The late (and extraordinary) Tom Petty once sang that “the waiting is the hardest part”.
Man, there’s nothing like becoming a writer to discover how true that saying is.
As much as we moan about having to spin our drafts out of thin air (we are basically wizards, thank you very much) or gnash our teeth over editing our messy manuscripts, both of these tasks are more pleasant than what comes next.
It doesn’t matter much whether we write short form or long form, the publishing industry inevitably involves massive long wait times. Waiting for an agent or editor to respond to our query usually leaves most authors, including me, checking my inbox at least twice a day (even when your agent is as lightning-fast as mine was when she decided to represent me). The same goes for submitting short fiction to journals. In the past, when I’ve had something out on submission, it would drive me kind of nuts for those weeks or months until I had a response.
Of course, up until this year, I was submitting relatively sporadically, so there were spells where I’d have absolutely nothing on submission. This was actually quite restful, as it allowed me to feel like one of those normal human beings who have their hearts planted firmly within their chests. Being on submission, by contrast, feels to me like I am living each day with my heart dangling on the outside of my rib cage.
I feel like the world can see every fine detail printed on my heart’s ventricular muscles; every vulnerability of my soul is on lurid display for people to either nurture or spit on.
And most of the time, it gets spat on.
I know I ought to be more resilient than this (there I go finding fancy ways to say that violent word “should” again). But the reality is, every rejection hurts so much. I feel like I’ve offered up a vulnerable sliver of my inner essence on a golden platter and held it above my head as a sacrifice to the Writing Gods, hoping to please them. And when that ritual sacrifice is deemed not good enough, I feel that I have been deemed not good enough, and it feels like this foolish mortal shed blood for nothing at all.
Now, all this angsty cluster of writer feels was kind of bearable when I was submitting sporadically. I’d go through times of agonised waiting followed by months where I could cram my heart back into my body and feel the circulation gloriously return to my limbs.
But as of a few months ago, I’ve been on constant submission. My second novel is now on submission to publishers thanks to my brilliant agent (and publishing is an industry notorious for moving at a glacial pace, so I have nothing concrete to share yet). Beyond that, I’ve been subbing my short fiction to a range of literary journals, as well as pitching some ideas for freelance journalism to news outlets.
The upshot of this is: since March, I have been constantly waiting for one project or another to be accepted or rejected, with no real end in sight. This means I have been constantly living with my poor heart thumping desperately in the exposed, polluted air outside my body.
In the past, this sensation has overwhelmed me, and I’ve sought to numb the fragility of being an artist. Sometimes it was with substances (it’s hard to feel worried about your writing when you’re saturated in bourbon), othertimes it was with overwork (no time to worry about rejection if you’re too busy to even scratch yourself), and occasionally both of these crossed over and led to some inglorious meltdowns.
And at the very worst of times, I responded to this fearful state of vulnerability with the total abnegation of my role as an artist. That is, I stopped submitting, and I stopped editing, and I stopped writing. The most pronounced of these times were in 2010 and 2013, when I didn’t write a word (and as I’ve mentioned recently, not writing makes me sick).
But being on constant submission this past three months has made me realise something important. The “submission” phase of writing – where we jettison our precious creations into the ether to be either embraced or (more often than not) scorned – is not meant to be unusual or rare. It is a required part of the process, and for any of us to become successful or resilient writers, I think it needs to be regular.
I’m starting to see that the uncomfortable state of living with our hearts outside our bodies is not an unintended side-effect of being an artist. Being an artist requires it.
That is, for me to succeed as a writer, my art requires me to not just be vulnerable in my writing itself, but in life. And it’s supposed to be constant. In the past, I’ve tried to control my vulnerability. I’ve imagined I could turn it on and off like a tap. Time to write a first draft? Vulnerability on. Draft finished? Vulnerability off. (Yes, this is a bit of a wax on, wax off moment for Holden-san.) Consequentially, my writing progressed in fits and starts, and I would write only when I felt I was emotionally capable of surviving the rivulets of feelings that would come pouring out of me.
But being constantly on submission, and thus constantly vulnerable, since March has not actually been the torture I had anticipated.
Actually, it’s been profoundly productive, and kind of awesome, despite the waiting.
When you go out on submission, the first thing your agent tells you to do is start writing your next novel. This is to distract us authors and our hamster-wheel brains from freaking out about the waiting involved in the submission process, and it also ensures that we are focusing on producing more work to be submitted.
So, to occupy myself while being on constant submission, I’ve been constantly writing since March, which is around the same time I joined my awesome buds in the #5amwritersclub. As a result, I’ve churned out six pieces of short fiction – one piece of flash fiction, four short stories, and a whole novella – in just three months, not to mention writing a published article for Ten Daily and developing and performing an oral story for the Bright Lights, No City project. Outside of my frenzied novel-writing adventures, this is the most productive I’ve ever been with my writing.
Is the waiting hard? Hell yeah.
But does it actually make me a better, more productive writer? Hell yeah.
I’m now comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable for a living. It’s possible that for much of the rest of my life I will constantly have a piece of work out in the world that I’m waiting to hear back on. I’m okay with this. It means I’m constantly trying, even if I regularly fail. Maybe most importantly, the waiting teaches me that vulnerability, and feeling my feelings, will not actually kill me. Accepting my vulnerability makes me a better human and a better writer.
I’m learning that an artist’s heart can survive outside the body for many years, and rather than wilt or perish, it only learns to pump harder than ever.
I don’t mean physically sick in the guts. Although, that said, some of the overblown metaphors I’ve spun over the years have caused several readers to experience symptoms including head-spinning and projectile vomiting. (Exorcisms were needed.)
And I don’t mean the manflu that my partner accuses me of having every time a head cold knocks me for six and renders me a curled-up foetus watching old episodes of Pokemon and begging for cups of black tea. (“Please, baby, I’m too sick to boil the kettle …”)
The kind of sickness I’m talking about is more like a soul sickness.
