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To Be a Writer

Na’ima B. Robert speaks to SISTERS writers who have achieved what many only dream of: publishing a book.

They say that everyone has a story to tell, that everyone has a book inside them somewhere. But how many of us dream of penning a beneficial Islamic text, a beautiful children’s book or a literary masterpiece, and yet never get beyond the dreaming stage? Well, the women I interviewed for this piece also dreamed the publishing dream – but they then put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, and, by the grace of Allah (SWT), now find their names gracing the covers of real-life, honest-to-goodness books.

I wanted to know more about their writing journey and what it is really like to be a published Muslimah author.




Sadaf Farooqi, from Karachi, Pakistan, is the author of ‘Traversing the Highs and Lows of Muslim Marriage’ (IIPH). Since the age of 8, she has written for catharsis, keeping a personal diary, and writing short stories and poems. Today, in addition to writing articles for a variety media outlets, she blogs regularly at www.sadaffarouqi.com.




Sadaf, they say a writer should write every day, without fail. What are your writing habits?
Well, I definitely do not write every day. I write after pondering deeply upon something. I write when I am emotional: hurt, angry, or inspired. The latter happens a lot when I recite the Qur’an and when it suddenly provides solutions to problems or incidents I experience in practical life. Actually, I read a lot more than I write and read several online articles every day.




Was getting published always one of your dreams?
Oh yes, it was my dream! I still can’t believe I got published by such a respectable Islamic publishing company, alhamdulillah.




You secured a publishing deal with a respected Islamic publisher, masha Allah. Did you ever consider self-publishing?
I considered self-publishing very seriously, because blogging regularly since 2007 gave me a lot of experience being my own editor. However, I read a lot of debates and articles online in which published authors discussed the benefits of self-publishing as compared to getting published via a traditional publisher.




As a result of this reading, I came to the conclusion that, for a first-time author, it is better to have a reputable publisher publish their (first) book. Once an author gets that ‘stamp’ from such a publisher, she can go on to self-publish more successfully.




Also, the idea of taking responsibility for my first book, from writing to editing to promotion, really overwhelmed me. I also doubted that an Islamic, non-fiction advice book would sell successfully without a traditional publisher.




How would you describe your experience as a published author?
Alhamdulillah, it is giddy, “I-can’t-believe-it” great! Although, now, I fear the fitnah of fame and recognition, of being considered larger than life instead of the average Muslim woman that I am. However, the best part about being a published author is the credibility and honour that it has brought me from other writing and editing professionals in my field. I no longer need to prove myself as a writer, or to prove the worth of my ideas to editors.




Also, people really honour me when they meet me, especially elders in my circle of family and friends, which is amazing; so amazing that I end up feeling unworthy of so much respect and esteem!




Last but not least, since I got published, I am getting literally swamped by emails from people, especially sisters, asking me for marital advice! However, I find myself struggling to find time to answer all these additional emails, and I also do not think I am qualified as I am not a psychologist, psychiatric counsellor or scholar of fiqh.




What have been the highlights of your writing journey so far?
Seeing my work published online and in print is always a huge source of happiness. Also, it is consistently rewarding to find out that something I wrote benefited a stranger across the globe. NOTHING compares to the gratitude to Allah I and the satisfaction that I feel on discovering that my writing eased someone’s pain, or brought them relief.




Here, I would like to take the chance to thank SISTERS Magazine for helping me garner an international audience for my writing, and for appreciating this milestone in my career as a writer by granting me this interview. Jazakumullahu khair!




Possibly the most popular author of Islamic or spiritual novels, Umm Zakiyyah started her own publishing company to get her books out to her readers. Based in Riyadh, writing has always been important to her, both as an individual and as a Muslim. Her books include the Muslimah classic, If I Should Speak, and her latest, Hearts We Lost.



Have you always been ‘a writer’?
Writing has always played a major role in my life. From as early as I can remember, I have been writing. As a child, I didn’t view my love for writing as a hobby, as children don’t tend to think in those terms, but I did view my writing as something very important to me as an individual and a Muslim.




You’ve authored quite a few long novels now, masha Allah. Do you write daily or in concentrated blocks?
Unfortunately, I don’t have a specific writing schedule, but I do tend to be relatively consistent with my writing habits in general. At least once a week, I find myself writing an article or blog, developing parts of a story, making notes on some literary ideas I have, or penning private reflections in my diary.




