Review: Secret Men’s Business by John Marsden

As a teenager I was so ashamed of reading this book, I hid it with my porn stash.

Whoa, did this book have an incredible impact on me as a kid.

When you’re a teenage boy, there are so many things you want to ask about being a bloke. secret men's business cover

You want to ask your dad, your brothers, your cousins, even your mates – but you don’t, because this is a verboten topic. You’re expected to know how to become a man without ever talking about it – because to talk about being a man means you must still be a boy, and the last thing a teenage boy wants to be called is a boy and not a man.

I remember finding Secret Men’s Business in the town library and being fascinated that a man had actually sat down and written all of this for us boys to just pick up and learn what we wanted to know. What an absolute champion. Marsden’s book tackled a wide range of topics, from the emotional to the sexual and highly visceral – the stuff you really couldn’t talk about with your dad. It was a thrilling, captivating read and it hit the mark.

My most vivid memory of the book is of hiding it. I don’t think my parents or anyone else knew I was reading it. I only read it in bed, after everyone in the house was asleep. It was hidden in a secret place in my bedroom. In fact, I hid it where I hid my porn magazines, and I would have probably had the same reaction if either item had been unwittingly found. There was a shame that came with reading this – because I felt like I should have already known it all: that manly wisdom should arrive via osmosis or telepathy, not from a book.

But despite that, I was still compelled to read this book. I had to know all the secret stuff about being a man – the stuff that nobody talked about. This book had it all. And I felt better once I’d finished it. I was less insecure; more confident. This book helped shape me as a man. It also helped shape me as a writer. I wanted to incorporate some of these themes, some of this masculine wisdom, some of this unabashed honesty, into my fiction – if I could find a way to do it well, of course.

John Marsden found a niche with this excellent book, and I’m so glad, because it changed my life for the better.

Holden

Notes on “A Man”

I am so pumped to share my short story ‘A Man’ as a free e-book for the first time today.1. A Man - Cover

‘A Man’ was my first traditionally-published short story. I wrote it as a uni assignment and, luckily, my lecturer encouraged me to submit the story to journals, which I did. A year later (in 2009) ‘A Man’ was published in Volume 3 of Indigo Journal – a fantastic journal which showcased Western Australia’s literary talent.

‘A Man’ is a fictional day-in-the-life of an Aussie labourer named Sam. It delves into a stream-of-consciousness about the protagonist’s work, his boredom, his stagnant life and his strained relationship with his girlfriend.

While the story is fictional, the idea was borne from my own time working as a labourer. I spent a couple of summers in my late teens on the shovel and operating a mini-excavator, doing earthmoving jobs – mostly digging trenches and filling them in again. This was in Geraldton in Australia’s Midwest, so there were plenty of scorching forty degree days and there’s no aircon outside: you’re sweltering for a good eight hours and you come home knackered.

The nature of labouring work is unexpectedly interesting for a writer, as it’s so rarely profiled in literature, least of all from a labourer’s point of view. It’s usually a completely male world and the work is manually hard and repetitive. It’s a taciturn environment: any talking is either instructional (required to get the job done, nothing more) or shit talk – sport, cars, women, dirty jokes.

But there is also plenty of silence when you’re digging and that leaves a lot of time to be absorbed in your own thoughts. Men who work as labourers aren’t usually outwardly expressive, so I wondered to myself about the other guys on the job – what was going through their heads on any given day?

‘A Man’ was written to capture a snapshot of the working man through a new lens. Many years after its first publication, the former editor of Indigo remarked that she had fond memories of the story, saying it had permanently changed her perspective of tradies and labourers. I hope it has an impact on you too.

I’ve made the story available for free – if you enjoy it, please leave a brief review on Smashwords or Amazon.

Happy reading!

Holden

What I Learned From Failing NaNoWriMo

So, I failed.

In November 2016, I set myself the challenge of writing 50,000 words of a novel in one month – thirty friggin days! – as part of National Novel Writing Month, or as it is better known, NaNoWriMo.dane swan fail - Copy (2)

Three times before, I’ve hulk-smashed this challenge like no-one’s business.

