writing craft

Pick-up Lines: How Not to Start a Novel

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It is the best of things, it is the worst of things – the fact that you can start a novel any which way you like. Ever tried? Then you’ll know already what I’ve only just discovered: that the options are alarmingly endless.

Throw your readers into the thick of the action? Why not! Seduce them with purple prose? Go right ahead. Chat them up with a snatch of dialogue? Now you’re talking! Tempt them with a taste of the story to come? Perfect.

When it comes to pick-up lines, anything goes – or does it?

If you’re one of my two regular readers, you’ll remember that I’m writing a novel for kids. Narrated by Tam, a twelve-year-old girl who dreams of becoming a dancer, Dad’s Runway tells of a wheat farmer’s outlandish attempts to put a tiny country town back on the map.

Until a few months ago, I’d written the first four chapters. They’d come in a rush, drawn out by an approaching deadline: a meeting with a publisher at Penguin. The first chapter began with the following mix of action and explanation.

Everyone knew it was coming – everyone, that is, except Dad.

Mum had been pulling her hair out for months, working away the kitchen table with her accounts and her calculator.

‘It’s no good,’ she said, one night. ‘There just aren’t enough customers. I can’t keep running at a loss.’

Uncle Mick had no hair to pull out, so he just pursed his cracked lips and shook his sunburnt head.

‘No people, no houses to build. Time I started thinking about moving on.’

Even Jimmy and Joey, my twin younger brothers, knew something was up.

‘We heard Mrs Reynolds talking to Mr Collins,’ Jimmy said, excitedly. ‘They reckon there won’t be enough kids next year to keep the school open.’

‘Yeah,’ said Joey. ‘Then we’ll have to catch the bus to the city every day, and that’ll take hours and hours. There won’t be time to learn anything!’

My older sister, Beth, knew all about it, too, but she didn’t care.

‘This town sucks anyway,’ she sneered. ‘I’d rather go and work somewhere else, instead of being stuck out here like a loser.’

As for me, Tam, my dance teacher had just left Nanky – that’s what we call Nankervis, our town – so I knew something was definitely up. I want to be a famous dancer, you see, and always have. Think Ginger without the Fred. That’s Ginger Rogers, of course, just in case you haven’t watched as many old musicals as me.

If you haven’t, you should!

The editor liked my sample, but suggested I make some changes to the plot. In altering it, though, I went and rendered my first beginning pretty much obsolete. Which is a shame, because I like the pacy way it introduces the story, the characters and the narrator.

It was about now that the openness of openings began to get the better of me, and I made a few false moves, starting with this slow-burner:

‘Leave the gate open?’ Dad squawked. ‘Don’t even joke about it, Mrs Mac, or you’ll give me nightmares. I’m a farmer, remember.’

Mum grinned at him. ‘I’m just saying, Nev, that this meeting probably won’t go for long, so we’ll be back before your crops can escape.’ She peered in the side mirror. ‘It’d save the boys getting out again.’

‘They love swinging on the gate,’ Dad said. ‘Anyway, what makes you think the meeting’s going to be so short?’

Mum looked at him again, but this time she wasn’t smiling. ‘Not much,’ she said, ‘except just about everything.’

That stopped Dad in his tracks – that and the racket made by the twins as they tumbled back into the Land Cruiser.

‘I won,’ Joey yelled, scrambling over me to get to his seat.

‘Only ’cause I let you,’ cried Jimmy, close behind.

Col the kelpie greeted them with barks from the back.

‘All strapped in yet?’ Mum asked.

My sister, Beth, looked up from her book. ‘Belt up, you two,’ she told the twins, who were still arguing. They pretended not to hear her, and reached for their belts anyway.

‘All strapped in,’ I called.

‘About time,’ Mum said, letting out the handbrake. ‘Now, let’s make hay.’

‘I think you mean haste,’ Dad said, as we pulled out on to the highway. ‘Hay is what we’re leaving behind on the farm.’

It was a sleepy Saturday afternoon in the bush, and the Mackenzies from ‘Dalgleish’ – that’s us – were heading into town to attend an emergency meeting of the Show Society. Little did we know, though, that we were also setting out on the craziest adventure a farming family has probably ever had. Well, that’s what Gran reckons, and she’s been around since adventures were invented, so she should know.

