In April 2017, I had the privilege of leading a weekend writing intensive at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, alongside award-winning children’s author Naheed Hasnat Senzai. We were invited by the Whitestone Foundation to work with new and experienced writers from their “Muslims Write Now” author development program.
Upon meeting Naheed for the first time, I immediately felt as if we had known each other for much longer. She was very down-to-earth and personable, but what stood out to me the most was her confidence as a writer.
As we sat together and outlined our various workshops for the attendees, I could not help but notice how easy-going and open Naheed was about sharing her expertise as a published author. She offered the students solid insight on how to produce quality written works and told them that that can only happen when the writer is serious about his/her writing.
“You need to sit down and put sincere time into your writing,” advises Naheed, who is married with a son and works fulltime in the tech industry. “I struggle with a lot of what other writers face such as balancing work, life and writing into the day, but I am very structured about my writing and dedicate 1-2 hours in the evening to just write,” she says.
Thus far, the San Francisco resident has written four middle-grade novels showcasing the diverse beauty in the many Muslim cultures that exist today. Naheed’s debut novel was the highly acclaimed Shooting Kabul, which has sold nearly 100,000 copies around the world since its release in 2010. Part of Naheed’s writing process is allocating time to brainstorm new book ideas and reserving a part of her day to do research for her stories. To keep writing muscles in constant motion, she recommends working on multiple projects at the same time.
“Let yourself be in different stages of development from brainstorming to writing a synopsis to plotting a novel,” says Naheed. “If you feel blocked in one project, switch to another until you find a way around the block.”
Naheed suggests the importance of giving oneself the time and ability to create through various avenues. She also states to end each writing session in midst of an idea.
“Sometimes, the hardest part is coming up with the next component of one’s story,” notes Naheed. “By stopping mid-idea, you come back to it and continue writing it out. You remove the struggle by continuing the flow.”
Finding one’s ‘flow’ as a writer is one thing, but what if someone has doubt about his/her ability as a writer? For Naheed, who has always been an avid reader, she did not want to wake up at age 80 wishing she had written a book. It was not a question of being able to write or not. Rather, it was the realization to write now or never. Naheed recommends stepping back and evaluating one’s project ideas to make sure they are viable and then get to them.
“All writers oscillate between feeling their writing is brilliant one minute and junk the next,” says Naheed. “That’s normal. The key is to have a solid idea in place before developing it. I work with other writer friends, and we bounce ideas off of one another.”
One such friend is another award-winning children’s author Hena Khan of Maryland. Naheed and Hena read and critique each other’s work often. In fact, Naheed happened to be amongst the first readers of Hena’s middle-grade novel Amina’s Voice, which was the very first release this year of the new imprint Salaam Reads.
Hena became a mother in 2001 and started writing for kids shortly thereafter. She wanted to create the books that she wished she had when she was a kid. However, she soon learned that the publishing industry is not always easy to navigate.
“Getting published is a challenging and unpredictable journey,” Hena says. “It can be very overwhelming and confusing. That said, it’s almost guaranteed that you have to deal with rejection, being ignored, getting conflicting advice, and the fear that you will never be taken seriously as a writer. However, it’s important to remember that our stories have the power to change hearts and minds, so don’t give up.”
Does Hena ever doubt herself as a writer?
“All the time!” says Hena. “I grapple with fear that what I write may not resonate with readers, will get panned by critics, or that what I’m writing will be the last idea I ever have, or the last thing anyone will want to publish. Nevertheless, I still keep going.”
Like Naheed, what helps Hena stay focused is having deadlines and being accountable to a writing partner or group.
“If you’re really struggling creatively or questioning your ability as a writer, take breaks and acknowledge that a lot of writing happens when you are not sitting in front of a computer. Place yourself in productive environments and in the company of those that can help make your stories stronger.”
Hena also emphasizes the fact that true authorship will take place once you put sincere time and effort into your work. She suggests researching the kinds of books you want to write by reading as many books within that specific genre. The stories will then slowly begin to unfold.
“A lot of people who say they want to write or feel like they have a story to tell, don’t actually ever start it,” Hena says. “Accept that your first draft is going to be terrible. It’s supposed to be. At least write that first draft, and then go from there.”
It is this type of diligence and passion that has helped both Hena and Naheed shine as such talented writers. They know they have stories that are worth sharing, and they are getting them out there. Know that you also have what it takes to become successful in your craft. You just need to start believing it.