Tag Archives: writing process

Useful criticism: 3 tips & 3 things to remember

Useful criticism: 3 tips and 3 things to rememberI’ve written before about how destructive negative criticism can be here and here, and why writers need to be aware of the various reactions and factors that can determine how they evaluate criticism here.

Today I want to suggest 3 tips on how to elicit useful criticism, and 3 things to remember.

3 Tips

1. Always make sure you choose critique partners who are either professional editors/agents or serious writers. “Serious writer” does not necessarily mean a writer who is published, but rather a writer who is working hard, studying the craft, and writing.

2. Ask specific questions and explanation of comments. For example, if you receive a critique and find the comment “This part is boring”, ask your critique partner: “Why? What makes it boring?”

3. Ask questions beforehand, when you submit your writing to a critique partner. Tell them, “I’m looking for comments on my characterization”, rather than just leaving it up to them. If you are more worried about plot development, then by all means, ask your editor to concentrate on that. If you want a detailed line-by-line edit, then ask for it. If you don’t, then specify that.

3 Things to Remember

1. Good critique partners will offer reasons for their reactions to your writing. They will also offer suggestions, alternatives, details, and examples.

2. People will react differently to any piece of writing. What one person finds uninteresting, contrived, or flat, another will find brilliant and inspired. This is another reason you should ask more than one person.

3. Know who you are, and what you want. After you receive all the critiques you asked for, it’s you and your story or poem or article or novel. When it’s published, the words on that page will be attributed to you, so make sure you believe in every single one of them. Don’t ever allow anyone into bullying you to change something you don’t want to change.

For a great resource on critiquing and critique groups, read Becky Levine’s The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide.

Now it’s your turn. Do you have any other tips on how to elicit more useful criticism?



Filed under writers, writing, Writing related

An Interview with Shelina Zahra Janmohamed – Part 2

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed's Love in a Headscarf

The US cover of Shelina's book. It was released in the US October 2010.

Last week I published part 1 of this interview, in which Shelina Zahra Janmohamed talked about her book Love in a Headscarf, why she wrote it, and how it was received.

This week, Janmohamed delves into her own writing process, talks about receiving rejection letters, and offers advice to writers.

M: I want to get deeper into your writing process, how do you balance a full time job with your writing?

Janmohamed: I write because I love it, and because I have something that I want to say. I spend weekends and evenings tapping away, or writing little notes down at odd times (and on very strange scraps of paper) so that when I do find time to write, I have some sparks to kick start me.

M: Do you have any writing routines?

Janmohamed: No. It takes me a while to get into writing something, but once I’ve got going, I tend to write with a passion.

M: Are you part of a critique group? Where do you get feedback on your writing?

Janmohamed: I asked my close friends whose opinions and literary talents I respect to give me feedback on my book. It’s a huge imposition to ask someone to read a book, and not one that I make lightly.

M: What would you say is the single most important lesson you learned when writing (and publishing) Love in a Headscarf?

Janmohamed: Be true to your vision, you are the best supporter that your work can have.

M: Is there anything about writing and/or publishing you know now that you wished you knew when you first started writing LIAH?

Janmohamed: It’s a much harder and slower process than you might imagine. And it’s certainly not lucrative. But the joy of holding your book in print is unimaginable.

M: I know that there are a lot of Muslim women who are interested in writing about their own experiences as a form of self-expression, but may be worried about reactions from their communities and families. What would you say to them?

Janmohamed: The only way to change society is to be brave. If we are not willing to put ourselves out there, then things can never improve. I’d say, have the right intention, ask Allah for guidance, and then start a gentle evolution. Courage is a difficult thing to practice, but we must all try.

M: What advice would you give to beginning writers?

Janmohamed: Ensure that the quality of your writing is the best it can be. When you write, make sure you say something original either in content, or in the way you say it. And make every effort you can to get your work out there. Promotion is your best friend.

M: You wrote LIAH as a memoir rather than a novel. Do you think you are more comfortable writing nonfiction or do you see yourself as writing fiction in the future?

Janmohamed: Non-fiction is a genre that conveys what I want to communicate. However, I veer into creative non-fiction which at times has a storytelling style that is quite like fiction, and has the same qualities to transport you into an alternate domain.