A soul disease, maybe.
All I know is that when I spend too much time away from writing, everything goes to shit for me in terms of my mental and emotional wellbeing.
When I’m actively writing – whether it’s my blog or my creative work – there is an aliveness to my entire being – mentally, emotionally and physically.
Mentally, I’m stimulated as I reflect on my own experience and try to create meaning out of it (the blog) or dream up fictional characters and worlds and experiences (fiction).
Emotionally, I feel a certain level of satisfaction and catharsis at writing about certain topics. The actual act of writing itself is also deeply satisfying. Well, okay, sometimes the writing is frustrating enough to make you want to rip each individual hair follicle out of your scalp. But the point is, when a writer writes, we are in the process of flow, and we are doing the precise thing we were put on this giant blue marble for, and it makes us happy.
American poet Robert Hass probably said it best when he said, “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.” Of course, to get to the state of having just written, you need to slog it out and actually fucking write something. So we’re back to where we started.
And when everything is in alignment mentally and emotionally, things work out physically, too: I eat well, I hit the gym the right number of times per week, I sleep enough, and my energy levels are high.
But when I don’t write, this all goes to hell.
And it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that I haven’t been writing this month at all. It’s only today, sitting at my laptop and forcing myself to do something, that I realise what happened.
This little mini-crisis started, essentially, because I am the kind of writer who likes to keep on top of the numbers. I have a number of writer friends who determinedly don’t want to know how their books are selling, but I can already tell I’m not going to be one of them. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a bit obsessed with rankings and charts and classifications and numbers. Even now, the moment I get into a new band, the first thing I do isn’t listen to the rest of their back catalogue: I find their discography online and study it with the intensity of Hercule Poirot. I need to know which singles belong to which album, which ones were certified gold, which ones flopped and in which territories. Only then will I explore further.
Yes, I am a geek of the absolute grandest kind.
And this geekiness translates to how I approach my writing career. I like to check in relatively regularly with my sales and downloads graphs on Amazon and Smashwords. While my short stories A MAN and THE BLACK FLOWER are not big sellers, THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR does occasionally have sales spikes, and when it had some particularly big ones last year, I was also interested to follow its chart positions on iBooks and Barnes & Noble.
I also keep track of my blog hits, and unfortunately, this is what began my unravelling during the entire month of June.
It started at the very end of May. I was looking at my blog stats for the month, and comparing them to previous months, to see how things are tracking. To my delight, things had actually been going really well: my blog hits had increased, month-on-month, since December 2017 – and some of the increases were pretty significant.
The graph looked like this:
So, from January through April, I was pretty chuffed, because my reach was growing. In fact, I got ahead of myself and I was all like, “hey, maybe I am not a total sphincter of a human being!”
This is bad for a number of reasons, not least because my self-worth really shouldn’t have any correlation to how many people are reading my blog.
Anyway, it was the month of May that ruined me.
Because, as you can see in the graph above, although April and May look roughly the same, May actually fell short of April’s peak by roughly 20 hits.
Your mentally-balanced, well-adjusted author – if he exists – would be like, “Gee, that’s swell! I guess this little blog is doing A-OK.” (For some reason, my mythical well-adjusted author talks in the same voice Eddie Murphy uses when he is parodying white people from the 1950s.)
But I am not your mentally-balanced, well-adjusted author.
The fact that May fell just short of April was just not good enough. I had failed to continue to grow my blog. This meant not only was the blog a giant pile of steaming failure, but I was, too. The old hydra of perfectionism reared its multiple heads.
And so I self-sabotaged. Without fully realising I was doing it, I kept putting off doing my next blog post, which I had been writing weekly until that point. And suddenly two weeks, then three, then four had passed – and my brain would not let me even entertain the thought of blogging.
Around the same time, in early June, I received a rejection for a short story I’d submitted to a prestigious journal. Now, being rejected is absolutely not a new experience for me, but this one stung me more than usual for two reasons. Firstly, I thought that particular story might have been a perfect fit for that particular publication, and it wasn’t. Secondly, I was already in a vulnerable, self-doubty kind of space, so it just layered on top of that.
The outcome? Not only did I continue my blogging hiatus, but I now stopped writing fiction with my 5am Writers’ Club as well. I was nearing the end of a new short story titled CRUMBS, and I just left it hanging mid-sentence. And interestingly, I stopped on the 12th of June – the same day I got the rejection. So I stopped writing at all, and I stopped getting up at 5am to work.
And, like I said at the start, I got sick in the soul.
I was no longer writing in any form, and this persisted for three weeks. I was completely self-sabotaging my career as both a blogger and a fiction writer. It was the classic “if I don’t write anything at all, then there won’t be any way to be told that I’m not good enough”.
I’m not good enough. It’s a sentence almost every writer has said to themselves at least once, if not at least once a day.
This is paralysing for a writer, and it ultimately comes down to self-doubt: a perceived failure of my blog to continue to grow, combined with a rejection of my fiction, had me back to square one in the confidence stakes.
On top of this was the weighty gravity of expectation. I had recently had some positive feedback about my blog from multiple readers, and it seemed to be doing well. The resultant expectation I placed on myself was twofold: one, that I had to continue to grow without a single dip in monthly hits, and two, that every single blog post had to be fucking amazing and insightful.
The writing paralysis continued until this week. I attended the Penguin Teen Showcase on Wednesday night, which took place in Perth for the first time ever. During the Q & A panel at the end, authors Dianne Wolfer, Fleur Ferris and Emily Gale spoke about how long it takes them to write a first draft of a novel. Later, on Twitter, I was chatting to some authors about how I have written both of my first drafts in about 3 months each. When someone expressed surprise at how quick that was, my answer was simple:
It was only when I looked back on that Tweet today that I realised what has been missing from my writing practice: permission. That is, permission to write total horseshit. Giving yourself permission to write freely is extraordinarily liberating for a writer because it dampens the little spot-fires of self-doubt.
