15 writing resources to keep you going through NaNoWriMo 2017

That time of year is upon us once again, fellow writers – National Novel Writing Month. While some of you may know that I have never attempted NaNoWriMo myself, I am an avid fan and follower of the influx of writing inspiration and advice the month invariably brings.

1. Fiction Writing Tips by Kris Noel

Author Kris Noel is an on-and-off Tumblr user, but come NaNoWriMo she floods feeds worldwide with all kinds of helpful tips on how to actually buckle down and crank that novel out.

2. Writrs

This blog runs prompts all year round, but it focuses on what aspiring writers need to keep them creative and inspired in November.

3. Fuck Yeah Character Development

Characters are pretty much the most important part of any written work, so if you ever find yourself struggling with that aspect, this site provides all kinds of brainstorming questions, as well as insight into how to write characters of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and experiences.

4. It’s a Writer Thing

You are not alone! The lovely folks at It’s a Writer Thing have plenty of support and advice to offer if you’re struggling with an aspect of your story, whether it’s scene, dialogue, character – no matter how small it is, you can find someone or something that can help you here.

5. Sacha Black

While author Sacha Black’s website isn’t dedicated specifically to NaNoWriMo, it is dedicated to her own journey as a writer and the experience that comes with it. She also offers writer resources and interviews other writers for their perspectives.

6. The Spinning Pen

This site is dedicated to YA authors, but the advice and insight available on the writing and publishing processes are useful to any writer.

7. Shannon Thompson

Shannon Thompson is another author whose blog is focused more on her own work and what’s relevant to her in the writing world, but I continue to find her experience incredibly useful and encouraging. Thompson is a YA author, so if that’s your genre you may find her writing experiences particularly relatable.

8. Cecile’s Writers

This blog is an offshoot of Cecile’s Writers magazine, a publication dedicated to intercultural voices. Their blog is a great way to get insight on the industry from a diverse set of writers.

9. Eye of the Writer

If you need a little humor as you sit chained to your disk, your digits slowly numbing from hours of typing, Eye of the Writer is the place to be. The style is hilarious and the advice is excellent.

10. The Muffin

The Muffin is WOW! Women on Writing’s official blog. They’ve been online since 2006, so there’s no shortage of advice for women looking to break into the business and keep themselves motivated through the month.

11. Creative Writing Contests

This is a more of an “after” resource, but if you’re focused on publication and want to give your novel its best chance, this website has an endless list of competitions, grants, and literary magazine issues that can help you focus your plot and give you a prize to keep your eye on.

12. World Building Question of the Day

Every day, this Tumblr blog gives you something to think about as you create the world your story exists in.

13. And World Building Too

This website I especially like because it provides visual inspiration to help you think about what your world looks like.

14. I Suck At Writing

This is a great resource for writers looking for help with productivity and creating clean, professional copy.

15. Silly OC Prompts

Another blog focused on character creation and development, this provides daily questions that will give you a much clearer focus on who your characters really are.

There you have it folks! What are some of the resources you rely on to motivate you through NaNoWriMo? Share in the comments!

The Apocalypse has been rescheduled: A review of “Good Omens”

It’s old news now, but Amazon is making a television show of “Good Omens,” the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett novel on nuclear Apocalypse and what happens when the Antichrist decides he’d rather have an idyllic British country childhood instead.

Good Omens

I originally read “Good Omens” years ago when I was on the tail end of a Terry Pratchett binge-athon. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about a non-Discworld offering, as I’d read “The Nation” a year or so before and hadn’t enjoyed it nearly as much, but “Good Omens” came highly recommended and with a back cover covered in praise as opposed to a description of the plot, which I normally abhor but will admit is generally a good sign.

Spoilers ahead!

The story goes thusly: the Apocalypse is upon us, and the demons of Hell have enlisted a Satanistic order to pose as nurses in order to bring Lucifer’s spawn to the world and give him to an important American family. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), there’s a bit of a miscommunication and the spawn of Satan ends up with an ordinary British family that lives in a small country town.