Was ‘being published’ one of your dreams as a child?
I wouldn’t say that writing on a large scale was a ‘life goal’ for me. As I often mention when I reflect on my earliest writing influences, I’ve always viewed the gift of the pen as an amaanah from Allah (SWT). As such, it wouldn’t be correct to have ‘seeing my name in print’ as a life goal. In other words, to me, being published is a means, not an ends. Since Allah (SWT) is the One who gave me the ability to write, it is my duty to use it for His pleasure, not for my own; and getting published is a necessary step to fulfilling this duty on a large scale.




You chose the self-publishing route; what influenced your decision?
I don’t think I would have chosen the self-publishing route if I had been in touch with a trustworthy agent or a reputable Muslim or secular publishing company willing to take on my work. Prior to publishing my novels, I had completed a children’s book and I contacted a well-known Muslim publishing company about publishing it. However, their response (which stated that my book was best fit for Black readers) greatly disappointed me, so I didn’t pursue this route any further.




One word to describe being a published author:
In a word: trying. It is really a tremendous responsibility, and I regularly ask Allah (SWT) for more knowledge, wisdom, sincerity, and patience.




What have been the highlights of your writing journey so far?
By far the greatest highlights of my writing journey have been two: someone accepting Islam after reading any of my books, and Muslims feeling inspired to remain firm upon Islam after reading something I wrote.




What are your future plans?
Right now, I’m working on what can best be described as a literary self-help book for women, an anthology, a literary memoir, a novel, and several blogs and articles.




Also, as many of my readers already know, a producer is in the process of turning my first book (If I Should Speak) into a movie.




Suma Din is based in Buckinghamshire and is the author of the popular book Turning the Tide – Reawakening the Woman’s Heart and Soul (Kube). She also writes non-fiction children’s books for the educational market.Two boxes of letters and diaries are evidence of her longtime writing habit.



As a non-fiction writer, how much of your time is spent writing and how much is spent researching?
It varies. Some days I spend all my time researching, which works well on days when I have other commitments. When I finally get down to the writing part, I prefer to go for long stints without any disturbance. But when the luxury of 6 straight hours of peace isn’t available, I’ve found I’m comfortable writing snippets anywhere – so I have to admit to carrying a notebook around with me.




Was it hard to secure a publishing deal?
It can take a while to get your children’s book proposal submitted to a mainstream publisher willing to even look at it. Once I did track down the right type of publisher and submitted, they were very quick – a matter of days – with their positive response to my synopsis and submission, but it took up to 2 years to see the title come out in print, as they’d extended my concept to a series and got other authors on board to do the five other faith books. I don’t have an agent, but I have been a member of the Society of Authors for seven years now and they are very helpful with checking my contracts and giving advice. Getting advice from other authors is still something I seek, as their experiences can help with what is a dicey occupation. Now that I have a few fiction ideas, I am thinking about the need for an agent.




How do you feel when you finally see your book in print?
By the time a book goes to print I’m usually so tired of it, I’d like to take a flight to Greenland or Antartica to cool off and never have anything to do with it, ever. But when I’m sent my first copy, all the difficulties are forgotten and it’s wonderful to hold the newbie. Sound like labour? Well, yes, there are parallels – except for the running away bit.




Seriously though, the highlight has been when people have told me they’ve been inspired by my work in some way. Recently at a seminar, a young brother who works in the education sector said he read the Dr Hany biography in one night and it changed his perspective on life and how he thinks. That’s a highlight. I’ve had some moving messages from sisters who found Turning the Tide a source of comfort when they were having a hard time – that’s a highlight. But, I don’t delude myself. If Allah (SWT) accepts my efforts and forgives all the ‘stuff’ that goes on in the making of these books, then that is the ultimate highlight, and I’ve got no idea where I stand with that.




A London native, Saiyyidah Zaidi is the prolific author of several e-books, such as the Working Muslim Guide to Ramadhan, Work Faith Balance, Passion Fruit – Success in Marriage and Work Happy.


You’ve managed to author several books in a relatively short space of time, masha Allah! Tell us more about your writing habits.
I write when the mood takes me but I have to research and think. Once I have done that, I am good to go and can produce thousands of words in a very short time. I would love to be able to write every day but for me it reduces my creativity. I always keep an electronic device or book on me so that, if thoughts come, I can note them down and use them later.




Was getting published always one of your life goals?
I suppose it was; we all have a book in us and I would encourage everyone to have a go at writing about something they are passionate about.



Why did you go the self-publishing route?
I decided to self-publish as it’s much easier: you are in control and you get more of a cut of the income generated. I would like to secure a publishing deal at some point but for the moment will continue self-publishing. In order to self-publish successfully, you need a good team of designers, reviewers and a clear timeline. If you are dedicated, you can do it. A mailing list and good social media skills also helps.



