The other day, I was asked a question that stumped me.
I was doing a talk at a high school, and a year 9 boy asked me if, given how much I suffered, would I change anything about my younger years?
I did the standard public speaker response when you are asked a question you have no idea how to answer: “Wow, that’s a really great question. Thank you so much for asking it.”
Depending on how slowly you utter this, and how strategically you structure your pauses, you can draw this out for five to ten seconds – enough time to throw together a response.
But even after those few seconds of scrambling, I still didn’t have an answer.
I ended up thinking out loud with the audience to meander my way to a quick response – that I probably wouldn’t change things – but I didn’t have space to explain why.
Growing up homosexual in the broad circumstances I did – a country town, blue collar, Sicilian-Australian, Roman Catholic environment – gave me certain messages about being gay. It was effete; unmasculine; it made me a faggot or a finocchio; it made me evil and sick. Bad bad bad.
But these external messages, in isolation, are not what fucked me up.
What fucked me up was my response to those circumstances. Being gay in that world seemed like it would annihilate me and everything I was supposed to be. So, for years, I fought it, denied it, deleted it. I perceived it as a mortal sin; prayed to God to fix me; dug out my baptismal crucifix and wore it like a talisman; studied the Bible hoping to drive the devil out of me. This led to that spiral down into depression, self-loathing, and eventually the suicidal ideation I wrote about in Invisible Boys.
So yes, the world was hostile to my existence. But I was more hostile to myself than the world was.
I know sixteen-year-old me only did what he did to try to survive. I probably wouldn’t have done it if my external environment told me it was okay to be gay; that I was good enough just as I was.
But I don’t sit down with my therapist to unpack the world and its fuckery. Sure, I could blame the world, but what a waste of time. I can’t change society any more than I can solve suffering on a global scale. Both would be Sisyphean to attempt, and nobody will ever succeed at either.
I do sit down to work with my therapist around how I treat myself, and that is where my recovery process begins and ends: with me, on the micro level. Those microcosmic changes are what ripple out to influence the macrocosm, but I can’t start with the world. I must start with me.
I have spent a long time recovering from how cruel I was to myself. My self-loathing runs deep, and even now, on a bad day, I can be right back there in that dark well in a split second. I have a track record of treating myself worse than I would ever consider treating another human being: with revulsion and disgust and utter contempt. I can turn on myself very quickly.
It might seem logical, then, that if given the chance, I would change this.
But being cruel to myself in my younger years made me more resilient in the long run.
For instance, sometimes I meet someone new who seeks to insult me, denigrate me, humiliate me, embarrass me, or reduce me. This is less common than when I was younger, when I had no discernment and would hang around people who made a sport of ridiculing me, but it still happens.
When I was younger, I listened to anyone who insulted me. I tried to make them like me. I tried to embody the characteristics they admired and squash out the traits they derided. I laughed at their ridicule of me to make them tolerate my presence. I performed like this constantly and if they didn’t stop insulting me – which they didn’t – I would blame myself for not doing enough to make them like me.
I did this most of my life. I don’t do it anymore.
These days, when I encounter someone like this, I feel a bit immune to their bullshit. Like, what can they say to me that is worse than what I have said to myself? Nothing. I was the most destructive person in my life for years. So, every time someone in my life tries to have a go at me, even in subtle, passive-aggressive ways, I just think, You can’t hurt me. They can’t. They will never come close to making me feel as bad about myself as I already did.
That isn’t to say I’m impervious to being emotionally wounded. Far from it. I have a sensitive temperament. I have a propensity for listening to critical voices, either my own, those of others, or those of society, that tell me I am not okay.
But I know now that there is nothing wrong with me. The message that I am not okay at my core is what is inaccurate, always, whether it’s me or someone else saying it.
So, the moment I get a whiff that someone is going to be destructive towards me, I don’t try to please them, or get them to change. I just get the fuck out. I cut them off, stop talking to them, stop investing time in them, block and delete if it’s online. I keep their toxicity as far away from me as possible. Their voices do not bear listening to, and whatever I do hear, I don’t take on board.
But this is a response I’m not sure an otherwise serene adolescence could have manufactured. It is a resilience borne of self-acceptance overcoming self-abnegation; a powerful alkali neutralising a corrosive acid.
That is to say: I am not sure I could have ended up where I am without having gone through what I did. I don’t know if I could know self-acceptance and wholeness if I hadn’t, at one point, hated myself so much I was willing to abandon myself entirely. Living through my own personal brand of shit made me who I am.
What if I had grown up in a wealthy, inner-city, left-wing suburb, in a white-collar family, with no cultural or religious prejudices towards homosexuality? Or what if I had grown up heterosexual?
I don’t know who I’d be or what I’d be like, but I do know that guy wouldn’t be me.
And even if those facets of my life changed, I don’t think I’d be happier or unmolested by life. I would have suffered anyway. All humans suffer and our suffering shapes our lives. My suffering would have just had a different colour.
So, to answer that kid from the high school library: no, I wouldn’t change anything about my past.
The only thing I would have changed about my younger years is that I would have been kinder to myself. But I feel okay with how things played out for me. It is my past cruelty towards myself that led me to a sense of what psychologists call unconditional self-acceptance.
The arrows I slung at myself along the way were misguided, but they both toughened my hide and taught me to put down the bow.
Like most writers, I have been sculpted by failure far more than success.
One failure in particular has always hurt me, because it was the first.
It was only tonight, here in 2020, when I was in the middle of judging a writing competition myself, that I reflected on this failure and realised it may not have been what I thought it was.
I’ll set the scene, Sophia Petrillo style. Picture it: Sicily, 1912.
Or, more accurately, picture it: Geraldton, 2000. An eleven-year-old Holden Sheppard submits a short story to a writing competition for the first time in his life. It was an original mystery/detective story in the style of Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books I was devouring from the primary school library at the time.
I had, at this point, been actively writing in my spare time for three years. There was almost nothing emotional or powerful about any of my writing, but the mechanics were pretty solid for a boy of my age. I knew I was a capable writer and that it was one of my strengths.
I wrote my piece, and even drew a small illustration of the story’s crime scene on the bottom of one of the pages. This was twenty years ago, so nothing was digital – hard copy was the only option – and this wasn’t the adult world of publishing, this was primary school, so everything was also handwritten.
I can’t remember what the competition was, but I know it was only for young writers, and I think it was across the whole of Western Australia.
A while later, the competition results were being announced with the stories entered being put on display at the Geraldton Regional Library. I went to the library and hunted excitedly for my story on the display. Had I won? Had I been placed second or third, or highly commended?
I had not.
My story not get any kind of placing or recognition whatsoever.
Worse, what I remember is seeing my story with a number written on it in pencil. From memory, it was #125.
I remember, vividly, feeling sick with disappointment. I have a vague recollection of one of the library staff telling me and my mother that there were something like six hundred entries. I have a much sharper recollection of all the adults present looking at me with what felt very much like schadenfreude. I felt it like a wave of psychic energy. Kid thinks he’s some kind of writing genius, huh? That’ll take him down a peg or two.
I felt deeply embarrassed. I called myself a writer and had been working towards that for three years, only to have my first public attempt at writing deemed, effectively, a piece of shit, in front of my family, and the teachers and parents at the school, and my peers, who could all publicly see where my story had ended up. A hundred-and-twenty-fifth? What humiliation.
And amid that sense of shame was a sense of anger and injustice. Okay, maybe my story wasn’t good enough to win, I thought, but it was not a-hundred-and-twenty-fifth level bad. Was it?
Like any writer who cops a rejection, I wondered what I had done wrong. Was it the illustration that made the judges think I was just a dumb kid? Maybe it was supposed to be typed and printed instead of handwritten? Was my story just too derivative of Donald J. Sobol’s style? I hadn’t plundered his characters or stories: I had written an original piece, just following the same structure and stylings of those (dated) detective stories. Was it because I had set the story in America? Did the judges only want Aussie stories?
There was another fear that plagued me. I wondered if the judges thought I had plagiarised the piece, either by copying an existing story or having an adult write it for me.
The reason this was a fear of mine is that I was accused of it around the same time.
At the start of Year 7, our entire class was given a spelling test called the South Australian Spelling Test. We had to spell seventy words. They started out very simple and grew increasingly difficult.
A few days or weeks later, we were given our results. The mark out of seventy came with a corresponding score of what spelling age you were at. We were almost all eleven years old, so the idea was if you got a score that said your spelling age was 9 or 10, you were below average. 11 would be normal. 12 or over meant above average.
Our teacher – who was new to the school – handed back the tests in reverse order of success; that is, the lowest scoring student got their test results back first. I can’t remember if the teacher announced the scores aloud as he did this, but it’s quite possible, and likely, given what came next.
My test came back last: I had achieved the highest score. 69/70. I only spelled one word wrong. My spelling age was the maximum possible, which was listed as “greater than 15 years 6 months”.
I felt pretty good about this, until the teacher rounded on me in front of the entire class.
“You cheated,” he snarled. And it was a snarl.
“No, I didn’t,” I replied, absolutely horrified to have a teacher mad at me. I was a painfully obedient child in primary school, oppressively perfectionistic.
“You did. You cheated on this test.”
I denied it again. In fact, I had to deny it several times. I felt sick. This forty-year-old man was furious, almost seething, and hell bent on attacking a scrawny eleven-year-old nerd. I had never experienced anything like this from any adult before. Teachers usually liked me because I was both smart and well-behaved.
“I didn’t cheat. I would never cheat,” I told him meekly.
The other students – surprisingly, some of the worst-behaved students who would, on any normal day, give me shit for being a square – stood up for me.
“He didn’t cheat. He’s just really good at spelling. He’s smart.”
Our teacher wasn’t having a bar of it. “You’ve obviously done this test before and that’s how you knew how to spell the words,” he sneered. “But you got one wrong, didn’t you? Embarrassing.” He grinned down at me savagely. “How embarrassing for you.”
He threw this particular insult at me because the one word I misspelled was “embarrassing”. I spelled it with only one ‘r’. I have never spelled it wrong again in my life.
I offered one more denial of having cheated, and he concluded by threatening me that he was going to tell my parents at the upcoming parent-teacher interviews. And when those interviews rolled around, he did, too. My mother countered by letting him know that I was a bookish, intelligent kid. He still refused to believe me or her.
I learned a lot that day. I learned that teachers don’t always care about their students. I learned that adults can be petty and jealous. I learned that even when you are telling the truth, some people will refuse to believe you.
And I learned that sometimes, people in positions of power will be downright cunts to you, as that teacher was to me, and they will get away with it scot-free, because life is sometimes unfair.
I bring this story up in the context of that short story rejection for two reasons.
Firstly, because it illustrates why I was paranoid enough to wonder if the competition judges, like my teacher, had assumed I’d cheated, or plagiarised my story. Did they seethe at this well-crafted story? “How dare he! He obviously cheated! A-hundred-and-twenty-fifth place for him!”
Secondly, I guess it illustrates why I expected to have ranked a little higher than a-hundred-and-twenty-fifth. I was an intelligent kid and an exceptional writer for my age range. I had already written a whole “book” (it was sixty pages) in 1999, so I knew I had some level of ability. I could accept not being first, or in the top ten, but to score so crushingly low amid a field of peers my own age just hurt.
But that lesson from that cunt teacher – that adults can be cruel to children, and life can be unfair – actually helped me.
All writers think we have talent. It is how we get up in the morning and write, because we believe in our hearts that we have the ability to tell stories, and tell them well. From our very beginnings, it is fundamental to our craft that we have a tiny kernel of belief that we are actually good at this. If we didn’t, we would never pick up a pen in the first place.
At eleven, I thought I was talented, and perhaps even I knew I was, but it was not recognised in that competition. Maybe that particular story just wasn’t as shit-hot as I thought. Maybe it was just shit. Maybe there were a hundred and twenty four more talented child writers in my age bracket in WA that year(?!).
Or maybe there weren’t. It was tonight, as I was judging a young writers competition myself, that I not only smiled at the full-circle moment, but also realised how strange it was for judges to rank as far down as one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth. Most competitions I’ve judged, we judges decide on a longlist or shortlist, but that’s never more than say twelve or fifteen entries. It would take forever to do a detailed ranking beyond that. In light of this, I find it hard to imagine that all six hundred of those entries back in 2000 were individually ranked. Tonight, it occurred to me that the number scrawled in pencil on my entry was simply its number: entry number 125. I had a laugh about this with my husband, but then immediately went back to being quite sure it was indeed a ranking, because writer egos are like this: the self-doubt usually wins out.
In any case, it’s ancient history, and I’ll never know why I ranked so badly in that competition, and I still, to this day, feel sore and cheated by it – unduly screwed over.
But what I am proud of is how this failure shaped me. I did feel hurt, and yes, it was embarrassing.
But I didn’t stop writing.
That first rejection, the sinking-through-the-floor moment of standing in that library and trying to politely smile as I discovered, in front of others, that I sucked, only made me work harder towards becoming a better writer. I trained so hard. I read voraciously to get a sense of how published books sounded. I wrote more stories in my exercise books, and then began to post them online to an audience, who gave me invaluable feedback on how I could improve. I routinely studied the dictionary and thesaurus to expand my vocabulary and challenged myself to use those new words in my stories. I decided I would not stop until I had the recognition I craved.
It would be a long road ahead. Five years of hard work until I scored second place in the Randolph Stow Young Writers Award. Nine years until my first short story was published in a literary journal. Seventeen years until I won my first writing-related award. And nineteen years until my first book was finally published.
There have been many more rejections since that first one, and as a ratio, many more rejections than successes, even now. But that first rejection – and that first cruelty – hardened me in a way that helped me, and shaped me into the man I am today.
I’m thinking about the young people who entered this competition I’ve just finished judging. I wonder if the winners will go on to be writers. I would certainly encourage them to do so, heartily, if it’s something they want. But did the winners in the year 2000 go on to become published writers? I don’t know who they were or what they ended up doing. But I do know that the boy who landed at a dismal #125 was the one who was driven enough to make it in the long run.
I wonder if there is a teenage writer in this competition I’ve just judged who didn’t make the shortlist. One who wants to be a writer more than anything, one who will be devastated to have missed out, who will spend years wondering why they weren’t good enough, or thinking me cruel for having overlooked their talent.
If there is, I hope this rejection lights a fire in them like it did me. I know now that we learn more from being burnt than we do from being congratulated.
And while the flower that blooms in a fertilised garden is beautiful, the one that grows out of ashes is unstoppable.
PS. Although I did entertain the notion of naming my Year 7 teacher in this blog post, I won’t. I’m not really interested in revenge and besides that, I don’t need revenge because I feel like I won the first time. I was the calm, rational kid who didn’t do anything wrong, and he was the bullying adult who was not only deeply in the wrong but, objectively, a cunt of a human being. I will leave it to the universe to give him some solid karma.
Plus, to be frank, I’m pretty sure the only reason he lost his shit at me was because he got a lower score on that spelling test than an eleven-year-old boy. How embarrassing for him! 😛
About three years ago, during a time of massive failure, I went back to my uni to visit my writing lecturer.
At the time – early 2017 – I had both lost my full-time job and had to abandon my failure of a fantasy novel. From every angle, I felt like a loser. I wanted my lecturer’s advice, and comfort, and to try to recapture that student feeling that dreams could come true.
As I told my lecturer about my book’s inability to interest agents, and how I realised my novel wasn’t good enough, I tried to find a way to fan the flames in my chest into words.
“I’m going to make it,” I told her, resolutely.
“I know you will,” she replied.
No, she wasn’t getting it, I thought. I wasn’t just some writing student who sort of wanted to get published. This wasn’t just a career that I may or may not proceed with. This was my life. This was almost the only thing in the whole world that I cared about. This was the only way I made sense as a fully-rounded human.
“I mean I won’t stop until I make it,” I elaborated. “No matter what. Even if I have to write a whole new book, even if I have to self-publish first before I can get a traditional publishing deal, even if it takes me years and years, the rest of my life, I will get there.”
“I believe you,” she said, with an ‘ease up, turbo, or I’ll press the duress button’ kind of look.
I remember that day, and that era, as the point where I kicked my ambition up a notch.
Ambition had always been the undercurrent of my personality, since the age of seven, when I first knew I wanted to be a writer. I am not ashamed of my ambitious nature. I am proud of it, actually. It would have been easy to give up on this dream at an early age. A boy from a blue-collar background in a country town doesn’t have the most inspiring pedigree for a literary career. In order to become a bona fide published novelist, I had to reach beyond my station in life, defy expectations and obstacles, and keep going in the face of many years of scorn, disinterest, rejection and abject failure.
Ambition – that craving to get the thing I wanted – is what pushed me to persevere and rise above all of that. I believed – and still believe – that if you want something dearly, and work hard for it, you can eventually achieve it. I am living proof of this approach.
But at that particular time, I knew standard ambition wasn’t enough. I had to move to a total war, scorched earth approach to achieving my dreams.
So I did.
I doubled down on my ambition. This was the only way I could pick myself up from what is probably the nadir of my career so far; if I did not fight back and push on twice as hard, I would have crumpled.
This blind ambition moved me through a hard time, and made me achieve a lot. It made me dig deep and write about something real: my novel Invisible Boys was born from this process and was written in the winter of 2017.
Moreover, my blind ambition spurred me on to do more than just write. It made me get on social media and work hard at building a platform. It made me cut way back on socialising and prioritise the hustle. It made me treat my day jobs as secondary, so I was author first, worker second. It made me quit smoking, take up exercise, eat better, lose weight, push myself out of my comfort zone. It helped me get what I want and it made me increasingly happy.
As my dreams began to come to fruition, winning awards and landing a publishing contract, I started to think about where I was going.
In 2018, I wondered how I would measure success, and the best metric I had was unemployment. That is, the day I can quit my job and live off my writing full-time, I would have made it.
In both of these reflections, my only metrics for success were the continued pursuit of my dreams. On one level, I don’t really have a problem with this. In 2018, I wrote how a quote from Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece, The Alchemist, sums up my approach to life:
“No heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”
In other words, if you spend your whole life trying to become a successful writer, but never achieve fame and fortune, you’ll still have a happy heart and a fucking awesome life, because you spent all your time doing what makes you joyous: writing.
The paragraph above is ripped word-for-word from my 2018 post, and still sums up how I feel. So, I guess I’m still blindly ambitious, although perhaps I’m using that term too liberally. Some people would interpret blind ambition as compromising your values to get what you want, stabbing people in the back and walking over their corpses to climb a career ladder, shouting “don’t you know who I am?” – that kind of shit. I haven’t done that, ever. (Well, okay, I have said the last one, but only as a joke, I swear!)
And while I’ll continue to be ambitious, something cropped up recently that made me think more deeply about what I want.
It started when I interviewed Natasha Lester at Perth Festival in February, and she talked about becoming a New York Times bestselling author. When her publicist said, “you can check that off your bucket list”, Natasha replied that she had never had it on there in the first place. (In a bit of a boss move, however, she did then jot it down and cross it off, just so she could say she had – ha!)
That interview drew my attention to the idea of a bucket list – the list of things you want to do before you die. Then, a few months later, I was filling out a player profile for my AFL 9s team, The Perth Hornets – a social media “get to know your player” thing. One of the questions was “what’s your top bucket list item?”
Well, I don’t have a bucket list, I thought. I just want to make a living from writing.
But that goal begged a question: before I die, how do I want to live? What would I actually do with that full-time writer living if I achieved it?
My worker bee response to this was this: keep writing.
And this is where I discovered the downside of blind ambition. For all the success this approach has yielded, it has also left me stunted in my focus. I am a blinkered thoroughbred horse and I cannot see anything but the finish line of this enormous race I trained myself for.
On my player profile, I wrote my top bucket list item as:
“Owning some rural land with my dream ute and dirt bike – that’s it!”
Not super exciting, but it was my first, unfettered response, so I wrote it and moved on with my day.
But then a couple of things happened that brought my own mortality sharply into focus.
Firstly, my uncle died, far too young. He was a good man, and I care deeply about him and his family. I returned home to see my relatives, and attend his funeral. I delivered the eulogy, and as I rehearsed it, I was struck by how contented my uncle was with his life. Not only was he a kind, gentle and good-natured man – he was content. He worked hard as a bricklayer to provide for his family, but also to provide for himself. He enjoyed his life. He was at his happiest sitting on the balcony of the dream house he built for himself and his family, having his morning coffee and overlooking the spectacular cobalt blue of the Indian Ocean.
The second thing that happened was that I was in a car accident a few days ago.
It was, thankfully, not fatal. My car was stationary at the back of a long line of traffic on the freeway at peak hour, and the car behind me just didn’t stop – he ploughed directly into my Commodore and smashed it beyond repair – it’s a write-off. I was in shock and apparently responding quite slowly to paramedics and had back pain and whiplash, so I was taken to hospital by ambulance and wasn’t allowed to move my head or neck or spine for hours until they had done scans.
According to the X-rays, nothing was broken. I was released to go home and heal my back – which would be sore and stiff for a while, they said – and to take care of myself mentally and emotionally – which is expected to take longer. But all things considered, I appear to be okay. Hopefully there won’t be any long term impacts.
When we left the hospital, my husband (author Raphael Farmer) asked me if I’d had any revelations. Had the accident made me see life differently? I was alive, but that was pure luck: if the other car had been going faster, that might have been the end of me.
When I imagine my death, I see myself very old and grey, in bed with Raphael, and we both die in our sleep at the same time, peacefully and never having to mourn the other. This is what I hope for. But that night, had things gone worse, my death might have been in the twisted metal of a Holden Commodore on my way home from having San Churros with a mate, my last thought about how frustrating peak-hour traffic is on the Mitchell Freeway.
To say this was merely sobering is the same as saying 2020 has been just been a little challenging.
I told Raphael that no, I hadn’t had any great shake-up in terms of my life direction. Laying on that stretcher, I realised I am already living the life I want, which is reassuring. I have a husband I love, and who loves me; I have a fulfilling career as a writer; I have hobbies and pastimes and sports I enjoy and family and mates whose company I value.
Unexpectedly, the first thing I said to my husband was about a material desire: “I’m going to finally buy my ute.”
Maybe it’s dumb, but because I don’t come from money, and writing is rarely lucrative, I always knew I could have either the dream or the material possessions, but not both.
Blind ambition meant it was an easy sacrifice to make: the dream comes first.
But there are consequences to this way of living. I don’t spend money on my house: I live in a cheap rental in a cheap suburb and I don’t remember the last time I bought any furniture for it. I don’t spend money on my car: I drive (or drove) a cheap sixteen-year-old sedan. I don’t spend money on anything: for years, I haven’t replaced our broken washing machine, or our broken second-hand mattress that hurts our backs every night, or my ancient laptop which is so painfully slow I want to scream and throw it against the wall every time I use it. And so on, and so forth.
It always seemed like a worthwhile trade. Short-term pain for long-term gain. To some extent, it has made my achievements as a writer possible, so I don’t regret that.
But what if achieving a sustainable career as a writer takes another five, ten, twenty years? Would it be worth living a hindered, shitty quality of life for that long if it meant getting more novels published?
Before my uncle passed away, and before my car accident, I would have said yes.
Now, my answer is no.
I’ve been thinking more about how I want to live. Not my goals, but how I spend my day to day life.
So this is what I want, long term. I want to live with my husband on a bit of land – a good few acres, somewhere semi-rural, but close enough to the amenities of the city, where I can write from a writing den in my house and travel to the city/further afield for appearances and gigs. On said land, I’d like to have a dirt bike to ride around on, and I’d love to have my dream ute (a Holden SSV or Maloo).
That’s my bucket list. Everything else is gravy.
The house and land will take time to achieve – and the dirt bike is an extravagant toy.
But since I need a new car now anyway – dammit, I’m gonna get a ute. I’ve wanted once since 2007. It’s unrelated to any sense of achievement. It doesn’t help my career. I just want it for me. I’ve been busting my arse working since I was seven. I think it’s time I got something nice for myself.
I’m gonna find a way to get a new mattress, and washing machine, and laptop, too. Chasing dreams is not pleasurable if I’m running the whole way with holes in my shoes.
I will always be ambitious and hardworking, but the time for unadulterated, blind ambition is, for me, over.
I’ve always been a country boy who wants far more from life than he was ever poised to inherit organically. I still want to achieve big things before I die. I still want to scale this mountain.
But now I’m looking forward to seeing, feeling and enjoying the climb, too.
I’ve worked out why it’s been so hard to write lately. 🧐🧐
I’m not alone. I’ve spoken to or heard from so many other authors who are finding themselves stymied and creatively paralysed in the face of the global catastrophe we are all witnessing playing out around us in real time.
These past few weeks, I’ve been intensely tuned into what’s going on in the world, scouring and refreshing news feeds to find out the latest on this crisis.
But when I focus on facing outwards, it makes it impossible to look inwards. And that’s what I need to do to write. Although I believe good writing comes from scars, this doesn’t mean I need to suffer while I write. In fact, it’s the opposite: I write best when I am peaceful and can comfortably reflect on what’s going on inside, or what happened in the past.
This is why, many years ago, I made the decision not to express political opinions or become a writer-slash-activist. It is not good for me; it inhibits my ability to effect good things in the world through my words and my art. 🤘🤘
I see what’s happening in the world and I have spoken out on the things that matter to me. I will keep doing this when and if I choose. But I cannot make this my default setting. I will be of no use if my headspace is solely one of panic, rage and hypervigilance. I’ll never get any writing done.
So, I’m turning my energy and focus within. 🙏🙏
I’m safe at home for the foreseeable future, so I’ve decided to start my third novel as part of Camp NaNoWriMo in April. I’m aiming to have written 30,000 words by the end of the month.
I’m excited to lose myself in a made-up world again – I doubt there will ever be a better time for that than these coming months. I hope writing this new book is a comfort and panacea for me; and I hope you like it when I can finally share it!
The only way out is through. Take care everyone. ✌️✌️
When I last blogged two months ago, I was able to reflect, with some distance, on the experience of releasing my book. Getting my novel published was wild, joyous, and overwhelming. But most of all, it was big: to see a dream realised after years of longing was monumental.
But then the wheels fell off. Just as I was feeling well-rested and grinning like a boofhead, the comedown pimp-slapped me in the face.
The analogy of a comedown is apt: the thrill of publication truly is ecstatic, drug-like, a rush of dopamine. I could get my fix of validation and attention with new reviews, events, interviews, messages from readers, even social media posts. I spent a few months hitting the good stuff every chance I got – and like any drug, the applause/attention begins to wear off after time. My tolerance threshold increased. It was harder to get that dopamine spurt each time.
And then, of course, once everything quietened down over the summer, I needed my usual fix, but there was no fix to be had.
I’ve spoken to a few authors about this, since I’ve been feeling it, and it turns out that a post-book comedown is as commonplace to the writer experience as caffeine addiction, towering TBR piles and being terrified of the blank page.
And it’s not just about the push and pull of public attention, either. The thrill of publication is more than extrinsic validation. As artists we have our own intrinsic expectations and dreams, independent of other people’s valuations of our artistic output, and just being out there, having a book in the world, is its own reward and excitement. And when that hectic promo tornado breathes its last breath and spins itself into the ether, it can feel like it took all the oxygen with it.
So how did the comedown hit me? My mental and physical health both plummeted. This was compounded by other personal life stuff: a lot of things went wrong at once. For most of January and February, I plunged first into a depressive mood, and then into an elevated state of anxiety that saw me having bloody panic attacks again (I hadn’t had any in ages). Crappy mental health is not new to me, though in the past five years I’ve learned to manage it way better than in my self-medicating twenties. These days, I have better strategies in place and stronger connections to the world that keep me generally well.
But, for various reasons, some of these connections weren’t available to me during this comedown. A shoulder dislocation and other illnesses put me out of action at both the gym and at footy – which are both really important to my physical and mental wellbeing – and I wasn’t able to access my usual therapist during this time.
Long story short: I had a really shit couple of months to start the year.
Thankfully, after hitting bottom comes recovery. I’m back at the gym rehabilitating my shoulder, back to doing some light footy training, and back to seeing my counsellor. Being able to still go to footy training with the boys really helps my mood, and finally lifting some tiny dumbbells with my right arm last week made me ridiculously happy. I’m still many weeks away from being back to normal strength, but it has done me the world of good to know that I am on the upswing again.
Today, I woke up keen to write, which is a great sign that I’m past the worst of this comedown. I really missed the experience of writing in isolation. So much of the past year has been lived in front of other people, which is fun but also requires a different set of skills than writing a novel. I miss being able to lock myself away in my man cave and write a made-up story about made-up people. And that’s what I am now craving.
I handed the second draft of my second novel to my agent in January. This book has taken me much longer than Invisible Boys to write. The actual drafting process each time has been pretty quick – two or three months each time – but there have been many false starts on this project. I first started writing it in early 2014; then again in late 2016; then finally started a recognisable version in early 2018 while at Varuna; and finally finished it last year. It’s been developing on-and-off for six years, which feels like an eon.
My agent and I chatted on the phone the other day. There are some further edits to make, and they are good ones that will make this manuscript what it needs to be. I’ll do them soon, but I’ve also reached the point where I need a few months’ break from book two, or I think I’ll print it out just to set it on fire in a wild artistic rage.
Plus, something more exciting has my attention at the moment.
As I’ve emerged from my comedown, I’ve found my mind percolating with ideas for my third book instead. I wrote the first line for this book a couple of months ago, only because it came to me fully-formed, but I didn’t push it any further. Over the years I’ve learned to feel into the rhythms of my creative bloodflow, and I knew it was too soon to try to push for more words. But these past few weeks, more and more ideas have been coming to me. I’m jotting them down on my phone and emailing them to myself to keep track of them, but the percolating is happening faster and faster and I can feel it reaching a pinnacle, like a kettle coming to the boil. This happens for every book I’ve written. Eventually it builds up enough that I feel compelled to start writing, and I’m getting close to that point.
Today, I opened a word document to jot down a rough timeline of when I want to write this book, and before I knew it, I had working names for my two main characters, and about 500 words of ideas too. I’m getting so pumped about this new book and I can’t wait to write it down in full.
In Marie Kondo terms, this third book is sparking the most joy right now – so I’m gonna follow this bubbling excitement and see where it leads. My priority is going to be writing the first draft of this third novel. Once that’s done, I’ll circle back to edit the second book.
I’d love to share more about both books two and three, but at this stage I reckon I’m better served by shutting up and getting them finished.
The best thing about actively writing new material is that it is some of the best medicine I have ever known when it comes to my wellbeing: writing makes me feel good. This bodes well, because there will be lots of writing in the months ahead.
I can’t wait to share these new stories with you each.
So, I finally got what I’ve spent my whole life wanting.
I’ve mentioned before that I first wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old. It was only about three months ago, at thirty-one, that my debut novel was published.
Such a decades-long journey was a saga in itself, and most of the time it felt as painful, despairing and treacherous as a barefoot trek from The Shire to Mordor.
I had always imagined that final moment of triumph – of being a Published Novelist (TM) – would be a uniquely exhilarated instant. Arms raised to the heavens, chin up, crossing the finish line like a less athletic, more creative, just-as-sweaty Usain Bolt.
My imagination didn’t lie to me: that’s how it felt. It was fucken rad.
Releasing Invisible Boys into the world was a thrill-ride, from the moment I was shortlisted for the Hungerford Award in September 2018 until the end of my sixty-day book tour in October and November last year.
The whole thing was a really heady experience. It felt incredible to have finally achieved the thing I set out to do as a young boy. The validation, the sense of completion and the trophy-raising sense of triumph are all so intoxicating I am sometimes scared to dwell on them for too long in case they lose their potency.
There were loads of other joyous moments. Sharing my writing and myself in an honest, open, unfettered way has made me feel more seen and more understood than I’ve ever felt. And since I spent bulk pockets of my life feeling unseen and misunderstood, this has been great for my wellbeing and personal development.
Sharing my story also felt purposeful, because I got to meet and speak with so many people (so many!) who shared their own experiences. Writing this book helped me process trauma, and reading it has helped readers to process theirs. It helped both me and them simultaneously to feel less alone. Altruistically, this is super rewarding.
If the thing humans crave most is connection, and if my soul had only really known societal disconnection since I was a child, then these moments of true connection were a Roman feast for my heart.
But I mean that in the way ancient Romans used to feast: you know, you eat, and eat, and eat, until you are too full, bloated and bursting, and you have to throw up, so you chunder and then you wipe your mouth, stretch out on your lounge and return to your gluttonous feast to keep eating.
It was strange, but so much connection eventually left me feeling like I needed a break. So much visibility made me want to go and hide in a cave until people forgot what my face looked like. I haven’t had any public appearances in over a month now and it’s been the best remedy I could have asked for.
I’m not ungrateful for the success this book has had. I know I am very, very lucky. The sales, critical acclaim and reader responses are all amazing. I’m so grateful to everyone who’s read and supported the book. And the book tour was a mammoth undertaking, and though it was intense, I will never regret doing it.
But that super intense promo period is done.
And now the dust has settled, I’m looking around to find I don’t know where I am. I’ve arrived somewhere I’ve never been. This is foreign terrain; a new land with no map.
Despite knowing better, on some level I thought being a published novelist would revolutionise my life.
I’d heard successful artists talk about this, how achieving your dreams can be amazing but also disillusioning, but I quietly hoped my experience would be different.
For most of my childhood, adolescence and adulthood, I’ve identified with the struggling artist mindset, and it’s made me who I am. I can work hard, achieve, pull all-nighters. I can burn out and recover. I can flail in desperation and pace myself. I can lose faith and think I’m a shit writer and two seconds later think I’m God’s gift to literature. I can withstand people mocking my dreams, telling me I should be an engineer instead, get a big boy job. I can survive people mocking my ambition. I can be dogged and bloody-minded. I can strive for a goal even if it seems impossible and takes twenty-three years.
All of this prepared me for one thing – how to reach my goal – but it didn’t prepare me for what happens after the goal has been reached.
That’s the foreign, mapless terrain I find myself in now.
Achieving a dream does what it says on the box, but no more. I dreamt of being a published novelist; I am now a published novelist, and holy fuck it feels awesome. My whole life, I’ve saddled this desperate thirst for validation, and getting my novel published did quench that. I feel validated in a way I always craved, and I no longer feel that craving, though it’s etched into my skin so deeply I’ll never forget it.
But that’s it. That sense of validation and victory does not inherently resolve any other deficiency or problem in my life. The same interpersonal conflicts, the same tensions, the same lack of money, the same angst, the same cruelty and neglect, the same self-abnegation, the same neurotic shit that belies my hubris … all of it’s still there.
Achieving your goals doesn’t fix you as a person. That is its own beast.
So, what now? Where am I? Where do I go from here? What happens next?
