An Alternate Ending to “Game of Thrones”

Orright, so this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever posted on this blog.

The return of the GAME OF THRONES universe to our screens last week with HOUSE OF THE DRAGON (2022) ignited a twitter conversation with some of my followers today. Specifically, we were discussing the much-maligned ending to the original series of GOT in 2019.

Many fans felt cheated and let down by that ending – a surprise and unsatisfying twist that many felt ruined a character the show had spent eight seasons building up.

At the time, in 2019, I remember raging about how poor a choice this was for the show. To be clear, I didn’t rage at or abuse the writers themselves – no creator deserves that kind of treatment – but I did privately rant with many a fellow fan that our beloved show had ended so unsatisfyingly. In fact, GOT has become something of a cultural touchstone of how to not end a TV show, such is the extent of fan dissatisfaction.

At the time, I was so longing for the satisfaction of a solid ending that I ended up doing something I hadn’t done for years at the time: I wrote a piece of geeky fanfic about it. What I wrote was about 5500 words – a skeletal first draft, very loosely sketched out, of how I thought the character arcs could have been wrapped up in a way that was true to the characters and the story itself.

But in 2019, I decided not to post it publicly even though, yes, it’s just a benign bit of fanfiction. The writers of GOT were copping a lot of shit and I didn’t want to add to that storm. It also felt a bit disrespectful to do that to fellow writers right when they were copping backlash. And I didn’t want to spoil the ending for anyone who hadn’t yet seen it.

But today’s conversation on Twitter reminded me this was sitting in a file somewhere, and I fished it out from three years ago. It’s rough, but gets the basic idea across of how this fan would have loved GOT to finish.

Now three years have passed and that storm and backlash have settled, it doesn’t feel so bad to post this up, so I’ll share it for the handful of fellow fans who might be interested in something this nerdy.

Two disclaimers from me.

Firstly, I mean no disrespect to the writers of the original GOT ending – they had a helluva job to try to wrap up all the threads of that show, and I’m not dissing them. This is just an avid fan writing a version of the ending he would have liked to see. The very end of my version might be a bit too neat/happy for a show based on grimdark books, but whatevs.

And secondly, all the usual disclaimers that go with fanfiction: GAME OF THRONES belongs to HBO so this work of fanfiction is made freely-available and is not for sale – it is non-commercial and no income is received for it. It is posted in line with the principles of fair dealing (in Australia) and fair use (in the USA).

With all that said, here’s a random fan’s alternate ending to GAME OF THRONES, picking up from the moment the bells ring across King’s Landing. In the series, this signified a sudden and catastrophic shift in Dany’s character and caused huge dismay in many fans. My fanfic picks up from the moment the bells ring, but Dany takes a different – more in-character – course of action.

Here we go:

GAME OF THRONES – S8 E6 – ALTERNATE ENDING

Holden Sheppard

A bell rings, and two armies exhale.

A pregnant pause persists, only seconds, until Jon Snow releases his sword, dust eddying as it lands at his feet in the chasm between him and the Lannister army.

Two armies inhale again: clean air, fresh air; and suddenly the tendons that gripped steel relax, white knuckles release and turn pink as human blood flows within veins again. Swords clatter to the earth. Ser Davos exchanges a look of relief with Tyrion Lannister. Grey Worm is one of the last to hurl his bloodied sword into the divide between the two armies.

It is over, Jon thinks. It is done.

He glances at Dany, expecting power to radiate off her in exultant glory, expecting the smug grin, face tilted to the sun like the ruler she has become.

But there is no grin, no glory.

Dany’s face is contorted into a mask of rage. Her violet eyes pierce the air more terrifyingly than Drogon’s flames did. Her gaze is squarely on the Red Keep.

“Dany, no – it’s done,” Jon says. “You won. You are Queen.”

Dany jerks her head in defiance, like she is shaking an angel off her shoulder. Her lips grow tight over her teeth. There is no satisfaction in a bloodless coup. No security, either. This isn’t revenge, nor destiny fulfilled. This story will never be over while the Lannisters draw breath. She sees it playing out in her head – perhaps happening, right now, within the walls of the Red Keep. Cersei Lannister will be whisked away to another part of the realm, somewhere in secret, to give birth to her child. That child would be exiled to a foreign protector in a foreign land – maybe Pentos – raised to believe they are the true heir – raised to grow an army and seek revenge in twenty years.

It is her story, too: Dany’s story. She has lived it her entire life, and now the wheel has turned, and it will be the story of Cersei’s offspring, too. And it will destroy her as a ruler. It will destroy the tentative sprouts of peace from ever getting their roots into Westeros.

And that child, that poor child, would be another Dany, a child who never grows up knowing peace, a child who is used, exploited and manipulated by others and their selfish desires for power, until he or she learns to do the same: use, exploit manipulate. The war would go on, the wheel would turn on and on, spinning faster than before, spinning out of control …

“I came here to break the wheel,” she calls to Jon, without taking her eyes off the Red Keep. “The wheel is not broken yet.”

She grips the hard ridges on Drogon’s back, beckoning him to take to the skies; which he does; he had already begun to unfurl his leathery wings, like he could read her mind.

“No!” Tyrion shouts. “Please – the bells –”

Dany doesn’t hear the rest of the sentence over the wind rushing past her ears; she is already too far away. She and Drogon are soaring over King’s Landing; the shadow of an enormous, fully-grown dragon darkening the red roofs of the buildings below. She sees the soldiers in their silver reach instinctively to the earth for their swords; peasants cover their heads with their hands as if it would offer any kind of protection.

Dany grits her teeth, beckoning Drogon to fly higher, further from these innocents.

I am not here for you, she thinks. Today, I break the wheel. Even if it means breaking myself.

*

Cersei Lannister holds the goblet of mulled wine until the very last minute. If I am to go, she thinks, let me be stupid drunk enough that I can’t feel it.

“My Queen, we should move …” the Grandmaester pleads beside her.

“I am well protected,” Cersei tells him, eyes on the dragon silhouetted against the airborne ash as it flies directly for her. “The Red Keep has never fallen. The Dragon Queen cannot kill me if I surrender. And I have Ser Gregor at my disposal should she try.”

The discoloured beast of a man grunts beneath his armour; even the six soldiers flanking him flinch.

“The Targaryens have never been much for mercy before,” the old man mumbles, gnarled fingers playing uncertainly with the Hand of the King pin on his tunic, like he is wondering whether it might be too late to tear it off and run.

The dragon draws near to the castle, searching the windows until it finally spots Cersei at her window and draws level to her, hovering in the air so its mother can face her enemy. Cersei can see the dragon queen’s silver hair trailing in the wind, the russet walls of the Red Keep reflected in her eyes so her blue irises look almost purple.

“Cersei of House Lannister … you are sitting on a throne that is not yours,” Dany says, evenly. “Your people have lived only in fear of you. Your armies have abandoned you. You are a tyrant, and you are done.”

Cersei drains the last of her goblet and makes a mockery of holding her hands up.

“I’ve already surrendered,” she says, with a shrug that is deliberately casual. Even now, she defaults to the old ways, like charm might still be enough to disarm. “You can hear those bells, can’t you? To attack now would be to commit a war crime.”

Dany’s face, already twisted with rage, snarls further. “So be it,” she says. “A war crime may be the only way to end this war for good – and that is what I came here to do.”

Cersei’s heart flutters, because there is no humanity left in those purple irises.

“I’ve never understood why the symbol of House Lannister was a lion,” Dany says suddenly. “I have never seen you act as bravely as one, only slither, like snakes, into everything that is good in the world. I doubt anyone in the Realm will be dismayed to see such a treacherous house meet its end.”

“I am unarmed, and innocent,” Cersei says, hand reaching for protection and finding the steel plated arm of the Mountain beside her.

Dany’s eyes blaze as Drogon rears up. “How interesting,” she says. “Missandei of Naath was unarmed, too.” Flames explode in her irises as she shrieks, “DRACARYS!”

Cersei ducks, just as she is pulled back; a tongue of flame erupts from before her; fills the air, fills the room, and for a second she knows she is dead.

But her mind is still whirring as the air is scorched and her limbs blaze with heat. She glances up to see the Mountain towering over her, standing in the direct blast of the Dragon’s flame, roaring the way only an undead man can; behind him, three soldiers have provided extra layers of protection with their own bodies, but unlike Ser Gregor, they are mortal, and all of them are already either dead or dying; and then there is Cersei, buried beneath them all as the flames rage.

There is a pause as Drogon draws breath; his armour melted to his discoloured skin, his world ablaze, the Mountain grips his iron spear, one big enough for a Scorpion, and launches is directly into Drogon’s jaws.

The animal shrieks in pain as the steel pierces the soft flesh within its mouth; its mother screams in fury as the dragon is forced to wheel back, shaking its head vigorously as it tried to dislodge the missile.

Cersei spots the opening to the spiral staircase below, the escape from which her grandmaester and other soldiers have no doubt fled already. As the dragon reels outside the window, she shakes the burnt bodies of the soldiers off and races for the staircase, bellowing behind her, “Ser Gregor, protect me.”

*

In a large, flat room at the base of the Red Keep, its polished stone map of Westeros etched into the floor, everything happens at once.

Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane burst into the space from one end at the same moment that a door opens at the opposite end, and a wounded Jaime Lannister limps towards them, blood trailing behind him – fresh, bright red.

Outside, a dragon shrieks and something metallic clatters against stone before a pillar of fire erupts outside. The roof explodes with flame as a turret is destroyed in a matter of seconds.

Arya exchanges a look with the Hound.

“I told you you had the chance to leave,” he says. “You’ll only end up as dead as I will.”

Arya grits her teeth as more of the side wall begins to cave in; suddenly, a shaft of light breaks through the gloom of the castle she was once, as a girl, trapped within.

“No,” she says flatly, her hand resting on Needle’s hilt. “We are both assassins, and death comes for both of us. Let it be a death that satisfies us.” She nods at him. “We both have unfinished business.”

The Hound grips his sword and they move forward into the cavernous chamber.

Before they are even two steps in, footsteps clatter down the spiral staircase from above; an old man in the sparse, dirty white tunic of a maester appears. He glimpses them, enemy soldiers, and flings a gold pin from his tunic; it clatters to the polished stone floor, abandoned, as he sprints in the other direction.

Arya exchanges a look with the Hound that says let him

That look does not resurface when three Lannister soldiers pelt down the staircase and into the room. The soldiers are followed by a bedraggled and charcoal-faced Cersei Lannister, her robes still smoking, and the monstrous form of the Mountain, molten metal now fused onto his blue skin.

Arya and Sandor press forward, blades out in a flash; the three soldiers have blackened skin, and they fumble for their swords like they are in a daze; metal flashes and blood spurts within seconds. Three dead Lannister soldiers clatter to the stone.

“Protect me!” Cersei cries, shifting behind the Mountain as Arya and Sandor advance.

“Cersei!” Jaime bellows from the far end of the chamber. He is doubled over a stone seat, too wounded to move.

The blonde-haired once-queen turns, her eyes finding her brother who is also, Arya knows, her lover, and something cracks in her voice; the cruel regent sounds like a little girl.

“Jaime – you made it – you came back to me …” she splutters. “Help me – you have to help me. I want to live.”

“I will,” he calls. “We’re together now. It will all be –”

And at that precise second, the entire wall of the chamber explodes, stone melting away in a combination of flame and wings and claws; sunlight streams into the room as Drogon lands spectacularly on the polished stone, cracking the map of Westeros into pieces and dividing the room into two with Drogon’s bulk, Jaime invisible from the other side of the chamber.

Dany sees the opponents squaring off – the Mountain and the Hound, and Cersei Lannister and Arya Stark – and for one mad rush of a moment she envisions all of them burning, with one word from her and one action from Drogon. She could do it. But the soldier belongs to her army; and Arya is Jon’s sister.

She instead finds herself staring into the eyes of a wounded man slumped over a stone seat.

A twisted smile breaks over her face.

“Jaime Lannister,” she says. “You have a lot to answer for.”

