Saturday, December 21, 2013

My Annual Christmas Short Story

Happy Holidays everybody!

Winter Wheels
By Pia Newman

"Mummy, what are we doing here?" The little girl hangs on her mother's arm. She lets herself be dragged into the auto-repair shop like an oversized shopping bag, the toes of her small yellow Wellies dangling on the ground. She's four or five years old and has the most explosive blonde curls George has ever seen. He’s sitting in the waiting area of the shop, with a great view of the door and all who enter.
"We're getting our tires changed, honey," the mother replies as the door slides closed behind them, shutting out the frigid December air. In her free hand she holds a baby seat, one of those that also function as a baby carrier and easily clinks in and out of seatbelts. A tiny pink hand sticks over the edge. The mother looks down at the baby, a smile in her eyes that doesn't touch her lips. Her face is pale and her eyes are red with fatigue, or maybe sadness. It's hard to tell.
The girl doesn't like sharing her mummy's attention. "What are tires?" she asks, louder than necessary.
"They're the wheels on our car," the mother explains.
"But we have wheels," the girl points out, confused.
"We need winter wheels."
Oh, the curiosity of a young mind; George remembers it well.
"Remember how I almost hit that tree three days ago, because the road was icy?" the mother says. "In winter, ice and snow make the roads slippery. Winter tires stop the car from slipping and having accidents."
"Accidents are not good," the girl knows.
"You’re so right, Merry. Now let me drop the keys off at the reception so they can change the tires, and then we’ll sit down over there and do some coloring while we wait, okay?"
"Okay." The little girl nods as if granting a boon. George feels first like laughing, then like crying; the little girl reminds him of Tommy.
The mother goes up to the reception desk and drops off her car keys. "The winter tires are in the boot," she tells Miss Little, the receptionist, who promises it won’t take longer than half an hour. Then the family joins George in the waiting area. The mother nods at George without really looking at him. He can tell she's tied up with her own thoughts. She puts the baby seat down on a chair across from him and sits down next to it, then helps her daughter out of her winter coat. When she has rid herself of her own, she pulls a coloring book and crayons out of her backpack. She lays them out on the table in front of her daughter, who plunks herself down on the ground, grabs the purple crayon and leafs through the book. With her daughter occupied, the mother takes her baby out of the safety seat and peels it out of a tiny jacket.
George can’t tell whether it’s a boy or a girl, only that it’s about half a year old and beginning to explore the world. It bares toothless gums at its mother in a baby-grin, then turns its head around like an owl and catches sight of George. Curious blue eyes regard him as if trying to read his mind. For some absurd reason, George feels like he should apologize. When Tommy was a baby, he gave George the same soulful look sometimes. As if he knew exactly that George would fail him one day. Then the mother begins to jiggle her knees, bouncing the baby around. It turns back to her with a shriek of delight, breaking the spell.
"Mommy?" the little girl says. Her mind isn’t on coloring; the roaring cartoon lion on the page in front of her is still blank. "Why don’t we have winter wheels yet if there was snow already?"
George is wondering the same thing. It’s the middle of December after all, almost Christmas, and there's been snow on the roads for weeks. He got his tires changed on the last weekend of October, like he does every year. He learned the hard way that car safety really can make a difference. It’s irresponsible for a mother of two young children to wait so long to get her winter tires put on and... he reigns in that thought; he's the last person who can allow himself to judge.
The mother’s chin wobbles as if she’s about to cry, but it’s gone so fast that George wonders if he imagined it.
"That costs money, too, Merry," she says.
"Like a dollhouse?" Merry asks. Apparently they’ve had this conversation before.
"Yes, honey, like a dollhouse." 
"Do you think Santa will get me a dollhouse for Christmas, like I wished in my letter?"
"I told you, don’t get your hopes up," the mother says. Her chin definitely wobbles this time. "Santa’s very busy."
"But I’ve been very good," Merry says with conviction. "I get dressed on my own, I don’t need diapers anymore, and I stopped asking when daddy will be back, like you asked. Santa will get me a dollhouse." To her, it's the most logical conclusion in the world.
"Yes, honey," the mother says, "you’ve been incredible this year." Her eyes gleam with tears and she has to look away from her daughter. Her gaze locks with George’s and he recognizes the agonized look of a parent who knows her child will be disappointed. It was the same look he must have worn the day the doctor informed him of Tommy's final diagnosis. How do you tell your sixteen year old son that he will never walk again? How do you ask him to forgive you for not investing the money in a safer car? How do you forgive yourself?
Tommy is forty now and used to life in a wheel chair, but George still doesn’t know the answer.
A mechanic enters the waiting area and drops something off with the receptionist. They talk to each other in low voices, glancing at the mother. She is oblivious, jiggling her baby and looking down at the top of Merry’s head with eyes still shining. The mechanic heads back outside to continue his work. Miss Little organizes some papers, then comes over to the waiting area.
"Mr. Henson, your car is ready," she says to George. "I’ll be with you in just a moment."
As George gets to his feet, Miss Little turns to the mother.
"Missus Alderman, I’m sorry—" she begins, but is interrupted.
"It’s Miss Hart now." Merry's mother's voice is low, but resolute.
"I’m sorry, Miss Hart." The receptionist is flustered. "I didn’t mean to—"
"Don’t worry about it," Miss Hart says. "It’s new to me, too. Or new again." She takes a deep breath and turns to other matters. "Is my car ready?"
Miss Little looks like she wants to flee. "I’m afraid there’s a problem with the tires you brought," she says. "They're worn below the allowed profile. We’re sorry, but we can’t legally put them on your car. You need to buy new ones."
Miss Hart pales. She hugs her baby to her chest and swallows. "All four tires?"
Miss Little shakes her head. "The two rear ones. Although our mechanic said the front ones won’t last the winter, either. They won’t be safe to drive for long. We strongly recommend you buy front and rear tires now."
If she can't afford a dollhouse for her daughter at Christmas, new winter tires are probably completely out of the budget.
"How much for a whole set?" Miss Hart whispers.
"Around three hundred pounds."
Miss Hart’s lips press together. Her chin wobbles again. George has seen that look, too; on his wife when she broke down after the doctor told them about Tommy. George senses that Miss Hart is close to her breaking point.
"You also have the option of looking for used tires yourself," Miss Little says quickly. “They’re usually cheaper and will tie you over for a couple of years."
"But that will take a few days and I need the car in drivable condition today," Miss Hart says. "Can I buy new rear tires now, and get back to you with used front ones in a couple of months?"
She means when she’s scraped together enough money to buy them.
"Of course," Miss Little says. She looks relieved. To her it sounds like a good compromise, but George knows that if a mother’s back is so far against the wall that she has to scrimp on her children’s safety, her financial situation isn’t just bad. What she spends now on these tires, she’ll have to save in other areas. Rent, possibly, or heating. Maybe even food.
George remembers what it was like. Tommy’s medical bills put them so deep in debt that they had to turn every penny over twice. Like Miss Hart, they hid it well. People unaware of their situation would never have guessed it, and yet George often wished they'd somehow miraculously get it and just do something about it without making a fuss. Though he has no clue what anyone could have done.
Miss Little returns to her desk and makes a phone call for two new tires. Miss Hart doesn’t notice when George leaves the waiting area. She's still fighting the tears, trying not to let her children know that something is wrong. Parents always want to protect their innocent children from the bad things. A girl barely out of diapers shouldn't experience the burden of worry.
Miss Little commands George's attention when he reaches her desk. "We attached a new exhaust pipe," she tells him, "and took it for a test run. The rattling has stopped."
"Thanks," George says, but his mind is on Miss Hart and her children, especially Merry, who reminds him so much of Tommy at that age, when he was still whole. Sadness overcomes him.
George pulls his wallet out of his pocket. "What do I owe you?” he says.


