YALLWEST 2017

On April 29 I attended my first ever YALLWEST Book Festival and the experience was so much more than I had expected. Before going, I’d read about it and how there were around 20000 people in attendance last year. I expected it to be crazy, but surprisingly it wasn’t. So here are some of my highlights of the event:

It was in sunny Santa Monica.

After leaving Raincouver, the sunny but breezy Santa Monica weather was an absolute delight. My hubs and I decided to make a weekend of it, so it was all the more special to have him by my side as we walked along Third Street Promenade enjoying the Salsa dancers and musicians.

A whole day with writerly people.

I spent an entire day surrounded by fabulously talented bookish people. I mean, what’s not to love about that? My fave authors were there, plus I met four of the amazing Pitch Wars peeps whom I’ve come to know on Twitter but not in person. It was definitely extra special to meet them in real life.

The panels were amazing.

One of the things that got me all emotional was sitting in the audience and realizing that many of the panels were composed of very diverse authors, but the topic was not Diversity. This might not sound like a big deal to some, but sadly, the only time I have attended a panel with diverse authors has been when the topic was actually Diversity and the discussion centered around how important it was to read and write diversely. So it was a refreshing surprise for me to listen to a discussion of Love and the Modern Millennial by such inspiring authors as Nicola Yoon, Lilliam Rivera, Sandhya Menon, Adi Alsaid and Kami Garcia.

Long Line-Ups

I know, this doesn’t sound like it should be a highlight. But while I stood baking in the sun for over an hour to get my hands on an ARC of Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali (so totally worth it btw) I looked around. The line extended far behind me, people of all ages and backgrounds, waiting for a book about a hijabi girl. It made my heart sing, because there was a time not long ago when people told me no one would want to read about an Indian or a Pakistani MC and that I should try to get published ‘back home’. So it brought on all the feels when I stood there and listened to the chatter around me about this book and the anticipation was infectious.

The Perfect Ending

The last panel attended that day was Writing the Resistance. The panelists were Sona Charaipotra, Victoria Aveyard, Marie Marquardt and Benjamin Alire Saenz, moderated by Daniel Jose Older. They were all inspirational, but when Benjamin Alire Saenz began to speak I had tears in my eyes. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. He spoke about love and hurt and how we are all connected. I cannot adequately convey the emotion in that gym, but I can definitely say it was the perfect ending to an amazing day.

So for those of you who’ve been thinking about going next year, check it out. It’s a great event, full of avid readers and great authors, networking opportunities, giveaways and lots of fun events. A perfect weekend for writerly people.

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Celebrating the Little Things

The last few months have been trying ones for me and the amazing women who are my closest friends. We always try to tighten the circle when one of us needs the extra support. Recently we have been there for each other as we lost parents, worried about our aging ones and stressed about our teen and young adult children. It’s easy to forget about the many little things that bring us joy when we feel so overwhelmed by the big things that seem to come at us with a vengeance.

I don’t want us to lose sight of the little things as everything else engulfs us. I look at my friends and I am in awe of them. For taking back control of their lives, for not letting anyone diminish their accomplishments, for knowing when to be there for their families and when to stand up for themselves. I draw strength from them, knowing that they will remind me to pay attention to the little things too.

A few days ago I got an email saying that my book Realm of the Goddess  was selected as a First Place Category Award Winner in the 2015 Paranormal Awards for Supernatural Powers and Paranormal Fiction. I allowed myself a moment of feeling thrilled but then was immediately distracted by other big things going on in my day.

It wasn’t until later on in the middle of the night when I was staring at the ceiling that it hit me. My little self-published book had won something. And that reminded me that we need to acknowledge the small victories because they will give us the courage to go for the big ones.

