Aimee’s pub week: From big ideas to a big debut

Susan DeFBook NewsLeave a Comment

a poster saying congratulations Aimee Hoban on your book "The Third Way"

I love all of my clients’ projects (if I didn’t, I wouldn’t take them on) but some are particularly dear to my heart–like Aimee Hoban’s The Third Way, published last week by SheWrites Press.

Aimee had a brilliant idea for a novel, a story about what it would take for Americans to resist the power of corporations. It’s the kind of story I think we desperately need right now.

As Ursula K. Le Guin reminded us, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inevitable. So did the divine right of kings.” So too the power of corporations.

But Aimee is a lawyer by trade (at the some insurance agency where Wallace Stevens once wrote poems while walking to work), and her first draft was…lawyerly.

I mean that in the best possible way: Aimee’s novel is meticulously researched, and it takes place in South Dakota because South Dakota is a state with a history of anti-corporate sentiment, and an unconventional political landscape. Every detail of the process involved with getting a state initiative passed via referendum there was laid out in the book, as were the big ideas that make this novel such an intriguing thought experiment.

But in her original draft the character development wasn’t quite there–likewise, the emotional stakes and relationship dynamics. So over the course of multiple drafts, we worked together to develop a story that was just as compelling at the level of human psychology, emotions, and relationships as it was at the level of its politics.

The result is my very favorite kind of novel: Thought provoking, emotionally compelling, and inspiring. I’m not the only one who thinks so:

“This is a book that will appeal to any and all who wish that they were heard among the din of the two-party noise machine. A wonderfully written book that may prove prescient.”
Seattle Book Review, 5-star review

“A playbook for how to seed a revolution, The Third Way is thought-provoking, illuminating, and inspiring. It captivated me from page one and left me thinking meaningful social change is possible. Arden is my favorite kind of protagonist: passionate, determined, and brave enough to take on the ‘C’ word (yes, capitalism).”
—Carrie Firestone, author of The Unlikelies and Dress Coded and community organizer of ForwardCT

“In this impressive first novel, Aimee Hoben provides a clear-eyed, propulsive, and morally complex look at the systems that vie to hold our country a corporate hostage. The Third Way’s Arden Firth is as winning and knowable a character as I’ve encountered in some time. This is such a bold debut.”
—Daniel Torday, author of Boomer1 and The Last Flight of Poxl West


In her note to me in the Acknowledgements section of this novel, Aimee wrote, “without you I’d never have found this book in its current form. With your guidance and creative ideas pulled from the book itself, it became something I am proud of. Thank you for your encouragement and vision, and for your superbly constructive suggestions both large and small. You helped me find meaning and depth in the story that would have otherwise gone untapped.”

And that, friends, is why I do what I do: So brilliant ideas can become deeply affecting novels, and act as story medicine in the world.

Wherever you are with your WIP, I hope this story offers encouragement and inspiration. And I hope it inspires you to pick up a copy of Aimee’s book–it really is so good!

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Why Complex Characters Aren’t Optional

Susan DeFcraft, fictionLeave a Comment

Image of faces carved in stone with various expressions, some of anger, happiness, sadness


There are two issues with character that I see over and over again in the course of my First 50 assessments: protagonists who are too good, and antagonists who are too bad.
 
Protagonists who are too good have no clear internal issue. They might have gone through something hard in the past, but whatever that something is, it doesn’t seem to be getting in their way in the story present. These protagonists are essentially just perfect people facing imperfect circumstances—and where’s the story in that?
 
Antagonists who are too bad are cartoony, cardboard cutouts of bad guys—people who delight in doing harm, in being selfish and self-serving. They do not resemble human beings in the wild; rather, they reflect the judgments and frustrations of the author.
 
You know that delicious sense of being drawn into a novel, that sense that these people you’re reading about are real people? That’s the art of fiction, and the craft. It’s what makes us care. And ultimately, it’s what sells books.
 
In order to create a complex protagonist, you have to reveal a pattern in their responses—a pattern that clearly isn’t all that helpful, healthy, or grounded in reality. That’s what story geeks like me call their internal issue.
 
The other thing you have to do is reveal the backstory associated with that issue—not only because backstory is integral to creating that magical illusion of reality, but because it makes us care about the protagonist.
 
And in order to create a complex antagonists, you have to get inside their internal logic: the way they justify their own bad behavior to themselves. After all, no one sees themselves as the bad guy in someone else’s story—they see themselves as the good guy in their own.
 
Another big key to creating a complex antagonist is revealing the backstory associated with that bad behavior, what led them to feel justified in acting this way. Because it’s that backstory that makes them relatable, no matter how bad they may have become.
 
The upshot here, basically, is that if you want to write a novel that draws your reader in, a novel that actually feels real, complex characters aren’t optional. And I believe that complex characters not only make for better stories, they make for a better world.
 
Here are just a few of the reasons I believe this:

  1. Complex characters reflect reality, period. Which means they reveal something to us about the real world.
  2. Complex characters show us how even we, the “good guys,” are not infallible—and push us to recognize the flaws in our own operating systems.
  3. Complex characters show us how easily human beings rationalize behaviors that are just plain wrong.
  4. Complex characters show us, via the antagonist’s backstory, the roots of injustice, violence, and oppression.
  5. Complex characters show us, via the protagonist’s arc of change, that we’re capable of recognizing and changing beliefs that no longer serve us. 

Complex characterization is a big part of what I teach in my online course, Story Medicine—so if you’re interested in working with me on this aspect of your craft, consider registering here. (You can begin the course with either the August or September cohort—whichever works best for you.)
 
