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The Misbehavior of Fictional Children: A #DVpit Blog Hop on Character-Driven Fiction

In this #DVpit Blog Hop post, debut author Aminah Mae Safi shares the story of her character from her debut novel, Not the Girl You’re Looking For, and her #DVpit experience.

#DVpit, the Twitter pitching event for marginalized creators, returns for its fourth run this October. In preparation for the main event, Writer’s Digest is pleased to participate in the #DVpit blog hop by hosting another guest post. Debut YA novelist and #DVpit success, Aminah Mae Safi is here to share her experience writing character-driven fiction.

“The child is misbehaving again.”

I was texting my husband.

“Lulu keeps glaring at me because I made her sit by Auntie Salwa. She’ll never trust me again.”

“You’re not her real mom,” he sent back, with a laughing emoji.

I had no choice but to get back to work.

This guest post is by Aminah Mae Safi . Safi is a writer who explores art, fiction, feminism, and film. She loves Sofia Coppola movies, Bollywood endings, and has seen all of the Fast and Furious franchise. She lives in Oakland, CA with her partner and a cat bent on world domination. Her debut NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING for will be available June 19, 2018 from Feiwel and Friends. Her 2016 We Need Diverse Books winning story will appear in their forthcoming anthology FRESH INK (Crown Books for Young Readers, 2018).

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Find her on Instagram at @aminahmae and on her website at www.aminahmae.com.

You see, I don’t have children, not ones on this plane of reality. I have fictional characters with minds of their own.

I write about girls with bad attitudes. Girls who don’t stay in line. Girls that many an agent and an editor said they just didn’t know what to do with.

They weren’t wrong. I don’t know what to do with these young women half of the time.

Because I write that buzzy term, “character driven fiction.” Which sounds fancy, but what it means is this: If I’ve done my job as an author—if I’ve made human characters with their own will, agency, and their own set of hopes, dreams, nightmares, and desires—then, I can only direct the situations these young women find themselves in. Not their actions.

Character driven fiction means I must take my characters as they are, not as I wish they were.

That’s how I ended up with a protagonist who stumbles, tipsy—from a hallway closet at a house party—out of the arms of one boy and into the clutches of another.

And that’s just the first five pages.

Like I said—those agents and editors—they weren’t wrong. Because as Lulu’s story unfolded, I realized Not The Girls You’re Looking For was, by all current definitions, unpublishable. Its main character was willful, angry, petty, and occasionally drunk.

Oh, did I mention, Lulu was Muslim, too?

Would it be too cliché to say that creating fictional characters is akin to being Pygmalion? To craft and to sculpt them, to fall in love with them as they grow more life-like, only to find that my creations are agents beyond my own command?

I was terrified of this girl, of her story. I couldn’t believe I had made her, had fleshed her out until she was so thoroughly herself and so thoroughly out of my control.

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So I tried to soften her. Tried to make her less of what she was and more of what she ought to be. The results were, to use a euphemism from my Southern roots, real interesting.

I tried outlines, rewrites, critiques partners. All of it helped, to one degree or another. But none of it solved the problem. None of them were substitutes for facing Lulu as she was, rather than as I hoped she would be. I had to stop trying to soften her and to stop trying to make her palatable.

Lulu demanded to be seen.

I had, like many parents, to accept her as she was, rather than as who I envisioned her to be when I had created her.

Lulu insisted I tell her tale and tell it true. And the more honest I was with and about her, the more honest she was with me. Until I was left with a novel that I couldn’t believe anyone would want. A novel more unpublishable than the one I had started with, I was sure. The story of Lulu and her three best friends, themselves equally capable of lashing out and turning their hurt inward, until it became an ugly, gnarled, frightening thing. A story of misdeeds and misadventures. Of growing up and hurtling the pain of that onto those whom these girls loved the most.

None of them made this easy on me. Then again, I hadn’t made life very easy on them, either.

The next round of pitches I did—through #DVpit—I stopped trying to tone Lulu down, just as I had in the manuscript as a whole. I declared her as she was: unapologetically raw and fierce and loyal and ambitious. Not a girl as the world sees them, but Lulu as I saw her. As she is. As she sees herself. As she so insistently demanded to be seen.

My hands shook a little as I posted a pitch with a gif that called Lulu a bitch in a uniform. Because she could be. Because when I drafted that tweet, I could hear her laughter ringing through my imagination.

“Welp,” I texted my husband. “There goes my career as an author.”

But life, much like art, is a funny thing.

The response to those #DVpit pitches was overwhelming. People weren’t just mildly curious. They were interested; they were invested. Readers, agents, editors. They wanted more of Lulu, not less. They loved the vibrant, in-your-face Lulu; they had barely had passing interest in the maybe-if-I-couch-this-in-approchable-language-you-won’t-notice-her-edge Lulu.

#DVpit changed my writing life in unimaginable ways. I found an agent, I sold my manuscript. I’m on this wild ride known as “being a debut author” and starting my next book proposal.

But most of all, it changed the way I approach my work.

I’m much less afraid of what people think of what I’ve written, and much more afraid of not listening to who my characters are. I’m more invested in creating a story where the characters leap off of the page, acting all on their own, rather than one I’m in control of at all times. And I’d much prefer to take the time to get to know these young women that I write, than dictate who they are and whether or not they’re allowed to misbehave.

There’s some kind of moral lesson in there. But, if you can’t tell from the girls I write, I’m uninterested in moral lessons. I’m much more interested in telling a story and telling it true.

I learned that from Lulu.

You can meet Lulu in all her brash glory by preordering NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR and adding it on Goodreads. Trust your characters, and believe in your stories. And get ready: #DVpit’s pitch day for children’s and teen projects is October 2nd and adult projects can be pitched on October 3rd. #DVpit was created by Beth Phelan in February 2016. Please visit www.dvpit.com for more information, and stop by the resources page to check out the rest of the blog hop.

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