I’ve set some new goals for the year ahead. Firstly, I’ll keep promoting Invisible Boys: there are author talks, interviews and festival appearances lined up all year, thankfully more spaced out than my tour. I’ll also be polishing my second book, which is with my agent currently for her thoughts (and I’m freaking out about it). And this July, I’m planning to do Camp NaNoWriMo again to start my third novel.
Writing this, just now, gives me perspective. I’m no longer striving for these goals because I crave validation. Some of the self-imposed pressure has come off. I’m now writing because (a) these are stories I really want to tell and (b) writing is the funnest thing in the world to me. Upon reflection, this actually seems like a healthier mindset with which to tackle a writing project.
I’m also writing these books because my real dream, which I wrote about in this post about success, is not just to have one novel published. My dream is to be a full-time writer, earning a living off my books. I’m nowhere near that yet; this is the next goal. It may take another twenty-three years. I hope not, but it might, and if does take that long, I’ll survive. This journey has taught me patience, even though the lessons sometimes made me bleed.
And this moment of reflection makes me think back to my teenage self. How I used to lay on the trampoline on our half-acre block in Geraldton, staring up at the sky, thinking how it would feel to finally make it one day. Charlie in my book has this same energy, same desire. Back then, I’d watch clouds cross blue while my dog Ebony, a staffy cross, trotted around nearby. I used to look at the sky a lot, day and night. The full moon transfixes me; my biggest inspiration; the little beacon by which I promised myself, each month, one day I will make it.
The sky is possibility, potential, everything that could be but isn’t yet.
And the sky is my direction; I am climbing a mountain towards it while knowing I will never touch it.
Reflecting and recalibrating, in this moment now, makes me feel good. My first novel being published was the first peak on the way to a much higher summit. And though this terrain is new and uncharted, the ascent so far has given me all the tools I need.
I have the work ethic of a manual labourer who dug trenches in forty degree heat.
I have the doggedness of a struggling writer who took twenty-three years to break through.
And I have the imagination of a fourteen-year-old boy who stared up at the sky every Midwestern summer, dreaming of his mountain.
There was no way I was going to miss posting a reflective message about the end of a whole goddamn decade. 🥳🥳
I chose these two photos to juxtapose because they exhibit the positive change a decade has wrought on me. 😁😁
The biggest change is not on the outside, but within.
The 2009 me on the left is smiling, but he has no confidence, no self-esteem and loathes himself most days. He thinks he’s not good enough. He cares what others think so much that he lets their opinions shadow, plague and dictate his own self-talk, words, and life. 😔😔
The 2019 me on the right looks a bit aggro, but he is confident, assertive and likes the bloke he’s become. He knows he is good enough just as he is. He is the captain and master of his own self-talk, words and life: he is his own. He also looks really fucken buff here. 💪💪
What a metamorphic, Saturn-Returny decade it’s been. 🤩🤩
And hell, what a wild year 2019 has been – marrying my beautiful husband Raphael Farmer and my debut novel, Invisible Boys, being released were the highlights. 😍😍 Thanx heaps to each of you for being a part of this massive year. Your messages, reviews and photos this past few months have made my heart incredibly full. Thanx for supporting (and sometimes tolerating) me, my book, my writing, my penchant for talking about my dick, my entirely healthy obsession with Alanis Morissette, my Witcher song singing, my runaway ego and my neuroses, and my shameless shirtless gym selfies. 😜😜😅😅
And here’s to the Roaring Twenties 2: Electric Boogaloo. Although sequels are usually worse, let us embrace the next decade with the same foolish optimism that I embraced Jumanji: The Next Level. It could be awesome, who knows? We should experience it first and decide later, right? 🤷♂️🤷♂️
May this new year and decade bring you each growth, comfort, strength, opportunity, fucktons of fun, challenges, solutions, liberation, balance, and most of all, the doggedness and determination needed to build and live whatever kind of life you want. It’s yours and we don’t live on this planet for very long, so go on and do what you want before it’s too late. 🤘🤘🤘
So, this weekend, a bookseller from Dymocks Busselton sent me a photo of two chefs on stilts reading my novel at the Manjimup Cherry Harmony Festival.
I cracked up laughing, because I had no context for this image and it seemed like the most random thing I’ve come across in this book’s promo cycle so far. (Sidebar: the bookseller has since told me there was absolutely no context for this photo, she just took it because she thought it would be a cool pic – so that’s even funnier to me.)
Anyway, yesterday, for some reason, this image stirred up an idea. I remembered how one reviewer had mentioned the role food plays in the book. I also hadn’t written anything creatively for three months, since I’ve been so hectic with touring and promo. Apparently a day and a half was enough rest time to have recharged my creative batteries a little: I was eager to write something creative and fun, and I churned this piece out: a menu based on the culinary dishes that feature in the book.
If there’s anything more random than the photo of the chefs on stilts reading Invisible Boys, it’s probably this blog post. But I had fun writing it and it was a great way to reflect on my novel and also ease back into writing creatively again.
Happy reading – or bon appetit!
INVISIBLE BOYS: THE MENU
Anna Calogero’s Traditional Sicilian Potato Salad
How dare those Skips try to put mayonnaise in a goddamn potato salad? This traditional dish is the same Italian recipe handed down by the women in your family since the 1930s and it is not going to change now just because of some Aussie tart pushing her way into your family. This refreshing salad includes peas, red onions and eight litres of olive oil. A versatile dish, it will simultaneously please the palate and, when paired with a hearty spray of Lynx Africa, can competently mask the odour of unexpected bodily fluids in the kitchen bin.
Charlie Roth’s Gummy Shark & Chips
This simple, classic Aussie favourite doesn’t need cutlery or crockery, much in the same way that you don’t need anyone else in your life because they’re all phonies anyway so fuck ‘em. Salty and satisfying, this dish is perfect for hot February nights on the Geraldton foreshore before you dip into the Indian Ocean for a swim, or lurk by the wharf to cruise men for anonymous sex.
Natalie Wright’s Tiramisu
So your Italian mother-in-law hates you, but that’s no reason to stop trying to change her mind. Instead of bringing around your usual pavlova, spice things up by making your own version of the one dessert she prides herself on. Moist, creamy and soaked in liqueur, it definitely won’t trigger her defensive tendencies or remind her of how you’ve swanned in and usurped all influence over her son. Buon appetito!
Matt Jones’s BBQ Snags
Who says the gays need to be known for delicate baked goods and effete brunches? Be true to you and embrace your retrosexual masculinity by treating your Valentine’s Day date to a hearty slab of your meat. Best cooked with plenty of ventilation to ensure just the right amount of smoky barbequed richness. Pairs well with a Bushchook or eight. For added Northampton flair, surprise your beau with snags made of native Aussie meat and wait to see how long it takes him to notice.
Zeke Calogero’s Gnocchi in Traditional Sugo
Perhaps these potatoes wanted to end their lives rolled into lumpy gnocchi, perhaps they would have preferred to be French fries, but the existential anthropomorphism you try to project onto them doesn’t detract from how deliciously filling they are in your belly. A staple of the Sicilian peasant diet, these hearty dumplings are enriched by a homemade Italian tomato sauce: just because you can’t squeeze a drop of goddamn empathy out of your rigid Catholic parents, doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze some ripe tomatoes to form a zesty and herby condiment. Bellissimo!
Kade “Hammer” Hammersmith’s Onion Rings á la Bilby’s Burgers
Nothing says “self-sabotage” like interrupting your closely-monitored diet of protein shakes, creatine and BCAAs with a greasy post-footy feed from Bilby’s Burgers. Whether you’re dining in or sequestering a lover away in your brother’s ute, these crunchy, beer-battered onion rings are the perfect, masculine accompaniment to your 100% Aussie Beef burger from Bilby’s. Do your best not to tell your date how you wonder if your dick would fit through the middle of the onion rings. Best served with aioli, or any other salty white sauce.
(PS. Did you really think this post wouldn’t end up where it did? :P)
I wrote Invisible Boys because I wanted to show the world that boys and men suffer, and how our suffering shows up in various ways.
Sometimes our suffering makes us small and quiet and self-loathing, like Zeke.
Sometimes it makes us angry and confrontational, like Charlie.
Sometimes it just makes us seem like arrogant “dickheads”, as many people have described Hammer.
In almost all cases, however, men and boys suffer with one almost universal commonality: we usually do it in silence.
This silence is killing us. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 40. We’re taking our own lives at a rate TRIPLE that of females, and this stat has not budged for AGES.
We don’t open up and say how we’re feeling, and I am convinced, in my bones, that if we gave ourselves permission to be vulnerable, and boldly tackle what’s going on inside, we would help ourselves to suffer less.
I believe developing the muscles required to be vulnerable makes a man more masculine, not less. The willingness to bare our souls, to face what is within us – whether virtue or demon – makes us braver and stronger and more assertive and more powerful. And yep, more manly. 💪💪
So today let’s acknowledge that the struggle is real for men and boys all across this fucked-up planet – not just gay guys, but all guys.
And in all the earnestness of this post, let’s not forget that today really ought to be a celebration of men and our awesomeness, not just a lamenting of our issues.
So here’s to all the legendary blokes out there, being heroes and lovers and fathers and sons and brothers and soldiers and healers and leaders and artists and sportsmen and dreamers. Here’s to the blokes who are tough as nails and those who are gentle as a feather. Here’s to the slack and the ambitious, the pristine and the traumatised, the stoic and the empathetic, the passionate and the larrikin.
Here’s to us men, being what proud of what we are and working hard at what we could become. 💪💪
I feel like I won’t know how I feel right now until I look back a decade from now when I’m 41 years old (or maybe still 29 ;)) and I have some distance from this whirlwind and I can appreciate that really in the scheme of the industry I was only ever a small fish with a book that was an indie hit for a few months and then maybe it will stall maybe it or I will flail or sink and in a decade none of this or me will even matter to anyone at all or maybe it will get even bigger than that even bigger than it is now and maybe it will launch rockets from here hurl me up into the stars like that ambitious fucker Orion
I kinda hope it does no who am I fucken kidding of course I want it to get bigger its like when they interviewed me on that podcast after I won the Hungerford and the bloke asked me “what’s your goal in life, Holden?” and I said “world domination” and he laughed and I looked him square in the eye and said “but I’m really not joking”
yes I want bigger I want enough money to live off I want to be able to focus just on writing I want to not be transferring money between my accounts so I can afford red rooter for tea or fuel for my shitbox Commodore I want to be not stressing about paying the rent or fixing my car or can I really afford this massage of course I can’t afford any massage it’s all beyond my station in life but sometimes it feels good to say fuck it all what’s the point of any of this if I can’t feel good every now and then
and I don’t know how to put up more boundaries than I already have I feel intruded upon constantly but that’s what you get for putting yourself out there so vulnerable it’s like you can’t stop yourself it’s vulnerability porn really and eventually I know someone is gonna get sick of it and me and say I’m old news and I’m beating a dead horse flogging flogging and what else do I really have to offer other than baring my flayed skin for everyone?
fuck I live for the attention my ego loves it and I try to tell people I am Hammer I am a cocky arrogant dickhead and nobody seems to properly believe it but I am (but you seem so down to earth! But you’re helping people to process their arcane trauma they shoved down for three decades!) well I’ve been deep in the earth my whole life I’ve rolled in the dirt I’ve tried to hide myself in the soil I’ve soiled myself to survive the scrutiny of being so different so fucken different and so yes I know how to be down to earth and yes I’m self-deprecating to the point where it’s not funny anymore and I do have the pain I have all the pain in the world I have my own and I have yours and anything you have felt in your deepest darkest most alone most depressed most suicidal most dissociated I have felt too I understand you (even if we haven’t met, haven’t spoken, and we don’t need to) I have kept my pain and siphoned it out of my body I decanted the poison out of my blood and it’s outside of me now and you read it and now we see each other
and everyone sees me now and it is like glare like stepping out of a thirty-year dungeon into the brightest sunrise I feel like all I’ve done for the last month (the last year!) is blink and blink and try to get my eyes to adjust but it’s always getting brighter too bright and a little part of me wouldn’t mind crawling back into the dungeon for a bit of rest but I can’t rest the way I used to rest I can’t sleep I can’t switch off I can’t think straight I can’t eat right I can’t get into a routine because I’m driving and flying and I’m always ON which I’ll gladly do a thousand times not just to sell myself (like on a street corner) but so that telling this story helps you not do what I nearly did – I want to help you save you rescue and protect which is too much for anyone to take on but fuck it I’ll try and if I can help you process the nightmare you barely breathed through then that will make it all worthwhile and god knows I live for the attention my whole life is thunder and I live for validation and acknowledgement and I live for the applause applause applause but sometimes when I get it I shrink and think “why the fuck are all these people being nice to someone as shit as me? I’m a fucking arsehole!” and some days I can’t handle a single further word of praise and other days I’ll fall apart if I don’t get it we artists really are a unique brand of needy boofheads
and some days I’m overwhelmed with gratitude when I hear from people who went through the same as me (decades apart or minutes apart) or something goes well like the morning I found out we were going into reprint after just 7 days on sale and I stepped out of my mate’s shower in Richmond, Victoria and dried my Mohawk with his spare towel and then clutched the bathroom sink to hold myself up as I collapsed into a fit of sobs realising oh my fucking God I’m not a failure anymore after 23 years of trying my guts out and being a loser being THE loser that everyone sneered at and said “oh, how’s that writing going lol?” I have finally made this shit work and it was guttural sobs of joy and relief and arrival with my tears splashing on the slate-grey tiles of his modern Melbourne apartment while I listened to ‘I can go the distance’ from Hercules and I realised I had actually gone the distance
and I’m not ashamed of it I’m not ashamed of anything no shame no sacred cows no fucks shall be given because I am good and I am mine and I’m not even ashamed of writing a stream-of-consciousness on a Friday night when I should be (partying? Socialising? Fucking my husband?) but instead I am here putting words on a digital page because when I don’t write I get sick and I haven’t written a word for too long now and so don’t worry this isn’t me being sick in front of you, this is medicine probably the best medicine i have known
This month on my author interview series Holden’s Heroes, I chat with the latest writer friend I’ve cornered and blackmailed invited to share their craft: author, editor and doctoral student Rebecca Freeman. I’ll be asking her the tough, intelligent questions, like how does she manage to do so much with a cat sitting obstinately in front of her keyboard.
Let’s dive in and find out more!
Holden’s Heroes ~ September 2019
Holden: Rebecca Freeman, welcome to my house! Don’t mind the cans of diet coke all over the patio – that’s just the fallout from when Lana Pecherczyk came to visit. I’m not supposed to mention this, but she also stayed for a cheeky gin. What a wild child.
Rebecca: Oh please. I live with an Adam, our four children, dog, cats and chooks. This is nothing. I’ll just move the nail polish and tin of supplement and sit myself down here on this milk crate.
H: Classic me, painting my nails punk style while making my protein shake, ha! Anyway, Bec, welcome to trashville, population me and my husband. Now let’s start with the most exciting news first: your brand new novella Alt-Ctrlis a dystopian story and it’s hitting our shelves on Monday, 30 September! Tell me, what’s it all about?
R: OMG I KNOW. I can’t quite believe it. September 30th seemed like such a long time away when I was discussing it with my publisher and now it’s nearly here! So Alt-Ctrl is set in Australia in the near future, and centres around a young woman, Finn. She lives in an enclosed City, which is one of the few safe places to live since the climate collapsed. Outside the City are the Badlands, and Finn has grown up hearing all kinds of stories about the people who eke out a living there, suffering from radiation poisoning and starvation. But as it turns out, the stories weren’t true, and there might be more to fear from within the City than there is without.
H: It’s such a great premise and flips the classic dystopian setup around. Where did the idea to write something dystopian come from? The cli-fi aspect seems to be relevant currently, what with the way the world is going and the recent global climate strike. What inspired you to write this novella?
R: Well, weirdly, the story itself was inspired by losing access to a blogging platform I used and it made me think about how connected we are to the online community, and how it can feel like you’re completely cut off if that drops away.
H: This would actually have such an impact – so many creative careers would be poleaxed without access to blogs and social media! Including my own probably *sad cough*. What about the plot?
R: The plot came to me in a dream! It was one of those times when you wake up from a dream and write it down and the next morning it actually makes sense, unlike most of the time when you wake up the next morning and see that you’ve written ‘Sliced oranges’ or something equally confounding.
H: So many writers I know have done this, and it’s usually even less coherent than ‘sliced oranges’.
R: I later wrote a short story called ‘And then it rained’ which was published in an anthology of Asian-Pacific Speculative Fiction (called Amok). And the characters really stayed with me, and so I started writing a story which featured them, and that turned into Alt-Ctrl. But cli-fi in general, I love it so much, because I think it’s an example of how incredibly powerful fiction can be in affecting change in subtle ways, you know, without being too preachy. We change our minds because of stories, and now more than ever we need a shift in perspective, a way of finding new solutions. From what I read about how your writing impacts people’s lives, I imagine you can probably understand that too.
H: Yes, I totally get it, and that’s something that drives me in terms of opening up new conversations without preaching – letting the art do the talking. I’m sure your novella will do the same as it’s so pertinent to what we’re facing globally at the moment. I love the boldness of the cover of Alt-Ctrl. I remember from our chats a few months ago that this wasn’t the original title. Can you talk about your process in choosing the right fit for the novella’s title, and why you chose this one?
R: Thanks, I love it too! But ugh, don’t talk to me about titles. I haaaaate titles. Hate them! If it were up to me, I’d call them ‘Story A’, ‘Story B’… haha. But I guess that’s not very interesting. You’re right though. Alt-Ctrl was Collapse the whole time I was writing it, and then at the end, I sat down and brainstormed with my publisher and Adam and we came up with this, and then I thought, ‘Yes, that’s it.’
H: The title immediately tells us we’re dealing with spec fic, I reckon – nice work. Now, you’ve also had some other wins recently, with your novella pitch to the Drowned Earth competition shortlisted. How did it feel to get that recognition of the quality of your work, and what’s happening with that project currently?
R: That was so great! As you know, both Mike [author Michael Trant] and I were shortlisted for this competition which was fantastic – it’s awesome to share that sort of thing with your friends. It also sparked a new story and to be considered for the shortlist, I had to write a synopsis and the introduction, so now I have the beginning of the story. I’d love to get back to it, and I’ve got a notebook with a few thousand words in it, but obviously there are only so many hours in the day!
H: And from where I’m sitting, I’m pretty sure you are using literally every one of those hours already! You’re incredibly busy and productive, as you’re also completing your PhD through Curtin University. What’s your thesis on?
R: Yeah, so I’m doing a creative PhD, which means I need to produce a creative project and then a short thesis of about 30,000 words.
H: *hears distant screaming of people wondering how 30,000 could be short*
R: I’m writing a steampunk novel as my creative project and both that and the thesis are focusing on how steampunk explores colonisation, and how it portrays nature and technology. The setting of the novel is here in Albany in the late 1800s but it’s obviously quite a different place. I’m really enjoying playing with an alternative world and weaving in some of the real-world problems and conflicts during that time. Even the research is interesting. Did you know that we had a massive depression in the 1890s?
H: Somehow, yes, I did. I can’t remember most of high school but I do remember that we had an economic depression in the 1890s. Go figure.
R: And did you know that in 1893 the Australian Federal Bank failed?! So incredible.
H: I didn’t know about that! I guess knowing the fine details makes you such a great editor, which is my brilliant segue to my next question, because you also work as a freelance editor! How does that experience differ from the creative writing process and is it difficult to switch between the two?
R: It actually balances out really well. When editing, I’m in a different mindset, I think. It’s more methodical, more critical. You can’t approach writing in that way – at least not when you’re doing the first or second drafts – or you’ll get totally bogged down in the details. But it always surprises me how I still need to draw on creativity when I edit, because I have to phrase my feedback in a way which is helpful and constructive. I’m glad I get to do both, though. I think being an editor helps my writing, and that could be simply due to the fact that it requires lots of reading, and that’s always good for writers to do.
H: I think Laurie Steed told me something about that once – and if he didn’t, he totally could have, because he’s also both an editor and a writer, and his writing is exceptionally well constructed. Now, being an editor, you must see a lot of rough-looking drafts from writers before you work your magic on them. What are some of the most common mistakes you see and what can writers do to improve their work?
R: Most of the time writers have done a great job with the manuscripts they send me, and I’ve been so amazed at the incredible stories I get to read. Occasionally I’ll get something which really is a draft, and I have actually sent some back to the writer, to tell them that their story is not ready to edit yet. So I guess my advice would be to not be in too much of a hurry. When you finish a draft, let it rest for a bit. Leave it at least a few weeks before you go back to it and read it again – and that time can really give you some perspective.
H: Totes agree on letting manuscripts rest! Speaking of rest (someone is going to scream at me for this segues soon) but – when and how do you rest, because as if being a writer, editor and doctoral student wasn’t enough, you’re also raising a family of four. Now, I can barely take care of myself, so forgive the cliché question, but how on earth do you manage your time?
R: Oh, I just leave a massive bowl of fruit in the kitchen and leave them to it! Haha, just kidding! (Well, sort of. They do eat a lot of fruit.) But having lots to do is fun for me. I generally thrive on it. I mean, there are days – like today, in fact – when I’ve barely had time to eat, but those are few and far between. Most of the time it’s about managing my time well while the kids are away at school or asleep. That’s why getting up early is really good for me. Now that they’re all starting to sleep in, I can get a good chunk of work done in the mornings. As for everything else, I recommend menu planning and a large diary to write everything down!
H: I’m taking notes that I 100% know I will not follow, because my career is so tightly managed that my personal/home life is a tyre fire and I don’t see that changing haha. Sidebar to anything writery, I grew up in a family of six kids and loved it because there were always people around and plenty of noise. Do you find that’s a great environment to write in, or do you prefer to quarantine some quiet time and space for yourself to get work done?
R: I need the quiet. I do love being in a household full of people – on weekends we often have extra kids coming and going, and it gives me a sense of contentment that our kids like being at home and that their friends like visiting them here. When I grew up it was often just me and my parents as my siblings were a lot older, so having a busy house is different from my childhood, but not in a bad way. Still, when we moved here a few years ago, we worked out that we could convert the enclosed verandah into a study for me, and recently we put up bookshelves and most importantly a LOCKABLE DOOR. Since I work at home, there have definitely been some BBC-Dad moments.
H: That is one of my favourite memes ever, and I love that you’ve been able to live that moment yourself haha – hopefully while not on live TV though! I have major envy looking at your beautiful home study. Now, you live in the rugged and beautiful town of Albany, on Western Australia’s southern coast. What is your experience of being a writer in a regional town, and do you feel there are some services and opportunities you miss out on being in a more isolated location than the metro area?
R: I adore living here. I grew up on a farm near a tiny town only a few hours drive from here, so moving down here was like coming home. And sure, there are some things I know I miss out on, like writers’ festivals and events. It’s very different meeting people in person and going to talks or conventions, that kind of thing, and it can be frustrating that we don’t get that as much in regional or remote communities, although of course I understand why. Saying that, I’ve found a vibrant writing and arts community here, and I belong to two writers’ groups. The library is also outstanding in its support of local artists and writers, and I’m working with some other local people to bring a writers’ festival to Albany in 2020.
H: Agree with Albany Library being amazing – they’re bringing me down to Albany in November for an author talk and I can’t wait – I’ve never visited. Great news about the potential for an Albany writers festival in 2020 – go you. Does this mean you’ll have to put some other projects on hold to make that happen, or will you still be writing new stuff?
R: I’m trying very hard to focus on one thing at a time but as you can imagine, I’m not doing very well with that. Now that Alt-Ctrl is finished, I’m probably going to try and focus on my PhD. But I have a magic realism novel which I’ve written about 20K of, and a cosy crime series which I’m plotting out, and then there’s that Drowned Earth novella idea I mentioned earlier … well, you know how it is. I have a very long ‘to-write’ list!
H: To-write lists are both exciting and stressful as hell. Speaking of hell, it’s sometimes hellish to get up at 5am, and yet we both aim to do this by being in the #5amwritersclub (best segue ever). I feel like you’re one of the most committed in terms of checking in with the rest of us each morning and trying to make us accountable.
R: Aw, thank you! It’s probably less about commitment and more about procrastination! But I think since I work at home and also with the isolation of living in the country, it’s really helpful to have that online accountability. I have deadlines for work and but when it comes to writing, I need to say to someone, ‘I have to do 1000 words by tonight’ or ‘I have to finish this chapter by the end of the week’, and it motivates me to do it because I’ve told other people.
H: What made you join the club, and what made you stay?
R: When Lana [Pecherczyk] started posting the hashtag and suggested getting up early to write, I thought it was something which would help me carve out the time. And as for what made me stay, well, it’s everything: the camaraderie, the support, the laughs, the friendship. It’s such a cool group and I’m honestly blessed to be part of it.
H: Agree. It’s great finding fellow writers to hang with, celebrate with, commiserate with. Is that the advice you would give to new writers who are just starting out?
R: Yes. Find your people. They can be online or in person, it doesn’t matter! I think we consider writing to be a very solitary activity and it’s true that you have to get the words down on your own. I reckon any art needs to be created in solitude, because that gives you opportunity to reflect, but as artists we also need to live in the world, you know? So find those people in the world who will support you, who’ll give you feedback. You know, to celebrate the wins and lift you up from the rejections. It’s kind of lonely, otherwise!
H: Great note to finish on. Rebecca Freeman, thanks for coming over to my place – it was awesome to get to know you better. Care for a drink or two? What’s your poison?
R: I had a great time, thanks for inviting me! I’m not a drinker, as you know, but I brought some lemon balm and peppermint from my garden. Thought I’d make us all a pot of herbal tea.
H: Ah, music to my ears! I love lemon and I totally dig peppermint tea. I’ll chuck the billy on.
R: Oh, and can I tempt you with some homemade brownies? It’s cheat day, right?
H: I’m going to have a little cry at the prospect of tomorrow’s carb bloat, and then eat a brownie anyway, because if there’s a brownie involved, it’s always cheat day.
~ Social Media Links ~
I hope you enjoyed this interview with the wonderful Rebecca Freeman. She’s a solid friend to have, and a big supporter of others on her social media, so here’s where you can give her a like and a follow:
I’m about to set off on the book tour in support of my own novel, Invisible Boys, which is released on 1 October (four days away) but Holden’s Heroes will return soon with another interview with a local WA author – stay tuned. Until then, thanks for visiting! 😉
This is a day, and a cause, close to my heart because of what I went through growing up.
Getting help for feeling depressed and suicidal is something I have *never* regretted. As a man, it made me feel stronger, not weaker, to tackle my problems head-on by getting support. And it made me want to keep living. 💪💪
I say this in particular because male suicide rates are triple those of female suicide rates. Triple! And even worse for men who are gay, bi, trans or intersex, or who are indigenous, or who live in rural areas, or who are elderly. Instead of seeking support or help when we’re in crisis, us guys often stop talking, shut down and isolate ourselves. I want to help others but particularly boys and men know that talking about how we feel is a source of strength, not a source of weakness. Learning how to be vulnerable and manage our emotions will literally save our own lives. Showing our mates that it’s okay to be like this will help save theirs.
I wanted to share two things with you all today.
Firstly, I wrote a new article for my publisher Fremantle Press about my own experiences with mental health issues and suicide and how this led to my decision to become an ambassador for suicide prevention organisation Lifeline WA. If you or someone you know is in crisis or thinking about suicide, get help immediately. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14. These guys are absolute legends. 🙌🙌
Secondly, on a slightly more personal level, I want to share a song I came across when I was bleakly suicidal at the age of 18/19.
The song is “Joining You” by Alanis Morissette. This song was the one that blew my mind, that helped start to pivot me around to rethinking whether death was the best option, because it didn’t just say “don’t kill yourself, dude” or “life is worth living” or anything generic or meaningless.
It said, “Well, if I saw the world the way you’re seeing the world right now, I’d be joining you. I’d kill myself, too. But, this isn’t what the world is. You’re seeing it wrong. You aren’t your body, your culture, your future, your denials, your emotions, your afflictions, their condemnations. These things are not you and you’re more than any of them, and none of them are worth taking your life over.” The underlying message being, effectively, fuck everything that’s hurt you, and live anyway.
I’ve always found this song helpful – to getting through those moments of suicidal ideation, and also to processing the resultant trauma and shame of having those feelings in the many years since.
Big love to you if you’re struggling atm or if someone you know is struggling. Seriously, reach out, even anonymously. It makes it much easier to breathe once you tell someone else how you feel. You can always call Lifeline on 13 11 14, too.
Lyrics to “Joining You” by Alanis Morissette (1998):
dear dar(lin’) your mom (my friend) left a message on my machine she was frantic saying you were talking crazy that
you wanted to do away with yourself I guess she thought i’d be a perfect resort because we’ve had this inexplicable connection since our youth
and yes they’re in shock they are panicked you and your chronic them and their drama you this embarrassment us in the middle of this delusion
if we were our bodies
if we were our futures
if we were our defenses i’d be joining you
if we were our culture
if we were our leaders
if we were our denials i’d be joining you
I remember vividly a day years ago we were camping you knew more than you thought you should know you said “I don’t want ever to be brainwashed”
and you were mindboggling you were intense you were uncomfortable in your own skin you were thirsty but mostly you were beautiful
if we were our nametags
if we were our rejections
if we were our outcomes i’d be joining you
if we were our indignities
if we were our successes
if we were our emotions i’d be joining you
you and I we’re like 4 year olds we want to know why and how come about everything we want to reveal ourselves at will and speak our minds
and never talk small and be intuitive and question mightily and find god my tortured beacon we need to find like-minded companions
if we were their condemnations
if we were their projections
if we were our paranoias i’d be joining you
if we were our incomes
if we were our obsession
if we were our afflictions i’d be joining you
we need reflection we need a really good memory feel free to call me a little more often
So pumped to share the latest chapter in my author interview series, Holden’s Heroes.
This series focuses on fellow writers from my #5amwritersclub, and this month I’m stoked to be chatting to the woman who started all the #5amwritersclub craziness here in Perth. This month’s reluctant blackmailee technically consenting participant is my friend Lana Pecherczyk – an author whose work spans multiple genres, but almost always involves sexy heroes, thrilling action and kickass heroines. Lana also describes herself as a big fan of ‘pro-caffeinating’.
Let’s dive in and find out more!
Holden’s Heroes ~ August 2019
Holden: Lana Pechercyzk, welcome to my house! Don’t mind the cans of pre-mix whisky and cola all over the patio – that’s just me failing to clean up after Alicia Tuckerman came to visit. Anyway, welcome to my crib.
Lana: Thanks for having me here, Holden. And I don’t mind a bit of mess. In my opinion, it’s a sign of a creative person. Well, at least that’s what I tell my husband!
H: I’m going to start claiming this, too – although my husband is also a creative, so we’re just screwed. Now, tell me about your writing: you write both urban fantasy and paranormal romance. What is it that attracts you to these genres, both as a reader and as a writer?
L: The action, the magic, the romance. Basically, it’s those three things that you’ll find in most of my work. I’ve always been a huge fan of the paranormal, and if I have to pick a movie to watch, it’s always got to have heart pounding action and suspense. When I grew up, firstly, I didn’t have a TV for many years, so I lived through the character’s lives in books. As I got older, we had a TV, but I had to share it with five other kids. In the end, I preferred the adventures in my books.
H: I’m hearing you about the growing up with lots of other kids around – why compromise when you can have the book world all to yourself, right? Speaking of, your own book world is impressive: you’re incredibly prolific as an author – seeing how many books you’ve already published is absolutely staggering and also makes me want to weep with envy as a fellow author. What’s your secret?
L: Well, I wasn’t always a prolific writer. It took me three years to write my first book, and I redrafted it eleven times. With every book, I get faster and better. The secret is to keep going. Don’t look back. As Nora Roberts said, “You can fix anything but a blank page.” So keep writing.
H: Maybe a more pragmatic question for me to ask should be what’s your process that enables you to achieve such a great rate of output?
L: Don’t freak out and don’t read your reviews. After the first novel, I freaked out. I thought it would fly off the shelves. I thought everyone would LOVE IT! Of course, it dribbled off the shelves. I took it hard and spent the next two years not writing anything!
Then I met some amazing authors at RWA (Romance Writers of Australia) and learned that’s just the writing business. Most authors in Australia make a poor income. If I wanted to actually make more money, I had to push myself. Treat the writing as a business, and turn up Monday to Friday, nine to five. I block my writing in a schedule (I don’t always keep it, but I try) and I put that schedule up on the wall where I’ll see it daily. I also have some great friends who push me and encourage me. I think you’re familiar with the #5amwritersclub on Twitter, Holden 😉
H: I am indeed – in fact, we’re both part of the club, though let’s face it, we don’t always wake up on time. What made you join the club, and what made you stay?
L: I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but I think I was one of the first in Perth to use the hashtag (in relation to our little group).
H: I was aware you were one of the early adopters, but I didn’t know you were the one to blame for all the early starts I’ve inflicted upon myself this past 18 months, ha!
L: I was on one of my writing binges (deadline looming) and was a bit lonely that time of morning. I got up early to beat my kids before they wake for the day, used the hashtag (when I should have been writing) and Louise Allan was up and noticed. She joined in and then we found more Perthites, and more. Don’t you just love social media?
H: I remember you all ganging up on me and saying I had to join you. I have to be honest – I really didn’t want to. I felt like waking up at 5am would be hideous. But when I saw how many of you there were I was like “these could be my people”. And the desire to find my tribe was stronger than the desire to sleep in. I don’t regret this at all, now, even if I struggle to check in all the time.
L: I must admit, that lately I’ve been drowning a bit in other jobs and responsibilities, so getting to the group isn’t always easy, but that’s the great thing about the friendly group of writers… you can just drop in any time, and everyone is very welcoming. Find your tribe! And if you can’t, jump onto someone else’s. Another great hashtag on Twitter is #amwriting.
H: Finding your tribe needs to be one of the things we tell other writers more often, I reckon! Okay, let’s talk about your Paranormal Romance series, The Deadly Seven. You’ve released three books in this series already, as well as a novella. What was the inspiration for this book series, and what can readers expect next?
L: This is the first series I’ve gone, you know what? I actually LOVE superheroes, and I LOVE romance! I wish there was story behind Lois Lane and Clark Kent. You watch the movies, and you see the pivotal influence the love interest has on these heroes, but we never really give credence to it. That’s what I wanted to do. And I amplified it tenfold in TheDeadly Seven.
The inspiration for the type of heroes came from the words “deadly sin” and I just thought one day, wouldn’t it be funny if they were actually deadly? Then that sparked the entire series plot around genetically modified heroes who are created to defeat deadly sin in the crime drenched cities.
Usually I get my ideas from songs, believe it or not, so this was a bit different.
H: I really love your inspiration about them being *actually* deadly – what a cool concept. I think there’s a perception that Paranormal Romance refers solely to Twilight and vampire stories of that ilk. Have you come up against pre-conceived notions of your genre previously and how do you tackle this?