 

My Stories… Not My People

The other day I was thinking back to the stories I wrote as a child. I was about 7 years old and had moved from Germany to Bangladesh around that time. I had switched from reading my favorite Enid Blyton books in German to reading them in English. Although learning to speak and read in English changed many things for me, what didn’t change were the characters in those books. They were all still white. Every single one of them. I remember being fascinated with everything they did, the interesting food they ate, their traditions and lifestyles. I loved reading about their (mis)adventures and the trouble they got into. As a voracious reader I always enjoyed a wide variety of books, but still…all the characters were white. So it was not surprising that when I wrote my first stories the characters in all of them were also white. They all had names like Nancy or Tom, even though in real life I was surrounded by people with names like Hassan or Seema. It never occurred to me that my characters could be something other than white. They didn’t eat sumptuous Bengali sweets or biryani. They ate fine chocolates and fish and chips. They didn’t wear kurtas or shalwar-kameez. They wore jeans and t-shirts. None of these things by themselves constitute anything untoward at all, but when I look at children’s fiction today and what is available in terms of diverse characters, it saddens me to think that there are still thousands of children around the world who may never see themselves reflected in the stories they love to read. Or even worse, they may never think it possible that they could be super heroes who fight evil. Or that they may be the ones to save the world. It’s depressing. And it’s time for change.

On School Visits, Diversity and YA Books

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited by  Walnut Road, a local elementary school here in Surrey, BC to talk to students in Grades 6 and 7 about my book and the writing process. Since this was my first visit to a school I wasn’t quite sure what to expect so I thought I’d share my experience and how I prepared for it.

First of all let me say what an amazing experience it was. The staff and students were extremely welcoming and I couldn’t have asked for a better audience. The students were polite and attentive but best of all they were very interested in reading and writing which made all the difference in the world. They had a lot of pertinent and thought-provoking questions and most of them liked the YA Paranormal genre. Many of them pulled out books they were reading and it was great to see that they carried these books around with them. Since they had recently finished their creative writing unit they also had a lot of questions about the writing process including editing and publishing.

Afterwards I mulled over why I had enjoyed my visit and what had made it successful. Here’s what I came up with.

Engage the students

If they get bored, then you’re pretty much just talking to an empty room. I started by asking them what kind of books they liked and by mentioning some book series similar to mine. They immediately perked up and began to call out books they loved. I knew a lot of them and so I asked them about specific characters and shared what I liked about them. There is nothing better than watching a roomful of 12-13 year olds with eyes sparkling as they talk about books. Really…it’s priceless.

Tell them your story

I gave them a brief idea of what my book was about and that got the conversation flowing. They wanted to know how I came up with the idea, how long it took to write the book and if there were going to be more. I also loved that they talked so enthusiastically about their own writing projects.

Ask them what kind of books they wish they could read

They were thrilled to read a story with diverse characters and we discussed the importance of reading diversely and exactly what that meant. I was blown away by their insightful comments on why we need to broaden our selection of books.

Tell them about writing programs and festivals that are available to them

The students were surprised to hear about the many opportunities there were to learn the craft and how many fun events were taking place close to home.

I am so glad that I had the opportunity to talk to such a diverse and talented group of students. They showed me their creative writing projects and I was very impressed by the talent. It was gratifying to see that many of them pursue this in their spare time and are excited to learn more.

Best part of the visit? A week later I was asked to pick up something  from the school office. When I brought it home I was completely choked up. The student had hand written individual letters telling me what they thought about the visit. I couldn’t even get through half of it without getting all teary eyed.

So, if any of you are thinking about visiting a local school and talking to the students about writing and about your book, don’t hesitate. Make that call, set up an date and I am positive it will be one of the best experiences in your life as a writer.

Ways to Improve Creativity

I was thinking about ways to improve creativity, so I did some research and here’s what I’ve come up with:

-Keep an open mind about…well pretty much anything…what you read, who you talk to, what you watch. You never know what will inspire you and help you create the next great piece of art or literature.

-Use all your senses when you go about your daily activities. Observe the people on the bus, in line at the coffee shop and grocery store. Listen to how they talk to one another and what kind of hand gestures they use. The next time you go to a restaurant, an art gallery or a  farmer’s market, take in all the colours, flavours and scents that surround you. You never know where inspiration might strike.

-Put judgment aside for some time. When we look at something in our usual way it may colour our perception.

-Determine when and where you are at your creative best. It could be quiet mornings at your regular coffee shop or your local library. Or it could be in your favourite chair at home with soft music in the background.

-Add creative and inspiring people into your social circle. It rubs off.

Don’t let a slight lag in creativity let you give up on your dreams. Find what works for you and let the creative juices flow.

What to do if you hate the novel you wrote

What do you do when you’ve finally finished your novel, but you look back at it and hate most of what you wrote?