*

The Clegane brothers’ fight is the one Arya would prefer for herself: blades clashing against each other, steel flashing in the blinding sunlight; shouts of desperation as two enemies fight to the death.

Instead, she advances coldly and calmly on Cersei, who is backing herself towards the unbroken wall on the left side of the chamber.

Cersei draws her dagger, and Arya laughs. “We both know you’re too cowardly to even try it,” Arya says coldly. “Lannisters don’t tend to wield blades when others can see them do it, do they?”

Cersei’s skin is milk white beneath the soot as she drops the dagger to the crumbled stone floor.

“We surrendered,” she says. “The bells have rung.”

“They aren’t your bells,” Arya says, pacing forwards evenly and kicking the dagger to the side. Across the room, the Hound is sent flying by the Mountain; Sandor knocks his head on the stone floor and scrambles blearily to his feet. “The bells rang for you a long time ago, Cersei, when you crossed my family.”

Cersei’s eyes widen as the back of her heel strikes the wall; she has nowhere else to go now. “No-one can get away with killing a queen in cold blood, girl,” she says, an acidic whisper.

Arya takes another step. “That’s correct,” she says, a wry smile curling her lips. “And I am No-one.”

Cersei’s arms flail in the direction of her dagger on the floor. “I am unarmed!” she proclaims.

“So was my father when you had him beheaded in front of me,” says No-one.

Cersei flattens herself against the stone. “I was only doing what was right by my family.”

“As my mother was, when you had her throat cut,” says No-one.

Desperate now, the pale former queen places a hand on her swollen belly. She is frozen, as a statue, a pillar of ash waiting to crumble. “I am pregnant. You wouldn’t be killing just me – my baby doesn’t deserve to die. You would be committing infanticide.”

Arya Stark smiles more broadly than she has in years, and raises Needle to Cersei’s stomach. “You mean, like this?”

And she slices Needle directly through the skin and into the womb, three sharp jabs, like they told her it was done to her brother’s wife.

Cersei jerks, seizes in shock, her mouth gaping as she clutches her belly in horror.

“My unborn nephew didn’t deserve to die, either,” Arya says, withdrawing the blade and watching with satisfaction as Cersei Lannister crumples to her knees. “Robb’s child didn’t deserve death. Nor did Robb.”

Cersei is moving involuntarily, muscles jerking, a strange cry aching from her throat as blood pools beneath her. Arya draws Needle up to Cersei’s throat and shunts the blade gently across the surface of her chin, forcing the woman to look up, and finally Arya has those dark brown eyes locked with her own.

“They say a Lannister always pays their debts,” she tells Cersei. “You ran up rather a large one, didn’t you?”

She leans forward at once, lunging, and slices Needle downwards, directly into Cersei’s heart. A final scream is choked with blood, but the eyes are still moving as Arya Stark leans into Cersei, her lips grazing the woman’s ear as she whispers, “The Starks send our regards.” A vicious twinkle in her eye extends through her body; energy exploding through her arms as she pulls Needle cleanly across Cersei’s throat, the final blow before blood erupts from the dead queen’s throat. “The North remembers.”

*

“I have surrendered,” Jaime says. “You can’t harm me. To do so would to be tyrannical.”

“Perhaps,” Daenerys Targaryen says coolly, stepping down from Drogon’s back; the dragon’s enormous body has shielded them completely from the shouting and slashing on the other side of the chamber. “But I didn’t think allies needed to surrender to their Queen. Unless you were never an ally, after all?”

“I came back for Cersei.”

“You broke free from capture – or someone else let you free,” Dany says, realising the part Tyrion probably played in this scheme.

“Let us escape alive, please,” Jaime says. “She is pregnant with my child. Please, let us flee, and we will exile ourselves and never set foot in Westeros again.”

Dany doesn’t feel the savage justice of the moment the way she might have. All she can see is the shimmering salt water in Jaime’s eyes, a shimmer she knows she will never see from Jon.

“She is your sister,” she states blankly. “And yet, you love her. You really love her.”

Jaime doesn’t hang his head, but lifts it slightly, facing the judgment. “I always have.”

“People know, you know,” Dany says, advancing on him slightly. “People talk about it behind your backs. You are a famous joke, not only in Westeros, but in Essos, too – the man who fathered three children with his sister – who was a queen, and a king’s wife, not your own.”

Jaime keeps his head up, though he looks diminished by the effort. Blood is dripping off the stone seat and onto the floor. “They didn’t just say it behind our backs,” he says. “And I don’t care anymore. I love Cersei. I love her.”

His words, the warmth with which he proclaims them with ragged breaths, slice through Dany like a shard of ice. She will take the Iron Throne, but she will never have what Cersei had in Jaime.

“I don’t have a love like yours,” she says, pacing and looking through the massive hole she made in the wall, sunlight streaming through it. “In fact, I never will. So why should I let you be with your love now, in your last moments and in hers, when I can’t be with mine.” A scowl of vengeance roars like a lion throughout her. “Besides, perhaps I was misguided all along. My quarrel has never really been with Cersei, after all. It is with you, Kingslayer.”

*

The most unlikely of teams, their blades flash in unison, bouncing off the armour that is now melded with their quarry’s eerie blue skin.

“Why – won’t – you – fucking – die?!” Sandor Clegane screams, driving a sword into his brother’s heart for a second time, only to watch the monster pull it out like it were a splinter, and hurl Sandor backwards, almost tripping over Cersei’s body.

“He survived dragon fire,” Arya cries, parrying the Mountain’s sword with Needle. “A blade can’t kill him.”

The Hound’s weary eyes flash as the knowledge finally comes to him, and he knows he can do it, because the molten armour has made his brother even slower than before, and he is scorched by fire and clumsier than he once was.

And he knows he can do it because he now knows he is not trying to kill the Mountain.

Sandor screams, and while Arya distracts Ser Gregor’s hands and face, he dives to the floor, and slices his blade through the tendons of first his brother’s right foot, then the left. Ser Gregor is falling, a landslide of a man, before he can react; he is still on his back as Sandor severs the feet completely, blade cutting through flesh and tendon and bone until there are two disembodied feet on the floor.

Blood doesn’t spurt out in a geyser; it oozes and bubbles, a semi-solid acid slowly leaking from the sawn-off ankles.

The Mountain is not hurt; but he cannot stand or balance.

And then, they circle him, Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane, and they take no mercy on the monster before them as they separate first his hands from his wrists, hacking through until the hands fall, dead and stiff, to the floor, then they separate his arms from the shoulders, and finally the head, flailing and roaring, from the neck.

The disembodied head still roars, and Ser Gregor Clegane continues to live, but he is no longer an animal but a tree; alive but empty and impotent; an observer for a world and a brother that will now live without him, free.

*

“My father trusted you,” Dany says, facing Jaime Lannister squarely. “You were his hand. You betrayed him.”

“I had no choice!” Jaime protests. “Everyone except him understood that is Reign was over. He was a danger to the Realm, to everyone in King’s Landing – he was the Mad King. I saved lives that day. I would do it again if I had to. Perhaps,” he says, “someone will do that to you, since you seem to be following in your father’s footsteps.”

Jaime hears the scream, then, and he knows. His eyes begin to leak as he calls his sister’s name and nobody responds from the other side of the dragon’s enormous hide.

Dany scowls at him, her mind processing what the scream meant. “I never knew my father, but I know I am nothing like him,” she says proudly. “I am not a Mad Queen. I am here for justice. I am here to break the wheel – and you may be the final spoke to break.”

“I saved lives that day,” Jaime sobs, lowering his face as tears pool with the darkening blood.

“You didn’t save my father’s, or my mother’s, or my brother’s, or mine,” Dany says slowly, deliberately. “You made me an orphan. You made me grow up in exile. You caused me a life of unbearable suffering, revenge and loss. My tortured, wretched life is all thanks to you – you set this wheel spinning, and now, today, the wheel is broken for good. I will never let this happen again.”

Jaime opens his mouth to say his final words, but Daenerys interrupts him with one of her own.

“Dracarys.”

The flames envelope the man who murdered her father, and the Kingslayer is dead.

The fire feels like soft warmth on Dany’s skin.

*

A silver-haired, violet-eyed woman strides through a sunlit stone chamber in an ultramarine dress. Her name is Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, first of her name, the Unburnt, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons.

And now, rightful Queen of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

She walks, almost as in a dream, towards the Iron Throne: the seat forged by the swords of her ancestor’s fallen enemies. She has never seen it before, but it pulls her towards it, magnetic, and as she walks tears spring to her eyes. Her trials and suffering over so many years flash before her eyes, from the exile in Pentos to the Dothraki Sea, the journey across the Red Waste, the dangers of Qarth, her rise to power in Slaver’s Bay, as Queen of Meereen, her fleet finally sailing west to claim Dragonstone as she made alliances with the lords and ladies of Westeros.

As she closes in on the throne, faces and bodies appearing before her as if they are standing beside her in the room as she passes. Illyrio Mopatis, who sheltered her and her brother in Pentos; Viserys, her foolish brother; Khal Drogo, inclining his head; there is Daario Naharis, Hizdahr zo Loraq, Ser Jorah, Missandei of Naath, her two fallen dragons, her children … all of them now memories of a journey that has finally come to an end.

Dany reaches the Iron Throne, touches the blades that form its back, then sits upon it, a savage smile on her face as the cold metal presses through her dress.

Drogon takes to the skies through the gaping hole in the wall of the Red Keep, breathing fire into the air in glorious triumph.

*

They have seen each other during the dying light of that afternoon, but always at a distance, and always something more important was happening. Prisoners were taken: the defeated Lannister Army. Soldiers were celebrating – from the Unsullied, to the Dothraki, to the Northmen. The people of King’s Landing were emerging from their houses and hiding places, blinking in the red rays of sunset, like they could scarcely believe they had survived.

And there was always someone else to tend to, to bark orders at, to advise, to help. Grey Worm, Ser Davos, Tyrion, Arya, the Hound, captains and soldiers, maids who helped her bathe in the Queen’s quarters in the Red Keep, washing the soot and dirt from her pale skin.

But eventually, Jon Snow finds her, just before the dinner feast, when noise emanates throughout the castle.

Dany is sitting on the Iron Throne when Jon enters.

“Your Grace,” he says tentatively, like she is a creature he has never encountered before.

Dany smiles sadly and beckons him in. “Even after that night we spent at Winterfell, during the Battle of Ice and Fire, I still don’t think I’ve ever felt as cold as I do now. All my life I’ve wanted to sit in this room, and all I notice now is how cold it is. It is strange how cold this room feels, after having been in Winterfell. How empty this big room is. I can hear my voice echo, but never any laughter. How empty.”

“You committed a war crime. The bells had rung. Cersei had surrendered.”

“Cersei would never truly surrender. The only way peace would ever occur is if she was dead. I had to see to that.”

“But it’s wrong.”

“It was wrong for Jaime Lannister to murder my father. He did it for what he saw as the greater good. I did what I did for the same reason. You don’t have to agree with me. I am Queen of the Seven Kingdoms now. I don’t need your permission. But I do need to know why.”

“Why what?”

“Why you couldn’t be with me.”

“You know why. If I could un-know it, if I could undo it, I would. But knowing what I know … I’m sorry, Dany. I’m so sorry.”

“Cersei and Jaime Lannister made it work. People whispered about them behind their back, the whole world did, but they died loving each other.”

She pauses, seeing Jon’s awkwardness.

“But I know now it’s impossible. I can force a claim to the throne. I have a dragon. People are forced to respect me out of fear. But I cannot force you to love me in return. I will die one day, and I will know in that moment that I am worth less than Cersei Lannister, because I will die without knowing how it feels for the man I love to love me back.”

“I have loved, and I have lost, and I have died and survived it,” Jon replies neutrally. “More is survivable than you think.”

“But now, what to do with you, Aegon of houses Targaryen and Stark?”

“I told you, I don’t want it,” Jon says. “I don’t want any of it. Not King of the Realm. Not King of the North. None of it.”