And frankly, giving myself permission to write badly is what made me become a serious writer in the first place. I spent all of 2013 – the entire year – paralysed with fear at the thought of starting my first novel because I was worried it – and consequently, I – wouldn’t be good enough.
When I gave myself permission to write whatever I wanted, with no expectation of quality, I churned out a whole novel, and then a second one, and then a regular blog and a whole litter of short stories.
So, now that I’m aware of what’s happened – and why I’ve been so frozen this past month – it’s time to make a change.
I’m giving myself permission again. Permission to write freely, in both blog form and fiction form. Maybe my blog will tank and become wildly unpopular, like the latest Sharknado sequel. Maybe my fiction will become utter drivel, like literally anything with the word Sharknado in the title.
But perception and reception are ultimately beyond my control.
What I can control is what I write, and how often I write. I can’t control whether or not people will like my stories, or whether people will enjoy every single blog post I put up, but I can control whether or not I do these things at all. And the reality is, I do them because I love doing them, not because of the feedback – positive or negative – that I receive.
So, it’s time for me to cowboy up and get on with it.
I’m committing to writing a regular blog again, so stay tuned for regular updates again.
I’m also committing to a regular writing practice again. And I’m kind of excited, because I’m about to dive into writing my third novel. So this is probably the right time to loosen the burden of expectations from my shoulders, and just write freely, and fast.
I have to remind myself that I am only human and I can only do my best.
If there’s one thing I’m really bad at, it’s letting go.
I tend to tackle a difficult situation head on and go with the Hulk Smash, bull terrier kind of approach first. I try to call this my ‘assertive’ approach and I can usually avoid going anywhere near ‘aggressive’, even when I maybe kinda want to smash someone’s skull in, just a teeny bit (it would be for their own good, I swear …).
If and when that fails, I will possibly fall silent and let my failure to resolve an issue through direct action fester and haunt me for the rest of my days.
But I very rarely shrug my shoulders and go, “Well, ya know what? It didn’t work. Life goes on. Let’s see what’s on TV.”
I think letting go is actually an important life skill, and it’s something I need to work on more. I don’t have the solution to this yet, although I suspect it isn’t found by listening to that goddamn song from Frozen. (Sorry, parents … I bet you only just got that shit outta your head a few months ago. I recommend listening to Rebecca Black’s Friday to distract yourself … trust me …)
The reason I bring this up is that I had to force myself to let go of something recently, and it’s still got me thinking about why it was so hard to do.
I’m not talking about something particularly deep or meaningful here: I find that stuff nigh on impossible to let go of, despite my best efforts.
This was actually something writing-related. There was a call for submissions from a particular publication, and what they were seeking seemed like a golden opportunity for an emerging YA author like myself.
In fact, I was so convinced that it was going to be the right fit for me, I kept the damn thing in my calendar until super close to the deadline, when I finally forced myself to give up on it.
I had to give up and let it go, because I actually didn’t have anything written that matched the criteria they were looking for.
Most people would probably go, “Oh well. I’ll try next time.”
Not me. I was so doggedly determined that I would find a way to churn out a suitable piece of writing that I self-flagellated for weeks. There had to be a way, I told myself. I wanted to wring the creative juices out of my squishy grey brain. Come on! Produce something amazing, brain! Don’t you know this might be the only chance you ever get?!
And there it was. Suddenly, I understood why I drive myself so hard with these kinds of things.
Don’t you know this might be the only chance you ever get?!
This is what I’m scared of as a writer. This is why it’s hard to let go of opportunities; this is why I have a word document stacked with calls for submissions I want to submit to and simply never will; this is why every internet browser on my phone or laptop has 34293235 tabs open, because I’m trying to remember every call for submissions I’ve ever seen.
I’m scared the opportunity I pass up will be ‘the one’. The one opportunity that somehow makes everything change. The one that puts me on the map, gets me more noticed, makes a publisher slide her wheely office chair over to her shiny desk phone, dial my agent’s number and go, ‘Heyyyy, how would Holden like a ten-book deal for a million billion trillion bucks?’
*cough* Publishers: I am totally open to this and if you think it would be a neat idea to invest a million bucks in me just to see what happens (could be a fun experiment, right?), I am sure my agent would love to hear from you. *cough*
Ultimately, I’m scared of passing up an opportunity because there is a pervasive myth, with a kernel of truth to it, that floats around all creative people like a cruel mist. The myth is of the discovery of the artist. The big break. The thing that made everything change overnight.
We’ve all heard the stories of actors and musicians who got their big break in the most unlikely of ways. Writing is a little different – sometimes extremely different – but some of those “big break” stories still echo through our collective consciousness.
Matthew Reilly’s chance encounter with a Pan Macmillan publisher which took him from self-published nobody to multi-million selling blockbuster author.
Stephen King throwing the draft of Carrie in the bin, only to have his wife fish it out and convince him to keep going: it became his first published novel and made him the biggest author on the planet.
And don’t even get me started on J.K. Rowling and Bloomsbury.
The point is, most of us know that finding long-term success as an author depends on two things: talent and luck. The fear is that even the most eloquent, brilliant author in history might languish in eternal obscurity if he never jags the right editor at the right publishing house who would have championed his work. So what hope do the rest of us have?
But I’ve decided it’s not healthy to fixate on every opportunity as being so desperately make-or-break.
Firstly, because if I get off my neurotic writer hamster wheel for two seconds, I realise it’s not realistic. None of these submissions are going to be career make-or-break moments.
Secondly, it simply isn’t true that there is only one chance to get this right.
We know about the big breaks of Matthew Reilly and Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, but it’s false to assume that their careers would never have happened if those exact moments of luck hadn’t happened.
