A teeny tiny #RamadanReadathon reading list

It’s rather late, but Ramadan Kareem!

For those of you who are not familiar with Ramadan, it is the Muslim holy month where observers abstain from food, drink, and (ideally) bad behavior from sunrise to sunset, after which you are free to stuff your face till you explode. Islamic months are on a lunar calendar, so the timing of Ramadan changes every year. This year, it’ll extend through June.

Ramadan to me has always been a great opportunity to do some educational reading. Some of this is by nature religious – interpretations of the Qur’an, for example, or scholarly reflections on the nature of the Qur’an and its purpose. But some is broader, which is why I was so excited to hear about Ramadan Readathon, a reading challenge hosted by another Nadia. (Clearly, I’m predisposed to like this already).

The idea of Ramadan Readathon is to challenge participants to read books by Muslim authors as a way of supporting diverse, authentic voices. Nadia has compiled a TBR list of fiction and YA books on her blog, while Zoya, the other organizer, has a list of nonfiction, anthologies, and graphic novels. There are a lot of great titles on both these lists, including “Love, Inshallah,” Malala Yusafzai’s biography, S.K. Ali’s “Saints and Misfits,” and “Sofia Khan is Not Obliged.”

The point of a readathon, obviously, is to read as many books as possible, but for me, I wanted to set modest goals. Aside from the Qur’anic interpretation I’m working through, I’m also reading “Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law” by Sadakat Kadri. Kadri is a legal historian and human rights lawyer, and in this book he examines the interpretations of shari’a and how it evolves through time and place. Shari’a is a controversial term – it refers to Islamic law, but it’s a much more flexible category than “law” implies. It’s subject to interpretations by scholars and jurists from different cultures and backgrounds, which means that shari’a in one country can look very different from shari’a in another.

I know very little about the shari’a and I’m really interested to get the historical perspective on it. Kadri’s book also promises a lot of fun personal anecdotes, which is always great. Watch this space for a post-Ramadan review!

I’m also looking forward to getting my hands on “The Other Half of Happiness,” the sequel to “Sofia Khan.” Two things that scare my about sequels: 1) the possibility that it won’t be as good as the first book, thus ruining the latter for me, and 2) that it will be good, but so different from what I had hoped that it impedes my enjoyment of it. But, as Scooby Doo’s Fred used to say, there’s only one way to find out.

Finally, a little self-plug: an article I wrote was included in an anthology about hijab, the Muslim head covering prescribed for women! I’m super excited to be featured in a book; it’s called “Mirror on the Veil,” and my chapter is titled “Adventures in Hair and Hijab.” I’ll be reviewing that here too. If you happen to read it, let me know what you think of my piece!

So that’s my very modest Ramadan TBR for this year. If I can read more, well and good, if not, I won’t beat myself up about it. Either way, I hope that it will be an enlightening and blessed month, for me and for all of you! Happy reading!

Perspective and proportion in the modern era

Life is what you make of it. Literally.

At least, that’s the thought that’s been running through my head of late. I’m currently reading three books at the same time: “The Case for God” by Karen Armstrong, “Diaspora Politics” by Gabriel Sheffer (just a little light reading, you understand), and one of my all-time favorites, the complete “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams.

Why yes, it is an interesting combination.

I honestly don’t know how I ended up with these three together, but the end result is that it is occurring to me that there are very few absolute truths in the world. Everything we know is tied up in the lives we live and the worlds we inhabit, which can be infinitely different from those of others. In the second Hitchhiker’s book, “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” (probably my favorite in the series), Adams really takes this concept home: we live in worlds that revolve around our own heads.

To show us this, Adams takes our hero (sort of), Zaphod Beeblebrox, the fugitive former President of the Galaxy, and puts him on the abandoned Frogstar World B, where he will be placed in the Total Perspective Vortex, the worst kind of torture in the universe. Here’s how it works: it shows you just how small and utterly insignificant you are to the functioning of the universe. Adams writes:

For when you are given just one momentary glimpse of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here”.”

…And into one end [Trin Tragula, the Vortex’s inventor] plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

Of course, Beeblebrox survives the ordeal (I won’t tell you how, but rest assured: it is hilariously Improbable). But the point is that we live in worlds were we are the center of the universe. We are naturally selfish creatures, and it’s not entirely our fault. We don’t have insight into how other people think or live or experience the world. We say, “walk a mile in their shoes,” but it’s not just about the shoes; people walk at different speeds and in different directions.