What have been the highlights of your writing journey so far?
Having 3000 downloads of the Ramadhan guides in 1 day! I also love it when I get letters and emails saying that people have really been inspired or made changes as a result of my work. A Catholic woman wrote to me and said that Work Faith Balance helped her to understand Muslims and her own faith better.





Bahraini resident, Lisha Azad, writes children’s stories that focus on Islamic values with inspiration from and reference to the Qur’an, hadith and stories of the Prophet (SAW) and his companions. She has 4 published books to her credit. Her latest book, ‘The Magic Words’, is a bedtime book for kids based on the Muslim bedtime du’a.



What role has writing played in your life? Was it something you always did or a hobby that turned into something more?
Actually, I started writing at the tender age of nine and have been published since then. It was always my hobby but at the end of my teenage years, I decided to add a professional touch to it and enrolled myself at The Writer’s Bureau, London for their Comprehensive Creative Writing Course.



This course taught me a lot on freelancing for magazines and also honing my writing talents in general to make my work more appealing to the market. Thus I went from writing mainly as a hobby (although I was published then, too) to actually making money from it. But right now, my focus is on writing quality books for Muslim children so that they begin to see Islam in an interesting and positive way, as opposed to learning about it in boring madrassa lessons and drills.




You mentioned that you were published as a young girl – that must have been exciting!
It was really thrilling to see my work (writing and drawings) published in the weekly kids’ magazine published locally – and this thrill just grew and grew and spilled over into my adult life. Alhamdulillah, it still feels great to see a write up in my name these days!




As with my articles, features, stories or poems for both adults and kids over the past two decades, I did not have much difficulty with getting all my 4 books published.




What are the most positive aspects of being a writer?
It feels good to know that, in my own way, I have made a difference in somebody’s life. But most of all, it feels really good to combine my writing, knowledge and skills with my Islamic research to produce something that will earn me Allah’s reward in this life and the next, insha Allah. I pray that He guides me to keep this aim uppermost in my mind and helps me achieve it in my lifetime, ameen.





Tasnim Nazeer is another children’s writer from the UK who studied journalism at university. She was recognised as Young Journalist of the Year at the Muslim Writers Awards in 2011 and has since published an Islamic children’s story book, Allah’s Gifts.


What role does writing play in your life?
I think I would be lost without writing. Quite possibly not a day has gone by since I started working as a journalist and author that I haven’t written something (apart from when I was in labour!).




Writing to me is more than just putting pen to paper; it gives you the opportunity to voice your opinions, inspire people and even give a voice to those who feel unheard.




Did you always dream of being a writer?
Most definitely my lifelong dream was to be an author and my friends from school still remember me as ‘Tasnim, the girl who always sits in the middle of the room and writes stories’! Alhamdulillah, I was able to realise my dream and was blessed to get a publisher who valued my children’s story.




What have your experiences been with the publishing side of the business?
The first manuscript which I sent out to publishers was for an Islamic children’s fiction story. I didn’t have an agent so I needed to do all the research and correspondence myself which meant hours of searching the internet and looking at the Muslim Directories! After waiting eagerly for a response to the book proposal which I had sent to some publishers, I finally got the response I was looking for from Greenbird Books, alhamdulillah.




At the age of 15, I had my first article published in a local newspaper and seeing my name in the paper really made me and my family happy. Ten years later at 25, I am still inspired to write, especially on the topics of Islam, Alhamdulillah. Some of the main highlights of my career so far have been being nominated for the Young Journalist of the Year 2011 at the Muslim Writers Awards as I was really surprised to be shortlisted. I then was nominated by American Muslim Magazine MB Muslima as the 40 under 40 inspirational Muslims which was another major highlight in addition to being shortlisted at the Asian Woman of Achievement Awards 2012, Alhamdulillah.




Wendy Meddour resides in the Wiltshire countryside and published her first children’s book, A Hen in the Wardrobe, this year as part of her new series, Cinnamon Grove. After years as an academic, she only recently found her writing feet and writes when her 4 children are in bed.



Was getting published always one of your dreams?
No, not at all. I became a writer as I was trying to be something else – an illustrator, to be precise. You see, I  always loved drawing, even when I was a lecturer, so I submitted some artwork (along with some picture book ideas) to a children’s publisher and they said that the pictures weren’t quite right, but they loved my stories. That gave me the confidence to write some lengthier ones.




