Hitting Pause Button While We Take A Deep Breath

by Normandie Fischer

This month, I’m hitting the pause button and taking a deep breath. Maybe you’re in need of the same thing.

Since the re-release of my 2013 novel, Sailing out of Darkness, readers have begun chatting with me about the book’s issues, specifically, depression. Which brought this essay to mind, because I don’t think depression only exists for my characters or my readers.
I’ve heard from writers as well, from those who have published and those yet to be published. I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not writing to the clinically depressed or to anyone in need of professional help. Right now, I’m addressing those of us so caught up in our particular life issues that we’ve failed to pause and regroup.

ON FINDING HOPE

Our worlds narrow. As we focus on the now around us, on our limits and our needs, it’s hard to look past them to see the more that graces us, just out of reach.

The news threatens us with joblessness, with homelessness, with the falling dollar and the possibility of war. Politicians sit in their cushy chairs and make promises, but the reality of their world barely touches ours.

We forget to look outside. We forget to take walks or just sit, listening to the bird sounds, to crickets at night, to the call of a loon, the hoot of an owl. We forget to stand in a drizzle and let it wash down our hair and over our face. We forget to let the sunrise welcome the day or the sunset ease us into night.

Our surroundings pale because we’ve stared at them so long: at the grind of job or home or health. The people sitting across from us at the table—or missing from that table—no longer offer what we need. Their blandness equals ours because we’ve forgotten to look beyond the fear and the hurt and the sameness.

If we live in the city, we forget that there are stars in that night sky, not just city lights. But even the city holds wonders: the subway street musician blowing his horn, the smile of the vendor when we bother to look and offer one of our own, the bustle of humanity with stories so different from ours. We forget to sit and sip and watch, because there’s always that worry, that need to hurry. We forget to listen to someone else’s heart—not just a lover’s.

Depression happens. Deep, debilitating depression needs more help than merely an attitude change. Don’t think I take that lightly. I’ve known depression, and I’ve known of those captured by it to the point of suicide. But most of us can recognize the state and consider our focus enough to pause and reconsider.

I grew up in the sixties when we were just coming out of the Jack Kerouac “beat” era and becoming flower-children. We wrote and spoke a lot about self, especially in the art world I frequented. Self-actualization. Self-awareness. Self-self-self. It’s very easy to get caught up in that: we want it all. We deserve it all. We can and should be able to control it all.

And then something happens, and we discover we can’t. Someone gets sick. Someone loses a job. Someone fails. Someone leaves. And we want to know why, how, what? Even if the bad doesn’t happen (and, honey, if it hasn’t happened to you, well, I’m thrilled for your escape), we can still lose sight of the bigger, glorious world. The one in which our Creator beckons with that sunrise, that fish plopping, that bird singing, that wrinkled smile on the subway flutist.

Let’s try to look at the horizon a few times every day. To take that walk and let the endorphins do their work. To look around and see past our tiny little world to the one that offers hope. 

And let’s reach out. If you’re not the one hurting, maybe someone around you is. If you hurt, someone around you wants to listen. And if they don’t, I will.

No matter what happens. In time of sickness and pain. In time of loss and loneliness. In time of war and disaster. There is hope. There is joy. We just have to look up.

Writers, do you ever find yourself locked in fear or paralyzed by depression? Unable to write or market your book? 

How do you handle it? 

Will you share your solutions in the comments? A lot of folk are hurting today. Maybe you have something to offer them. 

(“Finding Hope” was originally a guest post on David Stearman’s blog, Eyes to the Horizon, March 15, 2013. I have edited it slightly.)

TWEETABLES

Hitting Pause Button While We Take A Deep Breath by Normandie Fischer (Click to Tweet)

Ever think you need to stop and take a deep breath? by Normandie Fischer (Click to Tweet)

On Finding Hope by Normandie Fischer (Click to Tweet)

Book Blurb:

Sailing out of Darkness is the haunting story of mistakes and loss…and the grace that abounds through forgiveness.


Normandie Fischer
studied sculpture in Italy before receiving her BA, summa cum laude with special honors in English, and as well as being a writer, she’s been an editor, a teacher, and an artist. She and her husband spent a number of years on board their 50-foot ketch, Sea Venture, sailing in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. They now live in coastal North Carolina, where she takes care of her aging mother. She is the author of six novels. Read more on her website, Facebook, and Amazon.

Deepening Characterization

by Normandie Fischer

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Curled up with a book that has become a favorite, even though our unread stack threatens to topple. 