So how is this related to religion and diasporas? Well, I haven’t gotten though the other two books yet, but already I’m seeing that a lot of what’s being described is basically “the world according to [fill in group/community/country here].” They are not observable facts or objective analyses. When it comes to religion, this might not be so surprising because the most basic factor in a religion, the god, is unobservable. Religion by nature relies on faith to one extent or the other – of course, such faith can appeal to logic, but the appeal must be limited because the object of faith cannot be seen or experienced in a tangible manner. But what is really quite interesting is just how subjective and narrow history can be. You’d think history would be pretty simple: it either happened or it didn’t. The problem is that these facts are not created in isolation nor are they interpreted in isolation.

As a writer, I believe firmly in facts. There are things that happened, and things that didn’t. There are things that exist, and things that don’t exist (or at least cannot be proven to exist by current methods available). There are things that are true, and things that false. Furthermore, each individual has the resources to confirm said facts in a way that was not possible even 30 years ago.

This is important. In an era where many would rather have us believe “alternative facts,” we need to mobilize social media to establish truth from falsehoods and fact from fiction. But this requires a level of personal responsibility from each of us, to be honest, to be accurate, and to own up to mistakes when they are inevitably made, as quickly as possible.

Not everyone will meet that responsibility. And there will always be subjectivity in reporting, whether it’s in journalism or history books or academic papers, because we’re all humans and we’re by nature subjective. But the act of seeking out truth, the act of aiming for objectivity and acknowledging when we are incapable of it, is crucial. We have to try. Our sense of proportion depends on it, because even if we are just microscopic dots on a microscopic dot, we’re not microscopic to each other.

This post was adapted from one that originally appeared on my personal blog, Nadia’s Writing, now defunct.

Never go with a guy to a second location: A review of Sofia Khan is Not Obliged

A good friend of mine recently recommended the book “Sofia Khan is Not Obliged” by Ayisha Malik. It was a book that had been on my radar for a while, so I took this as a sign that this was the time to read it.

Via goodreads

“Sofia Khan is Not Obliged” follows the trials of – you guessed it! – Sofia Khan, a Pakistani Muslim Londonite working a rather unfulfilling jobs as a book publicist. (A little self-insertion on the part of the author? You know where I stand on this).

Sofia inadvertently suggests writing a book on Muslim dating, such as it is, and gets roped into doing it herself. She gets an advance she can’t refuse, and signs up to an online dating site for people from the Indian subcontinent.

Meanwhile, Sofia’s preexisting love life presents recurring issues. A relationship on the cusp of marriage has recently broken down because of the boyfriend’s insistence that she live with his parents per South Asian custom. Sofia’s 30 years old, and she really liked this guy, and she struggles with the breakup even as she embarks on new dating adventures for “research.” It doesn’t help that these adventures are extremely disappointing. One man in particular is everything that is wrong with men as a group. He’s self-centered, noncommittal, aimless, looking to kill time with Sofia while he waffles through life. Unfortunately for our protagonist, he is also very charming (these types often are), and we spend a lot of very frustrating time with him.

While this is happening, we’re also introduced to Sofia’s family – traditional South Asian parents and her sister Maria, who is getting married – and her friends, each with their own romantic problems. Her coworkers also form a significant portion of her social circle, misconceptions of Islam and South Asian culture included, as well as aloof Irish neighbor Conall.

I thought this book was great! It was a refreshing departure from a lot of “Muslim narratives” out there, that tend to revolve around arranged marriages, government corruption, gender-based oppression, etc. This is just an average girl living an average life, and she happens to be a Muslim from a South Asian family. That obviously has it’s impact on the trajectory of the story, as it impacts the kinds of decisions Sofia and co. make and the way in which those decisions are implemented. But it’s not the crux of the story. Yes, it’s about Muslim romance, but the story doesn’t live or die on details like Sofia’s ex’s attachment to his parents or on her friend’s struggle with polygamy (a detail I personally found rather pointless in that it presented a very serious and controversial issue and then barely addressed it).

Ultimately, Sofia is a fun-loving, lighthearted working gal, faced with a life that becomes increasingly serious over the course of the novel: the book that needs to be written, the tension between her sister and her now-husband, pressure from her parents to just pick a guy already, etc. As these conflicts heighten, we see Sofia struggle to handle it all – her personality makes her, I think, averse to this level of seriousness. That nuance in the story’s development was something I really appreciated.

