Merry Christmas to you all

Every writer's Christmas list (image source: on-the-write-track.blogspot.com)

Every writer’s Christmas list (image source: on-the-write-track.blogspot.com)

It is officially Christmas Eve. I’m not sure how many pretend Christmas Eves there are, but this one has a little blue badge on twitter. Santa has the elves on overtime, which is a nice boost for those on zero-hour contracts worried about whether they would have to visit one of the many food banks that have sprung up in Lapland since the family business of Santa Toymakers & Deliveries was bought out by venture capitalists, their first step in a planned global holiday monopoly once their acquisitions of Hanukkah and Diwali are completed.

Here at chez Hearn we are almost ready. The presents have been bought (no need this year to print photographs of undelivered presents) and the pre-Christmas cull of tat, detritus and unloved toys from the boy’s playroom to make room for all the new things that Santa may bring, is complete. We just have to collect the pre-ordered fruit and veg from our local greengrocers (yes, some do still exist) and we can relax.*

I just wanted to wish everybody who has visited my blog over the past few months a very Happy Christmas, or happy holidays as you prefer; a happy winter solstice to the pagans and to the more po-faced non-believers a happy Newtonmas (I’m a non-believer myself but isn’t publicly promoting a made up holiday over Christmas period being just a bit self-righteous, like celebrities saying they do charity work but don’t like to talk about it).

When I started this blog I had hopes that one or two people might visit and possibly like the strange mix of stuff and nonsense that they found (with the odd serious post just to keep you on your toes). What I didn’t realise was that quite so many of you would not just visit but show interest, comment and be so supportive (even the self-confessed cat-killers). I would especially like to thank the many fellow bloggers who have welcomed me into the blogging community with open arms. Your ongoing support, comments, as well as your own excellent blogging has been a real inspiration. You are all so very kind.

I won’t be posting between Christmas and New Year, but I promise to return in 2014 with a fresh batch of made-up flummery for your entertainment.

All the best,

Dylan

*well, as relaxed as you can be with two young boys bouncing around the house in a pre-Christmas frenzy

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You may feel a moment of discomfort…

Don't worry, you're in safe hands... (image source: surgicalimagesomaha.blogspot.com)

Don’t worry, you’re in safe hands… (image source: surgicalimagesomaha.blogspot.com)

“So as you see, this is a routine procedure that I’ve given thousands of times. I’ve even had it myself so there is no better reassurance than that.”

It had taken over two years of conversations for me to be here, pretty much since the birth of our second child. I had argued my corner, from  “what if you change your mind and want another?” to “if things get bad you could be depriving us of a source of income”, but finally I had come to the conclusion that after 13 years of marriage it was about time I took on the burden of birth control.

“So is that all clear,” asked the surgeon “or do you have any concerns?”

“Only that you’ll sneeze as you make the incision.”

Within minutes I had changed into a surgical gown and hopping up onto the theatre bed, pausing briefly to be introduced to the two theatre nurses. Once I lay comfortably the surgeon asked me to pull my gown to my waist. It was then I learnt the true meaning of the phrase ‘feeling exposed’. I’m sure the room was warm but it felt strangely chilly below. Everything had happened so quickly, so lying there, balls to the wind, the realisation of what was about to happen finally struck home.

It’s fair to say that I felt a little uncomfortable of all the attention. I knew that the team had seen it all before – that if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all – but despite trying my best to be blasé about the whole thing I felt very self-conscious. The only way I could overcome this feeling was to stare at the ceiling, refusing to look the nurses in the eye. That way, if I didn’t see them looking, then they weren’t looking. It was an absurd argument but it worked.

As the surgeon examined that everything was where it should be – “I’ve been doing this a long time, so despite what you may think it’s always best to check” – the two nurses started talking about Christmas, possibly sparked the similarity of the exposed part of my body to a plucked turkey. The surgeon applied the antiseptic wash – a little too workmanlike for my liking – regaling me with the time he’d had his operation. The other surgeon was a friend, who instead of warming up the solution, had placed ice cubes in it instead. “I yelped,” he said, before adding that they had to make the incision in his armpits because that was where his testicles now resided. I laughed, feeling at ease for the first time since laying down. Then the surgeon said those words of dread: “Now you may feel a moment of discomfort…”

It was at this point I learnt that the body has more reflex points than I’d realised. I knew if you hit the knee with a small hammer below the kneecap, the leg automatically springs up. Well apparently, if you map a needle into the base of somebody’s penis, their knee shoots into the air. The surgeon was obviously aware, dodging said knee with the grace of Muhammad Ali in his prime; and the nurses were aware, suddenly mopping my brow with a cool cloth they had prepared earlier; but it was all a big surprise for me. Still, the surprise was short-lived and within moments the surgeon started his work.