Here’s my question for today. Why do we read some books more than once while setting others aside with barely another thought?

Last month, I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with an out-of-town reader who’d been so affected by one of my books that she’d had to pick it up and dig through it again. Something about that book’s characters resonated with what she’d experienced, and she wanted more. I was charmed, of course, but that’s what we want, isn’t it? For our characters to touch hearts and change lives.

And yet stories abound that leave us unsatisfied. We feel cheated.

Think of a B-grade movie where the good guy is all good and the bad guy is all bad, where there’s plenty of action and little character development. In some books, characters appear to act on the story’s stage, but we don’t really know them. We have little idea what makes them who they are or why they do what they do, except in generalized terms. I just finished reading a much-touted book that made me want to throw something at the main character. This big-five published author hadn’t dug deeply enough into the character to give me, the reader, motivation for the protagonist’s poor choices and over-the-top reactions. I’m sorry, because I know the author has the ability to craft a stellar book.

Fully formed characters will take our story to another level. Not all readers care, of course. I mean, some are quite happy with the easy read, the simple plot, the boy meets girl meets bad guy meets happy (or even unhappy) ending. But let’s challenge ourselves to dig deeper, to pry off the lid and look into our characters’ motivations. Let’s try to write books that readers want to read and reread as they uncover additional layers.

Few of us escape life unscathed, and if we’re story crafters, our characters won’t either.

Even a murder mystery can have unexposed layers in characters’ lives, layers that will draw readers more deeply into the story. If we give our story actors reasons for the lies they tell themselves, reasons they may not even realize, and if we then build our action around these multi-level motivations, our readers will want to know more, to understand more, to spend more time figuring things out. They’ll want the hows, wheres, and what-fors. Because if we spend story capital on peeling back layers, our readers will begin to identify not only with the messes, but perhaps also with the solutions we’ve offered. 

Let’s take a look at questions we can ask ourselves as we draft our story. Our goal is to give our characters motivation and depth, things in their past and in their personalities that will push them to behave in a certain way. We want them to face crises throughout the book that will force them to take action, but we want that action to fit who they are and the lies they believe about themselves and the world. Then we can help them peel back one layer at a time as they grow and make different choices, and each time we’ll give our readers an Ah-ha or even an Ahhh moment. Everyone has lies they tell themselves, lies that make them act a certain way. It’s up to us as writers to realize what these lies are, how our characters came to believe them, and how we’re going to help our characters grow past them. 

Our questions might include:

  • Who are my actors?
  • What are their goals?
  • What stands in the way of them achieving these goals?
  • What emotional baggage do they carry?
  • How has this affected the way they live and the choices they make?
  • What has kept them from finding healing thus far?
  • What lies have they been telling themselves that have hindered their growth?
  • What are the plot points that will help each actor learn and grow?
  • What plot points stymie their growth?
  • How do the characters and their issues affect others?
  • How will we formulate a resolution that satisfies each character’s need—both perceived and hidden?
  • Will we choose to satisfy perceived needs?
  • Or will we find a way to satisfy what’s hidden as opposed to what’s perceived?
  • How will we help our characters recognize the difference?
  • Which of these will be the most satisfying for our readers/for our storyline? 

Next month, we’ll look at specifics. For now, happy plotting!

TWEETABLES

Normandie Fischer studied sculpture in Italy before receiving her BA, summa cum laude with special honors in English, and as well as being a writer, she’s been an editor, a teacher, and an artist. She and her husband spent a number of years on board their 50-foot ketch, Sea Venture, sailing in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. They now live in coastal North Carolina, where she takes care of her aging mother. She is the author of six novels. Read more on her websiteFacebook, and Amazon.

Finishing the Hat

Hey, all, Normandie here. I want to introduce you to one of my critique partners, the delightful Jennifer Fromke, whose words of correction and inspiration help hone my stories. When she told me about Seurat and his painted hat, I knew she had to share it with you. So, Jenn, you have the floor:

FINISHING THE HAT, a guest post
by Jennifer Fromke

George Seurat held his paint brush aloft as he worked on a wall-sized painting. When the woman in his life said, “It’s time to go,” his answer sounded something like, “But I just started this hat.” He couldn’t fathom going anywhere, doing anything, until he’d added the dots to construct the hat in his painting. Adrift in the world of his creation, he chose the hat over the woman’s world. . . because he had to. At least that’s how I remember it from Sondheim’s Broadway show, Sunday in the Park with George. The show is about Georges Seurat, as he paints one of his greatest pieces, A Sunday on La Grand Jatte circa 1884.

