Words aren’t enough

The world is full of tough guys, or, at least, guys who want you to think they’re tough.

In my work-life as a street cop I see a lot of swagger, a lot of bravado. I’ve encountered a lot of men, young and old, both clients and coworkers, who feel it necessary to puff themselves up and tell you about how hard they’ll be to take down, about how far they’ll go and what they’ll do when pushed.

There is an immutable truth about “tough guys” that my old man was fond of quoting: If you have to tell people how tough you are, you ain’t that tough.

Piss and wind, which seems to be the primary composition of these blustery individuals, doesn’t carry you very far when the time for talking is over. Sometimes words are only worth so much, and when you run out you find yourself short-changed.

In this case, “short changed” means “bleeding.”

One of the most dangerous men I’d ever encountered did not have to utter a word about himself for you to know he could hurt you. He was grey-haired, in his fifties, about 5’9” and looked like he was made up of rebar and old iron filings. He had a lot of old, faded, almost unidentifiable military style tattoos, and his nose looked like it had been broken half a dozen times I had about fifteen minutes on the force, and had only been riding on my own for a few weeks, when I was called upon to arrest him because he’d done something silly.

My first ever road-boss, Roger, had told me, very seriously, when I first started my career, “Always be polite, Ty. Be nice as long as you can, and when the time for kindness is over, get mean as hell.”

I remembered this lesson as I looked at this wiry man, who was four inches shorter and forty pounds lighter than I was. I was generally very confident in my physical ability, but as I looked at him the spark of cop’s instinct that was just beginning to grow in my thick skull whispered to me, I don’t think you can take him.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, reaching my hand up to my radio to call for help. “But you’re under arrest.” When he didn’t immediately fight or flee, I lowered my hand from my radio, and swallowed my unreasonable fear. I explained to him why I was there, and why I believed I had the lawful authority to arrest him. I expressed that I understood his side, but also told him that this issue wasn’t going to go away and he needed to accompany me and go before the courts to answer for the charge. I didn’t puff myself up, or start yelling, or make vague threats that I wasn’t sure I could follow through on. I used my words economically, so I didn’t give myself an opportunity to say anything stupid, and treated him with as much dignity and professionalism as I could.

He looked at me for several heartbeats, quite obviously taking my measure, and said, “All right, son. Thank you for being so polite.” Then he turned around and allowed me to handcuff him. As I got close to him, the air of subdued menace got thicker, and there was no question in my mind that I was only arresting him successfully because he was allowing it to happen.

During the drive to the cell block, and the subsequent booking in process, I learned that he had not always been as he was then. He was a Vietnam war veteran, and had been part of a “Unit” for the United states army. He did not want really want to discuss himself, and would only say, “I was one of those idiots who jumped out of perfectly good airplanes.” When I asked him why he, who was born in Canada, would join the American army, he shrugged. “It seemed like an important job that needed do, so I went and did it.”

Before I closed the door on his cell, he insisted on shaking my hand, and telling me, “I know you’re just doing your job, like I was doing mine, but I appreciate your kindness, and your courtesy.” With my hand in his grip it became apparent, again, that he was only in my custody because he chose to be, and my courtesy probably saved me from a losing fight.

He did not have to tell me he was tough; that fact was very clear to me without him saying a word.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading my friend, Michael R Fletcher’s novel, “Beyond Redemption”. As I read it, I have been thinking about that old encounter, so many years ago, and the lessons I have carried away from it. I’ve realized those lessons, gleaned from the taciturn war veteran who could have probably kicked my ass, apply readily to my writing life.

Michael’s writing story is dark, but there is a power in it that you don’t often find in modern fantasy novels. The writing is spare, told in only enough words – the right words – for you to keenly feel the deeper emotion of the story; the anger of some characters, the desperation of others, the keen hurt they feel at the rank betrayal perpetrated against them. The story does not give over to wordiness or excess, yet conveys its message, and its fantastical setting, with an elegant brutality.

Michael has figured out how to tell a compelling story without wasting any time trying to bullshit you into believing it’s compelling, much like the man I’d encountered who told me all I needed to know about his mettle without saying a word.

In my experience the men who talk the loudest about all the things they’re going to do are the ones who are the most terrified. The same goes for storytelling. Using a two dollar word (one it is obvious you pulled out of a thesaurus) where a nickel will do is like a street cop who says, “or else” at the end of a command; the bad guy knows you’re full of shit, and so will your reader.

