keep them straight. I'm working on it.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Writing a series, part 2: the benefits

Some stories can be told well in a flash fiction piece or even a poem. But other stories need more than one book.

If your story covers a period of many year, even multiple generations, it should probably be in a series. If your story deals heavily with the history of your characters, it should probably be in a series. If you can envision your characters in diverse situations and plots, then you should probably be thinking about a series.

In a series, the author can develop each character more fully. Include back story to explain the character's motivations.

A series also draws readers. Perusing the bookstore shelves, particularly in the youth section, shows that writers have realized this. If someone reads book 1 in a series, he or she may likely pick up books 2, 3 and 4.

Readers enjoy series novels because of the identification with the characters and the feeling of being caught up in the story. Of course, single novels can do this too. But a series provides a sense of both familiarity and anticipation--like the continuing stories of the loved, and often maligned, soap operas. What will Harry next? What is the VFD? Tune in to the next book in the series for the answers to your questions.

When writing a series, the author becomes deeply involved in the lives of his or her characters. They grow through time, just as our own children do. They become part of our daily thought and vocabulary.

I'm enjoying the Echoes Series. Joshua Adams is an old friend to me now. And I relish plotting new developments in the lives of the other characters.

I often think about book five now. How will I be able to give my characters a fond farewell and provide my readers with a satisfying ending?

Tomorrow: The downside of writing a series

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Writing a series, part 1

When I sat down to write Echoes, I never intended to make it the first book in a series. It was the story of young Joshua Adams. That's all.

I lived in Kansas City at the time and got together regularly with my friend, Najiyah, who was also working on novel. Najiyah helped me in many ways to make Echoes stronger. When she finished reading my manuscript, she asked me what came next for Joshua.

I turned it over in my mind for a few weeks, and another story developed. Joshua and Aisha eleven years later. The changes in their family. The development of other characters. Resolution of conflicts carried over from Echoes. The result was Rebounding.

When I finished Rebounding I asked my son Musa, who is also a writer, to read the ending and see if he could find a way to extend it into another book. He make a great suggestion and I started working with it. The next book, Turbulence, will come out early in 2007, insha Allah.

While I was writing Turbulence I decided to extend the series to five books. The fourth, Ripples, has already been written. Now I need to revise.

The fifth book, Silence, will be the hardest to write. I've already written about 80 pages of a very rough draft. But I've decided to go back in a few months and start again. I know, basically, what will happen in that book. But I have a feeling the characters may take the story in a different direction.

It will be satisfying to finish the Echoes Series. But I will miss my characters. Especially Joshua. I've seen him grow and mature. I don't think I'm ready to say goodbye.

Tomorrow: The benefits of writing a series

Monday, July 03, 2006

Watch your language!

I hate curse words and vulgarity. They're demeaning and indicative of ignorance.

When my oldest son was four he repeated everything he heard. I was elated to find an Islamic school to send him to. One of the reasons I sent him to Islamic school was because I didn't want him to be exposed to bad language.

I did my best. We don't use bad words in our home. I was careful of the TV programs and movies my kids could watch. He attended Islamic school from pre-K through 12th grade. But he still manages to come out with the occasional word. I learned that it is impossible to totally protect our children from undesirable influences. We just need to do the best we can.

Keep this in mind. I don't use bad language. Except in my stories.

I don't write a steady stream of curse words. In fact, there are only four words I will use--all of which can be heard on network television, even in prime time. But I do allow the occasional word, judiciously used.

My recently-published novel, Rebounding, includes some scenes in a federal prison. I've never been in prison, but I think I can safely say they don't use 'please' and 'thank you' in regular speech. I sprinkled a few words into the dialogue of the prisoners to make the scenes authentic. Again, fairly tame compared to what is actually used because there are many words I refuse to speak or write. Ever. But I think it would have been ridiculous to completely ban rough language in those scenes.

My main characters don't curse. Well, almost never. One character inserts 'hell' and 'damn' into his conversation, though not on a regular basis. His father cursed, and he never broke the habit. And I allow two characters to curse a little when their situations become nearly unbearable. People do.

I believe language should be polite and sophisticated. But that's not always the way people talk. Muslim writers must make that choice. To use occasional language in an effort to make our stories more realistic. Or to sugarcoat everything.

We need to think of my son's generation. The ones who grew up with rough language in the media, the schools--just about everywhere. Do we want them to read our works? Or do we want to turn them away with a Pollyannish approach?

We have to be Islamic. And we have to be real.