I've got a book series to finish, but there's always time to sneak in a short story or two in my writing schedule. Short stories can really help with my writing process for novels. It's a way to test out new characters and ideas without too much commitment, as well as a way to feel productive. When you've got 100,000 words and intensive rounds of edits ahead of you for a novel, squeezing in a short story can make writing feel less daunting.
So I'm thrilled that in the middle of finishing the sequel to The Sentient, I spent a few weekends on a short story about nanotech, and a woman who codes when she's not causing the good kind of trouble. I'm even more thrilled that it's appearing in Clarkesworld Magazine this month - it's been a longstanding publishing goal of mine to have a byline in Clarkesworld. I've submitted stories to the magazine in the past, and happy to have my first acceptance!
This story, like The Bahrain Underground Bazaar (F&SF Magazine), is set in a futuristic version of Bahrain. It's a place that is modernizing but in transition, with a population that is divided on the country's growing experiments with nanotechnology. Manal is an ambitious programmer at a ministry office that deals with nanotechnology - she's been regulated to the cosmetics department, using nanotech as a beauty treatment, but wants to apply her talents on bigger challenges. When a popular public figure comes into the building seeking cancer treatment, Manal jumps at the opportunity to advance herself... but develops a more complicated relationship with her patient, and the national dialogue around nanotechnology.
I wanted to create a hopeful story that wrestled with the complex nature of cultural shifts. The Middle East is a place that is often characterized in western media as backward and fearful of modernization. It is expected to reform, and quickly. But societal shifts in other parts of the world haven't happened overnight - there is a constant tug and pull, a movement and a backlash. I saw this firsthand in the years I lived in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Manal is a female programmer who has embraced the modern direction the island is taking, but is otherwise apolitical - until events force her to take a stand.
How does it end? You can read it here and find out!
I'm excited to share that The Sentient will officially be part of a trilogy! My publisher, Flame Tree Press, has acquired the two sequels I've always planned for The Sentient. I'm thrilled, and have been hard at work on the sequel since the early winter. Watch this space for more specific details - the official publication dates, the cover reveals, and more!
I've known early on how I want Amira's story to end for a while. The final scenes in Book Three have been playing in my mind for years, from those first weeks when the story started to take shape. But before I can get there, the story continues in Book Two (I have a working title, but will share when it becomes an official title). Sequels have their challenges and benefits. I love being able to revisit all of these characters that I know so well, and to spend more time in Westport, Aldwych and the wider world of The Sentient. In that sense, drafting the sequel has been a lot easier than the first book - I know the plot, the world building is highly developed, and I know exactly where I need things to go. The story has just... flowed. It's great.
But there are challenges with sequels, and they come up in the editing process. Ensuring continuity from The Sentient - keeping the details consistent, from character eye colors to the train lines through Westport, is important. There's also a tricky balance to be struck between recalling the events from Book One and not dwelling too long on them - readers need to reminded of the past, but the plot must also move forward. Little details matter. MINOR SPOILER AHEAD in the next paragraph....
- Remember how Amira got her ear bitten off? I better mention that at some point early in Book Two, or it'll appear as though that traumatic detail has been forgotten. That's just one of many examples that require me to be a little more meticulous than a standalone novel might require.
And now that I've finished the first draft of the sequel... some minor teasers!
I can't wait to share more information about the sequels as they move further toward publication! Until then, it's back to work.
I'm incredibly excited to have one of my short stories featured in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, an excellent sci fi journal I've subscribed to for years and submitted several stories to in the past. "The Bahrain Underground Bazaar" is in the November/December 2020 issue, which is available under the links at the end of this post. What better way to close out this crazy year than with a story about virtual immersion, terminal illness and confronting our fear of death? It's about as on-brand for 2020 as a story can get.
Some fun facts about "The Bahrain Underground Bazaar":
Hope you enjoy this story!
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It's been a surreal couple of weeks, which is the best excuse I have for not updating this blog sooner, but here we are... The Sentient was released on September 8th! It's available as an ebook, hardcover and paperback on Amazon, Barnes and Noble online, as well as some book stores.
