Friday, 20 August 2010

Writing Off Chocolate

It has been raining here. Now, this is Scotland, so a sentence like that is really redundant, but even the old-timers here admit that this summer's rain is excessive. The radiators are groaning under the weight of our wet laundry -- with three generally active teenagers we keep them well supplied -- and I seem to spend half my time wiping down the front porch, where from the looks of things we seem to have opened up a used shoe and umbrella store.

This rain means that I can get a lot of writing done. Unfortunately, it also means that if I want to do any walking or gardening, I'll end up in mud from head to toe. I look at our exhausted radiators, festooned with steaming towels, countless undergarments, rivers of socks -- and decide to stay indoors.

And unable to walk or go out into my garden to dig up flower beds or tend my herbs, I get bored. And when I get bored, I get hungry. Specifically, I get hungry for chocolate.

Logic tells me I don't need it -- what I need is a walk. But damn it, I want it. And sometimes desires get so strong that they can pound logic right into the ground. This is one of those times.

I know every single place in this house where chocolate might be. Like a junkie sniffing out a fix, like a nicotine addict desperate for a cigarette, like an alcoholic trying to dry out, I know where the stuff is kept. I've gotten down on my hands and knees and peered into dark cupboards where I once stored a nest of Easter eggs and forgot all about them until Christmas. I've dragged a kitchen chair across the floor and stood on my tiptoes, scouting the tops of the cupboards for stray chocolate bars. I've ruffled through the books and magazines, hoping for a bit of forgotten secret stash (not likely in that we've barely been back a month, but my need is stronger than logic), and I've been through the linen cupboard, dish towel by dish towel.

But there is no chocolate in this house. No baking chocolate, no foil-wrapped pieces of candy bars, no forgotten after-dinner-chocolate-covered mints, not even powdered cocoa.

So I go back to my writing and amazingly, I do good work, even in the absence of chocolate. I work until I've done over half of my daily quota, so I decide I've earned myself a tea break. On my way to the kitchen, I spot it on top of the linen cupboard in the hallway: a beautifully wrapped box, the red ribbon stretched tight over crisp white and gold paper. And I vaguely remember my daughter receiving this as a late birthday gift, leaving it on the kitchen table. I remember putting it on top of the linen cupboard where I often stash abandoned items that happen to be in my way when I'm cooking.

And there it has stayed, unneeded, forgotten.

Now we don't just have lust for chocolate beating down logic, we have lust for chocolate beating down moral scruples. Is it right for me to open my daughter's birthday gift just because I'm desperate for a fix? Yes, the chocolate-fueled demon in me says, because remember, you made her a birthday cake AND sushi; you did all the washing up and had all her friends over and remember what a mess they made in the lounge? You cleaned that all up with hardly a whimper of protest. Go on and open that box -- you've earned it!

And the part of me that is still good and decent and able to withstand the pull of chocolate says, Don't do it, look at that box -- it's special. Somebody picked that out for her and her alone, not you. You can't open it.

And the chocolate-lusting demon reminds me that she's forgotten it for almost an entire week, and my better angel tells me that whether she's forgotten it or not doesn't matter, and back and forth they go -- and I am torn between these two.

And finally, after I've finished my cup of tea, I can no longer bear it: I decide to see just what is inside that box. What it is that has kept me wondering, hoping, seething with chocolate greed. Because a peek can't hurt, can it? I gently ease one side of the ribbon off -- I'll be able to put it back on later -- and find: a box full of tiny bottles of shampoo.

Both of my angels are so disgusted by the depravity of putting shampoo in a chocolate box that they vanish in a puff of outrage, just like that.

Chocolate deprived, but blissfully free of temptation, I go back and finish my writing.

Friday, 13 August 2010

In The Valley Of The Shadow

It was raining again. Alex wasn’t surprised—there’d been rain all week—but why was it falling on his face? He sneezed. Rain was usually cold and wet, but this was dry and powdery. It was getting into his nose, making it hard to breathe. Choking him, even.

Alex sat up, coughing. Where was he? He squinted in the darkness. Something was falling on him, making a skittery, rattling noise, like gravel. Then it all came back to him...

Hang on: I've started this off with a sleeping character and this is a classic no-no. You're not supposed to start books off with characters who are in bed, sleeping. Can I get away with this? Won't it put my readers off? Make them think the rest of the book is going to be a real yawner?

Tonight, Kathe and I finally managed to get this computer hooked up. It was great to connect with friends and family again! The minute we got it set up, Alex started e-mailing everyone, even my family back in New Jersey. Tell your cousin about the massive garden and all the trees, I said. Tell your Aunt Miriam how big the house is. (Miriam’s such a snob about having a two-story house.) He just frowned and gave me a Tell them yourself look. He’s been giving me looks like that ever since we arrived in Scotland.