I’m not a squeamish person – I once watched a doctor sew up a gash the size of my fist in my leg, marvelling that you could see the fatty layer under the skin – but this time I decided to lie back as the surgeon cut a section out of my vas deferens (my editor thought it was the name of some expensive trainers). Before I realised that he’d finished he’d moved over to the other side of the bed. I was prepared for the ‘discomfort’ this time. My knee didn’t shoot up but my body may have resembled a person undergoing electro-shock therapy. As you may have guessed, I’m not great with pain.

Pending testing, my membership of club jaffa is approved (image source: nick-ontheblog.blogspot.com)

Pending testing, my membership of club jaffa is approved (image source: nick-ontheblog.blogspot.com)

And then it was over. After a few minutes I felt well enough to sit up and after a few moments more I walked with my newly found John Wayne gait to the recovery room for tea and biscuits, my darwinian role to pass on my genes a thing of the past. As I sat there I say a friend had texted me to wish me luck. I texted back to let him know that it was all over and everything ant fine. “The hair growing back is the worst,” he replied. “If it’s worse than the injections I’ll be in real trouble,” I said.

It just remained for the nurse to hand me some paperwork describing post-surgical care and a sample pot for a few weeks time. On the journey home I felt every bump but two days later I’m sitting here, a little battered and bruised but basically OK. I just need to be tested in 14 weeks time before I’m given the all clear, although my last conversation at the surgery has me a little worried”

“You need to phone the lab to let them know you’re dropping off the sample,” said the nurse. “They don’t have any facilities there, so you’ll need to produce the sample at home, but it’s important they don’t receive it any later than 45 minutes after it was produced. Do you live far from the hospital?

“About 40 minutes away.”

“Oh well, try not to get arrested.”

The Act of Killing

One of the most popular and enduring story formats is the battle between good and evil. It is a form that has for centuries been used to teach morality, the difference between right and wrong and the consequences of doing bad things. Ever since reading the Lord of the Rings at a very young age I have loved reading fantasy books, the majority of which show protagonists caught up in an age-long battle between forces that a purely good and purely evil and usually after a lot of struggle the forces of good prevail. The problem with this trope is that it has become so ingrained into our culture that it is used to explain events in the real world, which is incredibly dangerous, because  calling a person evil immediately abrogates them of responsibility for their actions and prevents any investigation of a cause and a solution.

I mention this because I’ve just seen the documentary ‘The Act of Killing‘ which describes the events of the 1965-66 Indonesian killings, where over 1 million communise, trade unionists, left-wing sympathisers and ethnic Chinese were killed following the fall of the communist President Sukarno and military take-over. During this time, the military government organised, trained and encouraged local militias to do their dirty work, with the tacit blessing of western governments concerned about the rise of communism at the height of the cold war.  The documentary is about two of the most notorious leaders of these killing gangs.

What makes this documentary unique is that it is the perpetrators who tell the story, and initially they tell it with pride. These men are now in their 70’s, still living in the communities that they terrorised 50 years previously, often in positions of power and influence but still with the gangster mentality of their youth. They happily show the film-makers  the places where they committed these atrocities and explain in grisly detail what they did and why.

The real power of the documentary comes when the film-maker encourages these men to stage scenes, in whichever way they see fit, reenacting events from that time. This may sound terrible, as if the film-maker is giving the men the opportunity to glorify their past actions – and that was certainly how the perpetrators first saw the idea- but the act of filming these events, even though they were portraying it as a glorious thing, started to have an effect on the men, allowing them to become a spectator to the full horror of their actions, with differing reactions.

It is a powerful and moving film, one that I would recommend everybody should watch, not only because it tells the story of a horror that has remained hidden for 50 years, but because gives insight into the factors that led to this happening. And this is important, because it would be very easy to see these men as naturally evil people who took full advantage of the opportunity to do evil things, but these are the same old men that love their families, go shopping with their daughters or bounce grandchildren on their knee. The men believed what they did was right (at least initially), even though they knew (and admitted during the film) that contrary to what had been taught in Indonesia over the last 50 years, they were the bad guys and not the communists. It would also be easy to see the military who encouraged the killings as evil, but they believed they were protecting the country from the threat to freedom imposed by communism, encouraged by western governments. At the same time and just to be clear, I am not suggesting that the killings were in any way justified.