Karen Hart fights the tears. She doesn’t want to upset Merry by breaking down. Her daughter has been such a good, helpful girl. She doesn’t deserve to be worried. She does, however, deserve a dollhouse for Christmas. And to keep her belief in Santa Clause for just a while longer. And to ride in a safe vehicle.
All of those together are beyond Karen to grant. The last one is the most important, but it will render the others impossible. Buying new tires will make even a tiny, lopsided Christmas tree a luxury expense, not to mention a dollhouse. New winter tires just ate Merry’s Christmas present, for which Karen has been saving up these last four months.
It’s another thing Daniel has left her alone to deal with. He swam for dry land like a rat, leaving the rest of his crew – his family – behind on the sinking ship that he ran into the iceberg himself. Karen knew they weren‘t doing great, that he was gambling away a lot of the money, but it wasn’t until after Daniel disappeared that she found out exactly how not-great it was.
What enrages her most is that she isn’t the only one to suffer. What kind of low-life father abandons his children like that? And yet it’s partly her fault, too. She was the one to marry the low-life after all. But, hey, hindsight, right?
Her rage helps Karen get the tears under control. It’s been like that ever since Daniel left; an up and down of emotions that she tries to hide from her children. They need stability now more than ever. Karen has managed to stay strong for almost a year, to keep a positive attitude, but right now she can’t remember what that feels like. Not even with her baby boy grinning up at her, his tiny fingers fisting around the neckline of her shirt.
She wonders how long her beautiful son will keep his sunny attitude. Or how much longer Merry will want to be a good girl if Santa doesn’t reward her with a dollhouse.
The receptionist approaches, a wide smile on her face. A spear of loathing shoots through Karen, that this woman can be so happy when Karen can't even remember what such a genuine smile feels like on her face. She promised herself she wouldn't turn into a bitter old woman, but even that is slipping through her fingers.
"Miss Hart, your car is ready," the receptionist says.
Karen nods, unable to muster any enthusiasm. Merry, though, her beautiful Merry, has enough for both of them.
"We have winter wheels?" she asks the receptionist, showing off her newly acquired knowledge.
"Yes," the receptionist says with a laugh, "four brand new winter wheels."
Wait! Four?
"We won’t have an accident now?" Merry presses on. The almost-crash with the tree three days ago scared her. Almost as much as it scared Karen.
"No, you won’t," the receptionist says. She crouches down in front of Merry. "We gave the car a full check, you know. It now not only has new winter wheels, but new breaks, and the heating should work better, too."
Karen gets the feeling the receptionist isn’t saying all that only to make her daughter feel better. She stands up, cradling the baby against her chest.
"Merry, wait here for a sec while I go pay," she says. She catches the receptionist’s eye and nods towards her desk. The two women walk over there.
"Did you really get all that done on my car?" Karen asks.
The receptionist beams. "Yes. All taken care of."
"I can’t afford it," Karen says, panic bubbling up inside her. "I thought I made that clear."
"You did," the receptionist says. "That’s why Mr. Henson covered all your expenses."
Karen blinks. "Who?"
"The elderly gentleman who left half an hour ago. He sat opposite you in the waiting area."
Karen shifts the baby to her other hip, embarrassed. She barely remembers the man. She was so deep in her own gloomy thoughts, especially when the new-tire issue came up. She doesn’t even remember saying hello. Why would a perfect stranger whom she wasn’t civil to pay anything for her?
"Is this a joke?" she asks. "If so, it’s not funny."
Instead of an answer, the receptionist hands her a folded piece of paper. Her little man grabs for it, too, but Karen keeps it out of his reach. She unfolds it one-handed.