In fact, I’m quite certain they would have had amazing careers nonetheless, because, as with all writers, writing is in their blood. If Contest hadn’t been picked up by a publisher, Matthew Reilly would have kept writing: in fact, he was already working on his second novel. Likewise, Stephen King would have written something different. J.K. Rowling would have kept querying Harry Potter to other publishers, or started work a lot earlier on The Casual Vacancy, perhaps.
And because writing is in their blood, they would have kept writing, and kept querying, and kept trying until they finally did get their big break. The success equation is not just talent plus luck. It is talent plus luck … plus resilience.
Almost every published author has a similar tale: a barrage of rejections, twists and turns until, finally, against all odds, they got their first book published. And then the whole cycle probably repeated again for book number two. It’s not an easy career for any of us, published or otherwise.
The point is this: there is no “one chance”, taken or missed, that determines our fate. It is our willingness to be dogged, and resilient, and continue to pursue our dreams in the face of rejection and naysayers, that increases the odds of our success exponentially.
We are more than one story, one call for submissions, one novel, one series, or one lead character. We are writers. We have whole universes nesting in the starry recesses of our subconscious minds. The possibilities are endless, and our entire careers and fates do not rest on one single missed opportunity or failed idea.
So, I was a big boy and I let go of that particular call for submissions. That particular opportunity wasn’t the path the universe has in store for me. So be it. And guess what? The deadline passed, and I was alive after it had. Bully for me.
Moving forward, I’m going to make a conscious effort to get less wound-up about individual opportunities. What has buoyed me this far in my career will get me through the rest of it – and that isn’t any single chance encounter: it is resilience.
Few questions strike horror into the heart of an author more than The Question That Must Not Be Named.
Ah, stuff it, I’ll risk the anguished shrieks of any authors reading this. The question is:
“What are you working on right now?”
Sounds innocuous enough, right? Don’t be fooled. This little rose of a question is studded with teeny tiny thorns that will draw droplets of fresh scarlet blood from our fragile author egos.
The reason it’s verboten is because half the time when we’re asked this, we’ve just finished a day, or a week, or a month of staring fruitlessly at a blank screen.
Or, sometimes worse, we’ve spent a long day poring over our current manuscript and have just decided it’s no longer a masterpiece novel, but the biggest, steamiest turd in the multiverse.
And sometimes, even the friendliest person asking us about our progress can feel a bit like Stewie from Family Guy passive-aggressively needling Brian about how long his novel is taking to write (AKA one of my favourite scenes of all time).
The upshot is that authors are sometimes just too writing-weary, depressed, agitated or just plain gutted to explain ourselves to inquiring friends, family and followers. Maybe we feel guilty about not working faster, or not having done more with our time. For the more paranoid among us, it sometimes feels like the inquirer has just noticed our total silence on the writing front, and has thought it felicitous to ask why our writing career seems to be flopping around like a dying fish at the bottom of an angler’s bucket.
So, depending on how our day is going, there is a decent chance that we would prefer to emit a whale-like groan, dramatically rend our garments and run naked through a plate glass window than actually answer this question in public.
For me, my response to this question lately has depended on how my day is going and how much detail I want to go into in that given moment. Depending on who’s asking, and how much they know of my work and my journey so far, I’ve been alternating between describing my current work-in-progress as either my “second” or my “third” novel.
However, if I’m in a rush or on my feet – say, at a book launch or a festival or a networking event, or caught in a conversation in a corridor somewhere – I will get a bit thrown and end up splicing both versions of the tale together and hoping it makes sense. This results in me blurting out highly unintelligent stuff like:
“Yeah, it’s kinda my second novel but kinda my third novel as well. Have you tried the spinach and feta mini-quiches? They’re heaps good.”
The reactions I get to that range on a spectrum from polite chuckle to blank, querying stare all the way through to the this-bloke-is-clearly-a-bit-tapped eyebrow raise.
When I responded in a similarly confusing way to a fellow Twitter author from Switzerland recently, she said it sounded like there was a story behind the whole second-slash-third novel debacle. It was only then that it occurred to me how confusing this must sound to other people, and how confused it must make me sound.
So, I thought I’d use this post to clarify where I’m at right now, and hopefully the next time I say something about this on social media, or to a friend at an event, or to my pillow as I sob myself to sleep *cough* it will make a bit more sense.
Novel #1: SWORDY MCSWORDFACE
My first real, honest-to-goodness book is a Young Adult Fantasy novel, full of adventure and magic and a bit of teen angst. I don’t want to share the working title publicly yet, so let’s refer to this one as Swordy McSwordface. I wrote it primarily between November 2014 and January 2017, and had an excellent mentor and editor from the Australian Society of Authors to help me whip it into shape.
Although external editors and agents found the writing of this novel solid, and the plot makes for a really fun, adrenaline-fuelled ride, it wasn’t met with rapturous applause from the agents and publishers I subbed it to. Upon reflection at the time, I ultimately found it wasn’t compelling enough in its current form. So, just over a year ago, I put this novel in the metaphorical drawer, and I’ll tackle it again one day when I’m clearer on what it’s missing.
This novel is the crux of why my explanations of what I’m currently working on have been so convoluted lately. I felt that, since this novel had initially failed to get the attention of any publishers, it was a failed book and it was better to strike it from the record.
But as my Swiss friend aptly pointed out:
“You should definitely be counting novel 1 – just because it’s not published doesn’t make it any less of an achievement.”
I have to agree with this approach. I poured my blood, sweat, tears into this novel, not to mention bucketloads of caffeine, nicotine and swear words. And because of my imagination and my hard work, the novel now exists. It’s a real thing. This matters, because even if it never finds a home, this story was, and is, and always will be, my very first novel.
In fact, I’ve discovered it’s actually not uncommon for authors to land their debut publishing contracts with their second or third (or later) novel, not necessarily the first one they finished.