Overall, “Sofia Khan is Not Obliged” is a funny send-up of love, marriage, generational conflict, and the push and pull second generation kids are always balancing. It’s also a great example of the kind of Muslim representation that I personally would like to see more of. In fact, I’m quite looking forward to picking up the second installment, “The Other Half of Happiness.”

Have you read this book? Share your opinions in the comments!

If you write fiction, you’re probably self-inserting

If you’ve ever had the (mis)fortune to delve into the murky waters of fanfiction, you’ve likely come across a Mary Sue character: a young and beautiful women who is as close to perfect as possible and universally adored.

(Fun Fact: According to TV Tropes, the “Mary Sue” character first became a Thing in a Star Trek parody fanfic.)

The thing about Mary Sue (and her brother, Gary Stu) is that she is almost always an author self-insert. We wish we were perfect (and in a smolderingly romantic relationship with our favorite show/book’s main character), so we create this version of ourselves: beautiful, strong, kind, honest, talented – just all around amazing.

 

Which is fine. If you’ve ever written any kind of fiction at all, you’ve probably done the Mary Sue thing. Writing is, at it’s heart, an exercise in self-reflection, an attempt to understand oneself and one’s place in the world through the power of imagination. This, I believe, is a basic human instinct. When you dressed up as your mother in your long-gone (I assume, since you’re on the internet) preschool days, putting yourself in her shoes (literally), it was a kind of self-reflection. By pretending to be your mother, you entertain the idea that you will one day become your mother, a notion you will undoubtedly recoil from a mere 10 years later. But I digress. The point is, the urge to write a self-insert character is present in every writer.

It’s worth noting that not every self-insert character is automatically a Mary Sue. You might find yourself going in the opposite direction, highlighting and exaggerating the flaws you see in yourself as a form of self-flagellation, or perhaps as an attempt to reconcile yourself to those flaws. Perhaps you tend to insert yourself as a side character, someone in the background who’s main role lies in observation – kinda like you are in real life (which is not a bad thing, btw. More people should observe).

Or maybe you’re the narrator. Technically, all writers are the narrator of everything they write. Here, I mean this more literally. Your narrator is of  the all-seeing, all-knowing variety who does not merely recount the facts of the story but influences it’s path. Lemony Snicket, for example, laments the sad story of the Baudelaire siblings even as he commits to telling the reader every last harrowing detail. A form of grappling with control, or lack thereof, in Daniel Handler’s own life? I have no idea, but if I had to guess, that would be it.

Geez, what a downer.

Tom Holt’s “Alexander at the World’s End” has this kind of narrator.  Euxenus son of Eutychides is telling the story of his life in the court of Alexander the Great, after having lived a long life. He is now dying in a small outpost at the end of world and is telling this story to some unnamed young man, who stands in place of the reader. By reflecting on his life, Euxenus considers the myriad coincidences and random events that guided his life and led him to this, his final resting place, thousands of miles from his homeland. And perhaps, in a way, Holt is also considering the twists and turns his own life has taken. Or not. I don’t know, but speculating is fun.

How does one get their own talk show? Asking for a friend.

(Also, I highly, highly recommend “Alexander at the World’s End.” It is one of my favorite books of all time.)

One of my favorite authors in the world, Terry Pratchett, does this too, I think. If you look at some of his main characters – Sam Vimes, William de Worde, Moist Von Lipwig – they’re all provocateurs. They’re different people, of course, in different times and with different priorities, roles, and concerns, but they all have the same characteristic in common: they don’t accept the status quo, and it is ultimately that characteristic which drives their stories. Did Pratchett see himself this way? His books are very political in nature, especially for the fantasy genre, and draw deliberate parallels between Discworld and our world. If the pen is mightier than the sword, I would say that Pratchett wielded his pen in much the same way Vimes wields his badge or de Worde wields his printing press.

I want to end on this note: if you want to read a hilarious parody of a Mary Sue character, read George Macdonald Fraser’s “The Pyrates.” I read it a hundred years ago but I still remember it, and let me tell you, the only book I have ever laughed so hard at is “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Captain Ben Avery is literally the most perfect human man to every exist in the universe: women fall over themselves trying to get his attention, while he remains utterly indifferent. It’s not just Avery – every character is an exaggerated stereotype, all of which serves to take the story in the weirdest and wildest directions. (It also makes the plot a little hard to follow, but let’s face it, this isn’t the kind of thing you read for the plot). If you like insanity, you’ll like this.

