The trials and tribulations of publishing fiction in the US

The trials and tribulations of publishing fiction in the US

One of the biggest challenges that I faced during the span of my thirties was getting my fiction work published. My journey into the world of fiction publishing was tiresome, and frustrating most of the time. Getting published in the US proved to be harder than what I had naively imagined. What first prompted me to write fiction when I moved to the US was a profile of Yiyun Li in the Washington Post. I was so impressed by the fact that when Li moved to the US she hardly spoke any English, but just a few years later she became an award-winning author, and a bestseller.

I wanted to be her. She wrote about the Chinese-American experience, and I wanted to write about the Jordanian-American experience, the only world I knew. I started by taking fictionwriting classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. I wrote short stories about Jordanians in the US, and Jordanians in Amman. I wrote about women stuck in traditional marriages, and men who wanted to escape their realties. I wrote about family feuds, and life after divorce. I shared my stories with friends and fellow writers. I revised, and rewrote until I was ready to submit to literary publications.

I submitted, received rejections, then revised and resubmitted. I must have sent around 200 submissions. Through the years, I saw how the submission process changed from using snail mail with self- addressed envelope to mostly online submissions that made the process much faster and less intimidating. The rejections kept piling up. Most were standard rejection letters or Emails, but on one occasion I got a signed letter from an editor of a literary journal in Louisville, which gave me some hope.

fjords-womens-edition2While the rejections kept coming, I was being published elsewhere, in the non-fiction world. My byline appeared in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Esquire magazine, Aljazeera, and others. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why it was so easy to get recognition in the non-fiction world but not in the imaginary world. I naively thought that telling the truth like it is the case in writing non-fiction was harder than making up stories and telling lies.

No one accepted my stories until October of this year, nine years after I started my fiction journey. The journal which sent me an acceptance letter was the Richmond- based publication Fjords Review which included my story Under Contract in their special women’s edition. You can read my story here (Page 53).

Seeing my fiction work in print gave me an immense amount of encouragement that I dug up my unfinished novels and started the resuscitation process. Currently, I’m almost done with the first draft of my debut novel They Called Me Wyatt, which is an Arab-American murder mystery set in a world of magical realism.

theycalledmewyattI know that if I want to bring this it to fruition, I have to commit, I have to keep writing, and stop winning. It’s work and hard work. I don’t know what the future of this novel will be, but I know for sure that I have to see it to the end. Cheryl Strayed eloquently described my current determination to finish the book in her essay “Write like a motherfucker” that was published in her book Tiny Beautiful Things. “I had finally reached a point when the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than writing a book that sucked,” she wrote. I would hope that my book wouldn’t suck, but if it did that would not be as bad as living a life unfulfilled. It won’t be as bad as knowing that I had this vision once, but I never worked hard to make it happen. That would definitely suck! Here’s hoping.

Online resources to help your audience understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Whether you’re trying to put the latest escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian violence in context for your audience or trying to stay informed yourself, here’s a list of social media accounts to check out, followed by a list of sites that can help you understand the background on the conflict:

On Facebook

israel-palestineA number of journalists who are currently covering the conflict from the field have been using Facebook effectively to disseminate information and engage with the audience. Among them is Ayman Mohyeldin, a foreign correspondent for NBC News. The Arab-American journalist (who was pulled back briefly from Gaza and then sent back after a backlash) was among the first journalists to report the story of the four Palestinian children who were killed on a Gaza beach by an Israeli raid. Mohyeldin’s coverage of the conflict has earned him the respect of fellow journalists.

You can view Mohyeldin’s Facebook page here, and follow his updates by subscribing to his feed.

The New York Times’ Jerusalem correspondent Jodi Rudoren’s reports are widely read and discussed worldwide. In addition to her timely updates, she is also known for her effective engagement with readers on her Facebook page.

Also reporting from the field is The Times’ Anne Barnard. She posts regular updates from Gaza on her verified Facebook timeline.

On Twitter

There is no doubt that Twitter is changing the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Here are a few journalists worth following on Twitter for their updates from the region: Sarah Hussein of AFP, Nick Casey, the Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Rushdi Abualouf, a Palestinian journalist based in Gaza and Ruth Eglash, The Washington Post correspondent in Jerusalem.

You can find even more Twitter accounts to follow on this list.

Background on the conflict

If you are new to explaining the conflict, the following sites will explain how things reached this point:

The BBC has a page dedicated to the conflict under the title “Middle East Conflict,” which includes some background.

Another resource to check out is the Council on Foreign Relations’ interactive crisis guide, which provides historical and geographical background.

Vox magazine gives a basic overview of the conflict in its article, “9 questions about the Israel-Palestine conflict you were too embarrassed to ask.”