I’m sure most writers have at some point in their careers looked at their completed work and decided that it would never see the light of day. A few months ago I just stopped writing. I didn’t write any posts, I didn’t want to look at my chapters and I didn’t want to read other people’s writing. In fact, even in the grocery store I avoided the book aisle like the plague. It was as if I was angry with writing in general and wanted to have nothing to do with it. Then a few weeks ago I decided to take a peek at the opening chapter of my novel. I read it as if it had been written by someone else. And I really liked it. So I read a little more. Then I read the comments from the editor I had sent my novel to . He had a lot to say, some good, some not so good, but all very helpful and encouraging. Then I remembered something I read somewhere and I realized that instead of just dropping this project which I had worked quite hard on, I could work at it some more and make it really good. I was already on the right track and all I needed was to stick with it. But that was the hardest part for me. I have a history of not sticking with things, not because I can’t do them, but because when something doesn’t turn out perfectly the first time I tend to give up.  It turns out that I’ve been standing in my own way. So my new goal is to fix what I can fix and then send it out into the world and hope that people like it.

Here is what I have learned from the last few months of wallowing in self-doubt:

I may truly just be a bad writer.

My internal editor may be taking control of my creative side.

I may be a perfectionist, which is pretty much a death sentence for a writer, because who can produce a perfect first draft?

I might be afraid of failure and it’s easier to just give up.

Lastly, I might just be a whiny pants who needs a swift, hard kick in the butt to pick up my novel where I left off and work at it until it’s the best that it can be.

So, today I’m deciding to do that last one. Hope to hear from you about your moments of doubt.

 

Prologues: To Have or Not to Have

I have been having this on and off relationship with the Prologue for my novel. I feel that it needs one, but then everything I read tells me that agents and editors hate them. Well at least the majority of them. Because the lives of the characters in my novel are intertwined with the gods and goddesses from Hindu mythology, I feel that it is important to set the scene, so to speak. I personally love prologues and I find that for certain stories they can provide valuable background details. I decided to delve deeper into what people are saying about prologues and here is what I learned:

1. Never use your prologue as an information dump about your characters or the setting. It is better to cleverly work that into scenes and dialogue.

2. Don’t use your prologue as a hook. That’s what the first chapter is for. Also readers will feel cheated if the prologue reels them in, but the chapters don’t deliver on that promise.

3. Your prologue should not be overly complex. This will just confuse readers and possibly turn them off the book entirely.

4. Never, never write a prologue that doesn’t connect with the main story. It will leave the reader wondering  and not in a good way.

5. Ask yourself whether your prologue can just be the first chapter. If yes, then that’s what it should be. Apparently many people don’t even bother reading prologues. In that case, if the prologue contains information vital to understanding the story, you’re royally screwed.

Clearly there is no single answer to the question of whether or not to write a prologue. But at least there’s a lot of good information out there on how to do it right. Since I am the boss of me and I love prologues, I will keep mine. I have a strong gut feeling that my readers will appreciate it.

Here are a couple of links I found helpful:

The Prologue – When to Use One, How to Write One by Marg McAlister: An excellent dissection of the prologue, its advantages and disadvantages by Marg McAlister. She lists several questions to ask when deciding to use or not to use a prologue.

http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/prologue.shtml: An interesting take on the multiple roles a prologue can play in your novel. If your prologue is not doing any of the jobs it’s supposed to, then it doesn’t belong in your novel.

New Adult vs Young Adult: Editing Content for the Genre

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the New Adult genre and it seems that there really isn’t a lot of clarity about this category. Is it just that the characters are older or is the content actually more graphic than the usual YA fare? It isn’t easy to find a definitive answer. Some feel that the New Adult category allows for more sexual content since the characters are between the ages of 18 and 24. Also, the readers of these books would be expecting a little more smut which is clearly something frowned upon in the YA category. My questions is this: if more sex and violence is included in a novel that would otherwise appeal to readers in the YA category, are we losing a big part of the audience? As someone about to self-publish a YA novel, this is particularly important to me. While I do want to target as large a readership as possible, I don’t want to compromise my character’s integrity by adding scenes that may cater more to the tastes of slightly older readers. Although my character was initially written as a fifteen year old, as I’m in the process of editing, I am tempted to make her a bit older. My reason for the change is not the NA vs YA issue, but rather how the character naturally developed as I wrote the novel. However, since I am toying with the idea anyway, I wonder if I should add a little more detail to the romantic scenes. If any writers or readers out there have suggestions or opinions on this, I would greatly appreciate any feedback.