“Then I shall grant you your wish,” Dany says. “But to be sure, I will send you somewhere far away where I know you will never leave; you will never be permitted to set foot in Kings Landing again, because to see you with another woman – to see her smile, or the light in my grandnephew’s eyes as she nurses him – would be enough to drive this queen as mad as her father, and that would be a terrible thing for the people to suffer especially with a dragon at her disposal. You will go to the Wall. You will be head of the nights watch. You will guard the Realm from any new threats should they arise again. You will spend your life serving and protecting me.”

Jon swallows. “Yes, your Grace.”

*

Targaryen banners are unfurled throughout the Red Keep and the throne room. Lords and ladies, knights and nobles and peasants are gathered from across the lands. All areas are represented.

Daenerys is crowned Queen at her coronation. She speaks to her subjects. “Twenty years ago, a great injustice was done. This injustice has been righted today. A Targaryen heir sits on the Iron Throne. The Realm is at peace.”

She brings in Drogon.

The crowd cries out, panicked at what might be about to occur.

Dany says “dracarys” and Drogon destroys the Iron Throne in a blast of fire, melts it into molten steel before the watching crowd.

“The former kingdom was built upon the weapons of enemies. I will craft a new Throne using the swords of allies of the Seven Kingdoms. My rule will be based on cooperation among all men, an agreement of the Seven Kingdoms to exist in peace, in exchange for the protection of the Dragon, and for the Dragon to leave them to run their kingdoms in peace.

Each of the Lords of each Kingdom lay down a sword to swear their allegiance.

Bells ring. Peace reigns.

*

A small council meeting is held. Tyrion is hand of the queen. Sam is Grand Maester. Ser Davos, Bronn, Brienne and Grey Worm are all on the council too. Tyrion presides over the meeting in classic Tyrion fashion. There is rebuilding to be done. Podrick is there too, as a squire for Dany, and we have the sense that she is using him as her new boytoy but there is no affection there.

Dany leaves the meeting and is called away by a minder to attend to something.

*

Arya is at the wharf in Blackwater Bay. She is about to step onto a ship when she sees the Hound drinking at a pub.

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t think there is anything left to do. I was supposed to die and I didn’t. Nothing left here to raise my sword against, and raising a sword is why I exist. I figure I drink and fuck as hard as I can until one of those kills me instead. What are you doing?”

“What’s West of Westeros?”

“Nothing. There’s nothing West of Westeros. That’s why we call it Westeros. Otherwise it would be called fucking Middle-os, you daft bitch.”

Arya grins. “There’s a Stark ship setting sail today. I’m going to find what’s beyond the edge of the maps. There could be anything there.”

“What a stupid fucking idea.”

“I don’t belong in Westeros anymore. There’s nothing for a person like me here anymore. You could join me. A swordsman like you could be an asset against the unknown.”

“I’d get to raise my sword again.”

“I can’t imagine we’ll go unchallenged.”

“Will you keep your cunt mouth shut or will it be flapping open the whole fucking time?”

Arya grins.

*

In Winterfell, Sansa sits with her dire wolf overlooking Bran in the tree area, who is piling into a cart.

She goes outside. “Where are you going now?”

Bran says, “I’m needed in Old Town. They don’t know it yet, but they need me. I need to tell them what I know.”

“And what is that?” Sansa asks.

Bran looks at her with disinterest. “There is a surviving Targaryen who has been groomed to be king.”

“Jon doesn’t want it. He’s been banished to the Nights Watch now anyway.”

“Not Jon. Another. A Targaryen who would have claim to the throne; who was hidden away in Essos. Now that his protectors have seen Westeros accept a Targaryen regent, steps may be set in motion.” He pauses. “I must be in Old Town to ensure they aren’t set in motion.” He pauses again. “I won’t be coming back.”

Sansa nods and hugs him. “You aren’t my brother, are you?”

“Not really, no.”

Bran leaves in his cart. Sansa watches him with a tear in her eye. After he leaves, she goes into the crypt. She visits the graves of her father, Eddard, the mother, Catelyn, her brother Robb and his wife, Theon, Rickon. She thinks of Bran, Jon, Arya. All gone. She is the last of the Starks.

Gendry knocks on her door. “We have arrived from Highgarden.”

Sansa smiles. The last of the Starks for now.

*

Jon arrives at the Night’s Watch, Castle Black. Greeted by Tormund and the others there. Pats his Dire Wolf, Ghost.

*

Arya and the Hound sail past the Iron Islands, into the unknown in the West, a smile on her face.

*

Sansa reigns in Winterfell, Gendry by her side.

*

Bran’s cart arrives in Oldtown. He draws his cloak around himself and gets on with business.

*

Dany meets with a peasant woman who wants to appeal to her about a business matter. Then she is told that they were almost killed by Cersei Lannister’s army until Dany and Drogon arrived and blasted through the walls of the city. She says thank you.

Dany feels surprised to have any reaction other than fear. She is immensely touched. Never will she know the love she wants – and she knows that for sure, because her love will never return to her – but that she could give love, and receive thanks … This might be enough to sustain her.

She climbs aboard Drogon. Now that she knows peace, where might they go to find silence? She takes to his back and they fly for a long way; over King’s Landing; across Blackwater Bay; to Dragonstone, the ancestral home.

There were others once, like her, in a place called Valyria. Jorah told her. Perhaps there can be eggs found there. New dragons. New children. New life.

“Drogon, let’s take a detour,” Dany says, feeling her robes crinkle with icicles as they fly higher, into the stratosphere, together.

Fin.

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On the brink of The Brink

G’day crew,

My second novel THE BRINK is published tomorrow and I am so excited for it.

I had intended to write a more comprehensive blog post to herald this book’s release, but I’ve been swamped for a long time.

I was doing a podcast interview earlier today when I mentioned how I recall the specific moment my career exploded. I was standing in the art exhibition space in building 16 at Edith Cowan University’s Mount Lawley Campus in mid-2018, back when I worked there, and while setting up for the event, I glanced at my phone and saw an email from Griffith Review.

The email stated that my novella “Poster Boy” had been declared one of the five winners of the 2018 Novella Project competition, and would be published in Griffith Review #62 later that year.

I remember being numb with shock, disbelief, excitement, anticipation. It had been a long slog to get any of my work recognised. And this email came a few months after a phone call with my then-agent, who advised me that the big 5 publishers in Australia had all rejected the full-length novel manuscript we were pitching to them, titled INVISIBLE BOYS.

I remember taking that phone call in March 2018, a few minutes before teaching an Academic Writing tutorial at ECU for their University Preparation Course. My heart sank through the floor. I remember saying to my agent, “So, is INVISIBLE BOYS dead in the water, or what?” And while she assured me it wasn’t, I feared my career was over before it had begun, and had to go on to cheerily teach a class about how to write an academic essay while inside I felt devastated that I would never make it as an author.

So, just a few months later, when I stood in that white-walled art exhibition space and saw the email from Griffith Review, I was ecstatic. Something was happening! Something I wrote was getting published in a really respected journal. I remember how my colleagues – Sarah, Shad and Julie – celebrated with me, supported me, and encouraged me. It was an awesome win after a long few months of failure.

When “Poster Boy” got published, I was given a few thousand dollars of prize money. It was the first time I’d made any real money off my writing, ever. And I remember that moment as the start of an avalanche, because a few weeks later, INVISIBLE BOYS was shortlisted for the Hungerford, and then it won, and then things went KABOOM .

I mention the mid-2018 “Poster Boy” moment because it was from that moment that my career kicked up a gear and I felt overwhelmed by it for the longest time. The world became a gigantic, non-stop hustle. The INVISIBLE BOYS tour was awesome. But it also made me dissociate the fuck out of my body almost every gig, because it was just so intense to revisit that trauma over and over.

It wasn’t until late 2021 that I started to feel like I had any level of control over my life again. I started learning how to say no to things, how to put up boundaries, how to protect and defend my writing time and my time to just be a human being. I learned how to define myself beyond being a writer. I found a lot of peace and comfort in weightlifting, and cardio, and playing social footy, and working as a labourer again.

I mention this because my headspace, now, today, the day before my second novel comes out, is so wildly different to how I felt the first time.

When INVISIBLE BOYS came out I felt like a newborn foal taking his first shaky steps only to cop a torrent of fire-hose-pressure water to the face. I felt knocked off my feet. I had only just worked out who I was, and then the whole world seemed to just COME AT ME, with its misreadings and expectations and projections. Ahh, it was amazing and horrific in equal measure.

Tonight, I am sitting at my desk with a can of bourbon, pausing for just a minute to reflect on how I feel before THE BRINK goes out into the world.

I am really happy to say that this time around, I don’t feel overwhelmed. I don’t feel like a nervous foal finding his feet in a dangerous environment.

I feel like a goddamn wild stallion.

This time around, I know who I am. I know I am not everyone’s cuppa tea and I don’t give a shit. I’ve happily set up a whole tour where I can put myself out there, show up as I really am, meet a whole heap of you guys, and then promptly retreat back to my cave to take care of myself once it’s done.

This headspace was hard-won. I pushed back against the expectation that authors, gay YA authors specifically, have some duty to be good role models (fuck that – it’s unhealthy!) and I rejected the projection of literary class that was foisted upon me in the public eye by proudly accepting my status as a bogan on season seven of the ABC’s TV show YOU CAN’T ASK THAT (I’m not kidding – the moment that episode aired I felt this bulk sense of relief that I didn’t have to pretend to be anything other than a Gero dero anymore).

I really can’t overstate how much these moves have made a difference to how settled I feel.

I don’t feel any pressure to be perfect or well-behaved or anybody’s role model.

I don’t feel the weight of being an award-winning literary author.

I feel more comfortable showing up as myself now. The good parts and the bad.

It makes the eve of a new book release far less daunting than last time. Instead of this sense of dread and terror, I feel excited.

I have written a book I am proud of. It is, as John Mellencamp would say, the best that I could do. It is a book about self-discovery and self-love. It is about wrestling your own identity back from who the world wants and expects you to be – something I have spent the past few years trying to do. It is, I hope, an ode to self-empowerment and finding a way to be yourself, even if the climate around you has always made you feel like shit. It is about Leonardo, the shy, terrified boy who wants to be tough; and Kaiya, the high-achiever who wants to be bad; and Mason, the footy jock who wants to be with his best mate, Jared. It is about burning your fake persona down to find who you really are – who you really wanna be.

It’s also a kickarse thriller (well, I reckon it is). I hope youse like it.

With all the edits to THE BRINK obviously now completed, and my third book draft completed and sent off to my agent and publisher earlier today, I am finally able to get back to blogging and sharing more writing and reflections with you guys again – just in time for my tour.

You can find out more about THE BRINK here.

And if you wanna come see me on tour, here’s the details of where you can find me in the coming weeks.

Can’t wait to connect with youse again as I hit the road across Australia over the coming months – seeyas out there!

Holden

How A Moment of New Year’s Rage Made Me Set Goals Every Year

This time last year, I blogged about 2020 being a shitshow, but that it seemed like ‘the tide was turning’ for 2021.

Fucken woops.

For many, 2021 was as bad as, or worse than, 2020. And it looks like 2022 is heading for a rocky start, too.

It might seem weird to do things like goal-setting, or writing, when the world is a tyre fire.

But doom scrolling on Twitter isn’t useful: it’s a huge sapper of creative energy and is best avoided. The world’s fortunes are beyond my control.

What is within my control is what I’m going to spend my energy on this year.

I find solace in escaping into writing, and setting goals at the start of a new year always motivates me to work hard.

Before I evaluate my 2021 goals and set my 2022 goals, though, I want to touch on a couple of things around goals.

Earlier this week, an emerging writer contacted me for advice. He felt plagued by self-doubt (as we all do) and said that since I seem big on setting and reaching goals, he wanted to know how I keep focused.

We chatted about it, but his observation validated why I do these blogs each year, because there was a time when people in my life had no concept that I actually worked hard.