Then came a turn away from action and explanation to description, albeit of a snappy yet possibly exasperating variety…

Not far from the middle of nowhere there’s a tiny country town called Nankervis. Not far from this town there’s a wheat and sheep farm called Dalgleish. And not far from this farm – just outside its front gate, in fact – there’s a dusty old Land Cruiser called Chelsea.

In the Land Cruiser there’s a family called the Mackenzies. In that family there’s a girl called Tam, and in that girl’s head – well, that’s where we are right now!

Which led me to the following exposition-fest.

It all started, I think, when the twins tumbled out and opened the farm gate for us to drive through. That’s when Mum said what she said and that’s when, a few seconds later, Dad suddenly began to get it – that our town, Nanky, was in trouble.

And when my dad finally gets it, things really start to happen. This time, though, the things that happened were pretty amazing, and they just kept on happening, until – well, until the whole crazy adventure came to an end. Back here at our farm gate again, actually, but with a closing rather than an opening.

Speaking of openings, I really wanted to start this story like this: ‘Once upon a Tam’, but I chickened out. My name’s Tam, you see. This is short for Tammy, which is short for Tamara, which is about the worst name ever. It’s even worse than Neville, my dad’s name.

Pretty awful, huh?

What makes beginnings so hard, I think, is that they ought to do two things at once: they should show and tell at the same time – even more clearly, quickly and compellingly than ‘normal’ text does.

As readers, we want to be lost in the action of a story, and yet we also need to know that the action has a purpose, that it is leading us somewhere special. In a paragraph or two, then, an opening has to both promise and perform, and therein lies the art of pick-up lines, whether they’re delivered on the page or in person.

It’s something I haven’t nailed for my novel just yet. My first attempt comes close, whereas the others don’t. That’s my conclusion, at least – what’s yours?

Don’t get me started on endings…

Majority Report: Coming of Age Online

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‘Eighteen is an amazing number.’ That’s how I was going to start this, my eighteenth post. Couldn’t do it, though. For after reading the sentence eighteen times, I realised that, strictly speaking, ‘eighteen’ isn’t a number at all. It’s a word.

Tricky, huh?

And the trickiness soon trebled. Also unacceptable as an opener was ’18 is an amazing number’, my next go-to line, simply because no self-respecting writer (or even me) starts a sentence with a number – it’s just not the done thing. In fact, it’s a dumb thing.

That left me with the following phrase which, you’ll be pleased to know, I’ve deemed good enough to be going on with – even after multiple rereads and a repast. So, now I’ll begin again, properly this time…

It’s an amazing number, 18. It’s the only number, apart from zero, that equals twice the sum of its digits. (And what’s zero? Nothing!) It’s the numerical value, too, of the Hebrew word for ‘life’. (Turns out our days are numbered, after all.) And it’s the number of chapters in James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Who’d have known?)

More importantly, though, eighteen is the age at which, in many cultures, kids magically morph into adults. Yes, it’s the infamous ‘age of majority’, that time when weedy teens join the rest of us on our sacred mission: the trashing of self and society, all in the glorious pursuit of pleasure.

At a stroke, mere striplings are granted the right to vote for the wrong people; at a stroke, they’re allowed – nay, expected – to start harming themselves, instead of relying on their elders to do it for them. Suddenly, liquor is legal and so are the smokes.

Coming of age. It’s a time, too, for reflection – of reviewing the mistakes you’ve made, and of previewing those you’re about to make. And that, I’ve decided, is what I’m going to do in this, my eighteenth post.

Believe it or not, I’ve got things wrong, bloglistically speaking. My posts have been too hard to get a handle on, for a start – handles on a post? – as has my blog as a whole. At fault, I think, has been my ethos of ‘tough love’; my failure, that is, to kiss up to my readers. Keep it simple, stupid, I do not. For better or worse, I insist on being ‘artful’ in my approach.

Obscurity, here I come!

That said, I’m not going to alter my style much at all, since I think it has some personality and potential. I will, though, do a little window dressing: my titles will become more descriptive and the rest of my blog less distracting. I might even focus on fewer subjects… Small mercies, I know, but better than nowt.

