When one door shuts…

Susan DeFfiction, ReflectionsLeave a Comment

Two painted doors face the viewer. The one on the left is red with a tree and the one on the right is blue.

We all know the saying: When one door closes, another one opens.

Last month, I shared that I’d received some tough news from a colleague on my new novel–news that it wasn’t nearly as far along as I’d thought.

Many of you wrote to share your appreciation for my honesty in sharing this, for the vulnerability in it. Some of you wrote to say that it made you feel less alone with your own setbacks, your own crises of faith.

I was glad to hear that, because so often we feel alone in our journey as writers–so often we think that we must be the only ones feeling what we do, when that’s so rarely the case.

This month, I’m happy to say that it feels like a new door has opened up for me. It’s opened up because I’ve returned to a question that I believe is essential to the creative process:

What is it I really like?

Or, put another way:

What is it I really love?

I started making notes for a collection of short stories in 2015, as I was recovering from surgery. Sitting outside during a heat wave–under the influence, I’ll admit, of some good pain meds–I was struck by an idea: What if I wrote some stories made out of just the sorts of things I like to find in stories?

In some ways, it’s a pretty obvious question. I mean, why shouldn’t we write what we like?

But even so, it’s not a question I had ever really asked myself, and it’s not a question any writer I knew had ever asked herself either.

I started by making a list of these things I enjoyed most in fiction, as a reader. Things like:

  • Secret languages and codes
  • Games
  • Magic books
  • Libraries
  • Stories that contained stories, and stories that contained works of art
  • And–contrary to conventional wisdom in fiction–stories that contained dreams (which gave rise to the title of this work-in-progress, Dream Studies)

From there, I brainstormed and made notes for the plots of 12 stories, which I then went on to draft over the next three years–stories that have now been published in places like High Desert JournalCity of Weird, and Buckmxn Journal (one of them is forthcoming from the latter this December).

Then I turned my attention to back to revising my novel. A novel I thought was close to done.

When I received this news on my novel from my editor last month, it felt like a door closing, at least for the time being–closing on the part of my past that novel is set in, and closing on one long period of sustained work I’d just put into it.

But at the same time, it felt like one opening. Because a novel represents such a long, sustained period of focus on one imaginative space that delving back into this quirky collection of short fiction felt like playing hooky.

I’ve revised some of these stories, scrapped others, and now have actually begun drafting some brand new work in the same vein for this collection.

And in actually starting from scratch on a new story, for the first time in years, it’s occurred to me that no matter how creative we may imagine ourselves, it’s not often in life we consciously push ourselves to find our own edge as artists.

That’s what it feels like I’m doing now, in creating new stories for this collection. And in so doing, I’m reminded of how much weirder, smarter, and stranger our stories can be than we ourselves are (at least consciously).

And that is my invitation to you, here at the end of October, as the veil between the worlds grows thin and the shadows of the descending dark play tricks at the edge of consciousness:

  • What do you love to find in your fiction?
  • What questions are you asking in your work?
  • And how might your imaginative work lead you deeper into what you do not know?

Many of us will never know what it is we’re actually capable of–athletically, say, or intellectually. Such is life, as there are only so many different passions we can focus on in one lifetime, and only so many hours in each day.

But my wish for you is what I wish for myself, as a writer: I hope that you challenge yourself to find your edge, and push yourself further into the unknown, in pursuit of what it is you love best.

I wish I’d done this a LOT sooner…

Susan DeFcraft, fiction, ReflectionsLeave a Comment

sign that says "Endure" in yellow capital letters

In my latest post for Jane Friedman, I wrote about the writerly quality of grit, and three ways that it’s critical to getting over the finish line with publishing—which is something I’ve experienced myself recently, in a deeply personal way.

Last week, I sent my novel-in-progress off to my fellow book coach and Julie Artz for a manuscript evaluation. And friends, though it pains me to admit it, when I got her feedback, I went through what I can only characterize as a dark night of the soul.

I’ve worked on this novel FOREVER—for over ten years, on and off. I’ve almost given up on it many times, but at last, I felt like I’d broken through to the novel’s final form, and could finally see the finish line with it.

Julie’s feedback told me otherwise, pointing out structural issues that, as a book coach myself, I felt I really should have seen. But that’s why even book coaches need book coaches, and editors need editors: It can be nearly impossible to read your own work the way a reader will, especially when you’ve been working on it for such a long time.

I had a day or two there when I felt not only like it was time to just give up on this novel, but like maybe everything in my life as a writer up to that point had just been some sort of fluke.

It made me feel crazy, honestly, to think of how much time and energy I had devoted to this business of being a writer, and how little I actually had to show for it.

Fortunately, my husband was here to point out that what I was feeling wasn’t…you know, all that based in reality. Given the fact that I’m an award-winning novelist—that I have a short story collection in progress, from which nearly half of the stories have been published in paying markets—that I’ve written professionally for magazines since I was in my midtwenties—etcetera and so forth.

It’s amazing how easy it is to lose sight of little details like that when a qualified professional tells you that the novel you’ve spent a bizillion hours on isn’t nearly as far along as you thought it was.

After a few days, though, the shock wore off—and the work that Julie was pointing out needed to be done didn’t seem so impossible any more. I began to see ways I could restructure the novel’s opening to address those issues. That was the grit kicking in.

I’ve still decided to turn my attention back to my short story collection, for the time being—in part because this work feels fresher, more in tune with where I am now.

But I know, in time, I’ll return to this novel manuscript. I’ll dig in and do what needs to be done.

Because that’s who I am as a person: Someone who’s serious enough about my work to get qualified feedback on it, and to put that feedback to work in revision.

Someone who cares enough about this whole endeavor of making art, of making meaning, to do what it takes to bring it into the world.

Wherever you are with your work-in-progress, I hope this little confession of mine helps you to feel a little more compassion for yourself in your darker hours, and a little more grit when it comes to sharing your work with others, and doing the work that needs to be done.

Never miss a post! Subscribe to my newsletter.

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!

Never miss a post! Subscribe to my newsletter.

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.

Never miss a post! Subscribe to my newsletter.