In 2009 and 2011, I belted out the final book of a fanfiction series I’d been writing since I was a teenager. It was a huge sense of achievement to complete something I first set my mind to at the age of 13. That work was never designed to go further; it just tied the bow on that green-stemmed part of my journey as a writer. In those NaNoWriMos, I even posted on Facebook saying the 50K limit was “too easy”. (2016 me wants to strangle 2011 me. YOU KNOW NOTHING, JON SNOW!)

In 2014, I tackled the first draft of my first real proper grown-up honest-to-God NOVEL. Again, I hit 50K. And I spent the following December and January clattering on the keyboard like a possessed monkey until I completed that first draft.

NaNoWriMo has given me some of the most exhilarating, rewarding, exhausting days of my life thus far. My past attempts were characterised by pulling all-nighters as I fuelled myself with bucketloads of black coffee (usually instant … love me some bitter, cheap-arse Nescafe …) punctuated by (far too) frequent smoke breaks. Sheer determination to not be a failure of a writer – which is all I felt I was at that point – drove me to keep putting words on the page until I met that goal.

But my attempt at NaNoWriMo this year ended in failure. My word count maxed out at 18,126 words. I didn’t even make it halfway there. Jon Bon Jovi is gonna be pissed.

I could list reasons as to why this happened, but for someone who hates to fail at anything, any reason will sound like an excuse. And I don’t like excuses.

The truth of the matter is this: it hurts. It hurts to fail.

Of course, the sharp sear of failure isn’t a new feeling. I wasn’t born yesterday and I haven’t had a privileged or sheltered or easy life. Like my fellow meta-humans – er, humans – I fail all the time, but I usually fail at other stuff. And those day-to-day fuck ups bother me less because they aren’t linked to the glowing talisman that buoys me through my quotidian routines – which is writing.

And failing at a writing challenge feels like I’m failing at the thing I was born to do.

(Incidentally, I’ve used the word failure a lot in this post, but I can’t think of a decent synonym for this context other than échec, which is French and won’t make any sense, and fuck-up, which isn’t quite right. Microsoft Word is suggesting I use catastrophe, fiasco or miscarriage, which seems pretty savage for a piece of software. Shut up, Word. Maybe I need to invent a politically correct neologism for failure to bubble-wrap my feelings. I’m success-challenged. No, better yet, success-diverse.)

It’s been nearly two weeks since NaNoWriMo ended, and I’ve been thinking about what I can take away from my 2016 misfire (there we go). The sting of defeat is only useful if you learn from it, after all.

So, what have I learned? Four things:

1) I need to make more time. My mantra for the past couple of years has been: “You don’t find time to write a novel. You make time.” I firmly believe this, and I’ve made time over the last two years to work on my writing. But I didn’t make time this November. On the contrary, I filled it up with work and other stuff – and I won’t make excuses (insert teeth grinding sound) but some of it wasn’t avoidable. I didn’t make enough time, so I didn’t write enough.

2) I need to fuel up. My hectic month didn’t lend itself to input, and output-only mode is not sustainable for a writer. As little time as I had to write, I had even less – none – to top up my tank. Good writing is fuelled by two things: life experience and imagination, which is spurred on by vicarious experience – reading books. I didn’t make time to live or to read. These things are vital to producing work as a writer.

3) I need to acknowledge the successes as well as the failures. Ultimately, writing 18,126 words in a busy month is better than writing zero words because I foresaw a hectic time and didn’t give it a bash at all. And writing at the rate I did, I would finish the first draft of this second novel in five or six months, which is actually not bad at all. I need to stop self-flagellating over my perceived disappointments and realise just how much I’ve achieved.

4) I need to go easy on myself because life can be a bastard. Sometimes life throws you a curve ball. And sometimes it likes to throw a dozen at you, all at the same time, just to fuck up your sense of balance. And it usually does this just around the time when you look around all wide-eyed and go, “Hey, things aren’t going too badly right now.” BAM. Life enters. And that means plans don’t always work out. I just have to adapt and adjust and keep moving towards the real goal – which was never to finish my second novel in a month, really. It was to finish my second novel. As long as I keep doing that, I’m on track.