What’s eighteen anyway? Just another number.

Blogging Bad: Seven Reasons Why Lists Suck

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It’s something we’ve all heard a hundred times and which we accept without hesitation: readers love lists. From DIY pieces such as ‘Holy trinity: Spiritual perfection in three short steps’ to top-pick posts like ‘Best of the worst: Thirteen unlucky numbers to die for’, lists are hailed universally as the answer to online anonymity.

Simply set out your points on the screen like rungs in a ladder and you’ll soon find yourself climbing the stairway to stardom – so the story goes.

Guess what? It ain’t necessarily so. Lists suck, despite all the hype. Keen on dots and dashes? Don’t be. Morse code went out with the printing press. Hooked on bullets? Their impact can be deadening, so aim a little higher. Headed for headings? Think again: titles are liable to trip readers up.

And that’s just for starters. Here, then, are seven ripping reasons why you should wipe lists from your writing repertoire.

1. Lists are sneaky

Since when is anything in life as simple as one, two, three? Hardly ever, mostly never. And yet lists slyly suggest just this: that every little thing can be reduced to a series of points or pointers. Nobody ever wrote a novel or lost weight simply by following a series of steps, so do yourself a favour and stop treating readers like the idiots they probably are.

2. Lists aren’t sneaky enough

There’s sneaky and then there’s sneaky. Proper dinky-di personal essays, for example, can’t help making life more intelligible, if only because they speak a universal language: the rhetoric of experience rather than mere sensation. Sure, essays reduce reality, too, but they do so in ways that seem to magnify meaning. It’s called art, and it’s artful – unlike most lists.

3. Lists are easy

Do you really want to dash-off a list when you could send yourself half-crazy penning an essay instead? Fact is, no-one ever got writer’s block while writing out a shopping list or scribbling down a list of things to do. Doesn’t that tell you something? Yes, that lists are too damn glib for their own good, otherwise a literary sub-genre would have congealed around them long ago, as it did with the Personal Essay (hallowed be its name).

4. Lists aren’t easy enough

In other ways, though, lists are bloody hard. To number a list you have to be able to count, and writers aren’t renowned for their numerical nous. I mean, some scribblers claim to write 300 words a day, and yet, when the dross is discarded, the total usually amounts to no more than twenty-six. Go figure! To get a list right in Microsoft Word is also a drag, especially if Autocorrect keeps automatically getting things wrong. Grrr.

5. Lists are everywhere

This point is self-evident, surely, given that you’re staring at a list – this list – right now. And even if you’re not, you’re no doubt staring at a list somewhere else online, only you don’t know it. Well, you probably do know it, but what I mean is that you don’t know that I know it. Yikes! What’s Google, anyway, if not one big list.

6. Lists aren’t everywhere enough

So, okay, lists litter the internet. When it comes to the real world, though, they’re nowhere that counts. Ever come across any classic lists? Nope. Ever study lists at school? Nope. Where’s the great tradition of list-writing? Nope – totally missing, I mean. Forget kudos, too, because writing a list ain’t going to win you a literary prize or grant you the grudging respect of any envious authors. All you’ll get from writing a list is, well, a list. Say no more.

7. Six reasons are enough

Studies have shown that six reasons are sufficient. Full stop. Apparently, the human brain is incapable of marshalling more than one or two thoughts at a time – unless they involve food or sex, of course – so why burden and enrage your readers with unnecessary information. Most of them tune out during reason number seven, anyway – hello?

Clearly, lists suck. This one sure does.

 

If you’re itching to read more about writing and blogging, I suggest you look elsewhere. Too lazy to leave my blog? Why not try these thrilling posts: Novelists Write Novels, On Being a Back-to-Front Writer and Hanging on Every Word. Lots of words, some good enough to read.

Feathers and Fur (Part 2): The Climactic Conclusion

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There are characters and then there are, well, characters. Some are new and unknown to us, like Anthony Burgess’ dyspeptic poet, Enderby, or the merciless Major Woolley of Goshawk Squadron.

Others, though, seem all too familiar. Take that fetishistic fashionista, Goldie de Groot, and model turned marketer, Chad Wilcox. Don’t you just feel like you know them already?