Writers’ Conferences: Why Every Aspiring Writer Should Attend

Writing can be a lonely profession and networking is a writer’s best friend. Writers’ Conferences provide an excellent opportunity to meet experienced writers as well as others who are just starting out. We all need encouragement when we start the long, often arduous journey to being published. Spending a weekend in the company of veteran authors who have successfully traversed the great divide that exists between the budding author and the published one, can be an unparalleled experience.

I attended the Surrey International Writer’s Conference  in British Columbia, Canada for the past two years, and it has been  an invaluable learning experience for me. I thought I would share some of the details with my readers so here goes:

First of all let me say this – what you learn at a conference in three days is equivalent to taking several long running writing courses. You have your pick of workshops, everything from writing great dialogue to character building to publishing. Then there are contests, readings and book signings. You get to meet the most inspiring people, published and unpublished writers that just get the fire going. It can be a little overwhelming at times, but if you pace yourself, you will get so much out of it. Other than the obvious learning aspect, there is one more reason that a writers’ conference is such a great event. You spend three days in this bubble, where you can forget the outside world and just soak in everything related to writing. It’s great when you’re in the company of others that are excited about writing. You leave feeling rejuvenated and exhausted at the same time, but with a renewed energy to keep going and this to me is priceless.

The downside is that these conferences are pretty costly. At the SIWC about $600 will buy you the full access package which includes all the workshops, lunches, themed dinners and after dinner events which can be a hoot. It does not include travel or accomodation. Of course it helps if you live nearby or if you have a friend who is also attending, so that you can share these costs. If you are attending from out of town, the conference website will usually help you get in touch with others who are attending and are looking to share rides or rooms.You can also reduce the cost  if you choose only to attend the three days of workshops, but not the lunches and dinners. You still get to meet with authors and editors as that is usually built into the basic package. The first year I attended, I chose the full package as I did not want to miss anything. I hadn’t anticipated just how tiring  a full day of intense workshops can be. Although lunchtimes provide a great setting to meet new people, if you look at the cost versus benefit ratio, it’s fine to miss the lunches because you still get plenty of opportunity to chat up people  throughout the weekend.  But for first time attendees I really recommend the full package. I’m glad I got to do it all the first time around, so for the second time, I knew what to pick and what to leave out.

For me the best part is the pitch session, where you get to talk about your work to an agent or editor of your choice. Then there is the opportunity to show a piece of your work to an author who can give invaluable feedback.

So, if you have the opportunity to attend  even one Writers’ Conference you should do it. You will not regret it and who knows what wondrous opportunities might come your way.

Writers and the Fusion of Cultures

Child_with_red_hair_reading

Child_with_red_hair_reading (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was thinking about the stories we all grow up with. No matter where we spend our childhood, when we move to another part of the world we carry these stories with us and consciously or not, they make their way into the stories we write or tell our children. The folktales we listened to as kids or the stories that Grandfather always told at dinner seep into the world of the characters we create and soon we experience a wonderful fusion of cultures in which the bedtime stories a child might have heard in India merge with the stories of the Brothers Grimm. Thus we create new fairy tales for another generation. Almost every culture has some version of  the knight in shining armour who saves the princess. Or the brave warrior girl who outwits the evil genius. And then there are all the mythologies.  As a child growing up in Germany I devoured the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales. But I also loved the stories that my Bengali father told me and the comic books he bought me from which I learned about Hindu mythology. I grew up in a Muslim home, reading stories about Hindu deities, along with old German folktales. I lost myself in the Arabian Nights and listened to the bedtime stories that my Pakistani mother told me. Fantasy knows no boundaries and stories flow effortlessly across  man-made borders. As writers, we are in a unique position. We can create characters and stories which reflect wonderful aspects of different cultures  and enrich the literature of our times. And never has this been easier than now, when we can  reach such a large audience so quickly and easily. I am grateful for the opportunity to share the stories that created such happy memories of my childhood.