PEERING OUT FROM UNDER A ROCK: Character Breakthrough

by Normandie Fischer, @WritingOnBoard

Holiday planning and travel shoveled silence on top of my writing time again. In spite of that—or maybe because of the down time and those moments of writing when I couldn’t, of note taking and thinking—I had a breakthrough.

(Isn’t that a delicious word? Breakthrough. Breaking through the confusion. Breaking through the sludge of exhaustion.)

Until then, I hadn’t realized I had a major story question that needed answering. I was pantsing along (as opposed to filling in plot holes ahead of time), writing in snatches, taking those notes, and thinking about the scene in front of me. But because a story written that way tends to stall during down time, I turned to the tried-and-true, outline-so-you-know-what’s-coming-next method that might let me actually move forward.

I already knew my bad guy would have an ah-ha moment, but self-awareness wasn’t his strong suit. And putting someone else first? He’d never done it. Everything he did had a selfish motivation, and consequences to others mattered not at all.

So how did I imagine he’d make this out-of-character decision? I couldn’t just toss in a deus ex machina to rescue him or give him a sudden finding-Jesus moment.

You’ve probably run into a contrived plot device where some unexpected power or event shows up to save the day. Deus ex machina literally means “god from the machine,” a device where a new character flies to the rescue (where did he come from?) or where something unexpected and unexplained happens so that the story problem is miraculously fixed.

I’m not suggesting that miracles don’t happen or that people can’t experience a radical change of attitude and behavior. But these changes have to make sense.

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Our characters should face challenges that either propel their growth or stall it. Many antagonists stall, which is why they get to play the bad guys. Most protagonists grow and change, which is why they get the heroic roles, even if they’re merely the hero of their own life. But whatever a character’s role, there has to be something in his history or his personality that will make his shift (or his stagnation) believable. As authors, our job is to set the stage and provide enough background that readers will think ah ha! instead of huh?

 Remember A Tale of Two Cities? If Dickens hadn’t deepened the character of Sydney Carton to show his hopeless love for our heroine, we’d never have understood the power of his sacrifice—and we’d have felt cheated. But because Dickens fleshed out this bad guy, we rooted for him and agonized for him when he offered himself for the sake of true love. Dickens thus turned an anti-hero into a hero.

Back to my stalled work in progress.I had a beginning and an outcome, along with the shift in circumstances that would set the stage for character change. BUT, an about-face for my villain would require more. There had to be something about him that would propel readers into a sigh and an of course he’d choose that route.

All good stories show character growth and change, but not all have characters who make a truly radical shift in attitude and behavior from bad to good (or good to bad). We love the thief turned hero, the murderer who saves a child’s life, the careless vagabond who morphs into family man. But if we’re going to write these characters into our story, we need to give them a reason for the shift, just as Dickens did for Sydney.

I try to figure these things out when I create character sheets, but this time I’d obviously left a gaping hole or two. I’d figured out what had lured my antagonist to villainy. Now I needed to know what in him (or his past) might propel him to leave his hedonistic life. What about him might allow self-sacrifice?

I’m happy to say that my other books worked their way to character completion in a much more orderly fashion. I wrote; they spoke; the picture revealed itself. But if one must take time off for whatever reason, it’s serendipitous to have that time off present a key piece of information.

Aiming for the gold here, right?


Twilight Christmas

Two orphans. A big sister with Down Syndrome. And a community in need of miracles.

It’s up to ten-year-old Louis to protect Linney from the bad men. He knows what can happen to handicapped kids. He’s seen it before.

Only, it’s getting harder and harder to keep her warm and safe in this old storage barn as Christmas celebrations unfold around them.

And then there’s Annie Mac and her crew, who are involved in the pageant excitement. So is Lieutenant Clay Dougherty, her kids’ faux-father and the man who still makes her yearn for a whole lot more than she’s comfortable offering, especially when she’s plagued by crazy-making nightmares.

So many questions: Can Louis save his sister? And will Annie Mac find the peace she needs? What about poor Clay and the other Beaufort folk?