Dear Miss Hart,

I may never forgive myself for jeopardizing my son’s life, but I can make sure that other children have a safe car to drive in. In this case, your children. Thank you for this opportunity to right a wrong that I ignored years ago.
In the name of my own wonderful son: Merry Christmas.

Now go buy your Merry her dollhouse.

Karen breaks out in tears when she gets to the end of the letter. She doesn’t try to hold them back anymore. Instead she revels in them; for the first time in a long while, they are good tears.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

November Writing Tally

I actually got some writing done in November despite my being busy on two weekends and away on holiday for half of the month. No NaNoWriMo for me this year, though. 

The only thing I worked on were a Christmas short story, which totaled at 2.521 words, and an outline for the novel I want to start in January, of 4.784 words. 

That makes 7.305 words written in November. Still more than I expected. Yay!

Previous Tallies 2013

January: 19.675 words
February: 15.781 words
March: 19.215 words
April: 27.336 words
May: 49.403 words
June: 20.329 words
July: 33.900 words
August: 1.132 words

September: 15.100 words
October: 45.800 words

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Final Polish* - A Writing Workshop - A Writers Weekend

* "Polish" as in "make shine", not the nationality.

The thing to be polished was, of course, a manuscript. Of which I have finished two this year. So what better time to go to a writing workshop on revision? And what better location for it than London, the city of Dickens and Shakespeare? And what better occasion than over a long weekend, to make it a three-day mini-vacay?

Basically, signing up for The-Final-Polish Workshop over the Halloween weekend was a win in all directions. The workshop was initiated by SCBWI and lead by published author Sara Grant and her agent Jenny Savill. Thank you both for this amazing experience. I learned so much and can't wait to apply my new knowledge to my manuscripts.

Of course, said manuscripts are only first drafts. They need not simply a polish but an entire cleaning blitz, including soap lathering, scrubbing, rinsing and wiping-down. Then - maybe - they will be ready for that final polish. But since the workshop covered the whole revision process, from macro- to micro-editing, I feel fit to tackle that next hurdle.