L: I have a bad habit of writing between the genres. I don’t stick solely to one, and it’s hard to market my work. But I swear I’m getting better at this with each series. I think you get these sort of confusing comments from readers when you haven’t marketed your book in the correct genre, and you haven’t managed expectations. It’s important to let readers know in the blurb, and with your cover, what story they’ll be reading. I’m very clear that my new series is a superhero romance, so that I don’t get any hardcore superhero fans reading it and complaining that there’s kissing scenes in there. Lol.
H: I’m thinking of that moment in The Princess Bride. Is this a kissing book?
L: If you do get some strange comments, then I think it’s important to take a look at your branding, and work out whether you were throwing out a mixed message. If you’re clear, then, my advice is to ignore it. Sometimes haters just gonna hate.
H: Agree. The other main genre you write in is you also write Urban Fantasy, with your The Game of Gods What’s the best part about writing fun, action-driven stories like these and how does it differ from your romance novels? Less kissing?
L: Okay, so both my series have crazy amounts of action in them. The difference with the romance ones is that they spend a little more time on the relationship. When I write and read these scenes, I feel as though I’m in the thick of the action. My brain fires better! If only I could have that amount of clarity all day.
I actually find fight scenes and love scenes don’t differ too much. When you drill down to the basic core reasons for these scenes, you find the best fight and love scenes both get your heart racing, both should only be in the story if they move the plot forward, and both have crazy amounts of tension, and both start with characters wanting two very different things. It’s just a different kind of battle *winky winky*.
H: Battle … now there’s a new euphemism for me to use for it, haha. You also have another book out called Robin Lockslay, which is described as a fun, gender-bending twist on the evergreen Robin Hood story. I’ve noticed the enormous popularity of fairytale retellings over this past decade. What’s the appeal of revisiting these very old stories and giving them a modern twist?
L: This was so much fun to write and I will get back to it. I’ve been getting rapped over the knuckles by a writer friend who’s helping me stay on one genre track. Fairytale retellings are not only a familiar story for the reader, but familiar for the writer. You’ve got a guideline to follow, and creating characters and plots completely from scratch isn’t needed. The story comes easier.
H: There’s also that concept of having an pre-prepared audience: if people like that particular fairytale, they’re more likely to pick it up, right?
L: Readers like to relive their favourite characters over and over. I think that’s the beauty of retellings. You get to do it all again, but a little bit different.
H: You’ve been incredibly prolific and are having a lot of success as an indie author. What’s it like being an indie author and how do you manage your time between creative practice and admin and marketing duties?
L: Aw thanks. I wish I was super successful money wise, but I think I’m on the right track. As long as I keep consistently putting out work, I’ll build a loyal readership. With managing my time, I’ve learned by trial and error. Always learn! Never believe you know everything. The writer that does that will be the writer to fail.
I’ve learned about my own process. I know that if I stop, get distracted, or don’t have a deadline … I just find other things to fill my time. So, I block in my writing first. Then I limit myself to only a certain amount of freelance or book cover design hours a day. Getting out of the house, and away from the internet and design computer has been the best tip I’ve received to keep my writing on track. I like to go to a cafe, sit in the same booth, put my headphones in and listen to the same piano music of pop songs, and then write. When I don’t get out of the house and go to writing “work”, I inevitably get distracted.
H: Distraction is the devil! But some distractions – like socialising with other writers – can be beneficial. You’ve previously been involved with the Romance Writers’ Association of Australia in a committee role, and recently went to their annual conference in Melbourne. Tell me, what is the importance of writing organisations like the RWA and how has being involved helped you?
L: RWA helped me find my tribe. Writing is a solitary gig. It’s lonely and also one of the industries where you really need that feedback from peers – even if it’s a friendly bit of encouragement. And writers love to talk about writing. I don’t know about you, but I find that my non-writer friends (and family) quickly became fatigued with all my writing talk when I first started.
H: Oh man, yes, this exactly. I used to talk about my writing to my non-writer mates and family and a small few of them would listen, but most would look at me like, ‘Shut up. I don’t care.’ And it’s true. They really, really don’t care and most of them don’t get why we want or need to talk about it. And yet we listen to them talk about their jobs, but hey, that’s a bitter tangent for another day, haha.
L: But your writer friends will listen to you drivel on and on FOREVER! It’s amazing.
H: Agree. Tribe stuff again.
L: When I first joined RWA, I didn’t know anyone (naturally) so I put up my hand to volunteer. It’s the best way to network, be helpful and to learn from the best. I highly recommend it. You only need to write romantic elements to become a member. You don’t have to write full on romance. The organisation is open to many people.
Plus, if you meet a group of friends, it’s a business meeting and you can claim it on tax. True story. (Insert witty reference to consulting your accountant for official advice here!)
H: Consult your accountant for accurate tax advice, please, readers! So, Lana, we’ve so far talked about your writing, but you also work as an illustrator and design your own book covers. I love your covers, not just because they feature hot guys, but because the artwork is really damn cool. Did you study drawing or is this something you’ve nurtured yourself? Do you do commissions, or just prefer to draw for yourself?
L: The hot guys really make it! Would you believe I still get embarrassed when I create them? I can’t believe I write romance sometimes! Lol.
Here’s a story for you. When I studied Fine Art and Fashion Design (these are just a few of the subjects I studied when I should have been writing), and I had a nude life drawing class, I would leave the butts for last. They had to be perfect every time! My teacher would always give me stick for it, and I never even knew I was doing that until he pointed it out in front of the whole class. “Lana, why do you save the butts for last?”
H: You have no idea how happy I am that we’ve ended up talking about butts, Lana. This is totally on-brand for me.
L: Anyway… that’s enough about butts. Yes, I studied art. I never believed I was good enough to write. That little voice inside me said I had to be a fantastic literaty (see? I don’t even know the right word there), but eventually I gave it a shot, and I discovered a huge factor in successful writing – it’s not always about the words, but the feelings.
H: Totally agree – I’m personally drawn to writing that evokes emotions effectively rather than writing that is technically beautiful and literary but doesn’t move me. Speaking of being moved by things, your bio paraphrases the English theme song of Sailor Moon, which is just awesome. Are you a big fan of Sailor Moon and has this or other anime influenced your writing?
L: Sailor Moon is my boo! She got me through the tough times of my mother and grandfather passing away when I was younger. She fights for love and justice. As a young girl growing up, I think it was important to see a good female role model. She was the kick-ass savior, not the man (Tuxedo Mask), although he does make a gratuitous appearance every episode to give her a little bit of supportive encouragement. Lol. As you can see, big Sailor Moon fan. I also loved many of the old school anime.
H: I feel you and my husband would get along well – he’s a big Sailor Moon fan. I used to dig it too, back in the day. Now, the first time we met in real life was at the West Coast Fiction Festival in November last year. What do you enjoy about days like that when you get to meet readers face to face and sign their books?
L: I love chatting to people, readers and writers. These events are great for meeting both. There’s nothing like talking to a reader who loves your book. It gives you a real boost, and sometimes, just one letter or email, can give you the fuel to write for weeks. I think these events are just as much about the readers as the writers. And I loved meeting you! You have such energy, I’m sure you’ll be the life of your book signings this year!
H: You’re too kind. *bounces off the walls* I can’t wait to have people read my book and actually tell me what they enjoyed. How about you – what’s your favourite thing that someone has said about one of your books?
L: Ooh, that’s a tough one. I love it when they say they couldn’t sleep because they had to stay up and read to find out what happened next, and next, and next! I also love it when they fall in love with my heroes. That means I’ve done my job to make them realistic and full of depth. To be honest, I love it when any reader contacts me. I’m lucky that I haven’t had the dreaded author hate mail yet, so fingers crossed I stay away from that.
H: Long may your inbox remain hater-free. So what are you working on next?
L: I’m currently working on my fourth book in my Deadly Seven series. It’s called Sloth and focuses on one of the two female heroes of the group. Being so heavily dominated by men, she’s dealing with a lot of self-pressure to perform at their level. I love to layer in real topics through my books, so it’s not all smash, grabs and stabs. And of course, being affected by the sin of sloth is another battle she has to win. I have eight books in this series planned, all about 70-80K words. Hopefully I’ll get the rest out next year.
H: I am seriously so impressed with how quickly you can write!
L: I’m also polishing a romantic comedy called Hate Expectations. It’s something I wrote a few years back when I was confused over what genre to target. Rather than letting it sit in the drawer, I’m going to get it ready to see the world. That’s the beauty of indie publishing!
H: Yes, it really is. Trad publishing is far more glacial – even once a manuscript is accepted for publication, it can be 12-24 months before it hits the shelves. Indie publishing gives you more control in that respect. Okay, we’re down to my final question: what advice would you give to new writers who are just starting on their journey?
L: Don’t read your reviews. I think I mentioned this before, but if you’re the kind of person who is affected by reviews, don’t read them. It’s an irrational thing for me. I know sometimes the review is wonderful, I still have trouble distancing myself from my story. I can’t explain it, but I know that I get massive imposter syndrome, and self doubt. So, for me, the easiest thing is to just stay away from that section of Amazon and Goodreads.
H: I’ve heard this from so many authors – to stay away from Goodreads – but I don’t think anyone has managed to do it successfully yet. Not entirely, anyway.
L: The second thing is: the minute you finish one book, write the next book. Don’t stop to market it. Do the marketing while you’re writing the next book. The longer you wait between books, the harder it is to get back into it.
Thirdly, hire an editor. If you’re just starting out, hire an editor to whip that first manuscript into shape. Every time I think I’ve written the best book, my editor will come up with ten ways to make it better (often more!) You learn better when you hae an editor, and unless you’re JK Rowling, you can always learn to be better. (Her name is Ann Harth, and she’s currently open to new business. Look her up!)
H: Solid advice – all authors need our editors to not just save our arses from rogue typos, but also craft our narratives into more compelling stories. Lana Pecherczyk, thanks for coming over to my place – it was awesome to get to know you better. Care for a drink or two?
L: Oooh, don’t mind if I do.
H: What’s your poison?
L: I’ll have the Diet Coke, thanks. And maybe a gin on the quiet, but not Coke and gin together. That’s gross.
H: I’ll keep your cheeky gin quiet. It’s just between you and me, and all the people on the Internet reading this, haha. ^_^
L: Thanks for having me, Holden. I love your work and enthusiasm. I think you’ll do amazing things with that attitude and I wish you all the best.
H: Ah, cheers bud. Means a lot and I’m really touched. Thanks for agreeing to the chat!
L: Next time you can come to my place. Just watch the land mines from the dog, and lost Lego from the kids. Peace out!
H: Floor lego! My old nemesis!
~ Social Media Links ~
I hope you enjoyed this interview with the lovely Lana Pecherczyk. She’s a force to be reckoned with in the world of Aussie paranormal romance, and she’s great to interact with on the socials, so here’s where you can give her a like and a follow:
Your penitentiary life bunks in a dormitory suburb,
hopes mortgaged and remortgaged,
until you owe yourself too much.
When volcanoes are dormant they say they’re only sleeping.
Couldn’t erupt if you tried: your molten rage all cooled to stone
retaining walls that hold three-by-twos together;
hold you in like a final breath.
The cottage blocks get smaller each year, each subdivision
Contracting in a gasp
Like shrink-wrap over your open mouth.
Until you’re suffocating behind perspex vistas of tumbleweed streets
Dream homes rising like tombstones on traffic-calmed asphalt.
Don’t you ever want to throw the door open?
Race! / Run! / Thrash!
Wake the dead with a fire alarm guitar
Tear your wound open in the local park
Make lights blink on, silhouettes illuminate thresholds, heads tilt
As their neighbour bleeds on astroturf
Dying, but relieved
Finally: skin in this bloodless game.
– Holden Sheppard
So pumped to share the latest installment in my blog interview series, Holden’s Heroes.
Firstly, I should mention that sometimes I get overwhelmed by simple things in life. This has led to me developing habits like responding to text messages five days later as if nothing has happened and it’s only been five minutes. For today’s post, I’ve decided to take the same approach. It’s been a few months since I posted my last Holden’s Heroes interview, and I’m just gonna strut back in here with my Oakley sunnies on and my shirt collar popped and a cigarette dangling from my gob and act like that’s what I planned to do all along. Okay? Sweet as.
So, this interview series focuses on fellow writers, and I’ve spent 2019 chatting with members of my #5amwritersclub. This month’s terrified abductee legally willing participant is my mate Alicia Tuckerman – a talented YA author, talented mother and talented lesbian (I’ll take her word for it) who is also a raging coffee addict and dad joke enthusiast. Let’s dive in and find out more!
Holden’s Heroes ~ July 2019
Holden: Alicia Tuckerman, welcome to my house! Um, look, first up, sorry about the mess … there is seriously just crap everywhere. In fact, I probably haven’t cleaned properly since Raihanaty A. Jalil came to visit … looks like the dregs of our peppermint tea is still in the bottom of those tea cups, ecch. I’d like to say I usually clean for guests, but I’d be lying.
Alicia: That’s alright mate! I had all my booster shots when the kids were small!
H: Booster shots? You underestimate the biohazard that is my house, I’m afraid … but please, make yourself comfortable. Okay, let’s jump in. You’ve had so much going on lately, I almost don’t know where to begin! I’ve really been enjoying your guest blogs for Margaret River Press during July. What have you enjoyed about that process, and is blogging something you have done on a regular basis previously?
A: I’ve had my Facebook page going for a couple of years now and while the posts aren’t typically “blogs” they do have that feel about them. Where I really just monologue about random stuff! I’ve really loved the opportunity to write for a different audience with the MRP blogs. The idea that other authors and writers would be able to relate to anything I have to say still blows my mind. I have to admit that the weekly deadlines have not been my favourite thing and I’ve seen a couple go rushing by, but I’ve really enjoyed it.
H: In your latest blog post, you referenced that famous Douglas Adams quote about loving the sound deadlines make as they go rushing by … I think we can both relate, ha! I believe the MRP guest blogging gig came about because your short story “Glass” is appearing in an upcoming anthology they are putting out later this year. “Glass” is a really moving short story and I feel privileged to have had the chance to read an early version of it. Can you talk about this story – what’s it about, and what was the inspiration?
A: Writing a short story was so ridiculously hard! And I tried really hard to not write “Glass”. I had a few different ideas and I tried to write those stories and they were good stories but Glass… well, it just wouldn’t bloody leave me alone. Pass the chips would ya?
H: As long as you don’t eat the last ones, or I’ll have a food tantrum. There ya go, enjoy the Doritos. And please, go on.
A: “Glass” demanded to be written and so the day before the deadline I gave in and it just fell out of me. “Glass” is kind of a break-up story and I didn’t want to write it because I went through one myself recently and I was worried people would assume the story was mine. It’s a story about what happens after a break up, when everything is so raw and fresh and jagged. When you’re terrified about what comes next but you can’t stay where you are and you’re learning what it is to heal. It explores that moment you start believing that maybe one day you won’t feel so broken and you might even be whole again.
H: That’s intense, and dealing with an adult break up is quite different to say, dealing with YA relationships like those in your first published novel, If I Tell You. Glass is probably more pitched at an adult audience. Was there any shift in your writing process, or thinking process, when you crafted “Glass”?
A: As I said, I had a few other stories that I was going with for the MRP collection and they were YA or New Adult stories. And I had wanted to write those (and who knows maybe I will turn them into something). But “Glass” had other ideas and once I stopped fighting the words, they just came and I didn’t really have to do much at all! I wish it was always that easy. Maybe I should give an adult novel a crack?
H: If by adult novel you mean full-blown erotica, I’m down for that. I’d also be okay with a grown-up contemporary fiction, which is more likely what you actually meant. Speaking of being a grown-up, I recently saw you on stage at the Centre for Stories interviewing YA author Mark Smith. Your delivery was so funny and perfectly timed and it definitely got the audience on side.
A: You’re being kind mate! I reckon I tanked so bad at that event! But thanks for boosting my ego.
H: You totally didn’t … this is one of those “writers are their own worst critic” scenarios. Are panels and public speaking gigs like this something you’d like to do more of in the future?
A: Yeah for sure! You know I love to talk and I love the chance to talk about things I’m really passionate about. You and I have an event later in the year at Crow Books and I’m doing a gig with your better half, Raphael, in October talking about the books that changed our lives. And really I’d love to do heaps more speaking gigs for sure! So anyone reading this—hit me up!
H: Go ahead people and book her, she’s stellar. Alicia, speaking of things that are stellar (my segue skills are off the charts today), let’s talk about your debut novel If I Tell You (Pantera Press, 2018). You’ve received some amazing reviews for this book, and it was even shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. Congratulations! What does it mean to get such recognition?
A: It’s so wild! And unbelievable to be shortlisted. To go into the State Library and see a sticker on my book was a dream come true. And whilst I didn’t take it out, it was an honour to be named alongside the other amazing shortlistees. Renee Pettitt-Schipp’s book was so poignant and a very deserving winner.
H: Absolutely, huge congrats to Renee – great recognition of her book and as I said, the shortlisting itself is a real achievement for If I Tell You. Your novel was one of my favourite novels of 2018 and I talk about it a lot, just so you know. This is a bit of a Sophie’s Choice thing to ask, but who were your favourite characters in the book? For the record, I had a crush on Justin (but only in the early parts of the book), and found Lin to be the funniest part of the book.
A: Well Justin’s a hot guy (so I’m told)!
H: He is. I like my bogan boys.
A: And despite his … opinions … he’s not a bad guy. That was important to me, that he wasn’t completely irredeemable.
H: Yeah, I really liked this – there was nuance to Justin, even if he was a bit of a douche at times.
A: But I loved them all, they lived inside my head for ten years and that makes me sound like a crazy person but sometimes I miss them a little bit now they’re out in the big wide world on their own. And of course I have big soft spots for Alex and Phoenix and their love story but one my favourite characters to write was definitely Lin.
H: Yesss. I am a big Lin fan club member. Lin for PM.
A: I think everyone needs a mate like Lin, who will defend you to the end but also tell you when you’re being a dick. I also really loved Alex’s Dad, Andrew and Gilly and Van… And I think I’ve mentioned them all now which was probably not the point of the question!
H: Um, yeah, you’re kind of cheating now, but I’ll roll with it because hell, we make the rules here. Tell me, what’s your favourite thing that someone has said to you about If I Tell You?
A: I love a good ego boost as much as anyone. I love hearing anything good about my book, that someone has enjoyed something that came from my head and heart. But what really gets me in the feels is when someone goes out of their way to message me and tell me that my book has helped them or that they have seen themselves in my book. I’ve had so many messages from young people who are struggling with their identity who have said that my words have given them strength and that’s more than I ever dreamed of.
H: I totally get that. It’s what we hope for when we send these hyper-personal stories out into the world.
A: There’s this one message that sticks with me from a girl who contacted me on Instagram after Sydney Writers Festival last year. She’d come to hear my panel and she had my book with her and wanted me to sign it but she was with her mum and she was too afraid to come over to me in case her mum made some sort of connection between me and her. Because I wear my identity on the outside. Then she messaged me again a few months later to say she’d come out and everything was okay. Not great but okay—and sometimes okay is enough. It’s a start. And that, that right there really is enough to make up for my one star reviews or people not getting it. If I can help one person feel better, to be brave when they don’t know what is waiting for them after the fall, then I’m happy.
H: That’s unreal – this shit changes lives. You’re right to feel special about that. Okay, let’s shift gears, because I know you’re working on a second novel, because we’ve both bitched and moaned over coffee this past year at how hard second novels are. Can you give us a hint of what kind of book it will be, and how it’s progressing? Apologies in advance if this question sends you into a full-blown shame spiral and/or nuclear meltdown.
A: You got anything stronger than these cans of export mate? Might need a whisky to get through this one, haha!
H: Answer the question, Tuckerman, and you can have all the whisky you desire.
A: Well, it’s safe to say it’s taken far longer than I thought it would, but it’s getting there. It’s about a sixteen year old girl learning to accept the changes and challenges in her life following a pretty brutal car accident. Before the accident she was a soccer player with dreams of playing for her country and well, now that won’t happen. It explored grief and jealousy and the idea of participation. The idea of not needing to be the best at something to be able to love it. There’s a good handful of LGBT+ characters and themes but this isn’t a “coming out” story. And there’s some love/lust thrown in for good measure, because I love writing kissing scenes! Now… where’s that whisky!?
H: Terribly sorry to pull a GLaDOS on you, but the whisky was a lie. I need you relatively sober to answer my remaining questions. One thing I’ve noticed is that you write about lesbian characters in an authentic way that is often grouped in with the #ownvoices movement. What would you love to see more of when it comes to lesbian characters being represented in literature/culture?
A: There’s no argument that If I Tell You was a coming out story. It’s a book about being young and gay in rural Australia and what that can be like. But what I hope to write more of now and see more of, are YA books about sport or crimes or drugs and sex where the characters are gay, but it’s not about being gay. Or not only about being gay.
H: Totally agree. I kind of feel like us gay authors in particular sometimes need to write the coming out story – or some version thereof – first, maybe, because we can move on to those more nuanced depictions.
A: Being gay is no different to being straight and I think people—including myself—can sometimes be attracted to the drama of a coming out story or a story about overcoming adversity because those stories allow for us as authors to really take the character on a journey. There’s a lot of scope for drama and it’s tempting to write in that space. But teenagers—gay or straight—have a whole lot of other crap going on I’d love to write about.
H: Agree. Let’s touch on process now. We are both part of the same #5amwritersclub though we’re both, uh, a little lax about attending regularly. What made you join the club, and what made you stay? Was it my constant gym selfies?
A: Hahahaha! Well, we both know that every time I see you I get a front row seat to the gun show!
H: *kisses his own biceps*
A: It’s definitely your hot bod and constant innuendo that keeps me coming back for more!
H: Innuendo? You mean in your endo. Okay, go on, we have people reading this who are probably less vapid than us. Maybe. What keeps you coming back to the #5amwritersclub?
A: I think it’s the collegiate feeling I get, even when we’re just pissing about on Twitter instead of being productive. I stay because we’re family. Up until I released If I Tell You I didn’t really have many writer mates, people who I could talk to about stuff that non-writers just wouldn’t understand in the same way. I craved that community, that connection with people—my people—to provide friendship and support and cameraderie while we all go along this crazy ride of self-loathing, rejection and a tiny bit of success.
H: More than a tiny bit, in your case! What’s something you’ve learned in the past year or two about writing that you wish you’d known before getting published?
A: I think it’s the pressure I wasn’t prepared for. Not external pressure but internal and self-imposed. See, I had my whole life to write my first book but now I’ve done it I feel I need to back it up with more books quickly so that people don’t forget who I am! There’s a lot of pressure in my head and that doesn’t lead to very good writing. So I think I need to relax a little and let it happen more organically. I’ve also learned that you can’t actually survive on coffee and zero sleep!
H: Yeah, that shit will catch up to you. I remember you talking once about how your idea for a novel was shelved for many years until you were injured and had so much time on your hands you decided to write it. Do you think that Alicia would recognise the Alicia of 2019? And I guess my biggest question: where does Alicia Tuckerman want to be five years from now, in 2024?
A: I don’t think the Alicia then is too fundamentally different to the Alicia now. I’m definitely older now and not just in years. Since then I’ve had relationships and kids, I lost both my parents. I’ve experienced heartbreak and loss but also great happiness and joy and I think the Alicia then is still the Alicia I am now, just different. But I change and grow every day, that’s what makes life interesting. As for the future, there’s a plan. In five years I’ll have finished at least another two books and Netflix will have brought them all and I’ll be living on a farm in the Swan Valley with heaps of cool outbuildings that I’ve converted into little writing retreats. My kids will be running wild and I have a pet miniature donkey called Switch [don’t ask me why Switch because I literally don’t know—that’s just his name].
H: That is … oddly specific. The donkey’s name, I mean. And the existence of the donkey at all, actually. The rest sounds relatively in line with what I might have expected in your answer.
A: Well, that’s the dream plan. Reality probably doesn’t look quite like that, but really the only plan I have is to do more of what makes me happy. Write more, spend time with my kids and people I care about.
H: Sounds solid. Okay, like a true investigative journo, I’ve saved the hardest-hitting question for last. 1990s pop group Alisha’s Attic had a hit song called “Alisha Rules the World“. Tell me honestly, have you ever listened to this song to boost yourself up before a public speaking gig?
A: Oh you know I have!
H: I KNEW it!
A: But I wish they’d spelt my name right. And it totally pumps me up, but let’s be real here, the song’s about a badass heartbreaker and I don’t think I’m fooling anyone in that regard, hahaha!
H: Alicia Tuckerman, it’s always a blast shooting the shit with ya, mate. Thanks for coming round. The whisky’s up for grabs now – wanna stay on for another drink, maybe some light spooning?
A: Sounds great, but you know I’m the big spoon!
H: Well, this conversation has taken an unfortunate turn. Maybe with some whisky in me I won’t mind being the little spoon …
~ Social Media Links ~
I hope you enjoyed this interview with the amazing Alicia Tuckerman. She’s a true talent in the YA literature space and not just fun to chat to – she’s even more fun to interact with on the socials, so here’s where you can give her a like and a follow:
I even type the word “gratitude” hastily, almost looking over my shoulder in case someone catches me doing it, because I think I was raised (socially/culturally/familially) to see this concept as a bit granola-y, you know?
Like, if I talk about feeling grateful (ecch), it’s a slippery slope to aura cleansing and essential oils and crystal therapy. From there, of course, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to having a man bun and drinking kombucha.
Worse than that, I was scared that if I ever wrote about feeling grateful for what I have, I would lose it. It sounds superstitious to write this, and is probably a chunky insight into my shattered-glass psyche, but even now as I write this, I am scared that when I hit “publish”, the universe or God (or the therapy crystals, those malevolent fuckers!) will turn on me and take away everything good in my life.
I wasn’t raised to talk about the good things, because that’s showing off and attention seeking, and I grew up learning that pride comes before a fall. No pride, no fall, right?
However, I also wasn’t raised to talk about the bad things, because that’s dwelling on the negative and navel gazing and also, somehow, attention seeking. You just get on with it.
Sidebar: when I look at these two statements, I can only conclude that I was essentially raised not to talk.
But talk I do, now.
In any case, I think I’ve learned over the past few years – through writing my blog posts, through being more open on social media, and of course through my writing of novels and short stories – to talk about the hard stuff, the darker side, the bad shit. It’s been cathartic and revelatory and a constant undulation of learning that it’s okay, and survivable, to feel the full spectrum of human emotion.
But I don’t know if I’ve ever learned how to write about feeling good.
I realised this recently when a wave of the much-maligned gratitude smacked me in the face with the force of a tsunami, and I could barely hold it together.
It happened, of all places, at Disneyland.
This was over a month ago, when I was on my honeymoon in Europe, and we arrived in Paris for the final week of our holiday. I mentioned something to my husband about following him around France to various pop concerts of his choosing, and he suggested I should choose an activity for us while we were in Paris.
The first thing out of my mouth was, “I wanna go to Disneyland.”
This was unexpected, because Disneyland has never been on my radar. I’ve been to Paris twice before and never had any intention to visit it. In fact, in 2013 I was at the train station that takes people from Paris to the theme parks, and I remember seeing the parents with their prams and kids hanging off them like saddle bags and thinking, “That seems like actual hell on Earth.”
And to be honest, I’ve always been fairly critical of the commercial apparatus behind the Disney machine: I don’t like how that studio has taken over so much of Hollywood, how its influence and control sweeps over so many franchises. My first thought of Disneyland was the No Doubt song “Tragic Kingdom”, taken from their hit 1995 album of the same name:
Once was a magical place
Over time it was lost
Price increased the cost
Now the drawbridge
Has been lifted as the millions
They drop to their knees
They pay homage to a king
Whose dreams are buried in their minds
His tears are frozen stiff
Icicles drip from his eyes
The king being Walt Disney; his frozen tears a reference to the urban legend that he was cryogenically frozen upon his death in 1966. (Which, holy crap, I only just discovered was not actually true(!?!), but that’s a discussion for another day.)
The point was: I was a bit cynical about the Disney corporation and yet, when I was given carte blanche to choose anywhere I wanted to go in Paris, I chose Disneyland.
Because, being on my honeymoon, I was in a five-week long permanent good mood, and honestly, fuck the cynicism and shit, I just wanted to go have some fun.
So, the husband and I finally arrived at Disneyland Paris on a cool June day. As soon as we got off the RER train and walked out into the open air, I could feel the sense of excitement building in my limbs.
“I want to explore the village first, before we go into the theme park,” I said, like an absolute geek, but I just needed to know that I had walked around every square inch I was allowed to.
So we did: briefly exploring the retro restaurants and cafes and sports bars of the Disney Village like the kid who keeps his shiny collectible in the box and presses his nose to the plastic, scared to ruin the anticipation of finally opening the new toy.
And while we were still in the village, in one of the giant shops filled with Disney merchandise, the wave hit me.
It was partly the nostalgia factor of seeing so much Aladdin and The Lion King merch on display in the shop. They were the defining Disney animated films of my childhood; Aladdin was the first movie I ever saw at a cinema when I was 4 or 5. I remembered the first time I’d heard of Disneyland. Back in the days of VHS tapes, they used to have advertisements for Disneyland before and/or after the film, so in that moment in the World of Disney shop, it came flooding back.
The memory of being five years old, and seeing all these kids and families having an epic time at Disneyland, and knowing that would never be me.
It would be misleading to pretend that I grew up in some impoverished situation, because I didn’t. But I grew up in an isolated town and we weren’t the kind of family who could afford to fly overseas and go to Disneyland. So, I think I grew up learning that lots of things in life were out of reach for someone like me, and Disneyland and Europe were two of those things.
I had never realised it had imprinted on me in such a way until this moment.
So while my husband was blithely scoping out the merch, I felt a tidal wave of happiness splash over me, gently at first, almost like a fresh dew.
The wave said to me:
Sometimes, we do eventually get what we want. Isn’t it nice?
And then, suddenly, there I was, choking back tears in the Disney shop, surrounded in all directions by those stupid fucking overpriced mugs and Mickey Mouse-embossed glassware while A Whole New World played over the speakers.
Because the wave was right. It was really nice to, eventually, get something that you always wanted. It was a childlike, redemptive state to be in: that I had accessed some hitherto hidden pocket of joy that I had absolutely ruled myself out of experiencing when I was a young boy.
What a lucky doer.
I managed to contain myself, so when the husband decided he was done and we moved on to the next part of the village, I cracked jokes about how this place was so capitalist and how “moichandising” was “where the real money from the movies was made” (quoted in the voice of the character Yogurt from the 1986 parody flick Spaceballs).
But the wave wasn’t done with me yet.
As we walked, the gratitude just kept building inside me. The tidal wave was slushing through my body, a cleansing flood washing out all these other things in my life I had told myself I would never, ever have – except now, miraculously, I did have them.
I felt gratitude to be at Disneyland as a 30 year old man when I’d once believed I’d never have the chance.
I felt gratitude to be walking there, hand-in-hand with the man I love. The first time I came to Paris in 2006, I was with a man and later told myself this would be something I would never have again. I remember returning to Perth Airport after that backpacking holiday and squeezing myself back into my straight guy body, the spectral snakeskin of my old self that I would continue to wear for two years. I thought I would never get what I wanted – but now, here I was with my husband.
I felt gratitude that, after all the campaigning and trauma, I was now legally married to the bloke, something I grew up never even imagining as an option.
I felt gratitude to be in Paris, my favourite city in the world, a million miles from home.
I felt gratitude that my book had just won another award, that people were congratulating me and saying they wanted to read it, that it was actually finally getting published, when I’d been working on that dream since I was seven years old.
I felt gratitude that I was on my honeymoon and having the best five weeks of my goddamn life.
I felt so much gratitude I just wanted to get on my knees and thank God, or the universe, or the essential-oil-crystal-kombucha-auras, for letting anything this good happen to me. I didn’t feel like I deserved any of it, but I was so, so glad it was happening.
While all this was happening, my husband said he needed to pee. While he was in the toilet, I found a quiet corner at the side of a sports bar and let myself shake and cry tears of utter, unfettered joy. I had come to know pain and struggle intimately, but this feeling of being really, truly happy was brand new.
Crying finally let that tidal wave out of my body – and it swept away with it all the junk and detritus a man can build up in thirty years of hating himself, of being afraid, of thinking he will never get what he wants.
When my husband returned, I said I was ready to head into the theme park and enjoy our day at Disneyland. In fact, I decided I was ready to go on a real rollercoaster for the first time ever – something my anxiety had always held me back from until that point. But, in my freshly flooded state, I thought, “to hell with you, anxiety”.
No, more than that.
To hell with everything that ever held me back.
To hell with my own negative thoughts.
To hell with my fear that, if I’m grateful, and enjoy the moment, something will go wrong.
To hell with everything that ever stopped me just being a kid and having some fucking fun.
So I found the biggest, fastest, scariest rollercoaster there was – the famous Space Mountain, of course – and I went on it. We were seated right at the front and we hurtled through a pitch black tunnel at breakneck speed for two minutes, faster and faster, the force of the wind almost solid against our faces, the adrenaline giving me permission to shout and say the word “fuck” a lot.
And it was sick as, because with my arms strapped to my sides, there was nothing I could do but live in the moment and revel in it.
Well, I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to check in with my blog! To paraphrase one of the finest philosophers of the 1990s – one Miss Fiona Apple – I’ve been a bad, bad boy.
And also a bad, bad blogger.
I probably should have posted here a month ago to give you all the heads up about my brief absence: for those who don’t follow me on my social media, I have spent almost the entire last month abroad on my honeymoon.
In fact, I’m still swanning around Europe in a cologne-scented cloud of post-wedding bliss. I am currently in my hotel room in Rome, very close to the main bustle of the central Termini station. So close, in fact, that pretty much all we can hear from the hotel room window is:
cars beeping their horns (every fucking three seconds)
vendors shouting at people to buy their cheap-arse shit (yesterday it was raining and they were selling ponchos and umbrellas; today it’s sunny and they’re flogging hats and sunglasses – so adaptable!)
people at bars and cafes shouting for no apparent reason
people at bars and cafes laughing from being drunk
trucks revving their engines
police sirens blaring
trains pulling into the station
church bells chiming into oblivion
And, often times, all of these noises are happening simultaneously, which is kind of like living among havoc – especially since we’re up on the fourth floor of the hotel (shouldn’t it be vaguely quieter up here?). And having grown up in a country town and now living in the outer suburbs of Perth, all of this noise and chaos is foreign to me so it’s practically an adventure in itself.
By the way, I am absolutely loving being on honeymoon. So far my husband and I have visited Lyon, Nice, Antibes, Monaco, Cannes, Sanremo, Paris, Rouen and now Rome. It’s been awesome to see new parts of France and Italy, which are countries we both love. I really love the culture, language and food of both countries, and I’ve been digging having so much time to practice my French (which is decent) and my Italian (which is rusty, but given that I’m half Sicilian and spent 5 weeks in Italy when I was 18, it’s slowly coming back to me).
