Jonathon Dean

Writer. Human. Nerd.

Author: Jonny Dean (page 1 of 3)

A Cracking Start to the Year

A new year, and already I’m ill with whatever it is that seems to be going around lately. It would have to be just when I’m busier than I’ve been in quite some time, wouldn’t it?

One of the things I’ve been loaning my corporeal form to is exam invigilation, which is an unusual job as these things go, whose main required skill is the ability to keep oneself occupied for long periods of time without succumbing to any form of existential anxiety and screaming your soul out as you claw the flesh from your face. Thankfully I’m rather more stable than that.

That aside, the most important skill is the ability to remain silent for three hours at a time. Which, thanks to the aforementioned illness, is proving to be the most difficult part of the job. Generally, I consider myself one of the very best at sitting in a quiet room and keeping myself occupied with a book and phone/tablet for long periods of time – unfortunately at the moment that’s been requiring tag-teaming with someone else while I quietly nip out into the corridor and cough up several of my major organs, and then make my eighth lemsip-or-brew of the day.

Irritatingly, it is this very coughing-myself-into-an-early-grave issue that’s also getting in the way of me actually doing anything with the large amounts of time that I’m spending sat alone. I could easily be planning a project, working on my social media presence or similar – and actually getting paid for it! – but instead I’m forever rushing out into the corridor to attempt to turn myself inside-out instead of doing anything that is in any way useful.

Tellingly, the most significant writing milestone thus far in 2018 has been a rejection email for a short story I submitted over two years ago. I did vaguely wonder if they had simply not bothered to read it – that is a bloody long turnaround, after all! – but in the end it turns out that they just didn’t like it very much. I’m not sure whether that’s reassuring, or just damning.

Still, with the year getting off to this kind of start, it can only get better, right?

…right?

2017’s almost over, and what have we learned?

In this latest entire journey around the sun, what have I learned?

Well, first off, that breaking a limb 1) hurts, 2) is hugely inconvenient, and 3) really doesn’t help with the whole “let’s try to type all the time” side of things – which, if you think about it, is basically 90% of everything these days, particularly when you would really like to write for a living.

Second off, that all that time spent not-really-being-able-to-do-any-writing also seems to have a deleterious effect on my ability to actually come up with anything that I would like to write about for the length of time necessary to hit the 90k+ word count of the modern genre novel, without wanting to launch my laptop and its (admittedly electronic) contents out of a window and into the path of a passing bulldozer. This is also a gargantuan problem. How can I even sit and type about something now that I’m physically able to once again, when I’m struggling to come up with any ideas I want to spend any time with?

Third off, querying agents petrifies me. Like, properly petrifies me. And it’s not a question of showing people my work either, that I’m perfectly happy with. Here’s the issue; you get one, single attempt per agent per manuscript. There are a finite number of agents, and so a finite number of attempts that you get at redrafting and submitting each query letter, and manuscript. And of course, without having an agent (or the ability to throw infinite amounts of money at professional editors), you’re reliant on the feedback of people who know about as much about the whole process and what agents and editors are looking for as I do. Which means I can never have enough confidence in the finishedness and polishedness of my work to take the gigantic gamble of submitting them to my first choice agents, because it means that I don’t ever have the opportunity to submit that work to that agent ever again, and potentially several years’ work disappears into the void along with the many thousands of pounds I’ve spent on rent over the years.

All in all, a lot of self-discovery this year… I can only hope that 2018 starts looking a bit more positive than 2017!

Another Trip Around the Sun

So Friday was my 29th birthday, making that a new personal best for laps around the sun.

As you might imagine, I got a little bit merry for a few days, and as luck uniformly has it, a friend’s birthday happens to fall the day after mine, and he traditionally has a house party on the closest weekend. Which means traditionally, I tend to spend my birthday celebrating someone else’s birthday.

Not that I mind too much – I tend to assume that nobody would be that bothered about coming to drink for my birthday anyway – but it can get a bit strange spending your birthday going to birthday parties with all the usual trimmings but which aren’t for you.

Statistically, most people probably know a few people who share their birthday, particularly in the age of sprawling social media networks of friendships. I know at least four. So where does this vague desire for acknowledgement come from? After all, it’s not like I’ve earned anything that requires recognition, all I’ve done is survive another year without accidentally dying (though admittedly this year I broke a limb, which I’ve never done before!).

It seems utterly irrational to me, and yet it’s somewhere here in my brain anyway. Some matter of family socialisation, most likely, that persists into adulthood even though logically I know I don’t care a great deal.

So the question is, if that’s still in there, what else is? And how much of that goes to explain the nonsensical paths that modern society is taking?

Losing the Plot

I think I’m having something of an existential crisis.

