Making Literary Lemonade: Or how to use the Very Concerned Environmentalist as a character in your next novel.

I have to start with a disclaimer. I am not anti-environment, nor do I disrespect concerned environmentalist. I love our planet and want to take care of it to the best of my ability. I admire people who feel the same and act on their conviction. That is, until they become so righteous that they are blind to their immediate environment and the humans who coexist with them.

Okay, now that is clear I can ask–how many of your remember the ubiquitous posters that said, “When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade”? For a time, I think in the 1980s, they were plastered to the wall of nearly every office, classroom, or other public gathering place I entered.

“Make Lemonade,” flashed through my mind as I stood in line at a new super store that recently opened in our town of 60,000. You may know the chain, the one with great, fresh produce. It has only been open a couple of weeks, and the new employees are still trying to figure things out and get a routine going. In the meantime, it seemed everyone in town, plus several thousand from the adjoining counties, surged into the store around 11:00 a.m. last Saturday.

Self-check works great unless you have a dozen different produce items, not all of which have codes attached. So, I opted for a normal check-out line (for some inexplicable reason the quick-check lines–12 items max–was closed). I waited patiently while an elderly man fumbled and grumbled and finally figured out how to use his debit card. The cashier, a sweating, slightly overwhelmed young woman, was helpful and courteous to him.

Next in line, directly in front of me, was a woman, maybe 35 years old, with a heavily loaded cart. Once she got all her items on the conveyor belt, she stepped back and the cashier began to scan the first item. At that point, the VCE (very concerned environmentalist) stopped the cashier from putting an item in a plastic bag on the turntable. She produced a large, cloth bag, stuffed with more wadded-up cloth bags, and plunked them down in front of the casher. The message was clear.

Okay, cloth bags save landfills. I get that. What I didn’t get was that the VCE expected the cashier to extract the crumpled bags, one at a time, shake them out, attach them to the turntable that held the other bags, and fill them–again one at a time and to the VCEs specifications–then place them in the woman’s cart while the VCE stood there with a smug, self-satisfied look on her face, declaring to the rest of us that SHE–at least–cared. But, clearly not about the line that now reached far in back of me, or what the sweating, trying-to-be-accomodating, young cashier was going through.

The whole procedure took about five times longer than normal, and it occurred to me that, at the very least, the VCE could have assisted the cashier–or simply have the grocery items loaded back into the cart and fill the bags herself once she was through the line.

So, annoyed as I was by her lack of consideration, I realized this was another lemon from which to make literary lemonade. She will be a character in one of my short stories or novels. Maybe not a main character, but the catalyst for a robbery gone wrong in a crime story, or a love interest of a character in a book (the odd couple format), or maybe just a character who is her own worst enemy, caught up in a self-righteous fog.

Regardless of how I use it, the incident will give me a real-life description of a place, an incident, a character who will flesh out a scene. Plus, it will help me keep my blood pressure at a healthy level if I can think like a writer, not like a frustrated shopper. So, the next time the person in the car that cuts you off and flips you the bird infuriates you, take a second look and notice their ratty haircut or junker of a car. It can all go into your fiction.

That Love/Hate Thing

Do you ever begin a book by a writer you respect, only to find that this time the author has created a character you want to “slap upside the head”? The character, usually the protagonist, is making stupid, self-destructive decisions. You cringe. How can you care about the character, usually the protagonist, when they obviously are on a self-induced, downhill slide to sure disaster?

I just finished a novel (Fiona Range by the talented Mary McGarry Morris) that I loved, a novel published in 2000. I missed it when it came out, probably because I was trying to meet a deadline on a nonfiction book and teaching full-time. Maybe just as well I didn’t read it until this week, because I wouldn’t have had time then to reflect on how I could like a book so much when the main character, Fiona Range, is blinder than Oedipus.

Which led me to think about Oedipus and Greek theater. The audience knew what Oedipus did not–that he’d killed his own father and married his mother. Teiresias (the blind prophet) tells Oedipus, “. . . you, with both your eyes, are blind: You cannot see the wretchedness of your life.”

A component of Greek theater was the audience knowing tragedy was imminent, and holding their collective breath, waiting for the protagonist’s downfall. It worked then and it works now–if done skillfully.

I don’t know if I can do it successfully, but I admire the authors who can. So, what is the key to creating a reckless, foolish, hell-bent-on-their-own destruction character and still keep the reader turning the page instead of tossing the novel?

As a reader, I want the characters to have a goal, however unrealistic. I want them motivated to reach that goal. I want to care enough about them to cheer them on, even though I see them making mistake after mistake. I want to know they are trying to solve their problems, resolve their conflicts, fix their lives. And even as I hold my breath, waiting for the next predicament, I have faith they will eventually prevail.

So maybe we can take a lesson from Aristotle’s Poetics. When we create heroes or villains, give them some nobility, some goodness, some vulnerability. Make them intelligent, if misguided; determined, if weak; persistent, if hindered, even loving if hateful. Show light penetrating the dark side. Care about them yourself, and the reader will respond.

I won’t forget Fiona, and I’ll try to take my own advice while I work on the sequel to my novel.

You Poor Mother

“You poor mother,” the female character said. I stopped reading. Wait a minute. Was she calling the young man, who had just told her that his mother was comatose, a “mother” in the most derogatory sense of the word?

This was supposedly a caring young woman. Something wasn’t right. I went back and read the line again. Oh! It was supposed to read, “Your poor mother.” Of course. And therein lies the need for careful editing, even if you have to read your manuscript a dozen times, read it until the words swim and you hate it. Read it until you know it’s right.

One of the criticisms of self-published books is sloppy editing. But we can’t confine those observations to independent writers alone. I recently read the latest novel of a very well-known and admired mystery writer. She has a top level publisher and consistently hits the best seller list. Yet her latest book had errors that were too obvious to miss–wrong words, dropped letters, twisted timeline.

At a book fair in our area, I shared a table with a fellow author and I complimented her on her latest novel. She laughed and said, “Did you notice anything wrong?” I hadn’t, but she told me she’d changed the color of a main character’s car, describing it blue in one scene and green in the other. We talked then about how easy it is to overlook errors.

Sometimes we simply know the material so well that our mind supplies the correct word or phrasing. Sometimes we have read through so many times we can no longer concentrate. Sometimes our proofreading programs supply the wrong word–I’ve laughed until I cried over some of the auto-text correction errors people have posted. And, sometimes, we just have a mental block that causes us to consistently use the wrong punctuation or the wrong word (a friend didn’t call me the “comma queen” for nothing).

Do minor errors detract from the characters, the plot, the theme? Not usually, but they often confuse or irritate the reader.

In my nonfiction, true-crime book, I paid scant attention to the chapter titles once I set up the table of contents. Since it was a book involving two murders, two trials, and two executions, the chapter titles included dates. During the last proof (after discovering on previous proofs various oddities including two lines that, for some inexplicable reason, were in a different font), I realized that, according to my chapter titles, my protagonist went to trial a year after he was executed. It was just a typo, but still . . ..

Would anyone really notice and be thrown by the chapter title error, I wondered? Maybe not, but the one or two people who did notice might question the veracity of my other facts as well–or think I was just careless.

I was saved by FRIENDS, people who believed in my work enough to read it . . . and read it again . . . and again. One used a Microsoft program to add, delete, and suggest. The other read an early copy of the actual print book and made pencil notations. Their time and attention to detail was invaluable.

My best advice? Treasure your early readers, find a good copy editor, and read that manuscript just once more.