Beginning the Book

Victoria Street, Whitby, Ontario
There's a long road ahead, I know... If only I could get out of the driveway
Victoria Street, Whitby, Ontario
There’s a long road ahead, I know… If only I could get out of the driveway

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he idea of my writing a book has been floating around our house for a while now, its aura of incredibility slowly dimming to a more manageable glow. That quip I made about my life reading like an Amazon bestseller took root, and with a Pinocchio-esque insistence, demands to become a real book.

The timeline is Blu-Tacked to the kitchen wall, Post-it Notes and slips of paper spill from swollen notebooks languishing in drawers and bags; a killer opening line here, a long-forgotten-recently-resurfaced memory there. It’s time to make this a reality. It’s time to move out of the conceptual stage and come up with something concrete.

I need to get off the starting blocks – got any jump leads?

Do I have it in me to be an author? Some of you seem to think so – Chris, you always ask “How’s the book going?” Carole, you’ve pleaded and sent me various motivational tools in the hope of spurring me into action, Linda, you willingly share your time and wisdom, liberally anointing me with encouragement when I hit a fork in the road, and K, you’ve been one hundred percent behind me from the start and your enthusiasm strengthens my shaky self-belief.

The spirit is more than willing, the flesh isn’t afraid to put the hours in, but the brain has no idea where to begin. I’m full of admiration for Linda Janssen, Zvezdana Rashkovich, Matthew Hirtes, Kirsty Rice, Laura J Stephens, Lana Penrose, Alexander McNabb, Apple Gidley, Jack ScottFarzana Hassan, Maggie Myklebust and all those who’ve made, or are in the process of making, the dream a reality – and for Jo Parfitt, who’s been there herself (what was the last count? 28 books published? – cue dead faint) and created Summertime Publishing to help others mine their talents.

I’m just a rookie, blindly feeling my way along the path to publication. I follow and connect with writers in the hope of gleaning some holy grail of “How To”, or a key that I can use to unlock my own narrative – but I end up frittering my time away on social media with nothing tangible to show for it and no closer to my goal.

I’m coming clean. I’m clueless and I need your help!

My problem, dear readers, is that I have no plan – I have thousands of words already written but no framework to organize them. How do I do this?

A good starting-point for organizing material, in the absence of an eye-watering advance and a publishing deal, is to sort it into themes. So I’m asking you all, with your intimate knowledge of my innermost witterings, to tell me the themes you see recurring in my writing. I have a few written down, but an objective eye could help me turn over some nondescript pebbles and spy the gemstones embedded within. Or perhaps some of you who’ve trodden this road before can tell me how you organised the mess in your head into something meaningful.  What say you? Here’s a chance to help a starving artist – well, ok, that’s not technically true according to my bathroom scales, but you could take part in creating something that might ultimately end up on your bookshelf – how cool would that be? Failing that, some strident encouragement on your part would suffice, say, a cheerleading squad, a well-placed word to a publisher, or just some good old-fashioned “big ups”

aside: “No K, I didn’t mean hiccups…”

Whitby Shores, Whitby, Ontario

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. You’re already halfway there with your Post-it notes, time lines, over stuffed notebooks and brilliant opening lines that wake you up at three in the morning. You’re listening to the sage advice of others (and will continue to do so) but you’re scared and listening to those inner voices that distract you with other things, ANY things to keep you away from starting the book.

    The best way? Really? Sit down and write. Be prepared to disconnect from everything for a while, breathe and sleep your book. You’ll forget to eat, forget the world around you, pine when it is necessary to have a break. Live your book, start the journey.

    You’re standing on the edge looking at the abyss, breathe, close your eyes, embrace the joy and let yourself fall.

    (All this sage advice from someone who is constantly sidetracked by a kitchen drawer that needs reorganising, or a minor chore which must be done NOW.)

    As Jo Parfitt will always say, with a shrug of her shoulders and a huge smile, ‘Just write!’

    1. I have plenty to write, it’s just the organisation that eludes me – chronological or thematic timeline, first or third person narrative. The obstacle of knitting all this material into a sweater with a pleasing pattern seems overwhelming! Thanks so much for commenting Jane. I really do value your advice and will pore over this searching for hidden meanings (may even reorganise my kitchen drawers as a writing exercise).