Normandie Fischer studied sculpture in Italy before receiving her BA, summa cum laude with special honors in English. Known for her women’s fiction—Becalmed (2013), Sailing out of Darkness (2013), and Heavy Weather (2015)—she ventured into the realm of romantic suspense with the release of Two from Isaac’s House. In early 2016, a novella, From Fire into Fire, will continue the Isaac House saga. Normandie 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. You can find Normandie on her websiteFacebook, and Amazon.

Writing When You Can’t

by Normandie Fischer, @WritingOnBoard

This has been a season of I-can’t-write jammed with so many becauses that I can barely keep up with them. Because of family issues—ongoing, messy, time-consuming with a lot of travel involved. Because of sickness—caught during that travel and keeping me quarantined and without energy for too long.

I know you’ve had times like this. I had to back out of my monthly column here at Novel Rocket for a few months. I didn’t manage a self-imposed deadline to finish a Christmas story. I’m chapters behind in my latest Carolina coast novel.

But life happens, doesn’t it?

So, what can we do when life gets in the way of writing?

First of all, we can write.

Now you’re looking at me as if I were crazy. But it’s true. We’re writers, aren’t we? And how did we get that way? By staring at a blank sheet of paper or at an empty document on our computer screen?

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No. We got that way by dreaming. By seeing scenes and hearing voices.

Yes, by being a little crazy. We’re writers because we can’t not let loose all that stuff cramming our imagination with noise.

So, unless we’re wracked by a high fever and a cough that my son suggested would earn me a sixpack in my midsection (it didn’t, I’m sorry to say), we still have a brain conjuring stories.

Right?

Which means we can move things along even when we feel as if we’re floundering in the quicksand of time-eating obligations.

First of all, don’t go anywhere without the ability to take notes. I mean it. My husband uses his smartphone. I use a small pad for—

  1. Story ideas.
  2. Dialogue ideas.
  3. New first lines.
  4. Cliffhangers for my WIP.
  5. The perfect ending.

I (of the crammed notepad) promise you that, once you get out of your sick bed or past that forced writing break, these notes will streamline your return to task. Or, if not a return to that WIP, a new start, a new story. The perfect revision. Because you never stopped dreaming, did you?

I jumped back into a new Carolina coast novel (new characters, new friends) with renewed vigor this month, but I also had notes for another book based on a first line that slid into my thoughts during one trip north. Three chapters of that one await their turn, which may or may not come before another Beaufort story takes wings. (I have six chapters written in that one.)

Here’s the thing. Rushing to finish isn’t necessarily the best thing for a story, and sometimes the forced time away will be just what you need to create a better work.  I had six novels published between 2013 and 2017, but five of those had been brewing in various stages of completion over twenty years before my agent sold the first. Twenty years. And, honey, they were so much riper, so much fuller, so much better because of the wait. Because of the time with a notepad or a red pen. I spent the years learning and listening and revising.

The best thing you can do is use your downtime to let the ideas flow, remembering you’re a writer who writes, even if it’s only in spurts of a word or two at a time. And don’t be afraid to wait.


Twilight Christmas

Two orphans. A big sister with Down Syndrome. And a community in need of miracles.

It’s up to ten-year-old Louis to protect Linney from the bad men. He knows what can happen to handicapped kids. He’s seen it before.

Only, it’s getting harder and harder to keep her warm and safe in this old storage barn as Christmas celebrations unfold around them.

And then there’s Annie Mac and her crew, who are involved in the pageant excitement. So is Lieutenant Clay Dougherty, her kids’ faux-father and the man who still makes her yearn for a whole lot more than she’s comfortable offering, especially when she’s plagued by crazy-making nightmares.

So many questions: Can Louis save his sister? And will Annie Mac find the peace she needs? What about poor Clay and the other Beaufort folk?