The wordy ridiculousness, the literary equivalent of the sloppy drunk in front of the local bar yelling at someone and threatening to kick an ass while holding his friend’s arm across his chest to make it appear he’s being held back, has no place in good storytelling.

You can’t fake emotion in your writing with five syllable words. Sometimes you have to cut deep into your blackest vein and let your concealed darkness spill out onto your page.

Sometimes words aren’t enough. Sometimes you have to give your story a little more.

As always, thanks for reading.

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How A Stack Of Iron Saved My Life

When I was about fifteen years old I saved up enough money to buy my first weight set, consisting of one of those rickety Weider benches, a couple of iron bars, and a hundred pounds in crumbling, concrete-filled vinyl weights.

I was a short, fat, socially awkward kid who spent the majority of my time watching the Arnold Schwarzenegger version of Conan, reading fantasy novels and writing really terrible short stories. I was often bullied, and I thought that if I looked like Conan I would suddenly become popular and receive less ass kickings.

I had absolutely zero athletic ability, but I hassled my mother for a copy of Muscle and Fitness every time we went to the grocery store and, very gradually, figured out what I was doing. As I got a little older, and a little bit stronger, I once again saved up my nickels and dimes and bought a pass to an actual gym, with weights that didn’t fall apart and puff grey dust in your eyes. I was also lucky enough to meet a couple of older guys who were willing to point me in the right direction and stop me from dropping a barbell on my head and killing myself.

When I left home and started a career in law enforcement, the necessity for fitness quickly became much more urgent. Instead of scuffling with other kids in the high-school hallway because they thought it was fun to beat up the fat kid, I found myself fighting with grown men, who were often under the influence of illegal stimulants. Sometimes, I discovered, these men (and occasionally women) were more than willing to kill me if it meant they wouldn’t have to go to jail for the night. My life was cheaper to them than the last dime-bag of crack they had purchased, and no one was going to be responsible for my survival but myself.

I always took my lifting seriously, but despite all my time spent in the gym, I remained somewhat uneducated. I spent a lot of time doing things I didn’t need to and ate a lot of crap food. Then, about a year ago, a friend pointed me in the direction of a man named Jim Stoppani, and his one of his training programs, Shortcut to Size.

I started the program and I took it seriously. I didn’t skip any workouts, I didn’t miss any meals, I followed Doctor Stoppani’s word as though it were a sacred gospel and I had phenomenal results. By the time I reached the end of the program, I was lifting more weight, moving more iron, than I ever thought possible. Then, one morning at about 0500 hours, the program saved my life.

I was eleven weeks into the program and was working my last night shift. It was one of those nights where my crew was running short, and at 5am there was only two of us working in my district. Just before sun-up, we got a panicky 9-1-1 call from a man screaming into the phone that someone had broken into his house. I, along with my lone constable working with me, scooted over to the scene as quickly as I could.

We found a very frightened family barricading themselves behind a door that had been kicked off its hinges. Once I convinced them we were the police, and not their attacker coming back for another try, they opened the door and told us they had all been awoken from a dead sleep when a man had broken down their door and stormed into their house. As they were giving their gibbering, terrified account, the family’s eldest daughter’s eyes grew wide and she pointed into the street.

“That’s him,” she said. “That’s the man who was in our house!”

I turned to see a wiry man walking briskly towards us, carrying a soccer ball (I don’t know why he was carrying a soccer ball, so don’t ask). Against all reason, he was walking straight towards us. I stepped away from the family and across their lawn to confront the man. As I got close, it became very obvious that he had been using a large quantity of some manner of stimulating street drug; he was twitchy, erratic, shouting incoherently, and was not the least bit concerned about me or my uniform.

I stepped in front of the man, who was walking directly towards the terrified family, and said, “You’re under arrest for break and enter, turn around and put your hands behind your back.”

He stopped and looked at me for the first time, then dropped the soccer ball. He gave a weird little screech and turned away from me while he reached into the pocket of his dirty coat and pulled frantically at an object, trying to get it out.

Any street cop will tell you that if you’re trying to arrest someone and they reach suddenly for an item in their pocket, it’s never good.

I saw just a glint of something shiny in the twitchy man’s struggling hand and I jumped on him. I believed, with absolute clarity, that anything he pulled out of his pocket would probably be the death of me. I latched onto his arm and tried to control it, but moving the man, despite the fact I had at least thirty pounds on him, was like trying to move a cement block. His arm was as rigid and unyielding as a piece of re-bar, and it was all I could do to shove him towards the side of my nearby car. My partner jumped on his back and tried to pin him down, but even with both of us on top of him he was still able to stand up and we had next to no control.

