Good news

Finally, good news! My blog post about the recent Egyptian parliamentary elections and my experience as a first-time voter was chosen as one of “5 things that blew us away” by She Writes editors. (Yay!)

I didn’t post it up here because this blog is dedicated mainly to the topics of reading, writing, storytelling, and everything that concerns them (which obviously includes eating chocolate. Lots of it).

Read my blog post here. I’d love to hear what you think about it.

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Why writers need negative criticism – Part 2

Negative criticism can destroy a writing career.

Negative criticism can either improve a writer's skills, or destroy her forever.

In my previous post about negative criticism, I outlined the six stages of reaction I went through when I received the most biting criticism in my life. In this post I want to explore the different possible reactions and factors that writers need to be aware of in order to make the most out of any negative criticism they come across.

There are basically two main reactions to negative criticism, with many variations and degrees:

1. Rejection

2. Acceptance (It can either take a healthy form of a learning experience, or a deadly form of destroying a writer’s confidence so completely that she never writes another word again.)

Before getting into the various factors a writer needs to consider when evaluating negative criticism, let’s first consider this: what would happen to you as a writer if you never received any negative criticism?

I, for one, don’t believe that there is any writer in the world who doesn’t need to improve their writing. And any writer who believes otherwise is seriously deluded. No matter how great a writer is, no matter how acclaimed or best-selling, every writer needs a good editor/agent/critique partner(s) who can tell him what’s working with a piece of writing, and what’s not working.

How else are you supposed to improve if all you hear is: ‘That’s great!”, “I loved it!”? The simple — and to me, obvious — answer is: you don’t.

Now on to the various factors that need to be taken into consideration when receiving negative criticism, and which can determine how you react:

1. How was the criticism given?

Was it supportive? That is, did the person giving the critique seem to want you to improve, or did it seem as if she was just out to cut you down? Were there any positive remarks?

I always make it a point to highlight any positive areas in a piece of writing before I say what I thought needed work, even if it means I just acknowledge the effort a writer has exerted, or the bravery she’s shown by submitting her work to be critiqued, or a phrase I liked, or an idea that has potential.

I also make the effort to be as sincere in my enthusiasm as I am in my criticism. One of the most depressing things is hearing an unenthusiastic “Yeah, it’s nice, but…” Hearing that makes me discredit everything that comes out of the person’s mouth. Make me feel good first. Make me feel safe. Give me a cushion to fall on before you punch me.

2. Who gave the criticism?

Is that person, in your opinion, qualified? That is, do you trust them to be objective and to want you to improve? When you consider this factor, you have to be careful not to allow your resistance to, or rejection of the criticism affect this opinion. This means that just because the person criticized your writing, don’t ignore it by saying to yourself, “What does he know anyway?”

Generally speaking, friends don’t make good critique partners. There’s simply too much history and emotions and stakes involved to allow for either a fair critique or a fair reception of that critique. The best thing to do is to search for a critique partner with whom you are not emotionally involved. You can always become friends with your critique partner (it’s almost inevitable), but when your friends become your critique partners, your friendship can suffer.

Leave the ego-boosting to your friends, instead. Make sure they’ll support you and encourage you to continue when you do get cut down.That’s what friends are for, after all.

3. What was your emotional state beforehand?

Were you in a foul mood before you opened that email that tore your writing to shreds? If you were, then you probably hit the roof. I hardly think that you swallowed your pride and tearfully started revising your work.

If you were depressed before you received the criticism, you’ll probably feel suicidal after reading it.

You have to be aware of your feelings before receiving the criticism so you can evaluate your reaction and the criticism fairly.

4. Does it make sense?

The validity of a critique can be relative and can’t be measured without an argument being made for it. How do you decide whether this makes sense or not? The best thing to do is try to distance yourself from both the critique as well as your own writing.

And if the criticism suggests removing a line or changing something, try it. Implement the change and reread your work. Does it sound better? Did removing that beautifully crafted sentence leave a gaping hole in your writing, or did it tighten it?