See, I’ve been writing stories for years perfectly happily, but in the last few years, I’ve really started to delve into the theory of it all. There’s a lot of great material on the internet that makes studying this an absolute breeze. Brandon Sanderson, in particular, seems to genuinely enjoy helping new writers and teaching people about the art of writing, and his stuff is great.

The trouble is, the more I learn about how plots and narratives are constructed, the harder I find it to put one together. My mind just keeps telling me that what I’ve got is a string of scenes rather than a plot, no matter how closely they resemble a plot, my brain will simply tell me it’s not complete.

I’m pretty sure this is a paradox borne of some combination of the Dunning-Krueger effect and impostor syndrome, whereby the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know. Unfortunately, this was largely the case with my Ph.D. studies as well, and the primary reason for my taking an interruption.

Let’s hope the same paralysis doesn’t set in here too, eh?

Well, this is embarrassing…

So my plan to post an update every Sunday didn’t exactly go to, um, plan.

Alright, so I’m only a day out, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t too bad, but still. Two weeks in and already I managed to forget to blog? Doesn’t exactly bode well for the future, right?

I’ll make my excuses now; I’ve had a busy week. I’ve been doing some subcontracting work lately, looking at survey responses from Iraqi refugee camps for Save the Children, and it’s left me a little bit drained.

There’s really only so many times you can read statements from parents talking about their children drowning in unsupervised areas of the refugee camp, or from children talking about how their family members have been killed or kidnapped by terrorist organisations, and still want to come and type out some light observations about spaceships.

It’s easy to just drop into a funk about all this – after all, it is pretty depressing that these camps not only have to exist in the first place, but the fact that so many of these personal horror stories go largely ignored makes it so much worse. Of course, we all know that these things go on, in a largely abstract sense, but to see them written up in such a clinical, emotionless way that auto-translation software delivers is an entirely different experience.

I guess the thing about fiction is that we can choose to use it as an escape from the harsh realities of life, like the refugee camps, the hunger and misery, the abuse of human life and the future and livelihoods denied to so many, or we can use it to bring these abstract horrors into sharp relief, putting characters we get to know and love into the same situations we have in real life. Ordinarily, I’d take the second route every time. This week, though? I need an escape.

Student Invasion!

Ah Manchester.

I’ve lived here since coming to university a decade ago now, and the city never ceases to amaze me. Since Manchester is home to three huge universities, as well as a few smaller academic institutions, there’s a big student vibe to the place. Not only that, but since the student population numbers somewhere around a hundred thousand, the summer months are a completely different world.

I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to live in a place that doesn’t have tides of students flooding the city in September, and leaving parts of it virtually empty in the summer. Of course, this is the best way around it – I’d rather have fewer people competing for space in the beer gardens when it’s gloriously hot, wouldn’t you?

But this isn’t about that Manchester, where beer gardens in converted Victorian warehouses overlook gently flowing canals, built to cater to many more residents than are in the city at the time. No, this is about the other Manchester on the other side of the tide, where thousands of eighteen year olds, freed from the yoke of their parents for the first time, arrive in the city simultaneously and proceed to get spectacularly plastered.

I can’t begrudge them for that – I did much the same myself – and it does eventually calm down. But for the first few weeks of new student arrivals? The student-heavy areas of the city are a sea of vomit and broken glass, and the bus routes are jam packed full of hammered idiots who haven’t the faintest idea how either buses or money work.

But you know what? I wouldn’t trade this for any other city. They turn up, they go nuts, and eventually they become a proper part of this living, breathing organism of a city.

Staying Regular

So I’ve had this site for a few years now, and yet it feels like I’ve been neglecting the actual “blog” portion of it.

That’s largely because blogging isn’t actually as fun or interesting to write as fiction, and so I tend to skip over it. For someone like me, for whom a “schedule” is something that the rest of the world obeys and I tend to just drift straight past, the idea of knocking out a few paragraphs of something every week sounds perfectly sensible and easy in principle, but in practice it’s something that I’ll just plain forget to do.

But I’m making the effort. With liberal use of various reminders, alarms and scheduling tools, I’m actually going to make this blog a regular weekly blog. Who knows, I might even get around to writing some more Stories Behind Stories content as well.

The big issue that arises then is, well, what the hell do I blog about? Who cares about what I’m doing with my time? (Hint: it’s not much) Who cares what some unpublished writer on the internet reckons about writing?

Still, even if it’s a case of slamming my head on the keyboard a few times until some vague, half-formed stream of consciousness dribble falls out of it and forms some vaguely word-looking shapes on a screen near you, it’s more than I was doing previously.

I can’t promise you it’ll be good – but I can promise you it’ll be here.

Probably.

What Do?

I’m torn at the moment.

I don’t seem to have any particular writing projects ongoing any more. Which means I’m antsing for a new one, which means I have to pick and develop one from the big long list in my brain, which means that actually being able to sit down with characters I know and put them on the page is kinda not really possible.