The struggle was ugly, desperate and extremely violent. I couldn’t get my hand up to my radio to call for help, and I didn’t have the space to reach for any of my tools. It all came down to a simple question: What was stronger; Me, or the drugs in the guy’s system.

Ultimately it turned out to be me. By the end of the struggle, we got the guy in handcuffs, but all three of us were bleeding, and I was gassed. My hands and forearms were throbbing from trying to hang on to the guy, and the fragrant blend of stress, adrenaline and fatigue had the muscles in my legs, back and arms shaking.

Apparently, during the struggle, the mic on my radio keyed and all our dispatcher could hear was scrabbling and muffled yells. She sent another member from a different district, and when he arrived he helped us search our new friend and shove him into the back seat of a patrol car. When I searched that pocket the guy had be reaching for so intently, I found a very long, very sharp, kitchen knife. As I looked down at the knife in my hand I could only think that if he had gotten it out he would have killed me, or I would have had to shoot him. Either way, it was an outcome I didn’t want to contemplate.

It took Carla and I several hours to finish the paperwork necessary to bring the accused before the courts, and during that time I did contemplate all the possible outcomes that might have resulted from the encounter. If I hadn’t been quite as strong as I was, or had the same level of endurance, or had the fortitude to keep fighting, the consequences would have certainly been life altering, if not life ending – and not just for me, but for my partner and the frightened people who were standing behind me.

I felt, in those moments, like I owed my life to Jim Stoppani; him and all those stacks of iron I’d moved.

In the days since that confrontation I’ve walked into the gym with a different attitude. Because of my profession, every workout I do could be the last one before I have to fight for my life, and I’ve kept that in mind with every pound I slide on the bar.

No matter what you do for a living, whether you’re a street cop or a storyteller, I would encourage you to keep your body strong, and make your fitness a priority. You never know how deep you’re going to have to dig to save a life.

As always, thanks for reading.

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New Words, Old Memories

Before I was a writer, I was a reader; just like every other writer on the planet. My parents, while not particularly educated people, were voracious readers, and I think that’s a trait that was both nature and nurture. There was never a time when there was not a book, usually marked with either a matchbook cover or a page torn out of the T.V. Guide (let thee not dog-ear the pages of a book to mark it, lest thee be beaten within a half inch of thy life) on the arm of my Dad’s easy chair. It always seemed to me, in my six-year-old imagination, that those books were friends, who were patiently waiting at my old man’s elbow to be picked up and carry on an important conversation.

I was not a particularly smart kid, but in a house so well inhabited by books, I could not help but emulate my parents and read with a healthy appetite. Reading was a habit that was rewarded, and in a time when we did not have a lot of money, my old man was always willing to take me to the second hand bookstore and reach into the pocket of his battered Levis to spend fifty cents or a dollar on a book I fancied.

As I grew, my reading habits changed and it was a significant rite of passage – in my own mind, anyway – when my old man handed me one of his own books to read.

I was eight or nine years old, and had just finished tearing through the most recent middle grade book I’d pulled from the thrift store shelves, and was standing in front of the shelf built into the wall of our living room reserved for my Dad’s books. I was running my finger over the wide, crinkled, paperback spines – or the less plentiful glossy hardcovers – when my old man stood behind me.

“You need something to read, squirt?” he asked. (He addressed me as squirt, even when I had four inches and ninety pounds on him.)

I shrugged, in the non-committal way pre-teen children do when addressed with a question they’re not sure about; I wanted to read one of my Dad’s books, but they were all so thick, and intimidating. I imagined the conversations with those books would be in voices so deep I’d be unable to comprehend the meaning.

My Dad crossed his wiry arms, then rubbed a nicotine stained finger across his stubbly chin. Finally, he reached to the top shelf and pulled green book out of a tightly-packed row. The spine was so bent, folded into nearly a crescent shape, that it was illegible, but the cover said “Eyes of the Dragon”, and below that, “Stephen King”.

“Try this one,” my Dad said as he handed to me. “And if you tell your mother I gave it to you, I’ll kick your ass ‘til your head rattles.”

I clutched the book to my chest like a golden prize, or perhaps a game winning football. I felt as though I’d been handed a one way ticket to a promised land, like an invitation to move from the kiddie table at Christmas dinner and sit with the adults. I scuttled into my room, switched on my bed-side lamp, and opened the crackly spine and began to turn the frayed, yellow pages.