For those who have asked, *yes*, my husband is actually here with me on the honeymoon but no, we don’t like to post a lot of couples photos online, at least not to our public social media. We both put a lot of ourselves out there in the world – not just in our writing, but on social media and by going to events – so it actually feels really nice to keep our relationship as private as we can. So, that’s why you’re seeing a lot of pics of me on my socials but very few of us together. But rest assured, we’re both spending every day together and we’re having a blast. 🙂
The only downside is that I am defo eating way too much: pizza and pasta of course, but also overloading on crepes with cream, gelato with cream, hot chocolate with cream, cream with cream. We return to Paris this Sunday for our last week of honeymoon, so after that, I’ll be tightening the diet back up again, especially since I have some author appearances to do in about two weeks so I don’t wanna rock up on stage like the big fatty I’m feeling like currently. But the pizza in Rome is just so bloody good – how could I resist? And more to the point – why should I? It’s half of why we chose to come here anyway!
I’ve been exercising a lot while here. Most days I’ve racked up anywhere between 15,000 and 25,000 steps which is probably the only thing offsetting all the food I’ve imbibed. I’ve been doing some bodyweight exercises in my hotel room and some basic stuff with a tiny 5kg dumbbell I smuggled in my case, but it doesn’t do much. In Rouen I found some free open-air gym equipment beside the Seine river which was awesome, so I’d do a few sets of chest and back exercises in amongst my morning jogs. And here in Rome, I found myself going stir-crazy not having been to an actual gym for so long, so I trekked into the San Lorenzo district (which is ghettoville.com) and found a grungy gym and got a day pass for 10 euros. I was the only tourist in the gym I think – everyone else was a local and most of them seemed to know each other. I smashed out some chest and biceps exercises and a bit of abs, plus cardio, and I felt a load better for it.
Anyway … I am 100% sure not a single one of you follows this blog to hear about the banal minutiae of my diet and exercise regime – apologies!
I’m really posting here just to explain why things have been a little bit quiet here lately. In fact, this whole year I’ve only managed one post per month compared to like one post per week or fortnight last year. I’ve had a lot on my plate. From Jan – March I was working on the copy edits for Invisible Boys while simultaneously planning my wedding. In April I was occupied with planning my honeymoon and also finishing the first draft of my next novel. And I have spent basically all of May away from home: first at the Margaret River Readers & Writers Festival, then in Europe on honeymoon. Once we return to Perth, I’ll have a precious few hours at home before zooming up to my hometown of Geraldton, Western Australia for a week for the writers’ festival there.
Truth be told, I’m loving the magical air of suspension and lack of responsibility that comes with a long holiday – but in some weird way, it will be good to get back to normal life again once I’m back home in Perth in mid-June.
As for my writing (which, I remind myself, is what people *actually* follow this blog for), it’s been going really well. Some bullet point updates:
The cover for my debut novel Invisible Boys has been revealed – see the bottom of this blog post – it’s amazing and I love it!
Last week, I was announced as the winner of the 2019 Kathleen Mitchell Award from the Australia Council for the Arts. I am still pinching myself. Its a $15,000 prize, so it’s going to make a huge difference on how much time I can dedicate to writing over the next year. Plus it’s a huge vote of confidence in my book, which has now won three awards before even being published. I’m wildly grateful, still in mild disbelief that such good things could ever happen to me, and I’m desperately hopeful that people will actually like this novel once they finally get to read it in October.
My agent is now reading the manuscript of my second novel. I am freaking the fuck out on the inside while pretending to be a cool, jaded professional on the outside.
I promised myself I wouldn’t write while on honeymoon, as writing constitutes working. Instead, I allowed myself to read a lot, and think a lot. Not having regular access to Wi-Fi has made me pull my head out of my phone and has given my brain so much space to unwind and reflect and imagine, the way I used to years ago. Consequently, I now have a million and one ideas clamouring for my attention!
Among these ideas are:
my third novel, which I’ll say nothing about, other than I pitched the concept to my husband and his eyebrows leapt off his face and he said “whoa, you have to write that!”, which is saying something because he is usually more measured and critical in his feedback;
my fourth novel, which I’ll also say nothing about, but it’s incredibly important to me and I so want this book out in the world, like, yesterday;
a novella, which in some form has been floating around in the ether of my creativity since 2011-12 when I did my Honours thesis, and the other day I was on a train in France reading Bret Easton Ellis’ new book White and suddenly the novella idea just fell into place in a way it hasn’t for the past eight years. I can’t wait to write this one, too … and I can imagine it perhaps anchoring a collection of my short fiction in the future, maybe;
two other, entirely separate series (plural) of novels; and
a TV mini-series, which has been kicking around in my head for a few years now.
So, as you can see, I have enough to keep myself busy for the next few years at least!
In terms of what’s next, after life returns to normal-ish in late June, I’ll probably spend my writing time working on the edits for book 2, and getting back into the groove of a regular blogging practice.
Holden’s Heroes will also return in June with a new interview – I had hoped to do one in May, but it was impossible to fit in before I left overseas, and frankly, I need to learn to give myself a fucken break sometimes!
Thanks to all of you for being awesome, and I can’t wait to get back into the swing of regular blogging again in the month to come. 🙂
PS. Here’s the cover of Invisible Boys as promised – what do you reckon? I can’t get enough of it!
Sooo, this is kind of awkward. I didn’t mean for it to be this long, and I didn’t mean to just walk out on you like that, but everything went a bit nutso since we last spoke, and I sort of lost track of you.
And today, I felt bad, because it suddenly occurred to me that I never actually told you I wasn’t coming back.
I know that makes me sound like a dick. In my defence, you are a manuscript and not a sentient being, so I’m probably not really a dick.
But I’ll cop to being a tad abandon-y on your arse. I did the metaphorical version of pulling out, yanking my pants up and bolting from the room just as you were in a post-coital afterglow, when I probably should have stuck around and spooned you. I mean, for a minute or two. I haven’t got all day.
To be honest, I’m a bit surprised at my own treatment of you, because for a very long time, I thought you were My One True Book. When I had my epic meltdown at the start of 2014 and decided I was going to force myself to finally write my first novel that year come hell or high water, you were the idea that shone most brilliantly and the story I decided to write into a full-length book.
And everything seemed so exciting at the beginning. I thought your main characters were pretty cool; I liked your setting; I thought your plot was solid. I mean, of course I did, I was your author and I made all that shit up.
I also thought your action scenes and battle scenes were absolutely awesome, and I still stand by that. As objective as I can be about these scenes, I think they stack up pretty well against most published fantasy and adventure books.
I think this is what drew me to you in the first place, because you were exciting, and fun, and I was in a place in my life where I was working a very boring full-time job, and I felt unfulfilled, and I was treated poorly, and you were such a total escape from the banal 9-5 office life I was living.
But I’m afraid for all your fun moments and all the high-octane thrills you gave me, there was something missing in our relationship.
When we worked together with my mentor during 2016, I felt something between us wasn’t quite right. During a Skype call with my mentor – an incredibly esteemed editor from over east – I confessed, “This manuscript isn’t quite working … I want it to sing, and it’s not singing.”
And it’s not like I didn’t work on our relationship. After seven drafts, I thought things were looking pretty good, and my mentor seemed to think we’d taken things as far as we could. It was time to pitch.
I’m so sorry, but this is where the wheels fell off.
Because none of the agents I pitched to thought there was anything special about you.
Our relationship survived the total lack of response from one agent, and the form rejection from another, though I did curl up on the couch and sob uncontrollably that you hadn’t been good enough for someone to pick up.
But I’m afraid we couldn’t survive the third response. The agent who emailed me saying he was into your first three chapters and that he wanted to read more of you. That happened the day after the form rejection, and I was so convinced this was the universe opening a window after having slammed a door in my face the day before.
One day I came home from a walk around the block and got a phone call from the agent. I was so happy to hear from him, but he said my happiness was premature. He spoke to me on the phone for a whole 30 minutes, telling me not just that my writing was “competent” (a word that still pierces my ego, and perhaps always will) but that there were many, many problems with you.
Now, I could have worked on almost any of our problems, I swear I could have. The problems with the characters, the problems with the setting, the problems with the plot seemingly unsuccessfully straddling the two very different worlds of Young Adult and Fantasy.
And I would have worked on it because I thought you were the story I was *meant* to tell. I didn’t care how much money you made; I just wanted you to exist, and get out into the world and sing your lungs out. I would have been so proud of you just for doing that.
But this is the point at which I abandoned you.
The last thing I said to you, in this blog post I wrote in early 2017, was that I was going to come back to you. We were going to work on our problems together, we were going to do an eighth draft, and then a ninth, and however many drafts it took, because goddamn it all I wanted was to have a fucking novel published and why couldn’t I ever get anything right in my life. </writerfeels>
But I lied. I told you I was going to the servo for durries and I never came back.
I know it’s probably too late, and that you’ve probably moved on, but I wanted to let you know that I’m sorry I left the way I did.
And this is the hardest part to say: I didn’t bail on you because the agent didn’t like you, or that you weren’t good enough to get published.
I bailed on you because I didn’t love you.
This is why I spent a month feeling sad and fetal position-y in early 2017. This is why I cried. We’d gone through everything we went through only for me to realise that, when an agent criticised you, I didn’t have a comeback.
I could have fixed all the things he told me were wrong with you. I could have made your characters and plot and setting all breathe and operate just fine. But even if I did ten drafts, or a hundred, or a thousand, and even if, in that thousandth draft, all of those elements or plot and setting and character worked the way they were supposed to, it wouldn’t have been enough.
Because you didn’t have a heart.
And that’s why you couldn’t sing. There was nothing wrong with your lungs – you could produce the notes just fine – but no music can ever be made unless there is a heart involved.
So that is why I left you. I realised I didn’t love you, because you didn’t have a heart, and I didn’t say goodbye because you don’t need to say goodbye to things that don’t have a heart. Plus there’s the whole matter of you not being a sentient being.
I suppose I am writing this mostly to assuage my own guilt, because I think it seems like I dropped you like a hot coal the moment I realised you couldn’t make me rich and famous. But that isn’t true. If I loved you, I would have pitched you to every agent and publisher on the planet and, if that failed, I would have self-published you like I self-published my short story, “The Scroll of Isidor”. I had no qualms doing that.
So, for the record, I am afraid it is over between us. I believe you, in your current form, will remain in the drawer. There are parts of you I really like, and perhaps one day, if things go a certain way, I will be able to revisit you and maybe we can do something radical, like give you a heart transplant. Maybe then you will be able to sing. I really like this idea. Or perhaps I will revisit you and borrow some parts of you for another attempt at this story one day, if and when the time is right.
In the meantime, I have several other novels clamouring for my attention. These novels have been successfully pitched to my agent and are waiting to be written. But know that while I’m saying goodbye now, I am leaving the door open on our relationship, at best for the heart transplant, and at worst, for me to one day open the drawer and leaf through your pages and get lost in you again, just for old times’ sake.
As for me, I’m much happier now than when we were together. I wrote a new novel called INVISIBLE BOYS that I love very much. It has a heart that pumps real blood, and it won an award and it’s getting published, which is super exciting (sorry to rub it in).
There is one more thing, and I’m afraid it is the proverbial vinegar-soaked sponge to the spear wound.
I am so sorry to do this to you, but I am afraid I can no longer call you “my first novel”.
I mean, you will always, always be the first novel I wrote and nothing can change that immutable fact.
But now that I have my debut novel soon due for publication – which I have spent a couple of years calling “my second novel” – I’m afraid the nomenclature is due for an overhaul, lest I will have readers hunting for a “first novel” that, to the world of publishing, does not exist.
So my novel, INVISIBLE BOYS, will now be referred to as my first novel, and the book I am currently drafting (and have nearly finished) will be my second.
But I won’t ignore your existence completely, because that feels wrong. So, I am going to call you Novel Zero, instead, because you and I had some good times, you know. You were the first attempt; the training ground. Sometimes your exciting twists and turns captured my imagination and made me dream; other times, you made me want to beat my head against a brick wall.
I wrote you under the influence of caffeine, when I still drank real coffee; so many cups of cheap black instant Nescafe were spent on you. And I wrote you under the influence of nicotine, back when I would break every hour and take my pack of Benson & Hedges out onto the patio for a dart or two. I remember the incredible NaNoWriMo marathons and the all-nighter I pulled to finish you, when I emerged from that electrified room and onto the patio and smoked a celebratory cigarette while watching the sun rise and listening to “Desperado” by The Eagles.
In fact, that was one of the most special moments of my entire life, so thank you, profoundly and sincerely, for being the first novel I ever finished. You showed me that my dreams could come true if I worked hard at them, a lesson I have taken on as a life mantra.
For that, I will be grateful for the rest of my days.
So stoked to share the second interview in my new blog interview series, Holden’s Heroes. During these interviews, I’ll welcome writers to my “home” (virtually) and have some fun asking them all my burning questions. For 2019, I’m focusing on interviewing the fellow members of my #5amwritersclub.
This month’s victimhostage guest is my friend Raihanaty A. Jalil, who has been known as a teacher, trader, hoon, poet, rapper and more. Let’s jump in and see what she has to say for herself!
Holden’s Heroes ~ March 2019
RAIHANATY A. JALIL
Holden: Raihanaty A. Jalil, welcome to my house! As you can see, I haven’t really tidied up since Michael Trant came to visit … our empty bushchook stubbies are still all over the patio, my bad.
Raihanaty: Haha, thanks Holden. I’m actually used to mess and noise – I’m the oldest of five siblings, all living under the same roof with my parents, so it makes me feel more at home!
H: And don’t mind that noise, it’s just the fridge emanating its hourly caterwauling. We suspect it’s haunted by a poltergeist. No biggie. Maybe just sit over here near Raphael’s bookshelf. Much cosier.
R: Actually, the poltergeists were keeping me company during the (un)expected wait …
H: Ahem! I was in the bathroom – this Mohawk doesn’t hairspray itself, you know. Okay, let’s dive into what’s been happening lately for you. You recently won a place on the Indian Ocean Mentoring Project, facilitated by the Centre for Stories. Congratulations! What story did you work on, and how did that piece change during the mentorship?
R: Thanks! Would you believe it’s been half a year since I started the mentorship? Crazy how time flies … It’s quite “magical”, actually, how my final piece came about. I originally submitted a creative non-fiction piece called “Skin in the Game” about my first experience attending a WAFL game. I wrote it about six years ago, so I figured, I might as well do something with it.
During the process of working with Elizabeth Tan, the writing mentor I was partnered with, we both agreed that the piece lacked something- depth, meaning – so Liz gave me these exercises around breaking down the title through word association/manipulation, that kind of thing. That’s how I came up with the phrase “Gaming the Skin”. Also, truthfully, I was a bit sick of the “Skin in the Game” piece—I had literally already spent over six hours editing it before submitting it for the Indian Ocean project. So I decided to write a completely new piece drawn from the phrase/title “Gaming the Skin”.
H: It’s a clever play on words – sounds like you had a really talented mentor. And with that mentorship now finished, what did you get out of the experience of having a mentor, beyond simply reworking your story, and how do you hope it will help your career moving forward?
R: The mentorship was so so invaluable and Liz couldn’t have been a more perfect match, especially because I’ve never formally studied writing while Liz teaches it. I learnt a lot about my own writing – that I’m very verbose (I’m still working on this, as you will see!). I’m sometimes too descriptive when I don’t need to be yet vague when the details matter. There were misconceptions I had about what I should and shouldn’t do—like when to use commas!
On top of that, the more Liz and I worked together, the more I learnt to trust my own instincts because I started to notice that she would bring up something I had already felt may be a problem. That felt really good. Overall, Liz helped me a lot in the “craft” of writing and my self-confidence, which will definitely benefit my career going forward.
H: On that note, would you recommend mentorships to other emerging authors?
Yes, I think my experience answers that question! I should acknowledge, though, that having the “right match” matters. It can make or break a mentorship – however (I know clichés are a cardinal writing sin but …) nothing ventured, nothing gained.
H: I will forgive you your cliché indiscretion this one time, Rai. In my experience, when it comes down to it at the end of the day, clichés should be avoided like the plague. Don’t touch them with a ten foot pole, okay?
R: Please stop.
H: Okay, next question! So, I saw you a couple of weeks ago at Perth Festival Writers’ Week, where you appeared as a guest author on a panel called Home Currents. Tell me, what was it like being a part of that panel?
R: I enjoyed it so much! Priya, Rushil and I actually caught up a few days before over lunch and we just clicked, so I already knew that it would be a relaxed, comfortable experience sharing the stage with them. But it was also the warm atmosphere around the room, I think, that made the whole experience so memorable and being myself easy. Don’t get me wrong; I still felt nervous inside, but I’ve been “forced” into public speaking from school assemblies in my primary school years, so it is something I’ve grown to really enjoy.
H: I totally get that. I practically crap my dacks before every speaking gig, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also enjoy the thrill. The thrill of speaking publicly, that is, not the thrill of soiling myself.
R: Truthfully, I’m also a bit of an adrenaline-junkie, so maybe that’s another reason why I get a kick out of public speaking?
H: We may be cut from the same cloth! Was this your first time appearing on a panel at a writers festival?
R: Yes, it was my first time appearing at a writers’ festival. When Caroline [Wood, Director, Centre for Stories] emailed me asking if I was interested, I was like, “Hell yes! There’s no parallel universe where I’d refuse such a humbling opportunity!” Okay, that wasn’t my literal reply, but it was the reply in my head.
H: It was really cool to see you up there on the panel. We first met on Twitter about a year ago, and I think the first time we chatted extensively was when you took part in Camp NaNoWriMo last July and we were in the same (online) cabin. How did you find the NaNoWriMo experience?
R: NaNoWriMo is the reason I finished writing my first ever novel! That was the November 2017 NaNo, though, my first time participating. Oh, I should add, I only finished the first “vomit draft”—you know, that draft no one will ever see, not even if a gun was put to my head. It still needs a lot of work. So that’s what I’ve been doing in the Camp NaNoWriMos, setting a time-based goal to work on polishing my WIP(s).
I think what I like about the NaNo concept is that blocking out of a finite time period, only one month, to focus on a writing goal. I just work better with deadlines, although they do often stress me out. It’s a catch 22 (whoops, another cliché …). But in all seriousness, I actually had a lot of self-doubt about if I even had the ability to write a novel. The longest story I’d ever written was about 15,000 words – a cringe-worthy love story I wrote in high school. So to me, overcoming that hurdle, learning that I did have the ability to write longer-form-fiction was the most invaluable part of “winning” NaNo.
H: Winning NaNo is extremely satisfying in and of itself, I agree. What manuscript were you working on for NaNo and is that still your current WIP?
R: My NaNo novel is a cross between the Women’s Fiction and Self-Help genres. It’s based on two themes: communication in a relationship and personal finances – two things that fascinate me. So, it’s ultimately about a couple who are struggling with the two and their personal development along the way. I’m still working on it – along with a few other things. (I suffer from “Shiny Object Syndrome”…)
H: Oh yeah, I totally understand that. It’s so hard to stay focused on one idea when you wake up some mornings with a wave of inspiration for a new idea altogether. So what are you going to be working on next?
R: I’m actually exploring writing a collection of flash fiction around the theme of personal finances. It’s a bit of a business decision, to be honest. It’ll be a way for people to experience my writing style in a smaller bite, which could lead to interest in the novel. But I still have a long way to go with all my WIPs.
H: I think that sounds like an honest creative decision, too, though – you are passionate about personal finance stuff. Another topic I’ve seen in your writing is racism, for instance the everyday manifestations of racism that you explored in ‘Gaming the Skin’. Is this a common theme you tackle in your other writing?
R: In short, no. That was probably my shortest sentence so far this whole interview!
H: Well, I guess that wraps it up. No more questions for you.
R: No, wait – I was going to add … for me, reading is a form of escape, so I gravitate towards light-hearted stories that don’t remind me of real life. Even my NaNo novel, I actually found it a bit of a struggle because of the serious tone it needed to have. In shorter pieces like “Gaming the Skin”, I don’t mind experimenting with themes and genres I wouldn’t normally write in. But sustaining heavier themes for a whole novel – that would kill me!
H: This actually segues perfectly into my next question. There is a movement within the literary scene at the moment known as #ownvoices, and this was raised during your panel at Perth Fest. I thought your answer to this was really interesting – would you mind sharing your thoughts again for my blog readers?
R: Absolutely, I don’t mind at all. When it comes to this idea of diverse characters being written by authors from the same diverse groups, I personally feel a resistance to write what is expected of me.
Just because I happen to be a “Muslim Hijabi Aussie Chick”, it doesn’t mean that I want to write stories about a Muslim girl living in a Western Society and how she manages her multiple identities, etc etc. Not to say I’ll never write this story, but rather, when people tell me, “You should write this story,” if my heart’s not in it, I feel it’s almost tokenistic.
I personally love surprises and twists and the unexpected. I thrive on a challenge while I get bored quickly with the ordinary and mundane. At the same time, I want to make a lasting impact but in a creative way. These are some things people could expect from my stories.
H: I think your response to this is so important and I wanted to amplify it here. I know a lot of #ownvoices authors who want to be able to tell their stories in their own voices, and this is so needed. Hell, this is what I’m doing with Invisible Boys. But a lot of diverse authors also want the publishing world to take them seriously as writers in their own right, regardless of the ‘diversity’ angle; that is, they want to be seen as capable of writing stories beyond solely their own unique experience. We should be liberating these voices, not confining them, in my view.
Anyway, thank you for coming to my unexpected sermon. Back to the interview: I love your bio because it mentioned you have previously been a rapper and a hoon. Please tell me more about both of these! Am I likely to find you blasting 50 Cent from a car and doing doughies in Armadale one day?
R: You know what’s funny? I love Hip Hop as a form of artistic expression, but I actually don’t like a lot, no, most rappers. I’ve always written poetry, since primary school. To me, Hip Hop is a form of poetry that you simply “spit” in time to a rhythm or beat. The first piece of Hip Hop I heard that made me fall in love with this art-form was actually, would you believe, on Microsoft Encarta! If you’re too young to know what I’m talking about, it’s a digital encyclopaedia where I discovered one of the “fathers of Hip Hop”, Grandmaster Flash.
H: Okay, I’m not *that* embryonic haha – we had Microsoft Encarta too when I was a kid in the mid-90s. I didn’t use it much, though, because I preferred poring over our World Book Encyclopedia set. I was a seven-year-old Neo Luddite, I think. So, this Encarta discovery led you to hip hop?
R: Yes. I mostly write “normal poetry” but I have written and “spat” some verses on the odd occasion, in particular when I was a youth worker. Actually, funny story, one afternoon, I was walking through the city with a friend. There was a teenager who had a mic and speaker setup and some beats playing while he freestyled. We were about to pass but I caught him mentioning us “girls” and a stupid comment rappers always make about women that isn’t worth mentioning. I just couldn’t let it go. So I spun around, walked up to him and gestured for him to give me the microphone. He was so shocked he nearly dropped the mic as he handed it to me. Then I gave him a schooling on how to “spit”. When he took the mic back, he nodded at me – this is a rapper gesture meaning “respect”.
H: That is brilliant! Remind me not to mess with you. Does this explain your ‘hoon’ status?
R: Haha, no – actually, I’m into sporty cars and V8 racing on a proper racetrack, which I did at Barbagallo Raceway for the first time in 2018 for my birthday. Best experience ever! I’d go every week if it wasn’t so pricey. But I’ve also bought a “drifting” experience that I’m rewarding myself with when I achieve one of my writing milestones.
H: Man, that’s an awesome writing reward, and it has no calories, too! I might need to look into this. Now, we’re both part of the same #5amwritersclub. What made you join the club, and what made you stay?
R: I love my sleep, so the thought of waking up at 5am to write wasn’t at all appealing. As you have seen, I write for, maybe, a token 5-15 minutes to be able to still say, “Yes, I’m totally a 5am writer!” It was more the opportunity to connect with writers like you, Jess [Gately], Louise [Allan], Michael [Trant], to name just a few of you. You all inspire me and I have learnt so much from your experiences. So really, you guys are the reason I’ve stayed and, sort of, write at 5ish.
H: Aw shucks, that’s nice to hear. Likewise, I love connecting with other writers because you discover new methods and new ways of writing. Something I’ve noticed about your writing is how you can write in really short, sharp blocks of time – like you just mentioned above. Can you talk about this? I find it fascinating and I am always a bit envious of your ability to do this!
R: Sure! During my entrepreneurial days, I had a business coach, Mahindra Raj, who taught me this time management strategy called “The Pomodoro Technique”. You use a timer to break down your work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes, separated by short breaks, because our brain can only hold attention for so long.
The way I apply it for my writing is, I set a 5-15 minute timer (depending on my mood, energy etc.) and attempt to write. I emphasise attempt because, my aim is to just stay seated with the intention to write. Sometimes I’m in the zone and when my timer goes off, I actually hit the repeat button and remain seated and work for longer. But sometimes, I’m just dog-tired and after 5 minutes, I’m done. Other times, at a 15 minute interval, I can feel my brain waning, so I’ll get up, stretch, grab a drink of water before sitting back down for my next 15 minute block.
I’ve been able to write like this, literally, for over four hours and not feel tired at all because I’m doing it in these short blocks of time. But also, I use this strategy to overcome my lack of motivation some days by telling myself, “I’ll just write for 5 minutes”, but once my head is in my writing world, I often feel like working for longer!
H: It sounds fascinating. Tell me, Raihanaty, what advice would you give to aspiring authors who are just starting out – or, rather, what do you know now that you wish you’d known at the beginning?
R: Be kind to yourself. More often than not, we are our worst critic. We set such high expectations on ourselves then beat ourselves up when we fail to meet those expectations that were unrealistic to begin with. We verbally abuse ourselves in ways we would never others, then we wonder why we lack motivation the next time, why we may even be depressed.
I remember hitting a mental block in my writing at the beginning of 2018 because of the stress of unachievable deadlines I had burdened myself with. It was when I decided to become kinder to myself, patting myself on the back for the 5 minutes of writing I achieved (instead of reprimanding myself that it should’ve been 1 hour), that I started enjoying writing and life again. So, be kind to yourself from today!
H: That’s a warm fuzzy note to finish on – almost. I’m a huge believer in setting goals, and with your own interests in personal finance I get the feeling you might share my focus on goal-setting. For our last question, tell me, without this being too job-interviewy, where would Raihanaty like to be as an author, five years from now?
R: Five years from now, my aspiration is to have released at least one self-published novel and one traditionally published book and – well, I’ll just say it – I hope to have been on the New York Times Best Seller List for at least five minutes – long enough for me to capture a screenshot! I just hope I’m awake if it happens!
H: That’s an awesome goal, and I can’t wait to see you achieve it. Raihanaty A. Jalil, it has been such a pleasure to have you over for a good yarn. Thanks for sharing such insightful responses.
R: All good, Holden. It’s been a lot of fun! I really appreciate the opportunity and the thought you put into non-generic questions. I was actually pleasantly surprised when you sent me the brief.
H: Aw cheers cob, I aim to please. Hey, do you want to stay on for a drink or two? What’s your poison?
R: Sure, do you have peppermint tea?
H: Does the Pope shit in the woods? Wait, I think I’ve got my metaphors mixed up. Yep, let’s hit the hard stuff and crack open a couple of peppermint teas!
~ Social Media Links ~
I hope you enjoyed this interview with the fascinating Raihanaty A. Jalil. She’s a good egg and even more fun to interact with on the socials, so here’s where you can give her a like and a follow:
Well, this is exciting! One of the new things I wanted to launch in 2019 was an interview series with other authors, so I’m delighted to announce the start of a series I’m calling Holden’s Heroes.
This will be a regular series of interviews with fellow writers: I’ll welcome them to my “home” (virtually only, but let’s use our imaginations) and have some fun asking them all my burning questions. My favourite thing about interviews is when there’s some deeper or more personal insight than would usually be revealed, so coaxing out some of these insights is going to be my aim when interviewing my victimssubjects friends.
The aim will be for interviews to be published on a monthly basis, and I thought for 2019 I would begin by focusing on the fellow members of my #5amwritersclub. I’m calling this the “January” interview even though we’re in early Feb, so just go along with it, okay? Great.
I’m starting things off with my buddy Michael Trant – he has the fine honour of becoming the first ever featured author for Holden’s Heroes and chatting to him was as fun and fascinating as I expected. Let’s dive in and see what he has to say for himself!
Holden’s Heroes ~ January 2019
Holden: Michael Trant, welcome to my house and sorry the place is such a bloody mess. Please, don’t mind the piles of clothes and rubbish everywhere. I swear I’ll pick them up one day.
Michael: What mess? You’re talking to a guy who’ll buy more coffee cups just to avoid washing the pile on his desk.
H: Now, this explains why we’re mates. Okay, let’s dive in: your debut novel Ridgeview Station was published by Allen & Unwin in 2017, and it’s a cracking rural fiction read about life on an outback station in the Midwest. In your acknowledgements, you mention this is inspired by your time on Gabyon Station near Yalgoo. I am fascinated – what was it like living on, and running, a station?
M: To be honest most of the running was, and still is, done by my former wife Gemma. Having a station was always her goal, so that’s what we aimed for. And in 2009 we achieved that, though I spent most my time looking after our Geraldton farms so she could go up and help her parents who moved there. It is a great life, but it is very hard, and that’s something I wanted to put across in the book. Simple things like getting hot water, keeping the power running, even before you get to the actual working side of it. And just the sheer scale of those places. That’s why I rib you about your ‘huge’ drive down to Fremantle.
H: I maintain Butler to Fremantle is like The Shire to Mordor, but you’re a guest here, so go on.
M: Later on, after we had to sell the farms, I ended up working four and one FIFO to pay some bills. So really I only spent about a year fulltime on the actual station, but travelled up and back quite regularly. I do miss the place though. One thing I’ll always remember is the stars and the stillness. They run a station stay up there and I highly recommend it. It’s only *coughs* five hours from Perth. Not far at all.
H: Still closer than Butler to Freo, ha! I wanted to ask as well, since the novel is so heavily autobiographical – can you actually fly a plane? And also, did you actually fight off a bushfire?
M: I never did get my pilot ticket, but I was generally the one who went up with my father-in-law Mike as a spotter for the ground crews on motorbikes. Mike is getting on a bit, so I made sure to ask what everything did, you know, just in case we were 500 feet up and he blacked out or something. I figured I could land it if I had to, even if the plane may not fly again afterwards, but any landing you can walk away from is a good one. Thankfully I never had to test it, but not long after I left he was very lucky. Just after take-off a cable snapped and ploughed him sideways into the dirt, just missing a shed and the house. He was okay, but normally I’d have been with him, so who knows what might have happened?
The fire scenes are pretty much as it happened to us, with the exception of Ash’s near miss. I made that up for a bit more excitement. But we’d had record rain the year before, just as the book starts, and then it all lit up in the summer from lightening. We lost 80 000 hectares, about a third of the place. Unfortunately most of the scenes with the fire control officers I didn’t have to change too much. Murder was nearly done that week, I can assure you.
H: I was about ready to strangle those guys when I read the novel, so I would hardly blame you for a murder there. On a serious note with the autobiographical stuff, after you wrote this novel, you separated from your wife and left Gabyon Station. Is it difficult to look back on the novel and revisit these experiences from a distance?
M: It was extremely hard and I struggled. The publishing contract came through about five months after we split, which was fine, but the first round of edits hit six months later, just when the reasons for the split start to fade a little and you begin to look back with rose tinted glasses. I am very grateful our split has been mostly amicable, but at the same time when you’re not clawing each other’s eyes out there are times when it’s not easy either.
Coupled to that I attended a family funeral around the same time and it was like I’d never left. No animosity at all, just open arms from everyone. Plus I was working on a farm just down the road from where it all started which brought back more memories, so yeah, I wasn’t good there for a while and did some stupid stuff that hurt both Gemma and my current partner Kylie, but we got through it and I’m very grateful to get that sorted. And for Kylie’s understanding. Every event we go to she sits there and listens to me tell the same story about how Ridgeview came about. I don’t know how many other partners would accept that, but she does and I’m very appreciative of it.
H: I think we can all agree Kylie is a good egg! Speaking of good eggs, I really love a lot of the characters in this novel – especially Pete and Alexi, who are both foregrounded – but I seriously think Bull is the coolest character of all and I want to be him when I grow up. What inspired Bull and why do you think you’ve had such a response to him?
M: Bull’s just one of those real old school ocker kind of guys. I love him. Swears like a trooper, but immediately apologises for it if he’s in front of an older lady. Jovial and jolly, but not afraid to front up to someone if needed. He’s a combination of a few people, but mostly an owner-operator stock carter called Steve. He had this massive red beard and these two beautiful big Huntaway truck dogs.
The scene with Mork and Mindy towards the end came from his two dogs, and I’ll never forget his face when he told me that. I’ll also never forget when he shaved off his beard. I thought he’d put a new driver on until this pasty face man spoke.
H: There is a genuine, down-to-earth, masculine quality to your writing that I really enjoy reading – there’s swearing and humour and it’s the kind of humour I grew up with, being a Midwest boy myself. Is this something you consciously craft for your writing, or is it just something that seeps into your work?
M: Not intentionally, but because most of those characters were drawn from real people, or a combination of, I already knew how they spoke. I’m lucky in the fact that I’m very musical. I play, and I listen. John Harman, a Perth based writer who assessed Ridgeview early on and who runs very good writing courses, says ‘good writers do not have a tin ear,’ and he’s right. I can hear accents, how people phrase words when they talk, where they pause or run on, just as I can hear riffs and base lines under a melody. Alexi is a good example. She’s based off many backpackers we had through. People who come to English as a second or third language phrase things very differently to native speakers. ‘We go now then?’ as opposed to ‘So we going now or what?’ or ‘So we be going soon then, lad?’ if they’re Irish. But you have to be careful not to overdo it or its hard work for the reader. I toned Alexi’s dialogue back a bit in the final version after advice from the editors. I did refuse to change the phrasing of one of Kev’s lines though. I forget what it was, but is was worded extremely strangely and I said no, that’s how this guy speaks.
H: Speaking of editors, many readers of this blog will wonder what it’s like to be published by one of the bigger publishing houses in the country. What was it like to have your precious book edited, altered, packaged up, branded and sold?
M: I loved it. To finally have some guidance was so good. During the negotiations before a contract came through, my publisher Louise wanted to make sure I was happy to change a few things. Her opening email line was along the lines of ‘It’s really good, but needs a lot of work.’ My response was ‘You say jump, I’ll ask how high. You’re the experts.’ I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote the manuscript. I had multiple points of view in the same scenes, I took far too long to get the story moving and had pages of beautiful prose describing a stone tank. I think we ended up cutting about 15 000 words from the original submission, but replaced them with another 10 000. Less describing stuff, and more ‘stuff actually happening.’ Looking back, I think the start is still a bit of a slow burn, but once it ramps up it seems to hook people in.