Meanwhile, Crowley, a devil, and Aziraphale, an angel, are busy keeping an eye on the child they think is the Antichrist, each trying to persuade him towards their side. The result is that the real Antichrist has an incredibly ordinary childhood. Admittedly, he is a bit more charismatic than your average 11-year old, but still. Mostly he just rides his bike around, pulling pranks with the posse of children who are attracted to him.

Meanwhile meanwhile, there’s Anathema Device (I know), a young woman trying to stop the Apocalypse. How does she know it’s coming, you ask? Well, her ancestor was a seer, condemned witch, and author of “The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter,” the only truly accurate prophetic book written in history.

At least the Apocalypse will be funny…

So as you can see there’s a lot going on, as there would be when the Apocalypse is at hand. You’d think it would be stressful for the reader, but “Good Omens” is written in that quintessential Pratchett style – a humor that is derived from the idiosyncrasies of human beings and the ways that morphs their perspectives and priorities. Take Shadewell, a witch hunter whose morality is derived directly from his medieval predecessors – except for the part where he takes advantage of both Aziraphale and Crowley by pretending there are way more witch hunters in his organization so that they’ll pay him more.

(Why are Aziraphale and Crowley paying him at all? Apparently witch hunting is one of those things that is encouraged on both sides).

There’s a lot of Pratchett in “Good Omens.” I haven’t read anything by Neil Gaiman, so I obviously can’t comment on how his style influences the book. What I can say is that it reflects a recurring theme in Pratchett’s writing: humanity as being above the morality of Heaven and Hell. In the Discworld books, Pratchett repeatedly positions the complexity of the human experience against the black-and-white morality of traditional organized religion. He challenges the idea that God’s Will is always good and pure, and instead positions our own free will as being morally superior.

As a religious person myself, this theme is one that I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I believe that God has given us free will, and that morality is indeed complex. Indeed, I would say that God gives us free will so that we can tackle that complexity. But on the other hand, I do believe in the ultimate judgement of God, and that He is the arbiter of good and evil and right and wrong, whereas Pratchett would suggest that it is human beings who must take on that task.

So as you can see, for being a comedic romp through the Apocalypse, “Good Omens” is deceptively complex, and a book I would highly recommend. If you’re a fan of the Discworld, you’ll enjoy the patterns it takes from those books, but even if you’re not familiar with Pratchett’s work, I think it serves as a good introduction to his style.

With the television show coming out I’m hoping that style will translate, because it’s really one of the major selling points of “Good Omens” to me. These kind of adaptations are really hit or miss, and I feel like given that the book has a definite end maybe it would do better as a movie. I do have Amazon Prime so I might give it a shot – stay tuned!

Are you planning to watch the “Good Omens” adaptation? Let me know in the comments!

Writing: Why you gotta go and make it so complicated?

A few weeks (or has it been months? Who knows! Time is relative) ago, I joined Pinterest as a way of sparking some visual creativity, which some of you may know I’ve always been a fan of. And Pinterest did not disappoint:

It’s beautiful!!! *heart eyes*

(While we’re here, you can check out the Creative Quibble Pinterest Board here, and also check out this board if you’re only really here for the books).

But one thing I’ve noticed that I’m not so crazy about is the plethora of writing advice infographics along the lines of “Words to Use Instead of X.”

Before I start talking about why I don’t like this and don’t think it’s helpful, let me say that this isn’t a criticism of those dispensing this kind of writing advice, or even the advice itself. It’s not bad or wrong – I’ve personally found it useful in certain circumstances – but I think for aspiring writers to get the most of it, there needs to be a very specific approach.

When 1+1=3

Writing isn’t a science where you can replace one thing with its equivalent and get the same result. When you tell someone to use “enraged” instead of “very angry,” you could be legitimately improving their writing – or you could be ruining their work. The only way you can know for sure is if you see the word choice in the context of the piece itself.

Remember the scene in Friends where Joey tries to write Monica and Chandler a recommendation for their adoption agency but gets a little overenthusiastic with this thesaurus feature?

That’s basically what you risk when you follow this kind of advice willy nilly.

For example, one of these posts suggests “deafening” as a replacement for “very noisy.” But these two are not necessarily the same thing. What about “piercing”? It may well be a better replacement for the meaning you’re trying to convey. What about “cacophonous”? Riotous? Clamorous? Ear-popping? And that’s just off the top of my head. All of these words mean “very noisy.” None of them refer to the same kind of noise.

