I’d be hard pressed to pick a period of time in which I’ve been more hectic than I have been the past few weeks.
In fact, when I sat down at my desk today, I glanced at the papers strewn across it, including a very dated and half-completed to-do list, and realised I had not touched my laptop or sat down in my nice cushy IKEA chair for an entire two weeks!
It’s been that long since I threw together a blog post, too, which is hideous as I try hard to get the weekly blog posts happening with regularity.
If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you will know a bit about what’s been keeping me flat out in the writing space: a couple of really big wins that I will dedicate my next blog post to. I’d talk about them now, but it’s already 11pm and I’m knackered.
The other weight on me has been work. Like a lot of authors, I juggle a whole bunch of part-time and casual roles (and, foolishly, some voluntary ones, too). Usually this is manageable, but lately all of them have demanded my time at once, and I’ve found myself feeling like I’m desperate for air but stuck underwater. I am totally overwhelmed and the situation I’ve put myself in is quite clearly no longer manageable.
I blogged in July about this same sense of burnout, and it is becoming really clear to me that I still haven’t learned my lesson.
There is a latter-day Alanis Morissette song (circa 2008) called “It’s a Bitch To Grow Up”, and some of the lyrics are hitting home right now.
Namely the verse:
I’ve repeated this dance ad nauseum There’s still something to learn that I’ve not
This is really so true. I have burnt out a few times now. As in, ending up in hospital kind of burn out. And like a magpie attacking its reflection in a flying rage, I somehow keep repeating the same mistake ad nauseum.
I’m an ambitious person by nature, so I like to take on more and more stuff, but I really have to come to grips with the fact that I can’t do everything at once. It’s just not possible, especially when I have five different paid jobs, a couple of voluntary positions and a writing career. It’s lunacy.
And as I’ve already established through my musings on this blog and elsewhere, writing is the thing that matters most to me.
So I think it’s time I learn that I can’t do a million things at once without making myself sick. I need to stop. I need to slow down. I need to recalibrate and work out how to run my life effectively in a way that allows me to prioritise my writing career without letting the day jobs and other commitments choke all the air out of the room.
I really just need to learn how to take care of myself, don’t I?
As Alanis said:
I feel done, I feel raked over coals and all that remains is the case That it’s a bitch to grow up
Whenever I speak to someone about something I’ve written, I am always at pains to point out that it is fiction and therefore totally made up.
Sometimes – like with works of epic fantasy – it’s easier for people to swallow: I don’t usually need to break a sweat trying to convince someone I am not a warrior mage from Dervine, for instance.
But when you write contemporary YA – which is the genre/category of my upcoming novel – the line between the characters of fiction and the author who brought them into being becomes blurry.
All novels are, by their nature and definition, works of fiction – but there’s no denying that they also serve to crystallise many fragments of the author. It may be elements of our psyche, our history, our politics or our worldview, but some hidden shards of us end up in the final product, like tiny cracked eggshells accidentally sprinkled into the pudding.
The degree to which this happens varies from author to author, novel to novel.
I’ve recently been poring over my printed manuscript, going over some notes from the editor and immersing myself in the novel’s aura, and today a quote came to me from the abyss.
Okay, it was from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but “abyss” had more gravitas.
Towards the end of that book [SPOILER ALERT, if you’re 17 years behind …], in the penultimate chapter titled “The Parting of the Ways”, Harry is forced to recount the trauma of what just happened to him at the end of the Triwizard Tournament. He’s witnessed Cedric being murdered in front of him; witnessed the spectral reincarnation of his dead parents for a cruel, infinitesimal moment; and seen the Dark Lord rise again.
In short, he’s had a bloody shit night out and the thought of talking about it is too painful.
When I first read this novel at age twelve, there was a line from this chapter that stood out to me. In subsequent years, as I’ve attempted to recover from some of the trauma I’ve put myself through in life, that line has glowed in my mind with the ferocity of a lightning bolt-shaped scar:
“Once or twice, Sirius made a noise as though about to say something, his hand still tight on Harry’s shoulder, but Dumbledore raised his hand to stop him, and Harry was glad of this, because it was easier to keep going now he had started. It was even a relief; he felt almost as though something poisonous was being extracted from him; it was costing him every bit of determination he had to keep talking, yet he sensed that once he had finished, he would feel better.”