I’m also wanting to write more short fiction, since it’s been a while since I had one of those published, and I wouldn’t mind being able to have a few more pieces of my actual fiction online for you guys to read (and maybe add a new page to the site to list off my published fiction and where you can find it) – but for the moment that is quite a small amount, and I think having a tiny amount listed would probably look worse than having none listed at all.

Which means I can pretend to have had loads published, when really there’s not been a huge amount as I’ve tended to neglect the short fiction aspect of writing in recent years.

This was a cunning plan up until the point where I told you about it. Whoops.

Now, I’m not really one for reading authors’ websites. Most of my reading materials tend to come from the charity shop, as I’m not fond of reading ebooks and commercial book prices tend to get very expensive very quickly if you read quite as much as I do.

I know, I know, I’m hoping to make a living out of reading, and Kant’s Categorical Imperative would suggest that buying books almost exclusively from a charity shop isn’t great (honestly guys,  stop waving your degrees in political theory at me, mine’s already giving me dirty looks), but then there can be no ethical consumption under capitalism anyway, so this is a systemic problem and Kant can have an ethical ghostfight with Marx over it if he wants.

(Before you write in, yes I know that’s not a Marx quote, and apparently comes from the Tumblr hivemind – but I reckon Marx would have agreed with it anyway, and some ghost or other has to fight ghost-Kant, otherwise he’ll start trying to organise ectoplasm for maximum utility.)

So, as I was saying before that particular tangent, I don’t tend to read author webpages, particularly not of ones like myself who haven’t managed to attract a publisher’s eye with shiny things (agents, publishers, if you’re looking, I have some shiny things for you to look at), but it seems to me that there’s little point with no actual fiction on display. Who wants to read the blog of a writer who, as far as you can tell, hasn’t done much and isn’t very good in any case?

So short stories should be my current goal, but I can’t say I’m as fond of writing them as I am longer projects.

In any case, blog posts where I write about ghost-Kant and my own lack of committing to a new project for 500 words don’t get a new project committed to. But then, very little seems to these days.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a blank word document to stare at.

The End of the Road

And now for the final part in my increasingly inaccurate trilogy of five (say, that’s catchy!), the final leg of our fellowship’s journey took us through the mountain staircase of Cirith Ungol, and into Mordor… Nope, hang on, not that one, that was last year. France. We went through France.

Since we’d spent more time than planned in Switzerland, and in any case we’ve all been to France many times before, we ploughed through most of the country at lightning pace. Despite that, the first night in France’s campsite proved to be… a challenge.

Despite multiple phonecalls, the camp site we had decided on just wasn’t responding. We decided to gamble, and make for it anyway, reasoning that in that part of France, there were plenty of campsites around, and it wouldn’t be difficult to find another if it turned out to be full.

We probably shouldn’t have made that gamble.

For various mountain-roads-related reasons, we didn’t end up getting to the camp site until around 9pm. At which point it turned out to be full, at which point we needed to find another camp site. And fast, because it was starting to go dark.

We made for a nearby campsite listed on Google Maps, but when that turned out to be little more than a gravel car park next to a public hole-in-the-ground outhouse, we decided that camping there simply wasn’t viable. The solution? Basically, camp in a truck stop.

See, in France, Italy and a handful of other countries, they have what are known as aires; service stations with basic facilities for campervans to stay for the night. But these sites aren’t really designed for pitching a tent, so we were lucky to find one with a scrap of grass suitably well hidden behind the van. At least these guys had proper toilets, running water and showers – I even managed to plug in my phone for a few hours while I ate a €7 boxed salad.

Back on the road, and thankfully free of the noise of crickets (!), our destination for the day was Château de Fontainebleau, just southeast of Paris. Now, not to demonstrate my ignorance, but I’d never heard of Fontainebleau before we got there. Finding out that it was the palace that Napoleon abdicated in, by reading the plaque in the actual room where he signed the papers, was quite a nice surprise.

As ever, French palaces are so much more elaborate and over the top than any other palace I’ve been in in any other country. There’s something about the absurd amount of riches so gaudily on display that it’s hardly a surprise that the French people decided to snick off the lot of their aristocrats’ heads. Can you imagine being one of the revolutionaries walking through those rooms for the first time? There’s not a single sight in the world more likely to convince you that what you’re doing is just.

And hey, as ever, I’m a sucker for a gift shop full of tat.

From there, we had about an hour to eat before moving on. Unfortunately, cafés and restaurants in France like to close (or at least stop serving food for a few hours) in the late afternoon before re-opening for evening meals. Which just so happened to be when we needed to eat. Cheers, France! That’s a stop at the Carrefour, then!

