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Shawn Nocher: On Letting Your Characters Lead

Author Shawn Nocher discusses how thinking deeply about her characters lead her to a breakthrough when crafting her debut novel A Hand to Hold in Deep Water.

Shawn Nocher is a mentee of Michael Glaser, Elise Levine, William Black, and Richard Bausch. Her compelling short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including SmokeLong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, Eunoia Review, and MoonPark Review, and she won an Honorable Mention from both SmokeLong Quarterly and Glimmer Train. Having graduated with an MA in writing from Johns Hopkins, Shawn is currently teaching part-time in the graduate program at her alma mater. A Hand to Hold in Deep Water is her debut novel, and she is already at work on her second, The Precious Jules.

Shawn Nocher

Shawn Nocher

In this post, Nocher discusses how thinking deeply about her characters lead her to a breakthrough when crafting her debut novel A Hand to Hold in Deep Water and much more!

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Name: Shawn Nocher
Literary agent: Cheryl Pientka, The Nancy Yost Literary Agency
Book title: A Hand to Hold in Deep Water
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Release date: June 22, 2021
Genre: Literary/mainstream
Elevator pitch for the book: A Hand to Hold in Deep Water is a deeply felt narrative about mothers and daughters, the legacy of secrets, the way we make a family, and the love of those who walk us through our deepest pain. It is about the way we are tethered to one another and how we choose to wear those bindings.

A Hand to Hold in Deep Water by Shawn Nocher

A Hand to Hold in Deep Water by Shawn Nocher

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What prompted you to write this book?

The first chapter of the book started as a short story many years ago in a class I was taking with Richard Bausch. While it was tucked away in a drawer, I spent the next decade imagining the backstory that had placed those characters in that particular short story moment. They were so real to me, and, frankly, they wouldn’t stop nagging me. By the time I relented and sat down to write the book, the backstory was incredibly clear and I was left with figuring out what they were going to do moving forward.

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How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

I was 27 when I wrote the first chapter. And it was 10 years before I picked it up again. Even then, it went in and out of a drawer for 20 years. The idea of plotting a novel overwhelmed me, and I concentrated on short stories instead. In my 50s, I looked at the pages and thought—you know, this is a really good story. That’s when I got serious about it and went back to school at Hopkins to get my MA in writing. From there, the story got more layered but I never rushed it. So, in some ways, this has taken decades to write, but that’s only because it was an on-and-off project for years. My second book took only two years, so maybe I learned something in the writing of this one.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

The biggest surprise to me was how collaborative my publisher is/was. I just didn’t expect that. And, of course, I have no idea if other publishers are like this. But Blackstone Publishing has made me a partner in this process every step of the way. I had this idea that I would write it and hand it over and then everything else would fall to them, but I had input into so much of this process, from cover design and font selection to editing decisions and publicity.

(Three Ways to Discover Who Your Characters Really Are)

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

Absolutely. I struggled with the ending and after the first draft, it still felt wrong. I realized that I had written the expected ending and not the organic one that was character-led. I had to take a few days off and sit with it, really think like my characters, and then the revised ending came easily. So easily, in fact, that it felt like the characters wrote it themselves. I think that once you create well-rounded characters, you have to let them go a little bit. By the end of the book, I felt like the major plot points were mine, but the ways in which the characters responded to them was completely in keeping with who they were.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I hope readers get a sense of the ways people who love one another are tethered to each other. Family, especially, is like a single human body and each member is an organ. When one breaks down, the rest of the body reacts to that breaking down—maybe they overcompensate or maybe they begin to fail as well. But the way in which we respond to those we love in times of crisis is at the crux of the way that family moves forward.

Shawn Nocher: On Letting Your Characters Lead

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Read like a writer. Ask yourself why a piece or a passage makes you feel the way you do. Look for what the writer has done to elicit your response as a reader. Pay attention to word choice, pacing, and tone. Look for the mechanics of the magic on the page. Likewise, when you read something that simply isn’t working, ask yourself why. Ask yourself if the writer got in the way of her story and what she could have done differently to bring it home for you as a reader.

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