Years ago, I remember sharing some good career news with a family member, and he replied dismissively, ‘Oh yeah, you’re always just so lucky. Shit just falls in your lap.’

I wanted to shout at him, because this was such a skewed perspective. That opportunity did not just fall in my lap: I had to get a degree, then an Honours year, then achieve a bunch of stuff, then spend years networking, proving my worth and actually asking for it.

I outlined this to him, but he just shrugged like ‘sure, whatever man’.

His mind was made up: to him, I led an unfairly charmed life, and my success was due to me being more cosmically fortunate than him. Dumb luck.

I think this is really misunderstood about artists. Our successes seem to happen miraculously, but there is so much unseen, unpaid work behind all of it. For every publication, years of toiling at a desk, full of self-doubt, with zero promise of any payoff.

Creative success is an iceberg: people see the single achievement, but not the years of ruthless determination and work that made it happen.

So, when emerging writers ask for my advice, I always say you need to first set clear goals: what are you trying to achieve, and by when.

Next, you need to actively block out the time into your calendar, every week of the coming year, to allocate towards working at each goal.

Your goals need to dictate what your daily life looks like.

I don’t think this can be taught. There just needs to be a moment where the desire to achieve your goals overwhelms your fear and inertia to act on them.

For me, that moment was New Year’s Day 2014.

That day, the dawning of yet another year as an unsuccessful wannabe writer finally broke me.

I felt like a supreme failure; all talk. Since the age of seven I’d been saying I wanted to be an author, and yet here I was at twenty-five with nothing to show for it. Where’s your book, loser?

I had a moment where I got so angry, I just lost my shit. I grabbed an empty notebook and cut sick, ranting and raging in a stream-of-consciousness style, page after page.

Me, drunk, in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2014.

What emerged in those pages was that I was fed up investing all my time, money and energy into stuff that only took me further away from where I actually wanted to be in life.

So, New Year’s Day 2014 was the moment I furiously decided to burn all of that stuff down.

I renounced trying to have a good full-time job and career.

I renounced trying to earn lots of money.

I renounced academic validation.

Just now, I dug that particular notebook out of my filing cabinet. It’s a Game of Thrones notebook with an image of the Iron Throne on its cover. Among the many hectic, rage-fuelled, ink-scrawled pages that day in January 2014, I wrote:

I ain’t no good little straight A’s boy getting an office job to make everyone proud and happy.

I am a fucking artist and I am gonna sing for my supper forevermore.

I will make my life happen.

That moment was when my whole life changed, and I became a dedicated artist.

I started calling myself a writer, got working on my first manuscript, and set a goal to complete it by the end of that year.

Since I had a full-time job at the time, my only chance to achieve that goal was to use my nights and weekends. I had to sacrifice all my spare time. I used to fill my down-time with studying various qualifications and drinking and socialising with work mates, uni mates, school mates.

I sacrificed that. No more studying. No more socialising.

I only had so many hours to use per week. If I wanted to avoid being in the exact same place come January 2015, I had to actively make changes in my life.

I dedicated myself to the hustle: evenings and weekends became writing time.

Some shit I wrote on my arm in early 2014 to remind myself what I was giving up and what I really wanted. May have been drunk at the time. 😐

I didn’t miss my old pursuits. Working hard at my dream was a joyous end in and of itself. Even if I never got a book published, I felt alive and happy.

I’m sharing this because whenever someone asks me about goals and discipline as a writer, I feel I can only do so much in the way of advice.

I reckon it’s up to each individual artist to have their ‘fuck everything’ moment, where they get so mad they decide to actually do something about it.

If you’re struggling with this, I encourage you to lean into that moment and embrace it.

Not everyone is the same, of course, but it worked for me.

I spent 2014 working on my first draft, and completed that manuscript in January 2015. Finally, a new year rolled around where I felt satisfied. I wasn’t published, I had no accolades and still felt like a failure – but I was working my arse off to change it.

I was unsuccessful but trying, and that made all the difference.

I have kept this approach ever since, which has helped propel me year after year to keep chasing what I want.

I did the same in 2021, setting ten goals for the year: four writing goals and six personal life goals.

Here’s how I went:

2021 GOALS IN REVIEW

WRITING

1. Sign a publishing contract for Book 2 and do further edits on it.

This finally panned out in 2021. I signed a two-book deal with Text Publishing for my second novel, THE BRINK (out August 2022) and my third novel (out late 2023, probably). Big thanks to my agent, Gaby Naher of Left Bank Literary, for securing me an incredible advance that meant I could be a full-time writer – a lifelong dream come true.

On the editing front, I spent the year doing edits and the next draft is due back to my publisher at the end of January.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

2. Complete the second draft of Book 3.

This didn’t happen. I scheduled September and October to smash a second draft, but some crap personal life stuff happened and blew this to pieces. I had a shit few months and couldn’t write anything real. I wrote a Pokémon fanfiction novella to distract myself instead.

My third novel is due to my publisher this April, so I’ll work on it in the first half of this year.

RESULT: FAIL.

3. Progress the TV Series adaptation of Invisible Boys.

This project moved forward at speed in 2021. We got funding from Screen Australia, held a couple of writers’ rooms, got the first episode script written (holy shit, it’s awesome!), and in November 2021, we won a grant from streaming service Stan and Screenwest to develop the show into a ten-episode TV series.

TV development is a long process, but the next steps during 2022 will be to seek more funding to make this actually happen. Stay tuned.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

The Invisible Boys TV series has received development funding from streaming service Stan Australia, as well as Screenwest and Screen Australia. L-R: Producer Tania Chambers OAM, Invisible Boys book cover, director Nicholas Verso.

4. Get 1 piece of short fiction OR journalism commissioned, contracted or published.

This one worked out. My short story, Rappaccini’s Son, was published in the book HOMETOWN HAUNTS (Wakefield Press, 2021). A second piece, a short memoir titled Territory, was accepted for publication in the forthcoming book GROWING UP IN COUNTRY AUSTRALIA (Black Inc, March 2022).

I was also commissioned by WAToday to write a media article about gay conversion therapy, which was widely shared on social media and led to me fronting other press and radio opportunities to speak on the issue.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

LIFE

5. Maintain an average of 5 workouts per week (between weightlifting, footy and cardio).

I managed to maintain this all year and actually exceeded it. On average per week, I did four weights sessions and two cardio sessions (footy training and footy game) – six workouts total. I pushed myself to stick to this even when my nutrition was bad or my energy levels were low, and I’m glad of that.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

6. Get nutrition sorted to shred up and reach goal weight of 75 kg by 30 June 2021.

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. I failed this badly. I had a highly-disciplined first three months: by early April, I was down from 87 kg to 77.7kg, and it seemed I would achieve this. But my mental health nosedived in April, and I ate and drank heavily for months. By June, I was back at 86kg again, and by the end of December, I was still 84kg.

RESULT: FAIL.

7.Get first tattoos in 2021.

This didn’t happen either, and I’m getting mad about it. I wanna get my ink when I’m feeling good about my physique, so this goal is tied to me sorting out my nutrition. I also need money to spare for tattoos, which I currently don’t have as I’m living off advance and royalty income and need to conserve funds. Urgh.

RESULT: FAIL.

8. Train harder at footy and grow more confident and useful to the team in games.

I worked hard at this. For the first three months, I trained with an amateur AFL team, ECU Jets, in addition to the Perth Hornets AFL 9s team. I’ve always wanted to give full-contact AFL a crack. I enjoyed the training, but I felt badly out of my depth in terms of skills – sometimes, embarrassingly so – and I wasn’t able to make it work. The coaches and players welcomed me even knowing I’m a gay bloke, though, and I liked that. But combined with my mental health nosedive and years of crap self-esteem around sports, it became too much. I pulled out to focus on just AFL 9s.

I did become more useful to the team, and I was really proud when the Hornets coach awarded me the trophy for Most Improved Player last month. It’s the first time in my life I’ve won a trophy for anything sports-related. I’ll never be a natural athlete, but I was chuffed to be recognised for putting in the hard work. It’s hard to suck at something, in front of other people, week after week, but still show up and keep trying. I am proud of that.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

Receiving the Perth Hornets trophy for Most Improved Player in the Spring 2021 season was a huge highlight.

9. Do at least one guitar lesson.

After I failed my 2020 goal of doing a whole term of ten guitar lessons, I thought this was a nice, low-ball goal. Lol, nup. I didn’t fit in a single guitar lesson in 2021.

RESULT: FAIL.

10. Do some fun shit for pure enjoyment.

This was an odd goal, but I wanted to ensure I did stuff for fun. I went quad biking with mates, jumped on massive trampolines, went to concerts and went on a footy trip to Lancelin.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

Overall, I hit six out of ten goals in 2021. Not bad, not bad. I don’t stress about failed goals; they just kept me refocus on what I do and don’t want to keep trying at the following year.

My goals for 2021 look similar, but I’m simplifying down to just eight goals instead of ten. Four writing goals, four life goals:

2022 GOALS

  1. Complete the final edits for The Brink and promote its release.
  2. Complete the second draft of Book 3.
  3. Work on the TV Series adaptation of Invisible Boys.
  4. Get one piece of short fiction OR journalism commissioned, contracted or published.
  5. Maintain an average of 5 workouts per week (between weights, footy and cardio).
  6. Get nutrition sorted to shred up and reach goal weight of 75 kg by 30 April 2022.
  7. Get first tattoos in first half of 2022.
  8. Train harder at footy and grow more confident.

The first goal is massive, because the front end of the year will be preparing The Brink for release, and August onwards will be promoting it heavily with media and events. It will be hard to fit anything extra into 2022.

Because of this, stuff like guitar and fun shit will go on the backburner for a less hectic year. This year I’d love to go quad biking, go-karting or get out on a dirt bike, but I won’t set it as a goal. I’ve also left off full-contact AFL: I’m still interested, but it’s on the backburner.

I have a couple of more personal goals, too. I’m not sure if I’ll share them later or not, but I’ll be working on these quietly in my own time this year.

I’m keen to get started on smashing my goals now. The main joy for me is not necessarily being able to write ‘success’ or ‘fail’ at the end of each year, but just enjoying the dogged gut-fire I get that makes me work at each goal, week in, week out. It’s the most fun and rewarding way I know how to live.

In that notebook from 2014, I found a quote I wrote down from Paulo Coelho that I want to share here, to finish up. Coelho says, ‘Do something instead of killing time. Because time is killing you.’ I’ve always found that quote brutally motivational. I hope you might, too.

However you plan to spend your 2022, and whatever your own goals are, here’s to a year that, hopefully, has some good surprises in store for us all.

Holden

I Am Scared of Writing My Third Book

When I was a kid, I used to wonder what took authors so long between books.

I couldn’t fathom why Emily Rodda or Geoffrey McSkimming or JK Rowling would take years to produce the next instalment of Rowan of Rin or Cairo Jim or Harry Potter. What were they doing – swanning around their writery mansions, swimming in backlit infinity pools, drinking cocktails? I didn’t understand how, if you had a publisher, and money, and time, it could take more than a few months to churn out a new book.

Man, am I eating my words now I’m working on my third book. This shit is nowhere near as easy as it looked.

The conditions I’m working in are bloody awesome though, and I actually haven’t blogged about them since they all transpired.

In summary, early this year I signed a two-book deal with the legends at Text Publishing. I was so stoked. My agent, Gaby Naher at Left Bank Literary, pitched The Brink and there was a bidding war between two publishers, which had me practically pissing my pants with excitement. Both publishers were amazing and I could’ve happily signed with either (a good problem to have), but the incredible team at Text were the right fit at this stage in my career and I was so heartened that they really understood my voice and who I am as an author, and wanted to nurture it.

More pragmatically, they gave me a bunch of CASH. Yeahhhh boi! The advance was very nice, and meant I could make a go at being a full-time author, which has been my dream since I was seven. It was an epic moment of arrival.

I got to work fast: I had to deliver the structural edits of my second novel, The Brink, by the end of August this year (the book will be published August 2022). With no day job to distract me, I worked quicker than expected, submitting the edited manuscript to my publisher by mid-July – six weeks ahead of deadline.