So, from today, I’m going to put more stock in it, and give this tale the respect it deserves. It will always be referred to as my first novel. It just probably won’t be my first published novel, but I am okay with that. There’s more work to be done, and I trust that I’ll return to this story – either to rework it as a novel, or pick over its bony carcass, vulture-style, for any valuable metaphors that could be torn from its pages and re-planted in a different book.
In any case, I’m no less proud of this novel than anything else I’ve written, and I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t exist anymore.
Novel #2: INVISIBLE BOYS
My most recently completed novel is the contemporary YA novel, Invisible Boys. After Swordy McSwordface went back in the drawer, I challenged myself to write something utterly real and unflinching, and so I wrote a fictional novel about some gay teenage boys.
And thus, Invisible Boys was born. And it was, hands down, the hardest thing I’ve ever written – at least in terms of content.
But with regards to the mechanics of writing, Invisible Boys was the easiest thing I’ve ever produced in that the whole story just kind of fell out of me fully-formed. I started the first draft in February 2017, and by December 2017 I had a third draft sent to my agent, who had signed me on the strength of the second draft.
Invisible Boys is the only novel that people have heard me talk about. This is probably cause it’s my only full-length manuscript so far to get some external attention: it won the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award and was Highly Commended in the ASA’s 2018 Emerging Writers Mentorship Prize.
I’m so pumped for this book to find a home, not least because having this story and these characters’ voices heard matters to me more than almost anything in the universe.
Novel #3: THE NOVEL THAT MUST NOT BE NAMED
I couldn’t even give you a fake working title for this one yet. It’s too new and I’m still feeling my way on where it will go, so I don’t want to say anything at this stage, other than to admit that a tentative draft has begun.
But that, at least, is progress, because until today, I would have faltered and flailed trying to work out how to present my current work-in-progress.
I know better now, and the next time you catch me hoovering mini-quiches into my gob at a book launch, I’ll be able to tell you, with confidence, “I’m currently working on my third novel.”
Without the awkward over-explaining I always do.
And, hopefully, without giving a whale-moan, flaying myself alive and careening through a plate of solid glass.
After being slightly encouraged, slightly heckled by some writing buddies on Twitter – they know who they are – I decided to join the WA branch of the #5amwritersclub.
“Branch” makes it sound far more bureaucratic and formal than it actually is: it’s a new and small collective of West Aussie writers who commit to waking up early and getting some writing done at five o’clock in the morning.
When I was first invited (peer pressured?) to join the other authors in this endeavour, my first response was there was no fucking way this was going to happen.
Not because I didn’t want to join them: they’re all grouse people and we chat on Twitter all the time.
Not because I don’t like the idea of being productive with my writing – there is almost no better feeling than having just written something.
No, I was reluctant because it involved waking up so bloody early. I feel like I’ve already sacrificed all semblances of luxury by strategically setting my alarm at 6am each morning (and then 6.10 … and 6.15 … I’m one of those desperate snooze-button fiends).
5am felt like a bridge too far.
But then I got to thinking about how hard it’s been over the past three weeks to make time for my writing. As I tutor at a university, in addition to my other jobs, the start of the uni semester always leaves my head spinning. In fact, apart from a whole lot of thinking and planning and plotting, I don’t think I’d written a word of a creative nature since February.
Crapola, I thought. No damn wonder I’ve been feeling listless and rudderless, like an athlete trapped in a hotel room.
As soon as I saw it that way, I really did start to feel caged by the chaos of my quotidian “busy-ness” and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s putting being an adult before being an artist. So it was a no-brainer after that. I desperately wanted to pull my sneakers on, escape the metaphorical hotel suite and go for a sprint around the block.
I went to bed early last night, and set my alarm for 4:55am. When it went off this morning, for a change I didn’t hit snooze. I admit I did go into HULK SMASH mode for the first couple of minutes, both in terms of wanting to communicate solely in monosyllabic grunts and also in terms of wanting to shatter my phone with my fist and curl back up into bed.
But I have a stubborn streak that sometimes works to my advantage: once I set my mind to something, I do it, and I do it well.
So I yanked my laptop across the plush carpet beside my bed – where I had strategically placed it last night, anticipating my Hulkish mood – flipped it open and just began writing.
I actually didn’t even sit up, which is really bad for the neck: I just remained laying in bed with the laptop awkwardly perched on my abs. (Hah! Kidding. I mean my gut. If I have abs, they are as hidden as Donald Trump’s compassionate side.)
I had a blank word document, and absolutely no plans on what I wanted to write. There was no expectation of penning an amazing literary work, nor working on my third novel draft (which is still in the planning phase).
So I sat for about thirty seconds, and a line just drifted into my mind, like I’d plucked it right out of the soul of the universe. More of an image, than a complete sentence. Within seconds I had an opening scene, and two characters, and a plan.
I wrote furiously from 5am until 7am, and in that sacred two hour block, I churned out just over 1400 words. To put this into context, when I do NaNoWriMo, which is a month-long writing sprint, my daily word count needs to remain at 1667, so to churn out 1400 words in one morning is fantastic progress.
So, what was it that I wrote? It’s definitely not a novel, or a novella. It’s the first half, maybe the first third, of a short story. It taps into a really random idea I’ve had for awhile now about a security guard, so that’s what I’m working on.
As much as the flow kind of consumed me for those two hours, I reached a point where my motor began to putt and before I knew it, I was out of fuel and running on fumes. It’s really odd how that happens when I write: one moment I’ll be excited and driven by what I’m writing, and a second later I’ll be jaded like an aristocrat slumming it at a dinner party below their station. “What is this measly short story in front of me? Ugh. Get it away. I want caviar.”
I’ve learned to listen to my writing impulses, and make way for both the flow and the ebb, so I stopped and I knew I was done for the day.
This is good, though, because it gives me something to leap straight back into when I write tomorrow. And it gives me the goal of finishing this particular short story by the end of the week.