M: Do you mind sharing with us how you found your publisher? From your interview in The Asian Writer, it looks like you didn’t have to deal with rejection letters. How did you decide on which agents and publishers to solicit and which to choose?

Janmohamed: Actually I have a whole folder full of rejection letters from publishers, varying from bog standard photocopies which go out to anyone who has sent in a manuscript, to more personal notes. Eventually I narrowed down my choices to six agents. I met with each of them in turn to understand whether they shared my vision as a writer and also to see if I thought they would do a good job of representing me. I eventually chose Diane Banks – and I haven’t regretted my choice for a moment.

M: And finally, what’s your next writing project?

Janmohamed: Right now I’ve been focusing on writing newspaper and magazine columns, but I definitely plan to write another book in the future – God willing!

Thank you, Shelina, for a fascinating interview.

I hope all of you have enjoyed it as much as I did.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s website: www.spirit21.co.uk


Filed under books, interview, reading, writing, Writing related

Write. One word at a time.

Imagine this: Scientists develop a pill that you take, go to sleep, and wake up in the morning to find a perfectly printed hardcover copy of the novel you’re working on or dreaming of published by a big-name publisher, with fantastic blurbs by best-selling authors on the jacket, and a New York Times bestseller badge on the cover. Every writer’s dream, right?

So many writers feel a constant pressure to produce something that will “prove” their status or career as “writer”. As I’ve said before in a previous post, most people will definitely not take you seriously as a writer unless you’ve published a bestselling book, become an internationally recognized journalist, or won the Nobel prize for literature.

Yes, it’s  a sad, cruel world sometimes. The question is: will you allow it to victimize you? In your own eyes, will your self-image as a writer be shaken because there are people who don’t think you deserve to be called a writer?

Let me be the first person to admit to struggling with this. I feel this pressure all the time. I’ve alluded to it before in a post about writer’s block. Every single year when my birthday rolls around in February (yes, it’s that time of year again), I get this unbidden sense of panic that “Aaaaaaaaaaaaah! I’m already XX years old and I still haven’t written one novel!”

Has this pressure and panic shaken my self-image as a writer?

Yes, it has.

But that was in the past. I’ve learned the hard way that if I allow external factors to affect how I see myself as a writer, I’ll never get anywhere. If my happiness lay in pleasing or impressing others, then I would still be slogging away at a job that did not inspire, challenge, or interest me, with nothing to do but steadily climb the corporate ladder.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that the point is not how fast or often I “produce” a piece of writing worthy of public consumption. That is not the standard with which I should measure my own success. What I have learned is that I should really concern myself more with the process rather than the “product”.

I know this can sound insincere, especially since I have not yet published a novel. But I assure you, this is not a case of Aesop’s fox who decided he didn’t want the “sour” grapes that were out of reach. What I can say is, this is a lesson that can only be taught by experience.

My own daily experience has taught me that the process of putting one word in front of the other, of seeing story lines unfold, of exploring a character’s possibilities, and of feeding my writing soul is what makes me a writer.

I’m not a publisher, so my goal is not — and should not be — to produce a book for readers to buy and read. Now I’m not going to pretend that I don’t want to write a novel that will be published and will be bought and read. I do.

But that’s not what I’m working for. That’s not what makes me sit down in front of the computer and write and try out different ways of expressing an idea or feeling. That’s not what makes me read and research, and discover. And it definitely is not what makes me grow.

The only thing that will make me a writer is to write. One word at a time. One sentence, one paragraph, one page, one chapter, one story at a time.


Filed under Writing related

A Writer’s Space

You want to be a writer, and perhaps you are one, so you tell everyone you are a writer. You tell yourself, your family, your friends, your colleagues, the taxi driver who asks, the passport control officer in the airport, and every single person you meet. Almost without fail, everyone you inform about your chosen career/identity will react in one of two ways:

1. “Oh.” And a silent decision to never take you seriously, because obviously you couldn’t get any other normal job doing something useful, and that’s why you’re a “writer”. This is followed by a general misconception that you are free to run errands, join NGOs, fulfill the questioner’s own dreams, babysit, talk on the phone for hours, or go out for coffee at the drop of a hat. After all, you have nothing better to do, do you?

