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.