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
It’s been a while since my last post and the world has changed in so many ways – a pandemic, and now a growing movement to address racial injustices and police brutality. I fully support the latter, while remaining anxious about the former. A second wave is likely coming as we reopen businesses and let our guard down – even if the protests (which are necessary) weren’t underway. These are uncertain, eventful times. It’s a time of reckoning and reflection. This pandemic has laid all our failings bare – our economic inequalities, our racism, our disregard for the environment, our treatment of animals and our relationships with each other.
This pandemic has made me examine my own priorities, and I hope it has for others as well. I’m luckier than most – I have a secure government job that allows me to work from home. I have my health and freedom. I’m keeping a low profile and practicing social distancing. I’ve had my stresses as well – a family member got sick with Covid and took eight weeks to recover. I have family on the other side of the world and it feels powerless to be so far away from them. But we can talk and remain connected through technology, and I know this will end. I’ll see my family and friends again.
On the writing front, this pandemic has made me very productive. With fewer distractions and competing priorities, I’ve had plenty of time after work to focus on my latest novel and keep the wheels turning. I’ve seen a lot of posts on social media from other writers who are too stressed and overwhelmed to be productive writers – and while I can empathize, I told myself at the start of the lockdown that I wasn’t going to be consumed by outside forces beyond my control. I can’t control the terrible stories in the news, but I can do my part to socially distance – and to channel my energy into writing. If anything, this pandemic has become fuel for new ideas. I can escape into other, better worlds and use stories to grapple with the issues affecting us now.
An update from the last few months:
These are difficult times, but it’s important to hold on to your purpose, to lean onto the things that anchor you. For me, writing is my anchor. It gives me joy and helps me make sense of the world – and imagine other ways the world could be. Whatever else is going on, I plan to keep writing.
When you first get a book deal, a number of things happen. You dance around the house, pop open a bottle of champagne, and, still humming with joy, dive into less glamorous activities, like paperwork and contract details. There’s often a significant waiting period between the moment you get “the call” (mine was on April Fool’s Day, of all days) and when you can officially share the announcement with family, friends and the wider world. It’s a wonderful moment, when people who’ve been following your writing journey for years finally hear that your dreams are becoming reality. And, of course, they have questions:
(Caveat: this post is concerned primarily with traditional publishing, either through a Big Five house or smaller indie publisher. Self-publishing has a different process with different timelines and challenges)
Congrats! When will your book hit the shelves?
A few months after I announced my book deal, some family friends asked me if I could bring a few copies to a Thanksgiving dinner. They were shocked to learn that my book wasn’t going to be out for another year, and that there wasn’t even a cover to share. But if you’re going the traditional publishing route, this is the norm. In fact, a year is the minimum timeframe between your contract getting signed to your book being released. For many Big Five imprints, the release date could be as far as two years out.
Why is this the case? A lot of things need to happen before a book is ready to go to print. There are developmental edits between the author and the editor, a process that can take many months, depending on what kind of changes are needed. The book’s assigned editor may want entire characters removed, scenes rewritten, plot elements restructured. Then, there’s the more detailed copy edits, to check for grammatical issues and typos. Books need to be sent to production, where Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) are created and sent out to early reviewers. There’s marketing and promotion. And between all of this, yours is not the only book the publisher is working on. Editors and other publishing employees are busy people, juggling multiple books at different stages of development. All of this takes time – and patience.
Where can I find your book? Will it be at B&N, my local bookstore, etc.?
No clue, especially ahead of release. Online ordering is straightforward, but physical distribution is something that the publisher’s sales team manages with distributors. All books have to fight for space on the shelf – both with other new releases and more established titles. Big Five publishers will have more access to bookstores, while smaller, indie publishing houses may not get their books everywhere.
I don’t know exactly where my book will end up – but social media is full of authors wandering into a bookstore and discovering, to their joy, their own work on the shelf. If I find The Sentient out in the wild, expect the same!
How much control do you have over the book cover, design, book blurb, etc.?