The part in bold is what resonates with me, now, as I look at the mess of papers that constitutes my manuscript’s current draft.
I had the same feeling when I started writing this book: that something toxic was being extracted from my blood; with each sentence I pounded out on the keyboard, a few more drops of latent venom leaked out of my veins, slowing filling the vial.
It finally escaped my body and became contained in its own vessel: the manuscript that sits before me now, marked in editor’s pencil and illuminated by the afternoon sunlight.
Yes, it’s entirely fictional. The characters are made up, and so is the story. It will be read, first and foremost, as a tale. But the themes this novel tackles are so close to the bone that I drew plenty on my own past in fleshing out some elements.
My writing process for this novel reflects Harry’s experience and exhaustion, too. I had to plumb some deep reserves of determination to keep writing when I was so shattered, but I knew that once I finished, I would feel better.
I do feel better now.
Moreover, writing this book represented a Parting of the Ways of my own. That vial full of poisonous venom has left my body and is contained in the manuscript now. Now that it’s outside of me at last, I can see it more clearly. I can experiment with it. I can open it and close it. I can hold it in my hands and feel its weight.
My task now is to make some final touches and then send it into the world, where my work can, I hope, serve as balm for others whose skin right now is as burnt and raw as mine once was.
As a boy, I was easily duped by some of the myths that swirl around becoming an author. The Myth of Overnight Success. The Myth of the Rich and Famous Author. The Myth of the Divine Muse and Her Timely Inspiration. The Myth of the Validation of Publication.
It’s easy to get lost in the myths of an industry when you’re a total noob and don’t know anything about it. It wasn’t until I became a practising author that I discovered what was really involved – and, usually, I found out the hard way.
So, I wanted to share the 10 things I wish I knew about being an author when I first started this quest. These are the lessons that helped me grow from a wannabe into a published author.
1. Writing Time is Made, Not Found
As a teenager, I would spend my summer holidays writing relentlessly, because for two months I had literally no other demands on my time. Man, I loved those days. But after I turned eighteen, adulthood struck me like a blunt shovel to the face. I found myself mired in a listless struggle. I was eternally wanting to work on my novel, but work, and study, and family, and relationships – not to mention bills and administration – all jostled for pole position in my schedule. Progress was not just painfully slow, it was often non-existent: there were a couple of years in there where I don’t think I wrote anything at all, other than notes.
The reason for my progress paralysis was that I was expecting to find those golden free months to write, but this time doesn’t happen when you’re a grown up. As an adult, one’s schedule – like nature – abhors a vacuum. Your days will constantly be full of the usual humdrum, and this won’t magically clear one day. You probably won’t get to the bottom of your email inbox. There will always be more housework to be done, or another friend to catch up with for a drink. You have to actually clear time in your diary. You have to make time for your writing.
Since learning this in 2014, I’ve made regular time for writing in my schedule. Every week, there are hours dedicated to both administration and creative time. This means that I sometimes withdraw socially, or don’t go to an event, or blow off some other work until a later date – but it’s what took me from a wannabe to a practising artist.
I have to admit I usually don’t bother myself with questions like this. Partly because I tend to think of them as pseudo-philosophical bollocks: there’s no point reflecting on who you are; just be. Partly because it is a super cliché artist question and I view it with some level of disdain (I have been told I am just a tad judgmental …). And partly because I can only hear “Who am I?” asked in a Derek Zoolander voice, and that thought makes the teenage boy inside me – who adulthood has never quite managed to kill off – guffaw like a boofhead.
But for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been dwelling pretty extensively on this question and others. Who is Holden Sheppard? What am I all about? Why do I exist? Why do I write? What do I want?
It all started innocently enough: I attended a guest lecture by an advertising expert who talked about the importance of personal branding. I was intrigued and made some vague notes, but didn’t allocate much time to actually coming up with an answer.
A few weeks later, my quest for personal development brought me to a workshop at the Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre in Joondalup. The topic was Personal Branding, Marketing and Social Media for Authors, facilitated by a truly brilliant consumer psychologist and author, Glennys Marsdon. I don’t use the word “brilliant” lightly here: Glennys is a superstar and laser-sharp, and I could not recommend her advice more highly if you are an author at any stage of your journey.
I never knew a simple three-hour workshop could have such an impact on me.