Uh oh: that's a POV shift. You're not supposed to have POV shifts in kids' stories. Kids want to read about kids, not about kids' mothers. I thought it might be fun to have the odd diary entry for Alex's mothern -- for readers to see that Alex and his mother have a completely differently take about almost everything. But now I wonder: what self-respecting kid wants to read about mothers and their doubts, petty rivalries and insecurities? And isn't that phrase arrived in Scotland a little too expositional?

I wrote this story, an MG for boys, a couple of years ago. I can easily remember how thrilled I was when I finished the very last sentence of the very last chapter and proudly clicked Save.

To my great disappointment, my husband and kids were not thrilled with it. "There's no tension," my husband pointed out, "and almost no story. Nothing really happens. And pardon me, but I think you're moralizing." My kids were just as cruel. "The funny parts are too far apart. You need a lot more of them."

I waited a few months, then rewrote the chapters they found most problematic. Still, no dice. "Everybody gets along too well," my oldest daughter objected. "They're all so nicey-nice with each other. Make them not get along so well."

So I did this. I added tension, spats, unpleasantness. I made my clueless new-age earth mother type a lot more obnoxious. I gave Alex and his functionally autistic roommate Arnie more rivalries and opportunities to clash. "It's still not really funny enough," my younger daughter told me truthfully. "The funny parts are too long. I think they need to be shorter."

Having family members read and comment on your manuscripts is also a huge no-no for writers. The idea is that they will always be inclined to like what you've written and praise it to the skies. This is one piece of advice I've learned to ignore. My kids and husband read all the time, both kids' books and adults' books. They have very discerning tastes and they wouldn't massage my ego if I put a gun to their heads. I can also tell them where to get off when they try to rewrite my plots for me. The only downside is that I can't tell anyone about this. No one who matters in publishing will be favorably impressed by the editorial approval of someone's husband and children.

My multiply revised manuscript is nowhere near ready for family input and I've now come to a standstill on it. Why was it so easy to write but so difficult to rewrite?

Actually, I know the answer: a few years back when I first wrote this, I really had no idea of what made a story riveting and utterly compelling, so I just blazed on full-steam ahead. Now I know much more about writing and I can clearly see what doesn't work. I've also been in a writing group and had my work raked through hot coals -- and I've profited enormously from this. But I've become a little like the centipede that, suddenly conscious of all the appendages it has managed to use so effortlessly, finds it impossible to move forward. Suddenly everything is a cliche, every subplot a possible distraction, every device smacks of exposition, and every paragraph must be minutely examined for possible moralizing.

So I will leave this manuscript for another week. I will work in my garden, I will do my long-neglected household chores, and I will go for long walks. And I will pray not to run into anyone who looks at me pityingly and wonders when I will get a real job.

Friday, 6 August 2010

A Beautiful Mind

I am a comparatively new addict to sudoku. Some years ago, when people began to fall victim by the dozens, I observed them -- hunched over, nervously scribbling, howling at the occasional blunder they made, necessitating minutes of revision -- and I felt absolutely no desire to join them. I have a household to run, manuscripts to write, a garden to weed! I've managed to cut out time-wasting activities like ironing and T.V. What could be stupider than wasting my precious time on puzzles? Besides, I'm math challenged and for all the assurances that sudoku had nothing to do with math, it still looked like math to me. From time to time, I might attempt the odd crossword puzzle, but fiddling with numbers hardly sounded like quality recreation.

And, of course, the inevitable occurred: one day last year I was stuck in a parking lot on a rainy day. Tired of people-watching, I picked up the only thing of interest in the car: my husband's sudoku book. And another addict joined the club.

Most of the time, I manage to keep my habit under control. I set myself a strict regimen: one puzzle after the breakfast dishes, another puzzle after I hang the laundry out. Vacuum the floor, rewrite a chapter of whatever manuscript I'm tussling with, then another puzzle -- and so on. But lately I've been slipping. I've come to an impasse in the manuscript I'm working on and as I mull over the issue of whether to get rid of a few characters who do little to advance the plot, I've taken to going over my sudoku limit. In no time at all I managed to fill up the book I got as a stocking stuffer last Christmas.

I've developed all sorts of ways to rationalize my habit: logic doesn't come easily to me, so this stretches and exercises my ageing brain. Plus, I'm not really to blame for this: my youngest daughter has unwittingly enabled me by leaving her book lying around despite constant nagging. Is it my fault if she tempts me like this at such a weak moment? Besides, she seemed to have abandoned the book after only doing a few puzzles.

So over the past few weeks, very gradually, I've been filling up her book. And because sudoku, like writing, is largely a singular pastime, I almost never talk about it. The other day, she caught me at it: "Hey, that's MY book!" she squealed, pointing.

"Sorry!" I said smugly. "I told you to put it away, though." I glanced down at my work proudly: I've gotten up to puzzle 31 and only had to check the key half a dozen times!