Having the support of those who know what they are doing was invaluable. The cover design is amazing. I was always going to self-publish, and had a lovely photo of an old windmill that was going to be the cover, but when the email with the pdf came through I was stunned. And then to see it in a bookshop for the first time, I’ll never forget that. The first reader-submitted photo of it out in the wild came from Wagga-Wagga. Couldn’t think of a better place for it.
H: It would be surreal to reach that point. I’m in the editing stage for my novel at the moment, and part of me is like “there is no end to this”. Once your novel was published, did you look at it and think “it’s perfect”, or do you look at it now and still want to change stuff?
M: Haha, first page of my copy I opened had a bloody typo. No, I don’t think anyone is ever one hundred percent happy with their work, but I think it’s as good as I could do knowing what I did back then. I feel for those writers who launch their book while working on the next one. By the time launch comes, that book is way out of your mind, you’re already in another world working on the next.
H: Well, I am now dreading opening my book once it’s printed. The typos will scream at me, I’m sure of it. Okay, so I wanted to ask about your beginnings as a writer. You initially made the leap from farmer to writer when you started a successful blog a few years back. How did that happen and do you think blogging is important for authors?
M: I’ve always been able to pen something half decent, but mostly they were strongly worded letters to people who owed us money, or politicians. I think I get that from Mum. But when the whole live export thing blew up there were no farmers on social media, and as part of a push by industry to change that I started a blog, mainly just to give an insight into how things worked on a farm. It was mostly humorous anecdotes about what we were doing and why, but every now and then I’d pen something really serious. It kind of blew up, and through it we organised the biggest rally of farmers in Perth since the early 80s, and met the then Federal Agricultural Minister for a one on one discussion.
I think blogging is important, but only if you really want to do it. My original blog is mothballed now. I wasn’t going to post on it after I left the station, and the new one I created is sorely lacking in content, so I would suggest only do one if you’re prepared to put the effort in.
H [*looks wistfully at irregular blog post history*]: So, since Ridgeview was published eighteen months ago, you’ve been writing a lot. What new projects have you completed and what are you working on now?
M: Yeah, I actually listed them all the other day for this upcoming writer’s retreat and went, oh wow. I have actually been busy. So far I’ve finished (I use that term loosely) two novels; Ned, the life of a sheepdog from his point of view, and Fly-out Day, which follows a farmer struggling to balance work/life after taking on a FIFO job (sound familiar?). I’ve just finished the first draft on a third novel I’ve tentatively called Where Wild Dogs Roam, where an outback dogger stumbles across a people smuggling operation and is paired with an Afghani refugee as they try to find his family. This one took me ages to write. I kept getting stuck so in between I penned a novella called The Last Waltz, which I’ve set in a fantasy world based on Australian folklore. I’m really excited about this one, and am halfway through a second novella set in the same world. And this year I plan to do a narrative non-fiction piece on the rescue of a two year old boy who fell down a borehole in 1952. It’s an amazing story and I know some of those involved in the rescue. Finally I’ll keep pumping out short stories based around my Australian folklore/fantasy idea until I work out what to do with them.
H: Your pitch for a speculative fiction novella has just been shortlisted for the Drowned Earth novella competition – congrats mate! How does it feel, and what’s this one all about?
M: Stunned would be the word I’d use. When the email came it had the usual opening line. ‘Thank you for your submission etc etc we were inundated etc etc.’ Here we go again, I thought. ‘We are pleased to inform you…’ Wait what? So yeah, quite surprised. It’s an interesting concept. 9-12 writers are going to pen individual novellas about The Rise. The ice caps have melted much quicker than expected, so what happens next? Coastlines have flooded, hundreds of thousands of people displaced. I’ve always thought outback stations are the perfect setting for dystopian survival. They’re already pretty much self-sufficient so that’s what I pitched, a family living relatively unaffected until refugees turn up on their door step. Do they accept them or tell them to go back where they came from. I’ve got until March 3rd to pen a 1000 word sample, and we’ll see what happens, but it’s a great boost to my confidence, regardless of the outcome.
H: It’s a great boost, and you have other cool stuff ahead. My amazing literary agent Haylee Nash is running a writer’s retreat and I believe you’re flying over east to take part in it. What’s it going to be like, and what are you hoping to get out of it?
M: I’m really looking forward to this, particularly the sessions on pitching and the current publishing industry status. Unfortunately for me, my publisher resigned just as Ridgeview was released (completely unrelated, for sure) and I’ve kind of fallen through the cracks a little, so this seem a good way to get feedback and advice on some work from someone in the know. Rachael Johns and Josephine Moon are also presenting, and those two are great fun. I’m actually doing a talk with Rachael at Centre for Stories in early April, and really excited for that too. She’s been a huge help in the last year.
H: I’m going to that – should be a fantastic event. Tickets are available here.
M: Ideally what I get out of the retreat would be for Haylee to read my samples, go absolutely nuts over them and sign me up there and then. But I’ll settle for solid advice and some direction for the coming year. I’ll be dropping your name so hard your ears will hurt, by the way.
H: Hey, I have no problem with that – namedrop away. Although I’m way behind on my deadline for the next novel, so mentioning my name *may* make my agent snarl something like “that bastard owes me a manuscript”. So, namedrop at your own risk.
Something I just thought of … we’re both Midwest boys – should I dig up my old Akubra some day and we can take our books for a tour in the bush?
M: Absolutely. We’ll load up the ute and hit the dust. They won’t know what hit them. Are you sure you’re up for the road trip though? I mean, you consider Fremantle practically in another state, and that sort of trip length would get us to Bindoon, which I still consider suburbia.
H: Don’t forget I’m a Midwest boy myself – I hate long city drives, but I’ve done more road trips between Geraldton and Perth than I could ever count! Hmm, I suspect we may start quibbling on the road trip. Let’s move on. What made you join the #5amwritersclub, and what made you stay?
M: Peer pressure. I am a procrastinator, so posting a pic of me writing then having fellow writers saying ’See you tomorrow!’ makes me get out of bed and sit bum on seat. I haven’t been doing much of it lately because I’m fortunate to work flexibly, so I’m writing during the day at the moment. But when I head up to Three Springs I’ll start getting back into it. Urgh. I hate mornings. What makes me stay is the awesome people I met through it, such as yourself, and just having that support group around really helps. Published, unpublished, all writers go through the same problems, and sharing them really helps. And while I think of it a huge thank you to fellow member Bec for putting me onto the Drowned Earth competition.
H: Bec is a legend, and she has agreed to be interviewed on Holden’s Heroes in a few months’ time, so stay tuned.
Meantime, Mike, we’re nearly done with our chat. I want to ask you what advice would you give to aspiring and emerging authors who are just starting out – or, rather, what do you know now that you wish you’d known right at the beginning?
M: Be patient. Don’t send of unfinished work in a rush because you’re afraid you might miss out. Finish the manuscript and stick it in a draw for a month or more. More is better. Read it with fresh eyes and tighten it up again. Because it will need tightening. Then get other writers or avid readers to read it, and listen to their advice. You don’t have to accept it but if three out of four say it’s a little slow, they are probably right. And if you find a reader who is not afraid to be blunt, hang on to them.
Read. You have to read. You can’t improve your craft if you don’t observe how the pros do it. Last year I burned through 600 hours of audio books at work and learned so much. I can see it in what I’m writing now, it’s much tighter the first time around.
Find your writing tribe. Pretty much what I said about the #5amwriterclub. You’ll be surprised how common your problems or concerns are, and when something goes really well for you they’ll understand just how big a deal it is.
H: So agree, especially the last one – sometimes I’d tell non-writer friends my good news about a mentorship or residency and they’d be like, “okay … is that a big deal?” But writer mates totally get it, and get almost as excited as you do.
Okay, final question: I’m a big believer in goal setting and dreaming. Tell me, what would you love to have accomplished five years from now?
M: Firstly, getting something else published, or at least contracted to publish. That’s this year’s goal. But in five years I’d like to be able to repay Kylie’s faith in me. I quit a six figure FIFO job, not just to write, but partly because of it. It’d be nice if one day she had the option to do the same on the back of that faith.
H: What a poignant note to finish on. Michael Trant, it’s been awesome having you over for a chat and thanks for being so generous in your responses. Care to hang around for a drink? What’s your poison?
M: Been a pleasure. I’ll have whatever is cold, wet and free. I post a lot of Emu Export pics, but just quietly those are usually provided by work. I don’t normally drink the stuff, but when in Rome, as they say …
H: Bushchooks it is! 😉
~ Social Media Links ~
I hope you enjoyed this interview with the wonderfully talented Michael Trant. He’s a top bloke and even more fun to interact with on the socials, so here’s where you can give him a like and a follow:
Lately, I feel like driving past my current work in progress, winding the window down and mooning it with my hairy wog arse while simultaneously flipping the bird.
(This is assuming someone else is driving the car, of course, or maybe that I’m an octopus.)
Seriously, writing can be a bitch sometimes. There are times when you’re on a luxury river cruise of creativity, soaking up the sunshine, knocking back a refreshing beer and chortling at how fucking amazing you are.
Other times you’re standing on the river bank, watching all the writer-boats sail past while you get sunburnt, spill your beer and step in day-old duck shit.
And for the last few months, I’ve been stepping in duck shit the way a kid jumps into a puddle of mud.
I’m working on the first draft of my next contemporary YA novel, but my progress has been staccato from the start. I know it’s not unusual for writers to have issues with producing their second novel, but since Invisible Boys was my second novel written and this current one is my third, I figured I’d already managed to break the curse of the second novel.
With my first two novels, the first drafts were written very quickly. My YA fantasy novel was written in three months; Invisible Boys was even faster, barely a two-month timeframe.
But the wheels kind of fell off with this third novel, and as I sit here today reflecting on why, it’s pretty clear what’s going on.
Both my first two novels were written in total obscurity, and that is what gave me the license to write in an unfettered way, without considering the audience or market. All I had to consider was what I wanted to say, and then I gave myself total permission to say it.
With Invisible Boys in particular, I gave myself more freedom than I would give myself on this blog, or on social media, or in conversation. I told myself firmly, “there are no sacred cows: write whatever you feel like writing, what hurts, what burns at you, what you desperately wanted to say fifteen years ago but the words died on your tongue, and to hell with anyone having a problem with it”.
The freedom I granted myself writing Invisible Boys was spectacular. It sounds geeky to admit, but writing like this is one of the best feelings ever. The sensation of total liberty infused me with a general enthusiasm for living more boldly. I woke up each morning feeling like I had power; like I was able to say more than usual, because I was giving myself permission to not give a fuck about the consequences.
But a lot changed last summer. Invisible Boys won the Ray Koppe Award; I signed with an agent; and I undertook my residency at Varuna. Suddenly, I felt like other people were watching me, and this loaded a barbell of expectations onto my shoulders: a wordless and ineffable process, but nonetheless real.
My prevailing thought was:
If I’m an agented, award-winning author and also a friggin Varuna alumnus, I’d better be writing amazing works of staggering literary genius and if the next thing I produce isn’t amazing, people will realise I am an untalented turd and Invisible Boys was just a fluke.
As we know, first drafts are unequivocally duck shit. So, applying this kind of thinking when you’re drafting is capital-N Not Helpful.
And as it so happens, I started drafting this version of my third novel while I was at Varuna last January, so the soil this story springs from is kind of neurotic and self-doubty, reflecting the pressure I was putting myself under at the time. I only produced one chapter at Varuna, which I was disappointed with, and the quality wasn’t fantastic.
I returned to the manuscript between July and October, but my progress was staccato again. The last time I worked on it was late November. Life got in the way: I had edits and promo for Poster Boy, Hungerford promo, other writing events, day job, Christmas, and finally the structural edits for Invisible Boys (which are now finished, yay).
But this week, I am not excessively busy: I have time to dedicate to writing for the first time in two months and so I am forced to face my manuscript again. I don’t have the get-out-of-jail-free card of being ‘busy’. It’s just me and the novel.
And I realise those expectations I felt last summer at Varuna are still weighing on me now, perhaps more than ever, post-Hungerford.
And those expectations, really, are born from fears.
I am scared of this novel not being powerful.
I am scared it won’t impact upon people as much as Invisible Boys.
I am scared of being a one-trick pony.
I am scared people will be disappointed in me.
I am scared people will roll their eyes and say, ‘Really, he won awards for writing, and that’s the best he can do?’
I am scared readers will give up on me.
I am scared of losing everything.
I’m experiencing classic Second Novel Syndrome, only for me it’s Third Novel Syndrome. The number doesn’t really matter. If someone wrote six unpublished novels and their seventh got published, they’d go through Eighth Novel Syndrome.
The truth is, it’s not the second novel per se that gives writers more grief than any other; it’s whatever novel we write after experiencing some kind of success for a previous novel; the first novel we write when we are no longer working in total obscurity.
The fears I listed above are mostly centred on what other people think about my writing, which isn’t something I used to worry about. Prior to 2017, I felt no external pressure, only an internal desire to express myself.
I can’t go back to that state of obscurity – and nor would I want to. I worked hard to get to where I am, and things like the Hungerford Award are incredible gifts that I am deeply grateful for.
However, my response to this recognition has been one of fear, which is now holding me back. I know the only way I can complete my third novel is by setting fire to my fears, giving them a good roasting and then plating them up and swallowing them.
So, here I go.
Firstly, I have to accept that my fears are beyond my control. Even if I write an amazing novel, people might still not like it. Ultimately, I have no power over how other people receive and interpret my work, and I never will.
Secondly, I have to remember how I began this journey: with nothing. I started out as a seven-year-old boy from Geraldton with an exercise book and a pen. I didn’t need anyone’s approval or support to write. I did it on my own because what I wanted more than anything was to express myself. It’s easier to risk losing what you have if you remind yourself that you coped just fine without any of it.
Ultimately, the only thing within my control is the writing itself. All I can do is get my arse in the chair, open my laptop and express myself one word, sentence, page, chapter at a time, until I’m done. Writing unabashedly has always brought me incredible joy and fulfilment. I can’t recreate the obscurity I used to experience, but there’s no reason I can’t write just as honestly and freely as I used to: it’s within my control, and so I will choose to do it.
And hell, maybe I’ll fail. Maybe all my fears will come true and everything will go tits up, but I can’t control that.
I only own my process, and my words, and that starts with my attitude.
Novel number three, prepare to be finished. No sacred cows. Duck shit ahoy.
When I created my author Facebook page in September 2016, I wrote something vaguely aspirational in the “bio” section:
2017 and 2018 promise to be big years for my writing career, and I can’t wait to share this journey with you all.
I actually had nothing to back that up apart from hope and determination. I wrote those words because I desperately wanted 2017 and 2018 to be big years. I’d lost my job and I’d decided to really give my writing a go, so I thought “I am going to make them big years”.
But what I envisaged wasn’t what happened. I thought 2017 would be the year I signed my YA Fantasy novel to an agent and publisher and it would be published in 2018. Then I’d keep writing that series and be known as a fantasy author. Things took a different path, which I’ve spoken about before: that fantasy novel went in the drawer, I wrote Invisible Boys instead, and the rest is history – although I guess that history is still very much in the making.
My point is, my 2017 and 2018 weren’t what I had planned. Most of what’s happened in my life hasn’t actually gone to plan. My career and writing plans only seem to come through about 50% of the time, and all the other times, they go off the rails spectacularly.
And yet, every year at this time, I find myself in the same reflective, pensive, generally optimistic mood: ready to survey the trophies and carnage of the previous 365 days, and ready to foolishly make plans for the following calendar year. This year, I go in with eyes open to the fallibility of my plans, but who gives a damn – I have fun doing this, and it helps motivate me. Maybe the only reason I achieve those 50% of my goals is because I commit to them each New Year’s Eve? Who knows?
So, this is my reflection on 2018 and my look ahead to 2019.
And holy crap, what a year 2018 was.
This time last year I posted about how I was just proud to still be breathing after having exhumed past trauma to write Invisible Boys. The title of that post was drawn from Green Day’s 2016 song “Still Breathing”, which is about sobriety and recovery and staying alive, and I love it.
This year’s post title is also drawn from a song, because music is my go-to for processing how I think and feel, much more so than reading. The past few days, I’ve been humming (and occasionally singing, despite the pain inflicted on my boyfriend’s ears) a rare song known as “After A Year Like This One” from my favourite musical artist, Alanis Morissette. She wrote the song in late 1996 at the end of a phenomenally hectic two years touring for Jagged Little Pill, performed it live once and then to my knowledge never played it again, but the lyrics have been swimming to the forefront of my mind for days now:
After a year like this one I’m surprised I do not hate your guts
And, after a year like this one I’m surprised I still love music just as much
After a year like this one I’m surprised I did not eat my arm
And, after a year like this one I’m sorry if I’m not cordial to everyone
I think the reason these lyrics keep resonating with me is because I’ve never had a year like 2018 before, and at this point, I’m basically just permanently surprised about the whole thing.
In my experience, we usually don’t get a proper perspective on what’s happened to us until years down the track; when the storm is still raging, or the confetti still falling, it’s harder to make sense of anything. I expect in 2028 I’ll have a slightly clearer view of what this year really represented – but of course in 2028 I’ll be 40 (insert screaming face emoji) so let’s all do our best to not think about that, please.
What I do know, here in the present moment, is that 2018 feels like a breakout year for my writing career, and I think that will still be a true observation ten years from now. It was the year I forced myself to push against social anxiety and go to events, to meet people online and in person, to be a part of projects, to promote myself and my work more than I’ve ever had the confidence to. It was a year of holding my breath from March to November, while I waited to see if submitting my novel to the Hungerford Award would pay off or not. It was an incredibly lucky and elated moment when it actually won.
So, first, here’s the good shit that happened in 2018 – the highlights:
Varuna: I undertook a writing residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House, in the Blue Mountains in NSW – which, as I wrote at the time, I will never forget.
Sydney: Bf and I went there for the 1st time & celebrated our 10 year anniversary.
Alanis Morissette: Saw her live for the first time; fanboyish blog post here.
Acting: I acted in a play called “The Second Woman” as part of Perth International Arts Festival – an awesome experience that reminded me how much I love acting.
Wedding Plans: We set a date for our wedding in 2019 and starting planning.
Griffith Review: My novella POSTER BOY was announced as one of five winners of the 2018 Novella Project, was published in Griffith Review and launched in Perth
Festival: I attended my first writers festival – the ASSF 2018 – as a guest author.
Hungerford Award: My novel INVISIBLE BOYS was shortlisted for, and then won, the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award.
It’s a bit staggering to see the weight of all these things lined up in a row, especially since there’s loads of things I missed off this list. No wonder 2018 felt so hectic all the time!
And there was stuff beyond the highlights that kept me busy. I don’t like to dwell too long on the bad shit – but at the same time, I want to acknowledge it. Reeling off a year’s worth of achievements is misleading and incomplete if I don’t also put in the context. It paints a picture that everything in 2018 was sunshine and blowjobs and the truth is there were big downs that came with the ups.
Despite being an amazing breakout year, 2018 was also really tough. I struggled to make ends meet and worked too many jobs, most of them casual or contract-based, so there was no job security or certainty and I was constantly stressed about money. I struggled to fit everything in. I felt burnt out a lot of the time and rarely made any time for myself. I got lots of rejections for my writing. I didn’t finish my next novel, which I had aimed to do by September. I had interpersonal ups and downs, plus some family relationships fell to pieces, which hurt a lot. My mental health had its usual ups and downs – I had anxiety and panic attacks, plus the bog-standard self-loathing that seems to accompany me everywhere, plus a couple of drinking relapses, and of course the constant self-doubt that every writer has (and I am learning that publication and awards do little to tune these doubts out!).
But I never get to the end of a year feeling defeated. Exhausted, yes, but defeated, never. 2019 represents a chance for lots more good shit to happen. Bad shit will happen, too, but I’ll roll with what comes. The good shit will make it worthwhile.
And it’s hard to feel defeated when a lifelong dream is coming true. After years of hard work, my first novel is about to be published in October 2019. The year ahead is going to be incredibly exciting, and probably more hectic than 2018 was. But it’s the kind of busy that will be fulfilling and thrilling all the way through, so I’m pumped to get stuck into the year ahead.
My goals and major things to look forward to in 2019 are:
Finish the edits on Invisible Boys.
Finish my next novel.
Go on honeymoon.
Launch and promote Invisible Boys.
That isn’t a very long list, but each of those items is enormous and will take a huge chunk of time – so that’s enough for now.
I’d also really love to push beyond my own comfort zone and try some new things in 2019 – what those will be, I don’t yet know, but I think it would be great for my confidence to do stuff that I am not good at, and just do it for fun. I’ll see how this shapes up as the year begins.
The final lines of Alanis Morissette’s song “After A Year Like This One” are:
After a year like this one I’ll need a good whole sixteen months alone
And, after a year like this one I think I’ll make the west coast beaches my new home
I seriously relate to this. After a year like 2018 – with both the ups and downs – part of me wants to find a quaint log cabin in an alpine forest somewhere and curl up in a ball beside a fireplace. Or maybe escape for a year to a little town on the coast of Mexico or Hawaii and just wake up on the beach each morning. A random fantasy, but enticing when I’ve spent so much time driving myself hard.
Alanis did end up taking sixteen months off, or thereabouts. She fled to India, cocooned herself in anonymity and later wrote a hit song about it. But of course, this was after she had done the album release and world tour.
I haven’t released my book yet.
I haven’t done the tour.
The hard work has to come before the rest. And this year, though it was hard work, wasn’t actually the job I set out to do. This year, and everything leading up to it, was really me putting together my CV, pounding the pavement, going to metaphorical job interviews. I’ve now landed my dream job, and the hard work begins on Monday at 9am.
So, despite my longing for a break, 2019 won’t be the time to slow down. It will be a year on turbo mode; feet on accelerators and sometimes arms out the window. I have a huge amount of work spread out ahead of me: a long, glittering, potholey road to run down that will be exhilarating and will keep me busy for 2019 and probably a big chunk of 2020, too.
So that’s my focus for now. In my wannabe rockstar terms, it’s now time to drop my album and do the tour. And once that’s done, some time in 2020, I’ll give myself a holiday.
But first, hard yakka. I think I’m in for another year like this one.
Here goes everything.
PS. Thanks to each of you for being a part of my journey this year. It’s been probably the most unexpected joy of 2018 to have connected with so many like-minded readers and writers and supporters. I’d love to hear what your goals and dreams and resolutions for 2019 are, too – let me know in the comments below or on social media! Wishing you all an awesome 2019 – full of ups and downs and everything in between. 🙂
I can barely remember how to write a blog post. How did I used to start off? I’m sure I used to be witty. Or maybe that was just in my head; maybe I was laughing at my own jokes, like J.D. from Scrubs.
In any case, the only suitable opening I can find today is “holy fuck”. Frankly, nothing else has the brevity or blunt power to encapsulate how I feel, and what’s happened, since I last blogged.
So, back in September, I was announced as one of the shortlisted authors for the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award, alongside some amazing authors such as Alan Fyfe, Yuot Alaak, Zoe Deleuil, Julie Sprigg and Trish Versteegen. I was pretty damn excited about just being shortlisted.
And then on the 15th November, at a big ceremony at the Fremantle Arts Centre, I was announced as the WINNER of the 2018 Hungerford Award. I won $12,000 and a publishing contract: my debut YA novel, Invisible Boys, will be published by Fremantle Press in October 2019.
I am absolutely stoked and my full emotional response to this still hasn’t hit me, I don’t think. It is incredibly exciting and a dream come true, and the fact that I can’t come up with anything beyond cliches tells me I still haven’t really processed it.
But as a result of all this enormous news, the last three months – from the initial shortlisting until now – has been one of the most exciting, hectic, surreal, chaotic and overwhelming times of my entire life.
And because of that, I haven’t written a blog post since the shortlisting was announced. This is not for lack of wanting to, but time was at a premium. About five minutes after I won the Hungerford, I had a media itinerary pressed into my hand by the marketing manager at Fremantle Press, and suddenly it was all go – press and radio interviews, contracts, event bookings, existing events to attend. Thing is, I never really factored in what would happen if I *actually* won the award, and it so happens that November/December are the busiest times of the whole year in my current day job.
So for about three weeks, my routine was:
Wake up at 5:30am feeling rat shit
Try to tackle incoming emails/social media notifications/tasks
Go to work for the day
Come home, open laptop, continue tackling inbound emails/notifications
Fall asleep with laptop open on my lap
Wake up and repeat the whole thing
I don’t think I had an iota of downtime for at least two weeks. I won’t pretend this wasn’t a really exhilarating time, though. The thrill of winning an award as prestigious as the Hungerford – and the realisation that my novel is finally going to be published – buoyed me through the hectic pace of post-award life.
(Suggestion for any future Hungerford shortlisted authors in 2020 or beyond who might stumble across this post: I recommend clearing your schedule for the whole week after the award announcement, just in case. If you win, you’ll have some breathing space around your crazy schedule. If you don’t win, you’ll have some downtime to curl up in the fetal position and take care of yourself.)
But it’s been almost an entire month now since the award announcement, and the noise and rush and overwhelm has finally settled. And better, I’m now on my third day of holidays: I have an entire glorious month off work over the summer. Right now I am sitting at an alfresco cafe in Fremantle. I’m drinking an apple juice with ice blocks in it. The sun is beaming down from a cloudless sky and a warm breeze tells me it’s going to be a nice hot day. I’m listening to a man across the street busking, playing blues guitar, and I feel more relaxed in this moment than I have for a very long time.
So it’s time to sit down and write how I’m feeling. Since I was a kid, writing stuff down has always been my way of processing how I think and feel; my tool for making sense of what’s happened. (I am very mature because I am totally resisting the urge to make a very crude tool joke right now.) My happiest times as a kid were sitting down on a weekend with my notebook and just being creative – drawing pictures, maps, or writing down thoughts, feelings, story ideas, or actual stories. This is one of my favourite ways of getting in touch with myself; of knowing who I am.
And I’ve commented to my boyfriend a few times this past month that I barely felt like I knew myself, which makes sense, since I wasn’t writing or blogging or doodling in a notebook. I desperately needed to write stuff down so I could comprehend what had happened, how I felt about it, and who I am now in what feels like a new era for my career and my life.
And now that I’ve given myself a few minutes to stop and think, the first thing I’ve noticed, or remembered, is that actually, there were loads of times over the past three months that I badly wanted to write a blog post. A few times I even jotted something down on my phone, thinking it would make a good post to share. But something stopped me – an invisible force that had nothing to do with my claims of being too busy (which I was) or not having enough time (which I didn’t).
So, the truth is, I actually stopped blogging for three months because I was really fucking scared.
Almost every time I thought of something I wanted to comment on or share, a thought bubbled up from within my blood – an acidic, corrosive thought:
What if you write how you are feeling, and Fremantle Press happen to read the blog post, and realise you’re sometimes sensitive/boofheaded/confident/a bit odd/a bundle of nerves/cocky/a total mess?
That thought was like a springy, five-metre high diving board into an overly-chlorinated pool of an even more insidious thought:
If they know what I’m really like as a person, flawed and sensitive, they might decide not to publish me.
And that little rhizome of terror took root in my psyche; like a weed choking a flower, it overpowered the cheers of support from friends and fellow writers. The fearful thoughts were actually louder than the momentous fact that the publisher had gone and shortlisted me in the first place.
So I froze for three months, and I chose to write nothing at all. I became completely paranoid that if I said one slightly dumb or embarrassing comment in a blog post, I might lose everything.
I’m not particularly proud of shying away from blogging like this, but when I reflect upon it, I would probably do it the same all over again if I had to. I have wanted to be a writer since I was seven; this is the dream and goal I’ve been working towards my whole life. Three months of dubious self-censoring was worth it even if, on the other side of receiving the award, I can see it was probably just fear talking. The people who work at my publisher are totally amazing people – I feel like I’ve joined a new family – and I feel very welcomed as both a writer and a human. I don’t have anything to worry about from that perspective.
But things have changed. Prior to the shortlisting, I felt like I was just some random toiling away in obscurity; now, I feel like people are actually watching, listening, waiting for my novel to drop.
And to be honest, I’m not used to people watching me. Nobody was watching when I fell apart trying to complete my Honours writing project in 2012. Nobody saw my quiet struggles in 2014-2016 of working on my first fantasy novel. Comparatively few people engaged with my short stories when I released them digitally in 2017.
It was easy to be authentic in those eras, because nobody knew who I was and even when they did, few people cared.
The post-Hungerford world feels different. I have to consider the other partners in my publishing career – such as my agent and my publisher. And every now and then I think about the fact that fellow authors, some much more established and esteemed than me, also follow me on social media, and thus might see my blog posts, and thus might judge me for how I write and talk and feel.
When I started thinking about this last week, I had the horrible thought that I was now going to have to be more cautious in what I write. And that thought snowballed. Shit, I’m going to have to censor myself. I should probably try to come across positive all the time, especially since I’m getting published so I should just try to be permanently happy and grateful and never say anything dark or negative again. I shouldn’t talk about how I feel as frankly as I used to. I shouldn’t blog in the unfettered, authentic way I used to. What if people think I’m a tool? What if they think I’m too soft, too annoying, too cocky? Or what if they just want me to shut the hell up since I’ve won the Hungerford? What if everyone’s already sick of me?
This led to a truly abysmal weekend. I felt like I was suffocating; like I couldn’t be myself anymore. It was painfully similar to how I felt when I was younger and in the closet: thinking that how I am is inherently not okay; that I needed to put on some kind of front to be accepted by the people around me. It really affected me, and eventually, on Sunday, the bough broke. My anxiety skyrocketed, and I felt physically and emotionally sick. The option of shutting up, or of sanitising my online presence to present a more polished “published author” vibe from now on, loomed over me – a quiet, claustrophobic death of expression.
A death of my authentic self in the place of a palatable, saleable version of Holden.
While I was in this headspace, a lyric from one of my favourite Cranberries songs, “Free to Decide”, kept spiralling to the top of my consciousness:
It’s not worth anything more than this at all
I’ll live as I choose, or I will not live at all
I have always loved this song and this lyric, but Dolores O’Riordan’s words meant something new to me on Sunday. I realised in that moment that a life without free expression is not a life I want to lead. If self-censorship were ever the price of my career, the career simply wouldn’t be worth it.
And so I decided, on Sunday afternoon, that I won’t pay that price.
And as soon as I made that decision, my anxiety ebbed back to low tide. I felt immediately human again; and I felt like me again. My three-month-long self-imposed moratorium on expression had been shattered and I decided never to go back there. That’s no way to start a career as a novelist, and no way to live any kind of meaningful life.
The reality is, I can’t breathe if I can’t express myself freely. I’m pretty sure the free expression is what actually makes my writing worth anything, anyway. I am bolder in my writing than I am anywhere else, and that bravery occasionally leads to a good story or a good novel or a good blog post. Other times it doesn’t, but you win some, you lose some.
What matters to me as a writer and a man is that I am free to say what I want to say. When I am free and unencumbered, I feel like myself.
So, on Sunday night, I decided to commit myself to being as authentic and honest as I always have been. I value these qualities, in my writing and in my life, over almost all others. I don’t want to be seen as singularly positive and happy, nor singularly angry or anxious or depressed. I want to make space for all emotions. I want to be okay with them, not just as they happen, but in the sharing and expressing of them, if I so choose.
I am sometimes light and sometimes dark; both parts exist within me, within all of us, and I am going to allow myself to express these parts of myself as they come up.
Maybe this isn’t normal once people are watching and expecting certain things of my writing, but I don’t care. It feels right to me to be unfettered. I can’t live any other way.
This mindset feels like a good way to tackle the adventure that’s just over the horizon. 2019 is going to be an incredible year. The Invisible Boys era is about to begin, and I can’t wait to share all of it with you – the ups and also the downs, honestly and openly – over the year to come.
Here’s to a big year of triumphs and fuck-ups and everything in between.
It’s only two weeks until my first *ever* appearance at a writers’ festival and I am SO pumped.
I’ll be making two appearances at the 2018 Australian Short Story Festival on 20th October in Perth, both at the Centre for Stories in Northbridge.
The first appearance is on a storytelling panel for the Bright Lights, No City project I took part in back in May this year, which was all about telling stories of what it was like growing up gay in country WA. At this panel, I’ll be chatting with amazing storyteller (and my coach/mentor for the project) Sisonke Msimang, plus Josie Boland and Damien Palermo, my fellow storytellers from that project. It’s going to be pretty intense and vulnerable but I can’t wait to hang out with those three again and share my true story in oral storytelling form to a new audience.
The second appearance is my first time as a panel chair. I’ll be chairing a session called The Ventriloquists, which is all about the importance of voice in the creation of short fiction. I’ll be chatting with H.C. Gildfind, Luke Johnson and M.J. Reidy, who are all very talented writers.
As part of the promo for the festival, the awesome people at the Australian Short Story Festival interviewed me about my writing. The interview is available here if you are interested! Being the classy mofo I am, I used the words “buttloads” (thinking it would be more polite than “fuckloads” which was my instictive response) and “horseshit”. I am starting to suspect I may drag this literary festival into the gutter ever so slightly. I hope they don’t mind! 😉
Back to regular blogs soon, I swear … til then, happy weekend all! 🙂
The first ever excerpt of my gay YA novel INVISIBLE BOYS has now been made live on the Fremantle Press website.
I’m so pumped to share this small glimpse of the novel with you all. Unsurprisingly, being something I’ve written, it features one of the characters, Charlie, cruising for gay sex in his hometown of Geraldton, Western Australia. ^_^
If you’d like to have a look at the excerpt, plus the interview I did with Fremantle Press about being shortlisted for the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award, the link is here.
I suspect it will be a long time before I am able to share anything further from this novel, so I hope this little snippet is enticing enough.
I’m meant to be having some downtime away from screens today (ha, oops!) so I’ll keep this post short.
Big mea culpa here … things have been so hectic lately I haven’t even updated my blog with the usual frequency. Let’s face it, I’ve barely had time to scratch me own arse, and I’ll get things ticking over here again in no time, I swear. November is looking like it will have lots of days where I can breathe easy and I am looking forward to that.
I’m currently mired in the first draft of my next novel, a contemporary YA with a mystery element. I’ll be posting with a proper blog about that process and experience soon, because it is definitely not easy to write a third novel. This novel is due to my agent on 31st October, so it’s nose to the grindstone, arse in the writing chair time. (This is why November should allow me to be slightly more human.)
Meantime, I need to fill you in on what’s been happening with INVISIBLE BOYS, the second novel I wrote. As many of you will have already seen on social media, INVISIBLE BOYS has been shortlisted for the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award. This means the manuscript is now in the running for a $12,000 cash prize and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press.