At the time, I think I knew there was a rumbling unease in me, because I made sure to labour the point to my publisher: please don’t get used to me being early with deadlines.

On one hand, it’s just solid business sense to under-promise and over-deliver. Plus, deadlines in the publishing world are (tacitly) made to be broken, and most of us realise that as we get a little further into our career. As Douglas Adams famously said, ‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’

That said, I had no intention of not sticking to my next deadline – but I had the vibe it wasn’t going to be easy.

After finishing The Brink, I was meant to go straight to work on Book Three, a contemporary novel for adults. I’d already completed the first draft in May 2020, so it was a case of reworking the story into a stronger second draft, to be delivered to my publisher by the end of November this year.

But once I was done with The Brink, I felt immediate resistance to my third book.

At the time, I rationalised it as me needing to take a bit of breather. After all, The Brink is really fucken intense.

So, since I was well ahead of schedule, I decided to take a short break.

I sat with my master list of planned creative projects and thought about which project I could tinker with as a light distraction. I could play with ideas for my fourth book – the intended sequel to Invisible Boys. I could return to a fantasy novel. I could add to my nearly-complete short fiction collection.

But none of those ideas appealed, because they all required emotional investment: writing them meant dredging up feelings.

Ah, there was the rub: I did not want to deal with real shit.

Once I understood that, my path forward was clearer. I started a new, fun project I have no intention of finding a traditional publishing home for: an eight-part novella. I am writing it purely for the love of writing and the world it’s set in.

That worked. For a few weeks, I wrote fast and had fun. I laughed. My main character is a smart arse. I like his voice and how he’s a brat.

But once I reached chapter six, I slowed down, then ground to a halt. I didn’t want to finish the novella, cos once it was complete, I’d have no excuse to not work on Book Three.

This is the nebulous shadow that’s been lurking in the corner of my eye, a truth I’ve been avoiding: I am very scared of writing my third book.

And it’s not for the reasons I might’ve expected.

It’s not the weight of expectation of writing a follow-up to a successful debut (I already went through that shit with The Brink – and that pressure was not fun).

It’s not about the shift to writing for an adult audience (most of my readers are adults anyway, and those who are older teens will be adults by the time this third book is published).

It’s not even about the premise of the story itself (I reckon it’s killer and people will love it – I hope so, anyway!).

No, the fear is the real shit I am going to have to deal with in order to write it.

The only way writing a novel works for me is if it is a vehicle to tell my own truths. The end product is made-up characters and an invented plot for others to connect with, but the seed from which a book germinates is always my own lived experience.

Invisible Boys was an exorcism of the teenage shame that left me psychically pockmarked; The Brink is a coming-of-age novel about being a misfit and what it means to want to burn yourself down.

The difference with these first two books was how much distance I had from them. The Invisible Boys are sixteen; the protagonists in The Brink are eighteen. I’m thirty-three now and although I am intimately present in both books, and writing them changed me massively, they are tackling older wounds from my younger years.

My third book is different. It’s about where I am now. I’m reflecting on what has happened since the Saturn Return of my twenty-ninth birthday. This book is about identity and relationships, conformity and individuality, acceptance and abandonment, abuse and escape, liberation and fallout. It is about what happens after the dust has settled.

During these past four years, there have been so many public highs, career-wise, that I know many people’s perception of my life is that it is charmed and that I am lucky. Professionally, they are probably correct.

But there have been many enormous unseen lows in my personal life which has made for such a schizophrenic four years in that regard. Almost every time I was being applauded or congratulated for something going well in my career, I was privately devastated by stuff going on in my personal life.

The truth of the last four years is that they have simultaneously been the best and worst four years of my life.

To write this third book, I have to take my blinders off and look at this time, and where I have landed now, with no illusions. I am going to have to write in real time about my present condition and ask myself: Where the fuck am I now? Who the fuck am I now? What the fuck am I even doing here? When I’m not telling my social media followers that I’m stoked and pumped about this achievement or that – how do I really feel?

Despite everything I’ve learned about making space for all emotions, this year I’ve still fallen into the trap of trying to keep a lid on how shit I’m feeling. Out of some sense of being grateful for what I have, or not wanting to seem negative, or not being an artist having an existential meltdown while the world is a fucken tyre fire.

Anyway, that’s bollocks and I should’ve known better. The world remains a tyre fire whether or not I add my kerosene to the blaze.

And I know the only path to feeling happy personally is the same path to feeling fulfilled professionally: I need to be expressed in writing in an honest and unfettered way. No pretending I’m fine when I’m not. No bullshit.

That’s all it takes.

My resistance to Book Three was not without merit, though. One thing I’ve learned, repeatedly, is you can’t write about something if you’re still going through it.

I’ve been grieving a lot of stuff for four years – broken relationships, rejection from tribes I thought I belonged to – but I’ve been treading water, impotently pinballing between denial and anger. After finishing the first draft of this book, I segued into the bargaining stage of this colossal relational grief. I was scrabbling around a dark cave, blindly looking for an exit that did not exist. Maybe if I always do x, and I never do y, then I won’t need to lose this person or that person from my life.

The bleedingly obvious truth is that no healthy relationship requires you to contort and suppress yourself in order to be tolerated. There was never a way out of that cave. Separation and departure were inevitable if I was to survive intact.

My task now is not to escape the cave, but to accept that it is where I live, and learn to allow my eyes to adjust to the gloom.

Although painful, I’ve recently been able to end that onanistic bargaining stage, which means I’ve now landed squarely in depression.

At the moment, most days, I feel lonely, isolated, burnt-out and bleak. I am often empty; sometimes I feel like a husk. I remind myself this is temporary and a part of the process, and although it sucks big hairy donkey balls, I can cope with it and it won’t finish me off.

But it’s still not the place to write a friggin novel from.

So, I’ve decided to pause this book until I’m in the right headspace for it. I’ve negotiated with my (very understanding) publisher to deliver Book Three at the end of March 2022 instead.

I feel like I’ve become one of those authors taking a while between new projects, though rest assured I am not swanning around in my author mansion (mostly because I do not have a mansion; I live in the hood yo). I’ll still be hectic with workload – finishing my novella, copy edits for The Brink, all the other busy paid work of being an author, plus several unannounced projects underway.

But when I’m not working, instead of mining my deepest darkest for nuggets of literary gold, I’m gonna chill the fuck out, man. I’m gonna stop putting my brain and my heart under the artistic microscope for a couple of months. I’m gonna spend the rest of this year living, chilling, processing, doing normal humanoid stuff and letting myself naturally shuffle from depression to the final stage: acceptance.

I think this rest is an essential part of the creative cycle.

Next year, I’ll return to Book Three, and enjoy writing for what it is: an alchemical confession box, a lightning rod of catharsis and expression, and the best medicine I know.

Holden

LONDON (2006)

LONDON (2006)

London, baby: the time has come. Time to unplug and taste the mud. Time to decant my father’s blood. Ghosted concrete columns hold up the Hyde Park hostel. My Globe skate shoes stick to the Fosters-stained carpet, everything smells like Ramen, the chipped toilet door doesn’t lock. It’s perfect. My back is beaded in English summer sweat and unwashed Europeans consume me in the corridor. Come, they say. They know why I’m here. Their eyes are as hungry and wild as mine: one shared look and we all understand each other. We are here to live, not survive. We are here to party and die. Come along, come with us.

Of course I’ll come; why else am I in London?

The portal into our new world is the Queensway tube stop, bright posters for Lily Allen’s new single “Smile” beaming down on drab-faced office flops. We swagger into a street of three equidistant Tescos, the footpath an aroma of overcooked curries and compact car exhaust. We creep to Tony’s illegal late-night grog shop, lights off in case of a visit from the cops. We walk back singing and air-guitaring to The Darkness, yelling at gargoyles. We vodka and we beer in a giant concrete pipe; we soccer empty cans in the alley behind. We coronate each other’s heads with crumpled tins; on the lip of a dumpster we confess our sins. I am a teacher of deviance when I reveal the word ‘cunt’ to the Basque separatist kids, but a student when they teach me to make noise that riles the cops at 4am. Do you want to spend the night in jail? they say.

Of course I want to go to jail; why else am I in London?

Breathing in the hostel nightclub basement: shisha, hookah, weed. Agony leaks from my mouth in illicit plumes. The girls laugh and thrust their nipples in my face but I’m too busy trying to give his meat a taste. None of them know I spent the day in Covent Garden trawling for seed or that it was the first thing I ever did that made me feel free. How in that moment I was finally alive; and how in that moment I’ll remain until I die. I will forever be that boy trying to outrun himself on Tottenham Court Road. But that night, under flickering neon torus and throbbing DJ beats, I am weak. He’s Irish and Catholic and pale beef. He leaves the DF for the urinal and I bear-hug him while he pees. Do you want people to think you’re a homo? he says. Do you want people to think you’re a freak?

It’s all I fucking want, man; why else am I in London?

– Holden Sheppard

I Am Not The Role Model You’re Looking For

The first time it happened was two weeks into my book tour.

At the end of my author talk at a library in Perth, a well-intentioned (and very nice) audience member asked a question that got under my skin.  

She asked how I felt about becoming a role model.

I was immediately horrified by this question, and I told her so. I explained that being held up as a paragon of anything was anathema to me, and I wasn’t interested in that kind of public role.  

But, she insisted, my example would be of interest to gay people, to young men, to people in general. She had just heard me talk about sexuality and shame, masculinity and identity, mental health and self-care. She thought these were important conversations.

I agreed. These themes are central to my book and my work. But I didn’t want to be seen as exclusively positive and wholesome. That terrified me.

The promo cycle for the book rolled on, and the “role model” question came up again and again – and continues to.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a super nice thing to have said to you. And I learned to be more courteous in my response. I didn’t want to come across as a completely ungrateful prick. After all, not long ago a man like me would have been derided, scorned, barred from events at schools; go far back enough and I would’ve been locked up.

So, “role model” is hardly a slur. It just made me intensely uncomfortable.

Once I looked up the meaning of the term – a person who someone admires and whose behaviour they try to copy – I thought, okay, that’s not so bad. If a closeted teenage boy could look at me and see there are many different ways of being homosexual, and that gave him something tangible to shape himself in accordance with, okay, fine. If that helps someone, fine.

But the terror has never gone away, because most people don’t just want a ‘role model’.

They want a good role model.

That’s the term that makes me want to run away.

A ‘good’ person behaves well and conforms to the norms and customs of society, and, to be frank, the norms and customs of western culture in 2021 are fucking horrible.

Being a good artist, or a good gay man, in this era, carries particular behavioural expectations. I have learned this from interactions over the past few years, and even in just the past week. I am expected to speak and behave in a certain way; effuse a certain toxic positivity and purity; project my morality and politics publicly; call out and be outraged by any fellow artist or gay deemed even slightly problematic, while never being deemed problematic myself. I am tacitly expected to become an activist by default – not just in my art either, but in a vitriolic, showy way on social media.

My sense is that in 2021, to be in the public eye, to be a minority in the public eye no less, is to be held to an excessively high standard of performative virtuous behaviour, bordering on squeaky-clean, lemony-fresh perfection.

This is sick.

That pressure to be “good” for the public is deeply unhealthy. Nobody is perfect. Nobody is even that crash hot. It’s human nature to be kind of nice but also sometimes a piece of shit. To pretend otherwise feels so disingenuous. We are all made of dark and light, shadow and persona.

This is particularly true of artists. We are often damaged people. We have a tendency to be mentally ill, addicted, traumatized, sensitive, troubled. I am all of these things. Most artists and writers I know are, too, to varying degrees. This side of our selves often informs much of our art, and explains why we can be navel-gazing and temperamental at the best of times.  

And the thing is, this drive for perfect behaviour sets me off because I’ve been there. I am proof of why it’s a terrible idea to pretend you are pure; when you let the persona take over and try to perform virtue for the world, in order to obtain safety, love, popularity, relevance, group acceptance, validation, or whatever it is you’re seeking.