Normandie Fischer studied sculpture in Italy before receiving her BA, summa cum laude with special honors in English. Known for her women’s fiction—Becalmed (2013), Sailing out of Darkness (2013), and Heavy Weather (2015)—she ventured into the realm of romantic suspense with the release of Two from Isaac’s House. In early 2016, a novella, From Fire into Fire, will continue the Isaac House saga. Normandie 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. You can find Normandie on her websiteFacebook, and Amazon.

7 Ways Writing A Book Is A Lot Like Fishing

by Normandie Fischer, @WritingOnBoard

Writing and finishing that book feels a lot like fishing. From a fisherwoman wannabe:

1. You have to want to catch fish. Just as you can’t catch a fish if you don’t purpose to try, you can’t write a book if you don’t determine to begin—and then follow through.

2. You have to pick up the pole (or rod) and get out there.A lot of would-be novelists announce they’d really like to write a book, but will they do it? Wanting to isn’t enough. Wanting must be followed by doing.

And your biggest writing hurdle—first book or tenth—is to move beyond dreaming about the finish line. To reach the finish, you must first take one step. And then another.

3. You have to pick your fishing hole.I spent summers in NC, right next to the Atlantic Ocean’s fishing grounds. I caught my first mahi-mahi when I was six, trolling off my father’s cabin cruiser. My brother and I spent days anchored in the Straits near our cottage, bottom fishing. Moonlit evenings, we’d wade the creek shallows with our uncle, gigging for flounder. We weren’t likely to catch those flounder on a trolling lure, nor round up mahi-mahi with a gig.

I began my writing career as a poet, then with creative non-fiction and/or technical tomes. When I decided to write novels, I had a new fishing ground to learn about. New places I wanted to go and lots of studying to do.

Part of learning involved deciding on my fishing hole—my genre. Agents and publishers like slots—and choosing one will determine not only how we craft a book, but also what our story will look like.

What’s your fishing hole?

You need to figure out what you want to write and how it’s best written.

4. You have to drop your line and reel in the fish.You’re ready to go. You’ve got the tools, you’ve studied. Now you need to sit in the chair and begin. (We’ll talk about inspiration and beginnings next month.)

Here’s where the multi-pubbed author has an advantage. He knows he can pull it off. He’s been in that chair, at his computer, churning out a book or three. If you’re still on book one, determination is going to be your best friend.

As it was for me and fishing. I suppose this is where I need to admit that my goal to be a great fisherwoman has remained a dream.

How, you ask, could I have let that happen?

I got sidetracked. I was too busy enjoying the sunrise or the sail or the scenery to remember to drop my line when the fish were actually biting. I’d grab my rod, but not until noon. And, pretty soon, I became too discouraged to continue, especially when we buddy-boated with fishing experts who’d put out a line about 100 feet from mine and just haul that catch in while my line bounced on the waves.

Sometimes, that happens to our writing. We get sidetracked by life. Or discouraged, because it seems so easy for that other writer. Or someone (such as my non-fish-eating husband) suggests we try something else to bring in the meal.

Sometimes, we just aren’t willing to make writing a priority. And unless we do, we’ll never finish the book—first, second, or tenth.

5. You have to toss back the fish you don’t want—or that aren’t edible.Let’s say we’ve stuck ourselves in that chair, kept our fingers on the keyboard, and finished the manuscript. If it’s your tenth (or so) you heave a sigh and move to the next step. If it’s your first, you may need to consider it an exercise in learning, in craft-building. It may not actually be the one that sells.

Aswith a fish that’s too small or inedible, we have choices. It’s time to pare the excess in fish and words and keep only the best. If this manuscript isn’t it, remember, you’ve finished one. You’ve learned a lot. Which is fine, because practice only improves whatever we’re trying to do.

Now, it’s time to write the next, because that one may just be it.

6. You have to gut and clean the ones you’ll keep.That fish isn’t going to clean himself.

You know the process—write, rewrite, show to critique partners, rewrite, show them again, rewrite, perhaps hire an editor, and then, depending on where you are in the process, get an agent/editor/someone to accept and love it—and help shape it into The Book.