I have no idea if taking part in the #5amwritersclub is going to work out for me long term. It worked today because Monday is my home day where I write and do admin stuff, but it might be a different story tomorrow. I’ll take it as it comes.
What I do know is that I’m keen to finish this particular short story, and I’m excited at hopefully developing a regular writing practice again.
And it makes all the difference knowing that some other writer buddies are waking up, and struggling, and striving, and tweeting, and cheering on, and succeeding right along side me.
Last November, I was lucky enough to win the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award from the Australian Society of Authors. The prize was a one week residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House. I never expected to win the award, so the residency was an absolute dream come true.
I rushed forward and took the residency in January this year. And it’s taken me a whole four weeks of sitting on my hands to work up the motivation to write about it. It was today that I realised why I’ve been putting it off for so long. It’s because once I write this, it will actually be over – a relic of memory and experience and nothing else. Subconsciously, I think I wanted to cling to it a bit longer; keep it in the present day. But the days are passing inexorably, and the memories are no longer fresh but faded.
So I want to record them, before they atrophy any further.
Monday 15th January 2018
This day barely counts as a day of my residency, because I was in Sydney for most of it. I had breakfast at a creperie with my teenage nieces and nephews. Double maple for me. I ordered in French to an entirely unimpressed French waitress.
Lunch was at a burger joint in Sydney’s CBD with my amazing literary agent, Haylee Nash of The Nash Agency. We spent about half an hour talking excitedly before either of us remembered we were actually meant to order food. It was a brilliant meeting and I left feeling so pumped for what’s ahead of me and INVISIBLE BOYS – in 2018 and beyond.
I swanned around the city for a few hours exploring – it was my first time in Sydney, ever, and I was so enraptured. It was like being back in Europe, but this city was also so unlike Europe, and certainly a long way from anything I had ever known as Australian.
In the arvo, I collected my suitcase from my older brother’s office on George Street and then began my navigation of peak-hour traffic on Sydney’s trains. I was crushed into a skinny, cuboid version of myself – now that part was really reminiscent of being on the tube in London – and trained it out to the Blue Mountains.
I thoroughly underestimated how long the ride would take: I arrived at Varuna, the National Writers’ House, at around 8:30pm, travel-weary and kind of worried. I honestly expected to rock up to a darkened house; I kept imagining that I’d be knocking on the door to no response, calling every phone number I could to the dejection of unanswered voicemails. I figured I might have to curl up and sleep on the pebbles outside.
My reception at Varuna was actually very warm. Before I even got out of the taxi, one of the other four resident writers – the wonderful and celebrated poet (and fellow Perthite) Nandi Chinna – was already out the front of the house to greet me.
“You must be Holden,” she said. “We were worried about you.”
I was really touched by this. I was alone in a new place and a bit overwhelmed that I had even been chosen to go to Varuna. I will never forget her saying that.
The Varuna staff (who are all super nice people) had already gone home for the night, so the other writers took me into the house, gave me a tour and showed me to my room. The caterer, Sheila, had saved my dinner for me – a delicious chicken curry – so I microwaved it and wolfed it down while chatting to my fellow writers.
The vibes were immediately warm and supportive, which relaxed my nerves and made me feel ready for the next day.
Tuesday 16th January 2018
I usually wake up at 6am, so I must have been running on Perth time still as I woke at 9am and felt instantly like I’d wasted half my day. I was a bit thrown off, so I took my breakfast up to my studio to get to work straight away.
I’d been allocated the Bear Room, and I still find it hilarious that they chucked the gay bloke into something called the Bear Room. Alas, no hot bears within, but it was a charming and quaint bedroom and writing studio. I was instantly drawn to the space, even though it was the smallest of the five studios at Varuna. I could have had my pick of the bigger spaces if I’d chosen a later residency, but I was desperate to get to work as soon as possible, and January was the earliest slot that worked.
As soon as I threw the curtains open, I realised this was the perfect place for a writer to work.
Morning mountain sunlight breaking over trees and green lawn and quaint gardens below. The workspace backs directly onto my bedroom, and used to be a sunroom, which is why it’s so incredibly light and airy. I took so many photos of my view, and not a single one of them gets close to doing the view any justice. Birds were chirping, which the other writers were able to name and identify, but with my ignorance of the animal kingdom I could only gaze on and appreciate their colours, and the flutter of their wings, and their uninhibited songs.
It really was tranquil and superb.
The first thing I did when I sat down at my desk was sigh and imitate Colin Firth in the film Love, Actually when he first arrives at his writing retreat in France.
“Alone again,” I muttered to the open window. “Naturally.”
And then the work began.
I looked over INVISIBLE BOYS – the manuscript that actually won me the residency – but there was really no further change I could make without wanting to heat up a hot poker and slide it slowly into my eyeball. I was done with it, for now. I’d just delivered a fresh revision to my agent and making any further changes would be counterproductive. Not to mention the whole poker/eyeball thing.
So I started work on my next novel instead. I had the deepest pangs of latent Catholic guilt about this and I was totally waiting for someone to turn around and boot me out of the house for working on a different piece than the one that won the award. Thankfully, the awesome people at the Australian Society of Authors (who offer the Ray Koppe Award) assured me this didn’t matter; as did the friendly team at Varuna House.
My next work in progress is a contemporary YA novel with a bit of a mystery element to it. It was originally conceived as a YA thriller and so I knew I had to do some work to rejig the outline and shift its focus and locus of control, as it were. I desperately wanted to just start throwing words on the page, but even though it would have felt productive, it would have been a Sisyphean task.
So I spent the whole day plotting. That’s it. All day. Plotting what would happen when. Changing characters’ names. Changing them all back two hours later. Deciding someone would die. Then saving them. Then killing them off again.
In the arvo, I went for a run around the nearby streets of Katoomba, which is the main town in the Blue Mountains. Katoomba is such a beautiful town: green and lush with trees so much bigger than the dirt and scrub I grew up around.