  2. Thank you for the mention and the compliment. I have to admit that it was much easier for me as my book is a memoir so the story had already happened. Even so, I started with a story board just like the movies. I sketched out the rough plot, pictured the scenes in my mind and slotted them in to the narrative.This allowed me to concentrate on specific events and episodes without losing the overall thread.You may have tried this already so sorry if I’m teaching you to suck eggs!

    1. This will be memoir too so I’m hanging on your every word! I’d considered using themes as sectional organisers, but don’t want to be leaping back and forth through time confusing the reader. Perhaps I need to choose a handful of incidents which best illustrate the themes I want t discuss and build around that, keeping them in chronological order. Can’t thank you enough Jack, every suggestion inches me closer to making it real 🙂

  3. Hi Aisha,
    Your overthinking this – just write and stop procastinating 🙂 Mother hen or Sow Piglet has spoken!
    I have nearly finished the first draft of my novel started as a result of the NaNoWriMo
    challenge last November. I’m not a writer – one day I will be – and if not, hey what the hell I’ve enjoyed the journey and met many great people along the road.


    1. I hear you! And congratulations on the novel btw, THAT’S what I’m talking about – and what nonsense! You ARE a writer! Mother hen has spoken!
      I know I procrastinate (show me someone who doesn’t and I’ll show you a psycho or a liar) and I figured, “Just write, the rest will fall into place” but I’ve got lots of self-contained stories and still no idea how to string it all together. What Jack said made sense to me – I think I need to pick a handful of those stories and tease the themes from within them, keeping them chronological but linking them thematically… it’s getting clearer!

  4. If it’s organisation you’re after — and you’re a Mac girl now — buy Aeon timeline software! I keep all my Libby plotlines and characters on it, and the best bit is that it syncs to Scrivener.

    1. Hi Kate, I’m leery as a Luddite of software that promises to help you write. I worry I’ll spend days just working out how to use it to it’s best and waste time utilizing all the bells and whistles whether I need them or not. Paying money for it would just add insult to injury – I’d have to be really convinced first… On the other hand, I love the idea of being a tech-savvy writer 😉 Goddamn, this BPD’s a curse!

      1. Well, it doesn’t promise to help you write. You still have to do that yourself 🙂 But a lot of writers swear by Scrivener; I’m one of them, to the point that I don’t actually have another word processing programme. It was getting to be a mammoth task, keeping track of what Libby character did what and when, and that’s where the timeline software comes in. It beats scribbling on rolls of old wallpaper…

        1. Ooooh, you’re good! How long did it take you to find your way around it? I heard it had no way to track chronology which seems a huge oversight.
          Love the wallpaper idea though…

          1. Yes, I felt that about Scrivener and its lack of timeline, too. Aeon is a recent product, it syncs pretty flawlessly with Scrivener, and so makes up for that deficiency. It really didn’t take long to find my way around. There’s a tutorial that comes with Scriv, which is definitely worth working through, and a help manual with Aeon, although I find Aeon pretty self-explanatory. You can get free trials with both – I think it’s 20 days with Aeon and 30 with Scriv (that’s 30 days of actual use, not a mere calendar month.) I’m zipping back and forth between generations, so keeping things in a straight line somewhere is really useful.



          2. Yeah, they ought to pay me commission 😀 (Although at only $40 or so per package, it wouldn’t be much…)

  5. I understand what you’re going through. I loved Nigel Slater’s memoir which focused on different encounters with food–sometimes the connection was subtle sometimes really obvious. As a cook, that was perfect for him. When you write what do you reference a lot? Also, I’d say write in first person. And good luck! Looking forward to having this on my bookshelf!

    1. Thanks Michelle, I read “Toast” and found it fascinating. Just searched my bookshelves for it but I must have picked it up at the library.
      I’ve been brainstorming themes of identity, belonging and mental health, but thinking about it, those all come under the umbrella of identity, hmmmm… Thanks for the encouraging and thought-provoking comment.

  6. Dearest Aisha,

    You absolutely, 100% have a book in you. It’s more than evident that you’re oozing with talent just from the few things I’ve read by you, and I get the impression that you also have a riveting story to tell.

