Debut Author Nichole Bernier Dares Us To Write Nuanced, Unlikeable Characters Who Capture Readers’ Imagination And Attention

I’m so excited (ok, I know I say that all the time, what can I say, this is an exciting gig!) to have Nichole Bernier on the blog today.  Not only was her debut novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. one of the most anticipated of the summer, but she’s the founder of the amazing website, Beyond The Margins, so most of us already feel like we know her.  I think Nichole has some really special insights to offer us at Women’s Fiction Writers — and to many of us who are parents.  I hope you’ll agree.  I’m also thrilled that Nichole is having a book signing and reading in Chicago area in July, so I’ll be able to stalk meet her, and then share photos and stories with you later this summer!

Please welcome Nichole to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Debut Author Nichole Bernier Dares Us To Write Nuanced, Unlikeable Characters Who Capture Readers’ Imagination And Attention

Amy: Well, hello published author of a novel!! (I loved your FB updates! Last Wednesday as an unpublished author, last rainstorm as an unpublished author…) We know that books take a long time to get from idea to bookshelf.  What has your publishing journey been like?  And please, feel free to share any horror stories.  They’re comforting!  😉

Nichole: I’d been a magazine writer for a decade, and though I love reading fiction, I’d never had an urge to write it. But after I lost a friend in the September 11th terrorist attacks, there were things I couldn’t work through in my regular ways of writing. One day in early 2005, shortly after the birth of my third child, I wrote a dream sequence about a woman imagining her friend’s last moments. It didn’t occur to me that that would be anything more than a bit in my journal, but that sequence became the beginning of chapter three, and it’s never changed.

I wrote nights and weekends, and when it was clear this odd bit of writing wasn’t going away, I started siphoning off hours from my babysitter time meant to be used for my contracted magazine writing. As I got close to finishing the first draft, I found I really loved studying the business side of fiction and querying, which I found fascinating and altogether different than magazines.

But my big rookie error was in querying immediately after I finished the first draft. My mental timeline was still that of a magazine freelancer: finish, publish, paycheck. I wasn’t used improving something slowly and tortuously with no one in the world even waiting for it. We’d just moved to Boston and I was expecting my fourth child, and eager to cross “Get Agent” off my to-do list. There were some requests for partials and fulls, all leading to rejections in the end.

For the first time in two years I put the manuscript aside and fell into the rhythm of life with a newborn, not quite knowing what to do next. I had no writing community, no friends who wrote fiction, no mentors. A few months passed. Then I received a very personal rejection letter from a well-known agent, thoughtful reflection on what she saw I had envisioned and nearly achieved, but not quite. Even as a rookie I recognized this as more of a blessing than a rejection, and I threw myself into revisions. I developed a writing community. I revised for over a year. When I felt ready to query again, I received three offers of representation, for which I was endlessly appreciative. I felt it was important to meet the agents face to face, but by this time I was hugely pregnant with my fifth child (are we sensing a theme about landmark moments on the publishing timetime?) So I made a whirlwind trip to New York, and felt a strong connection to agent Julie Barer.

Julie worked with me for a year, urging me to streamline my story and weave more closely the timelines of my two main characters. After she sold it to Crown, the trajectory of the process suddenly made sense, all the necessary steps and hard work.

Amy: I’m sure I’m not the first person to say this: YOU HAVE FIVE CHILDREN!  And then to ask this: How on earth did you find time and energy to write a novel? (Please say chocolate had something to do with it.)  

Nichole: Would you believe me if I say I outsourced chapters to my older children? No?

Okay, the truth is I became both obsessed and streamlined. Before I started my novel I was a fairly multifaceted person: running, photography, cooking, skiing, golf. When I became serious about the novel most of my hobbies went down the tubes, and now I don’t watch a single tv show. I don’t say that with any particular pride, and in fact it’s a little embarrassing to be that out of touch with popular culture. But it’s amazing how being a busy parent has the laser-like ability to triage what’s really important to you.

I have an unscientific theory that if you are an involved parent, regardless of how many children you have, you get about three things to call your own. And the only other things that have remained for me are being involved in my kids’ schools, and a base level of exercise, which changed from running (reluctant, frenetic) to yoga (strengthening and calming). More than anything else, though, it was critical to have a supportive spouse who’d give me the hours and sometimes days away to really immerse myself in tough sections of writing and revision.

Amy: What’s your definition of women’s fiction? There’s so much controversy over even labeling books as such, does having your book fall under that category (as so many books do) bother you?

Nichole: I don’t know how or why that labeling got started, but I think it’s divisive and limiting. My best guess is that it was an easy way for marketing folks to throw a spotlight on books their likeliest target audience would enjoy, and to try to tap into the lucrative book-club market, which is primarily women. I think it does men a disservice, too, because it suggests that books aren’t really for them unless they have espionage, battle scenes or deer hunting. One of my most thoughtful Amazon Vines reviews came from a man who admitted he didn’t usually read books like mine, but went on to analyze very insightfully its elements of parenthood, marriage, and facades, and drew parallels to Sylvia Plath. So now I make no assumptions about the target audience for a book.

Amy: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?

Nichole: Dare to write nuanced and nearly unlikeable characters. The world of so-called women’s fiction needs them. Trust that readers want to be challenged by what they read, are willing to go along with characters who might rub them the wrong way but still find them, their voice and their issues and circumstances, fascinating.

Unlikeable characters can be a hot button in the book world; for some they are riveting in a train-wreck way that grabs your attention but also makes you invested in them enough to care about their outcome. But some readers can be turned off if they cannot identify with a character. It’s a bit of an excursion and an education, writing beyond your comfort zone, teaching yourself to create characters who make questionable choices, but yet with the humanity to make readers care about them. 

Nichole Bernier is author of the novel THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D, and has written for magazines including Elle, Self, Health, and Men’s Journal. A Contributing Editor for Conde Nast Traveler for 14 years, she was previously on staff as the magazine’s golf and ski editor, columnist, and television spokesperson. She is a founder of the literary blog Beyond the Margins, and lives outside of Boston with her husband and five children. She can be found online at @nicholebernier.