Finally, the Huffington Post has a dedicated page on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with updated news and contributors’ blogs.

Archive photo courtesy of Joe Catron on Flickr with a CC-license.

What happens when a ‘full-blooded American’ sends a letter to a ‘foreign’ mom in Suburbia

FlagpicLast week I experienced my first racist incident in the eight years I have been living in the U.S. I have seen and heard of racism happening to others, but this time it hit close to home. It was an attack against the core of who I am.

I don’t want to get into many details, but I can summarize the incident as follows: I received an unexpected four-page letter addressed to me in the mail written by someone who I would like to refer to as a “new member of the community.”

The bizarre letter ended with the following sentence: “I am a full-blooded American, and I [the name of the sender] won’t tolerate any misbehavior from an alien or a foreign person/family.”

I had to read this sentence a number of times to realize what it was, a personal attack, a racial one. Previously, I was under the mistaken notion that racism won’t happen to me, not where I live and not in this era. I most probably thought that because, to quote one of my friends, I live in a “D.C. bubble,” and I’m not in touch with what is happening in the rest of the country. He definitely had a point. I live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. where having an accent is the norm, and where speaking Arabic is a huge advantage not a deterrent, as it means, government contractors want to hire you. It is the area where diplomats, political refugees and international aid workers reside. It really is a melting pot. No one seems to be bothered by where you come from.

My neighbors come from different parts of the world, and a big portion of them were not born here. Racism was not supposed to happen here, not to me.

When I shared the incident with my friends, the majority of them just told me to brush it off, since it was one, isolated occurrence, and there was no need to dwell on it. I tried to follow their advice, but I simply couldn’t let go. I worked so hard to make the U.S. my home, but unfortunately this small incident has succeeded to shake the identity that took me years to build. I am a Jordanian-American journalist married to an American, and raising my American-born kids in my new home country. In suburbia, I’m a mom, a professional, a wife and a neighbor. The fact that I was “foreign born” was never an issue, well, until I received that letter. I suddenly began to raise all these existential questions of who I am and where I belong. Who is a full-blooded American? Where is home? Who is a foreigner? Will I ever belong here?

It really hit me to the core, when in reality it should not. I know better. I live in the D.C. metro area, and this was just an anomaly.

The incident made me think about the urgent need for grassroots awareness campaigns that focus on tolerance, the existence of the “other,” and the current cosmopolitan nature of the American society.

There is a lot that needs to be done on the micro level. We need to move beyond the fancy D.C. conferences that tackle tolerance, and interfaith and go to the neighborhoods. We need to organize community meetings, block parties and dinner invitations where people just get to know each other as humans and not as news headlines. Neighborhood committees mainly tasked to create cross-cultural understandings should be present in every community across the U.S. The notion of “full-blooded” Americans should not continue to exist in this day and time.

It is worth noting that this incident happened to me the same week of Halloween. I was mulling my Americanism the same week I was performing the all-American tradition of dressing my kids in costumes, taking them trick-or-treating around the neighborhood and handing candy to neighborhood kids. It was also the same week that I sent my Thanksgiving invites and planned my menu for the 17 people who will be coming over to my house to celebrate this all-American holiday.

It is also worth noting that the same day I received the letter, I got a visit from another neighbor who came bearing gifts. She was grateful to me for watching her house and picking her mail while she was away on vacation, that she brought chocolate, wine and gifts for the kids. Somehow with this incident the world managed to balance itself, which was a relief. However, if there was one thing that I learned from the letter incident was that we still have a long road ahead of us to erode the notion of “full-bloodedness” and simply learn to co-exist. And if by any chance the letter’s sender happens to read this column, then I would like to say, please join us for dinner tonight.

Image Credit: Creative Commons/ekornblut.

*This post first appeared on the Huffington Post.

Recent Visit to Amman Reveals: When in Doubt, Blame the Syrians


By Natasha Tynes — The Huffington Post

While visiting family and friends in Amman, Jordan last week after being away for over two years, I was constantly being asked about my observations on Amman, and whether it had changed since I was last there in October 2010.

During the first couple of days, I would usually respond saying I noticed more traffic, and new construction here and there. A few days into my visit, things got clearer (I’m blaming the jetlag for my delayed observation). I noticed a change, a big one. Somehow, politically-divided Ammanites were united on one issue: Syrians.

syrianrefugeesLast time I visited Jordan, the annoying term the “Arab Spring” was not even coined. So, fast forward two years, I would have expected to see change along these lines, but what I saw instead was not youth marching in the streets asking for reform (to the dismay of many D.C. think tanks), but rather Jordanian citizens who are increasingly becoming concerned about the influx of refugees from their war-ravaged next door neighbor.