Sexism ruins lives: A review of The Muse by Jessie Burton

Have you ever had this happen with a book, where you read the first, say, five chapters, and you think huh, this is pretty interesting. Then you come back to it the next day maybe, and you read a few more chapters, and suddenly the ante ups by 500 percent and you’re reading well into the night because you must find out what happens next.

That’s “The Muse” by British author Jessie Burton. The story is about Trinidadian Odelle Bastien, who works in London in the 1960s and wants to be a writer. She takes a typist job at an art gallery, where she meets Marjorie Quick, an upper level executive. Marjorie takes a liking to her for mysterious reasons (*coughs*), but the story doesn’t really take off until Odelle meets Lawrie Scott, a young man in possession of a very strange painting. Through Odelle, he brings this painting to Marjorie’s gallery, and, well, things take a major turn.

While Odelle is doing her thing, we catch up with Olive Schloss, an Austrian-British teenager living with her wealthy family in 1930s Spain. Olive’s father, Harold, is in the business of selling art to wealthy people all over Europe and North America, and he’s kind of jerk to his daughter. Harold believes firmly that only men can be true artists – women, he tells his daughter, don’t have the right temperament or whatever to pursue art professionally (and if this sounds familiar to you, well, I urge you to contemplate the state of the world today). Olive, not surprisingly, is very depressed by this attitude and loses her motivation to paint, until she meets Isaac and Teresa Robles, siblings who serve her family’s landlord. Well, mostly Isaac. He’s older and deeply involved with the unions and communist party in Spain, and he’s also tragically poor, which is always romantic.

So Olive paints and paints and paints, and it’s clear even to the unworldly Teresa that she has a special talent. But Olive knows that anything she produces will be dismissed by her sexist father, so she decides to pass off her paintings as Isaac’s, a scheme that he accepts for reasons.

But this is 1930s Spain, and conflict is brewing even in the countryside. Olive and her family have the privilege of neutrality – up until they don’t. The Spanish Civil War takes a while to reach their small town, but when it does the results are catastrophic. Isaac, and by extension Teresa, are targets of Nationalist supporters, and the Schloss family (yes, they’re Jewish), can’t help but feel trapped on a continent that seems to be unraveling before their eyes.

The nature of their escape and the fate of Lawrie’s painting, which is obviously Olive’s wrongly attributed to Isaac, is too much of a spoiler for even me to reveal here. I will say this, the beauty of Burton’s writing is that she gives you just enough to see a few feet ahead on the path, but not quite enough to show you the destination. By the time you’ve reached the inevitable conclusion, the story is effectively complete. All that remains are a few loose ends for Odelle and Marjorie to tie up. In that sense, it reminds me a lot of “The White Lie.”

Burton crafts the story incredibly well. Odelle speaks in Trinidadian English when with her countrywoman friend, but switches to a much more formal, British English when at work or speaking with other characters, a detail that many writers who don’t have that background could easily have missed. She also does not shy away from showing just how Harold’s sexism dooms Olive, and how in turn European fascism dooms them all (to varying degrees).

What she does shy away from is racism. I find it difficult to believe that Odelle faces very little racism in 1960s London. This is barely 30 years after the “Aryan race” was a thing, and yet the worst she gets is impolite waitresses and people “complimenting her” on her English. That’s how racists act now, 70 years after WWII and in a time when racism is much less socially acceptable. I’m also astonished at how willingly she jumps into an interracial relationship. At no point does Odelle ever consider the impact this could have on her, what she might face as a black woman in the company of a white man – and it would have been much worse than a few surprised looks and disapproving tuts. Again, this kind of attitude is much more reflective of race relations today than it is the 1960s. Particularly given the current climate, we need media that clearly says: Racism hurts. Racism ruins lives. Instead, racism in Burton’s world is little more than a mild inconvenience.

“The Muse” is an intense tale. It left me emotionally exhausted and wondering how different things could be if only there was a little less prejudice in the world.

Stop that balloon! A review of “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” by Stuart Campbell

Another book review! What can I say? I’m on a roll here, guys.

I took some time off last week and took the opportunity to read another one of my holiday sale books, “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” by Scottish writer Stuart Campbell.

The story is definitely not your traditional beginning-middle-end type. It follows three characters in three different places: Ursule is in Paris in 1864, Dexter is mired in the Vietnam War in 1965, and Dante is a priest in modern-day Italy. They’re completely different people in completely different situations, united by two things – terror and a hot air balloon ride.