Was it hard to secure a publishing deal?
Yes and No. For a couple of years, I tried to get a publishing deal as a picture book illustrator. This was a slow and painful process and a couple of deals fell through (ouch!). But it was an important learning curve and it helped me learn to be receptive to criticism. With my newly developed ‘thick skin’, I wrote a book and entered a competition called the Diverse Voices Award. I didn’t win but I had great feedback from the judges. So I listened to all their advice and rewrote my book. The second version was far better. I resubmitted it to Frances Lincoln and they kindly offered me a contract for a series (Cinnamon Grove).




Then I got myself in the tricky (though lovely) position of having a number of publishers after the same manuscript, so I secured a wonderful agent to help me sort things out!




And how is life as a published author?
Exhausting. Exciting. Exhilarating. And addictive.




Could you share the highlights of your writing journey so far?
1) Winning the Islamic Foundation’s International Writing Competition and being shortlisted for the Muslim Writers’ Awards (for A Hen in the Wardrobe).
2) My agent taking my latest series to auction and Oxford University Press (one of my dream publishers) winning the bid.
3) Securing a literary agent whom I really admire (Penny Holroyde of the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency).
4)  Signing a contract with a brand new illustrator – my 11 year old daughter – yay!




Advice to aspiring authors

“As with any form of work, think carefully about why you’re doing it, what the purpose and intention are. That precedes everything for me. Next, spend a good amount of time researching titles related to what you want to write about, find out what angle other writers are taking, and be brutal when you look at your own ideas: ask yourself what’s new about what you have to say.” Suma Din




“Follow your own writing style and work schedule. Do not copy another writer in an effort to attain their level of success. Your success lies in your own unique talents, abilities, and strengths.” Sadaf Farooqi




“If you can write 500 words a day then that is great for your ability to develop as a writer. Do something every day and explore different genres, but also write about something you love and enjoy.” Saiyyidah Zaidi




“Keep reading and do your research: skulk around in bookshops and libraries and find out some essentials such as which publishers share your ethics and style. If you plan to write for children, what word count and style is customary for the age group you’re aiming at?  When you’ve worked this out, make sure your work is polished before you submit it.” Wendy Meddour




“From The Writers’ Bureau: to succeed in writing, you must apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair. In other words, the more you write, the better your chances of perfecting your craft and writing your way to publication. Of course, other than that, reading voraciously in general and on your writing topic of choice, keeping an open mind to ideas etc. are all important too.”
Lisha Azad




“Keep writing and don’t give up on your dreams; insha Allah, hard work and perseverance will pay off. Any keen writer should research potential publishers, taking a look at backlists to spot if there is something similar on the market and help to identify the niche of your book. Effective time management and organising time to write within the day can also help you to complete your potential manuscript.” Tasnim Nazeer



“Purify your intentions, and continuously ask Allah’s help in this regard. Never have as your goal being famous or merely being published or ‘successful’. In Islam, success must include the affairs of the Hereafter in order to be counted as true success. And remember, whatever you write will follow you to the grave – and beyond. So be certain that your foundational Islamic knowledge is correct and that you consult people of knowledge and Allah (via Istikharah) before publishing anything.” Umm Zakiyyah




Anaya Nayeer of Greenbird Books shares her journey towards becoming a publisher of Islamic children’s books.



Tell us about how Greenbird Books came to be.
GB started after the birth of my first child. Like many Muslim mothers, I struggled to find variety in Islamic literature for young children so I decided to write a story for my son. I wrote ‘Let’s Go Du’a Catching’ to teach him about the prayer, something that was always going to be a challenge as he was so young.




Writing the book was at each stage a process of learning. Once I had actually got it to the publishing stage, I thought ‘Why stop there?’ At that point I felt having a platform for other mothers and budding authors was crucial for building a good bank of literature. A few more scratches on the head and Greenbird Books was decided upon as the best way forward.




Why did you decide to go into publishing?
I have always been interested in how society communicates. The written word has and always will be a powerful tool. Children’s literature is so powerful and embeds itself into the psyche of young readers. It is the ideal way to introduce a way of life to young Muslims as well as promoting literacy amongst our communities at an early age. At the heart of it, I am still a child and retreat to that world with children’s books!




What do you look for in a writer?
I look for writers who are good storytellers. The key components are always the same: ability to hold a child’s attention, originality, an Islamic message and an excellent command of the language.




What is your submission procedure?
All queries and submissions should be directed by email in the first instance.
For further information please contact info@greenbirdbooks.com