And so you should! These two unforgettable folk star in the erotic humdinger, ‘Feathers and Fur’, the first instalment of which I posted on this very blog only weeks ago. Slipped your memory? Well, here it is again – go back and bone up on it, please.

Thing is, faithful followers, I reckon I’ve kept all seventeen of you in suspense long enough. Clearly you’re dying to know more about Golden Girl and the Chadster. I mean, what is she hiding under that boa? And how is his piece coming along?

Switch off the artificial respirator – relief has arrived. For here, impure and adulterated, is the climax of that ‘twisted tale of doctored strangelove’. First, though, a warning: this excerpt contains cats, so if our feline friends make you itch then you’d better don some protection pronto. Allergies are nothing to sneeze at, you know.

‘Yes,’ Goldie said. ‘I’m into feathers.’

I looked up and saw a coppery feather boa shimmering in the doorway. Behind it was a body, mostly naked. Butt-naked, as far as I could tell.

‘You’re in feathers,’ I pointed out, somewhat pedantically. Then I raised my eyebrows, adding, ‘And now you’re not.’

Goldie had slipped the boa over her head and was holding it before her, somehow still managing to obscure her best bits. As she stroked the plumage, I couldn’t help thinking of her puss. Hot and loose.

I shifted in my seat and peered at the notes I hadn’t made in my notebook.

All the while, Goldie kept stroking, stroking, watching me with a crooked little smile on her lips. And what good lips they were. Not too fat, not too thin. Just right.

‘Trouble is,’ I said, clearing my throat, ‘it’s usually the male birds that have the bright plumage.’

Her smile widened. ‘I like a man who knows his ornithology.’

‘Don’t get me wrong,’ I said. ‘I’m no twitcher.’

‘I’ll be the judge of that,’ Goldie said, before padding across the floor in her bare feet.

And what good feet they were. Not too big, not too small. Just right. And they led to good legs. Legs to live by.

‘Up,’ she said, with a tug at my collar. ‘And around.’

I stood with my back to her, staring unseeingly at the prints on the wall above her desk. My signature look, it seemed, had returned.

For a while I lost track of the boa. Goldie’s hands were busy with my buttons, so I suppose it had found its way back around her neck. Before long, though, the fluffy fiend made its presence felt; slowly, softly, it swept across my various nooks and crannies; then, with a murmur, it surmounted a rise, where it wavered for a while, trembling back and forth. Back and forth.

Back. And forth.

With things coming to a head, I decided to turn the tables.

‘By the way,’ Goldie murmured, as I took the boa from her. ‘I’ve never been to Brazil.’

‘Very wise,’ I replied, pivoting her until I had her back. ‘It’s overrated.’

Threading the brown boa between those taut creamy thighs, I began to run it back and forth.

‘Bingo,’ Goldie whispered. ‘Feathers and fur.’

Back and forth.

‘Surely fake emu feathers should be more moisture-proof,’ I said, after a minute or two.

‘Fake ostrich,’ Goldie replied, a little breathlessly.

Back. And forth.

Then, rounding on me, Goldie tugged the boa from my grasp.

‘Plumage is important,’ she said, ‘up to a point. But a bird has to know when to bury its head. In the sand.’

Balling up the boa, she tossed it across the room, where it fluttered to the floor like a plummeting pigeon.

‘Fake sand?’ I asked.

‘Quick sand,’ she said, and steered me towards the desk.

By the time the interview was over, my coffee was well and truly cold. Which, for some strange reason, made it just right. Best coffee I ever had.

‘What about the article?’ I said, putting away my empty notebook.

Goldie tucked the boa into the pocket of my jeans.

‘Oh, I think you’ve got enough to go on,’ she said, giving it a friendly pat. ‘If you don’t, use your imagination. That shouldn’t be hard, Mr Faraway Man.’

I checked my watch as I crossed the shop floor. Not too long, after all, and not a second too short. Just right. I grinned. With that sort of passion and professionalism, how could either of us fail?

Blowing a last kiss to the mannequins, I stepped out on to the street.

True story!

Feathers and Fur (Part 1): Doctored Strangelove or Sexual Stuntfest?