I won’t find out the winner until the actual awards ceremony on Thursday 15th November, which is still over a month away, so cross your fingers and toes for me that I have a win.
I am still pinching myself that a fictional story born from the emotional trauma of my youth has been shortlisted for this award. I don’t want to say it too often in case I dilute the meaning of these words, but I really thought I would take all of my teenage experiences of growing up gay in the country to an early grave. I did. I never thought I’d tell people, and I never thought I would write about it – so the idea that a bunch of judges read this manuscript and decided it could be worth sharing with the world is a real buzz.
I so want this story out in the world so I am hopeful for a win. Plenty of people have reminded me that even if I don’t win the Hungerford, the shortlisting itself is an honour and a good omen for this book. My friend and writing buddy Louise Allan had her manuscript shortlisted in the 2014 version of this award, and while she ultimately did not win, her manuscript – which became the acclaimed novel THE SISTER’S SONG – ended up landing a deal with Allen & Unwin and it has won her a lot of accolades and praise.
So, I am trying to remind myself that whatever happens, hopefully great things lay ahead for this little story.
The media release about the shortlisting is here. I’m stoked to be shortlisted alongside some other great emerging WA writers. I’ve briefly met all five other writers on the shortlist, and they are all super chill. Through some of the radio promo we did on RTR FM and Radio Fremantle, I’ve had the chance to chat some more with Yuot Alaak (shortlisted for his manuscript Father of the Lost Boys) and Alan Fyfe (shortlisted for Floaters) and they are both really friendly and supportive. Their stories sound both important and timely.
I still don’t know if I have fully felt the impact of being shortlisted for this award. Usually, my imposter syndrome flares up when something like this happens, but this time around I am just feeling deeply grateful and excited about the opportunity. I hope this feeling lasts!
It’s funny how a random memory can make you realise how much your life has changed.
An old photo popped up on my Facebook news feed this week. The photo was of me, two years ago, when I grew my hair long. At the time, I thought it made me look like Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, who, as we all know, is not just a total rock god but a man of extraordinary hair. Hence, Grohl became not just my rock idol but my hair idol.
For the sake of full disclosure, the wookie in the below image was me in early September 2016.
When this popped up the other day, I shared the image again on social media, because I thought it was funny. At the time, I thought draping my hair over my face, putting on my sunnies and pretending I was some kind of living hairball was the height of visual humour. I can confirm that two years later, nothing has changed: I am obviously still fucking hilarious. ^_^
When I shared this on social media, I said something vague like “this was me two years ago – never be afraid to change”. In hindsight, I thought this probably read like a dumb comment, because it’s pretty damn easy to change your haircut, and I don’t know many grown adults who are afraid of their barber.
But what I was thinking of when I said that was less the haircut and more what the haircut represented.
Because when I saw this picture, my first thought – after laughing at my own comic genius, of course – wasn’t how I bore a striking resemblance to Cousin Itt.
My first thought was: I remember what it was like being you.
I suddenly remembered how the 2016 model Holden felt, day-in, day-out, and it was not happy.
In September 2016, I was struggling with the later drafts of my first novel, and I think on some level I knew it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. This made me depressed because I wanted to be a great writer with a great novel and the novel I was working on at the time only felt “good”.
At the same time, I was working in a day job where I was being treated like crap by my boss – the passive-aggressive kind of shit that absolutely nobody needs in their life. I was struggling to stay sober. To cope with everything, I was smoking a lot (my car was practically an ashtray on wheels) and I shovelled the absolute worst shit into my body: a constant stream of Maccas and pizza and KFC and chocolate and cool drink and sugar. Not only did this hideous nutrition make me feel constantly gross, I was also obese, and you couldn’t force me to set foot in a gym.
When I waddled into the house each night after work wanting to burst into (very masculine) tears, I would think my sore feet and my endless burning acid reflux and my depressed state were just part of getting older. “I guess this is what it’s like to get to 28,” I remember thinking.
It saddens me that I thought obesity and depression were part of becoming an adult.
The truth is, part of me felt resigned to an impending adulthood that would tear my dream of being a writer out of my grasp.
Although I had decided, in 2014, to pursue writing, I still had a very old map of my future lodged in the haywire circuitry of my brain. Full-time work still came first, and writing was wedged around the sides. I still wanted to climb the corporate ladder – not that my ladder was particularly corporate, working at a university – but I desired to work my way up higher, be promoted, be more senior, be paid more, be more recognised. I thought that once I hit 30, that would be the time to build a house in the far northern suburbs, get a mortgage, start a family.
So, when I see this hairy photo, I see that slightly younger version of myself. A man who was struggling, and depressed, and had absolutely no idea what he was doing.
A few days after this photo was taken, everything changed.
There was a restructure at work, and I lost my job.
The day I lost my job, I felt like any guy who loses his job. I felt like a failure; I wondered whether any of it was personal; I wondered why I hadn’t been good enough to keep. I felt like someone had flung a medicine ball into my solar plexus.
But the next day, I didn’t wake up dreading going to work, because I knew it was no longer going to be my life. I woke up realising my life was going to change, and suddenly, change didn’t seem like a bad thing.
In fact, the more I thought about it, the more losing my job made me see my life more clearly than I ever had.
Because when it came to thinking about finding a new job – I realised I didn’t want to.
The more I reflected, the more I discovered I was supremely uninterested in working full time. I had learned the hard way that it didn’t make me happy, and that the chase for more money and more status was completely pointless and empty. Moreover, the chase itself wasn’t one I enjoyed. I was doing it because I thought I was meant to do it, not because I wanted to.
Same with the house and the mortgage and the family.
So when I thought about what I wanted, I came up with only one career goal: being a writer.
I decided in that moment that I would stop fucking around and relegating “writing” to the back seat. It was time to take myself seriously. Screw everyone’s opinions of what I should have been doing in my late twenties. Screw my own childhood impressions of success. I was going to be a writer, no matter what, and I would dedicate the rest of my life to the pursuit of that dream.
That was when my whole life changed.
I made the decision to never work full-time again, and to pick up part-time and casual work to support my lifestyle as an author. Fuck it, I thought. I can stand being a bit povo, but I can’t stand not having the time to be creative.
I decided I didn’t give a shit about owning a house just yet, and I still don’t.
And once I made these big changes, I felt incredibly happy. And inspired. And motivated.
So I started to do all the things that made me feel good. I joined a gym. I paid a personal trainer to help me get in shape. I worked out five times a week until I lost 30 kilos. I quit smoking. I cut the bad food in my diet and replaced it with nutritious shit that my body actually needs. I started writing more – not just my novel, but short stories and blog posts. I learned to express myself and my feelings authentically.
And yes, I cut my hair. I cut it super short, and bleached it, and for me this was a symbolic way of marking that I was going to live an alternative life to the one I thought was planned for me.
None of this was easy. Most of it was harrowing, and terrifying, because I couldn’t actually be certain that my future as a writer would all work out the way I wanted it to. Hell, I still don’t know what lies ahead for my writing career. I still don’t have my first novel published, and even when I do get published (positive thinking) I have no guarantee that people will actually want to buy the book. Or that anyone will want to publish my next one. There’s no certainty at all.
I ultimately believe success as a writer is drawn from three components: talent, hard work and luck.
You can hone talent, and you can work hard, but you can’t control luck. So it is for every author or creative or frankly, any human. Any number of aspects of my career might not pan out. This whole writing caper could go completely tits up for all I know.
But what I’ve learned is that living a life in pursuit of a dream is a reward all of its own.
And the only way I stand to gain everything I want is to risk everything first. Whether my dreams are achieved or not is ultimately out of my control. What is within my control is whether I choose to follow my dreams – and when I follow them, my soul, mind and body are all in alignment with the universe and I feel awesome.
If I die pursuing a dream that never came to fruition, I will have lived a life of feeling perpetually hopeful and purposeful and awesome, and to me that is worth much more than living the constrained and resigned traditional life I once thought I ought to lead.
So when I look at this hairy motherfucker in the photo, I feel energised, because I realise how far I’ve come.
And I also want to place my hands on this bloke’s shoulders and tell him to be brave, because he’s about to learn that in order to find himself, he will have to throw away almost everything he knows about his old life.
And very soon, he’ll be stepping onto a treadmill, earbuds in, with Jewel’s “Goodbye Alice in Wonderland” playing in his ears as his legs begin to run and his heart begins to pump harder than it has in years.
Goodbye Alice in Wonderland
You can keep your yellow brick road
There is a difference between dreaming and pretending
These are not tears in my eyes
They are only a reflection of my lonely mind finding
They are only a reflection of my lonely mind finding
I found what’s missing in my life
So, I turned 30 recently, and now that I am on the other side, I can firstly confirm that it was a survivable experience.
Secondly, being your standard navel-gazing author, I thought I’d write about what turning 30 meant to me. But as I started writing it, I realised how many parallels there are between the idea of “becoming an adult” (which used to be ascribed to turning 18) and what our culture now expects from us when we hit the big 3-0.
So I pitched the article idea to an editor, and my article has now been published today at Ten Daily.
I’d really love to hear from readers on this one. Did you feel like a ‘real’ grown up when you turned 18, or 21? Or was it closer to when you reached 30?
Did your Saturn Return (from the ages of 27-31) have anything to do with it? My own Saturn Return (not that I believe in astrology, but just go with it …) played a major role and was a pivotal point for me.
I have to say I’ve grown accustomed to being 30 now – and it actually makes me feel more confident and more like a grown man than I’ve ever felt before.
I’ve had so many unexpected conversations lately around the concept of success, and it’s really got me thinking about how we as scrabbling, imperfect humans measure and quantify success.
The other day, someone close to me declared her ambition to one day own a new, silver Mercedes. As she had never previously indicated any interest in motor vehicles, let alone luxury ones, I was bemused and asked her why. It turned out she saw a new Mercedes as a sign of success.
My first instinct was to roll my eyes at this. Not because I’m sneering at a new Mercedes – Jesus, I should be so lucky to stand in the general vicinity of one’s exhaust fumes!
No – it’s because I’m from a blue-collar background and I was raised to eschew material possessions as signs of success. Whatever the other parts of my upbringing I have rejected, or evolved from, this isn’t one of them. So, my reflex was to judge this person.
Later on, I started to think about why she would have such a materialistic desire. This person has spent much of her life struggling as a carer and a single parent, and she has worked doggedly to get a degree as a mature age student, and has now just finished her Master’s degree and landed a full-time role in her field. A flash new Mercedes has been completely out of her reach for most of her life, and it still is. So, the Merc stands as a symbol of a not-yet-attained success. It is a beacon and a dream, but moreover, it is a measurement: the day I can afford a new silver Mercedes is the day I will have achieved the success I desire.
Just a couple of days later, I was having a coffee with a colleague and, completely unprompted, she mentioned something unexpectedly similar about how she would know when she’d reached the level of success she wanted. But her measurement wasn’t a car.
Shoes, she said. Shoes or a handbag. (And she was not the kind of woman I would have expected to say something as stereotypically female as this, either.)
“I want to walk into a meeting with my Jimmy Choos and a designer handbag,” she said firmly. “Even if nobody else knows those labels, I’ll know, and that’s what matters.”
Again, this was something I had to ponder on. For so long, I haven’t thought of success in those kind of material terms, so I was trying to get my head around it. But it was the same principle as the Mercedes: the day I can afford Jimmy Choos is the day I will have achieved the success I desire.
So, naturally, because I’m a self-absorbed, navel-gazing author, I started thinking about what this meant for me.
What is my measurement? How will I know when I have achieved the success I desire?
Considering how navel-gazey I can be, I was surprised to find that I actually didn’t have an answer.
The more writers I speak to, the more I believe that success as an author is largely based on illusion. That is, when we regard a big shot bestseller or a distinguished award-winner, we are perceiving what we would consider a successful author. We say to ourselves, that guy has sold a million copies and had his books sold in other countries, adapted into films – he is successful. Or we tell ourselves that she’s so esteemed, the critics’ darling, and wins every award under the sun – she is successful.
But do those authors themselves feel successful?
What is their measurement?
Every time something good happens in my career, like the recent news that my novella had won a competition and is getting published, I feel an initial injection of elation. After a barrage of rejection, it’s so incredibly euphoric when the occasional thing actually goes right.
But very quickly, I’m back to where I started. That was good, I tell myself, but now you need to do better. Onwards and upwards. What is the next step?
I’ve been looking at my career as a giant spiral staircase, and I’m on one of the lowest rungs, and I can see so many amazing people ahead of me: climbing higher, climbing faster, standing proudly at the top of the stairs.
But nothing I’ve ever done makes me feel like I’ve reached the top of the stairs. Or like I’ve even reached a landing where I can stop and catch my breath, and appraise just how many goddamn steps I’ve hauled my arse up so far.
I tell myself this is because I still have such a long way to go – my first novel isn’t even published yet, after all – but I am starting to wonder whether publication would actually change this feeling.
And the more I speak to published authors, the more this seems common. People who have their first novel published don’t feel successful, even when they have won awards or sold a shit-ton of copies. Even authors with several books out don’t always feel like they’re at the top of the stairs, and nobody I know looks down at the staircase behind them and thinks they’ve come far enough.
My point here is that perhaps us writers and artists, more than other professions, don’t know how to quantify our success.
Part of this, I suspect, is because so much of our career trajectory rests on the caprices of fate, which is not exactly the steady kind of foundation you’d want to build a McMansion on and raise your 2.4 children.
Unlike many professions, pure hard work and talent don’t cleanly translate to monetary success. We are aware that despite all our blood, sweat and eyewater, it’s possible that the dreams we have may never see fruition in the way we want them, and that is pure agony.
The way I cope with this is to believe in a quote from Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece, The Alchemist, in which he states:
“No heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”
In other words, if you spend your whole life trying to become a successful writer, but never achieve fame and fortune, you’ll still have a happy heart and a fucking awesome life, because you spent all your time doing what makes you joyous: writing.
I truly believe this.
But believing this has also inoculated me against thinking about what will happen if I do find the success I desire (hell, I’ll be honest: I crave it). It’s a function of self-protection to avoid thinking about success, but the net effect of this approach is that when things do go well, I actually don’t pat myself on the back at all. I allow others to congratulate me and I am truly touched by their warmth and generosity, and I retweet their kind words, but on the inside I’m just like, but I’m not a published novelist yet.
And if I keep going the way I’m going, I’ll never recognise success if I’m lucky enough to experience it. I might get published, and sell a lot, and win awards, but I’ll be endlessly stuck in this mire of self-flagellation if I don’t know what success looks like for me.
So, if life goes well, and the stars and planets align, and I get what I want, how will I know? What will be my measure of success?
I had to really think about this, because I didn’t have an immediate status symbol, like a brand of luxury car or fashion gear.
And don’t get me wrong, I am in no way a zen Buddhist dude who has rejected the material needs of human beings. I like shiny shit as much as the next gormless idiot.
I’ve always wanted a flash Maloo ute, for instance … yellow or black – or an SSV ute in atomic green, but they don’t make those anymore and I think by the time I can afford one, they’ll no longer be as fucking awesome as they were in like 2008.
I’ve always wanted to have enough money to fix up my classic 1968 Mini.
I’d love a bigger house, with a dedicated office for writing, or maybe even an actual den.
I’m sure I’d love some cool shit around the house, like how Matthew Reilly has all his sick memorabilia (I believe he owns a DeLorean), but there’s nothing I am that obsessed with that would make physical stuff any more than house decoration. Same with clothes and watches and any other accessories.
But I really struggle to equate any of these things to success. None of them stands out as the one thing that would define my moment of attaining the success I desire. And I could kind of live happily without any of these ever coming to fruition, as nice as some of them would be.
It took awhile, but I eventually found my measurement. The one thing I want to achieve in life; the one thing that, when I achieve it, I will know I am successful.
It turns out that thing is unemployment.
I want to one day be able to quit my day job, knowing that I am making a living income off my writing. That I will be able to sustain myself for the rest of my life as a writer and a speaker.
That’s actually the thing that makes me most excited of all – more than a souped-up ute, or a plush wood-panelled den, or some kind of outsized Pokemon memorabilia.
I imagine the day I can tell my (kind, supportive, amazing) bosses that my writing has become my primary source of income, and I can no longer work a day job.
That will be success for me: no longer having a job; feeling the freedom and excitement of being a full-time writer.
This gives me something concrete to aim for. Sure, it’s fucking distant, hard as hell, and will probably take me at least a decade from now to achieve, if I’m lucky, but it’s a measurement, and a goal, and a dream.
And when, not if, it finally happens (positive thinking, people), I promise to myself that I will give myself a proper rest. I will stop, and look down at the years of climbing that spiral staircase, and feel the burn in my quads and my glutes, and wipe the sweat off my forehead. I’ll acknowledge how much hard work it took to get there, and fucking congratulate myself on getting what I wanted.
And hell, maybe I’ll take my partner for a little holiday to Positano in the south of Italy to celebrate, too. (Or I’ll buy a Chev-badged Maloo ute – they’ll be dirt cheap by then!)
Until then, there’s a load of hard work ahead. But at least I know where I’m heading, and when I’ll decree myself a “successful” writer.
And there are loads of smaller milestones along the way to that dream. I’m going to make a conscious effort to be truly grateful for any of them I am lucky enough to actually achieve, and to stop on each of those landings on the way up the staircase to catch my breath.
Big breath in – it’s time to climb.
PS. I am super fascinated by how other people – writers and non-writers – measure their success. Let me know in the comments here or on FB/Twitter what your measurement of success is. I promise not to judge you if it’s a Maserati or a Lamborghini – and in return, you can let me take it for a spin one day, yes?
I’ve been thinking about voice a lot lately – specifically, the way the voices of the characters in my current project are developing.
As part of Camp NaNoWriMo, I’ve officially started my third novel. This novel is a standalone – not a part of a series or linked to any other project I’ve written – which means it’s a fresh start for me. New plot, new settings and most importantly, new characters.
As I started delving into this novel, I realised that my process of creating characters has changed dramatically since my first book.
When I wrote my YA fantasy novel (we are calling him Swordy McSwordface at present, just for shiggles), I was planning to make it the first in a series. With that series in mind, I wanted to get all my ducks in a row for continuity and thus set up this amazing, fully-thought-out universe.
When I say I wanted this, I think what I actually mean is that I felt I had to do it.
When I was growing up, I was so impressed with how J.K. Rowling had reams and reams of backstory on her characters (enough to create a whole website like Pottermore). It was amazing to see how, in interviews, someone would question the origins of some random goblin from Gringotts or one of Sirius Black’s relatives and she would just be able to rattle off their history and motivations and Hogwarts House and even their wand size (oh my).
As a reader, these interviews were exciting ways to learn more about the wizarding world I’d fallen in love with.
But as a writer, they had an unintended negative consequence.
When I heard that Rowling had all this extraordinary backstory on her characters, I figured this was the way a true writer creates their characters; that they have to know every single thing about them, because they invented them. That seemed to make sense to me.
Moreover, the impression I took away from this was that if I wanted to be a good writer with well-rounded characters, it was essential to have mapped their entire existence as a human being.
And consequently, if I didn’t do this, I would be a bad writer. Or an amateur writer. Or a lazy writer.
So, I thought I needed to know all the fine details. Hair colour and style, of course, but also my characters’ addictions and crutches, their weaknesses, their scars, physical or emotional. Who were they friends with in primary school? Why weren’t they friends anymore? Why do they wear that particular T-shirt? Why do they drink that brand of beer? What colour is their piss in the morning? (Okay, kidding on that one, but you get my point.)
With the exception of the pee example (usually clear, though radioactive yellow after a multivitamin), these are all things you’d probably want to learn about the characters in a book you’re reading. It gives you a better sense of who they are and why they behave the way they do; it also makes them more real.
So with this in mind, when I wrote my first novel, I first set about creating these extraordinarily long documents of character bios. I spent hour after boring hour agonising over the origins of nicknames, the hobbies, the favourite school subjects, until finally I had what I needed: a full dossier on all my main characters.
Now I’d like to tell you how many times I actually referred to that dossier.
It was zero.
Actually, that may not be 100% true, because I seemed to constantly forget basic stuff like eye colour and hair colour/style, so for purely physical stuff I did glance at the beginnings of the dossier at times, for continuity.
But after writing them, I never again referred to those dossiers for input on what to make my characters say or do. I didn’t consult them for guidance when I was stuck in a particular scene, or when a character had to make a particular decision. So much of those documents was never viewed again.
The reason for this is that my character dossier, for all its statistics and descriptions, actually didn’t tell me anything about my characters as people.
My character bios were like swirling double-helix strands of Deoxyribonucleic Acid: they contained everything that made my characters who they were, and yet, I could have analysed them for a decade and still I would not have known how my character felt, or thought, or sounded, because I had never heard them speak.
This was a profound realisation. When I created characters in bios and dossiers, they were really just blueprints – a network of pins upon which I would hang the nerves and synapses of a real human. But the bio itself did not bring the character to life: it created a lifeless, faceless mannequin that had no autonomy, no presence and no voice.
When I wrote Invisible Boys, I didn’t spend hours and days on constructing meticulous character bios. I did have a bunch of brief character notes in one word document that I drew from, but what happened with that story was that the characters revealed themselves to me, rather than me creating them.
This probably sounds disingenuous. I’m not cray-cray (well, no more than usual): I do understand that ultimately it was my fingers spidering over the keyboard that brought these characters into existence.
But I do also feel that I didn’t grow these characters in a clinical way, like embyros grown in a petri dish. Rather, it feels like I talked to them. I asked them to tell me who they were, and so they did.
My characters told me, and showed me, how they felt. They spoke to me in their own voices, and I was the scribe, and I recorded that snapshot of their lives for them.
It felt like they already existed, and I was just doing the hard work of asking them the right questions and getting them to reveal more and more about themselves. In hindsight, this reminds me of Michelangelo’s famous quote about freeing his statues from the stone:
“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” – Michelangelo
I imagine a lot of writers can relate to that quote – probably not just with character creation, but when it comes to editing a draft, too.
And writing characters like this felt natural and organic. Sometimes they did what they were supposed to do, but other times my characters kind of went rogue and did stuff I didn’t fully expect. And that was pretty damn awesome to be a part of.
So now that I am starting my third novel, I have made a conscious choice to not make any complex character dossiers. Instead, I’ve done up one-page bios on each of the five main characters, just to give me a factual reference point for stuff like what they look like, how many family members they have, etc. – mostly for continuity. But I’ve forbidden myself to write more than a page on each character.
I don’t want to tell them who they are and what they want.
I want them to tell me, in their words and their voice, who they are, and what their life is like, and how that feels for them.
I don’t know if most writers work like this, or actually, if any work like this, but this is what feels right for me.
It does mean that, should someone one day quiz me in an interview about the full family tree of one of my characters, I may not be able to fully answer.
But at the same time, my gut response to that question is that I am not super interested in knowing everything about my characters. In fact, I would feel weirdly invasive telling a whole room of people what a particular character would do in a given situation. Unlike Rowling, I don’t think I’d have an answer prepared. I would probably have to write it as a scene and see what my character wanted to do.
I know I’m speaking about my characters like they are real entities with their own minds, as opposed to being figments of my imagination. But the reality is that I do see them as real, even while knowing they are fictional.
I see them as real because they are all, ultimately, fragments of my own self, expressed in different ways. Or as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it:
Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person. – F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Ultimately, that is what makes an authentic character for me: that they are a fragment of me each filtered in a slightly different way – like white light diffusing in a prism – and that they speak for themselves, rather than me speaking for them.
I don’t know if my process with character will change or evolve in the future. I’m certainly not dissing Rowling’s way, because frankly I’m still impressed and slightly envious of her control of character and world (not to mention for her success and wealth, but that’s a song for another day).
Ultimately, there’s no one way to do character, and every writer will have their preferred approach.
The late (and extraordinary) Tom Petty once sang that “the waiting is the hardest part”.
Man, there’s nothing like becoming a writer to discover how true that saying is.
As much as we moan about having to spin our drafts out of thin air (we are basically wizards, thank you very much) or gnash our teeth over editing our messy manuscripts, both of these tasks are more pleasant than what comes next.
It doesn’t matter much whether we write short form or long form, the publishing industry inevitably involves massive long wait times. Waiting for an agent or editor to respond to our query usually leaves most authors, including me, checking my inbox at least twice a day (even when your agent is as lightning-fast as mine was when she decided to represent me). The same goes for submitting short fiction to journals. In the past, when I’ve had something out on submission, it would drive me kind of nuts for those weeks or months until I had a response.
Of course, up until this year, I was submitting relatively sporadically, so there were spells where I’d have absolutely nothing on submission. This was actually quite restful, as it allowed me to feel like one of those normal human beings who have their hearts planted firmly within their chests. Being on submission, by contrast, feels to me like I am living each day with my heart dangling on the outside of my rib cage.
I feel like the world can see every fine detail printed on my heart’s ventricular muscles; every vulnerability of my soul is on lurid display for people to either nurture or spit on.
And most of the time, it gets spat on.
I know I ought to be more resilient than this (there I go finding fancy ways to say that violent word “should” again). But the reality is, every rejection hurts so much. I feel like I’ve offered up a vulnerable sliver of my inner essence on a golden platter and held it above my head as a sacrifice to the Writing Gods, hoping to please them. And when that ritual sacrifice is deemed not good enough, I feel that I have been deemed not good enough, and it feels like this foolish mortal shed blood for nothing at all.
Now, all this angsty cluster of writer feels was kind of bearable when I was submitting sporadically. I’d go through times of agonised waiting followed by months where I could cram my heart back into my body and feel the circulation gloriously return to my limbs.
But as of a few months ago, I’ve been on constant submission. My second novel is now on submission to publishers thanks to my brilliant agent (and publishing is an industry notorious for moving at a glacial pace, so I have nothing concrete to share yet). Beyond that, I’ve been subbing my short fiction to a range of literary journals, as well as pitching some ideas for freelance journalism to news outlets.
The upshot of this is: since March, I have been constantly waiting for one project or another to be accepted or rejected, with no real end in sight. This means I have been constantly living with my poor heart thumping desperately in the exposed, polluted air outside my body.
In the past, this sensation has overwhelmed me, and I’ve sought to numb the fragility of being an artist. Sometimes it was with substances (it’s hard to feel worried about your writing when you’re saturated in bourbon), othertimes it was with overwork (no time to worry about rejection if you’re too busy to even scratch yourself), and occasionally both of these crossed over and led to some inglorious meltdowns.
And at the very worst of times, I responded to this fearful state of vulnerability with the total abnegation of my role as an artist. That is, I stopped submitting, and I stopped editing, and I stopped writing. The most pronounced of these times were in 2010 and 2013, when I didn’t write a word (and as I’ve mentioned recently, not writing makes me sick).
But being on constant submission this past three months has made me realise something important. The “submission” phase of writing – where we jettison our precious creations into the ether to be either embraced or (more often than not) scorned – is not meant to be unusual or rare. It is a required part of the process, and for any of us to become successful or resilient writers, I think it needs to be regular.
I’m starting to see that the uncomfortable state of living with our hearts outside our bodies is not an unintended side-effect of being an artist. Being an artist requires it.
That is, for me to succeed as a writer, my art requires me to not just be vulnerable in my writing itself, but in life. And it’s supposed to be constant. In the past, I’ve tried to control my vulnerability. I’ve imagined I could turn it on and off like a tap. Time to write a first draft? Vulnerability on. Draft finished? Vulnerability off. (Yes, this is a bit of a wax on, wax off moment for Holden-san.) Consequentially, my writing progressed in fits and starts, and I would write only when I felt I was emotionally capable of surviving the rivulets of feelings that would come pouring out of me.
But being constantly on submission, and thus constantly vulnerable, since March has not actually been the torture I had anticipated.
Actually, it’s been profoundly productive, and kind of awesome, despite the waiting.
When you go out on submission, the first thing your agent tells you to do is start writing your next novel. This is to distract us authors and our hamster-wheel brains from freaking out about the waiting involved in the submission process, and it also ensures that we are focusing on producing more work to be submitted.
So, to occupy myself while being on constant submission, I’ve been constantly writing since March, which is around the same time I joined my awesome buds in the #5amwritersclub. As a result, I’ve churned out six pieces of short fiction – one piece of flash fiction, four short stories, and a whole novella – in just three months, not to mention writing a published article for Ten Daily and developing and performing an oral story for the Bright Lights, No City project. Outside of my frenzied novel-writing adventures, this is the most productive I’ve ever been with my writing.
Is the waiting hard? Hell yeah.
But does it actually make me a better, more productive writer? Hell yeah.
I’m now comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable for a living. It’s possible that for much of the rest of my life I will constantly have a piece of work out in the world that I’m waiting to hear back on. I’m okay with this. It means I’m constantly trying, even if I regularly fail. Maybe most importantly, the waiting teaches me that vulnerability, and feeling my feelings, will not actually kill me. Accepting my vulnerability makes me a better human and a better writer.
I’m learning that an artist’s heart can survive outside the body for many years, and rather than wilt or perish, it only learns to pump harder than ever.
I don’t mean physically sick in the guts. Although, that said, some of the overblown metaphors I’ve spun over the years have caused several readers to experience symptoms including head-spinning and projectile vomiting. (Exorcisms were needed.)
And I don’t mean the manflu that my partner accuses me of having every time a head cold knocks me for six and renders me a curled-up foetus watching old episodes of Pokemon and begging for cups of black tea. (“Please, baby, I’m too sick to boil the kettle …”)
The kind of sickness I’m talking about is more like a soul sickness.
A soul disease, maybe.
All I know is that when I spend too much time away from writing, everything goes to shit for me in terms of my mental and emotional wellbeing.
When I’m actively writing – whether it’s my blog or my creative work – there is an aliveness to my entire being – mentally, emotionally and physically.
Mentally, I’m stimulated as I reflect on my own experience and try to create meaning out of it (the blog) or dream up fictional characters and worlds and experiences (fiction).
Emotionally, I feel a certain level of satisfaction and catharsis at writing about certain topics. The actual act of writing itself is also deeply satisfying. Well, okay, sometimes the writing is frustrating enough to make you want to rip each individual hair follicle out of your scalp. But the point is, when a writer writes, we are in the process of flow, and we are doing the precise thing we were put on this giant blue marble for, and it makes us happy.
American poet Robert Hass probably said it best when he said, “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.” Of course, to get to the state of having just written, you need to slog it out and actually fucking write something. So we’re back to where we started.
And when everything is in alignment mentally and emotionally, things work out physically, too: I eat well, I hit the gym the right number of times per week, I sleep enough, and my energy levels are high.
But when I don’t write, this all goes to hell.
And it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that I haven’t been writing this month at all. It’s only today, sitting at my laptop and forcing myself to do something, that I realise what happened.
This little mini-crisis started, essentially, because I am the kind of writer who likes to keep on top of the numbers. I have a number of writer friends who determinedly don’t want to know how their books are selling, but I can already tell I’m not going to be one of them. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a bit obsessed with rankings and charts and classifications and numbers. Even now, the moment I get into a new band, the first thing I do isn’t listen to the rest of their back catalogue: I find their discography online and study it with the intensity of Hercule Poirot. I need to know which singles belong to which album, which ones were certified gold, which ones flopped and in which territories. Only then will I explore further.
Yes, I am a geek of the absolute grandest kind.
And this geekiness translates to how I approach my writing career. I like to check in relatively regularly with my sales and downloads graphs on Amazon and Smashwords. While my short stories A MAN and THE BLACK FLOWER are not big sellers, THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR does occasionally have sales spikes, and when it had some particularly big ones last year, I was also interested to follow its chart positions on iBooks and Barnes & Noble.
I also keep track of my blog hits, and unfortunately, this is what began my unravelling during the entire month of June.
It started at the very end of May. I was looking at my blog stats for the month, and comparing them to previous months, to see how things are tracking. To my delight, things had actually been going really well: my blog hits had increased, month-on-month, since December 2017 – and some of the increases were pretty significant.
The graph looked like this:
So, from January through April, I was pretty chuffed, because my reach was growing. In fact, I got ahead of myself and I was all like, “hey, maybe I am not a total sphincter of a human being!”
This is bad for a number of reasons, not least because my self-worth really shouldn’t have any correlation to how many people are reading my blog.
Anyway, it was the month of May that ruined me.
Because, as you can see in the graph above, although April and May look roughly the same, May actually fell short of April’s peak by roughly 20 hits.
Your mentally-balanced, well-adjusted author – if he exists – would be like, “Gee, that’s swell! I guess this little blog is doing A-OK.” (For some reason, my mythical well-adjusted author talks in the same voice Eddie Murphy uses when he is parodying white people from the 1950s.)
But I am not your mentally-balanced, well-adjusted author.
The fact that May fell just short of April was just not good enough. I had failed to continue to grow my blog. This meant not only was the blog a giant pile of steaming failure, but I was, too. The old hydra of perfectionism reared its multiple heads.
And so I self-sabotaged. Without fully realising I was doing it, I kept putting off doing my next blog post, which I had been writing weekly until that point. And suddenly two weeks, then three, then four had passed – and my brain would not let me even entertain the thought of blogging.
Around the same time, in early June, I received a rejection for a short story I’d submitted to a prestigious journal. Now, being rejected is absolutely not a new experience for me, but this one stung me more than usual for two reasons. Firstly, I thought that particular story might have been a perfect fit for that particular publication, and it wasn’t. Secondly, I was already in a vulnerable, self-doubty kind of space, so it just layered on top of that.
The outcome? Not only did I continue my blogging hiatus, but I now stopped writing fiction with my 5am Writers’ Club as well. I was nearing the end of a new short story titled CRUMBS, and I just left it hanging mid-sentence. And interestingly, I stopped on the 12th of June – the same day I got the rejection. So I stopped writing at all, and I stopped getting up at 5am to work.
And, like I said at the start, I got sick in the soul.
I was no longer writing in any form, and this persisted for three weeks. I was completely self-sabotaging my career as both a blogger and a fiction writer. It was the classic “if I don’t write anything at all, then there won’t be any way to be told that I’m not good enough”.
I’m not good enough. It’s a sentence almost every writer has said to themselves at least once, if not at least once a day.
This is paralysing for a writer, and it ultimately comes down to self-doubt: a perceived failure of my blog to continue to grow, combined with a rejection of my fiction, had me back to square one in the confidence stakes.
On top of this was the weighty gravity of expectation. I had recently had some positive feedback about my blog from multiple readers, and it seemed to be doing well. The resultant expectation I placed on myself was twofold: one, that I had to continue to grow without a single dip in monthly hits, and two, that every single blog post had to be fucking amazing and insightful.