If a book is self-published, the author has full creative control over their cover design and other aspects of the book – at their own expense. With traditional publishing, a team at the publishing house will design the book cover. It is, however, a collaborative process between the team and the author. The author may make suggestions or share ideas for the cover and will have a chance to give input before it’s finalized. Publishers want their authors to be happy and will work with them as much as possible to reach a shared vision. At the end of the day, however, if both parties can’t get on the same page, the publisher will make decisions based on what they think is best for the book’s success. They are professionals, and know what works and what doesn’t.
In my case, my publisher came out with a cover that I LOVED, and they also incorporated feedback that my agent and I gave during the process. The end result is a much better cover than I could ever have come up with, even after years of living and breathing my novel.
Are you going on a book tour?
Book tours are not the norm for a debut author and are becoming less prevalent in general. They’re more likely to happen when you have a big-name author with a high-profile book from a big publishing house, but for the average author, they’re not the best way to move sales. With so many virtual options to promote and learn about new books (virtual blog tours, social media, Goodreads, etc.), it makes less sense to spend the time and money traveling around the country to sell a book. An author is more likely to do local events, such as a reading and signing at a neighborhood bookstore, especially when they have personal and professional obligations to deal with. Which brings me to my last question…
When are you quitting your job?
I can’t tell you how many people, at work and beyond, ask me this question out of the gate. Don’t get me wrong, it would be wonderful to wake up every morning and have the entire day to just WRITE. But writers who make enough money to focus on their projects full-time are the exception, not the norm. Especially with new authors – there’s that occasional success story of a six-figure book deal on a debut, but most new authors earn MUCH smaller advances, or no advance at all. Publishing is risky and new authors are unproven. And for more established authors, it still takes a lot of sales and growing readership before it becomes economically sound to quit that dreaded day job.
Even a six-figure advance, impressive as it may sound, will only get you so far. Here’s why – you have to earn off that advance before seeing additional revenue from book sales. So, if your advance is $1,000.00, you need to earn that much in author royalties (a percentage of the book’s price) against that advance before additional royalty earnings kick in. If that advance is for multiple books, that could take some time. It could also never earn out, meaning that you, the author, don’t earn any more money from sales and may have a disappointed publisher. Your next advance could be lower, as a result. There are no guarantees in publishing and a lot of uncertainty, which makes it smart to hang on to a steady paycheck as long as possible – even if it’s hard to work a day job, live your life and find time to write that next novel.
So in short, I won’t be quitting my day job any time soon. If and when I do, that’ll be announced here to much fanfare and popping of champagne corks!
Any other questions? Feel free to leave them in the comments.
I can finally share some incredible news, years of hard work and perseverance in the making… I HAVE A BOOK DEAL!
My science fiction novel, The Sentient, will be published by Flame Tree Press in June 2020. It’s the first full-length novel I wrote, I’m incredibly proud of it, and thrilled beyond words that it’s going to be out in the world.
It’s surreal. So much came before this – the idea, the first draft, editing, rewriting, more editing, conferences, pitches, rejection, finding a literary agent, revising the novel again, spending an agonizing year on submission with more rejections… and here we are. A moment I’ve dreamed about for much of my life, but one I never fully trusted to happen. There are no guarantees in publishing, after all. Writers remind ourselves of that constantly, to brace for the next round of setbacks and rejection.
Only days before I got “the call” from my literary agent, I was talking to a friend about being on submission. It was approaching a year, and we’d had this same conversation many times before.
“Anything new with your book?” she asked.
“Still on sub. Another editor passed, but it’s still out with others.”
“Oh, bummer. Well, I’m sure you’ll hear good news soon.”
Normally, I just nodded at the usual words of encouragement, but this time, I was in a more resigned state of mind. I told her that I had started to accept the fact that The Sentient, my first book, may never be published. That it just may not be the right book to find the right publisher at the right time, and I’d have to put my faith in my next novel.
One day later, I got “the call.” On April Fool’s Day, of all days. I knew it wasn’t a prank – a person’s publishing dreams aren’t prank material. When I heard the news, my heart pounded and a strange sensation followed, of a weight being lifted from my chest. I had an offer for a book deal! It was finally happening. It felt surreal but right at the same time - a moment I had imagined in my head for a long time, and here I was.