Glennys’ workshop – both during and after – made me reflect deeply, and at length, about who I am and who I want to be. And finding a concrete, clear sense of identity was actually quite difficult.
I’ve been mulling this over for a few weeks now; this post, in fact, has been sitting as a draft for weeks because I couldn’t quite get my head around it.
I’ve been analysing myself, maybe a little too harshly, and essentially trying to work out why this is such a difficult task for me. And I think I’ve zeroed in on the crux: I have a lifelong tendency to be highly adaptable to my environment. My (very human) instincts as a kid and even as a grown man have been to adapt, fit in, be normal, as I found myself in each new environment.
For instance, I was a bookish kid and I felt really isolated in a lot of ways during high school. There was an external persona that learned how to (barely) survive in peer groups at high school; while the more bookish, creative, outspoken side of me learned to flourish only in online forums among fellow writers and readers and gamers.
This model of behaviour adaptation has chased me through life. At uni, I would drink coffee and talk about literature and theory and culture and feelings with my uni mates – during the day. At night I’d hang out with a different set of mates, drinking VB from long necks and playing pool and generally being bogans.
When I worked as a labourer and mini-excavator operator, I talked differently – every second word was “fuck” or “cunt”; when I went to a uni environment, my lecturers said they couldn’t understand me when I spoke, and so again I learned to adapt, speaking as clearly and professionally as I could.
The point I’m making is that I have successively adapted from the expectations of one setting to another, over and over, modifying my behaviour and personality to some extent each time. To some degree, this is quite normal and is probably a form of “code-switching”; it has also probably been the vehicle of my ability to succeed in a range of different sectors and environments.
The downside is that I have worked so hard to ensure I am meeting, exceeding and pleasing the expectations of external environments and people that my ability to meet, exceed and please my own sense of identity has atrophied over time.
When Glennys asked me to think about how Holden Sheppard, the author, was different to me as a person, I couldn’t find an answer. I realise, now, that is because there isn’t really a distinguishable difference. The way I present myself as an author is reflective of how I present myself as a person who works for a university.
Professional. Inoffensive. Clean. Even – shudder – kind of wholesome at times.
But does any of this let me express who I actually feel I am inside? The version of me that expresses itself in my personal life, in my self-expression, in my written expression? Is it what I’m really like in person, or who I want to be? Is it in line with my “personal brand” – or even with my actual, authentic personality?
Not at all.
So, my task is clear, and it’s no small feat. I need to dig around for a while and work out exactly who I think I am. More importantly, who do I want to be? What do I value? What’s important to me? This is actually very liberating, because so far I have been operating on the assumption that to be liked means I need to be neutral, professional and inoffensive – but these terms are nothing like how I would actually describe myself.
I suppose you could say I’ve been putting on a particular front, or persona, to protect myself – and to avoid letting too much real stuff shine through.
That’s going to change.
I don’t have the answers just yet, but, as Cat Stevens once sang, I’m now on the road to find out.
“You gotta hustle,” my personal trainer explained to me recently.
“You’re like an entrepreneur – you gotta work hard, put in the hours to get what you want.”
He wasn’t talking about weight loss or muscle growth. In between squats and lunges (it was leg day), and the sweat stains on my Collingwood Football Club Official Training Shorts, and our usual discussions of footy (we’re both wanting either GWS or Richmond to come up with the goods) and betting (he is a sucker for the horses), we were discussing my career as an indie author.
I rarely consider how much unpaid time I put into this career, but I really do spend a huge chunk of my life on something I get no financial reward for. Such is the nature of passion: it makes fools of us all, and I am glad to be fool enough to follow my passion instead of work a soulsucking nine-to-fiver.
It often takes someone else, outside of me, to reflect back to me just how much I have been doing. To be honest, I spend a lot of my time feeling like a giant loser. It’s part and parcel of being a perfectionist who has chosen to shun traditional forms of validation (e.g. financial, social, critical, academic) and who has instead chosen to follow his dream, whether or not it leads him to end up a pauper in a gutter.
