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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Piece of Cake

I'm back from a little blogging break! I've been focused on a work-in-progress as well as some fun promotional things for Tokyo Heist that are in the works. And I've been dealing with a conundrum on the home front.

I generally resist writing about my child on this blog, or parenting in general, partly because I'm not sure how much it interests my readers and mainly because my blog is an escape hatch for me, a place where I can just think about books and writing and art.

But occasionally Life just can't be filtered, so I'll share the problem that's eating at me. 

My son is soon to turn five. He is starstruck fan of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Alvin CDs have been in constant play on my car CD player since December. We've seen all the movies. He even, though somewhat grudgingly, likes the Chipettes. Believe it or not, I used to have a son with some musical taste. He listened to CDs like "Jazz for Babies." He went through an Afro-Cuban phase, around age two, which we all enjoyed. And then he discovered the Chipmunks, and life has not been the same.

This isn't the problem I'm facing, though. I'm actually learning to live with the Chipmunks. I've found clothing and hats to disguise the tail and small ears I am sprouting. I don't really get out much these days, so I find I can keep my high-pitched squeaky voice pretty much a secret (though now you all know).

The problem is he has his heart set on a birthday cake that would feature Alvin, Simon, and Theodore -- AND the three Chipettes -- riding in a green sports car with the top down and their "hair" blowing in the breeze. ("Hair" is in quotes because it's really just little tufts on top of their heads. Chipmunks don't have real hair. Silly!) For some reason, this vision of loveliness has appeared to him, perhaps in a dream, and he is convinced that this is the cake he Must Have.

This from a boy who doesn't even EAT cake. He takes two bites, if that. He's an ice-cream guy.

The last three birthday cakes, from our local bakery, were all the same: a red and yellow racecar. My son was deep into cars for ages, and despite my requests to change the car design each year, we kept getting the same car design from this particular bakery -- the decorator, it seems, does not have a wide repertoire of designs. So, happy not to have the usual plain racecar request this year -- happy he's been diversifying his interests over the past year -- I went to our local bakery, shared my son's vision, brought in pictures, and asked what they could do.

The girl behind the counter looked shell-shocked. The baker shook her head. No chipmunks. No way. They could, however, do a red shirt, like Alvin wears, and some musical notes. I settled for that. Then I told my son what the cake design would look like, as he's not a big fan of surprises.

The switch did not meet his design specifications. The image of a lonely, chipmunkless shirt actually made him burst into tears. As did the concept of Alvin without his brothers. I asked for alternative ideas. Simpler ones.

"How about the cars from Dr. Seuss? From the Lorax? Those are fun," he said cheerfully, wiping his eyes.

"They are. But they're pretty hard to do in cake frosting. And we're having a rock-n-roll party, remember?"

"Oh. How about an electric guitar? With sparks flying out of it?"

"Better. But maybe not the sparks?"

"Wait. I've got it. Transformers, in a battle!"

I tried to show simpler cake photos online. I showed a YouTube video of how a cake decorator squeezes frosting from a tube. I explained the concepts of "simple" and "complicated." Usually he listens to information like this and comes around, but this time he could not be persuaded that his cake visions were impossible to execute. And the fact is, they are NOT impossible. A high-end cake decorator would rise to these challenges. For a fee. But I'm not willing to invest in that for preschoolers. Who do not actually eat the cake.

We've been hotly debating cake decoration for a week now, and where we left it this morning was with him sighing and saying "Fine, let's just get the same racecar." Well, that bothers me too. It feels like giving up. There must be some creative solution, something simple yet feasible, that we haven't hit on.

Now maybe most parents -- sensible parents -- would just buy a simple cake from the grocery store and be done with it. I don't recall my own parents ever asking me for cake design input. Cakes appeared, and were eaten, end of story. And maybe other parents -- cooking parents -- would make a cake and tackle the design themselves. But I'm a horrible cook -- I can actually screw up cake mix from a box -- and have no cake design talent. I know because I once worked in a bakery, in high school, and my shortcomings as a baker were glaring, especially when I accidentally sold the model cakes out of the display case, not knowing the frosting designs were actually covering Styrofoam.

Then it dawned on me this morning that I am so caught up in this cake dilemma because -- watch out, writing metaphor coming! -- it hits a nerve related to my own creative issues.

I too get grandiose visions of what is possible in a story and refuse to admit impossibility. There's no room for all these characters. They can't go to place X and Y and Z. These subplots are too complicated. Hyperventilation usually follows. Then sheer determination. There has to be a way! I WILL make it happen!

Sometimes the effort alone makes me see that a story really is too crowded, that a subplot or character must go. But I have to go through the effort first. And sometimes multiple efforts lead to creative solutions. Maybe characters who are similar can actually combine. Maybe they don't go to place X, Y, or Z but to a different place altogether. Maybe a scene can do double or triple duty, working on several levels, and I don't need three scenes after all. A little cutting, trimming, reshaping, moving flowers around -- a design is taking shape.

But then it collapses; maybe the design looks OK but there's a flaw in the cake structure, or the basic ingredients. Too much flour or too little. And I try again. And that's where I'm at with my work-in-progress. Reshaping, rebuilding, making those painstaking decisions. Piece of cake? Not really. Many hours of work. But hopefully worth it in the end. If I'd given up on my design with Tokyo Heist when I was most afraid of incorporating many different elements, I wouldn't have had the finished product I have today.

So I'm torn between teaching my son to lower his expectations and be realistic versus encouraging his wildly creative ideas and teaching him ways to make them happen. Ways that don't involve my shelling out fifty bucks or more.

So . . . how do you make artistic decisions about how much to include in a story or other work of art? Do you tend to overwrite and need to pare down, or do you underwrite and need to develop? 


And does anyone know a good, cheap cake decorator in the greater Boston area?

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sashimi and Settings, on the mystery blog

I'll be back here soon, I promise. Meanwhile, I'm over at Sleuths Spies & Alibis, kicking off our new Tuesday blog theme by discussing sashimi and settings!

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