I finished that book in a handful of days, reading every moment that was not engaged with something vitally important. After I finished that book, I replaced it (with the aid of a short stool), and pulled out the next one in line. Within a year I’d torn through every Stephen King title on the shelf with enough understanding that I could talk to my Dad about his favourite books. “The Shining” was his favourite, maybe because he’d struggled with alcohol the same way Jack Torrance did (my old man referred to himself as an alcoholic, although was “on the wagon”, so to speak, and never had a drink in my lifetime). Regardless of the title, we would always read it, one after the other, and then discuss it, weighing whether it was Stephen’s best book or his worst, and anxiously await the next one.

Since then, I have always associated Stephen King with my father. They were nothing alike, except that they were from the same generation (born a few months apart) and both liked scary stories, but I could not think of King without thinking of my Dad. Even long after I’d grown up and moved away from home, whenever I walked through a bookstore, and saw the latest King title, I could not help but think fondly of my old man.

At the end of my Dad’s life, he was very ill. In the months before his passing he was in so much pain, that exhausting kind of pain that leaves you energy for nothing other than being miserable, that he didn’t even have the strength to hold up a book. I think it was when he stopped reading that I knew my father was going to die.

When my mother called me and told me he’d been taken to the hospital by ambulance, I knew the end had arrived. I had bought him a copy of “Doctor Sleep”, a sort-of sequel to “The Shining”, and it was sitting on a shelf in my living room, waiting for the next time I saw him. I picked up the book and dropped it on the back seat of my truck, thinking that if he didn’t have the energy to read, perhaps he would have the energy to listen.

When I arrived at the hospital (several hours after I left my house), I found that he was past the point of listening. He was not yet gone, but within an hour of my arrival he had shuffled off this mortal coil. At one point, during the final moments of his life, I was alone with my Dad while my mother was making a couple of calls, and my wife was holding her arm to keep her upright.

As I watched my Dad, alive but uncomprehending, I realized I still had “Doctor Sleep” in my hand. I had already said the things I needed to say to him, told him the things I needed him to know, and in order to fill the silence in that small hospital room, I opened the book, leaned close, and read him the first page.

The first page is as far as I got, because my wife and my mother returned, and the end followed swiftly behind them.

When I returned to my own home, I put “Doctor Sleep” back on its spot on the shelf and didn’t touch it again. It has been over a year since my father’s death, and I have looked at that book countless times, but I have not been able to pick it up. I felt like there some kind of connection between that book and my Dad, and if I were pick it up and read it the connection would be gone. Lost forever.

It was my Dad’s birthday a couple of weeks ago, and he has been on my mind a lot. I have missed him every day since his death, but his birthday, for whatever odd reason, hit me harder than any other day, and I have felt a distinct ache in the center of me that nothing will soothe.

Last night I was standing in front of my bookshelf, scanning my “to be read” pile, finding nothing I was particularly interested in. I picked up a couple different books, read the first few pages, and then put them back, because nothing was hitting quite right. As my gaze wandered, and I grew more frustrated, my eyes landed on “Doctor Sleep”.

I looked at it a long time before I finally picked it up.

I sat on the couch, beside my wife, opened the book and began to read. While I had previously believed the magic in that book lived in its unexplored mystery – the beginning of the final thing I would ever share with my Dad – I quickly realized the wonder in that book was between the pages. The story, in itself is not magical – it is not a bout of brilliance that exceeds any other book that Stephen King has ever written – but it is familiar. And it is that familiarity that makes it magic.

Between the lines of script, I see my Dad. I hear his voice. I feel the rumble of his laughter in the story’s subtle jokes. In the picture of Stephen King on the back cover, I see a ghost image of my father, and it makes my heart glad. I am happy, now, to be reading this book. It makes me feel a little closer to my Dad’s memory; the last thing we are able to share.

As I read the story, I cannot help but think of my own, often neglected, storytelling. I have been doing well, lately, with my own work; an agreement has been reached with my publisher for my second novel, and I’m currently working on the first, heavy round of edits. But, as I experience “Doctor Sleep”, and through its pages feel so close to my Dad, I feel as though I should be doing more.

It is not just this singular story that has given me this experience- it is the greater body of Stephen King’s work that made me feel close to my Dad when I was a kid, and keeps me close to him now. Is it reasonable for me to hope that I, too, will one day effect someone the way that Stephen King is currently effecting me?

I suppose the hope is reasonable, but the actual doing of it will take a lot of work.

As always, thanks for reading.

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The Three Hardest Words

A number of years ago, I was sitting in the audience when Jack Whyte gave the Saturday night keynote speech at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference.