Another post gives 50 alternatives to the phrase “looks like,” including “mirrors,” “reflects,” “parodies,” “mimics,” and “parallels.” Personally I prefer this kind of post because it gives the writer a chance to consider what works best for their meaning, but that still requires one to be very familiar with the language and confident in what they want to portray.  If you’re in that category, then you may well find these posts exceedingly helpful. But if you’re just starting to get comfortable with writing, I think you need to approach this type of advice carefully.

I think the best, most authentic writing comes from where you are naturally in your vocabulary and your environment. When I was in grad school, I had several people tell me that my writing wasn’t “academic” enough, because I tended to use short sentences and paragraphs and everyday language. That was a direct result of my training in journalism – it was what I was reading and writing naturally, and so it carried over into my graduate work. I rather liked it – I find a lot of academic writing cumbersome to the point of being unintelligible. Here’s a pro-tip: if you’ve hit line four but you’re still in the same sentence, stop and find somewhere to put a period. No one knows what you’re talking about anymore.

But I digress. My point is this: I could have tried to mimic the academic style I was told to by my peers (for the record, my professors never took issue with my writing style), but it would have come off as awkward and artless. Writing is not a “fake it till you make it” skill. It’s something that needs time to develop naturally, and it’s also unique in that to perfect your writing, you need to do something else – read.

Reading is the only way to grow your vocabulary in a way that will organically feed into your writing. That’s the long and short of it. You can save all these posts and bookmark thesaurus.com and read the dictionary every night before you go to bed, but none of that will feed into your writing like reading does.

And speaking of reading…

Just say it!

One thing that really, really bugs me is when people give you a list of words to replace “said.” Guys. Guys. You do not need to replace “said.” In some cases, when you’re trying to really emphasize an attitude or a characteristic, it is appropriate to use “stammered,” or “demanded,” or “snapped.” In most cases, “said” is just fine. In fact, it’s better than fine.

Here’s why: your reader isn’t actually seeing the word “said.” That’s not how the brain works. It doesn’t read every individual letter or word. Instead, your brain scans and absorbs a context, and fills out the details from there. Have you ever been reading a page and suddenly stop and go, ‘wait, what,?” because what’s happening now doesn’t make sense with what you just read. So you go back, only to discover that you missed a crucial “not” in a sentence in the last scene, which is why the what happened afterwards was such a shock.

It’s not because you’re skimming or falling asleep or otherwise not paying attention. That’s just how your brain reads. When your brain sees quotation marks in the context of a story, it knows that there’s dialogue coming up, i.e., someone is saying something. It doesn’t need to read the word “said” to know that, so more often than not, it doesn’t.

So as a reader, you’re not registering the word “said,” and you’re certainly not nitpicking the author’s use of it. But of course as a writer, it’s a different ball game entirely. Because you’re typing it out so much, you become paranoid about your use of “said.” Is it boring? Is it evocative of what you’re really trying to express? You have an image in your head of exactly what your characters are doing and thinking and feeling; is “said” really doing them justice?

Yes. Yes it is. Don’t just take it from me. Author and publisher Rob Hart is a huge proponent of “said”:

Said and asked are beautiful in their simplicity. They are completely anonymous words. We know what they mean. We’ve seen them so often that our eyes recognize the shape and convey the meaning with zero effort. We glide right over them.

That’s very important when you’re reading dialogue. Dialogue flows. Conversations don’t stop so we can figure out what people are feeling. We intuit it. And having these nearly-meaningless words to steer you along means that you’re not pausing to figure anything out.

But when you see that a character retorted or blustered or hissed, your brain slows down. There’s something there you need to process. It’s momentary, probably imperceptible, but when it comes to writing a flowing conversation, the pause may as well last for hours.

In writing, everything counts. Where you put your periods. The white space between the paragraph breaks. Everything. And said and asked are very valuable tools in your arsenal. Because they get the job done and get the fuck out of the way. They’re so good at it, they can completely disappear when you need them to.

