Thursday, August 30, 2007

Living and Learning Creatively

About an hour ago we came home from the open house at my son's high school. I chose this school before we moved to this city because I saw enough, through their website and a spring visit, to be impressed. Three weeks into the school year, I'm more impressed.

My son is a freshman at an IB high school. His teachers have taken the IB concept and run with it. The emphasis isn't on harder but more challenging. There is a difference. And, whether or not the teachers used this word, I heard and saw creativity in every classroom. Learning Spanish grammar through conversation. Learning physics by devising and performing experiments. Learning algebra from a teacher with a sense of whimsy (have you ever seen a backwards clock?).

With all the emphasis on test scores, creativity is often neglected. In some workplaces, it's hard to find anyone with an appreciation for the creative. But where do books, plays, artworks, symphonies originate?

Even some writers take a paint-by-the-numbers approach to their craft. That may be fine for some, but I think we need to open our minds and let in the sunshine.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Books and Censorship

Last night my 14-year old gave me a note from his English teacher. The teacher plans to have the students read a book which he knows might make some parents uncomfortable. He discussed the book and offered an alternative.

I'm nearly done reading The Bluest Eye, the recommended book. It is very well written and full of symbolism. But I don't think I'll let my son read this book. Not yet. If he wants to read it later, when he's 17 or 18 or 19, I'll support him. But he's not ready for this book. He has lived a sheltered life, and the realities presented would be, I think, a little much at his age.

The alternative offered by the teacher is A Lesson Before Dying. Tomorrow I plan to thoroughly scan that book--it's probably too much for me to read in a day--to be sure of my decision. Like the first book, it has received good reviews. I don't anticipate a problem.

Censorship is a dirty word. Sometimes, though, it is necessary. I censor myself when I write. In these days, especially, I'm careful to avoid any homosexual interpretations when I write about close friendships between men or women. I also take care not to be politically offensive. And when I present Christianity, or any other religion besides Islam, I do so with fairness.

I've been a parent for 25 years. And that's how long I have censored, to some extent, what my children are exposed to. I don't see how a mother can do otherwise.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Happy Endings

Happily ever after. That's how we expect stories to end. When they don't, something usually feels wrong and off kilter.

For me, the ending is the hardest part to write. I'm tempted to go on, adding to the adventures and misadventures of my characters. At some point, though, I must give the reader a rest. It is up to me to decide when and how my story ends.

Most of my endings have been happy. One has not--though even in tragedy I tried to leave on a note of hope. I didn't plan that ending at all. I sat at my computer and typed, praying for a reasonable way to finish the story. My fingers took over. I wrote it. I read it two or three times. I asked my son to read it and give his opinion. I still wasn't sure. But I went with it. And the ending is definitely memorable.

In another book, the ending crept up on me. I wrote a wonderful summarizing paragraph. Then I kept on writing, adding more and more to the story. I went back over those last few pages many times until I realized that my perfect ending was buried in the text five or ten pages before I stopped writing. I went back and corrected that, of course.

My greatest challenge was writing the book to end the series. It's done now. There is both happy and sad. I've asked my son to read the manuscript through to the final page. He isn't finished yet.

I'm tempted to just have everyone ride off into the sunset. But I want to make my stories real, and real life is much more complicated.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A Part of Life

When I started writing Echoes, I had only a basic premise in mind. I didn't know how the book would be shaped, and I had no idea that it would become the first in a series.

I also hadn't realized that one of the main themes throughout the series would be death. In each book, someone dies--a main character or someone else who has an impact on a main character. As in real life, death is a constant presence.

I was reading my draft of the final book, Silence, to my husband yesterday. He thought it interesting when Joshua said that death is a part of life. It sounds odd, but no one can deny it.

As a writer, I'm careful in how I handle death. It must be a natural part of the plot. I don't have gratuitous violence, and I don't enjoy stories containing that. I show different types of death and different responses from those who survive. As in real life, there are many ways to die and many ways to mourn.

