02: Umm Zakiyyah on Building a Writing Legacy [Career Series]
Life is short.
You hear it often enough.
And you accept it.
But you still can’t get round to turning your writing dreams into a reality.
You often wonder, how do you turn your passion for writing into a timeless legacy?
In part 2 of the Career Series, (read part 1 here). Umm Zakiyyah shares her insight on building a writing legacy and much more.
She talks about creativity; her personal rule for writing; what it takes to become a bestselling author; a common mistake first time writers make; difference between successful writing and a successful writing career; and the one special book she reads every day.
If you read one thing today, make it Umm Zakiyyah’s interview below. Use the special month ahead and renew your intention to write, write and write some more.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of the If I Should Speak trilogy and the novels Realities of Submission and Hearts We Lost.
1. What does it take to become a bestselling author – is it nature or nurture?
I would say, first and foremost, it is Allah’s decree and mercy. We can have the inborn talent and the training, but without Allah writing this worldly success for us, we cannot benefit from either one.
However, as far as our human capabilities are concerned, after sincerely supplicating to Allah in du’aa and asking for His guidance and help in our writing endeavours, we ourselves must nurture any inclination, talent, or drive we have to become a successful author.
We must learn our craft by studying the genre in which we wish to write; we must read other bestselling authors’ work to see theory in action; and, most importantly, we must write and dedicate a significant amount of time to this task and be consistent.
Thus, success in writing is a combination of both having the inclination, talent, or drive to write and putting in the work necessary to see your work to fruition.
2. How would you define creativity?
Creativity, in my view, is each person’s individual “stamp” of artistic expression in the world. It is our unique voice of expression that inspires others to experience something in a new, exciting, or moving way.
3. Is it (creativity) essential to becoming a great writer?
I think creativity is essential to becoming a great anything as far as worldly pursuits are concerned. However, writing is inherently a craft of creativity, and this is especially true for fiction writing.
4. What is your greatest source of motivation?
I think my greatest source of motivation is the desire to see others’ lives touched and enriched by what Allah allows me to write.
5. ‘If I Should Speak’ was the first Umm Zakiyyah (UZ) novel I read based on a friend’s recommendation. I could hardly keep the book down. And it’s been the same with other UZ titles. Do you have a special process for writing any piece ~ from idea stage to completion?
I’m not sure that I have a “special” process per se because each book is a different experience.
However, as a general rule, I jot down my initial ideas as soon as they come, and at this stage, I’m not overly concerned with writing the story itself.
Sometimes my initial idea is simply a title or a book cover concept, so I write this down and save the file to access later. Sometimes my initial idea is a scene or part of the book, and in this case, I write the segment and save it for later access.
One rule I have for all ideas or initial writing is, if I’ve saved my notes or writing on a computer or flash, I must print it and put it in a specific binder. This is for two reasons, firstly, so that the chances of losing my initial notes are reduced and, secondly, so that I can read my ideas and writing on paper (in “black and white”) later. This helps my creative process and often inspires more ideas.
After this initial stage I begin writing, and I dedicate a certain amount of time per day or per week depending on my schedule or circumstances.
I also spend time in reflection and du’aa throughout this process, and I sometimes show my unfinished work to a friend or family member to get feedback on what I’ve written thus far. But I usually share unfinished work only if I get stuck or suddenly uninspired, or if I experience “writer’s block.”
Having someone else experience the writing brings the story back to life, so to speak, and it often reignites my inspiration to keep going.
However, my strictest personal rule during the process of writing is to pray Istikhaarah before publishing any book.
6. And which is the most challenging stage? Beginning a book, completing & editing the content, or wrapping up and launching to audience?
As far as the writing process is concerned, I find the most challenging stage to be completing the book in a certain time frame once I’ve started.
Editing the content can be a challenge, but I don’t find it particularly daunting unless the edits require rewriting large portions of the story or making significant changes to the plot.
However, launching the book to a wide audience remains a challenge for me because I’m still learning how to do this effectively and successfully.
7. What essential skills, tools and knowledge does an emerging writer need to build a successful writing career? Or is it all about practice, practice, practice?
In my view, an emerging writer needs to be reasonably knowledgeable about the writing genre in which he or she wishes to write. This knowledge will equip emerging writers with the background necessary to write successfully.
However, it’s very important to differentiate between successful writing and a successful writing career.
Successful writing depends heavily on lots of writing itself; and a successful writing career depends heavily on lots of writing as well as acquiring relevant business or “building a career” knowledge.
But I don’t suggest using the word “practice” in this context. I’d say instead, it’s all about writing, writing, writing — and then sharing the work with readers.