From the beginning, Campbell’s focus is the hot air balloon. The story starts out with him missing a hot air balloon ride that he had planned in order to inform his three stories. He believes that the ride will create a sense of rapture, a freeing sense of escape from the mundane world below.

Instead, he is forced to imagine what that rapture may feel like. Each story is an excerpt of what we, the readers, are led to believe is part of a larger novel that Campbell is writing. Each one ends with the air balloon landing…somewhere.

After each mini-story, Campbell laments his writing skills. He doesn’t like how he describes the experience of being in the hot air balloon, the feeling of escaping death by a hair in what he imagines is this fantastical mode of transport. The freedom of being in the air, the threat a tiny speck on the ground, is a sense he struggles to capture (or say he says. I thought he did a pretty good job.). All because he missed his flight.

I wonder if he got a refund, or do you pay when you board?

Anyway, the stories are engaging, and Campbell deftly creates three different worlds with ease and authenticity. But you’re left with that sense of incompleteness. What happens to Ursule when she lands in the middle of a war zone? Does Dante really die, or is he stalking the Italian countryside? We don’t know.

(Incidentally, Dante has by far the best escape: he grabs onto a giant balloon of the Virgin Mary and kicks her away from the platform she’s tied to.)

Ultimately, “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” is more a story about Campbell himself and his writing process than it is about any of the characters that occupy the pages. They are background figures to the real hero, Campbell, who struggles to achieve his purpose. In a way, it takes you out of the rapturous sense that he’s working so hard to create. But in another, it’s kind of like the balloon rides he describes: an uplifting sense of being in a new world, only to have it come to an abrupt end. In that sense, he’s achieved his purpose.

Goodbye cruel world! Wait, are we going down?

Too much bride, not enough Bollywood – A review of “The Bollywood Bride”

I took advantage of the holiday sales to buy a bunch of books from Kobo, an online store that specializes in e-reading. One of the books I purchased was “The Bollywood Bride” by Sonali Dev.


I’m about to tell you all about this book, but I want to start by saying that I came in super enthusiastic about this book. I am not Indian, but I have had many Indian friends over the years and that’s given me the opportunity to learn a little about Indian culture. I’m not an expert, obviously, which was part of why I was excited to read this book – given that it targets a non-Indian audience, I figured I’d learn more about India and Indian-American culture through the story. I was also excited because Sonali Dev is Indian – she grew up in India, traveled the world, and now lives in Chicago. I always get pumped for women telling their own stories, especially women of color. Here, I figured, was a chance to read a story of Indian-America through the eyes of someone who is actually Indian-American.

Spoilerwood, a love story

Without giving too much away, “The Bollywood Bride” is about an actress, Ria Parkar, whose family lives in Chicago. Ria was a frequent visitor as a child, but since achieving stardom over the course of a decade she has avoided returning to the U.S. As it turns out, there is a tragic backstory behind all this – she was forced to abandon the love of her life because she fears that she has inherited a serious mental disorder from her mother, whom she has secretly put up in an asylum in England.

Ria returns to the U.S. under duress to attend her cousin’s wedding, only to be reunited with her long-lost love. He is still bitter about her leaving him, and although admittedly she was pretty cold about it, this was 10 years ago. Get over it dude.

It’s clear from the outset that Ria and her love, Vikram, will end up together in the end. It is also clear that whatever fears she has about her mental health will be assuaged so that the happy couple can dance off into the sunset in true Bollywood fashion.

This is where the story starts to lose me. Personally, I don’t see why Vikram is so obsessed with Ria, other than that she was his first love. Ria is, of course, beautiful per her description, and she is depicted as polite and loving. She also has some artistic ability and talent as an actress. Beyond that, I’m not sure what the selling point is here. She has a tragic backstory, but that’s not exactly a personality trait.

(For the record, Vikram is also a little too perfect – fiery, passionate, but also kind, intelligent, and altruistic. In that sense, they’re a perfect match.)

I also don’t understand why Ria doesn’t at least try to seek treatment, to see what she can do about the illness she is convinced has been passed down to her. Her fear that she will inevitably end up like her mother, violent fits of psychosis included, is a driving force behind the story – it is the reason she leaves Vikram and the reason she resists his attempts to reconcile. And yet she does nothing to actually address it.