Because of the deaths, I've been teased that I'm writing a soap opera. I'm not. People live. People die. What I want to do is accurately portray life. Sometimes a family will go for years without a single death. Then there may be two or even three or more in close succession. And death is always present. Muslims are told to remember this, and not to fear death.

We have a life before birth. Then we have the life we know. Something comes later. No one has returned to tell us how it is. This is something we must each learn. And it is absolutely a part of life.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Genres and Passing Fancies

Today I learned I wasn't invited to the Meet the Author event at the ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) convention this year. I've participated in this program for three years now, so it was a bit of a letdown.

I looked at the list of authors and books that were included. I believe they were all either history or political science. Not a novel in there anywhere.

I know history and political science are hot topics these days for Muslims. I find this interesting. I wrote my only non-fiction book, which encompassed both history and political science, in the 1980s. It was published in 1990. That was long before PCs and internet connections, so the book sold slowly. It's still available. I hope to revise the manuscript sometime in the next few years.

When I wrote my book, it wasn't a hot topic. Now it is very hot. Meanwhile, I've moved on to Islamic fiction.

My mother always told me I was at least 5 years ahead of my time. I think she's right, and it's very frustrating. By the time Islamic fiction becomes popular, if I'm still alive, I wonder what I'll be writing.

There is a plethora of magazine articles instructing the writer how to cash in on the latest craze. But I always remember the words of a scholar I once knew--he's been dead for several years now. "Don't imitate. Initiate."

That seems to me to be the more honorable way to go. Though there's not as much money in it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Far From Perfect

I mentioned yesterday how many different ways Brad found to mess up his life in Turbulence, before he repented. Brad was quite a sinner, but none of my characters is perfect.

Do you know anyone who is perfect? Is there anyone who always does the right thing in the right way at the right time with the right intention? Is there anyone who doesn't mess up?

We're not angels. The angels actually asked Allah why He would make us, claiming we would bring mischief. They were right, weren't they?

Fiction should mirror life. Life isn't perfect. People aren't perfect. Characters should not be perfect either. And I don't even go for the "Whoops, I sinned so I'll be a good Muslim for the rest of my life." It's more like, "Whoops, I sinned. I'd better stop. Whoops. I did it again."

When I was young I learned about original sin and I pledged to be the person who would break the curse. I no longer believe in original sin, but I do know that I mess up. I will never be perfect. It's useless to try. But I should try anyway.

And that's how I write my characters.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Does Islamic Fiction Sell?

I am a writer because I must write. In 2002 I decided I would write stories about Muslims. My stories show the humanity of the Muslim and the devotion of those who follow Islam. They generally fall under the category of Islamic fiction.

Although I love writing, I would be lying if I said I didn't hope to make a living from it. Many do. The problem is that I must sell books. Who is my audience?

Most of my readers are Muslims. At least that's the impression I get from the feedback I receive. Some eagerly devour my stories. Others aren't quite as enthusiastic. I know I lost a few readers with my latest book, Turbulence. This book appealed much more to Muslims, even though the central characters are Muslims.

What's the problem with Turbulence? Well, the main character--Brad, Joshua's oldest brother--is not a saint. But who is? He commits adultery--can you tell me no Muslims do this? He drinks alcohol--don't try to tell me all Muslims don't do this. He lies--I know from experience that many Muslims do this. And he repents. How many Muslims do this?

Islamic fiction is a new genre, especially here in the U.S. I will always have at least one Muslim character. He or she will face difficulties and probably succumb a time or two. But faith always wins.

Does it sell? Not yet. But I think my biggest readership is still in high school and college. Give me another ten or fifteen years. By then I expect to be joined by many more authors, insha Allah.

Monday, August 20, 2007

This writer is. . .

. . .restless.

I've had a busy summer in terms of writing. During the month of June I attempted a stage play. It didn't turn out as well as I'd like, but I might still be able to go back and salvage it one day.

After the stage play, I wrote Silence. the final book of the Echoes Series. This one took me six weeks. Rebounding, the second book in the series, took me only two weeks--the first draft, that is. Silence kept me going, wondering exactly where and how it would end. Overall I'm satisfied with the ending. It will need some tweaking, but it's a very good start.