This happened when I was a teenager. I was a big homo. I nearly killed myself because I grew up in a place, time, culture, class, religion, and family setting where homosexuality was a shameful thing. But also, I kept that stuff – what the world around me had deemed evil and sinful – hidden and private. Externally, I tried to become the paragon of a moral Catholic boy in as many ways as I could: praying to God, writing to God, studying the bible, wearing my crucifix, being straight, parroting Catholic views like they would undo what was going on in my heart.

I worked hard, and constantly, to be a performatively virtuous person. It obliterated my own sense of identity, my own humanity, and drove me to the point of suicide.

Thankfully, I didn’t kill myself. I got help from an anonymous mental health service, which saved my life.

I then wrote a book about my experiences. And the underlying message of that book was not just that it’s okay to be gay (although – spoiler alert – it is).

The point is that trying to conform to the world’s estimations of what makes a good person is an unhealthy and self-destructive endeavour. If you give yourself over to what the world thinks of you, you will lose yourself.

In the acknowledgements of my book, I wrote about my troubled teenage self; how my key lesson from having gone through a suicidal level of self-loathing is that I am good enough as I am.

It feels like a dereliction of duty for me to not, then, defend this idea in public, as well as in my art. There is a vexing misunderstanding that the thing that nearly killed me was homophobia. It wasn’t.

What nearly killed me was shame.

It was shame, thrown by others, internalised within me. Shame for being human, for being myself, for not being perfect, for being slightly bad. The world told me I was bad for being homosexual. I felt ashamed for it. The shame slowly destroyed my will to live.

Becoming painfully well-behaved, performing morality and flawlessness to please those in positions of authority, was the best thing I knew to do to survive at the time. But it made me sick, and I know it drives many to an early grave.

I have spent years clawing my way back from that teenage precipice. I have learned not to abandon myself, but to stay with myself. I have learned that all the shame an entire planet can throw at me cannot and will not divorce me from the knowledge that I am, at my core, okay.

Nowhere in that process of un-internalising that shame did any therapist suggest I start throwing shame back at those who had hurt me. Why would I hurt people the way I’d been hurt?

When I came out in 2008, Western culture seemed to be moving towards becoming less judgmental, less shaming, more tolerant of difference. A world more interested in living and letting live.

That idea feels laughable in 2021. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the human need to shame and punish one another supersedes any dogmatic Abrahamic religion. We currently live in a culture of permanent outrage: those we disagree with are not humans to be tolerated, but enemies to be called out and destroyed. We are not encouraged to be kind.

The crux is: my sense is that to be seen as a role model in this era would be to support and reify shame. I would be buying into a reductive, unkind system that is quite as crushingly inhumane and airless as the deeply moralistic one that almost killed me. I know how destructive that is. I know how many people take their lives because of shame. Everyone carries their own burden, often in silence. Throwing shame is destructive; internalising that shame can be fatal.

So, I won’t do it.

Trying to mould myself into who I think people want me to be would be unhealthy. My career might gain more relevance if I started ranting about sociopolitical minutiae on Twitter, but the gratification of those retweets would be cold comfort for my impaired wellbeing.

This culture has plenty of artist-activists. I don’t want to be one of them. Just “artist” is cool with me.

And I can make my peace with being a role model if that helps someone, but I would very much like to not be a good one.

I think I now understand why that original question bugged me so much. It’s not that I’m ungrateful; I just don’t want to be misread. Not after having gone through some dark shit on my way to get where I am. I feel that misrepresentation would wreck me.

So, if, as my career grows, I’m going to be held up as an example of something, let it not be model behaviour.

I’d rather be an example of being flawed; of being an imperfect person in an imperfect world; of cutting yourself some slack; of being allowed to be a bloody human being.

In a culture addicted to toxic perfection, and an era so unforgiving toward human nature, I don’t believe it’s just okay for artists to show these flaws. I reckon it’s vital.

Holden

2020 in Review & My Goals for 2021

Man. This year was a real shitshow, ay?

We’re all familiar enough with why 2020 was a giant tyre fire. Thankfully, it looks like the tide is turning. 2021 will hopefully (*touches wood repeatedly*) be a better year.

Every December, I reflect on the past year and plan for the one ahead. When I made my 2020 goals, I had no idea what was about to unfold. Consequently, many of my goals – like everyone’s – went to hell.

Weirdly, my career thrived in 2020. I don’t take that for granted. Invisible Boys landed a slew of accolades, culminating in winning the WA Premier’s Prize for an Emerging Writer in August. I also signed with a new agent for my next books, and sold the film and TV rights for Invisible Boys, which is now in development as a ten-episode TV series. This stuff was fucken awesome, especially against the backdrop of a heinous year.

That said, despite the luminosity of career highlights, this year was a bit of an annus horribilis for me personally. I started the year with an injury, dislocating my shoulder for a second time, which derailed my health and fitness for months. The gym and footy do a lot to keep my head above water, and losing both was a major struggle. After that was a two-month lockdown, financial strife as my income dried up for the year, the death of a family member, a car accident that injured my back, a house flood and insurance battles, then a very public legal quagmire. From January through to December, my mental health was the worst it’s been in ages. This stuff was fucken terrible, especially against the backdrop of a heinous year.

The mix of light and dark in 2020 was starker than in most years, and there was a chasm between people’s perceptions of how good my life must be and how shit I actually felt. But upon reflection after a strange year, I have my health, I have my husband, I have a career I love, and I live in a relatively safe part of the world. I am lucky.

And despite a year of thwarted dreams for many, people across the globe are arming themselves with the usual December hope that next year will be better. I share this hope. Setting goals helps me take stock of how far I’ve come and refocus my energies. Looking back and looking forward is how I stay motivated.

So, I set 10 goals for 2020, split between writing goals and personal life goals.

Here’s how I went:

2020 WRITING GOALS

1. Sign a contract for Book 2 and do edits for that.

Well, this didn’t happen. My first agent left the publishing business, and so I signed with a new agent mid-year: the brilliant Gaby Naher of Left Bank Literary. Gaby requested edits to the manuscript, and this led to an extensive rewrite. Technically, I did sign a contract with my agent for Book 2, and I did do edits for it. But the goal was to sign a contract with a publisher, which hasn’t yet happened. Book 2 will be pitched to publishers in 2021.

Result: FAIL (but PROGRESS).

2. Promote IB until it has been flogged to death (NB: may have already happened).

I reckon I did what I set out to do here. Despite the pandemic leading to the cancellation of loads of gigs, including events and festivals over east, I still landed a bunch of gigs, many of them online, to sustain myself and promote the book. There was loads of media to promote the book and heaps of good word of mouth. I worked hard on this one, and I achieved my goal.

Result: SUCCESS.

3. Get 1 piece of short fiction & 1 piece of journalism published.

My short story “Irreversible” was published in a special edition of Westerly in February 2020, so I got the first part done. However, the journalistic piece eluded me. I did have an offer of a commissioned piece mid-year, but I had to turn it down as the deadline was impossible given what I was juggling at the time. I enjoy writing articles, though, so I’ll keep this on the backburner for the future.

Result: HALF SUCCESS, HALF FAIL (note to self: don’t put two different goals in one next time).

4. Start work on Book 3.

This is one goal the pandemic actually made easier. I didn’t just start Book 3 – I wrote the whole thing in five weeks while we were in lockdown in April-May. I have hardly glanced at this manuscript since I finished it and I feel I’ve really benefited from staying away from reading it for more than six months. I’ll have a fresh perspective when I dive into rereading and editing it in 2021.  

Result: SUCCESS.

5. Super Secret Project X!!!

This referred to the adaptation of Invisible Boys as a film or TV series, which I was having conversations about last December but hadn’t yet signed a deal. In August, we announced these rights were optioned by Nick Verso and Tania Chambers, and earlier this month, we received development funding from Screenwest. I am so stoked the TV series is going into development in 2021 and can’t wait to see how it unfolds.  

Result: SUCCESS.

2020 LIFE GOALS

6. Maintain average 5 workouts per week (weightlifting and cardio).

Somehow, I actually managed this. For most of the year it was 6 days per week, helped by the fact that footy counts as cardio. There were some crap weeks where I only exercised two or three times, but overall I maintained a steady level of regular near-daily fitness this year and I’m proud of that. I want to keep going with this into 2021.  

Result: SUCCESS.

7. Shred up & reach goal weight of 73 kg by 30 June 2020.

Not sure whether to laugh or cry at this one. I weighed 86 kg when I made this goal. Despite exercising like a muthafucka all year, I also started comfort eating and drinking bulk alcohol during lockdown. By July, I was 87 kg – even heavier than December. I got my shit together in October, gained some muscle and lost some fat, and consequently weighed in at 83 kg last week. Considering the year I had, this is good progress, but still a far cry from my ambitions of major shreddage.

Result: EPIC FAIL.

8. Get tattoos – July 2020. 😊

This goal is also in tatters. The plan was get ripped, then get inked. I haven’t achieved the first so the second hasn’t followed. Bum-bow. I know I can get tattoos whatever my body shape, but my vain heart wants what it wants.

Result: FAIL.

9. Train harder at footy, get less shit & play at least 1 whole AFL 9s season with the Hornets.

Despite my injuries, I trained harder at footy than in 2019. I played a whole season of AFL 9s with the Hornets, save for a couple of games when I had work. And I ultimately got a bit less shit: I am still not a stellar footy player, but I’m better than I was twelve months ago. I can only try to keep improving and hopefully, over time, become a more useful and competitive player.

Result: SUCCESS.

10. Do 1 whole term of guitar lessons (10 weeks).

Okay, this one completely fell by the wayside. I was too busy to dedicate time to this every week for a whole school term. I do still really want to learn guitar, though.

RESULT: FAIL.

Ultimately, I succeeded at about half my goals and failed at the remaining half. That’s a pass mark overall, right?

I am not fazed by the failures. Every year, I set goals knowing I will achieve some and fall short of others. This is the nature of goal setting and life. It doesn’t stop me enjoying the process of aiming high and it helps me work out which goals I don’t feel passionate about and which I really want to work harder at next time.

2020 hampered a lot of my goals, so my list for 2021 looks very similar, with some minor tweaks:

GOALS FOR 2021

WRITING

1. Sign a publishing contract for Book 2 and do further edits on it.

2. Complete the second draft of Book 3.

3. Progress the TV Series adaptation of Invisible Boys.

4. Get 1 piece of short fiction OR journalism commissioned, contracted or published.

LIFE

5. Maintain an average of 5 workouts per week (between weightlifting, footy and cardio).

6. Get nutrition sorted to shred up and reach goal weight of 75 kg by 30 June 2021.

7. Get first tattoos in 2021.

8. Train harder at footy and grow more confident and useful to the team in games.

9. Do at least one guitar lesson.

10. Do some fun shit for pure enjoyment.

When I look at these goals, I feel strongly about making them all a reality. I’ll do my level best. I love having goals to chase and I can’t wait to get started on all of these.

What are your goals for 2021? Are they focused mostly on career, or on life, or a mix of both?

Here’s to a better year ahead for all of us.

Holden

Would I Change My Past?

The other day, I was asked a question that stumped me.

I was doing a talk at a high school, and a year 9 boy asked me if, given how much I suffered, would I change anything about my younger years?

I did the standard public speaker response when you are asked a question you have no idea how to answer: “Wow, that’s a really great question. Thank you so much for asking it.”

Depending on how slowly you utter this, and how strategically you structure your pauses, you can draw this out for five to ten seconds – enough time to throw together a response.

But even after those few seconds of scrambling, I still didn’t have an answer.

I ended up thinking out loud with the audience to meander my way to a quick response – that I probably wouldn’t change things – but I didn’t have space to explain why.  

Growing up homosexual in the broad circumstances I did – a country town, blue collar, Sicilian-Australian, Roman Catholic environment – gave me certain messages about being gay. It was effete; unmasculine; it made me a faggot or a finocchio; it made me evil and sick. Bad bad bad.

But these external messages, in isolation, are not what fucked me up.