And now, over to you. What other factors do you believe affect the reception of negative criticism?

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Why writers need negative criticism – Part 1

Why writers need negative criticismYes, you read that right. And no, I’m not a masochist. About a week ago, I received the most biting negative criticism that I have ever received about a piece of my writing. And I mean negative. Caustic. It burned. I’ll tell you exactly how. This is how I felt about it (more or less in chronological order):

1. Stunned: I’d never received such a crushing critique before.

2. In denial: The person who critiqued the work obviously doesn’t know anything. This isn’t happening to me. This person doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say or the aim of this piece of writing.

3. Crushed: I suck. I suck. I suck. I can’t believe I ever thought I can become a good writer. I suck. I should just go find some office job and forget about ever becoming a writer. Did I mention that I suck? Well, I do. I suck.

4. Acceptance of the criticism: OK, this person may have a point. Yes, I agree that this needs some revision. OK, it needs a major rewrite and has lots of problems.

5. Worried and paranoid: If I sucked so bad at this piece, therefore, I suck at everything related to writing. Anyone else who ever said anything good about any of my other writings must have been too polite or embarrassed to say anything. Anyone else who didn’t tear my writing to shreds before must have been too nice to say anything. They must have pitied me. I still suck.

6. Shaky acceptance of myself: This was the most difficult stage to arrive at. OK, so not everything I write is wonderful, or even good. Sometimes I write terribly, and sometimes I write very well. There’s no way that anyone writes well every single time. This shredding of my writing will make me more aware of the mistakes I make. It will make me improve my writing. There is hope. Maybe I don’t suck. At least not completely.

This was a rundown of my emotional and mental states as I dealt with the criticism. At the end, I did buckle up and fix that piece. But I’m no hero. I still feel that my previously dulled sense of self-doubt has been sharpened and stings. And now I’m trying to convince myself that a healthy dose of self-doubt is necessary for all writers. How else would they improve? But the key word here is: healthy.

In the next post in this two-part series, I’ll talk some more about negative critiques, and how writers can evaluate and deal with it.

But now, I’m interested in knowing about your experiences with negative criticism. How did it make you feel? What did you do?

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Reading binge makes for a magical week

Last week was magical. I grumbled into the phone when friends called, and snapped at anyone who dared interrupt me. That’s not the magic part, though. You see, I treated myself to a reading binge and discovered not one, two, or three, but four amazing authors. Most of these  novels are not recent publications, and I’ve had them on my Kindle since last year, but never got around to reading them. Here they are in the order I read them.

1. Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden. With a little bit of The Secret Garden, a lot of going back and forth between three different time periods, and a delightful dose of original fairy tales, this novel bowled me over. What can be more exciting than a forgotten garden, an old book of original fairy tales, and a family mystery?

From the book description:

“Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace – the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century – Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of [her recently dead grandmother] Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.”

One of my favorite quotes:

“Ever since Eliza had discovered the book of fairy tales… she’d understood the power of stories. Their magical ability to refill the wounded part of people.”

2. Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees.  I emerged from between the pages of this book half-wishing I was a beekeeper. Maybe I should put that on my list of “things I wish I can do sometime in my life.” This list includes things like becoming a marine biologist and a wildlife photographer for National Geographic.

From the book description:

“When [Lily’s governess] Rosaleen insults three of the deepest racists in town, [teenage misfit] Lily knows it’s time to spring them both free. They take off in the only direction Lily can think of, toward a town called Tiburon, South Carolina – a name she found on the back of a picture amid the few possessions left by her mother.”

One of my favorite quotes:

“I was wishing I had a story like that one to live inside me with so much loudness you could pick it up on a stethoscope, and not the story I did have about ending my mother’s life and sort of ending my own at the same time.”

3. Kathryn Stockett, The Help. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel reminded me of just how deeply entrenched racism was in the (US) South. Told through the voices of one white woman slowly realizing how little she fits in with her childhood friends and hometown, and two black women working as maids in Jackson, Mississippi, this novel traces the stories of black maids working in the American South in the 1960s.