    When I wrote my first memoir, I felt the same confusion as you but was WAY less organised. I didn’t consider software. I didn’t plot anything out. I just wrote, day in, day out, for years, like a crazed monk in a cave, organising things chronologically. At first I managed to create a big pile of dung, but, being that it was my obsession, I polished and scrubbed until my story began to shine.

    As you go through, you’ll feel the compelling parts start to ‘pop’ and get a feel for what’s not quite working. It’s an intuitive process (and long) (and often tedious), but I get the sense that you’re oozing with intuition as well. You will absolutely nail this. I have no doubt.

    Lana x

    1. Lana, I need you on speed-dial! What an inspiring comment. I should make a mental note to read this whenever I start to doubt my ability to do this. A big flaw on my part is that I assume everyone else knows what they’re doing. I don’t even think to trust my intuition to tell me when I’m on the right path – which is sheer stupidity seeing as you ALWAYS “feel” when something’s right. What you said about feeling “the compelling parts start to “pop”” REALLY made sense.
      Love the “monk in a cave” allusion. My husband brought a very monastic-looking hooded robe back from Libya, maybe I should get in character!

  7. When you find an idea compelling enough the words will start flowing. Much of the problem in writing a novel is dreaming up an idea that we ourselves resonate with. And the first step in that process is to detach from our ideas of what will be popular or well liked.

    The artist/writer is often filled with self doubt and a list of sensitivities about other people’s reaction to our story. Only once we have the courage to let all that go can we ask some rather simple questions: What gets me fired up? What sparks my imagination and also draws on what I know and love in life?

    The tools are great and can make things easier. Being organized is important and can streamline the process of course. But nothing can replace an idea that mobilises our passion and our complete attention.

    “All break throughs are break withs” – Stephen Covey

    1. Hi Herrin, all valid points. As you say, we have to be able to detach from our ego – writing a memoir makes you question yourself more aggressively about your motives: Why would someone want to know your story? What makes you so special?
      Finding the thread, Ariadne’s yarn, that runs through is crucial to avoiding getting sucked into a snore-fest of self-indulgence! I’m feeling a lot clearer now than I was this morning about the way I’m going to execute my idea. Thanks for dropping in from Oz 🙂
      Oh, and I love that Stephen Covey quote!

  8. Oh God, I hold the world record in slowest writing process ever so I feel very unqualified to offer advice 🙂 I have no idea! I downloaded scrivener, which has helped somewhat. Enjoy the process darls. Enjoy.

  9. Woohoo! So excited for you Aisha. Sharing your dream with the world is a big step; accountability is good, now you’ll make it happen. And thank you so much, your kind words came at just the right time, too, as I’m in the final stretch of getting my NF manuscript finished. Much work left to do, but if I squint verrrrry hard, I can almost see the end in sight.

    My initial thoughts? Definitely first person: it allows you to share your feelings in an intimate bond with the reader, and third person tends to come across as arrogant for a memoir. Agree with Lana’s advice about coming to see, over time, what really resonates or pops. Write what you feel and it will take shape. Too many people make the mistake of believing that just because something happened it deserves to be included. And finally, the best memoirs I’ve read stay true to ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ (and the boring ones tend to do the inverse).

    1. Thank you Linda and tentative congratulations! You’re approaching the sweet spot – who was it who said writing was agony but having written something was the opposite?
      Thanks for giving me the benefit of your admirable experience (that extends to every one of you who’ve made time to reply to my desperate plea!)
      Your final sentence about “show, don’t tell” in the context of memoir will be something else that floats at the back of my mind while I write. It might sound funny, but having others tell you it’ll take forever/be incredibly tedious/drive you to distraction makes it easier to keep slogging on when it feels like you’ve lost your way. Knowing everyone gets lost too means it doesn’t feel so disillusioning.

  10. Argh! If only you were in Dubai! I’ve literally just this second posted about this:

    And I suspect it’s just what you’d have wanted!!!

    I can only offer these older posts and hope there’s something in there that will help and guide you.

    Another (much less comprehensive!) one:

    Getting an agent:

    And finally, this links to the content from my self publishing workshop at last year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

    Sorry about the link bombing in your comments – I usually hate when people do that but you can always copy the links then delete the comment if you’d like!