What fucked me up was my response to those circumstances. Being gay in that world seemed like it would annihilate me and everything I was supposed to be. So, for years, I fought it, denied it, deleted it. I perceived it as a mortal sin; prayed to God to fix me; dug out my baptismal crucifix and wore it like a talisman; studied the Bible hoping to drive the devil out of me. This led to that spiral down into depression, self-loathing, and eventually the suicidal ideation I wrote about in Invisible Boys.

So yes, the world was hostile to my existence. But I was more hostile to myself than the world was.

I know sixteen-year-old me only did what he did to try to survive. I probably wouldn’t have done it if my external environment told me it was okay to be gay; that I was good enough just as I was.

But I don’t sit down with my therapist to unpack the world and its fuckery. Sure, I could blame the world, but what a waste of time. I can’t change society any more than I can solve suffering on a global scale. Both would be Sisyphean to attempt, and nobody will ever succeed at either.

I do sit down to work with my therapist around how I treat myself, and that is where my recovery process begins and ends: with me, on the micro level. Those microcosmic changes are what ripple out to influence the macrocosm, but I can’t start with the world. I must start with me.

I have spent a long time recovering from how cruel I was to myself. My self-loathing runs deep, and even now, on a bad day, I can be right back there in that dark well in a split second. I have a track record of treating myself worse than I would ever consider treating another human being: with revulsion and disgust and utter contempt. I can turn on myself very quickly.

It might seem logical, then, that if given the chance, I would change this.  

But being cruel to myself in my younger years made me more resilient in the long run.

For instance, sometimes I meet someone new who seeks to insult me, denigrate me, humiliate me, embarrass me, or reduce me. This is less common than when I was younger, when I had no discernment and would hang around people who made a sport of ridiculing me, but it still happens.

When I was younger, I listened to anyone who insulted me. I tried to make them like me. I tried to embody the characteristics they admired and squash out the traits they derided. I laughed at their ridicule of me to make them tolerate my presence. I performed like this constantly and if they didn’t stop insulting me – which they didn’t – I would blame myself for not doing enough to make them like me.

I did this most of my life. I don’t do it anymore.

These days, when I encounter someone like this, I feel a bit immune to their bullshit. Like, what can they say to me that is worse than what I have said to myself? Nothing. I was the most destructive person in my life for years. So, every time someone in my life tries to have a go at me, even in subtle, passive-aggressive ways, I just think, You can’t hurt me. They can’t. They will never come close to making me feel as bad about myself as I already did.

That isn’t to say I’m impervious to being emotionally wounded. Far from it. I have a sensitive temperament. I have a propensity for listening to critical voices, either my own, those of others, or those of society, that tell me I am not okay.

But I know now that there is nothing wrong with me. The message that I am not okay at my core is what is inaccurate, always, whether it’s me or someone else saying it.

So, the moment I get a whiff that someone is going to be destructive towards me, I don’t try to please them, or get them to change. I just get the fuck out. I cut them off, stop talking to them, stop investing time in them, block and delete if it’s online. I keep their toxicity as far away from me as possible. Their voices do not bear listening to, and whatever I do hear, I don’t take on board.  

But this is a response I’m not sure an otherwise serene adolescence could have manufactured. It is a resilience borne of self-acceptance overcoming self-abnegation; a powerful alkali neutralising a corrosive acid.

That is to say: I am not sure I could have ended up where I am without having gone through what I did. I don’t know if I could know self-acceptance and wholeness if I hadn’t, at one point, hated myself so much I was willing to abandon myself entirely. Living through my own personal brand of shit made me who I am.

What if I had grown up in a wealthy, inner-city, left-wing suburb, in a white-collar family, with no cultural or religious prejudices towards homosexuality? Or what if I had grown up heterosexual?

I don’t know who I’d be or what I’d be like, but I do know that guy wouldn’t be me.

And even if those facets of my life changed, I don’t think I’d be happier or unmolested by life. I would have suffered anyway. All humans suffer and our suffering shapes our lives. My suffering would have just had a different colour.

So, to answer that kid from the high school library: no, I wouldn’t change anything about my past.

The only thing I would have changed about my younger years is that I would have been kinder to myself. But I feel okay with how things played out for me. It is my past cruelty towards myself that led me to a sense of what psychologists call unconditional self-acceptance.

The arrows I slung at myself along the way were misguided, but they both toughened my hide and taught me to put down the bow.  

Holden

How Failure Made Me Who I Am

Like most writers, I have been sculpted by failure far more than success.

One failure in particular has always hurt me, because it was the first.

It was only tonight, here in 2020, when I was in the middle of judging a writing competition myself, that I reflected on this failure and realised it may not have been what I thought it was.

I’ll set the scene, Sophia Petrillo style. Picture it: Sicily, 1912.

Or, more accurately, picture it: Geraldton, 2000. An eleven-year-old Holden Sheppard submits a short story to a writing competition for the first time in his life. It was an original mystery/detective story in the style of Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books I was devouring from the primary school library at the time.

I had, at this point, been actively writing in my spare time for three years. There was almost nothing emotional or powerful about any of my writing, but the mechanics were pretty solid for a boy of my age. I knew I was a capable writer and that it was one of my strengths.

I wrote my piece, and even drew a small illustration of the story’s crime scene on the bottom of one of the pages. This was twenty years ago, so nothing was digital – hard copy was the only option – and this wasn’t the adult world of publishing, this was primary school, so everything was also handwritten.

I can’t remember what the competition was, but I know it was only for young writers, and I think it was across the whole of Western Australia.

A while later, the competition results were being announced with the stories entered being put on display at the Geraldton Regional Library. I went to the library and hunted excitedly for my story on the display. Had I won? Had I been placed second or third, or highly commended?

I had not.

My story not get any kind of placing or recognition whatsoever.

Worse, what I remember is seeing my story with a number written on it in pencil. From memory, it was #125.

I remember, vividly, feeling sick with disappointment. I have a vague recollection of one of the library staff telling me and my mother that there were something like six hundred entries. I have a much sharper recollection of all the adults present looking at me with what felt very much like schadenfreude. I felt it like a wave of psychic energy. Kid thinks he’s some kind of writing genius, huh? That’ll take him down a peg or two.

I felt deeply embarrassed. I called myself a writer and had been working towards that for three years, only to have my first public attempt at writing deemed, effectively, a piece of shit, in front of my family, and the teachers and parents at the school, and my peers, who could all publicly see where my story had ended up. A hundred-and-twenty-fifth? What humiliation.

And amid that sense of shame was a sense of anger and injustice. Okay, maybe my story wasn’t good enough to win, I thought, but it was not a-hundred-and-twenty-fifth level bad. Was it?

Like any writer who cops a rejection, I wondered what I had done wrong. Was it the illustration that made the judges think I was just a dumb kid? Maybe it was supposed to be typed and printed instead of handwritten? Was my story just too derivative of Donald J. Sobol’s style? I hadn’t plundered his characters or stories: I had written an original piece, just following the same structure and stylings of those (dated) detective stories. Was it because I had set the story in America? Did the judges only want Aussie stories?

There was another fear that plagued me. I wondered if the judges thought I had plagiarised the piece, either by copying an existing story or having an adult write it for me.

The reason this was a fear of mine is that I was accused of it around the same time.

At the start of Year 7, our entire class was given a spelling test called the South Australian Spelling Test. We had to spell seventy words. They started out very simple and grew increasingly difficult.

A few days or weeks later, we were given our results. The mark out of seventy came with a corresponding score of what spelling age you were at. We were almost all eleven years old, so the idea was if you got a score that said your spelling age was 9 or 10, you were below average. 11 would be normal. 12 or over meant above average.

Our teacher – who was new to the school – handed back the tests in reverse order of success; that is, the lowest scoring student got their test results back first. I can’t remember if the teacher announced the scores aloud as he did this, but it’s quite possible, and likely, given what came next.

My test came back last: I had achieved the highest score. 69/70. I only spelled one word wrong. My spelling age was the maximum possible, which was listed as “greater than 15 years 6 months”.

I felt pretty good about this, until the teacher rounded on me in front of the entire class.

“You cheated,” he snarled. And it was a snarl.

“No, I didn’t,” I replied, absolutely horrified to have a teacher mad at me. I was a painfully obedient child in primary school, oppressively perfectionistic.

“You did. You cheated on this test.”

I denied it again. In fact, I had to deny it several times. I felt sick. This forty-year-old man was furious, almost seething, and hell bent on attacking a scrawny eleven-year-old nerd. I had never experienced anything like this from any adult before. Teachers usually liked me because I was both smart and well-behaved.

“I didn’t cheat. I would never cheat,” I told him meekly.

The other students – surprisingly, some of the worst-behaved students who would, on any normal day, give me shit for being a square – stood up for me.

“He didn’t cheat. He’s just really good at spelling. He’s smart.”

Our teacher wasn’t having a bar of it. “You’ve obviously done this test before and that’s how you knew how to spell the words,” he sneered. “But you got one wrong, didn’t you? Embarrassing.” He grinned down at me savagely. “How embarrassing for you.”

He threw this particular insult at me because the one word I misspelled was “embarrassing”. I spelled it with only one ‘r’. I have never spelled it wrong again in my life.

I offered one more denial of having cheated, and he concluded by threatening me that he was going to tell my parents at the upcoming parent-teacher interviews. And when those interviews rolled around, he did, too. My mother countered by letting him know that I was a bookish, intelligent kid. He still refused to believe me or her.

I learned a lot that day. I learned that teachers don’t always care about their students. I learned that adults can be petty and jealous. I learned that even when you are telling the truth, some people will refuse to believe you.

And I learned that sometimes, people in positions of power will be downright cunts to you, as that teacher was to me, and they will get away with it scot-free, because life is sometimes unfair.

I bring this story up in the context of that short story rejection for two reasons.

Firstly, because it illustrates why I was paranoid enough to wonder if the competition judges, like my teacher, had assumed I’d cheated, or plagiarised my story. Did they seethe at this well-crafted story? “How dare he! He obviously cheated! A-hundred-and-twenty-fifth place for him!”

Secondly, I guess it illustrates why I expected to have ranked a little higher than a-hundred-and-twenty-fifth. I was an intelligent kid and an exceptional writer for my age range. I had already written a whole “book” (it was sixty pages) in 1999, so I knew I had some level of ability. I could accept not being first, or in the top ten, but to score so crushingly low amid a field of peers my own age just hurt.

But that lesson from that cunt teacher – that adults can be cruel to children, and life can be unfair – actually helped me.

All writers think we have talent. It is how we get up in the morning and write, because we believe in our hearts that we have the ability to tell stories, and tell them well. From our very beginnings, it is fundamental to our craft that we have a tiny kernel of belief that we are actually good at this. If we didn’t, we would never pick up a pen in the first place.

At eleven, I thought I was talented, and perhaps even I knew I was, but it was not recognised in that competition. Maybe that particular story just wasn’t as shit-hot as I thought. Maybe it was just shit. Maybe there were a hundred and twenty four more talented child writers in my age bracket in WA that year(?!).

Or maybe there weren’t. It was tonight, as I was judging a young writers competition myself, that I not only smiled at the full-circle moment, but also realised how strange it was for judges to rank as far down as one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth. Most competitions I’ve judged, we judges decide on a longlist or shortlist, but that’s never more than say twelve or fifteen entries. It would take forever to do a detailed ranking beyond that. In light of this, I find it hard to imagine that all six hundred of those entries back in 2000 were individually ranked. Tonight, it occurred to me that the number scrawled in pencil on my entry was simply its number: entry number 125. I had a laugh about this with my husband, but then immediately went back to being quite sure it was indeed a ranking, because writer egos are like this: the self-doubt usually wins out.

In any case, it’s ancient history, and I’ll never know why I ranked so badly in that competition, and I still, to this day, feel sore and cheated by it – unduly screwed over.

But what I am proud of is how this failure shaped me. I did feel hurt, and yes, it was embarrassing.

But I didn’t stop writing.