As I see it, I am training myself to be a writer the same way I am training my body at the gym five times a week. My whole life right now is tutelage. Sometimes cruel tutelage*. It’s hard to know it, especially for an outsider, because the training isn’t visible. You can see a footy player practicing her goal-kicking on an oval; you might see a dancer stretching his limbs in front of a mirror; and you may walk past a guitarist busking on the street moaning along to Wonderwall, but you never see the author in training – just the finished product. We train, and sweat, and suffer in silence; our pain and growth and existential angst is ours alone.
Such is the life of an indie author, I guess. And I don’t regret the path I’ve chosen. The biggest inspiration I’ve had for living my life this way was not even literary. Like the bogan I am at my core, my actual touchstones for this artistic path are none other than 80s Aussie rockers, INXS. When I saw the telemovie about their lives a year or two ago, I was entranced by how they found success. It wasn’t just divine provenance or any form of privilege or sheer luck. It was first and foremost bloody hard work: the band toured relentlessly and locally, year after year, as a no-name rock group, working hard to develop a following and make something of themselves.
It inspired me more than almost anything – and made me want to do the same, even though I’m in a different field. It drove me to begin my career as an indie author, releasing short pieces in the lead up to my first novel, rather than solely wait for the glorious intervention of an interested publisher.
I spend my life working hard to get what I want. Because when I eventually impress an editor with my manuscript and secure a publishing deal, I want them to know that I’m not expecting them to market for me. I will work even harder once I have a publisher than I do right now – and I will prove that to them by putting in the hard yards now. Just wait and see what happens when a blue-collar labourer from Geraldton becomes a published author. He’ll work his fingers to the bone and sweat through his Akubra. I can’t wait to be given the chance.
The reason for this random, kind of unfettered and unedited blog post, is because I was just interviewed and profiled on The Dreamers Blog by Doug Geller. When I read the interview back, I realise just how hard I drive myself and how much I have accomplished in the last few months. It’s a good feeling to stop for a second and acknowledge the small wins along the way to my personal treasure.
The first time I finished writing a novel was 1999.
I was eleven, and as far as I was concerned, the handwritten story that filled a whopping 64 pages of my blue-lined exercise book was an actual novel. Looking back, it would have been about 12,000 words or so: around the length of the Honours thesis I would go on to write 13 years later, and just a little longer than THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR.
My “book” was a sci-fi story called CAPRION’S WARNING. The main character, Nick, was a twelve-year-old Italian boy with seventeen immediate family members. I may have been projecting a little of myself, plus identifying with and/or being enamoured by Nick Kontellis from Emily Rodda’s Teen Power Inc books. Nick’s friend Luigi (Mario Kart was big at the time) got kidnapped by some aliens after a school disco (which figured prominently in my life at the time) and so Nick and his friends had to get in a spaceship and rescue Luigi. The whole story was essentially a global warming parable from the aliens; it was fun, but it made absolutely no logical sense.
I was quietly chuffed with myself when I finished that story. Looking back, I don’t
remember telling a soul. When it came to my creative side, I was incredibly withdrawn and secretive. My family never read a word of my work, nor my friends. In fact, the one time two of my mates tried to open an exercise book I’d accidentally left on my desk, I went into primal neanderthal mode and screamed at them to give it back. It culminated in a wrestling match in which the book was torn in half; thankfully, my desperation (and, I’m sure, their perplexed terror) enabled me to win that one – they never read it. (Incidentally, they are still good mates, they are possibly reading this, and they totally know who they are.)
In hindsight, finishing that story was kind of a non-event. I just turned the page and started the next little nonsensical pre-teen story – one that would never be completed.
I wrote constantly in the intervening years, but the next time I completely finished a project was 2011. For a number of reasons, I’m not going to name this project at the moment, but it occupied my mind and heart for a longer time than any other project to date has. This story was a piece of Pokemon fanfiction I posted on an online forum, and it had quite a large readership, especially in the first few years, though I retained a smaller group of dedicated readers until the end. I wrote the first chapter of this in late 2001, when I was thirteen, and completed the entire series of four novels in late 2011, aged twenty-three.
Actually completing that fanfic was one of the most difficult and gargantuan tasks I’ve ever undertaken – and I was once coerced into waiting eight hours in line for a Delta Goodrem concert in the middle of summer.
The feeling when I completed that series of four novels? Devastation. I fell apart and sobbed like you wouldn’t believe. Everything conflated at once: the joy of finishing such a long-term endeavour; the satisfaction of persevering for so long; the sorrow of saying goodbye to all those characters, whom I loved, especially the core cast; and the utter devastation at the end of my youth.