Of course, I couldn’t just blast the news out to the world. Many steps follow that life-changing call – contract negotiations, following up with other publishers, signatures and announcements. If there’s one truism about the traditional publishing route, it’s that patience is key.
Patience, and perseverance. At each stage in the publishing process, there’s always a new ladder to climb. Take my last two years... after I finished my novel, all my energy was focused on getting a literary agent. Once I signed with an agent, I was overjoyed… but soon, my mind shifted to a new source of anxiety – whether the book would sell. Now that it’s sold, I have a new tier of anxieties:
For those of you on a similar path, at whatever stage... keep writing, and never give up!
One of my short stories, The Hidden Ones, has been accepted for the April edition of The Write Launch! You can read this magical realism story set in Bahrain, here:
Once again, I'm skipping with joy at another turning point in my writing career - publishing a short story! Like my literary agent search, I went through the usual ups and downs with a number of my short stories - submissions, rejections, rinse and repeat. But I kept at it, polished my stories in places where they needed work, and got smarter about where and how to submit. And finally, a breakthrough.
This particular story is especially rewarding to publish, given how personal it is. Most of my writing is straight science fiction - spaceships, future technology, parallel universes. The Hidden Ones is more immediate, drawing from Middle Eastern folklore and my own upbringing in Bahrain.
As a result, I thought I'd share a few personal details behind this story:
I’ve just started watching HBO’s Westworld and one episode in, I’m already unnerved by the casual violence against the non-humanoid, female characters in the titular, interactive park where men (and women) can enact their fantasies.
That’s the point, of course. The show intends to provoke, and has deployed the usual defenses in the wake of criticism: violence is a part of human nature, and we’re exploring how humans would behave in a situation where they could act out their worst premises on a sub-caste of robots, made to be as human as possible. It’s a great and interesting premise, but as with many shows with interesting premises, I keep questioning the intent of the creators – are they really trying to make viewers self-reflect on the normalization of gendered violence? Or are the sexualized beatings and rapes there to pander to the worst impulses of viewers? To shock and even titillate? (The likely answer, I think, is a little bit of both.)
I wrestled with this question on my own first novel. In the middle of the story, a group of young women experience a horrific, terrifying act of violence at the hands of a futuristic religious cult. It makes sense in the context of the world I created. It gave important insight into a character’s behavior and motivations. But I agonized over the scene, and how I wrote it, many times over, asking if it had to be there.
I kept it, but in the process of finishing my novel (and reading countless rape and torture scenes in other works of fiction), I’ve come up with a list of questions I ask myself when violence of any kind creeps into my stories.
(Note: I’m focusing on sexualized violence against women in particular, but my comments can be applied to any kind of violence in fiction.)
(Second note: If you watch Game of Thrones, House of Cards spoilers are coming!)
1. Does the rape/act of violence tell us something we don’t already know?
This was my main problem with Sansa’s rape in Game of Thrones (yes, we’re already on Game of Thrones) , and why I suspect it upset so many other viewers. We know that Westeros is a violent, cruel place where women are chattel, to be used and abused by men as property. We know that Ramsay Bolton, Sansa’s rapist, is a violent psychopath. We know that Sansa has suffered and accumulated plenty of motivation for revenge when her opportunity strikes. Her rape, as a result, tells us nothing we don’t already know about this world or the people in it. It feels gratuitous, an ending scene designed to shock and trigger the “can-you-believe-what-happened” conversations at the water cooler the next day.
The only thing it potentially changes is giving another character, Theon Greyjoy, a reason to take a stand against Ramsay. But that in itself left a bad taste in my mouth. The camera pans away from Sansa as her new husband is raping her to a close-up of Theon’s horrified, tearful face: a woman’s suffering triggers a man’s redemption arc. Something that could have been done a hundred other ways.
Compare that approach to Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie that was rightfully credited as being a great feminist action movie. The plot has a runaway general helping a group of sex slaves escape from bondage. It would have been INCREDIBLY easy for George Miller to throw in a rape scene in a flashback. Play to our emotions and make us see what the women went through.