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What’s your stance on erotica? Haven’t settled on one yet? Well, don’t panic – as with sex itself, there’s an abundance of attitudes to choose from, so one is sure to take your fancy.

Let’s say you’re the upright type; well, you’re bound to be attracted to the missionary position, which means you’ll demonise any book that even hints at humpty-do. If, however, you’re more of a ‘cowgirl’ at heart, then you’ll happily bend over backwards for any old porn on the page.

My standpoint is different. When it comes to erotica, I prefer to play leapfrog. That’s right: I jump about, taking each text as it comes and trying to judge a work on its merits. Good writing excuses anything, I reckon – even a splash of the sauce.

Trouble is, I’m yet to put my approach to the test, having never really read any raunch. I like sex, so it’s not that I’m averse to its depiction in fiction; it’s just that I get bored by artless stories, of which there seem to be plenty.

What is artful erotica, then? As we writers are always being exhorted to ‘show not tell’, I’ve decided to try a little experiment. Rather than attempt to catalogue the qualities of the ideal erotic tale (as I see it), I’ll present for your delectation a purpose-written story instead.

More ‘doctored strangelove’ than sexual stuntfest, here then is the first stimulating instalment of ‘Feathers and Fur’.

‘I’m very passionate,’ she said, inspecting her nails in the light, ‘about the power of plumage.’

‘You’re into feathers?’

Goldie studied me for a moment. A long, searching moment.

‘Wait here,’ she said, before slipping from the room.

Groaning under my breath, I watched her go. She was swaddled in a sleek orange sari but had the kind of figure that would look good in a cassock. I mused for a minute, picturing her draped in a wet shower curtain. Not quite what I’d meant, but it proved my point – that for a woman she was remarkably well hung. Full and firm where it counted, like my fiancé, Christine.

Ex-fiancé.

I sighed and put down my pen. Fantasising about my clients wasn’t going to pay the bills. Maybe Chrissie was right – maybe the time I’d sunk into this ‘business’ of mine was all for nothing. Maybe I just didn’t have what it takes to be a freelance writer. I mean, I’d wasted an hour already this morning thanks to this woman and her cat.

‘Sorry,’ Goldie had called, as she’d come pattering across the street in her neat little sandals. ‘My puss usually wakes me at the crack of dawn, but I think she’s on heat or something. Went out through the bathroom window.’

Digging around in her shoulder bag for keys, she gave me the once-over. Twice.

We’d arranged to meet here fifty minutes ago, a full hour before opening time, so I could get some background for a puff piece I was writing on Goldie’s latest venture, a niche clothing store called ‘Feathers and Fur’.

Finding her keys at last, Goldie let us into the shop, a bright open space set out with racks of lingerie and outré outfits of all kinds.

‘So,’ she said, leading me across the room, ‘you’ve come to do a little digging.’

I dodged around one of the half-naked mannequins that dotted the room.

‘That’s the general idea,’ I said. ‘If you can still spare the time.’

She sniggered. ‘Oh, things don’t hot up here until later on. Actually, I’m kinda hoping you’ll warm these mornings up for me a little. You and your piece.’

‘I’ll do my best,’ I said, following her into a stylish office furnished with black leather couches and a desk. I glanced around. Two windows framed neat hedges and a strip of sky, while a door in the back wall opened on to what was presumably a storeroom.

‘The first thing to know,’ Goldie said, dumping her bag on the table, ‘is that this place runs on coffee. Good hot coffee.’

And she spent the next ten minutes fiddling with the espresso machine that stood on a bar fridge in the corner.

When I tried to shoot her a question, the response was swift.

‘No talking,’ she cried, over the whoosh of the machine. ‘Making coffee is my morning ritual. It grounds me for the rest of the day.’

‘Fair enough,’ I said, grinning at the pun.

Spotting my smile, Goldie decided I wasn’t taking her seriously enough, and launched into a detailed explanation of her ‘coffology’. To my discredit – I suppose I should have been taking notes – I tuned right out, preferring instead to visualise her in various forms of dress. The cassock was a flop, I decided, although the cross on a chain around her neck brought out two of her best features.

