Write It–When Outliers Meet


Some of my favorite stories revolve around two misfits bonding and finding a strange kind of love. I’m thinking of the movies Harold and Maude as well as, Hedgehog. And I’m thinking of Bonnie and Clyde or Huck Finn and Jim. And I’m thinking about outliers from my own stories, such as Mary and Nate which appears on this blog.

I’ve been thinking about our reactions to these characters as they endear to our hearts. For instance, in the normal scheme of things, would we even give a French concierge much consideration? Or what about the precocious 12-year-old, Paloma in the novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog or the movie based on the novel, Hedgehog?

How do we as authors create memorable outlier characters? How do we get into their head space, and better yet, their hearts? Obviously, we must draw up characters who are free of the usual stereotypes and cliches. For instance, Renee, the concierge in Hedgehog, defies cliches. She possesses a droll sense of humor, she’s literary, and she has wonderful insights about the people that pepper her environment.

The characters Harold and Maude certainly defy cliches in that they’re both rebelling against conformity. They meet at a funeral and the age difference isn’t something to scoff about. Given the era in which this movie was released (1971), pairing a 20-year-old pre-Goth rich boy with an 80-year-old eccentric is going to raise some concerns.

Holly Golightly from Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s comes to mind too. On the outside, she’s a glamor girl attracting men in the 1960s Manhattan. But underneath her skin, she’s a lost and confused girl still running through briar patches in search of turkey eggs. She encounters a homosexual writer struggling to get his work known, and though these two do bond, this bond doesn’t last. And yet, readers enjoy the ride.

Why do oddballs intrigue us as readers? That’s the first question to ask when creating these types of characters. And then the authors who do create these characters are probably outliers themselves, as many artists tend to lean in that direction. We must create characters who are different or eccentric without seeming fake about it. Any author who can pull this off deserves accolades.

It helps to have a good understanding of humanity and a desire to rebel against what seems normal. Deep down, none of us are normal. Perhaps this is why we enjoy eccentric characters bucking the system. We wish we could live and speak like them, but we lack the courage.

We applaud when Harold rebels against his flighty mother and pairs off with an octagenarian. We cry when Renee, the concierge suffers from a tragedy. But we applaud that Paloma doesn’t go through with her intended suicide and decides that she has reasons to stay put on the earth–mainly her interactions with Renee and a Japanese neighbor.

And when we create these characters it benefits us to have the concept of soul mates in mind since that’s what these characters are for each other. Our job is to write scenarios for these characters that promote compassion in viewers and readers of our work. and the author who can pull this off is guaranteed success, at least on the artistic level.

My Top 10 Favorite Novels (from age 22 – 52)

DSCN4865The novels on this list beg for numerous readings. I fell in love with the characters, found myself quoting from the novels, or I never get tired of talking about the themes in the novels. Different novels came to me at different times during my adult years (or the past 3o years, beginning in 1986).

  1. The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood, first read in 1986
  2. House of Spirits, Isabel Allende, first read in 1988
  3. The Pilgrimage, Paulo Coelho, first read in the 1990s
  4. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho, first read in the 1990s
  5. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Julia Alvarez, mid-1990s
  6. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote, first read in the mid-1980s
  7. Elegance of a Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery, first read in 2008 (?)
  8. Pride and the Prejudice, Jane Austen, first read in 1990s
  9. Lord of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien, first read in 2001
  10. The French Gardener, Santa Montefiore, 2014

Literary Essay–Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman


I first picked up Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman at an airport in Toronto (December 1986). Then I laughed my head off while I was on the plane heading to Vancouver. The Chinese man sitting next to me seemed nervous by my hysterics and sputtering. Later in my twenties, as I reread the novel, I noticed the darker themes, especially during my Saturn Return (age 28 -32) when I endured the Candida Diet. I too saw my world shrinking uncontrollably.

For those of you who have never read this Canadian classic first published in 1969, it centers around the character Marian McAlpin and her impending marriage to Peter, the quintessential man’s man. The closer Marian comes to her wedding date, the fewer foods her body will allow her to consume. Meanwhile, the proto-feminist message is that the society around her is consuming her!

Even though Atwood wrote this book at the tail-end of the tumultuous 1960s, we can interpret the messages of the books to fit contemporary times. For instance, every time someone rattles off a list of all the foods they can’t consume (due to allergies or other health reasons), I’m reminded of Miss McAlpin’s dilemma. In fact, specific scenes in Atwood’s novel including, the dinner scene with Duncan, Trevor, and Fischer where Marian sits through an uncomfortable meal where she has to discretely eliminate food from her plate and the dinner scene with Peter, Clara, and Joe where she hides meat under lettuce leaves, come to mind when dealing with people with food allergies.

Of course, Atwood wasn’t messaging us about food, but about a consumer culture that robs us of our liberties. At the beginning of the story, we already see the noose tightening around Marian’s neck when she has to sign up for a pension plan. She tells the accountant that she prefers not to sign the pension plan, but the accountant tells her it’s obligatory. Then we meet Peter with his guns, cameras, and conservative politics, not to mention sexual politics, that gives the reader a sense of suffocation. I’m sure this was Atwood’s intention too.