Because, of course, that whole project enveloped my formative years. Inhabiting that world was something I did daily, whether at the laptop or not, for an entire decade, and I grew so much during that time. At the start, I was a pimply thirteen-year-old dealing with puppy fat and wet dreams and dial-up Internet (and I couldn’t say which was the most awkward to deal with). By the end, I was in my early twenties, doing an Honours degree and working for a university and a bank simultaneously. The story had evolved, too, from being a juvenile “trainer fic” to an exciting action-adventure with a decent level of maturity. Even writing this now inspires me all over again.
I said once in an interview on that forum that I was treating that story like a training ground for my “real” writing. It was an astute observation: I knew that story could never get published given the trademark/licensing issues around fanfiction, so I just enjoyed it as a project of love and used the practice (and the feedback from some excellent readers) to hone my skills.
After that project was done, I was ready for the real deal.
In February 2015, after ten months of planning and three months of writing, I completed my first full-length novel of original work (YA Fantasy). I didn’t cry, which in hindsight tells me a lot. From memory, I moodily crept onto the patio, played Desperado by The Eagles on low volume from my phone, and smoked a cigarette or three while watching the sun rise (it was about 5am and I’d pulled an all-nighter). I did feel the achievement of finally completing my first novel: it was very gratifying.
But despite that smoky, nebulous state of triumph, I didn’t have a visceral response. The manuscript had a lot of structural problems, and I knew it. Beta reader feedback, a series of edits, a mentorship, and a copy edit all followed. When I completed draft number seven in late 2016, I was exhausted and sick of it, but my initial feedback from agents tells me it’s still not quite there.
And the reason I now know that for sure is that, one week ago, I completed my second novel.
And what a stark contrast it bears to the first one.
I started writing my second novel – let’s call it DAMAGE CONTROL, even though that’s just a placeholder title – in July this year. From the beginning, I had the overwhelming feeling that this book – a straight-up YA story – was the novel that would find publication first. Peter Parker would say his Spidey sense was tingling; Dennis Denuto would say he had a vibe; Kath Day-Knight would say she had a feeling in her waters. Everything just seemed to mesh together.
Call it what you will, but that feeling gripped me for two months and didn’t let go until I finished the final chapter last week. DAMAGE CONTROL is the most close-to-the-bone, intensely personal piece of fiction I have ever written. It felt like it poured out of me fully-formed; like twenty-nine years of pain were slowly and gingerly extracted from my blood. It was almost a channelling experience: when I reread some of the lines, I can’t even remember writing them.
As American sportswriter Red Smith famously said, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”
Red was right.
Once you open the vein and allow yourself to bleed, writing is the easiest and most natural thing in the world.
But it was something I had never done before.
CAPRION’S WARNING was more or less pure juvenile nonsense writing.
My teenage fanfiction was adrenaline-fuelled escapism.
And my first novel was essentially people-pleasing in literary form: calculating my moves, crafting a product for an imagined readership, second-guessing what the readers and market and editors and agents might want. In short, everything except being authentic, and genuine, and unabashedly myself.
DAMAGE CONTROL is me without a single inhibition. I’ve hidden nothing. Every fear, every fragility, every insecurity, every obnoxious word and thought is on display here for the world. It is a fictional work, entirely, but the characters embody the best and, frequently, the worst parts of me as the author: the things I am ashamed of; the things I’ve been hurt by.
My blood is on every page.
And it makes all the difference – because it actually works.
My first beta reader was completely blown away. He cried twice during the novel, especially towards the end.
“This is the best thing you have ever written,” he declared at the end, without hesitation. “This is very brave …”
As for how I felt when I finished it?
First was the sorrow: I cried, like a little kid who fell off his bike.
Then came the euphoria: I went to the gym and sprinted on the treadmill, adrenaline crushed into my bloodstream and music pounding in my ears.
And finally, satisfaction: I went out for ice cream with my fiance.
The most exciting outcome of finishing this novel was that it enabled me to understand, and define, myself in a way I hadn’t been able to do before. And my hope is that, in my being honest and vulnerable and brave, my readers will be able to make the same discoveries about themselves.
Finishing this novel has been an intense and rejuvenating experience.