From the book description:

“Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed. ”

One of my favorite quotes:

“She gave me a lemony smile.”

4. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible. Told in five different and distinct voices, Kingsolver tells a powerful tale about family, missionaries, and politics. Her novel follows the fates of the wife and four daughters of an American missionary who sends himself and his family to the Belgian Congo to bring Christianity to a small village. Despite the serious subject matter, Kingsolver surprised me by making me laugh out loud at times, with her characters’ observations on situations that are so horrific or pathetic that they become darkly comic.

From the book description:

“[I]t isn’t long before they discover that the tremendous humidity has rendered the [Betty Crocker cake] mixes unusable, their clothes are unsuitable, and they’ve arrived in the middle of political upheaval as the Congolese seek to wrest independence from Belgium. In addition to poisonous snakes, dangerous animals, and the hostility of the villagers to Nathan’s fiery take-no-prisoners brand of Christianity, there are also rebels in the jungle and the threat of war in the air. Could things get any worse?

In fact they can and they do.”

One of my favorite quotes:

“White men tell us: Vote, bantu! They tell us: You do not all have to agree, ce n’est pas nécessaire! If two men vote yes and one says no, the matter is finished. Á bu, even a child can see how that will end. It takes three stones in the fire to hold up the pot. Take one away, leave the other two, and what? The pot will spill into the fire.”

Lesson to be learned from this latest reading binge: If you call me and I answer the phone in a distracted grumble, that probably means you interrupted me while reading and I was too polite to snap at you.

Have you read any good books lately?

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The results are in

I just took the BookBrowse quiz to find out what kind of reader I am. Yes, I know, these quizzes are usually just for fun. But this time, I believe the results:

I’m an “all-rounder”, which means that I fit equally into all four reading personalities. Here’s what BookBrowse has to say about me:

Involved Reader: You don’t just love to read books, you love to read about books. For you, half the fun of reading is the thrill of the chase – discovering new books and authors, and discussing your finds with others. Yes, oh yes! The “thrill of the chase”. Only a true book lover understands that.
Exacting Reader: You love books but you rarely have as much time to read as you’d like – so you’re very particular about the books you choose. Well, I do have much more time than most other people I know, but I am a bit picky.
Serial Reader: Once you discover a favorite writer you tend to stick with him/her through thick and thin. How true! And woe be it if my favorite writers disappoint me! It’s only happened once, and I still haven’t gotten over it.
Eclectic Reader: You read for entertainment but also to expand your mind. You’re open to new ideas and new writers, and are not wedded to a particular genre or limited range of authors. Yes! I love discovering new genres and new authors. I read all types of fiction, narrative nonfiction, poetry, children’s books, and YA novels. I have yet to conquer my extreme reluctance to read sci-fi, though.

And now, over to you. I’m interested to know, what kind of reader are you? Take the BookBrowse quiz here. I don’t think you have to be a member to take it.

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Ode to the tomato… or what research will teach you

None of my characters would recognize these.

Tamatem, bandora, uta… these are all names given by Arabs to the not-so-humble tomato. If the many names to the one fruit is any indication, it’s that the tomato reigns supreme in kitchens all over the Arab world. What would a good tabbouleh or fattoush salad be without tomatoes? What would a tagen (casserole) of okra look like without it’s red sauce? Is it even possible to imagine Middle Eastern cuisine without that vital ingredient?

And more importantly, why on earth am I writing about tomatoes instead of say, writing, reading, or chocolate? Have I fallen into the bottomless abyss of bloggers who have lost their focus and start to spout nonsensical and irrelevant information about whatever crosses their mind?

No. You see, the history of the tomato in the Middle East is probably one of the most interesting discoveries in my research so far.

