Friday, February 13, 2015

Character Creation

When I seriously considered writing a book, I knew that in any story, characters have to become alive, invoke emotions, reactions, and thoughts from readers. Whether the character is the main one in the story, or secondary in a subplot, it doesn’t matter. All the actions and dialogue coming out of the character have to be convincing. 

With Shadows of Damascus, I had a general idea of who the characters were, and how they interacted with each other. Developing the specifics of how they went about their daily lives, their views of the world they lived in, and their convictions became my true challenge.

It is important to pin that down to create a character that readers could connect to, if not personally, then to someone they know. Real people, with quirks and shortcomings, weaknesses and strengths, dreams and aspirations, successes and failures. Even if the plot doesn’t call for all the details, writing them in brings the character closer to the surface, to be understood, accepted or rejected, despised or fevered, whatever the reaction from the reader maybe, a reaction nonetheless. I found as I developed my characters, they pushed me to a different angle, a different scene or a new problem that wasn’t in the plot to begin with. This approach may not work with all genres, and every writer has his or her method.

It was also very important to pin down the physical image of the character. I’m one who doesn’t cut out pictures from magazines and stick them to a board or in a sketchbook to help with images, though I think that is an effective way to go about it. I’m one who keeps everything in my head, which may explain the lost look I sport around when I’m developing a scene. I got in the habit of observing people. Wherever I am, I take in details: facial expressions, hair styles and colors, manicured fingernails, scruffy beards, the way a tall man walks, how a plump lady tries to cross her legs, the small gestures between couples they try to hide in public, yet fail. To me, it’s more than hair and eye color, skin tone and body structure. It’s more about how the characters carry themselves, and most importantly, what they try to conceal.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Born on Christmas Day

He was born on this day. 
Seventy-seven years ago. 

Christmas day was always a day of celebration in my house: A day to give thanks for the gift of my father’s birth, a day to wrap presents and cook special meals, a day to bake black forest cake with cherries. We used to say the whole world celebrated his birth, and I always believed it.

There will be no celebration this year. No pictures taken by the fireplace. No hugs. No kisses. No shrimp in garlic sauce for dinner, no sweet potatoes, no almonds covered in dark chocolate with green tea. No returns the following day for the sweaters that didn’t fit, or the pants that where too long.

Six months have passed since he left us, and he keeps visiting me in my dreams on a daily basis. Does my subconscious refuse his passing? Of course it does! Do I cry out of the blue sometimes? No doubt I do! Does the belief that he is in a better place make it easier? No, it does not!

There will be silence in my house this year. Prayers and reflections, memories told and old pictures shared. There will be fasting, too.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Keeping Austin Weird

Copies of SHADOWS OF DAMASCUS hit the shelves at the leading independent book store in Texas: BookPeople bookstore in Austin.It is available in 3 sections of the store: General Fiction, Romance Fiction, and Local Author Fiction.

My contribution to Keep Austin Weird!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Writing Fiction

Writing fiction requires not just an active imagination, but also a decent ability to tell a lie. Lie with conviction, with complete abandonment of the truth, and create a web to support the fabrication. A fictional story has to be complete, in all its angles, worlds, twists and turns for it to resonate with a reader. As a writer, I would advise other writers to believe the lie themselves. Live the lie if need be, and keep learning.

No matter how good a writer may be, there is always room for improvement. And if someone were gracious enough to point out shortcomings, that would be the chance to open up and accept. I am not saying all criticism is valid, but I have come across excellent writers who get offended when someone shines a light on a weak point in their work. In the writing world, and specifically in the publishing world, there is very little room for ego. A writer can always reject or accept suggestions, but a writer who wastes time and energy defending his or her work to a critiquing eye is someone who will remain at a standstill.

Make it better, bring it home for the person who found it lacking in one area or another during the editing process, and be grateful someone took the time to give you feedback. But above all, trust your instinct. Like anything else we do in life, we tend to have that nagging voice in our heads telling us when something just isn’t right. If it is a plot issue, and you feel the strings are not knotted tight enough, someone will pick up on that. So do your research, tighten the knots yourself, and make the plot as plausible as possible. If that little voice in your head raises questions about a certain character’s behavior that is not consistent with the kind of person you created, fix it. Characters don’t have to be predictable and consistent. Real people are not. But if you took the time to paint a character in a meaningful way, then his or her behavior must match. Redo the scene that bothers you deep down, it will bother your reader too.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Book Signing

I will be discussing and signing copies of my book Shadows of Damascus at the River Oaks Bookstore in Houston, TX on Saturday November 15 from 4-6 pm.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Me, Islam, and an Interview

Note to self: Don’t go out for a walk on the nature trail when every landscaping company in the area is out cutting the grass. Not fun!

This morning, I was struggling with a tricky concept in chapter eight of my work in progress, shooting for a third novel by the end of 2015. And like I always do when I get mentally stuck, I go for long walks on the trail by the creek close to my house. I tried to ignore the buzzing sounds of tractors and lawn mowers by reflecting on an incident or rather an experience I had last week.

A professor friend of mine who teaches a course about Gender and Islam asked me for a favor. She was struck by how many of her students never even met a Muslim woman before, let alone had a sustained conversation with one. She asked if I would be open to having a student interview me as part of an assignment to write an essay about both the experience and me. I thought it a great idea, an opportunity to dispel any misconceptions that might be present in the student’s mind. I’ve always advocated for putting the responsibility on the shoulders of us women to dispel stereotypes, and especially us Muslim women to shatter the dark images/concepts that are shoved onto us by people who don’t know much about Islam. I believe we have a role; I have a role, a duty to speak up and defend what I believe in. I abhor complaining, and I hate waiting for someone to do something, or for an event to just happen and change the status quo. I believe in trying - not necessarily succeeding - to engage as much as possible in the society I live in. So I went to the interview, armed and ready.

Of course there is no way for me to know what the student wrote about me after the nearly two-hour conversation, and that’s not what really concerned me this morning during my walk. What I mulled on was my own reaction to the deep questions asked of how I perceive myself as a Muslim woman. Questions concerning my views on gender roles, sexuality, spirituality, practices, motherhood, work outside the home, LBGT issues, and dress code to name a few. I promised myself to be as honest as possible with the extremely polite and intellectual student, and I was taken aback by how some of my ideas and personal beliefs affected me when I articulated them. Thoughts gain a different measure of weight when they are spoken, a higher elevation when they are explained, and they open up whole worlds when they cross the isle and are received as they were meant.

I always thought of myself a deeply spiritual person. If people want to put me in a box and stick a label on it, they would probably use Liberal Muslim. I, however, try to shy away from labels when it comes to people, and being totally honest, it was not an easy road traveled to free my mind of such biases, for I had plenty. I am ashamed to admit few still linger. Halfway through the interview I noticed how defensive I became, projecting my pre-perceived notion that by simply being asked those questions, I was being attacked. That was not the case at all. I forced myself to stop and switch direction. I didn’t need to be in defensive mode all the time, a habit so hard to get rid off in the times we live in. I didn’t need to protect my beliefs and my idea of Islam. This wonderful student simply wanted to know who I am, and what I stand for, and I owed her nothing less than complete openness. I am who I am. I seek not her approval, nor reject her scorn. I believe that was the goal of the assignment, after all.

This morning, I swiped away the grass cuts flying in my face and headed home. Like those lawn mowers on the walk trail, I tend to push my way through situations not paying attention to the noise and chaos my approach sometimes leaves behind. From the other side of that interview table, I saw the damage I could have caused had I not dropped my shield and opened up. I only hope the student saw me with clarity.

Friday, October 3, 2014