To her credit, Dev addresses this point. When word gets out in Bollywood that Ria has an “insane” mother, psychologists call on her by way of the press to receive treatment. They are clearly trying to get their 15 minutes of fame on the back of this most personal part of her life. However, it begs the question: why doesn’t she get treatment? I think this part of the story would have been better served if Dev had spent some time addressing this point. What kind of social stigma exists in India for those seeking mental health treatment, and how would that have impacted someone famous like Ria? What options are available to her? Could she seek treatment outside the country in secret? It would have been more satisfying, in my view, to have Ria struggling with trying to treat herself (doing research online, taking supplements, doing yoga, praying, paying a doctor exorbitant amounts of money to pretend she has a liver problem or something) than having her simply accepting her “fate” and making herself and everyone around her (Vikram included) miserable in the process.

Fortunately for Ria (and for me, because if I want to be depressed I’ll watch the news), there is a happy ending. When the Indian tabloids reach her family in America, Vikram jumps on a plane to see her, first going to Mumbai and then to England, where Ria is visiting her mother for the first time in a decade. Vikram assures her that he loves her no matter what, and that he’ll stand by her as she seeks treatment (finally!).

In the end, “The Bollywood Bride” is a cozy love story, but ultimately not a great way to learn about Indian culture. There is the wedding taking place in the background, and Ria’s interactions with her aunt and uncle in America, so it could prove interesting and educational for someone totally new to Indian culture. Dev’s other books, which are also set in an Indian-American context, promise a more in-depth look into the culture, so I’m looking forward to picking up another one soon.

How to handle your inner critic

It’s December. You spent a whole month slaving away on a manuscript that you’re passionate about, that you love, that you can’t wait to get out to the world…up until you start rereading it.

In writing, as with any profession, it’s important to be able to accept criticism of your work and use it to your benefit. Editing is crucial part of the writing process, after all, and to do that you have to be able to approach your work with a critical eye. It’s admirable, healthy even, to be approach your work with the intention of improving it.

What’s not healthy is that little voice in your head that tells you that you’re work is terrible and you’re terrible and you should just bury yourself neck deep in the woods somewhere as penance. We call it the inner critic, but that’s really misleading. A critic evaluates. This little dude is just cruel. And more often than not, he’s a liar too, because burying yourself in the woods never solves anything.

That voice (James Chartrand at “The Write Life” refers to it as the inner demon) is essentially the manifestations of our insecurities. When we allow that voice to be takeover the megaphone in our mind, so to speak, it warps the way we see ourselves and our work. When we think negative thoughts, we feel badly, and when we feel that way, it becomes the lens through which we perceive ourselves. Work that we loved two days ago seems ridiculous. Language that was poetic last week becomes pretentious and cheesy.

When you start to hear and recognize that demonic voice (because sometimes we don’t recognize it until it’s been talking for a while), you have to nip it in the bud right then and there. Once you’ve been able to do that, revisit the positive thoughts feelings you had when you were working on the piece earlier. If you liked it last week, it can’t possibly be utter garbage today. Try to move away from the piece emotionally and view it in a more objective way, so that if you do find that there are areas that need improvement, you’re at least not taking that on as reflection of your own self-worth or your skill as a creative actor.

This is also true if you’re getting back comments from an editor or a beta reader. Just because they don’t like parts of your piece, doesn’t mean that the whole thing is terrible or that you are terrible. Even if they hate the whole thing, that’s okay too. Not everything is going to be a home run every time, and not everyone is going to like every thing you do. How many people tore into the “Twilight” series as everything that’s wrong with modern fantasy fiction? And yet the series was wildly successful, and Stephanie Meyers herself is living the high life – she’s written more books that have been able to piggyback off of “Twilight’s” success, and now she has her own film production company.

Clearly, the negative opinions of others do not necessarily equal failure. So why should your own opinions hold any more weight? Just because you think something, doesn’t make it true.

If you find that you are simply too invested in the piece and it’s really wearing on you emotionally, put it aside. There’s no law that says you have to publish something withing 20 days of writing it. Leave it alone for a couple months, and then come back to it. Not only will probably be able to edit it better, you won’t feel like your personal integrity is attached to it – which, you know, it’s really not.

What advice do you have for dealing with the demonic voice in your mind? Share below!

No character? No problem! Four tips to writing great characters

Everyone’s got that thing about writing that drives them up the wall. For me, it’s the plot: I can write dialogue and character descriptions all day long, as long as none of them have to actually do anything. This, as you can imagine, is a problem.