As some of you may know, my current work-in-progress is a historical novel set in the Arab world during the Crusades.  When I first started entertaining the idea of the story, I knew that I would have to do some research about the history of the Crusades. Of course I would. I obviously needed to know what happened in order to write about the time and place. So off I went, rather cheerfully, to the library and various bookstores (perfect excuse for buying books, by the way).

Most of what I was reading was political history, which is the first thing that comes to the minds of most people when they hear “history” and “research”.  Some of it was fascinating, and some of it was dead boring.

The only problem was that although it was important, indeed vital, for me to be completely immersed in the historical events of that time period, it soon became clear that in order to be able to write, I would have to take my research to a new level. And this is where the story of the tomato begins.

While I was busily taking notes on the various battles, my characters were — gosh darn them! — getting hungry. So, kind writer and renowned feeder of people that I am, I had to prepare a meal for them. I put a few battles on “hold” and off I went to read up on Arab kitchens during the Crusades. An invaluable resource I found was Lilia Zaouali’s Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World: A Concise History with 174 Recipes.

This is what I found:

1. There were more Arabic cookbooks written before the year 1400 CE than in the rest of the world. That’s even if you added all the cookbooks written in all other languages together. Well, considering how much we still love food, it figures.

2. Moreover, the mere act of writing down recipes and compiling them was peculiar to medieval Arabs. Other people taught cooking through apprenticeship only.

3. The oldest surviving Arabic cookbook — which does not necessarily mean it is the oldest Arabic cookbook — is called Kitab al-tabikh, or “The Book of Cooking”. It was compiled in the tenth century by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, and contains recipes from the courts of eighth and ninth century caliphs.

4. The private physicians of the caliphs had actually recommended certain dishes as being healthy, and this is one of the reasons the Arab world fell in love with the idea of cookbooks. In the eleventh century, a Baghdad physician called Ibn Jazla wrote Minhaj al-bayan fi ma yastaamiluhu al-insan, or very roughly “A declaration of clarification to things used by humans”, a book in which he explained the health benefits of different herbs, plants, and foods, and wrote down a few dozen recipes in detail. The recipes in his book soon became “bestselling” recipes, copied into other cookbooks, and even translated into Latin and German in the fourteenth century.

5. The Arabs were very open to trying out new cuisines, and borrowed and developed recipes from Persia, different regions in the Arab world (after all, it does extend from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean), and sometimes from Europe. But in places where Europeans and Arabs were in constant contact, such as Andalusia and the Middle East during the Crusades, it was more often the Europeans who borrowed from the Arabs.

6. Finally, to get to the poor tomato. Alas, it did not exist in the Middle East at the time of the Crusades. The tomato, which originated in South America, was “discovered” by the Spanish in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries. So what did the Arabs use instead? Fruits and flowers. Instead of stewing vegetables and meats in tomato juice, the Arabs used fruits such as pomegranates, quinces, grapes, apples, or plums.

So, while on this Eid holiday I’ll be enjoying oven-roasted stuffed tomatoes for lunch, the characters in my novel will feast on chicken with Seville oranges. Or perhaps some beef with rosebuds.

But of course, like any good writer, for the sake of authenticity, I’ll have to try out some of those medieval recipes, won’t I?

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WRCE bookmarks? Or, I need help.

Used with permission from http://www.smashingmagazine.com under Creative Commons License.

First, a note about this post’s title. I admit to a serious case of brain freeze. I simply cannot come up with a good title for what I am hoping will be a more or less regular feature on this blog: a roundup of  links to the very best of what I’ve been reading or watching online about writing, reading, creativity, and, occasionally, eating chocolate. WRCE is basically the initials of the blog title. Completely banal, I agree, so help me out here and suggest something better (anything you suggest is bound to be better).

In no particular order, these are the best articles I’ve read this week:

on becoming creative: keep trying

I could praise this post till the end of the year, and still think it deserves more. This is one of the most inspiring and insightful pieces of writing on creativity. Diana Bauer of A Certain Simplicity writes about the relationship between creativity, talent, and the fundamental importance of technical discipline. I can sum up her post in three sentences, but if you don’t go on to read the whole article, you’d be missing on what may be the most important thing you read about creativity.