Now I've started my first novel in years which is not part of the Echoes Series. I have a new cast of characters, a new setting, everything. Off Balance features Nina Weston, a very determined woman. I first wrote this story last November as part of the NaNoWriMo challenge. Last weekend I read through it. Now I'm starting fresh, including more back story, and giving Nina a sassier tone. She may be almost as much fun to work with as Joshua has been all these years.

I've been told I should be writing articles, or at least short stories, to get my name out there. That's good advice, but I just can't stop writing these novels.

Hmm. By the time I'm finished with Off Balance--first draft, that is--I'll need to start thinking about NaNoWriMo again. I wonder who and what I'll write about this year.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

All Writers Must Absolutely Know. . .

. . .how many words is enough.

As a reader, I strongly dislike wordiness. I break my own rule a little here on the blog, but in my books I work to make sure that every word counts.

So, in the spirit of being concise--have a nice weekend!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Writer is. . .

. . .only human.

We get tired, hungry, and even occasionally cranky. Those who love us have to put up with our moods. Most do.

And the greatest pitfall any writer can fall into is to forget his or her humanity.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Writer Should Be. . .

. . .inspired.

Not all of the time, of course. The expectation of inspiration probably leads to writer's block more than anything else. Sometimes the writer must plod along, writing words and sentences.

But at some point, it all comes together. The spark of inspiration gives the words meaning beyond their dictionary definitions. The characters, the plots, everything meshes to create a true literary experience.

A writer should find that spark in every book, story, or poem writen. That's one ingredient of a true writer.

Monday, August 13, 2007

I can't think of any author who isn't. . .

. . .curious.

It amazes me that some people are satisfied with what they already know. They're not driven to seek new knowledge and gain new experiences. It must be an easier way of living. I can't imagine it.

Writers are curious people, but that's another topic. Writers are curious. We want to know how things work or the history of things. Or maybe the future. I sometimes pick faces out of the crowd and wonder where they're going, what they've done in their lives, and how it has affected them.

Non-fiction writers are just as curious, producing tomes about topics which some people don't even bother with. Many of us would not write the books, but we're happy to find them on the libary shelf when we need the answer to a burning question. We're lucky that someone else thought of it first.

I don't think that someone who is contented will make a very good writer. A writer should be restless, wondering, and never quite satisfied.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A Writer Certainly Should. . .

. . .have a good vocabulary. And a decent thesaurus.

By decent, I don't mean sophisticated. When I was younger, I thought a good writer often used words such as indeed and therefore. That's not the case.

My stories center around the dialogue, and I base the dialogue on the personality of the speaker. The lawyer, Walter Thompson, does use larger words and more complex sentences. His language reflects his profession. Joshua, on the other hand, uses slang and lazy grammar. Even after he graduates from college, his speech patterns don't change much. They're part of who he is.

In Echoes I wrote a short scene in which Joshua is trading one-liners with his friends, and he uses heavy slang. I wasn't sure of the slang of the day, so I consulted the experts--my teenage sons. They helped me write the scene.

While a writer doesn't necessarily have to use "big words," he or she should be aware of synonyms rather than risking repetition. I have a few thesauri I consult. One is my favorite. Another is electronic so I can use it when I'm traveling. If Joshua shouted in the last paragraph, maybe in this paragraph he should yell. Not all synonyms are that easy to find, by the way.

We are wordsmiths. Words are our tools. When describing a scene, I look for the word which fits the mood I'm trying to create. Is crying as powerful as sobbing, weeping, or bawling? What do you think?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Writer. . .

. . .pays attention.

If I'm outside of the house and I have some time to kill (this is a great airport game) I watch the people around me. I try to find someone who resembles a character I've written. I also observe people to give me ideas for new characters.

I find that when I'm writing a long-forgotten memory will return through the mouths of one of my characters. I'm able to pick up the details of life, both recent and "ancient," and add them to my story.

You might just say that a writer is nosy. But that doesn't sound as nice. We pay attention, that's all.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Writer Must Usually. . .

. . .be very creative.