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. Today, we’re going to talk about the other problem: you have a riveting plot riddled with characters that move through it like zombies on a full stomach.

Yes, Ben, that's our topic of the day!
Yes, Ben, that’s our topic of the day!

The truth is, there is no plot without characters. People can sit around doing nothing, but things cannot happen without people to do them. So if characters have been a pain for you, you’re in luck because I’m here to help!

Character Tip 1: Plan it out

In “How to Write and Sell Your Novel,” thriller writer R. Karl Largent says that before he begins writing, he creates distinct personalities and background stories for each of his characters. Even the most minor characters who only appear in a single scene get this treatment (although if you ask me, that’s overkill. Then again, what do I know? I’m not the bestselling author here.).

As I’m creating the character profile, I make a point not to rely to heavily on character tropes, especially those that I believe to be either harmful or unrealistic. (“Magical minority,” “evil for the heck of it,” and “Mr. Angst” are a few of the ones that really make me cringe.) Creating the profile also helps you track the character’s behavior, so that you can be sure that your character acts in a manner that makes sense within the universe you’ve created. If you’re not feeling very inspired or feel like you can’t get away from predictable tropes, try scrolling through illustrations and artwork on Tumblr. There are some very talented artists out there, and being able to picture a character in your mind’s eye can help you figure out how they act and react, how they speak, their mannerisms – all those little things that take a character and turn them into a person.

Character Tip 2: Make them matter to each other

To put it simply: if the characters in your story don’t care about each other, why should your reader care about them?

In my experience, the best novels have stories that create and build strong relationships between the characters. It’s why the death of Fred at the end of the “Harry Potter” series is so devastating: not only have we as readers grown to love him, but we know that he has family and friends who love him and will grieve for him in the world of the story. It’s why we care about the fate of Fix-It Felix when he goes looking for Ralph – even though the two are set up as antagonists, they have a relationship that is integral to the story. It makes sense that Felix would look for Ralph, and because Felix is invested, so are we.

Damn straight. I'm still salty about this, okay?
Damn straight. I’m still salty about this, okay?

As writer Chuck Wendig puts it:

Characters need connections to other characters. These don’t need to be desired connections. They can be connections that the character is actively trying to deny. But they need to be there. They help make the character who she is and continue to push and pull on her as the story unfolds.

Character Tip 3: The more things seem to change…

After you’ve built a character profile based on Tip 1, you have to figure out how that profile is going to change by the end of your novel. Because if your character stays the same from the beginning of the book to the end, why’d you write the thing in the first place?

Writer Brian Klems gives a detailed breakdown of how to make your character grow and change throughout your novel, but to break it down: the plot has to have a significant, noticeable, and logical impact on your characters. Harry Potter goes from sweet, naive little boy, to angry, hot-headed teenager, to focused, strategic, slightly older teenager over the course of seven years, in response to the twists and turns of the plot. It makes sense because his growth follows the patterns of the plot itself. In the same way, your characters have to respond to the plot in ways that make sense given the character profile you’ve created.

Character Tip 4: Everyone is special in his or her own way

It’s a lesson we learned from that lovable purple dinosaur and it’s just as applicable to fictional characters as it is to real people. Your character can’t just be good at something, they have to be the best. This is a piece of advice that comes from story consultant James Bonnet, who writes, “Great stories, myths and legends are dominated by quintessential elements. Zeus is the most powerful god. Helen of Troy is the most beautiful woman. Achilles is the greatest warrior. King Arthur is the most chivalrous king.” The quintessential makes for a more interesting story, Bonnet insists.

He goes on to add:

The quintessential can be applied to any element of your story but is especially effective when applied to the professions and dominant traits of your characters. If you take these dimensions to the quintessential, you will make your characters more intriguing. They will make an important psychological connection and that will add significantly to the power of your work.

I know, I know: didn’t I just say that I hate tropes? And isn’t the quintessential character practically the definition of a trope?

Yes and no. Yes, the idea of the chosen one, the strongest villain, the strongest superhero, the superbly intelligent detective, are all examples of tried and tested tropes. But the trope itself isn’t necessarily bad; after all, it became a trope for a reason. It’s how you apply the trope that matters. The Chosen One has to face some kind of moral dilemma that calls into question his status. The super-smart detective has to stumble on a case, start to worry that she’s losing her edge, before finally solving it. That’s how you keep your character, and by extension, your story, interesting and unpredictable.