My daughter leaned forward, frowning, then her face relaxed. "Oh, that's okay. I thought you'd done the hard ones."

Now it was my turn to frown. "What do you mean, 'the hard ones?'" I'd sweated blood over those puzzles!

She took the book from me and flipped through it. It goes up to Puzzle Number 250, and except for a few of the first ones, there are dozens of blank pages up until puzzle 80 or so. After that, I suddenly noticed, almost all the puzzles have been done. Slowly, horribly, the truth dawned.

"They get harder," she said simply.

How could I not have noticed? I've been doing the baby puzzles. The ones she got bored with.

"Some of these were pretty hard," I blustered, pointing. "The 4s in this one were devilish -- it took me ages to work them out!"

She nodded a little too quickly.

Almost sixteen years ago, she was a squalling, red-faced lump with a fierce air and buggy eyes, a cross between a lizard and a bulldog. Back then, I was her life support system. I fed, bathed, cuddled, nursed, and entertained her. She had a temper too: I put up with tantrums so sweatily violent, so head-bangingly wild and prolonged, that I can't even bear to describe them. I look at her now: generally sweet-tempered, willowy, and beautiful, and I'm amazed at her transformation -- and as head over heels in love with her as I was back then. None of which makes it any easier to accept the sad truth: My baby is smarter than I am.

Happy Birthday, Youngest Daughter. I love you infinitely -- more than all the china soup spoons you break or the cell phones and passports you lose. More than all the clothes and shoes you borrow from me without a by-your-leave. More than my own fat ego. More than you'll ever know.

Now go put your damn book away.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Information Gaps

The man at the next counter looked tired, and no wonder. "My wee boy's been poorly," I heard him tell the pharmacist. "He's kept us up all night for three days straight coughin' and cryin' and all."

Then it was my turn to be served and the next thing I heard the man say was "January 1993."

I frowned at this. My youngest daughter was born in 1994, but there's no way I'd refer to her as 'wee', not even out of her hearing. The pharmacist asked the man a few more questions and I studied him surreptitiously. He looked quite young to have a son born in 1993. He also looked out of shape and a little overweight, with the sort of fraught, anxious look you get when you've been staying up all night with sick kids. He had a tattoo of a snake that ran the length of his hairy arm, from wrist to above his elbow, disappearing up the sleeve of thin Hawaiian shirt. I had on a long-sleeved shirt and a fleece (it may be summer, but nobody's told Scotland) and I was still cold; he must be very sleep deprived and run off his feet if he couldn't tell he needed to be more warmly dressed.

"Aye," the man was saying to the pharmacist, "his birthday's 15 August, 2008. He's just turning two."

My eyes popped. Without actually staring, I got a proper look at him. And I realized that there was no way in a thousand years he could have a child born in 1993. His birth year was 1993.

And suddenly I could see it: the boy didn't really look old, he just looked prematurely careworn. Underneath it all, he radiated youth: his elbows and knuckles were still round, his eyes still shone with the innocence of youth, and the seams on his face weren't so much wrinkles as newly-formed stress lines. This exhausted, hassled-looking father of a two-year-old was all of seventeen years old.

Sometimes it takes me a long time to catch on.

"Thanks Oaf-lee!" the woman on the other side was saying to the check-out girl. "I would appreciate that very much. Thanks OAF-lee."

We may have been gone for two years, but I'm proud to say this one only took me a second or two to figure out: oaf-lee is the posh way to say awfully. Ten years of life in the U.K. has taught me a thing or two! I know now that I live in a village, might mean I live in Ae village (the village of Ae is only an hour away from us); that sheers can sound like shoes over the phone, and that too many roundabouts can sound exactly like two mini roundabouts.

Feeling not quite so stupid, I went outside and sat on a bench to wait for my husband. I stared at a woman's shopping bags while she yakked on her mobile. BEATING HEART I read under a large, red heart. The woman nudged the bag with her foot and I saw the word DISEASE. Now I was thoroughly puzzled; I once worked in the cardiology department of a large hospital and I never once heard of beating heart disease. Surely if your heart is beating, that's a good, healthy thing? Perhaps this was a new name for something like tachycardia -- a condition where the heart beats too fast? I made it a point to remember this so I could ask someone later. Then the woman nodded and shifted the bag a few inches and I saw the word TOGETHER. Oh for pity's sake: Beating heart disease together. How could anybody be so thick?

But I'm grateful for small mercies: thank God I didn't end up asking anybody about beating heart disease.

"Were you doing the messages, then?" our neighbor asked as we unloaded the bags from our trunk. I stared at her, open-mouthed and then it clicked. In Scotland, doing the messages is shopping.

I've been out of Scotland too long, it seems. And I'm definitely due a long night's sleep.