But he didn’t. We see evidence of their escape. We see their elderly female caregiver killed when Immortan Joe discovers the loss of his ‘property’ (illustrating how patriarchy classifies women as ‘rapeable’ and ‘disposable’). We see the women discard their chains, that one of them is pregnant. We get the idea. The movie establishes the stakes, then moves on into the business of the plot. George Miller may have done this for pacing reasons rather than feminist ones – at the end of the day, he’s an action director trying to move the action forward – but the result is a better movie. If the Game of Thrones creators had directed it, we probably would have been treated to a protracted, graphic mass rape, like the equally unnecessary scene in Craster’s Keep.
2. Is the act of violence being used to give a character motivation or depth? Does it have to?
In many cases, I believe that sexual assaults and torture scenes get thrown into narratives due to lazy or inexperienced writing. Violence is an easy way to give a character a troubled past and a motive.
There’s the “women in refrigerator” trope, where a male character is galvanized into action when a woman he cares about is raped or killed. This has been a staple in superhero stories and television for years (see: Lost, the Marvel universe). Alternately, there’s the “empowered” woman character who first must be taken down a notch by a horrific event before regaining control. A good example of the latter is House of Cards, when the powerful, unflappable Claire Underwood comes face to face with a man who raped her in college. The reveal seems to have two purposes: to show a vulnerable side to Claire and also to create a decision-point for her husband, President Frank Underwood, to determine whether to prioritize his relationship or his politicking.
I’m not saying it’s always a bad idea or sexist to have an assault happen in a story. Depending on the type of story it is, it may be necessary and powerful to show the impact of sexual violence on a character. But consider why it is there. Is there another, more creative way to give a character motivation or a compelling backstory? Is it there because it’s shocking, dramatic and convenient?
3. Are there any downstream ramifications, or is it a one-off event that never gets brought up again?
Another sign that there are better ways to develop a character: the rape/assault happens but has no long-term ramifications for the character arc or narrative. Game of Thrones is an obvious, repeat offender here – Cersei is raped by her own brother and the incident is not only never brought up again, it seems to have no bearing on their future interactions.
In contrast, British shows such as Happy Valley and Broadchurch have centered storylines around a single rape, but in a thoughtful, nuanced way. The actual assaults are not shown in a way that could be sexualized - they are off-camera and unambiguously horrifying. The ramifications are felt throughout the show and the long-term effects on the victims, their relationships and lives, are shown.
The common defense I hear from people I discuss this with in real life, and see often in the comments section of any article that touches the issue, is that these shows are just trying to be “realistic.” That’s how things were back then, I hear in defense of Game of Thrones (and the originating A Song of Ice and Fire series), a fantasy world with dragons and ice zombies, albeit one with a clear European medieval influence. We’re being uptight or living in a fantasy, the implication goes, if we have a problem with ubiquitous violence against women in our books, on our screens and in the theater.
But if you’re going to justify rape for realism’s sake, the other side of the coin better be present – a realistic depiction of the after-effects, and how it drives characters and subsequent events in the story. And it had better serve the story in a meaningful way, not as a crutch to elicit easy emotions from a reader or shock them into engagement.
Two weeks ago, I accepted an offer of representation from Naomi Davis at Bookends Literary Agency. It's taken me a while to post this here, mainly because I've been consumed by a combination of work and a new focus: revising my novel based on Naomi's wonderful, expert feedback!
I could not be more thrilled. I spent several days after the offer in a fog, finally in a place I had dreamed of being in for over a year. Like many aspiring writers, I had endured my share of form rejections throughout the querying process, as well as a few full manuscript requests that didn't turn into offers. I just wrote on this blog about continuing to believe in yourself and endure through rejection but the truth this, there does reach a point where you wonder... am I just not quite good enough? Am I just going to come up short? After all, fantastic writers like John Kennedy Toole never saw their work published.. and I'm never going to write anything on the level of Confederacy of Dunces.
But it's with good reason that others in the writing community say to persist and not give up. A literary agent invests a tremendous amount of time upfront on clients, as I am now seeing firsthand. They won't take on a project unless they truly love it and believe in it. The trick is finding the right agent at the right time. It's hard. It takes research, energy and a thick skin. But with persistence and luck, it can happen.