She starts out with a statement which I believe does wonders in calming jittery creative nerves. “Not being able to do something well does not mean that a person does not have talent.” So relax, people.

But, she says, “so many people don’t make it over that first hurdle because they believe that in order to start, they have to magically produce some sort of talent they don’t believe they even have, when what they should be doing is starting to understand the technical part of the art which they might be interested in.”

Thank you, Rose Deniz, for suggesting this article.

6 Tips to Ease Back into Your Writing Routine

Suzannah Freeman on Write it Sideways tackles the struggle to get back on track with your writing when you’ve been away (whether physically or mentally) for a while. She starts her post with the following sentence, which grabbed me, because it describes me to a “t” (although I’m still not as disciplined as she is): “If you’re anything like me, it only takes a few days away from your regular writing routine to throw everything in your life out of whack.”

And then she outlines six tips for getting back on track. I particularly identified with her suggestion to “organize your surroundings”. I can never think straight or otherwise in a messy room.

Rhythms of Writing

Darcy Pattison of Fiction Notes writes about what she calls the “messy and unexpected” nature of her writing process. She says: “Once I know the direction that I need to go, I don’t mind letting go and doing the unexpected.”

In my opinion, this is a very important balance between the never-ending “debate” between the outliners (in which the writer outlines the novel/story) and the pantsers (in which the writer does not outline the novel/story and just writes “by the seat of his/her pants”) in the creative writing world. I don’t think that you have to choose one method of writing over another, but believe that both can contribute positively to your writing.

So What Exactly Is Creativity?

This is the third lesson in Mark McGuinness‘s free 6-month online course for creative professionals, called The Creative Pathfinder. I have tremendous respect for Mark’s articles because they are not only well-written, but are extremely helpful as well. It’s obvious that he puts a lot of thought and effort into each article. Case in point, his third lesson in the Creative Pathfinder course.

In this lesson, he outlines different definitions of creativity and suggests how these definitions can help creative people. He starts out by stating the obvious, and then points out the not-so-obvious that makes all the difference. This is an example of what he has to say:

Creative thinking is often the first thing we think of when we think of creativity. But any real creator knows that creative thinking isn’t worth doodly squat unless you do something with your ideas.

On the other hand, if you focus too much on execution, you can get caught up in foolish productivity, busy all the time yet somehow never creating anything remarkable.

Warning: Mark’s articles usually run a little long, but from experience, they’re worth reading to the very end.

Your Time Is Your Currency

So how do (successful) writers balance writing with the rest of life? Laurie Halse Anderson of Mad Woman in the Forest, has three valuable lessons. These are: seek out kindred spirits, be clear about your true priorities, and take charge of your life.

But these lessons aren’t as simplistic as they sound. Laurie’s post is excellent inspiration for writers and other creative people to read over and over again. Thank you, Debbie Ohi, for suggesting this post.

When Life Gives You Writer’s Block, Build With It!

An interesting premise. I’ll be the first to admit to usually just sleeping/hibernating, dreaming, cooking, eating, movie-watching, and generally  doing anything but building when I get hit with writer’s block. I’ve been trying to deal with it more creatively and have written about this before here.

But Christopher Rice on Fuel Your Writing has a new take on how to build when life gives you (writer’s) block. “The goal”, he writes, “is to analyze why you’re bogged down with writer’s block.” If you think that sounds like a therapist’s take on writer’s block, read the rest of the article to discover just how this analysis helps move your writing project forward, and why analysis works.

And now, over to you. I’d love to know what you’ve been reading lately about writing and creativity. And don’t forget to suggest another title for this feature.

Update: As per the suggestion of the wonderful Nadia El-Awady, the winner of the best suggestion for the title gets a batch of what she generously calls my “world famous brownies”. But alas, the winner must be a resident of Cairo, Egypt and be willing to arrange for pick-up in 6th of October in order to receive the prize.

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