7. And then you have to find the recipe and prepare and serve the meal.I like to cook fish a variety of ways, and I like to eat it. Eating’s good, as is hearing from readers that our words have touched them and given them hope. But the serving part that gets those words out into the world?

The marketing aspect of the book business is a struggle for many. It’s part of the process, so I’m working on learning how to do it intelligently—and I’m using my faithful (sadly part-time) assistant to fill in the gaps while I try to write my seventh book. But if we want readers to enjoy our stories, we have to figure out ways to get them from our table to theirs. Marketing is needful, as they say down here, no matter how many books we’ve written and released. And there are experts who can help us every step of the way.

So, let’s get ready, set, and go land that fish!

TWEETABLES

7 Ways Writing A Book Is A Lot Like Fishing by Normandie Fischer (Click to Tweet)

Writing and finishing that book feels a lot like fishing.~ Normandie Fischer (Click to Tweet)

So, let’s get ready, set, and go land that fish!~ Normandie Fischer (Click to Tweet)

__________

Love conquers all? Maybe for some people.

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

Aspen Gold, Selah, and Maggie Finalist


Normandie Fischer studied sculpture in Italy before receiving her BA, summa cum laude with special honors in English. Known for her women’s fiction—Becalmed (2013), Sailing out of Darkness (2013), and Heavy Weather (2015)—she ventured into the realm of romantic suspense with the release of Two from Isaac’s House. In early 2016, a novella, From Fire into Fire, will continue the Isaac House saga. Normandie 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. You can find Normandie on her websiteFacebook, and Amazon.

Deep Characterization

By Normandie Fischer, @WritingOnBoard

Following up on my April post about deepening characterization, let’s take a look at Charles Martin’s Thunder and Rain.In all of his books, Martin writes of wounded folk who face challenges based on the lies they believe about themselves and their world.

The characters in Thunder and Rain:
Cowboy is an ex-Texas Rangerwho struggles to survive as a rancher, to pay off his almost-ex-wife’s debt, and to make things right for his young son.

Andie is the wife he failed, the one he still wants to rescue—the one he thinks God wants him to save.

Sam is a woman running from the Bad Guy and hanging onto a secret that could put the man away for good.

Hope, her young daughter, has run afoul of the Bad Guy and uses a journal to tell God her secrets. (I adore Hope. Well, really, I adore them all—except for Andie and the Bad Guy, but that’s to be expected. The Bad Guy is horrid and dangerous because he’s in a position of power. The perfect villain.)

You can imagine the lies these folk are busy telling themselves merely to survive. Martin’s heroes are heroes, and like all heroes, they are flawed. When we first meet Cowboy, we see a man who is torn between two desires and two realities.

This is important.

These layers are what make us want to know more about Cowboy—and they make us want him to win—but we’re not sure what winning will mean for him. This uncertainty makes us curious. We want answers.

  • Why has Cowboy put away his badge?
  • What are his goals—immediate and long-term?
  • What in his past might have turned him into someone who has to save others?
  • Can he actually save anyone, including himself?
  • What hold does his wife have on him?
  • What is her purpose in the story? 
  • Why does Cowboy roll a cigarette each time he spies on Andie? Why does he leave it there, unsmoked? What does it mean?
  • What is he going to do about the new problems in his life?

As for Sam, she’s a woman on the run with her precocious daughter, Hope. They have to succeed. We’re rooting for her, but we want answers.

  • Why does she keep picking losers, men who take advantage of her?
  • What do her choices say about her and her perception of herself?
  • Is she a strong or a weak character?
  • What is most important in her life?
  • Will she have to settle for what she deserves?
  • Or will she win what she longs for and doesn’t deserve?

Can you see the sort of questions Martin, as the creator of these characters, had to ask himself before he began and as he wrote? He needed their backstory and their now story and perhaps their future story. He needed to know them.