I was about to try her in a nuns’ habit when she turned and charged across the room, a cup cocked in each hand.

‘This’ll get you going,’ Goldie said, giving me one before dropping on to the couch opposite me with the other.

She drank with obvious relish.

‘Thanks,’ I said. A second later I was spluttering.

‘Some like it hot,’ Goldie said, with a smile. ‘I did warn you.’

I dabbed at my lips. ‘I’ll listen next time.’

‘Good boy. It’s the first thing a man should do. So,’ she said, settling back on the couch, ‘what’s your piercing first thrust?’

‘Well, I was going to ask about the mannequins.’

‘Wrong,’ she said. ‘People usually want to know about my name.’

‘Goldie. Right. After the actress, I suppose.’

‘Hell no,’ she said. ‘The metal.’

‘Gold. I get it.’

‘I was a weighty newborn, apparently, and soft – super soft.’

I pretended to write that down. ‘And precious too,’ I ventured.

‘Not half as valuable as my sister,’ Goldie said, with a pout. ‘Titty.’

I looked at her blankly.

‘Titanium,’ she added.

‘Of course. Atomic number 22.’

‘I’m impressed. Next question, Chemistry Man.’

‘The mannequins?’

‘Hooked on them, aren’t you. Trust me, you’re not their type. Let’s get back to my type. Your piece. Ask me something probing, about Goldie.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘The shop. Why’d you open it?’

And that’s when she said what she said.

‘I’m very passionate. About the power of plumage.’

And that’s when I said what I said.

‘You’re into feathers?’

And that’s when she disappeared, mysteriously, into the back room.

I sat and toyed with the idea of calling Chrissie. I’d promise to chuck this writing thing in and go back to being a photographic model. Doing shoots all the time was a drag, but at least I got paid for daydreaming. And, boy, what material I’d had to work with. Dress ’em up, dress ’em down. Back then, fantasising had actually paid off – it’d given me the hunky faraway look for which I’d become known.

‘Yes,’ Goldie said. ‘I’m into feathers.’

I looked up and saw a coppery feather boa shimmering in the doorway. Behind it was a body, mostly naked. Butt-naked, as far as I could tell.

‘You’re in feathers,’ I pointed out, somewhat pedantically. Then I raised my eyebrows, adding, ‘And now you’re not.’

To be continued, as they say, with apologies for the eroticus interruptus.

[Breaking News: ‘Feathers and Fur’ is now complete, its climax having been posted here.]

Hanging on Every Word: Why Minor Moments Matter

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There you are. Stuck in prison for the rest of your life, a fraudster of the most despicable kind. For you, there’s only one way out, and that’s in a box. Since it’s only a question of when and not whether, you decide to end the suffering. Hanging it has to be.

But with what?

Cut to the future, where a couple of ‘lowlifes’ are busy quizzing your overwrought former wife about your demise. ‘What, did he use a belt?’ asks the short guy. A curt shake of the head. ‘A sheet, then,’ says the other, a muscled mechanic. The woman rounds on them. ‘No,’ she says, with a touch of pride. ‘He managed to get some rope.’

You did? What, then, does this tell you about yourself? That you wear suspenders? Probably not. That you wash your sheets daily? I doubt it. Nope, it tells you just what it told me: that you’re the kind of character you’re made out to be – a charming, well-connected confidence man.

Mission accomplished.

As writers, we’re told to make every word count. Here we see the mantra in action. It’s but a minor moment in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, and yet it sticks in my mind, a fine (and funny) illustration of how the masters have us hanging on every word.

A Tale with Teeth (Part 1): Putting the Bite Back into Fairy Stories

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It was the last straw – again. There I was, blithely corralling kids’ books, when I came across a sheep in wolves’ clothing: yet another work in which an author has her wicked way with fairy tales. Enough’s enough, I thought, rough-housing the offending object into a corner; if I encounter another novel that neuters those venerable yarns, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll…

Do what? Scream like a girlie-man? Beat my hairy breast? Never! Such things are beneath me, as you well know. Instead, I thought, I’ll do my own bit of bastardising, so as to put the acid on these con-artists and the sting back where it belongs – in the tales, of course.