At least the camp site for the second night in France was quite nice again. Actual toilets, actual showers, actual electricity hookups, and an owner who apparently didn’t notice four of us in the van, so as we later found out only actually charged for two of us. Which was nice.

Tents up, plugs in, showers had, bowels voided, mead drunk. Early bed, early up, and early ferry.

Or, what should have been an early ferry. Thanks to the new border security checks taking forever (despite apparently only checking our passports and nothing else), we ended up waiting over an hour, and missing our ferry as a result. And we were stuck behind this bonkernaut;

It’s worth noting that that level of junk-strapped-to-the-car continued around the sides and the front of the car too. I’m frankly astonished they made it through the border checks without having every inch of the car checked over.

Actually, I’m not entirely sure why the border checks took as long as they did. Admittedly as a van full of four white British people, we’re likely getting through the UK border checks pretty swiftly compared to say, a dark-skinned family from the middle east (not to imply that the current British regime’s immigration and border policies are racist, but, you know, they are). Even so, if this is the kind of ballache the Daily Mail want when anyone attempts to enter or leave the country, they can piss off even harder than they already should.

Eventually the ferry arrived. We grabbed a beer, sat out on the deck, and waited for the floating building to carry us back to Blighty (which, as I discovered, is actually an Indian loanword). Just one brief stop in Oxford to visit a friend, and it’s back to sunny Manchester.

Returning from a journey like this can only ever be mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s back to life as normal, without the thrill of adventure or new places to explore. On the other, it’s a return to home comforts; a soft(ish) bed, hot and cold running water, showers, a full kitchen, friends and family.

I find myself wondering whether, for all that “travel broadens the mind” is true, perhaps the break from everything you know makes you appreciate the things already around you that little bit more.

Still, I can’t wait to do it all over again.

Swissness as Usual

In a surprising twist, here’s the next part of my adventure log.

So we left behind the camp site at Monza, with its squat toilets and ravenous mosquitoes, and set a course northward to Switzerland.

Annoyingly, to use the motorway system in Switzerland, drivers have to pay a toll and display a sticker. And even more annoyingly, the annual sticker is the only option, so that’s 40 Francs (£35 or so) gone for two days in the country. Still, the Swiss motorways are a bit of a wonder. Given it’s a mountainous country, most of the network consists of either bridges or tunnels, and some pretty impressive ones at that. At one point we went through a tunnel that came to 17km in length, and naturally, we didn’t have any clue that it was going to be that long until we were already in the tunnel and saw the sign. So much darkness for so far. The Swiss delved too greedily and too deep.

But hell is Switzerland pretty. Even when stuck in a traffic jam, the scenery is breathtaking. But that was nothing to the view from the campsite.

We actually stayed at this site for two nights, and it was an absolute delight. The owner is a delightful eccentric bloke who doesn’t speak a word of English, but is always happy to help out. At one point we were struggling to get our barbecue lit, as we’d run out of firelighters. The owner walked into the house, and returned moments later with a huge industrial brazing torch, and helped us light the thing with that.

The area we stayed in was between Interlaken and Grindelwald. Both phenomenally pretty places, but only one of them is named after a Harry Potter character (yes, the place was definitely named after the character and not the other way around. Definitely). This was the one that we chose to hike in. And when I say “hike”, I mean “hike to a pub 1300m above sea level, then have a pint.”

By pure coincidence, they day we were there turned out to be Swiss National Day. Exactly how we managed to do that first in Belgium, and then in Switzerland, I have absolutely no idea. But we managed it.

I have to say though, Swiss National Day is much more interesting than Belgian National Day. Firstly, there are shops open, and the entire country hasn’t come to a standstill. Most importantly though, because it seems to mostly involve drunk Swiss people throwing fireworks around.

We spent the evening watching the fireworks displays in Interlaken. For someone from England, used to an impenetrable wire fence and hordes of security guards every November 5th, the Swiss approach is oddly relaxed. I just wasn’t prepared for crowds of drunk people casually lighting and throwing in their own fireworks, and this being a perfectly acceptable, normal occurrence with no need to involve the authorities. Basically, Swiss folk are mental.

The next day, we packed up and left early. Another drive through the Swiss mountains, and eventually stopped for a few hours in Bern. As a city, Bern does a great job of combining the traditional with the modern – though I can’t say I think the collection of plastic dog statues dotted around the city quite chime with the centuries-old cathedrals and medieval clock towers. Though the Swiss national obsession with fountains was very welcome on such a very hot day.

After Bern, we made for Geneva. And as it happened, we had a friend of a friend working at CERN. Which meant that we went to visit the world’s largest and most expensive particle accelerator, and they let us mooch around the goddamn control room, mere centimetres from the computers that control billions of pounds worth of scientific equipment (and the ridiculous number of empty champagne bottles lining the walls).

 

 

 

 

 

 

From there… into France!

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