Which, I assume, brought him to–

  • What does Cowboy want, and how can that be shown through the things he tells himself?
  • Is Cowboy working under assumptions that are true or false? 
  • Are these absolutes based on his worldview or based on how he views himself?
  • Is he trying to make up for something in his past? 
  • Is he trying to keep from letting someone down? Who? His son, his father, himself?
  • What career choice would best highlight Cowboy’s strengths and weaknesses? 
  • Why would he leave it and become a rancher? How well will that choice work? Why or why not?
  • What in him might have made him choose Andie and then not be the man she needed him to be?
  • What in him or his past would have made him take the blame for her failures?

And then there was Sam–

  • What lies does she believe about herself? What truths hasn’t she admitted?
  • How will the story reveal these to her and to the reader?
  • How did her past turn her into a woman who made such bad choices?
  • If her stated goal is to protect her daughter and herself, what might she have to do to accomplish that?
  • Do her longings coincide with her stated goal? 
  • What might be her deepest longings?A home? A man who is worthy of her love? A father for Hope?

Martin begins to reveal each character’s mess at the point where they intersect with other characters. Cowboy rescues Sam and Hope from their broken-down car and broken-down life as they flee the Bad Guy. Of course, Cowboy only managesa half-rescue. The reader knows we’ll hear from that nasty fellow again. In the meantime, Hope’s conversations with God via her journal give us a wonderful perspective into her thoughts and reactions.

We’re hooked immediately. And then Martin takes us on a roller-coaster ride filled with up moments, followed by shattering valleys and jerk-your-heart-out turns. But he uses every bit of action and reaction to take us more deeply into each character’s life and thought. We care. We want each one to succeed. And we want justice for Hope and punishment for the Bad Guy.

Martin doesn’t present a foregone conclusion. A lot of those dips and turns happen because of the principles Cowboy lives by and the brokenness of everyone in the story. The author has given us characters with conflicting stated goals who have very similar longings. Because he is such a gifted storyteller, he deepens each character and makes us want not only to know what, when, and how, but also to understand the why, the layers of story and of character. And this is what will bring readers back for more—not just for more of Martin’s books but for a deeper inspection of this particular story. By the end of the book, we want to know Cowboy and Sam.

How do we as writers uncover our characters’ expressed and unexpressed needs and longings? How do we make our characters multi-layered, with goals they may not even recognize?How do we write a book that makes readers want to dig deeply enough to uncover all the layers?

We need to consider, for example:
  • Any events in our characters’ backstory that caused them pain, loss, heartache, as well as those that brought victory
  • The effects of each event, short and long-term
  • How they were changed by each event
  • How others’ responses affected them
  • Any physical attributes that might have influenced their development and their choices
  • Their family dynamics, their place in society, their wealth or lack thereof
  • The lies they’ve been telling themselves—and what these lies mean for their present behavior and future happiness
  • The lies they’ve been told
  • How these lies—their own and others’—might keep them from getting what they think they want
  • The difference between their perceived versus theirtrue needs
  • Are these ever the same? If not, how will they discover the difference?
  • How do their longings differ from their perceived needs?

There’s something about broken folk struggling toward wholeness that draws readers. If we—readers, writers—have lived at all, we’ve had to face something painful, some place of need that compels us to search for answers and our own happy ending. As writers, especially as writers of inspirational fiction, we share Martin’s longing to touch hearts and minds with things that are real, to touch the soul’s longing for redemption.

We’ll do that best by digging deeply into ourselves to find the emotions we may have hidden, emotions we may not have wanted to face. Not merely the obvious reactions, but the deeper, more surprising, more honest feelings that lurk beneath the surface in each of us.

And then we’ll write about these places and these feelings, and we’ll do it honestly.

TWEETABLES

Love conquers all? Maybe for some people.

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

Aspen Gold, Selah, and Maggie Finalist




Normandie Fischer
 studied sculpture in Italy before receiving her BA, summa cum laude with special honors in English. Known for her women’s fiction—Becalmed (2013), Sailing out of Darkness (2013), and Heavy Weather (2015)—she ventured into the realm of romantic suspense with the release of Two from Isaac’s House. In early 2016, a novella, From Fire into Fire, will continue the Isaac House saga. Normandie 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. You can find Normandie on her websiteFacebook, and Amazon.