Hart makes an important point about the anonymity of “said” and “asked.” When you write, you’re trying to convey a certain idea or image, and often you become so invested in that image that you become obsessed with making sure the reader sees it exactly as you do in their mind’s eyes. So you use these unnecessary words and add emphasis where you don’t need it because you’re trying to force the reader to conform to your vision of the narrative, and instead you push them out of their reading bubble and force them to recall this outside force, you, the author, that has created this imaginary world.

They were immersed in your world. Then you dragged them out and beat them over the head with your complicated dialogue tags.

Sometimes, it’s better to just go with your instincts and not overthink these things. You can always go back and edit. And when you do, you may find that your work is in better shape than you thought!

*Feature image credit: John Davey via Flickr.

Books you should read instead of the classics: An alternative To Be Read list

Recently, Lizzy of My Little Book Blog wrote about how she gave up on a To Be Read list chock full of classics and must-reads as decided by the Conglomeration of Literature Professors, which as we all know is a branch of the Illuminati.

(That was a joke. Hah.)

The post really resonated with me. I too have a TBR list in some dust-covered notebook that I’ve probably lost. It has a ton of familiar titles, all of which I have now forgotten.

I have, of course, read my share of classics. Jane Austin, the Bronte’s, Charles Dickens, several depressed Russians. My feelings on each vary widely. The only Charles Dickens I’ve ever read that I genuinely enjoyed was “A Tale of Two Cities.” Depressed Russians are great, but not for the books they’re most well-known for. “Crime and Punishment” is a great story but much too long. Leo Tolstoy has a book whose name I no longer recall but that was vastly more interesting than “War and Peace,” which is also too long. “Anna Karenina” is too long and has almost no likeable characters. “The Three Musketeers” is a fun romp, but “The Count of Monte Cristo” is too long and has too many characters. About a solid half of the book could be a separate story.

There’s a theme developing here. It’s not that I’m opposed to length in and of itself, or to multiple storylines. I think a large part of it is that language has changed and evolved and our expectations of what books should do has also evolved in ways that make these books seem less epic and more just long. Really, really long.

So instead, I would like to humbly offer a few alternatives to the classics that dominate our TBRs. Here’s a list of 10 books I think you should read:

The Travels of Ibn Battutah – edited by Tim Mackiintosh-Smith

On the road to Multan and ten miles distant from it is the river called Khusru Abad, a large river that cannot be crossed except by boat. At this point the goods of all who pass are subjected to a rigorous examination and their baggage searched. Their practice at the time of our arrival was to take a quarter of everything brought in by the merchants, and to exact a duty of seven dinars for every horse. When we set about the crossing of this river and the baggage was examined, the idea of having my baggage searched was very disagreeable to me, for though there was nothing much in it, it seemed a great deal in the eyes of the people, and I did not like having it looked into. By the grace of God Most High there arrived on the scene one of the principal officers on behalf of Qutb al-Mulk, the governor of Multan, who gave orders that I should not be subjected to examination or search.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold – Gabriel Garcia Marques

Many of those on the docks knew they were going to kill Santiago Nasar. Don Lázaro Aponte, a colonel from the academy making use of his good retirement, and town mayor for eleven years, waved to him with his fingers. “I had my own very real reasons for believing he wasn’t in any danger anymore,” he told me. Father Carmen Amador wasn’t worried either. “When I saw him safe and sound I thought it had all been a fib,” he told me. No one even wondered whether Santiago Nasar had been warned, because it seemed impossible to all that he hadn’t.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes all our lives. Life without memory is no life at all…Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action.

A Border Passage: From Cairo to America – A Woman’s Journey – Leila Ahmed

Even in my own childhood, Zatoun, my mother’s paternal home, was a place palpably apart, imbued with some unnameably different order and way of being. The aura and aroma of those other times and other ways pervaded it still, in the rustle and shuffle of silks and the soft fall of slippers along hallways and corridors, in the talk and gestures and in the momentary tremor of terror precipitated by the boom of Grandfather’s voice, and then the quiet, suppressed, chortling laughter of the women as its boom faded and he passed into the recesses of the inner hall. The order and aroma of another time, other ways, another order.