    And MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL – all the very best of luck to you!!! Just hit me up on Twitter if there’s anything I can do to help! :)))

    1. I take your “Arrrggghhhh” and quadruple it! Oh how I wish…

      Nevermind. Thanks, nonetheless, for your comment AND for the liberal link-sprinkling. I’ve added a bunch of interesting voices to my social media feeds thanks to your list of publishing blogs and will make my way through your posts in due course. I’m bowled over by the generosity of spirit you and others have shown in helping a rookie and by the time you’ve taken to do it. Seriously. Bowled over.
      See you on Twitter 🙂

  11. I just read this post. Thank you very much, am flattered to be on your ‘list’ 🙂

    I am in awe of YOU. You are dedicated, honest and have a true talent for writing. I have said this before and repeat: you have courage. Go for it, I know your book will be as successful as everything you’ve done so far…best wishes from Dubai

    1. Your strengths are writing about culture and interracial issues. I would look at developing and expanding on your experience as a convert. There are multiple books about this issue but you have a unique twist I think. Email me. I will be glad to help with anything else

    2. If I manage to speak to someone’s heart like your simple description of rain in Dubai did to mine this morning, I’ll be happy. Thanks for the encouragement and support; you realise I’ll need reviews when this is done… 😉

  12. Hi Aisha,
    I agree with Jane. Just write! I found that the best thing that worked for me was to start with a total mental dump of just random ideas, thoughts, themes, describing feelings and people as I went. The more I wrote the more I became immersed and then even started dreaming about scenarios… keep a note book by your bed at all times. The best plot twist for Mental Pause came in a dream 🙂 Once you have a good chunk of writing down, your theme will start to take shape. Always have an ‘outline’ document open in the background and when the creative flow slows down, switch to your outline and start to massage and tweak it. A lot of your ‘dump’ will get cut but that’s okay. It’s just meant to get you in the habit of writing every day. Keep another file of ‘random thoughts’ that you store your cut dumps just in case you want to resurrect them. If you haven’t already, make sure you download Jo Parfitt’s free report on How to Write your Life Story. It’ll help you get your head around it! When I wrote @Home in Dubai, I took a much more prescribed approach, starting with a chapter outline first. Of course, as I wrote it morphed as well 🙂

    Good luck and keep us posted on your journey!

    1. Thanks for all the insight Anne, its making a huge difference to me in getting this thing off the ground, and thanks for the reminder about Jo Parfitt’s guide – I just dug it out for a revision session! On a day like today, when the best intentions are scattered by sick kids home from school, I think to myself “I’m actually doing ok considering I never get more than ten minutes of uninterrupted time!” The reality is, the only time I can get a decent stretch done is when everyone is in bed. Seriously thinking about getting up at 6am for an hour and a half of peaceful writing…
      ANyway, enough of my moaning – thanks for the pointers. I’ll let you know how it goes 🙂

  13. Do it, do it… (can you hear that little voice urging you on with its British accent polluted by a bit of an Aussie twang?)

    Go with the cultural and interracial aspects, in my humble opinion. It’s so interesting and does anybody want to read ANOTHER book on moving abroad and missing home? (unless it has unique twists like winning a million dollars on the lotto and losing your ticket down the loo or being kidnapped by barefoot beach bogans and getting strung up on the harbour bridge – not my story unfortunately)……

    I think your experiences as a convert plus all the contextual stuff from back home would be great. But can you do it? Only one way to find out.

    Now quit procrastinating, lock yourself away, and we’ll see you in a few months complete with shiny manuscript and author badge attached.

    And keep off Facebook!

    PS. I’ve been working my way through the Scrivener tutorial and found myself stabbing my eyeballs last night. Painful but hopefully with some eventual reward. The effort that is, not the eyeballs.

    1. “…can you do it?” That ladies and gentlemen was the sound of a gauntlet being thrown down!

      Hey Russ, thanks for your take – the objective viewpoint on what draws people’s interest is invaluable. What I believe to be riveting may bore the pants off a reader leaving them frustrated I didn’t pursue and develop a different angle.

      Can I just ask – about the Facebook thing… have you been speaking to my husband?

      As for Scrivener, I think we can safely say that until I’ve got my author badge (and $$) I’ll be working on rolls of old wallpaper (sorry Kate, but I just LOVE that idea!)

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