And if you’d like my take on how you’re handling the characters in your current WIP, consider signing up for my First 50 consult.

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3 Critical Tactics for Diversifying Your Cast

Susan DeFcraft, fiction, Story MedicineLeave a Comment

A picture of a graffiti-ed wall with the words "Unity in Diversity" in red

I recently sat down (virtually) with my good friend Vinnie Kinsella for a lively and far-ranging conversation. This was the first event of a monthly series hosted by the Story Medicine Community that will address different facets of the topics we cover in my online course, Story Medicine.

We covered so much ground–from such important topics as Star Trek: Discovery, Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and the well-intentioned pitfalls of the trope known as Magic Queer Bestie (you know, just there to sprinkle a little rainbow glitter on the straight protagonist). In case you missed it, I did a bit of a recap of our convo for Jane Friedman’s blog this month, with a post entitled How (and How Not!) to Write Queer Characters: A Primer.

In writing this post for Jane, I was struck by how many of the best practices that will help you write queer characters with integrity also apply to a range of other characters who hail from historically marginalized groups.

Ready? Here they are:

  1. Don’t Make Them the Sole Representative

When you only have one member of a historically marginalized group in your story, that character is essentially forced to represent that whole group—and however you characterize them, that person will appear to represent your idea of that group as a whole.

The easiest way to avoid this is simply to have more than one character from that same group in your story–and this is especially critical when one of those characters is an antagonist. Because antagonists tend to behave badly, make poor decisions, and generally aren’t all that sympathetic, and you really don’t want to leave your reader with the impression that this is how you view the whole group that they hail from.

When you have a “good guy” from the same historically marginalized group in your novel, you can let both that character and your antagonist simply represent themselves–not their entire group.

  1. Address Privilege (and Agenda)

To my mind, secondary characters who hail from a historically marginalized group run the risk of appearing to be “diversity accessories” to a protagonist who does not (for example, see the trope of the Magical Negro, and my version in my post for Jane, linked above, Magic Gay Bestie).

One way to avoid this appearance is to actually address the secondary character’s lack of privilege with regard to the protagonist. Meaning, you show the ways that this character has less power in some situations than the protagonist of the story.

The other way to avoid this appearance is to make sure that this secondary character isn’t just there to support the dramas and decisions of the protagonist, but in fact has some drama and decisions of their own,. Meaning, this character has their own agenda, their own goals in the story (and hey, maybe your protagonist might even be able to help out with that, rather than just vice versa).

  1. Characterize Nonstereotypically

For every historically marginalized group, there are stereotypes: Asians are good at math. Black people have rhythm. Gay men are effeminate, and are really know how to shop. Lesbians are butch, and know how to fix the dishwasher when it goes on the fritz. Etc.

Are there real people who conform to these stereotypes? Absolutely–and let’s be clear, we love those people. But for every character in your novel, you only have so many identifying characteristics to work with, and if all of the characteristics you’ve assigned to a given character point to their membership in a historically marginalized group, all you’re doing is perpetuating stereotypes, and narrowing the perception of what people from this group can be.

An alternative here is to work against stereotype, in whatever way works best for your novel. Maybe your Asian character is a total bookworm, and has always hated math. Maybe your Black character has the physical coordination of a punch-drunk panda.

Another alternative is to just sidestep these stereotypes entirely, and focus on other characteristics with no obvious relationship to stereotype: Your gay male character’s penchant for live action role playing, for example, or your lesbian character’s ironic love of really bad 80s hair metal.

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Big news! (And a big giveaway!)

Susan DeFcraft, fiction, Story MedicineLeave a Comment

It’s taken me the better part of both 2021 and 2022, but it’s FINALLY done: Story Medicine–the course for writers who want to use their power as storytellers to support a more just and verdant world.

I’ve been an editor and book coach for over a decade now, and in this course, I’m sharing some of the most critical things I’ve learned about how to create compelling, emotionally affecting long-form fiction.

I’m also sharing some key craft techniques for diversifying your cast, and for “engaging with the issues”  without coming across as preachy or didactic–two things that I really think all of us who write fiction need to be doing right now.

The problems we face as a culture have never been bigger. And while it can be easy to feel powerless in the face of them, I believe that, as storytellers, we actually have a great deal of power.

That’s why I created this course–to help writers like you claim that power, and tell stories that will change the world. =)

Story Medicine is the very first course of its kind, and those of you who’ve been with me a while know that I launched the beta version of it last fall. The response was HUGE, and I got some amazing feedback from the first few cohorts to go through the course.

I could have left it there and called it good–but this course is such a key part of my life’s work, and so close to my heart, that instead I chose to spend to nine months perfecting and refining it.

Story Medicine 2.0 includes more videos, more nuts-and-bolts craft exercises, and more resources, on things like common racist tropes to avoid, case studies in revision, and techniques for creating invisible backstory.

It also now comes with access to the Story Medicine Community, a Facebook group where we’ll be discussing the material in the course, and exchanging homework exercises, starting Monday, June 6. You can learn more about the course, and register for the June cohort, here.

And to sweeten the deal, I’m offering Your First 50 Pages consultations FREE to four newsletter subscribers who register for Story Medicine by the end of May.

All you have to do is register for Story Medicine using the same email address you use as a subscriber to this newsletter, and then shoot me a message (susan@susandefreitas.com) with the subject line Subscriber First 50 Giveaway. Four winners will be chosen at random.

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