Another great experience was having an agent critique my pitch, query, one-page synopsis and first paragraph. How often do you get the opportunity for feedback on these things when it's not already an all-or-nothing situation? This workshop definitely popped my cherry in that departement, and it was gratifying to see that all the work I'd put into the query and synopsis paid off - Jenny really liked those.

My resulting euphoria lasted until we got to the first paragraph I'd sent her beforehand as part of the homework. I knew her feedback on it wouldn't be as positive as on the other stuff, because I'd been having trouble with the beginning of my novel. Somehow, I could never get it to feel right and truly express what I wanted it to. So I was looking forward to Jenny's professional input.

Yet I was not expecting total and complete evisceration, which is what Jenny's carefully and constructively worded criticism amounted to. Ouch! But thank you, Jenny, for softening the blow so expertly. And thanks even more for your suggestions on improving that first paragraph - namely by cutting it (and the following five) entirely.

I told Jenny about the problems I'd been having with the beginning and she came up with the most obvious answer: I'd chosen the wrong place to start the story. There was really no reason for those first six paragraphs to be there at all. Even now I'm not sure how I could miss something so obvious; I blame it on the whole not-seeing-the-forest-for-all-the-trees phenomenon. Either way, as soon as Jenny suggested cutting the first six paragraphs, a new beginning cristallized in my mind. The idea of it gave me the warm-and-fuzzies, so it was an easy decision to kill those darlings.

Not only the workshop made this a wholly writing-themed weekend. We had fish & chips at The Grapes, a pub owned by Ian McKellen and apparently one of Charles Dickens' favorite haunts. We did a little photo shoot at a bust/statue of Agatha Christie. We saw the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which made me want to reread Roald Dahl's old classic for the Xth time. We found a cool store that sold signed first editions of books in all genres to prices that made me want to cry (the most expensive we found was a first edition Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at 700 pounds), and a store that offered even bestsellers and recently published books for no more than five pounds. On the way back, my suitcase weighed four kilos more than on the way to London, all of it added by books.

It truly was a writer's perfect weekend.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

October Writing Tally

I was a busy bee again in October, working hard to finish the first draft of the novel I wanted to take to a workshop I signed up for over the first November weekend. The workshop was about revisions, and I wanted to bring at least a full first draft to it. So I wrote and wrote and wrote, and it paid off - I got that first draft done a week before the workshop.

So last month I wrote exactly 45.800 words, all for that novel-in-progress.

Now it's November, that holy month for writers: National Novel Writing Month

I'm not participating this year, because I'll be backpacking through Peru in the last half of the month, and fourteen days to write 50.000 words just isn't realistic. I've decided that October was my personal NaNoWriMo for 2013. Or May; I got close to the 50k mark then, too. 

Good luck to all writers out there going for NaNo! You can do it!

Previous Tallies

January: 19.675 words
February: 15.781 words
March: 19.215 words
April: 27.336 words
May: 49.403 words
June: 20.329 words
July: 33.900 words

August: 1.132 words

September: 15.100 words

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Birds of a Feather Writers Retreat 2013

Want to know how to have the perfect writing-themed vacation? Here's a recipe.

First, the basic ingredients:
- Four writers
- Five days
- A "remote" location by a lakeside (f.e. Lago Maggiore in Baveno, Italy)
- Hotel reservations at the aforementioned location

For some extra zest:
- An "Opium Den" / "Harem Room" at the hotel
- Red Wine (how much is up to the individual, but the more copious the amount, the more you'll not want to tell...)
- Incredible pizza, pasta, tiramisu etc.
- "Hair trains" for the hair-sluts
- A Skype session with the "Lost Bird"
- A vow - signed in blood - that what happens at the writers retreat, stays at the writers retreat. Whoops, too late. (Well, we didn't sign in blood, so...)

- Indiviual writing project targets

- Low expectations on reaching said targets

Here's what happens:



Boat Rides

Pensive Moments

Artsy Moments


Hanging and Writing at Rock Pubs - Cheers!

Quiet Moments

Lots more Sillyness
Skyping with our Lost Bird(s)

Serious Conversations
Serious Emptying Glasses of Red Stuff
(c) Photo by Writerlinz ;-)
Always looking for the perfect shot
(c) Photo by Writerlinz

Oh yeah, and writing! Yes, we did get some writing done! :-D

In Cafes...
(c) Photo by Writerlinz

...and the Lobby
(c) Photo by Writerlinz