The writing paralysis continued until this week. I attended the Penguin Teen Showcase on Wednesday night, which took place in Perth for the first time ever. During the Q & A panel at the end, authors Dianne Wolfer, Fleur Ferris and Emily Gale spoke about how long it takes them to write a first draft of a novel. Later, on Twitter, I was chatting to some authors about how I have written both of my first drafts in about 3 months each. When someone expressed surprise at how quick that was, my answer was simple:
It was only when I looked back on that Tweet today that I realised what has been missing from my writing practice: permission. That is, permission to write total horseshit. Giving yourself permission to write freely is extraordinarily liberating for a writer because it dampens the little spot-fires of self-doubt.
And frankly, giving myself permission to write badly is what made me become a serious writer in the first place. I spent all of 2013 – the entire year – paralysed with fear at the thought of starting my first novel because I was worried it – and consequently, I – wouldn’t be good enough.
When I gave myself permission to write whatever I wanted, with no expectation of quality, I churned out a whole novel, and then a second one, and then a regular blog and a whole litter of short stories.
So, now that I’m aware of what’s happened – and why I’ve been so frozen this past month – it’s time to make a change.
I’m giving myself permission again. Permission to write freely, in both blog form and fiction form. Maybe my blog will tank and become wildly unpopular, like the latest Sharknado sequel. Maybe my fiction will become utter drivel, like literally anything with the word Sharknado in the title.
But perception and reception are ultimately beyond my control.
What I can control is what I write, and how often I write. I can’t control whether or not people will like my stories, or whether people will enjoy every single blog post I put up, but I can control whether or not I do these things at all. And the reality is, I do them because I love doing them, not because of the feedback – positive or negative – that I receive.
So, it’s time for me to cowboy up and get on with it.
I’m committing to writing a regular blog again, so stay tuned for regular updates again.
I’m also committing to a regular writing practice again. And I’m kind of excited, because I’m about to dive into writing my third novel. So this is probably the right time to loosen the burden of expectations from my shoulders, and just write freely, and fast.
I have to remind myself that I am only human and I can only do my best.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to kill myself because I was gay.
Growing up gay in country WA was a uniquely isolating and traumatic experience. I found my homosexuality completely at odds with my identity as a man, and trying to reconcile the two identities seemed impossible.
I have finally shared my story, for the first time, as part of the Bright Lights, No City storytelling project at the Centre for Stories.
You can listen to the audio of my story at the link below. Since the story was created as an oral story – meaning I just practiced the story verbally and have never written a word of it – I am encouraging people to listen to the audio, rather than read the transcript. The story was meant to be heard, not read.
If my story resonates with you, please share it – with your friends, colleagues, students, and with gay people but also with straight people. I told this story partly for myself (catharsis, healing) and partly to help others out there going through the same stuff. Too many LGBTQIA+ youth go through hell, in silence, trying to come to terms with their identity. Too many don’t survive.
In a recent blog post, I wrote about the fear of missing out on a golden opportunity.
Last week, a golden opportunity came to me and I took it. I was invited to write a new article for the launch of Network Ten’s news website, Ten Daily.
I think it’s so interesting how opportunities can crop up in the most unexpected of ways, and when I look back at this one, it’s quite curious in terms of how it came about. If you have ever seen the “Lucky Penny” episode of How I Met Your Mother, you might have an idea what I mean by this: it can be so interesting to trace an outcome back to its very origins, especially when those origins seem completely disparate.
In other words – sometimes life presents us with amazing opportunities – but where do they actually come from?
Bear with me a moment. I swear I’m going somewhere with this.
In this case, I can trace this opportunity back to the day job I had taken on a few years back. I was working in a relatively senior community engagement position for a university, and as part of this role I was on a few media mailing lists to keep abreast of current trends in the higher education sector (I know … who the hell is this guy? I swear I’m not a boring person!).
Anyway, about a year ago, I spotted that The Conversation was looking for articles with an academic bent about the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter. I knew this opportunity wasn’t for me for two reasons. Firstly, although I’m a sessional academic for a university, I don’t have my PhD and I don’t engage in a lot of research – nor is it something that stimulates me a lot – so I knew the tone and approach of such an article just wouldn’t be for me. Secondly, I am a massive Harry Potter fanboy, and the thought of taking a detached academic view of something I love was just unpalatable to me. So, I never looked further into that particular opportunity.
But about a month later, right on the eve of the Harry Potter 20th anniversary, I read a couple of articles on the web about why that fandom has connected so much with readers. I felt like none of the articles were getting to the key point – which, in my view, was JK Rowling’s exceptional worldbuilding. So I wrote an article for my blog late that night and into the morning, then edited it and went to post it when a thought struck me.
The thought was: hey, this article isn’t that bad. In fact, I reckon someone might even publish it.
So, I subbed it around to a few news websites and went to bed.
I woke up to an email from an editor at the Huffington Post saying he wanted to run the article. It just happened to be my 29th birthday, so it was a very nice birthday present. My little Harry Potter article was published later that day.
A couple of months later, Australia was embroiled in the saga surrounding the same-sex marriage plebiscite. After a week of anger and hurt, I penned an article about the vote and sent it straight to the editor at HuffPost. To my delight, that article was accepted, too, and it went viral nationally. It was a thrilling moment to have my article briefly become part of the national conversation, and I was contacted by strangers from across the country with mostly (though not all) positive feedback.
Many months later, the editor in question started a new role at Network Ten’s news website, Ten Daily. He remembered my article about the SSM vote and contacted me to see if I might be interested in writing a piece for their launch. I accepted. That piece – titled “How My Life Has Changed Since Australia Voted YES” – was published last week on Ten Daily. It was also the first piece of commissioned journalism I have written, which was a nice feeling, and it seemed to get a good response online.
Okay, so where the hell am I going with this?
Well, sometimes as an author we can get pissed off and frustrated with how much time we spend in our day jobs. It’s burned, wasted time; time we spend toiling away so we can eat and pay the rent rather than work on the writing projects we are passionate about.
But, applying the Lucky Penny theory from How I Met Your Mother, I actually kind of owe this latest opportunity to my day job.
I would never have been asked to write for Ten Daily if I hadn’t written the same-sex marriage article for HuffPost.
I would never have sent the same-sex marriage article to HuffPost if they hadn’t already published my Harry Potter article.
And I would never have written the Harry Potter article if I hadn’t glimpsed an email which came about as part of my job.
The point is: all this stuff happened for a reason, in a roundabout way. Toiling away in my day job eventually led me to an opportunity in my writing career.
But at the time, I never knew any of this. I thought I was stuck in a rut and I thought I was wasting my time. It’s only with the power of hindsight, several years later, that I can reflect and see that, actually, if it weren’t for that particular time in my life, I would never have found my way here to this latest opportunity.
Call it fate, or the universe, or just a lucky penny, but I think we should place more trust in ourselves and the twists and turns of our lives. As long as we are true to ourselves and don’t give up pursuing our dreams, things tend to work out the way they are supposed to.
Opportunities will always find a way to present themselves. It is up to us, as travellers and dreamers and doers, to find a way to recognise them when they do, and seize them.
Good news, people! My article “How My Life Has Changed Since Australia Voted YES” has been published on Network Ten’s newly-launched news website, Ten Daily.
The article outlines the impact and effects the introduction of marriage equality in Australia (by popular vote) has had on my and my boyfriend’s lives. It coincides with the six-month anniversary of the vote result coming through.
Also, although most of the images used in the article are stock photos, the very first one is actually a photo of our hands together (feat. our engagement rings) on the day same-sex marriage became legal in Australia.
If there’s one thing I’m really bad at, it’s letting go.
I tend to tackle a difficult situation head on and go with the Hulk Smash, bull terrier kind of approach first. I try to call this my ‘assertive’ approach and I can usually avoid going anywhere near ‘aggressive’, even when I maybe kinda want to smash someone’s skull in, just a teeny bit (it would be for their own good, I swear …).
If and when that fails, I will possibly fall silent and let my failure to resolve an issue through direct action fester and haunt me for the rest of my days.
But I very rarely shrug my shoulders and go, “Well, ya know what? It didn’t work. Life goes on. Let’s see what’s on TV.”
I think letting go is actually an important life skill, and it’s something I need to work on more. I don’t have the solution to this yet, although I suspect it isn’t found by listening to that goddamn song from Frozen. (Sorry, parents … I bet you only just got that shit outta your head a few months ago. I recommend listening to Rebecca Black’s Friday to distract yourself … trust me …)
The reason I bring this up is that I had to force myself to let go of something recently, and it’s still got me thinking about why it was so hard to do.
I’m not talking about something particularly deep or meaningful here: I find that stuff nigh on impossible to let go of, despite my best efforts.
This was actually something writing-related. There was a call for submissions from a particular publication, and what they were seeking seemed like a golden opportunity for an emerging YA author like myself.
In fact, I was so convinced that it was going to be the right fit for me, I kept the damn thing in my calendar until super close to the deadline, when I finally forced myself to give up on it.
I had to give up and let it go, because I actually didn’t have anything written that matched the criteria they were looking for.
Most people would probably go, “Oh well. I’ll try next time.”
Not me. I was so doggedly determined that I would find a way to churn out a suitable piece of writing that I self-flagellated for weeks. There had to be a way, I told myself. I wanted to wring the creative juices out of my squishy grey brain. Come on! Produce something amazing, brain! Don’t you know this might be the only chance you ever get?!
And there it was. Suddenly, I understood why I drive myself so hard with these kinds of things.
Don’t you know this might be the only chance you ever get?!
This is what I’m scared of as a writer. This is why it’s hard to let go of opportunities; this is why I have a word document stacked with calls for submissions I want to submit to and simply never will; this is why every internet browser on my phone or laptop has 34293235 tabs open, because I’m trying to remember every call for submissions I’ve ever seen.
I’m scared the opportunity I pass up will be ‘the one’. The one opportunity that somehow makes everything change. The one that puts me on the map, gets me more noticed, makes a publisher slide her wheely office chair over to her shiny desk phone, dial my agent’s number and go, ‘Heyyyy, how would Holden like a ten-book deal for a million billion trillion bucks?’
*cough* Publishers: I am totally open to this and if you think it would be a neat idea to invest a million bucks in me just to see what happens (could be a fun experiment, right?), I am sure my agent would love to hear from you. *cough*
Ultimately, I’m scared of passing up an opportunity because there is a pervasive myth, with a kernel of truth to it, that floats around all creative people like a cruel mist. The myth is of the discovery of the artist. The big break. The thing that made everything change overnight.
We’ve all heard the stories of actors and musicians who got their big break in the most unlikely of ways. Writing is a little different – sometimes extremely different – but some of those “big break” stories still echo through our collective consciousness.
Matthew Reilly’s chance encounter with a Pan Macmillan publisher which took him from self-published nobody to multi-million selling blockbuster author.
Stephen King throwing the draft of Carrie in the bin, only to have his wife fish it out and convince him to keep going: it became his first published novel and made him the biggest author on the planet.
And don’t even get me started on J.K. Rowling and Bloomsbury.
The point is, most of us know that finding long-term success as an author depends on two things: talent and luck. The fear is that even the most eloquent, brilliant author in history might languish in eternal obscurity if he never jags the right editor at the right publishing house who would have championed his work. So what hope do the rest of us have?
But I’ve decided it’s not healthy to fixate on every opportunity as being so desperately make-or-break.
Firstly, because if I get off my neurotic writer hamster wheel for two seconds, I realise it’s not realistic. None of these submissions are going to be career make-or-break moments.
Secondly, it simply isn’t true that there is only one chance to get this right.
We know about the big breaks of Matthew Reilly and Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, but it’s false to assume that their careers would never have happened if those exact moments of luck hadn’t happened.
In fact, I’m quite certain they would have had amazing careers nonetheless, because, as with all writers, writing is in their blood. If Contest hadn’t been picked up by a publisher, Matthew Reilly would have kept writing: in fact, he was already working on his second novel. Likewise, Stephen King would have written something different. J.K. Rowling would have kept querying Harry Potter to other publishers, or started work a lot earlier on The Casual Vacancy, perhaps.
And because writing is in their blood, they would have kept writing, and kept querying, and kept trying until they finally did get their big break. The success equation is not just talent plus luck. It is talent plus luck … plus resilience.
Almost every published author has a similar tale: a barrage of rejections, twists and turns until, finally, against all odds, they got their first book published. And then the whole cycle probably repeated again for book number two. It’s not an easy career for any of us, published or otherwise.
The point is this: there is no “one chance”, taken or missed, that determines our fate. It is our willingness to be dogged, and resilient, and continue to pursue our dreams in the face of rejection and naysayers, that increases the odds of our success exponentially.
We are more than one story, one call for submissions, one novel, one series, or one lead character. We are writers. We have whole universes nesting in the starry recesses of our subconscious minds. The possibilities are endless, and our entire careers and fates do not rest on one single missed opportunity or failed idea.
So, I was a big boy and I let go of that particular call for submissions. That particular opportunity wasn’t the path the universe has in store for me. So be it. And guess what? The deadline passed, and I was alive after it had. Bully for me.
Moving forward, I’m going to make a conscious effort to get less wound-up about individual opportunities. What has buoyed me this far in my career will get me through the rest of it – and that isn’t any single chance encounter: it is resilience.
In June 2006, I turned eighteen. A week later, I hopped on a plane and flew to Europe to go backpacking alone for four months.
It was a dream I’d worked towards for four years. When I was fourteen, I got my first job as a storeman (though they called us “floor boys”) at a supermarket in Geraldton. I earned something like six bucks an hour and every penny I saved went into the Eurotrip fund. Since I was a teenager living at home, I think my main expenses were going to the movies with mates, buying CDs and, kind of ironically, buying food to eat at my breaks from said job (I ate a lot of Gummi Bears and Freckles).
The juicy details of my gap year in Europe warrant their own blog post, or maybe even a chapter in a memoir one day when I am old and uber-famous (which is obviously going to happen, thank you). Suffice it to say I had the time of a lifetime, met awesome people (some of whom I’m still in touch with), saw amazing places (go to Cesky Krumlov once in your life – do it!), and maybe most importantly, I grew from a boy into a man in basically every way you can measure that.
In the final month of the trip, I found myself in Cinque Terre in north-western Italy. I was staying in the fishing village of Riomaggiore, in the grungiest shared apartment you can imagine: cheap white furniture, concrete floors and a communal toilet cubicle that doubled as the shower. To shower you just closed the door, put the toilet seat down and held the showerhead over you. It was surreal, and perpetually the wettest toilet seat known to man.
On my first day in Riomaggiore, my bank card declined at the Bancomat. No big deal – this happened sometimes. I just had to transfer some more funds from my savings account to my debit card.
But when I transferred the funds, they didn’t appear in my card. I’d forgotten two things: firstly that my debit card was with a different bank, meaning there would be a delay; and secondly, that it was a public holiday in Australia.
The upshot: I was in a foreign country, completely alone, with four euros and no money incoming for at least two days.
So I went to the nearest shop and bought an apple, so I had something in my belly, and a 1.5 litre bottle of wine, so I could get myself too fucked up to care about being hungry. My remaining four euros were now gone, but what else was I going to do? There was no way to unfuck the situation: I just had to ride it out and try to enjoy it.
I went back up to my grungy apartment to my fellow backpackers and told them how I was broke. I didn’t know any of them: we had all met in that apartment that very day – five of us, all coincidentally Aussies, two guys (me and Ben) and three girls (Sammy, Mia and Mon), each with different backgrounds and ages. I didn’t want to ask any of them for money, and I didn’t, but it struck me then (and still does, now) how it didn’t take money to show they cared.
We all just sat around the table – talking, telling stories, laughing, drinking – and we ended up staying there late into the night. I was wearing a plain white T-shirt a distant relative had gifted to me back in Sicily, and that night it received a gigantic crimson wine stain that I never managed to get out. And I didn’t go hungry in the end: Sammy had made pasta and she let me have some of her leftover macaroni.
When I’d had enough wine, Mia chucked the kettle on and offered me a cup of tea to drown my financial sorrows.
“Tea is so good,” she assured me. “It makes everything okay.”
I wasn’t a tea drinker before that night, but I became one from then on. Mia was right. A cup of tea really did make everything okay. I had tea to drink, and people to speak to, and there was no need to worry about anything else.
The next day, Mia, Mon and I went for a hike from Riomaggiore (the first of Cinque Terre’s five villages) to the last, Monterosso. It was twenty-two kilometres and it took us seven hours. We hiked through a series of hills and cliffs and forests: everything was lush and verdant and bathed in sunlight. Sometimes we walked, sometimes we jogged and sometimes we sprinted like deranged athletes, just for the hell of it. Sometimes we stopped to have some wine and leftover chocolate. We finally reached the beach of Monterosso at twilight. It was a pebble beach and even though it hurt our feet, we took our shoes off and ran into the ocean so the Ligurian Sea could splash over our skin.
That night, we returned to the grungy apartment. Sammy kindly cooked for us all, and we stayed up late drinking cups of tea and writing postcards for each others’ families as a prank. We were the best friends in the world.
And the next morning, we all moved on and went our separate ways. Mia and Mon, who were travelling together, went off to Spain somewhere. I think Sammy and I ended up crossing paths a couple more times in either France or Switzerland. I have no idea where Ben went.
But I never saw any of them again.
Fast friendships – genuinely affectionate but necessarily temporary – are a hallmark of the backpacking experience. But I learned a lot from these particular travelling companions, and this particular leg of my travels.
Firstly, I learned that something I perceive as disastrous isn’t always so. Because I’m an anxious person, I have a tendency to catastrophise. I can be particularly stressed about money at times. I can also panic about being unable to help myself, and having no recourse to funds certainly falls in that category. But my worries about money diminish when I think back to my time in Cinque Terre, when I was briefly stuck with no money, and I survived quite easily.
Secondly, and I know this is a bit mawkish, but I learned the best things in life really are free. The green forests of Cinque Terre. The dappled sunlight. The pebbles at Monterosso. The Ligurian Sea’s spray. The stories. The laughter. I didn’t need money to be happy then, and I know I never will.
And finally, I learned that tea is a legitimate remedy for life’s ills. In fact, tea is what prompted this blog post and the trip down memory lane. Today, life was getting too much for me in a number of ways. I sat there on the couch, a restless bundle of nerves and despair, for several minutes.
And then Mia’s voice echoed from twelve years ago. “Tea is so good. It makes everything okay.”
So I got up, flicked the kettle on, made a cuppa and thought I would distract myself by writing about the time I first heard that advice.
And as has been the case for the past twelve years, Mia was right.
A week ago, I set a whole bunch of what I thought were quite achievable goals, and I promised that I would check back in to say how I travelled.
I’m doing this because making a goal without actually reporting back on the outcome, whether good or bad, feels incomplete. And, especially if I didn’t do well, it would be all too easy to just never bring this up again.
But I’m not doing this either to beat myself up or to clap myself on the back, really. I’m doing it to keep myself accountable, and also to find out if the goals I set for myself are actually realistic or not.
So – how did I do?
1. Get up on time for the #5amwritersclub (four times)
I actually managed to hit this goal! I had to use my Saturday morning in order to do it, but I got there, and I’m pretty chuffed. Waking up early is hard and to be honest it’s rare that I’m out of bed bang on 5am, but getting up for work and knowing I’ve already done my writing hours for the day is a very good feeling: it means I can start the day in a happy haze, almost like a post-coital afterglow. As Robert Hass said, “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.” This is very true.
2. Hit the Gym (four times)
My aim was to hit the gym four times, which is the new routine my trainer has set for me. The plan was to go on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
I manged to get to the gym three out of four times, which is not too bad and I’m not too bothered by missing the mark. Interestingly, I got there on Saturday instead of Friday, which has made me rethink how I’ll do this next time. Friday is one of my busiest days of the week with professional work and teaching at uni, so it makes absolutely no sense to try scheduling a workout in there, too.
Next week, I’m going to try for Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Thursday and Friday – my two most hectic days where I have a 1.5 hour commute each way to boot – will be kept sacrosanct, so when I get home I can just collapse. And Monday will be enshrined as my writing day, kept separate from every other commitment behind one of those thick velvet ropes.
3. Stick to my Meal Plan Perfectly (for seven days)
This is a big, fat, red-text fail. I already knew it would be hard not to snack while marking, and I held it together relatively well until Thursday, when the wheels fell off and I ended up spending $18 on creating the largest custom-made party mix known to mankind (and eating the entire thing in two days). In fact, in stark contrast to my goal, this week was probably the worst my diet has been for some time.
On the upside, my meals were all still in line with my diet plan, and I still got in all my protein shakes and egg whites and all the plain meat and vegetables I’m supposed to consume. It’s just that my snacks got in the way, especially from Thursday to Saturday. Still, I live and learn. Not giving in to temporary setbacks and failure is how I’ve gotten anything I have in life: persistence is key, and eventually things fall into place.
4. Sleep a LOT
Yeah, look, I did sleep a lot, and I don’t really have anything exciting to say about it, other than I did what I set out to do. It takes some real goddamn skill to lay very still and do nothing for seven hours.
5. Don’t Burn Out Again
I didn’t burn out last week. The signs are starting to mount that I’m getting close to a burnout, though, so I need to start taking steps now to take proper care of myself.
I’m starting to realise that Holden is becoming a dull boy, and that’s really shitty, but I hardly did any living this past week. I set myself the goal of having the whole weekend to live and enjoy, and the reality was I ended up marking and editing and submitting short stories off to journals.
For whatever reason, my personality is so flawed that I find it difficult to find ways to have fun. I didn’t used to be like this, but the more I try to juggle everything at once (working several jobs, volunteering, writing, writer admin, gym) the more my fun time gets squeezed out of my schedule, like the last gasp of minty toothpaste from a rolled-up tube.
I really, really need to stop and take some time soon not just to rest, but to actively have fun.
On balance, despite fucking some of these goals up beyond all recognition, I reckon I did okay this past week. Most importantly, I’m keen to keep trying, and trying, until I get it right, which is, I reckon, the answer to most things in life.
When I was growing up, my Dad would mostly read biographies of prominent people: actors, musicians, politicians, public figures. But every now and then he would casually pick up one of my sister’s chick-lit books and have a bit of a gander. He was unfazed by the branding; he blithely called them “human interest” novels. I always thought this was kind of cool.
Perhaps this is why, when I was told that The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan was a book about motherhood and sisters, aimed primarily at women who were likely to be mothers themselves – and not at young childless men like myself – I wasn’t overly fazed. In fact, I was quite interested to experiment with reading beyond the borders of my usual genres and see what this story was all about.
And I’m bloody glad I did.
I was especially keen for two reasons. Firstly, since I kept seeing stuff on social media about people bursting into tears when they were reading it – which is a damn strong reaction for a book to provoke, and probably the one that must engender the most pride and satisfaction in an author.
Secondly, the author, Louise Allan, is well-known in Perth writing circles and I have a great deal of respect for her. Not only is Louise a fervent supporter of new and budding writers on Twitter, especially locals, she is also one of those people who radiates an aura of kindness. Before making a mid-life career change into becoming an author, she was a doctor, and I can only envy the empathy her patients must have received in those years. Most doctors usually just grunt at me.
So – what’s The Sisters’ Song about? *cough* SPOILERS AHEAD *cough*
Initially set in rural Tasmania in the 1920s, the novel centres on the relationship between two young girls, Ida and Nora. After their beloved father passes away, their mother becomes a bit of a useless mess and they are cared for primarily by their grandmother. During this time and during the post-grief haze, the girls’ personalities start to shine through: Ida is a nurturer, loves her doll, and wants to have a family; Nora, meanwhile, is a talented singer and pianist. With the encouragement of her grandmother, she pursues a career in opera singing – leading to small rifts with Ida and a more profound separation from her mother. As the girls reach adulthood in the late 1930s, it seems the book has set everything in motion for the rest of the novel: Ida is married to Len Bushell, she’s preggo and finally about to start a family of her own; Nora’s at a conservatorium in Melbourne, her singing having brought her wide acclaim and a ticket to a different life on the mainland, and she’s fallen in love with one of her tutors, the seductive Marco.
Forgive me for being a dunce, but I figured the rest of the novel was going to be about Ida raising rosy-cheeked babes in the dewy mists of Tasmania, planting her bulbs and scouring her pots while listening to an operatic coloratura on the gramophone. And Nora would wed Marco in the spring, continue swanning around the conservatorium in a sparkly red dress and then graduate to singing her own coloraturas on the stages of Milan and Vienna and New York, a regular Dame Nellie Melba.
Well, fuck me sideways. This is when the novel decides to punch you right in the guts, and then as you’re keeling over on the bitumen with spittle dangling from your broken jaw, it kicks you in the teeth for good measure.
Everything turns to shit!
At the beginning adult life, just as both girls seem to be on course to get everything they’ve ever wanted, it gets cruelly ripped away from them both. Ida miscarries tragically, and we experience the crushing lows of that. Just in case the author hadn’t beaten us into emotional submission already, Ida miscarries twice more, culminating in a breathtaking scene where she essentially races through a hospital against the Matron’s wishes to see her baby’s dead body. It is horrific.
Meanwhile, Nora’s career is torn from her when she falls pregnant to her tutor, Marco, only to discover he is married and she has been carrying on an illicit affair. The conservatorium is shamed by her female whoreish-ness and gives her the boot – because, in that era, Marco’s affair and her pregnancy are entirely her fault, of course, and in any case, premarital sex is unbecoming of an opera singer. In one fell swoop, Nora loses the love of her life and her dream of being a singer, and is left with a bitter reminder of the life she could have led in Teddy, her first son, and Alf Hill, the stoic miller who agrees to raise Marco’s son as his own.
This cruel irony – that Ida is left childless and aching for children, while Nora pops out three and couldn’t care less – is the source of the tension that drives the rest of the novel forward. Over several decades, the flowers borne from the seeds of this mutual bitterness wreak havoc with their relationships with their husbands, with their mother, with the children, with each other and, most importantly, with their own selves.
Louise Allan has woven a masterful tale here: a piece of realist fiction that offers a crystal-clear window into the traumas that bind and shape a family. Her prose is direct and clean – my favourite kind of prose. Her taut writing is especially effective in the novel’s more emotional scenes (and there are many): she makes more from saying less, and the novel is much stronger for it. The pacing is good, although (and I think this is my only feasible criticism of the novel) I think the first act, before the shit hits the fan, could have been a little shorter; it moved a little slower, whereas parts two and three I read at a cracking pace because the pace of the action was so absorbing. I absolutely loved the strength of Ida’s voice, the gentle humour that lifted the reader through the gaps between the more painful scenes, and the unexpected twists and turns this story takes as the years progress.
In fact, what makes this story feel so realistic is that the cruel shifts of fate were not hammered in relentlessly, but rather were spaced out strategically (and rhythmically). This is what happens in most families, I think. There were massive downs: not just the aforementioned traumas, but stuff like the girls’ mother eventually passing away, and Nora’s abuse of her children, their fear of her, her mental illness, and even what happens to Ted and, ultimately, Alf, later in the novel. And possibly the most heartbreaking moment in the novel: Ida racing down the street after the Doctor. Breathtaking.
But for most, family (and life) is not typically a purely harrowing experience, and Allan reflects that so well here. Like any family, there are seasons of joy, brief moments when things seem to be tolerable and perhaps, optimistically, on the upswing. This happens for both girls, whether through Ida being able to care for Nora’s children and pretend they are her own, or Nora later developing a new lease on life and playing the piano for her local church again.
Ultimately, the ebbs and flows of family over a long period of time were so well-drawn here, and as someone with a sprawling Sicilian-Australian family, I really related to that aspect of the novel. I felt like I was peering through a window into another family’s actual life, and there were times when I wondered if maybe Ida and Nora could have been real people back in the day. I could certainly imagine them as real.
Moreover, the novel’s undulations are relatable because, sadly, this is sometimes how life goes. Hopes and dreams can be dashed, and this is one of the cruellest things about being a human being. People’s lives are ultimately marked by how they respond to their own devastation: defeat and surrender, or hope despite the pain, or stoic resilience (resilience being, I think, an underlying theme here, too).
This, actually, is what I feel is the main point of the novel, in a way: how we deal with the damage done to us by life. Both Ida and Nora, and even Len and Alf, are wounded humans, trying to continue on in spite of their own ongoing pain. Mental illness stalks the edges of this story, only being named as such once, really, when Nora is in hospital, but it’s everywhere. Ida suffers terribly from the grief of her miscarriages; Len is deeply hurt by her excursions to the country to take care of Nora’s kids instead of him; Nora’s twice-broken heart (love and career) bleeds all over her life; and Alf …
Man, I feel like I could write a separate essay just about the character of Alf Hill. In some ways, he is the most tragic character in the novel. His moment near the end of the novel absolutely knocked the air out of my lungs: he is a good man and his life is an example of what stoicism can do for men – for better, and for worse. He was very relatable.
Likewise, I found myself relating to Ted as he reached adulthood. It’s not often I read about another seventeen-year-old Italian-Australian who is bookish and angsty and has both an attitude problem and an identity crisis. I became quite fond of him, which I’m not sure was supposed to happen, but I think I am drawn to tragic boys for some reason.
Speaking of relating – I can see why the marketing arm of Allen & Unwin would pitch this kind of fiction to women and mothers, as they would be the primary market that relates to a tale like this. But I want to say here that I related to this story a lot as a young man, and I suspect that gets overlooked in the (entirely necessary) discussion about how to position a title in the market. I’ll admit the specific motherhoody aspects are less relatable for a male audience, for sure – although the amount of times Ida had to scour a pot did successfully put me off ever doing the dishes again. But moreover, so much in this novel – from the mental health stuff, to the resilience, to parental disapproval and family breakdown, to Ted’s angst – is actually quite relatable for a male reader because all this stuff happens to us, too.
Even the prominent role opera music plays in this story resonated with me. I don’t think I know a single opera song, or if calling it an “opera song” is even correct, but as a big fan of rock music I know that my world has been torn open by guitar riffs and solos, and I could relate so much to both Ida and Nora’s relationship to music.
And stuff that is probably meant to be specifically relatable for a female audience can sometimes be entirely universal. A scene early in the novel, where Grandma offers her old red gown to Nora, but not to Ida, struck a very deep chord in me. Not because I am sensitive to the correct handing-down protocol of ancient frocks, but because there is a universality in feeling what Ida felt in that moment: that her family/parent figure did not regard her as the special one; that she was not as loved as her sibling.
This, really, is Louise Allan’s strength in writing: she can take the minutiae of quotidian life and spin up a moment as poignant as an operatic crescendo.
The Sisters’ Song is a triumphant debut novel by a talented West Aussie (and Tasmanian) author. I loved it, and I recommend reading it if you are in possession of a pulse.
In the spirit of yesterday’s blog post about failure being useful to reassess and re-calibrate, I developed a few goals for the week ahead.
My thinking is to share them here, record them not just in writing but publicly, to keep me accountable.
So here they are:
1. Get up on time for the #5amwritersclub (four times)
As I talked about earlier, whether I make it to the #5amwritersclub in the morning or not tends to affect my mood for the day. So, my goal this week is to ensure I get along to the writing group roughly on time for at least four mornings. (And I already did it on Monday, so I’m sitting at 1/4 already, yewww!)
I’m not putting pressure on myself to write a certain number of words, or to create amazing stories, because to some extent these things are beyond my control. But I can control whether or not I show up, and how much time I put in, so that’s what I will measure.
2. Hit the Gym (four times)
I used to find it pretty easy to fit in four gym sessions per week, because I was training for fitness which tended to mean three shorter sessions of weights, and one session of fasted cardio.
Now that things are ramping up more, I’m required to do four sessions of weights per week, and they tend to run to about two hours a session, so fitting this in has become more of a challenge. However, I’m not going to shy away from it – plus, I know how good I feel when I actually hit my fitness goals.
My plan is to hit the gym Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday this week.
3. Stick to my Meal Plan Perfectly (for seven days)
I can already tell you this will be the hardest part of my weekly goals. I’m marking papers from now until mid-June, and this is always when my diet wobbles each semester. MY meals remain consistent, but I convince myself that in order to get through my marking, my only option is to gorge on chocolate and other snacks that are high in sugar and fat.
I’m going to try to break this trend this week. My marking isn’t going away any time soon, so I need to master my ability to work without over-indulging. If I can do this, I’ll be a very happy man come Sunday.
4. Sleep a LOT
This possibly seems like the stupidest goal to write down, but if I don’t treat this as a goal, I won’t take it seriously. I really need to get loads of sleep all round: for muscle recovery, for making sure I’m fresh enough to attend the #5amwritersclub, and for generally being chipper enough to get through the day.
My rough bedtime will be 10-10:30pm, which will give me enough rest to wake up at 5am each morning.
The point is: I’m now hyper-aware of my tendency to burn out, and I’ll be watching for the signs this week to ensure I don’t.
6. Write a Blog Post
This may seem redundant, since I’ve already written one blog post for this week, and this is my second. But my writer pal on Twitter, Richard, suggested to me that I make a goal that was easily achievable in this list, so I can celebrate when I achieve it.
So, here’s my easy goal, and it’s not dodgy, since I genuinely do aim to write one blog post per week. I’ve aimed to do this, and I’ve achieved it, so that’s one goal off the list already. Cheers, Richard, you mad genius!
7. LIVE, DAMN YOU, LIVE!
I solemnly swear to keep my weekend free of either day job or writing commitments. The weekend is for me to have a goddamn life and stop being such a all-work-and-no-play dull boy!
So, on the weekend I’ll be aiming to do whatever the fuck I want, and I won’t quantify it or measure it here other than to say it will not be work in any form. Maybe I’ll ride a seal or hunt a snowboarder. Who knows. I will be structureless and commitmentless for two whole days and I will enjoy the fuck out of it, thank you very much.
I’ll check in next week to report back on how I went with my ambitious goals.
When the wheels fall off my life, I like to use it as a chance to reassess what I’m doing.
And this last couple of weeks, the wheels did kinda fall off. I’m talking action-movie style, tyres spinning off into burning alleyways while the metal underbelly of the cab churned against bitumen, rose-gold sparks spraying into the air until I crashed into a truck and burst into flames.
I did it again, didn’t I? I over-inflated an innocent metaphor and killed the poor bastard. Well, fuck it. As a writer, I reserve the right to make a mountain out of sawdust.
Anyway, the whole life unravelling thing pissed me off all the more because I’d made a great start to April. In terms of writing productivity, I was more productive than at any time in my career, with the probable exception of my NaNoWriMo efforts. It’s all thanks to my involvement in the Perth troupe (band? auxiliary? battalion?) of the #5amwritersclub. A bunch of us from across WA check in with each other on Twitter at 5am, churn out some writing and by 7am or so, we’re done. We keep each other accountable, get work done, and foster friendships by communicating solely through monosyllabic grunts, GIFs and references to how much we hate being awake at 5am.
Although I was initially kind of coerced into it, joining the club is one of the best decisions I’ve made for my writing career. Since joining in March, I’ve already used my early starts to complete three short story drafts: one called SECURITY, about a security guard (defo need a better title); one called MOONLIGHT (which has a title I love); and one based on my career as a banker, which I am not going to name yet for a couple of reasons.