Dressed in his regimental colours (of the Calgary Highlanders), Jack asked us, “What are the three hardest words in the English Language?”

I love you,” the audience said in unison.

“No,” Jack replied. “The three hardest words are, ‘Some Assembly Required.’”

He went on to explain that (and I’m paraphrasing here), that some people, most people, are not willing to work for things anymore. When things get difficult or inconvenient, whether it be storytelling, or writing, or love, the most common response is to give the inconvenient thing the toss and go do something else.

I have been thinking a lot about those three words, lately, and now they apply to me – how they apply to my writing life, especially.

2014 was a hard year for me. I lost my dearest, oldest and closest friend: my Dad. I got rejected, a lot, both in my law enforcement career and my writing career. And while I had some successes, I was very much focused on my defeats and losses.

I have good friends, and they encouraged me to look at the bright side of life and focus on the good things, not the bad. But I was locked in a bit of a funk and roundly ignored any good advice I was given, choosing, instead to focus on everything I had lost (or not quite achieved). I kept telling myself, “Tomorrow I’ll get some work done,” or “next week I’ll set aside some serious writing time.” I think the main crux of my issue was that I’d lost belief in myself; when I kept hearing “No” all the time, I got to a point where I didn’t believe that anyone would ever say “Yes.” I grew convinced that I was destined to never get anything that I wanted, ever again.

I had a bit of a wakeup call when, at work, I was sitting in my boss, Mike’s office, lamenting about all the things that I hadn’t achieved. My act must have been getting a bit old, because Mike was slumped in his chair, and had an expression on his face that suggested he might want to plug his ears, when he leaned forward and fixed me with a glare.

“You gotta stop being so fucking dramatic, man,” he said. I sat, my mouth hanging open, his unexpected exasperation completely interrupting my litany of complaints.

“This shit’ll happen,” he continued. “You just gotta keep working at it. No one is going to hand you anything unless you keep going after it. And you’re not going to get after anything if you’re too busy whining.” Then he turned away from me, back to his computer screen.

I slouched my way out of his office, feeling wounded and ill-used. I had originally slunk into Mike’s office for encouragement, and soothing, and maybe a little pat on the back and an “atta-boy”. I had not gone to be criticized or labelled as a whiner.

As the day wore on, I thought more and more about what Mike had said. Was I, in fact, too busy whining to get anything done? Had I become so focused on being pissed off about what I didn’t have that I had forgotten how to work? The only conclusion I could come to was, yes. Yes I had.

There are a few places I go when seeking inspiration, and one of them is Chuck Wendig’s website: www.terribleminds.com. I had a look at one of his recent blogs, entitled: Arting Hard Like An Artful Motherfucker: 25 Ways To Be A Bad-Ass Maker Who Makes Bad-Ass Stuff.

I’d encourage you to read the entire post yourself, but the line that got to me the most was this: Stop praising the future for its opportunity and start seizing the power of the present. Fuck “one day.” You have this day. Do not squander it.

I thought about that line for a fair piece of time. Then I paired it up with my boss’s words. I had come to realize that I really was too busy whining about what hadn’t gone my way to look at the things that had. I was too busy thinking about all the work I would do and the stories I would tell “one day”, to plant my ass at my desk and get busy right now. I was squandering my time and had become terribly fearful of the words, Some Assembly Required.

I was still brooding, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my pseudo-revelation, when a letter, like an actual snail-mail letter, appeared at my house. It was from my publisher, and it was a contract.

I had sent in my second novel, a sequel to “The Watch”, a few months ago, and had been so busy being pissed off about a bunch of other things that I’d forgotten to be hopeful. That hope returned, suddenly, as I read the publishing offer.

The work, the hours of toil, and editing, and wailing and gnashing of teeth had produced a story, and someone liked that story enough that they wanted to give me money for it. I had assembled that bastard and now it was going to be read.

That hope was dented slightly when I realized there was much more work ahead of me. But the time for whining was done, and the time to get after it had arrived. There was no “one day”, there was only this day, and I could not afford to squander it.

No matter what we go after in our lives, we really do have to work at it. Stories don’t magically appear, they have to be built. Some assembly really is required. And it’s time to get to work.

As always, thanks for reading.

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A Season Of Loss

When I was a kid, Christmas was a big deal in my house. My mother was an overt Christmas lover; she would hang the first decorations about the same time as the first snow fell, Boney M Christmas music would rattle through our stereo by the first of December, and the dog would walk around, extremely depressed, with a pair of plush reindeer antlers strapped to her head.