George Seurat, Art Institute of Chicago

Writing and painting have a lot in common. We writers are artists, too, although I sometimes forget this in the daily grind of creation. Sometimes the work feels like…work. While sitting at a computer, shoulders hunching, eyes squinting, fingers tapping, I often overlook the enormous privilege and playful creativity involved. I forget that I am, indeed, an artist.

Everyday life appears normal, boring. Writers don’t wear a smock, inhabit a garret, or smell turpentine and paint. But we do daydream, and sometimes we zone out as we watch our characters move across the mental stage, the canvas on which we paint. Eventually we’re jerked back to the real world as we trip over shoes in the middle of the living room floor.

One song from the musical beautifully depicts this tension between the artist’s world and the real world. Mandy Patinkin sang “Finishing the Hat” on Broadway, and now Josh Groban has recorded a new version of the song. I’m linking to both so you can listen.

Josh Groban’s version — https://youtu.be/P2DnUpSiqz0

Mandy Patinkin onstage in Sunday in the Park with George
https://youtu.be/ducG55pfCMQ

If you’re like me, you feel the tug of the story world. You want to finish painting the hat. Or writing the scene. Or fleshing out the character. There’s a crazy passion that drives art, and it’s like a selfish monster, pulling us away to imagine the next scene. We must solve the problem of how we intend to draw the metaphorical hat and where it should appear in the painting that is our current novel.

Do you struggle, as I do, when forced from your story world to the real world and then back again after the phone call, the baby’s cry, the grumbling stomach? As artists, novelists, we live in-between. We are the rope in the tug of war between reality and fantasy, the concrete and abstract. We long to follow our loved ones into extraordinary moments, and other times we have to finish the hat.

But what if we throw in one more element: calling. What if God truly called us to write, but our families still expect us to do laundry? Here, again, is more tension. Would God call us to something that would take us away from our families? The rope is pulled taut, adding pressure and strain. Passion and calling pull us toward the world of our stories. But family and responsibilities pull us back to the real world. What’s an artist to do?

Psalms 37:4(ESV) ”Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” This is not an equation; this is the Creator of the universe asking us to delight in him. Because this delight, this playing with our Creator, will change us. And it will change our dreams. It will make us more like our Creator, who equips us to create the things he’s called us to make. Write. Paint.

The best moment, that perfect confluence of Creator and art and life, is when we are finally able to step back from our work and look at that fabulous hat. And our loves stand beside us and one of them pipes up from just over our right shoulder, “Hey, nice hat!”
So I’m waving to all the artists out there. I hope today’s daydreams solve your story problems. I hope that pot on the stove doesn’t boil over. And I hope you’re blessed with just enough time and passion and creative gumption to finish your hat.

How’s your hat coming along? Do you need to take some extra time with our Creator so that He can help you finish? How do you balance the artist’s world with reality?

TWEETABLES


Finishing the Hat: Art versus Life, Finding a Balance by Jennifer Fromke (Click to Tweet)

Balancing the need to finish, the need to create, and the need to live in the world.~ Jennifer Fromke (Click to Tweet)

What if God truly called us to write, but our families expect us to do laundry?~ Jennifer Fromke (Click to Tweet)

Jennifer Fromke is feverishly working to finish her fourth novel. Just for fun, she blabs her opinion on all the best books at www.shetalksbooks.com. You’ll find her smuggling peeps into the house before long and wrapping up care packages for her loves far away in college. Her other creative outlet finds its way onto the plates of Husband and Son every night. She is represented by Jessica Kirkland of Kirkland Media Management.


This is Normandie, back again.
Since I was last with you, I’ve had the privilege of working with narrator Laura Jennings in producing the audiobook of one of my Carolina Coast novels, Heavy Weather. You can take a look at it here: http://adbl.co/2kdiEWy


I even have some free copies available for those who wish to review it. Let me know at normandie@normandiefischer.com

I have other fun news, so check in with me on my website. Lots going on in my publishing world. www.normandiefischer.com

Talk to y’all very soon.

The Ripple Effect of Our Characters


by Normandie Fischer @WritingOnBoard

A stone plopped into water formed ripples, creating concentric circles that moved out from the center and subsided gradually if nothing impeded their progress. Whether or not they ever came to a full stop, Teo wasn’t scientist enough to know. It looked to him as if the molecules touched by movement became propelled in an infinitely wider arc, slower perhaps as they achieved distance, but still there, still moving, still affecting other molecules and pushing them to confront whatever lay in their path. (Sailing out of Darkness, page 335)
As writers, we long for our words to be like that stone, causing a ripple effect that touches and perhaps even changes readers. We know readers want to be touched, because we’re readers as well as writers.