What really threw me about Katoomba was how mountainous it was. Not just the nearby indigo shapes of the peaks: I mean just the streets themselves. I have never realised how incredibly flat Western Australia is compared to somewhere like the Blue Mountains. Every street was a massive slope, and I constantly felt like Atlas was about to shake the world globe and I’d go sliding off the face of the planet. On and off all week, I was actually pretty dizzy.
The run did me good after a day of heavy plotting. Sweating, getting back into my body, is some of the best healing I have found.
Wednesday 17th January 2018
When you’re a writer, and especially when you’re undertaking a residency, I think the expectation you put on yourself is that you will write a lot of pages. Pages are sexy.
But I spent Wednesday returning to my necessary outlining and planning documents, including Excel spreadsheets, which are the least sexy or creative thing in the entire universe.
The Varuna staff asked me if I wanted a writing consultation with an excellent editor who could help me with my work. I had to say no – not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t afford it. That stung me, and made me feel like a bit of a lame duck.
Over the course of the day, I continued to work hard, but I started to feel frustrated. I wasn’t producing page after page of good writing. I wasn’t even producing page after page of shit writing that could be fixed later on. I was just plotting, and even though I knew it was necessary, I started to feel stagnant, like algae in a river’s listless meander.
In fact, I started to feel like a failure. And then a fraud. What kind of useless writer was I? Fucking around with plots and plans when the other four around me were probably churning out literary masterpieces with panache. Oh God. I’d actually won this place. Some very esteemed judges picked my writing over every other entrant’s.
And here I was screwing around in my spreadsheet. I bet the other entrants would have done so much better than me. Written more than me.
I spiralled down. Big time.
That night at dinner, the imposter syndrome ramped up to eleven. I don’t really know why, but probably because of the spiral I was already in, my insecurities got amplified.
Incidentally, one of my favourite things about the entire Varuna experience was that every night, all five resident authors come together in the dining room and share a catered meal together. The food by the amazing cook Sheila was delicious; the conversation was always vibrant and there was plenty of laughter.
There was also so much to learn from my fellow writers. About writing, about craft, about passion, about publishing, about promotion, about sales, about business. About being an artist.
This is, in fact, one of the most valuable things about being a Varuna writer. Having dinner and conversation with a diverse group of both emerging, developing and established authors every night for a week goes beyond even the best networking. I would liken it to being on summer camp. There’s something about sharing a living space with a group of people that bonds you in some way. It was truly an uplifting experience, and I grew from it – as an artist and as a man.
On the Wednesday night, however, I was spiralling hard. No matter what progress I make in my career as an author, I inevitably find myself feeling like an imposter. That night, as all these published and successful people sat around the table talking about something highly intellectual, I felt like the dumb outsider, the uncultured and poorly-read bogan, the country boy who for a whole number of reasons did not belong at that table, and never would.
I didn’t sleep that night.
Thursday 18th January 2018
When I say I didn’t sleep on Wednesday night, I’m exaggerating a touch. I crashed for three hours after chatting to my fiancé over text (silence is vital in the rooms at Varuna as the walls are thin and other writers might be concentrating). But I woke up at 2am and couldn’t get back to sleep. My synapses were sparking, still short-circuiting with the fear I didn’t belong here.
I opened the curtains of the Bear Room at around 4am. I listened to some music in my earphones and watched the sky outside slowly change colour, quietly hoping I could trick myself into sleep somehow.
It didn’t work.
I was utterly wrecked on Thursday. I opened my laptop and felt like throwing up. Nope. Not today.
Instead, I read a novel: Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson. An excellent piece of fantasy spliced with sci-fi (or maybe the other way around).
I tried naps. They failed.
In the arvo, I abandoned trying to rest or trying to write. I put on my cap and my backpack and went for a hike up to Echo Point, which is where you can see the natural rock formations known as the Three Sisters. It was incredible to face out onto an open green valley and feel so tiny compared to the earth and its body.
There was a bar close to Echo Point. I went out onto the terrace which overhung the verdant valley. I drank lemonade over ice, stared out at nature, listened to tourists speaking foreign tongues around me, and wrote several pages of notes in the monogrammed Moleskine journal my agent gave me for Christmas.
I walked back to Varuna, thinking the walk would have exhausted me enough for a late arvo nap, but no cigar. I was at that point where tiredness turns to astonishment that you can possibly still be awake.
Dinner that night was the best one of my whole stay at Varuna. Not in terms of the food – that was uniformly delicious – but the banter. The night started on a positive note, with fellow Varuna resident Miranda Luby finding out she had a short story shortlisted for an award. The spirit among everyone was one of congratulations and collegiality.
After our usual dinner conversation we went off on a tangent talking about words we each despise – stuff like the ambiguous “inappropriate” or actually saying the word “hashtag”. My word was “impactful”. It crops up more and more each year but it is NOT a bloody word. And even if “impactful” becomes a recognised word by some shitty dictionary, it shall nevertheless forever remain a hideously inelegant one.
Back in the Bear Room, sleep finally hit me, like a house brick to the face.
Friday 19th January 2018
It’s not until you wake up feeling human again that you realise you weren’t feeling human before. Friday morning did that: it was like I’d been booked into the Pokémon Centre overnight and was now at full HP and fighting fit again (thanks, Nurse Joy!).
So battle, at last, I did.
Friday was the day where the writing finally flowed. I wrote about 2000 words, which is more than my daily average when I do something like NaNoWriMo, so I’d call it a success. I reckon it felt especially exultant after the nadir of the previous couple of days.
There was a relief that came with writing what was basically the first chapter of my new novel. The pressure valve was released. I didn’t feel like a total fuck-up. And when I closed my laptop late that afternoon, I felt like I’d actually achieved some of what I was sent here to do.