I've noticed that there are basically two types of people in this world. Many of us fall squarely into one camp or the other. Only a few gifted souls are adept in both areas.

There are the practical people. The Marthas of this world who, like the woman in the Bible, reminds us that the food must be prepared and there is much work to be done. They approach problems head-on, with facts and figures at their disposal.

Then there are the creative people. The Marys who, like another woman in the Bible, prefer to listen to an inspirational talk rather than bother with simple menial chores. They see the world through different lenses, and often contemplate the nature of what they see. Facts and figures sometimes come in handy, but those types of matter are far too boring to think of often.

I'm a Mary. Since childhood I've viewed the world in my own unique way. While riding in a car with my parents, I would look at the other cars and wonder where they were going. Sometimes I would imagine one of the cars crashing into another. A story developed in my head of the accident and its aftermath. Meanwhile, my father drove safely down the road.

Most of the people who are close to me are Marthas--including both my mother and my husband. They concentate on what needs to be done. They dream but they never daydream. They easily handle worldly affairs such as car insurance and mortgages. They have trouble understanding why the few Marys in their lives are so slow and dreamy.

The world needs both. But I contend that the best writers are those who live inside their imaginations.

Monday, August 06, 2007

A Writer Must. . .

. . .be able to work in isolation.

Writing is generally a solitary activity. This is especially true of fiction. The writer creates characters and settings, problems and solutions. Often writers are fortunate enough to have "writing buddies" who will provide feedback, but the actual writing must be done alone.

Non-writers who live with writers say we sometimes become dazed, tuning out of the real world and focusing on the story. This must be true. I sometimes think about my story when I'm at the bank or the grocery store. If I have a breakthrough in my plot, I want to share this with everyone I meet. Sadly, they wouldn't understand. What would you think if a stranger rushed up to you and said, "Do you know what happened between Larry and Nina today? You're not going to believe this." We definitely cannot go around sharing with strangers.

Even with family members, discussing the plot may be discouraging. If my husband walks in and says, "How was your day?" I can't cry on his shoulder because I had to kill someone, even though I didn't really want to, because it moved the plot along. He would nod and mutter, and go to another part of the house.

The writer must be able to think alone and write alone. Until the book is published, that is. Then she must become a social butterfly, flitting from one promotional activity to another.

I never said writing was easy.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

What Makes a Writer

Many people write. Students write reports--a skill also required of many professionals. A large percentage write emails and, at one time, used to write letters. Some write letters to the editor. Others write articles for the local newpaper or the church newsletter. Some dabble in poetry. In certain occupations, essay writing is a necessary skill. And many, many write blogs.

So what makes a writer? Why do some go the extra step and transform writing from a necessary task or a pleasant hobby into a vocation?

Over the next several blogs, starting next week, I'll begin discussing the characteristics of the writer--the person for whom writing becomes a lifestyle. If anyone out there has other characteristics or suggestions to add, I will be very happy to hear from you.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Writing Death

I don't like killing my characters. I try not to do it too often. Sometimes, however, it becomes necessary.

I agonized over my first death, back in Echoes. I liked that character very much. Initially I only intended to make him sick. I researched the condition and wrote enough to place him in the hospital. But it turned out I had gone too far. His illness became irreversible and his death was inevitable. I still miss him.

I ended one of my books with an unexpected death. I didn't intend to write the ending that way. I wasn't sure, actually, how I would end that book. I just wrote, and the death appeared seemingly from nowhere. I didn't much like the ending, but it worked. I decided to keep it.

I haven't killed many people in the last book of the series, but there are a few deaths. Each has a purpose. The first was suggested to me by my son. I resisted, at first, but finally saw the wisdom in it. The other two deaths were very natural outgrowths of the story and I really can't imagine it going any other way. One of my characters has a slow death, which he decides to "own." He won't let anyone else tell him how to die. It's all on his own terms. (Maybe I shouldn't use a pronoun here, but there are several "he's" in my books.) His death is actually the best I've ever written, I think.

I love to hear when my books make someone cry--because they're moving, not because they're so badly written! I often cry, too, while I write.