But if, in our writer guise, we don’t give them a reason to care, they’ll toss our book aside and call it boring, shallow, mediocre.

Back when I was editing full time, I came across wannabe published writers who’d found a compelling theme or a great idea, but whose characters lacked depth. Action may have abounded, but they hadn’t made me care what happened next because their characters felt flat when I wanted rounded, whole.

Think about the fictional characters who’ve stayed with you over time. What about them hooked you? Why do you remember them?

It certainly wasn’t their physical or emotional perfection.

The authors who have created memorable characters have shown us fully rounded and imperfect people—flawed as we are. But if the author had stopped there, would that be enough? I think not. I think the characters that we remember are:

  • flawed plus heroic,
  • flawed plus courageous,
  • flawed plus something.

Scarlett was a mess, but no one will forget her last scene. What about Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird? Or Elizabeth Bennett? Or Sherlock Holmes? Human, rounded, fascinating characters.

As Lisa Cron (Story Genius) writes: “…caring about a character doesn’t necessarily mean liking them at all. It means being curious about them: not simply about what they do, but about why on earth they’re doing it.”

I’m not going to be able to do much more here than to suggest you consider how you might make your character have the sticking power of a Scarlett O’Hara. Every one of us—and every character we create—faces challenges differently because of how our life has shaped us. We each have a backstory—a history of specific things that determine our what, why, and how. Understanding our own and our character’s history will help us craft fascinating individuals whose story leaves an impression. Think about these questions.

  • What lies does your character believe about herself and the world?
  • And what image does she project to the world?
  • What made her believe these lies?
  • What might make her finally see the truth?
  • And once she does, how will that change her behavior and her thoughts about herself?
  • What about her choices?
  • What compels her to make the ones she does?
  • How will those choices change her life?
  • What about her can show her as heroic?
  • Why should we, your readers, care?

Ask the same questions of your male characters. How are they flawed and how are they heroic? And what does actual heroism mean in your story?

When our characters appear full-bodied and imperfect on the page as they overcome challenges (not through superhuman powers but because of their humanity), they will touch readers’ hearts and maybe even give them hope. And isn’t that what we, as Christians who write, actually want? We long for our work to create ripples that make a difference to at least one other person.

This week, I received a long letter from a gentleman who wrote of pain and loss and frustration and then ended his note about Becalmed with: “Anyway, my point in writing you is this and this alone. While reading your novel, I felt human again and capable of many futures. I felt the possibility of Love and redemption after great loss….”

This is what we long to hear, isn’t it? I remember this one after Sailing out of Darkness appeared: “Our favorite literary characters are written indelibly into our hearts as we experience them living out the very pains and hopes which have been written deeply onto our souls. [The author] has a gift of writing wounded characters to life, characters who publicly reflect the wounds we keep private.”

Stones, circles, ripples. Hearts touched. Character revealed.

How, you ask, can we create that?

We look into our own heart. We examine our own pain. We give ourselves a reality check about our failures. Because if we don’t write from that place in us that knows and understands the imperfect while longing for the Perfect, we’ll have trouble writing characters who fail and then soar with hope.

So, now, tell me about your favorite flawed yet heroic characters, ones who’ve stuck with you long after you read their story.

And tell me about your own characters—how you dug deeply into yourself to craft them as you listened to what they had to say.

Also, which craft books helped you the most when you were learning to write? Which helped you discover new character depth? I know of several that top my list. Perhaps we can share these in the comments for those are just beginning their writing discovery.

TWEETABLES

The Ripple Effect for Our Characters by Normandie Fischer (Click to Tweet)

Crafting characters who touch readers~ Normandie Fischer (Click to Tweet)

Characters who publicly reflect the wounds we keep private. ~ Normandie Fischer (Click to Tweet)


Normandie Fischer studied sculpture in Italy before receiving her BA, summa cum laude with special honors in English, and as well as being a writer, she’s been an editor, a teacher, and an artist. She and her husband spent a number of years on board their 50-foot ketch, Sea Venture, sailing in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. They now live in coastal North Carolina, where she takes care of her aging mother. She is the author of six novels. Read more on her website, Facebook, and Amazon.