My Dad, on the other hand, was a very subtle Christmas nut. He professed to hate Christmas Music (“Oh, for Christ’s sake, would you turn that shit off!?), hate the decorations, (“One more goddamned thing for me to hit my head on!”) and felt a pang of sympathy for the dog (“Take those things off, you’re gonna give her a complex!”). But we somehow, always, every year, found ourselves watching It’s A Wonderful Life, at least once during the Christmas season, and every time my father went into a store in the week before the 25th, he left with a robust “Merry Christmas!”

When I was about twelve years old, and searching the bookshelves for something to read around Christmas, my Dad produced a musty, moth-eaten copy of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. He insisted I read it, as it was “a real Christmas Story”, and then sat me down to watch the Alastair Sim version of the movie.

My father was not a man of religion, in fact he deeply mistrusted the motivations of any religion, (“You don’t have to go to church to be nice to people, for Christ’s Sake,) but he liked the idea that we could “Set aside a couple of days a year when people stop being assholes.”

As I grew up, I absorbed the Christmas observances of both my parents. In an image of my mother I like Christmas music, Christmas movies (My friends and I would watch this scene about a dozen times every year and nearly piss our pants), and ugly Christmas sweaters. But from my Dad I got a more subtle love and a deeper thought about the Christmas season, and what it’s really supposed to mean.

This is the first year I’ve had to think about Christmas without my Dad, and to tell the truth, I’m having a hard go of it.

This year, since my Dad’s death in January, has been a year of tough firsts. Each “special” occasion has been the first time I’ve had to do it without my old man around, and it has put a little crack in my heart. Every instance carries a certain weight, but the arrival of Christmas has gotten especially heavy, and I’ve had a bit of a “Fuck Christmas” vibe for the last month; I didn’t help my wife decorate the tree, I haven’t watched a single movie, and the only time I wore a bad sweater there was alcohol involved.

I was having a full-on grumpy Grinch moment this morning, when my wife and I went into a grocery store. The staff were all wearing Christmas hats, every aisle and stall was decorated in eye-woundingly bright decorations, and there was Christmas music piping through the speakers. It occurred to me that Christmas might have taken a fairly significant dump in that store, and I felt like the next idiot who wished me a ‘Merry Christmas’ might get a finger in the eye.

Then, as we got towards the back of the produce department, the music got increasingly louder. I was looking up at the speakers, my face obviously creased in annoyance, when I realized the music wasn’t coming from any sound system. In the back of the store, gliding softly among the broccoli and mangos, was a tall man in his early sixties, wearing blue jeans and a carefully combed Elvis-esq hairstyle, playing a fiddle. As we approached, he began playing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, which was one of those rare songs my old man had enjoyed.

I reached into my pocket to fish around for change to throw into his pot, or fiddle case, or what have you, but as I looked around I didn’t find any kind of receptacle. The guy saw me digging and looking, then tipped me a wink as his fingers flew over the strings and he sashayed around a couple of grey haired women who fanned themselves and fluttered their eyelashes.

The fiddle dude wasn’t playing for money, or charity, or anything else. He was playing because he dug Christmas, and he had a song for us.

I’m not going to tell you that this man’s song melted the ice in my cracked heart, cause I still miss my Dad and don’t have much inclination to celebrate Christmas without him. But after a day of thinking about that old guy and his fiddle, I am feeling just a touch less Grinchy. If that dude can come out on a rainy Saturday and play me a song just for the sake of the playing, then I think there might be a little space left for a few more Christmas stories, both mine and others.

I hope your Christmas is merry, and if you don’t have to work (like I and my team do), that you’ve got some family(both blood-relations and those you picked yourself) to tell you some stories.

As always, thanks for reading.

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A Few Lessons Learned

Over the past year, writing has been hard. Despite the fact that I continually find small slices of inspiration and make declarations of a renewed work ethic, both in my head and on this blog, those small slices have been digested into nothing more than literary farts that will stink up even the most ventilated of rooms.

I do not profess that my life has been harder than anyone else’s, but I have found it heavy, and the rippling effect of those consistent stressors have served to rock the boat of my writing life. And for the life of me I cannot get the bloody thing to settle down and prevent me from puking over the side.

Today, I returned home from the Surrey International Writer’s Conference. After four days of professional development classes, long hours, late nights and large quantities of Scotch Whiskey, I feel vaguely like I’ve been drug through a knot-hole backwards. But with that exhaustion comes a sense of fulfillment. I’m not going to say my tank is full, or that I am completely energized and ready to do extraordinary things, because that is only going to be so much bullshit. But, without question, I have learned. And the lessons have been deep.