Not only does developing a regular, early-morning writing practice boost my productivity, it also helps me start each day with a sense of achievement. I can get ready for work in the knowledge that I’ve already done my creative writing for the day, and I don’t need to stress about fitting it in when I get home all exhausted from my hellish day that nobody could possibly understand fairly cushy university job.
But because writing in the #5amwritersclub makes my day, and my week, so much brighter, it wields the power of a double-edged sword – much like the kind Mickey Rourke tried to kill me with. (Sorry, I’m a hardcore 30 Rock fan and can’t write the words “double-edged sword” without making that reference.)
The point is – if I make it to the #5amwritersclub, I’m all pumped for the day. If I miss it, I’m back in Hulk Smash mode.
And so for the past couple of weeks, when I was staying up too late and overtired from work and marking papers, I began to struggle to wake up at 5am at all. Even 6am became impossible. I faltered. I was waking up more tired than when I went to bed, and I barely appeared at the morning roll call. And then last week I pretty much threw it in entirely and gave up.
Then it flowed on to everything: my eating (my meals were fine, but I snacked a lot while marking … helloooo Lindt dark chocolate), my exercise schedule (I only did two and a half workouts instead of four), my sleep (don’t have to be up at 5am? browse the Internet until you pass out!) and my overall wellbeing (I became overwhelmed and overstimulated by even the slightest things).
I even went to write a blog post about how I was failing at everything, and then I couldn’t even make the time for that. It sat there for days with nothing but a vague title that I later deleted.
Yes, I literally failed at writing about how I was failing.
I pushed all my writing tasks and the things I wanted to do back further and further, until they were looming over my weekend, and then I got sick. I left work on Friday with a sore throat, checked in the mirror to see lumps of pus the size of Ukraine on my tonsils, and called it a week. I flopped on the couch after work, and when I woke up I was dizzy and exhausted.
I spent most of Saturday in bed, steamrollered, and that was the point at which I stopped trying to make my week less of a failure. You know what? It just was. The whole week sucked. I sucked. Everything sucked.
Oddly, once I just accepted that, it became a lot easier for me to bear.
I have such a resistance to failure. Maybe it’s my own overachiever personality, or maybe the way society generally encourages us not to associate with failure (because who wants to be a loser?), but I really resist accepting when I’m beat.
But I think, sometimes, it’s okay to acknowledge that your week, or month, didn’t go the way you planned. You didn’t get everything done that you wanted to get done. Goals and deadlines went unmet. Perfection was not attained.
And I’m learning that failure does not kill you; resisting it does.
And treating a one-off failure as a permanent state of being can paralyse you.
So, I’m going to try to view my failed week in the same way I view my successful weeks. That is, having a whole week of failure as a writer, just like having a whole week of success, is:
part of the process
not a permanent state of being
does not mean next week will necessarily be the same
not indicative of my value as an author
not indicative of my value as a homo sapien
In the fighting video game Tekken (or at least, in the 90s era Tekken 2), losing a fight resulted in the game announcing in a sinister, almost mocking voice:
But it was never GAME OVER immediately. The game always gave you a choice to continue. You could go on fighting, maybe learn from your defeat, modify your technique and come back again with a win, or you could give up and choose game over. The choice always remained with the player.
Having a shitty week is a gift in a way, because it gives me a choice: I could accept my bad week as game over, or I could spam the X button to continue the game and try again.
And the vigour with which I hit that X button tells me everything I need to know about myself. That I don’t need to worry about failures and setbacks, as long as I get back up, brush myself off and try one more time to defeat Kazuya.
So, I spent Sunday night reassessing, and making new goals for the week ahead, and here I am at #5amwritersclub, writing a new blog post. That’s one goal down.
It’s a new day, and a new week lies ahead, spread out like a dewy valley, untrammelled by either my boots or my neurosis. Anything can happen if I make it happen.
So, I’m back in the saddle and ready to get some shit done, but I think failure deserves three cheers for getting me back here.
Few questions strike horror into the heart of an author more than The Question That Must Not Be Named.
Ah, stuff it, I’ll risk the anguished shrieks of any authors reading this. The question is:
“What are you working on right now?”
Sounds innocuous enough, right? Don’t be fooled. This little rose of a question is studded with teeny tiny thorns that will draw droplets of fresh scarlet blood from our fragile author egos.
The reason it’s verboten is because half the time when we’re asked this, we’ve just finished a day, or a week, or a month of staring fruitlessly at a blank screen.
Or, sometimes worse, we’ve spent a long day poring over our current manuscript and have just decided it’s no longer a masterpiece novel, but the biggest, steamiest turd in the multiverse.
And sometimes, even the friendliest person asking us about our progress can feel a bit like Stewie from Family Guy passive-aggressively needling Brian about how long his novel is taking to write (AKA one of my favourite scenes of all time).
The upshot is that authors are sometimes just too writing-weary, depressed, agitated or just plain gutted to explain ourselves to inquiring friends, family and followers. Maybe we feel guilty about not working faster, or not having done more with our time. For the more paranoid among us, it sometimes feels like the inquirer has just noticed our total silence on the writing front, and has thought it felicitous to ask why our writing career seems to be flopping around like a dying fish at the bottom of an angler’s bucket.
So, depending on how our day is going, there is a decent chance that we would prefer to emit a whale-like groan, dramatically rend our garments and run naked through a plate glass window than actually answer this question in public.
For me, my response to this question lately has depended on how my day is going and how much detail I want to go into in that given moment. Depending on who’s asking, and how much they know of my work and my journey so far, I’ve been alternating between describing my current work-in-progress as either my “second” or my “third” novel.
However, if I’m in a rush or on my feet – say, at a book launch or a festival or a networking event, or caught in a conversation in a corridor somewhere – I will get a bit thrown and end up splicing both versions of the tale together and hoping it makes sense. This results in me blurting out highly unintelligent stuff like:
“Yeah, it’s kinda my second novel but kinda my third novel as well. Have you tried the spinach and feta mini-quiches? They’re heaps good.”
The reactions I get to that range on a spectrum from polite chuckle to blank, querying stare all the way through to the this-bloke-is-clearly-a-bit-tapped eyebrow raise.
When I responded in a similarly confusing way to a fellow Twitter author from Switzerland recently, she said it sounded like there was a story behind the whole second-slash-third novel debacle. It was only then that it occurred to me how confusing this must sound to other people, and how confused it must make me sound.
So, I thought I’d use this post to clarify where I’m at right now, and hopefully the next time I say something about this on social media, or to a friend at an event, or to my pillow as I sob myself to sleep *cough* it will make a bit more sense.
Novel #1: SWORDY MCSWORDFACE
My first real, honest-to-goodness book is a Young Adult Fantasy novel, full of adventure and magic and a bit of teen angst. I don’t want to share the working title publicly yet, so let’s refer to this one as Swordy McSwordface. I wrote it primarily between November 2014 and January 2017, and had an excellent mentor and editor from the Australian Society of Authors to help me whip it into shape.
Although external editors and agents found the writing of this novel solid, and the plot makes for a really fun, adrenaline-fuelled ride, it wasn’t met with rapturous applause from the agents and publishers I subbed it to. Upon reflection at the time, I ultimately found it wasn’t compelling enough in its current form. So, just over a year ago, I put this novel in the metaphorical drawer, and I’ll tackle it again one day when I’m clearer on what it’s missing.
This novel is the crux of why my explanations of what I’m currently working on have been so convoluted lately. I felt that, since this novel had initially failed to get the attention of any publishers, it was a failed book and it was better to strike it from the record.
But as my Swiss friend aptly pointed out:
“You should definitely be counting novel 1 – just because it’s not published doesn’t make it any less of an achievement.”
I have to agree with this approach. I poured my blood, sweat, tears into this novel, not to mention bucketloads of caffeine, nicotine and swear words. And because of my imagination and my hard work, the novel now exists. It’s a real thing. This matters, because even if it never finds a home, this story was, and is, and always will be, my very first novel.
In fact, I’ve discovered it’s actually not uncommon for authors to land their debut publishing contracts with their second or third (or later) novel, not necessarily the first one they finished.
So, from today, I’m going to put more stock in it, and give this tale the respect it deserves. It will always be referred to as my first novel. It just probably won’t be my first published novel, but I am okay with that. There’s more work to be done, and I trust that I’ll return to this story – either to rework it as a novel, or pick over its bony carcass, vulture-style, for any valuable metaphors that could be torn from its pages and re-planted in a different book.
In any case, I’m no less proud of this novel than anything else I’ve written, and I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t exist anymore.
Novel #2: INVISIBLE BOYS
My most recently completed novel is the contemporary YA novel, Invisible Boys. After Swordy McSwordface went back in the drawer, I challenged myself to write something utterly real and unflinching, and so I wrote a fictional novel about some gay teenage boys.
And thus, Invisible Boys was born. And it was, hands down, the hardest thing I’ve ever written – at least in terms of content.
But with regards to the mechanics of writing, Invisible Boys was the easiest thing I’ve ever produced in that the whole story just kind of fell out of me fully-formed. I started the first draft in February 2017, and by December 2017 I had a third draft sent to my agent, who had signed me on the strength of the second draft.
Invisible Boys is the only novel that people have heard me talk about. This is probably cause it’s my only full-length manuscript so far to get some external attention: it won the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award and was Highly Commended in the ASA’s 2018 Emerging Writers Mentorship Prize.
I’m so pumped for this book to find a home, not least because having this story and these characters’ voices heard matters to me more than almost anything in the universe.
Novel #3: THE NOVEL THAT MUST NOT BE NAMED
I couldn’t even give you a fake working title for this one yet. It’s too new and I’m still feeling my way on where it will go, so I don’t want to say anything at this stage, other than to admit that a tentative draft has begun.
But that, at least, is progress, because until today, I would have faltered and flailed trying to work out how to present my current work-in-progress.
I know better now, and the next time you catch me hoovering mini-quiches into my gob at a book launch, I’ll be able to tell you, with confidence, “I’m currently working on my third novel.”
Without the awkward over-explaining I always do.
And, hopefully, without giving a whale-moan, flaying myself alive and careening through a plate of solid glass.
That I put too much pressure on myself is not new information.
In fact, this is one of the oldest things I know about myself. My own expectations of what I should be achieving have shackled a yoke to my shoulders since I was a boy.
It’s the reason I took on five casual jobs last year, and subsequently burned out.
It’s why, a few years back, I made the reckless decision to complete an Honours degree in Writing whilst also doing a Diploma in French and a professional certificate simultaneously, alongside four day jobs. This was the workaholic version of sitting at a table in a burning house and saying, “Guys, I’m fine. This is fine.”
And I can track this kind of learned behaviour back a long way. It’s why I had a massive meltdown in the first few weeks of year twelve: I was trying to overachieve, and take on every opportunity that came my way, and it was utterly unsustainable.
It’s easy to look back on a bright (if slightly neurotic) sixteen-year-old boy and tell him to chill the fuck out, but at the time it wasn’t such an easy task, because I kept telling myself I should be doing more … and I still am.
In fact, the word “should” has always been the most violent word in my vocabulary, especially when I apply it self-reflexively.
I tell myself I should be:
The last one is the real kicker. It’s actually impossible to satisfy my expectations of how productive I should be, because every second I spend Tweeting, or at the gym, or napping, or playing video games, is a second my brain tells me I could have been writing. There is always more I could be doing.
Somehow, my poor brain got snared on a belief at a young age, and I still haven’t ripped the hook out of my bleeding mouth.
The belief is:
If you aren’t as productive as possible, you are not good enough as a human being.
Recently, I’ve realised just how common this self-flagellating behaviour is among fellow writers. A fellow Perth-based author was recently on Twitter having a mild freakout about her own (perceived) lack of productivity. Having just finished a novel a couple of months ago, she felt like she was not really a “writer” anymore because she hadn’t written anything since. She was promptly reassured by many, including myself, that this was totally normal, which was encouraging to see – and emblematic of the supportive culture among authors.
What struck me about this, though, was how very easy it is for me to be kind to another writer, and how hard it is to be kind to myself.
I have a good sense of what expectations are reasonable for an author and what is too much –but when it comes to my own career, I am a tyrant. Nothing I do is good enough. Even amazing steps forward in my career only delight me briefly, and then it’s back to, “Well, what have you achieved lately?”
Sometimes I feel like if I don’t achieve anything substantial – meaning I receive external validation in some way – in any given week, it was a failed week. If a whole month of this goes by, I am a failed author.
This showed up most recently when I did my writing residency at Varuna. The weight of expectations I placed on myself to churn out absolutely phenomenal writing and make shitloads of progress on my third novel was extraordinary, and so cruel.
And it’s happened since I returned home, too. Even though I know my calendar is particularly rammed until June, leaving me incredibly time poor, I’m still riding myself like a meth-fuelled jockey. I should be making faster progress on my third novel. I should be writing some new short stories and submit them to journals and competitions. I should release something new as an e-book. I should blog more frequently.
Should, should, should. Same old mantra.
In one way, it’s heartening to know, via Twitter, that so many other authors are going through these same inner struggles.
But in another way, it’s tragic, because it means we are all being so fucking hard on ourselves.
So, what am I going to do about it?
Well, I already know how to be kind to other authors, so I’m going to make sure I keep doing that. The big challenge ahead of me is to start being nice to myself. To ease the pressure off a little, and be happy with excellence instead of perceived (and unattainable) perfection.
I will never, ever be as productive as I want to be in my mind. I am a human being. I will get busy, and I will get tired, and sometimes what I want to do won’t always be realistic, or reasonable, or kind. Some days, I’m going to get home from work and will be in that general “fuck the world, I’m not doing anything else all night” mood. I think this is okay sometimes.
So I’m going to replace the word “should” with the word “want to”, and use that as the test of whether or not I ought to proceed with something.
Will I continue working hard on my third novel? Of course, but because I want to, not because I feel I must. My ambition and my drive won’t falter, but I’m going to make sure my self-care ranks as just as important as my goals. It will be an eternal balancing act, and I’m sure I’ll fuck it up several times as I learn my way.
After being slightly encouraged, slightly heckled by some writing buddies on Twitter – they know who they are – I decided to join the WA branch of the #5amwritersclub.
“Branch” makes it sound far more bureaucratic and formal than it actually is: it’s a new and small collective of West Aussie writers who commit to waking up early and getting some writing done at five o’clock in the morning.
When I was first invited (peer pressured?) to join the other authors in this endeavour, my first response was there was no fucking way this was going to happen.
Not because I didn’t want to join them: they’re all grouse people and we chat on Twitter all the time.
Not because I don’t like the idea of being productive with my writing – there is almost no better feeling than having just written something.
No, I was reluctant because it involved waking up so bloody early. I feel like I’ve already sacrificed all semblances of luxury by strategically setting my alarm at 6am each morning (and then 6.10 … and 6.15 … I’m one of those desperate snooze-button fiends).
5am felt like a bridge too far.
But then I got to thinking about how hard it’s been over the past three weeks to make time for my writing. As I tutor at a university, in addition to my other jobs, the start of the uni semester always leaves my head spinning. In fact, apart from a whole lot of thinking and planning and plotting, I don’t think I’d written a word of a creative nature since February.
Crapola, I thought. No damn wonder I’ve been feeling listless and rudderless, like an athlete trapped in a hotel room.
As soon as I saw it that way, I really did start to feel caged by the chaos of my quotidian “busy-ness” and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s putting being an adult before being an artist. So it was a no-brainer after that. I desperately wanted to pull my sneakers on, escape the metaphorical hotel suite and go for a sprint around the block.
I went to bed early last night, and set my alarm for 4:55am. When it went off this morning, for a change I didn’t hit snooze. I admit I did go into HULK SMASH mode for the first couple of minutes, both in terms of wanting to communicate solely in monosyllabic grunts and also in terms of wanting to shatter my phone with my fist and curl back up into bed.
But I have a stubborn streak that sometimes works to my advantage: once I set my mind to something, I do it, and I do it well.
So I yanked my laptop across the plush carpet beside my bed – where I had strategically placed it last night, anticipating my Hulkish mood – flipped it open and just began writing.
I actually didn’t even sit up, which is really bad for the neck: I just remained laying in bed with the laptop awkwardly perched on my abs. (Hah! Kidding. I mean my gut. If I have abs, they are as hidden as Donald Trump’s compassionate side.)
I had a blank word document, and absolutely no plans on what I wanted to write. There was no expectation of penning an amazing literary work, nor working on my third novel draft (which is still in the planning phase).
So I sat for about thirty seconds, and a line just drifted into my mind, like I’d plucked it right out of the soul of the universe. More of an image, than a complete sentence. Within seconds I had an opening scene, and two characters, and a plan.
I wrote furiously from 5am until 7am, and in that sacred two hour block, I churned out just over 1400 words. To put this into context, when I do NaNoWriMo, which is a month-long writing sprint, my daily word count needs to remain at 1667, so to churn out 1400 words in one morning is fantastic progress.
So, what was it that I wrote? It’s definitely not a novel, or a novella. It’s the first half, maybe the first third, of a short story. It taps into a really random idea I’ve had for awhile now about a security guard, so that’s what I’m working on.
As much as the flow kind of consumed me for those two hours, I reached a point where my motor began to putt and before I knew it, I was out of fuel and running on fumes. It’s really odd how that happens when I write: one moment I’ll be excited and driven by what I’m writing, and a second later I’ll be jaded like an aristocrat slumming it at a dinner party below their station. “What is this measly short story in front of me? Ugh. Get it away. I want caviar.”
I’ve learned to listen to my writing impulses, and make way for both the flow and the ebb, so I stopped and I knew I was done for the day.
This is good, though, because it gives me something to leap straight back into when I write tomorrow. And it gives me the goal of finishing this particular short story by the end of the week.
I have no idea if taking part in the #5amwritersclub is going to work out for me long term. It worked today because Monday is my home day where I write and do admin stuff, but it might be a different story tomorrow. I’ll take it as it comes.
What I do know is that I’m keen to finish this particular short story, and I’m excited at hopefully developing a regular writing practice again.
And it makes all the difference knowing that some other writer buddies are waking up, and struggling, and striving, and tweeting, and cheering on, and succeeding right along side me.
Last November, I was lucky enough to win the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award from the Australian Society of Authors. The prize was a one week residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House. I never expected to win the award, so the residency was an absolute dream come true.
I rushed forward and took the residency in January this year. And it’s taken me a whole four weeks of sitting on my hands to work up the motivation to write about it. It was today that I realised why I’ve been putting it off for so long. It’s because once I write this, it will actually be over – a relic of memory and experience and nothing else. Subconsciously, I think I wanted to cling to it a bit longer; keep it in the present day. But the days are passing inexorably, and the memories are no longer fresh but faded.
So I want to record them, before they atrophy any further.
Monday 15th January 2018
This day barely counts as a day of my residency, because I was in Sydney for most of it. I had breakfast at a creperie with my teenage nieces and nephews. Double maple for me. I ordered in French to an entirely unimpressed French waitress.
Lunch was at a burger joint in Sydney’s CBD with my amazing literary agent, Haylee Nash of The Nash Agency. We spent about half an hour talking excitedly before either of us remembered we were actually meant to order food. It was a brilliant meeting and I left feeling so pumped for what’s ahead of me and INVISIBLE BOYS – in 2018 and beyond.
I swanned around the city for a few hours exploring – it was my first time in Sydney, ever, and I was so enraptured. It was like being back in Europe, but this city was also so unlike Europe, and certainly a long way from anything I had ever known as Australian.
In the arvo, I collected my suitcase from my older brother’s office on George Street and then began my navigation of peak-hour traffic on Sydney’s trains. I was crushed into a skinny, cuboid version of myself – now that part was really reminiscent of being on the tube in London – and trained it out to the Blue Mountains.
I thoroughly underestimated how long the ride would take: I arrived at Varuna, the National Writers’ House, at around 8:30pm, travel-weary and kind of worried. I honestly expected to rock up to a darkened house; I kept imagining that I’d be knocking on the door to no response, calling every phone number I could to the dejection of unanswered voicemails. I figured I might have to curl up and sleep on the pebbles outside.
My reception at Varuna was actually very warm. Before I even got out of the taxi, one of the other four resident writers – the wonderful and celebrated poet (and fellow Perthite) Nandi Chinna – was already out the front of the house to greet me.
“You must be Holden,” she said. “We were worried about you.”
I was really touched by this. I was alone in a new place and a bit overwhelmed that I had even been chosen to go to Varuna. I will never forget her saying that.
The Varuna staff (who are all super nice people) had already gone home for the night, so the other writers took me into the house, gave me a tour and showed me to my room. The caterer, Sheila, had saved my dinner for me – a delicious chicken curry – so I microwaved it and wolfed it down while chatting to my fellow writers.
The vibes were immediately warm and supportive, which relaxed my nerves and made me feel ready for the next day.
Tuesday 16th January 2018
I usually wake up at 6am, so I must have been running on Perth time still as I woke at 9am and felt instantly like I’d wasted half my day. I was a bit thrown off, so I took my breakfast up to my studio to get to work straight away.
I’d been allocated the Bear Room, and I still find it hilarious that they chucked the gay bloke into something called the Bear Room. Alas, no hot bears within, but it was a charming and quaint bedroom and writing studio. I was instantly drawn to the space, even though it was the smallest of the five studios at Varuna. I could have had my pick of the bigger spaces if I’d chosen a later residency, but I was desperate to get to work as soon as possible, and January was the earliest slot that worked.
As soon as I threw the curtains open, I realised this was the perfect place for a writer to work.
Morning mountain sunlight breaking over trees and green lawn and quaint gardens below. The workspace backs directly onto my bedroom, and used to be a sunroom, which is why it’s so incredibly light and airy. I took so many photos of my view, and not a single one of them gets close to doing the view any justice. Birds were chirping, which the other writers were able to name and identify, but with my ignorance of the animal kingdom I could only gaze on and appreciate their colours, and the flutter of their wings, and their uninhibited songs.
It really was tranquil and superb.
The first thing I did when I sat down at my desk was sigh and imitate Colin Firth in the film Love, Actually when he first arrives at his writing retreat in France.
“Alone again,” I muttered to the open window. “Naturally.”
And then the work began.
I looked over INVISIBLE BOYS – the manuscript that actually won me the residency – but there was really no further change I could make without wanting to heat up a hot poker and slide it slowly into my eyeball. I was done with it, for now. I’d just delivered a fresh revision to my agent and making any further changes would be counterproductive. Not to mention the whole poker/eyeball thing.
So I started work on my next novel instead. I had the deepest pangs of latent Catholic guilt about this and I was totally waiting for someone to turn around and boot me out of the house for working on a different piece than the one that won the award. Thankfully, the awesome people at the Australian Society of Authors (who offer the Ray Koppe Award) assured me this didn’t matter; as did the friendly team at Varuna House.
My next work in progress is a contemporary YA novel with a bit of a mystery element to it. It was originally conceived as a YA thriller and so I knew I had to do some work to rejig the outline and shift its focus and locus of control, as it were. I desperately wanted to just start throwing words on the page, but even though it would have felt productive, it would have been a Sisyphean task.
So I spent the whole day plotting. That’s it. All day. Plotting what would happen when. Changing characters’ names. Changing them all back two hours later. Deciding someone would die. Then saving them. Then killing them off again.
In the arvo, I went for a run around the nearby streets of Katoomba, which is the main town in the Blue Mountains. Katoomba is such a beautiful town: green and lush with trees so much bigger than the dirt and scrub I grew up around.
What really threw me about Katoomba was how mountainous it was. Not just the nearby indigo shapes of the peaks: I mean just the streets themselves. I have never realised how incredibly flat Western Australia is compared to somewhere like the Blue Mountains. Every street was a massive slope, and I constantly felt like Atlas was about to shake the world globe and I’d go sliding off the face of the planet. On and off all week, I was actually pretty dizzy.
The run did me good after a day of heavy plotting. Sweating, getting back into my body, is some of the best healing I have found.
Wednesday 17th January 2018
When you’re a writer, and especially when you’re undertaking a residency, I think the expectation you put on yourself is that you will write a lot of pages. Pages are sexy.
But I spent Wednesday returning to my necessary outlining and planning documents, including Excel spreadsheets, which are the least sexy or creative thing in the entire universe.
The Varuna staff asked me if I wanted a writing consultation with an excellent editor who could help me with my work. I had to say no – not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t afford it. That stung me, and made me feel like a bit of a lame duck.
Over the course of the day, I continued to work hard, but I started to feel frustrated. I wasn’t producing page after page of good writing. I wasn’t even producing page after page of shit writing that could be fixed later on. I was just plotting, and even though I knew it was necessary, I started to feel stagnant, like algae in a river’s listless meander.
In fact, I started to feel like a failure. And then a fraud. What kind of useless writer was I? Fucking around with plots and plans when the other four around me were probably churning out literary masterpieces with panache. Oh God. I’d actually won this place. Some very esteemed judges picked my writing over every other entrant’s.
And here I was screwing around in my spreadsheet. I bet the other entrants would have done so much better than me. Written more than me.
I spiralled down. Big time.
That night at dinner, the imposter syndrome ramped up to eleven. I don’t really know why, but probably because of the spiral I was already in, my insecurities got amplified.
Incidentally, one of my favourite things about the entire Varuna experience was that every night, all five resident authors come together in the dining room and share a catered meal together. The food by the amazing cook Sheila was delicious; the conversation was always vibrant and there was plenty of laughter.
There was also so much to learn from my fellow writers. About writing, about craft, about passion, about publishing, about promotion, about sales, about business. About being an artist.
This is, in fact, one of the most valuable things about being a Varuna writer. Having dinner and conversation with a diverse group of both emerging, developing and established authors every night for a week goes beyond even the best networking. I would liken it to being on summer camp. There’s something about sharing a living space with a group of people that bonds you in some way. It was truly an uplifting experience, and I grew from it – as an artist and as a man.
On the Wednesday night, however, I was spiralling hard. No matter what progress I make in my career as an author, I inevitably find myself feeling like an imposter. That night, as all these published and successful people sat around the table talking about something highly intellectual, I felt like the dumb outsider, the uncultured and poorly-read bogan, the country boy who for a whole number of reasons did not belong at that table, and never would.
I didn’t sleep that night.
Thursday 18th January 2018
When I say I didn’t sleep on Wednesday night, I’m exaggerating a touch. I crashed for three hours after chatting to my fiancé over text (silence is vital in the rooms at Varuna as the walls are thin and other writers might be concentrating). But I woke up at 2am and couldn’t get back to sleep. My synapses were sparking, still short-circuiting with the fear I didn’t belong here.
I opened the curtains of the Bear Room at around 4am. I listened to some music in my earphones and watched the sky outside slowly change colour, quietly hoping I could trick myself into sleep somehow.
It didn’t work.
I was utterly wrecked on Thursday. I opened my laptop and felt like throwing up. Nope. Not today.
Instead, I read a novel: Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson. An excellent piece of fantasy spliced with sci-fi (or maybe the other way around).
I tried naps. They failed.
In the arvo, I abandoned trying to rest or trying to write. I put on my cap and my backpack and went for a hike up to Echo Point, which is where you can see the natural rock formations known as the Three Sisters. It was incredible to face out onto an open green valley and feel so tiny compared to the earth and its body.
There was a bar close to Echo Point. I went out onto the terrace which overhung the verdant valley. I drank lemonade over ice, stared out at nature, listened to tourists speaking foreign tongues around me, and wrote several pages of notes in the monogrammed Moleskine journal my agent gave me for Christmas.
I walked back to Varuna, thinking the walk would have exhausted me enough for a late arvo nap, but no cigar. I was at that point where tiredness turns to astonishment that you can possibly still be awake.
Dinner that night was the best one of my whole stay at Varuna. Not in terms of the food – that was uniformly delicious – but the banter. The night started on a positive note, with fellow Varuna resident Miranda Luby finding out she had a short story shortlisted for an award. The spirit among everyone was one of congratulations and collegiality.
After our usual dinner conversation we went off on a tangent talking about words we each despise – stuff like the ambiguous “inappropriate” or actually saying the word “hashtag”. My word was “impactful”. It crops up more and more each year but it is NOT a bloody word. And even if “impactful” becomes a recognised word by some shitty dictionary, it shall nevertheless forever remain a hideously inelegant one.
Back in the Bear Room, sleep finally hit me, like a house brick to the face.
Friday 19th January 2018
It’s not until you wake up feeling human again that you realise you weren’t feeling human before. Friday morning did that: it was like I’d been booked into the Pokémon Centre overnight and was now at full HP and fighting fit again (thanks, Nurse Joy!).
So battle, at last, I did.
Friday was the day where the writing finally flowed. I wrote about 2000 words, which is more than my daily average when I do something like NaNoWriMo, so I’d call it a success. I reckon it felt especially exultant after the nadir of the previous couple of days.
There was a relief that came with writing what was basically the first chapter of my new novel. The pressure valve was released. I didn’t feel like a total fuck-up. And when I closed my laptop late that afternoon, I felt like I’d actually achieved some of what I was sent here to do.
It made for an uplifting end to the week. I went to the local Katoomba shire gym (which, for any future resident’s knowledge, requires you to traverse one of the steepest slopes in town). I lifted weights. Sheila made us all pizza for tea. It was excellent.
At about 9:30pm I went for a night-time stroll down the main drag of Katoomba. With everyone else silent in their rooms, and after five days without a television or other background noise in the house, I desperately needed to be around some sound and movement.
I ended up at the Station Bar in the heart of Katoomba. Two hours of soul-replenishing live rock ‘n’ roll.
Saturday 20th & Sunday 21st January 2018
After finally churning out some pages and making good progress on my novel, I relaxed a bit on the weekend – both Saturday and Sunday. I made time to finally explore Katoomba in more depth, by which I mostly mean I ate a lot of food. Gelato, waffles, coffee, baked goods, pretty much anything that I shouldn’t have been eating.
I also went to a local barber and got a haircut (the Mohawk doesn’t trim itself) and walked around a classic car convention that had taken over the main street. Katoomba has an artsy, touristy vibe the way WA’s South West towns do – though it’s probably amped up a lot more.
One thing I haven’t yet mentioned about Varuna is that each room has its own library, which is fundamentally cool. Even better, each library is different to the other in terms of the geographic origin of its tomes. For instance, one of the rooms might have Asian fiction, a second one might just have Australian books, and so on.
The Bear Room was home to the European Collection, and the calibre of novelists and writers and thinkers on the shelf beside me was unbelievable. I felt quite humbled, looking at these famous spines and titles, some of them household names and some of them quite unknown to me but critically acclaimed and influential writers of their times.
This also reignited the ambition flame in me: I want to be like them. I want to my books on these shelves. I want my name on spines.
I flicked through some books and read what I could, but there wasn’t time for everything. The piece I remember best was a story called “Adam, One Afternoon” in a collection by Italian writer and journalist Italo Calvino. It sticks in my mind because it was so incredibly light and very odd and unsettling at the same time. The flow of the writing was somehow hypnotic and I both liked and was unnerved by it.
The other aspect of Varuna that I haven’t really talked about is the fellow writers. I am reticent to go into too much detail about the other authors I stayed with, because I guess that’s their story and I don’t know how much detail they like to share about their jaunts and residencies. They may be intensely private people, so I’ve kept this part minimal.
But honestly, the other authors are such a massive part of what makes a residency at Varuna worthwhile. I learned so much from them in different ways.
Gabrielle Carey (non-fiction author, and co-author of the very famous novel Puberty Blues) had some real insights on the publishing industry. She also holds the distinct honour of being the person who (very generously) taught me step by step how to make percolated coffee when she found me bumbling around the Varuna kitchen on my first day.
Stuart Cooke (published poet and academic) shared so much about the inner workings of the poetry world, and of the difference between poetry in different languages. He is also well-versed in cat videos and is the most proficient dishwasher stacker known to man.
Nandi Chinna (poet, essayist, eco-activist) has one of the most friendly spirits of any human I’ve encountered. Apart from making me feel exceedingly welcome, she also taught me a lot about publishing, and poetry, and ecology, and birds. She also made me stop beating myself up about not making progress and stressed the importance of taking break days – which was vital to getting through my Varuna experience with my ego intact.
Miranda Luby (fellow YA author) was a kindred spirit in a lot of ways. We both write YA fiction; we’re both emerging authors; we’re both enjoying the last of our twenties; and we are both ambitious and relentless in our drive to get our debut novels published. I had a fantastic time connecting with Miranda and we’ve continued to connect on social media. Watch out for this one – I think her debut novel will do big things, and I’m kind of quietly hoping we’ll both end up on some YA author panel at a festival a few years from now.
I think the main thing I want to point out here is that the five of us were all so different from one another. Non-fiction authors. Academics. Poets. YA contemporary and YA fantasy authors. Despite my insecurities earlier in the week, by the time it came to Sunday night dinner I realised Varuna House is a place for all writers. We all belonged there.
Even displaced country boys who write YA fiction.
Monday 22nd January 2018
Miranda and I left Varuna in a taxi Nandi had kindly arranged for us. As the taxi arrived, I realised I hadn’t written in the Varuna guest book, so I dashed out the quickest and most uninspired message in history while the taxi driver waited. Then, duty done, I fled.
I had a great chat with Miranda on the journey back to Sydney. And as viridian mountains receded to the fumes and umber of the outer suburbs, I realised this whole adventure really was over. I felt like an American kid coming back from summer camp. I’d learned a lot. I’d seen new places. I’d made new friends. And I wanted to come back again next summer, preferably for even longer.
So many published authors tell younger writers that the key to success is to “write every day”. The spectre of this advice cast a long shadow over my stay at Varuna, until I recently saw a tweet by bestselling fantasy author Garth Nix.
Garth made a point that writing every day does not necessarily mean pumping out words of usable prose daily. It also means outlining. Dreaming. Plotting. Picking character names. Making Excel spreadsheets for chapter outlines. Writing a sentence and deleting it. Jotting down notes in a journal. Exploring a new place. Reading books and finding inspiration. Even just staring into space thinking about what you’re going to do next with the unwieldy blob of clay that is your work in progress.
And Varuna made all of that happen for me. I got a lot done. I made some progress on my next novel. I learned about writing and editing and publishing. I learned about mountains and birds and nature and poems. I learned about myself and I slayed a few demons (or at the very least, I fired some warning shots across their noses).
I have to thank everyone who made this experience possible for me: the awesome team at the Australian Society of Authors; Ray Koppe and the Koppe family for their generous legacy and gift; the award judges Tristan Bancks and Aoife Clifford for thinking INVISIBLE BOYS was good enough; and the team at Varuna who were so willing to help with anything I needed during my stay.
If you’re ever considering a residency at Varuna, or anywhere else, do it.
Especially do it if you think you’re not good enough, or that you won’t belong there, because you might just get lucky and discover that you are, and you do.