For beginning writers, the first sharing can be amongst friends or via an online blog in which readers post comments or interact with you in some way.
If you’ve finished an entire book, get feedback from friends and non-friends (i.e. people who aren’t worried too much about protecting your feelings) on what they honestly think before you send it off to a publishing company or seek to publish it yourself.
At this stage, the most important skill to have is patience. And this can’t be overemphasized.
Finishing an entire book can be exhilarating, so exhilarating, in fact, that we often get lost in our own excitement.
A common and serious mistake first time writers make is jumping immediately from finishing a book to seeking to publish it—without taking the time to be absolutely certain that this is the best version of their work. It’s most difficult to hear negative feedback on your writing when you’re a beginning writer, but ironically, that’s when you need to hear it most.
Almost no one gets a book “ready for publication” the first time around. That’s why there are stages even after you finish what you consider your final draft. In truth, what most emerging writers consider their “final draft” is merely the first draft to share with others before going back and revising it more.
8. Do you have a regular schedule for writing or do you write based on inspiration?
In general, my novels start as projects of inspiration, but after that, they all require some form of a regular writing schedule before they can be successfully completed.
However, my “schedule” looks nothing like a neat timetable complete with dates, specific hours, and lengths of time that I must write.
My writing schedule is more akin to making sure that at least once each day or each week I sit down and write something, even if it’s only a few lines.
In other words, inspiration is just that push I need to get started. After that, it’s mostly about discipline.
9. Any suggestions on developing excellent writing skills?
Write, write, and write — and share your writing with others for honest feedback.
10. What type of books do you read & how often?
I love reading, and I read all sorts of books: religious books, informational books, biographies, memoirs, self-help, and novels.
I read daily and carry a Kindle in my purse so that I’m able to pull it out and read anywhere at any time, in the car (when I’m not driving, of course), in waiting rooms, on public transportation, in the airport, when I’m eating a snack or meal alone, and so on.
However, the only book that I read every day is the Qur’an. We rarely think of the Qur’an as connected our writing endeavours, but it is — because the Qur’an is the foundation of how we live our lives.
And if your life involves writing, then the Qur’an must be the book from which you draw most of your inspiration.
11. Any favourite authors?
I like Maya Angelou, Sue Monk Kidd, Marita Golden, Mildred D. Taylor, Jodi Piccoult, Richard Paul Evans, Sarah Dessen, and Na’ima B. Robert.
12. Which writers have influenced your writing the most?
I’d have to say Mildred D. Taylor, Jodi Piccoult, and Richard Paul Evans.
13. Do you agree the pen is mightier than the sword?
Absolutely. The pen is definitely more powerful than a sword. The power of the written (and spoken) word cannot be overemphasized.
14. What advice do you for aspiring writers on how they can build a timeless legacy through their passion for writing.
First and foremost, constantly renew your connection with Allah through making sure you are praying all your prayers on time and with concentration, and through reading Qur’an daily and asking Allah to help you in your endeavours.
Secondly, study the foundations of your faith to be certain that anything you write does not deviate from this foundation, even if your writing isn’t “religious” in any way.
Thirdly, read lots and lots of books in your favourite or preferred genre while writing regularly in that genre; and share your writing with others whenever you can so that you can get advice and feedback before publishing.
And lastly, pray Istikhaarah before publishing anything for public consumption.
Remember, your writing will likely outlive you and carry on touching lives even as you are in the grave; so pay close attention to what you are earning with your pen — in life and death.
15. Finally, how can the Muslim Youth use their thinking and writing skills to yield a positive influence in the Ummah?
First, and most importantly, seek success in the Hereafter while you seek success in this world.
Also, strive to be both a positive influence and a mercy to the people whom you hope will benefit from your work. In other words, follow the prophetic example.
One mistake many youth make nowadays, especially those blessed with a dedication to the Islamic faith, is seeking to be a positive influence on others while abandoning the Islamic principles of empathy and mercy.
The Prophet, peace be upon him, taught us that the believer is the mirror of the believer. So when you see someone, whether in righteousness or sin, know that they are merely a reflection of your own potential; and if you want to be a positive influence on them, then you must respect them as an extension of yourself — an individual whose life circumstances others know little to nothing about.
So in seeking to reach others in a meaningful way, focus your thinking and writing on, firstly, purifying your own intentions, then reaching others through issues that touch the heart and soul, as opposed to through issues that make sure others see and walk the world as you do.
Wa iyyakum, wa barakAllaahufeekum.
So are you ready to build a timeless writing legacy? Share your gems of inspiration below.