According to the United Nations’ refugees agency, UNHCR, the number of registered Syrian refugees in Jordan as of May 22 is 401,869, and this number is expected to triple to 1.2 million by the end of the year.

For a country with a population of 6 millions, this is huge!

The Syrian issue was first brought up during my visit while at a night out with friends at a restaurant on Rainbow Street. I noted to my friends that I didn’t recognize anyone at this place unlike the old days when I used to run into a number of people every time I used to go out (you know, Amman back then was considered a “small town”). One of my friends put things in perspective by saying “the people that you see at the restaurant are not Jordanians, they are Syrians.”

That was when I realized that the Syrian refugees issue was more than the plight of people at the Zaatari Refugee Camp (as I used to read in the news from the comfort of my home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.). It’s a bigger issue with major impact on all of Jordan, a country with very few resources, which has hosted a large number of refugees during the many conflicts the region has witnessed through the past couple of decades.

Any visitor to Jordan now can’t help but notice the “Syrian effect.” From cars with Syrian plates scattered across the streets of Jordan, to concerts played by Syrian musicians, to even something called “Syria line” — special offer by one of the telecom companies for customers in Jordan who want to call loved ones in Syria, the signs are everywhere.

My overall assessment based on numerous conversations (usually over gigantic portions of food), Jordanians are not happy about the Syrian influx. I heard complaints about Syrians “stealing” Jordanian jobs. There is even an urban legend about “three women” barging into a doctor’s clinic and asking him about his receptionist’s salary. They said they are all willing to take half what she makes, and he only needs to pick one of them to hire instead of his highly-paid receptionist. Statistics somehow back up this story since according to Jordan’s labor ministry, there are 160,000 Syrians who are working illegally in the country, and accepting lower wages than Jordanians.

The Syrian issue was also discussed at the Jordanian pediatrician I took my daughter to after she had a sudden high fever due to a “bacterial infection” she picked up during our trip. The pediatrician was quick to blame the “refugees.” “This country is hosting so many refugees these days,” he said adding “We don’t know what kind of illness they bring with them.”

In an article entitled “Resentment grows against Syrian refugees in Jordan”, theInternational Herald Tribune quoted a recent poll conducted by the Amman-based Center for Strategic Studies, which reveals that 70 percent of Jordanian respondents oppose allowing more Syrian refugees into the country.

Hosting Syrian refugees has put a major strain on Jordan’s limited resources including, health, education, and state-subsidized electricity and water. Jordan government officials estimate that the country has incurred $251 million in costs to host Syrian refugees in 2012, and by the end of 2013 the figure might reach $1 billion.

According to Jordan’s Economic and Social Council, each Syrian who crosses into Jordan costs the government about $3,000 annually, mostly due to electricity and water subsidies. Meanwhile, Jordan’s health ministry says it spends half of its budget on medical care for Syrians.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. There is one tiny silver lining: a new ice cream shop. The famous, Damascus-based ice cream shop “Bakdash” opened in Amman a couple of months ago. Jordanians noticed, and rushed to devour the famous pistachio-laden ice cream.

The subject of ice cream was brought up during a brunch with some of my friends in Amman. “My husband went to get us some ice cream the other day and they said they ran out,” she said. “Imagine, they have to get the ice cream mix from Damascus, and we have to wait a few days until they get their ice cream.” I guess, when it comes to ice cream, patience and virtue don’t mix.

This “refugee” vibe reminded me of a similar one a decade ago when I came back to Jordan for a visit, and everyone back then was complaining about “the Iraqis”. I wonder if we follow the same trend, would there be a “refugee” crisis in Amman every decade? From the way events are unfolding in the Middle East, this scenario is very likely. Who would Jordanians complain about next? Who knows, but for a country with very few resources that is constantly being exhausted, you shouldn’t blame them.


This post was originally published on the Huffington Post.

Picture courtesy of the United Nations.

Fired over a tweet, Octavia Nasr says journalists need protection from social media flame wars

Social media are easy to use, but those quick tweets and status updates can be dangerous for journalists who want to keep their jobs.

As more journalists get reprimanded or fired by employers over social media, former CNN correspondent Octavia Nasr told IJNet in an interview that employers should hold employees accountable to company standards and practices–not to the negative publicity their social media activities may generate.

In 2010, Nasr’s opinionated tweet from her official CNN account about the death of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah ended her 20-year career at CNN.

Though social media led to her ousting, Nasr still embraces it. Shortly after parting ways with CNN, she established Bridges Media Consulting which specializes in newsroom management, journalism training and social media integration.

Nasr, who says the most important milestone for Bridges is to “actually be operational,” talked to IJNet about the controversy and the pitfalls and possibilities of social media for journalists.