To me, what the film also showed was the danger of us as writers propagating the myth of good versus evil. By reinforcing these tropes we have allowed them to become shorthand to describe any conflict. They have become embedded into our news broadcasts, newspapers and political discourse. It turns everything into ‘them and us’, almost guaranteeing confrontation and denigrating the role of empathy and understanding to “fraternising with the enemy”. I believe it is our duty as writers to demonstrate in even the most straightforward stories that there are reasons and motivations behind every act no matter how immoral or abhorrent they may be, to show that the world isn’t black and white, that people aren’t black and white. Because if we can’t help teach people to view all sides of a situation and instead put it all down to evil, how can we expect humanity to have the ability to learn from what has happened, to ensure justice for the victims, or to prevent something like this from happening again?

 

Christmas shopping survival guide for men

Last year was terrible. You had thought you had everything under control. You knew what you had to buy – which was a bonus on previous years – you knew where to get it and you even knew what size. You were a champion of men and you had this Christmas shopping lark cracked. Yes, it was the 24th December. The shops were due to shut in half an hour but you were in control. You were cruising. Steve McQueen would have given you a nod in recognition of your cool demeanour. By this point you were
in full hunter/gatherer mode. You entered the shop and located the garment with laser precision. This is too easy, you thought as you swaggered up the rail. That was when your mouth went dry. Beads of sweat gathered on your forehead. All extraneous information evaporated as you zoned in on the key information, checking again and again, fingers fumbling as you flicked the hangers back and forth in the vain hope of finding the elusive size 12 when there were only size 6 and size 24 left. It is then that you lock eyes with the man beside you, his grey complexion shiny with sweat under the striplights, a rictus grin on his face; only to realise that you’re staring into a mirror.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Here is my handy guide on how to not just survive, but to conquer Christmas shopping.*

The best way to shop this Christmas (image source: http://talkbusinessmagazine.co.uk/men-christmas-shopping/)

The best way to shop this Christmas (image source: http://talkbusinessmagazine.co.uk/men-christmas-shopping/)

1. The Internet is your friend

It was not so long ago that in the hours leading up to Christmas Eve closing you would find herds of men flitting from perfume shop to perfume shop, looking for that special gift and hoping not to have confused their partner’s favourite scent with that of their mother’s. Not any more. A quick Google search will bring up thousands of lists of the perfect gift for ‘her’, complete with links to buy it online. And if you order it too late? Print off a picture and stick it in their Christmas card (you did buy a Christmas card, didn’t you?)

2. Ask her best friend for help

Some of you may be organised enough to know that a present is needed but haven’t a clue what to get. It’s the age old problem, what to buy for the person who has everything (i.e. you). Never fear, help is at hand: her best friend. Now I’m not for a minute saying you should ask outright. That would be crazy. But you could try this:

You: “I’ve been struggling to find that gift (add partners name here) has wanted for so long.”

BFF: “Wow, you’re finally going to buy her a (gift name)?”

You: Coughs at the thought of how expensive (gift name) is. “Yes, that’s the one. I just can’t find it anywhere?”

BFF: “You’re such an idiot. They’re selling them at (store name).”

You: “They wouldn’t happen to have a sale on?”

BFF: Laughter/dirty look depending on whether best friend thinks you are good enough for your partner. “No.”

You see. A short conversation and you have all the information you need.

3. Look in her wardrobe

Some of you may have partners that suddenly discover clothes that they had forgotten they had bought. You know the ones, they tend to look expensive and when you ask your partner when they had bought it they tend to blush as they reply that they had found it in the back of the wardrobe (along with Narnia, given the amount of lost clothes she tends to find). Well have a hunt yourself. Look for something that looks pristine, may still have a price tag, and has definitely been hidden back as far in the wardrobe as possible. Then wrap it and give it back on Christmas day. She’ll be delighted.

And if all else fails…

All you need to make the perfect Christmas gift (image source: http://blog.incipeindustries.com/dremel-4000-precision-multitool)

All you need to make the perfect Christmas gift (image source: http://blog.incipeindustries.com/dremel-4000-precision-multitool)

4. Make something

Yes, she may have hinted at a new top (you remember the hint, the photograph she had cut from a magazine and left on your pillow with “BUY ME THIS FOR CHRISTMAS” scribbled at the top) but you saw the look in her eyes when her child/nephew/niece gave her that scribbled on toilet roll tube with bits of glitter and coloured wool stuck around the sides. Imagine the love she would feel when she sees the necklace you make her out of a piece of string, some offcuts of wood and a dremel. It’s the type of act that can make this Christmas one to remember.