While the book harbors disturbing themes, it’s delightfully and wickedly funny. Not that someone with a limited food diet would find it funny. On page 166 of the novel, Marian faces what would be seen by food-sensitive folks as a common theme.

“For the protein variety she had been eating omelets and peanuts and quantities of cheese. The quiet fear, that came nearer to the surface now as she scanned the pages–she was in the ‘Salads’ section–was that this thing, this refusal of her mouth to eat, was malignant; that it would spread that slowly the circle now dividing the non-devourable from the devourable would become smaller and smaller…”

Then we see the treatment of “modern” women on page 222 when Peter uses Marian’s back as furniture. He places his ashtray in the hollow of Marian’s back; after they made love. Meanwhile, Marian’s mind worries about her diminishing food choices. Just that morning she was unable to eat rice pudding (the one mentioned at the beginning of the novel that was part of a marketing survey).

As the story progresses, the circle of allowable foods diminishes until Marian sits in a diner with Duncan and her body refuses every food choice on the menu. This is when the character takes matters into her own hands and stops acting like a passenger and sits in the driver’s seat, metaphorically-speaking. She makes a trip to the grocery store, buys ingredients for a cake. Then she makes a cake in the shape of a lady which she consumes in a weird sort of ritual.

She invites Peter over to consume the cake and when he refuses to get involved with the ritual, Marian breaks off their engagement. Meanwhile, Duncan (the strange man) consumes the cake lady leaving Marian feeling satisfied. On pages 309 and 310 , Marian watches Duncan consume the remainder of the cake (she had consumed most of the lady earlier). Atwood ends her classic debut novel with, “He scraped the last chocolate curl up with his fork and pushed away the plate. ‘Thank you,’ he said, licking his lips. ‘It was delicious.’

It has been years since I picked up this novel. And each decade that I read it, I find new themes. Part of my interpretation now revolves around both the consumer culture that I abhor and my own limited food list as my own body refuses certain foods, but for reasons different than the ones given in the novel.

I wonder what Atwood would say about gluten, GMO foods as well as, organic versus chemically-sprayed foods. What would she tell me about food phobias, and food Nazis and all the marketing in the form of articles that cause us to fear even more foods we once took for granted? We lived in a strange world in 1969 when the novel debuted, and we live in a much stranger world in 2016. And I have always found Atwood to possess a gift of prophecy.

The question remains as who is the consumer? Are we the consumer of food or is food consuming us? Are we the consumer of goods (to keep economies rolling along) or are the goods consuming us? I’m reminded of a line from the movie, French Kiss, where the younger sister of Kate’s fiancee says, “You’ll never buy a house. The house will end up consuming you. One night someone forgets to put out a cigarette and the house burns to the ground.” (Approximate quote).

Book quotes from Margaret Atwoods, The Edible Woman, Anchor Books, 1998, NY


Write It–Avenues of Income for Authors

DSCN3740So often we hear that writers can’t earn a decent income so go wait tables. Many authors also found out that self-publishing wasn’t the goldmine experience they expected. So then how can we earn a living while we pen our great American or international novels?

  1. Professional Blogging–You have probably seen the ads on Craig’s List or perhaps you have joined any number of job sites for writers such as Pro Blogger and Media Bistro. Professional blogging is often a freelance gig, but not always. The pay I’ve seen ranges from $25 to $200 per blog article. And I have seen a variety of topics and expertise requested on the professional blogging lists.
  2. Magazine Journalism–Again, unless you live in a major publishing hub like New York City, you’ll probably look for freelance gigs for magazines.  I haven’t had a lot of luck pitching to magazine editors, but some writers make a living by befriending editors.  Obviously, writing for arts and fashion or prominent magazines is extremely competitive, but you can pitch to crafting magazines, home and architecture, or trade magazines for best results. These magazines don’t pay much for articles, but I’ve earned between $200 -$300 writing for lesser magazines.
  3. Copy Editing–These jobs are advertised on Media Bistro and the professional blogger job lists that are e-mailed to your in-box. You will have to take a copy editing test. Many smaller book publishers hire freelance copy editors.
  4. Assistant to a Literary Agent–I don’t know how to land this position. I imagine starting out as an intern opens doors as does living in a major book publishing hub. BTW, many literary agents are also published authors. You will do more reading than writing with this position but at least you’ll make contacts in the industry.
  5. Public Relations Assistant or Director–You can usually find these positions in major cities with large advertising and public relations firms. However, even though writing skills come in handy, so does excellent verbal communication and ability to make public presentations and to put out proverbial fires especially if you represent controversial people and companies.
  6. Copy writing–I have seen in-house and freelance copy writing positions advertised on the job lists for writers. Sometimes you have to relocate to a major city. I’ve seen a few positions available in Portland, Oregon which is a great place for younger writers (ie: millennials).
  7. Ghost Writer–Last, but not least, I’ve seen both magazine and book publishers seeking ghost writers. This is not something I would enjoy doing, but ghost writing sometimes pays the bills, even if you receive no notoriety from your efforts. It’s definitely bread and butter work with no glamor attached. No one ever became a New York Times Best-Selling Ghost Writer.

So there you have it, a list of writing opportunities that you might have or not have considered in the past. And some writers are still finding work with newspapers, though this is rare these days.

Photo credit: Patricia Herlevi All Rights Reserved