It made for an uplifting end to the week. I went to the local Katoomba shire gym (which, for any future resident’s knowledge, requires you to traverse one of the steepest slopes in town). I lifted weights. Sheila made us all pizza for tea. It was excellent.
At about 9:30pm I went for a night-time stroll down the main drag of Katoomba. With everyone else silent in their rooms, and after five days without a television or other background noise in the house, I desperately needed to be around some sound and movement.
I ended up at the Station Bar in the heart of Katoomba. Two hours of soul-replenishing live rock ‘n’ roll.
Saturday 20th & Sunday 21st January 2018
After finally churning out some pages and making good progress on my novel, I relaxed a bit on the weekend – both Saturday and Sunday. I made time to finally explore Katoomba in more depth, by which I mostly mean I ate a lot of food. Gelato, waffles, coffee, baked goods, pretty much anything that I shouldn’t have been eating.
I also went to a local barber and got a haircut (the Mohawk doesn’t trim itself) and walked around a classic car convention that had taken over the main street. Katoomba has an artsy, touristy vibe the way WA’s South West towns do – though it’s probably amped up a lot more.
One thing I haven’t yet mentioned about Varuna is that each room has its own library, which is fundamentally cool. Even better, each library is different to the other in terms of the geographic origin of its tomes. For instance, one of the rooms might have Asian fiction, a second one might just have Australian books, and so on.
The Bear Room was home to the European Collection, and the calibre of novelists and writers and thinkers on the shelf beside me was unbelievable. I felt quite humbled, looking at these famous spines and titles, some of them household names and some of them quite unknown to me but critically acclaimed and influential writers of their times.
This also reignited the ambition flame in me: I want to be like them. I want to my books on these shelves. I want my name on spines.
I flicked through some books and read what I could, but there wasn’t time for everything. The piece I remember best was a story called “Adam, One Afternoon” in a collection by Italian writer and journalist Italo Calvino. It sticks in my mind because it was so incredibly light and very odd and unsettling at the same time. The flow of the writing was somehow hypnotic and I both liked and was unnerved by it.
The other aspect of Varuna that I haven’t really talked about is the fellow writers. I am reticent to go into too much detail about the other authors I stayed with, because I guess that’s their story and I don’t know how much detail they like to share about their jaunts and residencies. They may be intensely private people, so I’ve kept this part minimal.
But honestly, the other authors are such a massive part of what makes a residency at Varuna worthwhile. I learned so much from them in different ways.
Gabrielle Carey (non-fiction author, and co-author of the very famous novel Puberty Blues) had some real insights on the publishing industry. She also holds the distinct honour of being the person who (very generously) taught me step by step how to make percolated coffee when she found me bumbling around the Varuna kitchen on my first day.
Stuart Cooke (published poet and academic) shared so much about the inner workings of the poetry world, and of the difference between poetry in different languages. He is also well-versed in cat videos and is the most proficient dishwasher stacker known to man.
Nandi Chinna (poet, essayist, eco-activist) has one of the most friendly spirits of any human I’ve encountered. Apart from making me feel exceedingly welcome, she also taught me a lot about publishing, and poetry, and ecology, and birds. She also made me stop beating myself up about not making progress and stressed the importance of taking break days – which was vital to getting through my Varuna experience with my ego intact.
Miranda Luby (fellow YA author) was a kindred spirit in a lot of ways. We both write YA fiction; we’re both emerging authors; we’re both enjoying the last of our twenties; and we are both ambitious and relentless in our drive to get our debut novels published. I had a fantastic time connecting with Miranda and we’ve continued to connect on social media. Watch out for this one – I think her debut novel will do big things, and I’m kind of quietly hoping we’ll both end up on some YA author panel at a festival a few years from now.
I think the main thing I want to point out here is that the five of us were all so different from one another. Non-fiction authors. Academics. Poets. YA contemporary and YA fantasy authors. Despite my insecurities earlier in the week, by the time it came to Sunday night dinner I realised Varuna House is a place for all writers. We all belonged there.
Even displaced country boys who write YA fiction.
Monday 22nd January 2018
Miranda and I left Varuna in a taxi Nandi had kindly arranged for us. As the taxi arrived, I realised I hadn’t written in the Varuna guest book, so I dashed out the quickest and most uninspired message in history while the taxi driver waited. Then, duty done, I fled.
I had a great chat with Miranda on the journey back to Sydney. And as viridian mountains receded to the fumes and umber of the outer suburbs, I realised this whole adventure really was over. I felt like an American kid coming back from summer camp. I’d learned a lot. I’d seen new places. I’d made new friends. And I wanted to come back again next summer, preferably for even longer.
So many published authors tell younger writers that the key to success is to “write every day”. The spectre of this advice cast a long shadow over my stay at Varuna, until I recently saw a tweet by bestselling fantasy author Garth Nix.
Garth made a point that writing every day does not necessarily mean pumping out words of usable prose daily. It also means outlining. Dreaming. Plotting. Picking character names. Making Excel spreadsheets for chapter outlines. Writing a sentence and deleting it. Jotting down notes in a journal. Exploring a new place. Reading books and finding inspiration. Even just staring into space thinking about what you’re going to do next with the unwieldy blob of clay that is your work in progress.
And Varuna made all of that happen for me. I got a lot done. I made some progress on my next novel. I learned about writing and editing and publishing. I learned about mountains and birds and nature and poems. I learned about myself and I slayed a few demons (or at the very least, I fired some warning shots across their noses).
I have to thank everyone who made this experience possible for me: the awesome team at the Australian Society of Authors; Ray Koppe and the Koppe family for their generous legacy and gift; the award judges Tristan Bancks and Aoife Clifford for thinking INVISIBLE BOYS was good enough; and the team at Varuna who were so willing to help with anything I needed during my stay.
If you’re ever considering a residency at Varuna, or anywhere else, do it.
Especially do it if you think you’re not good enough, or that you won’t belong there, because you might just get lucky and discover that you are, and you do.