*If you are female, you may be wondering why I am posting this guide so close to Christmas. Surely all the shopping is done by now? You are giving the male species far too much credit. It’s not even a week before Christmas. Most men haven’t even started thinking about gifts for anyone else (although they will have their eye on a PlayStation 4/new TV/barrel of Winter beer for themselves).

Facing rejection

The rite of passage (image source: billanddavescocktailhour.com)

The rite of passage (image source: billanddavescocktailhour.com)

So it finally happened. I received my first rejection email from a literary agent on Friday. It was a very polite, well written, even encouraging rejection letter, but it was a ‘no’ all the same. I know that there are many of you out there thinking about submitting your beloved manuscript to an agent and I wish you all the very best. If, however, things do not go to plan, I would like prepare you for the emotional roller coaster you are about to undertake. Here is my guide to the five stages of grief writer rejection*:

The tingle of excitement as you read the email heading soon turns to disappointment as you get to the key phrase “your book is not for us/we are not interested in representing you/my eyes, my eyes!” It is at this point you enter the first stage of writer rejection:

1. Denial and Isolation
There must be some mistake. You had just spent the best part of a year/years putting your life’s blood into the manuscript. You may have only sent through the first three chapters but what great chapters they were! Your Mother loved it when she read it through, said it was the best book she’d ever read. Perhaps there had been a clerical error and some lowly intern had sent out a rejection mail by mistake.

By this point, disappointment’s insidious rise starts to subvert your brain’s initial denial into a completely different emotion.

2. Anger
How dare they! Exactly who do they think they are, sitting on their high horses acting as gatekeepers to the promised land. Then again their website is a bit of a giveaway, filled with the latest autobiographies of z-list celebrities keen to make a quick buck in the lead up to christmas. Plus they represent the Author X, who’s writing is terrible despite the bucket loads of books they’ve sold. You know that you’re so much better than the cliche-riddled tripe that they produce every six months. It’s clear that the agency clearly put commercial success above artistic merit. It’s as if they believe selling books is some form of business!

You chanter away for a while, dreaming of Molotov cocktails and agency windows, but as your anger subsides, you are left with feelings of helplessness and vulnerability and feel the need to somehow regain control.

3. Bargaining
Perhaps you could beef up the opening paragraph. Instead of your hero smiling at his beau over a cup of coffee, he could be handing her a child he’d just rescued from a burning building whilst under-fire by guerrilla rebels, putting his body in the line of fire to protect the child and taking a bullet while winning her heart? Then again, maybe it was the chicken analogy. You’d always thought it a bit clunky. Perhaps if you used a skunk instead it would be more eye-catching. Or you could change…

With each thought, like raindrops striking a dog-turd, your confidence in the integrity of your book erodes until you believe that the whole thing is just one big shitty mess. This leads to the fourth stage:

4. Depression

You were an idiot to have sent it in. The book is clearly awful. Who were you kidding? You’re the writer equivalent of those poor, deluded saps dreaming of stardom while warbling tunelessly during X-Factor auditions. The only way you’re likely to get published is as an example of how not to write for creative writing students, or as an email circular agents send to each other** with the title “You’ll never believe what arrived this morning.” Perhaps it would be better to pack away the notebook, the highlighter pens and the mind maps and go back to the day job.

For some, this period of despondency takes months to recover from, for others just minutes, but eventually you come to the final phase.

5. Acceptance

It was just not meant to be. For whatever reason, this agent and your book were not a match. It was nothing personal and it doesn’t mean the other 20 submissions you sent would end up the same way. You’ve had enough good feedback from others to believe there is some merit, and even you thought it was OK and you are your own worst critic. Relax. Look at the number of famous authors who initially faced multiple rejections. And it wasn’t as if this agent was the one you really wanted to work with, was it.

Plus, even if you get rejected by every single one of them, there is always self-publishing, which pays a much higher percentage per book…

Other good blogs on handling rejection:

25 Things Writers should know about rejection – Chuck Wendig

12 Famous writers on literary rejection

Literary rejections on display

*with apologies to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

** I have made this up, I’m sure agents are far too professional to behave this way. Well, most of them.