For those who have never been to SiWC, the board (well, specifically the coordinator, Kathy Chung) manages to convince some pretty heavy talent to show up. The classes are always fantastic, and I take something important away from them every year.

This year, for example, Chuck Wendig taught me that it is my duty as a writer to always be the best version of myself, and that sometimes writing can be compared to performing veterinary medicine on a surly animal. From Mary Robinette-Kowal I learned that if your book doesn’t have an emotional impact on you, you’re doing something wrong. And from Peter Rubie I learned that the most important part of storytelling was to figure out what it is that I wanted to say, then find a classy way to say it.

The most important lesson of all, though, came from a woman named Laura Bradbury. I have known Laura for many years, through previous attendance at the Surrey Writer’s conference. Laura has always been kind to me, and obviously talented, but in the past year her career has skyrocketed. The really amazing thing, besides the fact that she hit the top of Amazon’s bestsellers ranks, is that she built her career in the face of daunting adversity.

In her keynote speech this morning, Laura revealed that prior to her first novel being published, she was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disorder. I cannot pronounce the name of her illness but the bottom line is that her survival depends on a liver transplant.

This little issue of her liver conking out makes all of my problems seem extremely manageable in comparison. I do not know exactly how I would behave in Laura’s circumstances, but I do not think I would have been able to do what she did, which was to persevere and succeed. After being diagnosed Laura wrote, then published her first book, “My Grape Escape”, which did phenomenally well, followed by its sequel.

During Laura’s keynote speech, I could not help but think of myself as a big sissy. I still believe the things I have faced over the last year have been difficult, and would test the mettle of anyone. But they are not insurmountable, and I have been allowing them to get in my way more than they should. If Laura could finish two books (and get a healthy start on a third) while considering the realities of her own mortality, then maybe I could pull up my boots and get back to work.

At the end of her address, Laura encouraged us to write bravely, to be word warriors, and to finish what we started. I think that is exactly what I should do.

As Chuck Wendig said: “Sometimes writing is easy, and sometimes it’s like performing an act of violent proctology on an angry goat.”

I think the important thing is to keep working, even on those days when your story wants to bash you with its ragged horns or kick you in the junk. Because no matter how bad things might suck, the stories still have to be told.

As always, thanks for reading.

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A Young Man’s Guide To Women

*Note* This is not a lesson on how to “Get” women. I have no idea how to “Get” a girl; I am already married to a girl who picked me up and dusted me off and made me presentable. Why did she do this? I don’t know, and I’m not about to go asking questions about a thing that is already good. Instead, these are my thoughts on how a man should behave concerning women.

When I was growing up I had a lot of influences on me that dictated the way I would view and treat women, but there were two sources that were of paramount importance: My Dad, and the stories I read.

Firstly, I learned by example, watching my Dad and the way he treated my mother. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household devoid of violence. My Dad yelled a lot – I mean A LOT – but it was usually in a comical, ranting manner. He shouted at the television (specifically at hockey players), at the lawnmower, at the deer that ate the buds off his tomato plants, but it was very seldom that he ever yelled at me or my mother. I can count on one hand the times he ever struck me – usually he made me go and get the wooden spoon and bring it to him, which would have me flailing on the floor and begging for forgiveness, which he found to be a much more effective punitive form than actually hitting me – and he never, ever hit my mum.

My Dad believed that it was a failure of your manhood to hit a woman. He told me that it was okay to get mad, to argue, to disagree with your wife, but it was never okay to let that argument dissolve into violence. It was also never acceptable to resort to calling a woman names like “bitch” or “whore” or “slut”. Nor was it okay to touch a woman unless you had expressed permission to do so. My Dad loved the sight of a pretty girl – or, as he would put it, he appreciated a finely turned ankle – but if someone really caught his eye the most he would do was mutter, “Well, hello there,” under his breath and then carry on.

Another thing my Dad believed in was books – stories – and he encouraged me to read from a young age. The stories I read had almost as great an impact on my view of women as my observance of my father, which is fitting because I read many of the same books he did.

The authors I was most drawn to, mostly men in my younger days, always had a positive view of women, sex and love. From Stephen King I learned that love should be urgent and true, in the manner of Roland Deschain and Susan Delgado. From Jack Whyte I learned that women were fierce compatriots who had distinct voices that should be heeded by their men. As I read, and grew, I developed my own opinions – a personal code, if you will – based on the examples I witnessed. I came to believe that a man, a good man, must possess certain qualities and behave in a certain way.