2. “Oh really? What do you write?” or “What have you written?” The problem with this interested reaction is that if you haven’t written the latest bestseller or are not a famous investigative journalist, the likelihood is that the initial interest will quickly morph into reaction number 1 (see above).

Don’t be embarrassed. This happens to me all the time, so I’m not talking about some theoretically humiliating experience that happens to “other” people. The result of these kinds of encounters is that, unlike when you were slaving away at a full time job you hated while dreaming of having time and space to write, you find that your time is fair game. Or, if you still have your full-time job, the rest of your precious time is obviously to socialize, chat, relax, and generally do anything but write.

So, what’s the solution?

Like everything else in life, there are no easy answers, but there are always possibilities. Whether you have decided to dedicate 3 or 30 hours a week to writing, it is up to you to create your own space of time and make everyone respect it. No one is going to respect that space unless you make them. Remember, everyone else thinks that you are now free to do everything they want you to do.

So the question is: how much do you respect your own writing? Enough to make that space? Or is it really not that important, and so-and-so’s request for a favor that will take you 5 hours to do is more of a priority?

Here are some suggestions on how to create that space:

1. Establish office hours for yourself (even if you are working out of your home) and stick to them. Inform everyone of these hours and be strict with both yourself and your family and friends. Remember when you were working that full time job? People usually wouldn’t call you during office hours because they knew you’d be too busy to answer. Recreate that atmosphere. Some people may become offended (because they know that you’re not “employed”), but always ask yourself the question: are you willing to give up writing for the possibility that someone will be unreasonably offended that you are doing what you’ve always wanted to do?

2. Learn to say “no”. There are so many causes and projects that people will try to talk you into joining. They will flatter you, plead with you, emotionally blackmail you, and generally embarrass you into joining their cause/project, so that you’ll wake up one day to find yourself with a full schedule, and with no time or energy left for your writing. I have three words for you: don’t do it. This is a vicious cycle that is hard to break, so don’t start it. Again, is your contribution to that cause/project more important than your dream? How much time of your life have you spent working on someone else’s project?

3. Put up a glass wall. This is not a call to become an anti-social hermit (although that possibility is always attractive to writers who are strapped for time). But you don’t always have to comment on every single Facebook status your friends post, do you? You don’t always have to answer the phone. You don’t always have to go to every single outing your friends arrange. You don’t always have to intervene in each and every (non-violent) argument your children or siblings are having. Don’t hide from the world forever, but sometimes you need to just put up a glass wall. Everyone can see you’re still alive and breathing, and every now and then, you can look up from your writing and smile and wave at everyone out there. This takes a lot of self-discipline, because the glass wall makes everyone believe you are available. That glass wall basically means that you are physically in the midst of family and friends, but at the same time, you’re  worlds away with your writing.

Whether you’re writing for publication or for yourself is not an issue here. The issue is: you say you’re a writer, you’ve always wanted to be a writer, so will you write or not? Will you give yourself the space to be a writer?

Those were just some of my suggestions about how to create that space. I’m sure there are a lot more ideas out there, so I’d love to hear yours.


Filed under Writing related

Break the rules (Crimes for writers to commit – Part 2)

Yes, Part 2 of Crimes for Writers to Commit (read part 1) is not going to be about how to deal with constructive criticism, because I have thought long and hard and decided that dealing with constructive criticism does not involve any “criminal” activity. I will, however, blog about it some time in the future.

Today we move on to crime #2, which involves general, broad-reaching criminality: break the rules.

When I say that, I do not mean for writers to go out and create flat characters, implausible plots, and cliché-filled descriptions with glaring grammatical mistakes and expect to produce a timeless work of art. What I mean is that maybe we should change the way we usually think about writing.

Writing, unlike most disciplines, and like most arts, is the antithesis of formula. When you go to the hospital for treatment, you definitely don’t want the doctor to break the rule of washing his or her hands before touching you. You also wouldn’t want a doctor to be so rebellious as to decide that despite all the signs and tests indicating that it is your appendix that requires removal, taking out your tonsils instead would be “wicked cool”. Likewise with lawyers: you don’t want your lawyer to show up in court in gangsta-style clothing to convince the judge that you should have custody of the children after a particularly nasty divorce. No. There are some professions that simply do not lend themselves too much to rebelliousness these days (the past is a different story).

