By Aisha Saeed
1. You will get criticism. It’s part of putting your work out there in the world.
When I first began writing my novel, a family member asked me what my book was about. When I told her the novel was about a Pakistani American girl who is forced into a marriage against her will, her immediate response was: great, because that’s just what we need, another story to make Pakistanis look bad. That strong reaction really threw me for a loop and worry settled like a seed in my heart. I never considered not writing this novel but I did get worried about how people would react to it. The truth is, I had friends who were pressured into marriages against their will and while yes aspects of this book are not flattering to a culture I belong to and love, I did feel it was an important story to share. The reaction I got about the novel’s premise made me realize I would get pushback and negative responses for writing about a problematic part of my culture. Ultimately, I continued writing it and I stand by what I wrote because while I do address a problem, as a Pakistani American who loves her culture, I wrote this story from a place of love. The novel shows the complexity of Pakistan which includes the warmth of its people, the beauty of its surroundings, and the nuance that abounds. It’s a fine balance and its never fun to get criticism but it’s part and parcel of creating art- it’s subjective and everyone is entitled to how they feel. You have to do the work you believe in anyways.
2. Forced marriages are a cultural problem, not a religious problem.
As a Muslim I have always known forced marriages are condemned in Islam just as they are in every religion on earth. I did not however know that people thought forced marriages were approved of in Islam until I got asked this question over and over again. The truth is, forced marriages are not a problem limited to Muslim countries, forced marriages happen in many different countries and also take place among different faiths as well. Unchained At Last, a fantastic US based organization successfully challenges this misconception and highlights people here in the United States who were coerced and forced into unwanted marriages. Realizing the link many people would make between the problem highlighted in my book and my religious faith, I felt it was important to include an author’s note to address this misconception. I also made sure it was clear to readers that Naila actually found comfort in her faith and did not blame her religion for the predicament she was in.
3. Writing a book takes a lot of time. Make peace with that.
I’ve read about how agents brace themselves for the post NaNoWriMo submission surge and tell writers to wait and make sure the book they submit is the best book it can possibly be. They are right. Revising is a labor intensive and exhaustive thing to do. I have lost track of how many revisions I’ve done. For example, Written in the Stars began as a third person past-tense novel. After some time with it though I realized the story would have a deeper sense of immediacy and urgency if it was narrated in the present tense and in the first person by the protagonist, Naila. This required a complete line-by-line rewrite but it was completely worth it because the effect of writing it this way helped the story come to life for me in a way the other format wasn’t doing. It’s frustrating to keep changing things and revising but for me that’s part of the writing journey. I also believe being this critical helps the novel become better and it also helps you become a better writer ultimately.
4. When it comes to writing, particularly writing about marginalized groups, take the time to research and get it right.
Yes it’s fiction but if you are writing a novel you have a responsibility to do your best to write a respectful and honest representation of whatever it is you take on. That responsibility is huge because what readers are reading may be their one and only introduction to the culture you are writing about. I am Pakistani American and much of my novel takes place in Pakistan but because I haven’t been to Pakistan in some time, it was important for me to make sure the details were accurate. To this end I had many beta readers including my parents. Most of Naila’s time in Pakistan is spent in her parent’s village. That setting is entirely fictional but loosely based on my parent’s ancestral village. For this reason I had them read each line and give me feedback to make sure that the representation was as accurate as possible. Friends also gave me feedback in areas where more nuance could be added and where more complexity could take certain characters from being black and white to more complex. In a world that is still battling racism and bigotry on a daily basis it is so important to not stereotype and resort to clichés and it is also important to portray people, particularly marginalized people, respectfully even if you’re addressing difficult topics. Take the time, even if it delays the manuscript going out on submission, even if it takes going through a lot of people to double and triple check, but get it right.
5. I love writing and I hate writing.
In the prologue of Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes Please, she says writing is like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver. I laughed out loud at her description because that is what writing feels like to me. The truth is, writing is something that feels like a calling and it’s something I love to do, but in the same breath I also find writing one of the most challenging and difficult things I take on. I hate the self-doubt and the frustration of going through the first draft [which is my least favorite draft] and wondering if all the work will even amount to anything or if this will remain the rubbish it seems to be. I’ve learned through reading many memoirs of many lovely writers whom I admire that this is normal. For most writers, writing is hard work and it doesn’t get easier the more you do it. I’ve made my peace with it because while I don’t love the act of writing out the first draft, I do love the feeling of finishing writing a novel. I think it’s the act of finishing writing a story I’m proud of that pushes me through the painstaking process of creating.
Aisha Saeed is a YA author, attorney, and educator and one of the founding members of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. Her upcoming debut Written in the Stars will be released in 2015 by Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons. Visit her online at www.aishasaeed.com or follow her on twitter and tumblr: @aishacs.
Purchase a copy of Written in the Stars here.