As I look at young men, now, I worry. I worry that there is no one to teach them how to behave. I worry that they will not learn the lessons they need in order to be good men.

If you pay any attention to social media, you can see that I am not the only one who is worrying. We seem to live in an era where some people (men) believe that threatening female authors, artists and celebrities with rape and violence is an acceptable practice. There are regular examples of men turning the responsibility for sexual assault back on the victims, saying ridiculous things like “If she didn’t want to get raped, she should have protected herself.”

This has been said before, by people smarter than me, but I have to ask, “Are you fucking serious?” After working in law enforcement for over a decade, and investigating far too many instances of sexual assault, I can tell you something for certain: No victim of rape was ever “asking for it.”

The problem with the general attitude of men who perpetuate these ideas is a lack of education. Whether they had poor role models in their parents, or they watched too much bad television, or didn’t read enough stories when they were kids, there is a mass failure in the education of young men. There is a disconnect somewhere that leads them to believe that some of this misogynistic shit is okay. Believe me, it is not okay.

Towards the ends of education, I have put together a few guidelines on how I think men should behave towards women. This is by no means an exhaustive list, it is only a beginning, but it is a beginning that some young men just do not have, and I wish I could give it to them. If I had my way, I would sit down with every man between thirteen and thirty and make them listen to this.

Rule number one: Remember, women are people. You might think it really stupid for me to start with this, but I don’t think that some men actually get it. Women are living, breathing, thinking, feeling entities who have as much right to security and well-being as any man. Being born as a male does not give you the right to violate that personal security.

Rule number two: Conversation is good, harassment is not – know the difference. I think it is perfectly acceptable to approach a woman in public and try and strike up a conversation. Go ahead and talk to that girl in the book store, coffee shop or bar; tell her your name, ask her what she’s reading, offer to buy her a drink, you might even let her know that you think she’s pretty. You never know; that one “hello” might turn into something awesome for you both.

But learn how to interpret social cues. If you’re making her uncomfortable, or she outright asks you to leave her alone, excuse yourself and carry on. Rejection is part of the human experience – embrace it – it is not reason to get mad, throw a tantrum and start hurling insults. Just because one particular person doesn’t want to talk to you, does not mean your entire life is a failure. And, really, if a woman gets mad at you for trying to talk to her, you probably didn’t want to talk to her anyway.

Rule number three: Keep your hands to yourself. The right to personal security means the right to not get groped. No matter what a woman is wearing, it is not an implied invitation for physical contact. Yes, there will be situations where physical contact is permitted, and even encouraged, but if you don’t know a woman I’m gonna suggest that grabbing her butt is a really bad idea.

Have a sense of personal space. Respect boundaries. Even if you think physical contact might be acceptable, if a woman tells you not to touch her, there should be no questions. It should not be a debate. If a woman says, “Don’t touch me,” your response should be “Okay.”

Rule number four: Violence, and threats of violence, are not acceptable. Working in law enforcement, I see a lot of violence. While sometimes the reverse is true, I most often see men assault women, and I’m talking like a ten to one ratio. Just to be clear: This is not okay. This is never okay. Like my Dad said, it is okay to disagree, it’s okay to argue, but resorting to violence is a failure.

Another trend I see so often is threats via social media, a recent example of which is the threats of rape and violence made to Emma Watson. To me, this is the height of cowardice; for a man, or group of men, to threaten a woman via the internet, where they cannot be held to account for their actions, is the very height of cowardly ridiculousness.

If you disagree with something someone said, I think it is okay to express your disagreement. But I also think you should do it in a reasonable, rational manner. Saying you’re going to rape a woman because you didn’t like her book/video game/statement is not rational. It is cruel, and stupid, and hateful and you should be ashamed of yourself.

If you really don’t like something someone has to say, don’t listen. Don’t buy their book, or play their video game, or read their blog. You can exercise free will and go do something else. Expressing your opinion through hate, misogyny and threats will not make anyone listen to you, it will make them think you are an asshole.

Being a man is not a matter of the gender you are born with. If you are born with a penis, that makes you male; being a man is something more. It is up to each of us to dictate our own behaviour – to develop our own code – and decide what makes a good man.

Each of us will have different experiences growing up. We won’t all have the same role models, read the same stories, get the same education. But I can’t help but thinking that if young men read a little more, thought a little more, felt a little more, that we wouldn’t have to keep having these conversations. The things we keep fighting for, the ideals we keep presenting, would already be the norm.

So, write a story, or read a story, and then think about it. You might learn something.

As always, thanks for reading.

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