But with writing, a lot of the time, it is breaking the rule that shows us new brilliance. A sentence with inverted word order can show you the English language in a whole new light. Genre-fusion (where two or more different genres are fused to form a completely new and never-read-before genre) is another example of how writers who break the rule end up “making it”, so that the new “way” becomes “a rule”.

I don’t agree with what I see as a primarily elitist view that writing is the domain of a select few brilliant people who are born to enlighten the dull masses with their genius. No. I believe that everyone can write. Even those who are illiterate.

But in my opinion, it goes beyond that.

I think that in a world that is increasingly becoming defined in 140 characters or less, we have forgotten that history and literature were purely oral during times considered as the heights of civilization. This oral history, often recited in poetic form, is as literary — if not more — than today’s bestsellers, and the proof is… in the poetry. To this day, the pre-Islamic epic poems recounting the history of various Arab tribes, still exist, although for centuries, they had remained purely oral, with no written records. The same is true of Greek and Mesopotamian epics, for example.

Even today, I am amazed at the number of Arab poets who can rattle off entire, well-constructed and linguistically flawless and beautiful poems on the spot. A few years ago in Lebanon,  I met a wizened old — and technically “illiterate” — woman from a small southern town who answered a question about the political situation in the country with a long improvised poem. She hardly even stopped to think of the next line. It just came out of her naturally, as if she was singing a lullaby, making tea, or merely breathing.

Would anyone dare claim that this woman is not a poet? Would the act of physically writing those same words down on paper give them more power? I think not.

So here’s me breaking a huge rule of writing: “writing” is not about putting words down on paper (or a screen).

That is only one part of the whole. The words exist before they are physically recorded. They exist in the mind of the writer, and — according to a personal theory of mine — they exist in a realm quite beyond our physical senses (this may sound wacky, but I assure you, I am NOT on any kind of drug — except chocolate, maybe). Oral traditions still hold a lot of power in many parts of the world, and they also belong in the world “writing”.

I think we should stop talking so much about “writing”, which is the medium, and go back to talking about “storytelling”, which is the art.

What do you think about writing vs. storytelling?

What rules do you think writers should break?


Filed under Writing related

Defrosting for writers

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

Most writers call it a block, but I personally prefer the term one of my writer friends used in a comment on my last post: freeze. When I get hit by the inability to write, I feel frozen rather than blocked. I feel like my body and mind have been stuck in some kind of writer’s Ice Age and need to thaw out in order to get my brain and fingers to start functioning again.

This is exactly what I’ve been going through. I have spent so many years frozen, thawing out temporarily, and then getting frozen again, that I’m becoming an expert on the subject. Forget what Hollywood says, because the Ice Age is NOT a fun place for writers — woolly mammoths, sloths, and saber-tooth tigers maybe, but not writers!

Working in the media as an editor, manager, and sometimes-journalist, completely drained me, and I simply had no energy or motivation to do anything after I got home from work, especially if that thing was writing.

I’ve been labeling myself as a writer ever since I was in 9th grade, and used to write a lot of poetry and short stories when I was in high school in India. I had the good fortune to have teachers who recognized my dream and encouraged me to write. I was so into it that I diligently researched the whole publishing process and started to send out to publishers when I was 17. That year, I received a bunch of rejection slips which I think I still have somewhere and I’m very proud of. I’m proud of them because out of about 10 rejection slips, I got one acceptance letter and two of my poems were published in a Canadian poetry magazine. All this before I started college.

Once I started college, I got too busy studying, reading, writing essays and research papers, and then I went on to do my MA when I got back to Egypt, and then started working as an editor/journalist/media manager. Most of the writing I did was some articles, book reviews, and reports. The only creative writing I did was about 5 or 6 poems, a couple of short stories, and the assignments of about 4 online writing courses I took in a bid to keep the creative spark alive. In 8 years! Needless to say, that is a pathetic portfolio for someone who labels herself a writer.

I left work in August 2009 in order to stop my dream from being completely destroyed, and knew that because of the creative drain that 8 years of that work had on me, I wouldn’t be able to start writing seriously right away. I gave myself time and didn’t put a deadline on my “recuperation” time. I decided that I had experienced enough stress for 8 years and was going to give myself a real break.