The five fatal flaws in fiction writing – NaNoWriMo2016

Hello quibblers! In celebration of this year’s National Novel Writing Month, I’ll be shelving the book reviews and media commentary to focus on the craft of writing. Hopefully, aspiring NaNoWriMo-ers will find this information helpful as they write and, ultimately, rewrite their stories.

In this installment, we’ll be discussing an oft-asked question by writers old and new: what are the flaws that I should avoid when writing?

I did some research, and there are the five flaws in fiction writing that I think writers should be most aware of:

Telling instead of showing

This is a crucial part of all kinds of writing, but especially in fiction. You are the reader’s lone guide through the story you’ve made, and as vivid as it may seem in your own head, that won’t translate to your reader if you continously tell your reader about the story instead of show them what is happening. Let’s say, for example, that you’re writing “Maria had always had a wonderful relationship with her mother, but lately she’d been cold and distant.” Instead, describe a moment where Maria goes to her mother about something and the mom is unenthusiastic and unengaged. Show Maria being heartbroken, feeling that her mother is ignoring her, uninterested in her. That will translate to your readers so much better.

Troping your story to death

Look, there’s a reason why tropes exist, and it’s because they’re familiar. They make sense to us. And it’s fine to use tropes within your story if you feel that it’s what the story needs. What’s not fine is for every character in your story to fit in some kind of trope, and for every storyline to follow the well-worn paths of those before it. If you’re motivated to write a novel (in one month!) then it’s probably because you have a unique story in you that you want to get out. And yeah, maybe it follows the traditions of its genre, but it shouldn’t be an amalgam of everything that tradition has to offer. Think outside the box a little. Throw a wrench in there that’s atypical to the style of stories in that genre. Flip a trope on its head and see what happens. Sometimes, little things like that executed well can make a story stand out from others in the genre.

But! Be extra careful with tropes that are clearly racial or sexist in nature: the Ice Princess, the wise old tribal leader who speaks in cryptic imagery, the nagging housewife, etc.

Uncle doesn't want to read your story about how he gave you tea and told you not to look for material things and it changes your life. Seriously, Uncle is over it.
Uncle doesn’t want to read your story about how he gave you tea and told you not to look for material things and it changes your life. Seriously, Uncle is over it.

Pacing

This is one that I wouldn’t have considered if I was just writing this post off the top of my head, but pacing is actually crucial to a story. In many ways, pacing is your way of manipulating time within your story. In “Writer’s Store,” Gerry Visco advises writers to look at their story scene by scene (so basically, storyboard it) and see how the scenes fit together. Are some scenes to fast, to slow? Does the sequencing need to be changed to make more sense? Is the climax followed by an immediate drop in the action, or is there a more nuanced slow-down in the pace? These are all things you can see better when you take the story apart scene-by-scene.

Remember, too, that a story doesn’t have to move at a break-neck speed to be good. A lot of the advice online about pacing your story discusses speed, but it’s important to give your characters (and your readers!) moments to breath, collect themselves, and get ready for the next adventure.

Inconsistency

There are lots of types of inconsistency in writing, but the ones you really want to watch out for are the kinds that directly impact your characters or your plot. Things like inconsistent characterization (is he a level-headed thinker or an impulsive fire-cracker? Because he can’t be both.) and warped timelines can really throw a wrench in your reader’s concentration. In fact, many authors start their writing with a timeline of events and a character description for each person in their story so that they can stay on track.

One-dimensional characters

This one almost goes without saying, but it’s still worth saying because it happens all the time. Especially with secondary characters, it’s easy to for you to forget about them as your hero trudges on through your story. But every character in your story should serve some purpose, and that purpose will not be truly fulfilled if we only ever see one aspect of them.

This happens a lot with villains, too, where their only goal is chaos for the sake of chaos, evil for the sake of evil. The villain in your story should have a purpose, something that drives them to do what they’re doing, and that purpose can’t just be “I want everything to go to hell!” Make us understand where they’re coming from, why they’ve chosen this path. The X-Men in particular does a good job with this, where although Magneto’s goals (and his methods for achieving them) are obviously horrific, we can see why he is the way he is. Although the trauma he’s experienced doesn’t justify his actions, it does shed light on his motivations, and gives a logic to his refusal to join the X-Men.

That’s my take on some of the major flaws in fiction writing. What do you guys think of these flaws, and what are some you think writers should avoid? Share in the comments below!