The Truth – Terry Pratchett

Shall I try again? he said. “Listen carefully. Drugs equal chemicals, but, and please do listen to this part, sheesh, chemicals do not equal drugs. Remember all that trouble with the calcium carbonate? When you paid the man five dollars?

“Made me feel good,” muttered Mr. Tulip.

“Calcium carbonate? said Mr. Pin. “Even for you, I mean…”

Alexander at the World’s End – Tom Holt

The City of Athens, you see, has for quite some time now used Scythian slaves as policemen. Sorry, you don’t know what that word means; it means men paid by the state to keep order and punish people who break the laws (or at least, that’s the theory). We had to use foreign slaves for the job because no self-respecting Greek, let alone Athenian, would dream of doing a job that involved exercising practically unlimited power over his fellow citizens. Quite right, too. Ask yourself; what kind of man would you get volunteering for a job like that? Men who want that kind of power are by definition the last people you’d allow to have it.

Full Moon – P.G. Wodehouse

The moment Tipton set eyes on E. Jimpson Morgatroyd he knew that he had picked a lemon in the garden of medicine. What he had hoped for was a sunny practitioner who would prod him in the ribs with his stethoscope, compliment him on his health, tell him an anecdote about a couple of Irishmen named Pat and Mike, give him some ointment for the spots, and send him away in a whirl of good fellowship. E Jimpson proved to be a gloomy man with sidewhiskers, who smelled of iodoform and had obviously been looking on the black side of things since he was a slip of a boy.

In the Eye of the Sun – Ahdaf Soueif

How wonderful to simply do things instead of wondering if they are worth doing or discussing whether to do them or being told not to do them or listening to somebody else describe doing them.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

 

Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their poet master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem “Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning,” four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the president of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been “disappointed” by the poem’s reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled “My Favorite Bathtime Gurgles,” when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leaped straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.

What are your must-reads that don’t make the average TBR list? Let me know in the comments below!

Why YA literature leads the pack in Muslim representation: A guest post at Words Beneath the Wings

Last week, I had the privilege of being featured on “Words Beneath the Wings,” the blog of #RamadanReadathon founder Nadia. My post discusses why YA lit is always quick on the uptake when it comes to diversity and representation. Read it here:

WHY YA LITERATURE LEADS THE PACK IN MUSLIM REPRESENTATION – GUEST POST BY NADIA ELDEMERDASH

The nature of human nature: A review of “Last Man in Tower”

Last Man in Tower” is a novel by Indian writer Aravind Adiga. The story is about the struggle between a real estate developer and the residents (eventually, resident) of the tower block he wants to tear down.

Via goodreads

I was intrigued by the book because its premise is very different from a lot of the “set in India” novels you usually get. Here, there are no arranged marriages, no slum dwellers, no epic Bollywood lifestyles. Instead, “Last Man in Tower” is a story about a universal issue, gentrification, and the impact it has on this one building and its middle-class dwellers.

The developer wants the land in order to build his dream project, and he offers to pay an exorbitant amount of money to the residents of the dilapidated Mumbai tower block so as to tempt them into selling him their flats. The catch: they have to accept the offer by a certain day, and they all have to sell before anyone can get the money.

At first, several residents resist, but the developer is able to convince all of them except for an old retired schoolteacher. And thus the conflict goes from developer vs. residents to everyone vs. teacher.

The teacher, by the way, has good standing in the building – he tutors some of the other residents’ children. But he’s also known for being very strict, so as each resident gives in, their opinion of him warps. Instead of being a lovable if curmudgeonly old man, he becomes a cruel, selfish man who gets a kick out of traumatizing their kids with his outdated teaching methods.

The story, ultimately, is a reflection on human nature. What motivates good people to do bad things? What motivates one person to stand against his neighbors, pitting his will against theirs? How far can you push someone before they crack?

Why is it so easy to turn people against each other?

I won’t tell you what happens, because even the Chronic Spoiler has her limits, but I highly recommend the book. “Last Man in Tower” is a novel that goes beyond its setting to address universal issues, and its one that I think anyone can enjoy and learn from.

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 of delving 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.

Your self insertion is like your better twin. Which one is “better” is something I’ll let you decide.

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.