Within two months, I had written down an outline for a novel, started doing some light research, and wrote the rough draft of the first two chapters. After that, I realized I needed to do more research, but wasn’t really ready for that kind of dedication, so I let it go. Now, almost 6 months later, I feel that I’m ready again, and hopefully soon, I’ll start doing the heavy-duty research needed for the novel and writing out some of the scenes I outlined earlier.

For now, I’m happy to do stress-free blogging about what I’ve learned the hard way about the writing process in a very personal, down-to-earth, non-professional manner, and whatever else I want to write about. I’m also starting to get a little more active in online writers’ communities, especially through Twitter and through other blogs (check my list of great blogs & sites in the side-bar for some of them) and the Writer’s Digest website. Again, I will never pressure myself until I heal what the 8 years of stress has done to my creativity.

What’s more is, I know I’m not the only one who’s been suffering from this kind of freeze/block. Many of my writer friends are going through the same. And when I read what other professional, published, famous authors say, they also sometimes go through these phases.

I think that the important thing is to know that this is a phase, and to not beat yourself up about it. Relax. Don’t pressure yourself more than you already are. Forget about writing “for publication”. Do something fun and completely unrelated to writing. I started gardening, drawing, and learning how to crochet, for example. A friend of mine took painting classes. Take some language classes in whatever language you’ve always wanted to learn. Take horseback riding classes or grab a camera and start photographing whatever you find interesting.

All of these non-writing activities will not only allow you to de-stress, but will also provide you with new experiences which you can bring to your writing. It’s all food for your writing soul.

But I think it’s important to always keep one foot — or even just a toe — in the writing world. That foot/toe may be different things: reading (that always ends up motivating me to write), lurking around writers’ blogs, listening to or reading author interviews (there are a ton of them on the Internet — check out Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust podcasts, iTunes Meet the Author, Barnes and Nobles Meet the Author, Book Reviews with Simon Mayo, Writer Unboxed, authors’ websites, and so on), and/or reading about writing.

These are my suggestions about how to defrost your writer’s soul. Some of them I’ve learned through personal experience, and others I’ve learned from other writers.

I’d love to hear your ideas. How do you defrost?

Remember, it’s ok to hang out in the Ice Age for a while, but it’s better for your writing career if you defrost before you turn into a woolly mammoth.


Filed under writing, Writing related

Kill the critic… (Crimes for writers to commit – Part 1)

If there is one crime I would totally support every writer’s right to commit, it would be this: cold-blooded, premeditated murder of the destructive critic. You know who I mean: that whiny-voiced, wheedling guy inside (or outside) with greasy hair and a “reject” button at his fingertips.

Criticism is essential, and it’s the only way a writer can improve. It can be that inner voice that tells you that the sentence or paragraph or scene you just wrote is clumsy. Or it can be a well-meaning friend or mentor or teacher or reader who points out that your writing lacks life.

Sometimes there’s nothing worse than praise for a writer. How many times has the polite, “Oh, it’s nice,” or “Great writing!” frustrated you as a writer? What was nice about it? Why was the writing great? How can it be better?

But the ultimate in writing hell is wishy-washy, general negative criticism. “I don’t know, you can do better than this,” or “I didn’t really feel the writing,” or quite simply, “This sucks.” The worse is usually an awkward silence, which makes you prey to all the my-writing-sucks demons who can come up with a million and three terrible possibilities of what that silence meant.

Whether you hear this kind of criticism from well-meaning friends/mentors/teachers/readers, or from your inner voice, learn to recognize it for what it is: the whiny-voiced, wheedling guy with greasy hair who deserves to die. You can usually do this by identifying the accompanying symptoms:

– a sudden hatred of your writing

– a sense of overwhelming despair

– deep seated fear that you “will never make it”

– extreme reluctance to write

– recurring wish to stop now before you get laughed out of the writing world and give up

If you can’t get yourself to commit murder and cringe at the thought of blood, then learn to take that advice…

…and throw it out the window. Ignore everyone and just write.

The best lesson a writer can learn is how to block, throw out, kill, or otherwise destroy any of this kind of destructive criticism.

The second best lesson a writer can learn is how to recognize and deal with that elusive creature: constructive criticism. But that’s another topic for another day.


Filed under Writing related