That first rejection, the sinking-through-the-floor moment of standing in that library and trying to politely smile as I discovered, in front of others, that I sucked, only made me work harder towards becoming a better writer. I trained so hard. I read voraciously to get a sense of how published books sounded. I wrote more stories in my exercise books, and then began to post them online to an audience, who gave me invaluable feedback on how I could improve. I routinely studied the dictionary and thesaurus to expand my vocabulary and challenged myself to use those new words in my stories. I decided I would not stop until I had the recognition I craved.

It would be a long road ahead. Five years of hard work until I scored second place in the Randolph Stow Young Writers Award. Nine years until my first short story was published in a literary journal. Seventeen years until I won my first writing-related award. And nineteen years until my first book was finally published.

There have been many more rejections since that first one, and as a ratio, many more rejections than successes, even now. But that first rejection – and that first cruelty – hardened me in a way that helped me, and shaped me into the man I am today.

I’m thinking about the young people who entered this competition I’ve just finished judging. I wonder if the winners will go on to be writers. I would certainly encourage them to do so, heartily, if it’s something they want. But did the winners in the year 2000 go on to become published writers? I don’t know who they were or what they ended up doing. But I do know that the boy who landed at a dismal #125 was the one who was driven enough to make it in the long run.

I wonder if there is a teenage writer in this competition I’ve just judged who didn’t make the shortlist. One who wants to be a writer more than anything, one who will be devastated to have missed out, who will spend years wondering why they weren’t good enough, or thinking me cruel for having overlooked their talent.

If there is, I hope this rejection lights a fire in them like it did me. I know now that we learn more from being burnt than we do from being congratulated.

And while the flower that blooms in a fertilised garden is beautiful, the one that grows out of ashes is unstoppable.

Holden

PS. Although I did entertain the notion of naming my Year 7 teacher in this blog post, I won’t. I’m not really interested in revenge and besides that, I don’t need revenge because I feel like I won the first time. I was the calm, rational kid who didn’t do anything wrong, and he was the bullying adult who was not only deeply in the wrong but, objectively, a cunt of a human being. I will leave it to the universe to give him some solid karma.

Plus, to be frank, I’m pretty sure the only reason he lost his shit at me was because he got a lower score on that spelling test than an eleven-year-old boy. How embarrassing for him! 😛

On Blind Ambition and Bucket Lists

About three years ago, during a time of massive failure, I went back to my uni to visit my writing lecturer.

At the time – early 2017 – I had both lost my full-time job and had to abandon my failure of a fantasy novel. From every angle, I felt like a loser. I wanted my lecturer’s advice, and comfort, and to try to recapture that student feeling that dreams could come true.

As I told my lecturer about my book’s inability to interest agents, and how I realised my novel wasn’t good enough, I tried to find a way to fan the flames in my chest into words.

“I’m going to make it,” I told her, resolutely.

“I know you will,” she replied.

No, she wasn’t getting it, I thought. I wasn’t just some writing student who sort of wanted to get published. This wasn’t just a career that I may or may not proceed with. This was my life. This was almost the only thing in the whole world that I cared about. This was the only way I made sense as a fully-rounded human.

“I mean I won’t stop until I make it,” I elaborated. “No matter what. Even if I have to write a whole new book, even if I have to self-publish first before I can get a traditional publishing deal, even if it takes me years and years, the rest of my life, I will get there.”

“I believe you,” she said, with an ‘ease up, turbo, or I’ll press the duress button’ kind of look.

I remember that day, and that era, as the point where I kicked my ambition up a notch.

Ambition had always been the undercurrent of my personality, since the age of seven, when I first knew I wanted to be a writer. I am not ashamed of my ambitious nature. I am proud of it, actually. It would have been easy to give up on this dream at an early age. A boy from a blue-collar background in a country town doesn’t have the most inspiring pedigree for a literary career. In order to become a bona fide published novelist, I had to reach beyond my station in life, defy expectations and obstacles, and keep going in the face of many years of scorn, disinterest, rejection and abject failure.

Ambition – that craving to get the thing I wanted – is what pushed me to persevere and rise above all of that. I believed – and still believe – that if you want something dearly, and work hard for it, you can eventually achieve it. I am living proof of this approach.

But at that particular time, I knew standard ambition wasn’t enough. I had to move to a total war, scorched earth approach to achieving my dreams.

So I did.

I doubled down on my ambition. This was the only way I could pick myself up from what is probably the nadir of my career so far; if I did not fight back and push on twice as hard, I would have crumpled.

This blind ambition moved me through a hard time, and made me achieve a lot. It made me dig deep and write about something real: my novel Invisible Boys was born from this process and was written in the winter of 2017.

Moreover, my blind ambition spurred me on to do more than just write. It made me get on social media and work hard at building a platform. It made me cut way back on socialising and prioritise the hustle. It made me treat my day jobs as secondary, so I was author first, worker second. It made me quit smoking, take up exercise, eat better, lose weight, push myself out of my comfort zone. It helped me get what I want and it made me increasingly happy.

As my dreams began to come to fruition, winning awards and landing a publishing contract, I started to think about where I was going.

In 2018, I wondered how I would measure success, and the best metric I had was unemployment. That is, the day I can quit my job and live off my writing full-time, I would have made it.

Earlier this year, I realised I was embarking on a career-long mountain climb – the first novel was just an early peak, but not the summit. I have my eyes on bigger goals now – a mountain still to climb.

In both of these reflections, my only metrics for success were the continued pursuit of my dreams. On one level, I don’t really have a problem with this. In 2018, I wrote how a quote from Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece, The Alchemist, sums up my approach to life:

“No heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”

In other words, if you spend your whole life trying to become a successful writer, but never achieve fame and fortune, you’ll still have a happy heart and a fucking awesome life, because you spent all your time doing what makes you joyous: writing.

The paragraph above is ripped word-for-word from my 2018 post, and still sums up how I feel. So, I guess I’m still blindly ambitious, although perhaps I’m using that term too liberally. Some people would interpret blind ambition as compromising your values to get what you want, stabbing people in the back and walking over their corpses to climb a career ladder, shouting “don’t you know who I am?” – that kind of shit. I haven’t done that, ever. (Well, okay, I have said the last one, but only as a joke, I swear!)

And while I’ll continue to be ambitious, something cropped up recently that made me think more deeply about what I want.

It started when I interviewed Natasha Lester at Perth Festival in February, and she talked about becoming a New York Times bestselling author. When her publicist said, “you can check that off your bucket list”, Natasha replied that she had never had it on there in the first place. (In a bit of a boss move, however, she did then jot it down and cross it off, just so she could say she had – ha!)

That interview drew my attention to the idea of a bucket list – the list of things you want to do before you die. Then, a few months later, I was filling out a player profile for my AFL 9s team, The Perth Hornets – a social media “get to know your player” thing. One of the questions was “what’s your top bucket list item?”

Well, I don’t have a bucket list, I thought. I just want to make a living from writing.

But that goal begged a question: before I die, how do I want to live? What would I actually do with that full-time writer living if I achieved it?

My worker bee response to this was this: keep writing.

And this is where I discovered the downside of blind ambition. For all the success this approach has yielded, it has also left me stunted in my focus. I am a blinkered thoroughbred horse and I cannot see anything but the finish line of this enormous race I trained myself for.

On my player profile, I wrote my top bucket list item as:

“Owning some rural land with my dream ute and dirt bike – that’s it!”

Not super exciting, but it was my first, unfettered response, so I wrote it and moved on with my day.

But then a couple of things happened that brought my own mortality sharply into focus.

Firstly, my uncle died, far too young. He was a good man, and I care deeply about him and his family. I returned home to see my relatives, and attend his funeral. I delivered the eulogy, and as I rehearsed it, I was struck by how contented my uncle was with his life. Not only was he a kind, gentle and good-natured man – he was content. He worked hard as a bricklayer to provide for his family, but also to provide for himself. He enjoyed his life. He was at his happiest sitting on the balcony of the dream house he built for himself and his family, having his morning coffee and overlooking the spectacular cobalt blue of the Indian Ocean.

The second thing that happened was that I was in a car accident a few days ago.

It was, thankfully, not fatal. My car was stationary at the back of a long line of traffic on the freeway at peak hour, and the car behind me just didn’t stop – he ploughed directly into my Commodore and smashed it beyond repair – it’s a write-off. I was in shock and apparently responding quite slowly to paramedics and had back pain and whiplash, so I was taken to hospital by ambulance and wasn’t allowed to move my head or neck or spine for hours until they had done scans.

According to the X-rays, nothing was broken. I was released to go home and heal my back – which would be sore and stiff for a while, they said – and to take care of myself mentally and emotionally – which is expected to take longer. But all things considered, I appear to be okay. Hopefully there won’t be any long term impacts.

When we left the hospital, my husband (author Raphael Farmer) asked me if I’d had any revelations. Had the accident made me see life differently? I was alive, but that was pure luck: if the other car had been going faster, that might have been the end of me.

When I imagine my death, I see myself very old and grey, in bed with Raphael, and we both die in our sleep at the same time, peacefully and never having to mourn the other. This is what I hope for. But that night, had things gone worse, my death might have been in the twisted metal of a Holden Commodore on my way home from having San Churros with a mate, my last thought about how frustrating peak-hour traffic is on the Mitchell Freeway.

To say this was merely sobering is the same as saying 2020 has been just been a little challenging.

I told Raphael that no, I hadn’t had any great shake-up in terms of my life direction. Laying on that stretcher, I realised I am already living the life I want, which is reassuring. I have a husband I love, and who loves me; I have a fulfilling career as a writer; I have hobbies and pastimes and sports I enjoy and family and mates whose company I value.

Unexpectedly, the first thing I said to my husband was about a material desire: “I’m going to finally buy my ute.”

Maybe it’s dumb, but because I don’t come from money, and writing is rarely lucrative, I always knew I could have either the dream or the material possessions, but not both.

Blind ambition meant it was an easy sacrifice to make: the dream comes first.

But there are consequences to this way of living. I don’t spend money on my house: I live in a cheap rental in a cheap suburb and I don’t remember the last time I bought any furniture for it. I don’t spend money on my car: I drive (or drove) a cheap sixteen-year-old sedan. I don’t spend money on anything: for years, I haven’t replaced our broken washing machine, or our broken second-hand mattress that hurts our backs every night, or my ancient laptop which is so painfully slow I want to scream and throw it against the wall every time I use it. And so on, and so forth.

It always seemed like a worthwhile trade. Short-term pain for long-term gain. To some extent, it has made my achievements as a writer possible, so I don’t regret that.

But what if achieving a sustainable career as a writer takes another five, ten, twenty years? Would it be worth living a hindered, shitty quality of life for that long if it meant getting more novels published?

Before my uncle passed away, and before my car accident, I would have said yes.

Now, my answer is no.

I’ve been thinking more about how I want to live. Not my goals, but how I spend my day to day life.

So this is what I want, long term. I want to live with my husband on a bit of land – a good few acres, somewhere semi-rural, but close enough to the amenities of the city, where I can write from a writing den in my house and travel to the city/further afield for appearances and gigs. On said land, I’d like to have a dirt bike to ride around on, and I’d love to have my dream ute (a Holden SSV or Maloo).

That’s my bucket list. Everything else is gravy.

The house and land will take time to achieve – and the dirt bike is an extravagant toy.

But since I need a new car now anyway – dammit, I’m gonna get a ute. I’ve wanted once since 2007. It’s unrelated to any sense of achievement. It doesn’t help my career. I just want it for me. I’ve been busting my arse working since I was seven. I think it’s time I got something nice for myself.

I’m gonna find a way to get a new mattress, and washing machine, and laptop, too. Chasing dreams is not pleasurable if I’m running the whole way with holes in my shoes.

I will always be ambitious and hardworking, but the time for unadulterated, blind ambition is, for me, over.

I’ve always been a country boy who wants far more from life than he was ever poised to inherit organically. I still want to achieve big things before I die. I still want to scale this mountain.

But now I’m looking forward to seeing, feeling and enjoying the climb, too.

Holden