IJNet: What would you do differently today if you were to write that tweet about Fadlallah?

Octavia Nasr: I wouldn’t send out the tweet at all. It was not an important tweet to start with in the big scheme of things. I was on vacation, I shouldn’t have been thinking about work or sending the tweet out about Fadlallah or his relevance.

If I must tweet, I would’ve tweeted that he passed away without any extra information. Let people find out on their own who he was and what his worth was. I tried to put too much information into 140 characters while the story needed a lot of context. By doing so, I opened the door to a small but powerful and effective group of agenda-driven people to attack CNN through me.

IJNet: How did the controversy with CNN change your views on social media and how you advise your clients?

ON: It did not change anything. Quite the contrary, it confirmed all the things I already knew and was teaching (and still teach) to others about social media. I became a living example of the successes and perils of social media.

What happened with me can happen with anyone at any time, it was not what I tweeted or how I tweeted it, it was the reaction to my tweet and CNN’s response to that reaction that led to CNN and I parting ways. This is only an excuse that anyone can pull at any time and people need to be ready for it if they are using social media on behalf of their employer or any other entity.

IJNet: The social media policies for major media organizations range from very restrictive to pretty open — from “watch the retweets” (AP) to just “don’t be stupid” (BBC) – what do you think is the right balance?

ON: The right balance is to act on social media exactly the same way you do in real life knowing very well that your tweet is a permanent record. Use restraint and don’t share unnecessary information that might come back and haunt you. Of course “don’t be stupid” and “watch the retweets” are the extremes that one should avoid at any cost, but it’s the wide margin in between that concerns me and where I find most users are vulnerable.

The problem is not what you say or what you mean but rather how people perceive it, analyze it and deal with it that concerns me a lot. An innocent comment that is attacked by a major organization or group all of sudden will sound “stupid;” but if no one complains about it passes without incident. On the other hand, a major offense can go unnoticed and unpunished because no one complained about it or because those complaining do not have muscle.

The point I like to stress to employers is that they should hold their employees accountable to the company’s standards and practices not the level of support or condemnation their tweets receive. Not all complaints are fair and not all cheers are warranted. The company should lead based on its policy and it should act according to its code of conduct and ethics not the public’s reaction or outcry. On the other hand, to employees I stress that they should get their employer’s commitment in writing that in the case of controversy or complaint, their right to fair investigation is preserved.

Without an upfront commitment from the employer to stand by and protect employees from astroturfing and negative publicity, my advice to employees is not to use social media on behalf of their employer, period.

This Q&A is the first in a two-part interview with Nasr. You can follow her on Twitter and read more about her on her personal website.

A journalist and new mom on the potential of Instagram

Lately, I’m struck by the massive potential that the iPhone photo app Instagram provides for journalists worldwide.

See, these days I’m into photos, especially baby photos, or to be more precise, twins photos.

When I had my twins last October, I wanted to document every step of their growth by taking pictures–lots and lots of pictures.

Instagram provided the perfect venue for posting and sharing my baby snapshots. Not only did it offer a variety of artistic photo filters to choose from, but it also provided interaction and sharing capabilities, whether you share with friends you already know or connect with other Instagrammers who share similar interests.

These features are bound to advance photojournalism in a massive way, especially when crowdsourcing is introduced. We’ve seen some of this potential with citizen journalists using the app to cover the London riots and Russia’s recent elections. CNN’s iReport frequently features Instagram pictures from its citizen journalists who cover timely events.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when ABC World News asked its Instagram account followers to post pictures of their twins using the hashtag “#wntwins” for the chance to be featured on a news segment airing that night.

Of course, I jumped on the opportunity and flooded the space with pictures of my dynamic duo. There were pictures of my twins napping, my twins playing, my twins eating, you name it. My portraits weren’t selected, but my effort was not for naught: I managed to connect with other parents of twins whose pictures I continue to enjoy.

For news organizations, this represents a powerful opportunity to build community and brand loyalty.

I think the next step should be for news outlets to partner with Instagram to create a monetized system in which citizen journalists and Instagram split the costs of photos the news organizations buy. Photo news service Demotix provides a similar system, but it is mostly for traditional photographers and not for those who solely use iPhone cameras.

I believe if this system was introduced it would transform photojournalism in a major way. News outlets will be flooded with photos submitted by their Instagram correspondents around the globe, while citizen journalists will get the opportunity to make some money as well as get recognition.

Every time I take and upload a picture of my twins, I sing Instagram’s praises and think about the many ways it can transform photojournalism. For now, I will leave this for you to ponder while I go chase the twin.


*This article was originally published on the International Journalists Network.