To my amazement and alarm, I got a chance to put my pen where my mouth is within hours. While ferrying Boy Wonder to a friend’s, I happened to put my daughter to sleep in the car. Rather than try and shoehorn the little dear out of her cosy capsule, I opted to ride it out – to sit behind the wheel and write.

It’s the fruit of this wee spree that I now want to share. Entitled ‘A Tale with Teeth’, the story goes something like this…

Once upon a time there was a wolf – a very sad wolf. His teeth were falling out, you see, and that’s enough to make any beast blue. One day the wolf woke up feeling so low that he just had to see a doctor.

‘Doc,’ he said, ‘I’m losing my teeth.’

‘Hmmm,’ said the doctor, fiddling with her phone. ‘I’d better run some tests.’

Tucking his tail under his furry flanks, the wolf sat and waited.

At last the doctor let out a shriek.

‘What is it?’ cried the wolf. ‘Give it to me straight, doc – I can take it.’

‘It’s my blood pressure,’ groaned the doctor. ‘It’s way too high. I need a holiday.’

And with that she raced from the room, grabbing her golf clubs as she went.

As you can imagine, that didn’t make the wolf feel any better. Not one to give up easily, though, he went straight to the dentist’s.

‘Come back when you’ve made an appointment,’ snapped the girl at the counter. The wolf sighed and did as he was told.

‘What seems to be the problem,’ asked the dentist, as he strapped the wolf down.

‘It’s my teeth,’ said the wolf. ‘They seem to be falling out.’

‘And I suppose you think I’m going to stick my head into your mouth to have a look,’ said the dentist.

The wolf nodded, miserably.

‘Gladly,’ said the dentist, and stuck his head right in.

He emerged a little later, feeling around in his ear for something sharp.

‘You weren’t foxing,’ he said, holding up a tooth. ‘Your fangs are dropping like flies.’

The wolf gave a groan. ‘But why?’

‘Not sure,’ said the dentist. ‘And don’t think I’m going in there again to find out. Who eats garlic for breakfast, anyway?’

It took the wolf a few months to pay his bill. As soon as it was settled, he rushed off to see a therapist.

‘I’m sad,’ the wolf told her, once he’d got comfortable on the couch. ‘And my teeth are falling out.’

‘Don’t let a little thing like that get you down,’ said the therapist, smoothing her slacks. ‘Is there anything else that might be making you unhappy? Your parents, perhaps?’

The wolf thought hard.

‘Well,’ he said, finally, ‘there is one little thing that’s been troubling me.’

‘Go on,’ said the therapist, pen poised above her iPad.

‘It’s just that I used to feel so big and bad. Hardly a week went by without me nibbling on a kid or two, and scaring some half to death.’

‘So that’s it,’ said the therapist, turning on her phone. ‘Nothing to do with your family at all.’

The wolf craned around to look at her.

‘Do you know what that does to a carnivore’s self-esteem?’ he said.

‘Yes, yes,’ said the therapist, briskly. ‘It’s an open-and-shut case. You’ve lost your identity and the new you doesn’t need teeth.’

She cast an eye over the wolf’s lithe figure.

‘Just out of curiosity, what do you eat?’

‘Shakes, mostly,’ said the wolf. ‘It’s a complete diet, only minus the children.’

‘Might be worth a try,’ murmured the therapist. ‘My sister’s getting married next month, you know, and I’d like to be looking my best.’

‘You go grrrl,’ said the wolf, giving her knee a squeeze.

The therapist threw him a grateful smile.

‘It’s just that my mother had such enormous –’

‘Hams?’ said the wolf.

‘Expectations.’

The wolf nodded, sympathetically.

‘Sure,’ he said, ‘but what about me?’

‘You? You’ve just got to find yourself again. Get back to being the real you. If, that is, you want to keep your canines.’

‘I get it,’ said the wolf. ‘I’m an open-and-shut case.’

The therapist looked at the clock.

‘Start now,’ she said. ‘Just open the door and shut it once you’re through.’

The wolf got up from the couch, feeling a little stiff, and padded out into the waiting room.

‘Hello,’ he said to a witch, her warty nose buried in a dog-eared Reader’s Digest. ‘Fancy meeting you here.’

Thank me later.