I’m ultimately proud of my failure this month. Not because it’s fun (yay! I suck!) but because it has galvanised my resolve, made me more determined than ever, and made me keen not to repeat the same mistakes next year – which means I will be making changes in my approach come January.

2017 is going to be an epic year in a lot of ways. I can’t wait to get started.

Holden

“So, what’s the go with your book?”

Being decently vocal about working on a novel (okay, really vocal), I’ve been fielding this question for some time. It comes in various forms. “So, what’s the go with your book?” “Are you published yet?” “Will you sign a copy for me?” “Do I get a copy for Christmas?” and the perennial favourite, “Fuck’s sake, are you still not done?”frodo 2

Given it’s been two years since I began writing my work-in-progress (and just over a year since I last posted anything concrete about it), I thought it was time for an actual update. In October 2015 I posted a ludicrously inaccurate meme of Frodo Baggins against the backdrop of the flames of Mount Doom. “It’s done!” poor exhausted Frodo – and poor exhausted me – declared.

I’d finished the second draft of my first novel. A day or two later I printed the manuscript and made some reference to it being corporeal. Well, it was corporeal alright, but it was still a hot mess, and at 140,000 words it was a gigantic slab of text no publisher would look at from a first-time novelist.

I won’t belittle the sense of achievement that second draft offered me. In keeping with the Middle Earth references, the first draft was both exciting and daunting, but it was like The Fellowship of the Ring, where the landscape is still fresh and green and everyone’s swanning around that elf palace and nobody’s really died yet.

Conversely, the second draft was like taking my hairy bare feet on a months-long trek over the savage hot stones of Mordor while a murderous Gollum taunted me. It hurt. I fell down. I failed. I gave up half way through and had to put it aside for a few months. My brain told me I sucked. I frequently believed it. Then I got up and kept writing while I gnashed my teeth.

So finishing that second draft felt like I’d reached the summit at long last. But in the coming weeks and months, I realised it was more like one of those adventure movies where the heroes crest a sand dune in the desert and see a thousand more dunes ahead, each as dry and desperate as the last.

I had to keep working. After giving myself a couple of months to be a human being again, I began a third draft in early 2016. That one was bloody hard work. I erased some characters from existence. I deleted entire plotlines. For the first time, the manuscript seemed to be taking proper shape.

Then came the real learning curve. I applied for a mentorship with the Australian Society of Authors, and was successfully paired up with an experienced editor. Actually, that undersells her: my mentor was an absolute gun editor – a former commissioning editor at one of Australia’s major publishing houses and a legend of the Australian publishing landscape. She was also the editor of one of my favourite novels of all time, which may have resulted in some incidental fanboying on my part.

And she liked my manuscript. She really liked it.

But that pleased and stung me in equal measure. Like wasn’t good enough. I needed this manuscript to be great, not just good.

So I worked with my mentor for the better part of five months. There were emails and phone calls and Skype calls. Microsoft Word track changes became my bread and butter. I worked during the day then came home and smashed away on the laptop like a monkey at a typewriter. It was gruelling work. I was constantly overtired and irritable, and I’d quit smoking, so I was occasionally ready to kill.

During 2016, my mentor guided me through my fourth, fifth and sixth drafts. At a glacial pace, my manuscript got better and better. I feel like I grew up during the mentorship. Despite having a couple of short stories published and an Honours degree in writing behind me, this was the first real developmental edit I’d had to help me become a novelist. And it was one of the most worthwhile things I’d ever done.

To supplement the mentorship, I also spent the remainder of my ArtStart grant money on a whole series of PD sessions: mostly webinars, some pre-recorded, some live. I heard directly from published authors, agents, editors and publishers. I immersed myself in blogs, website subscriptions, magazines and mailing lists. I learned about the Australian publishing landscape. I learned about the American market. I learned where my manuscript would fit among it all.

In early October, I finally had a polished and completed sixth draft. My final Skype call with my mentor told me everything I needed to know: she loved it now. And I loved it, too. The novel was in great shape. It was lean and mean at 112,000 words, and we were both proud of it. The action was high octane, thrilling, explosive. The characters were well-drawn, realistic, and worked well together. The plot made sense. The voice was unforgettable. The narrative was finally singing like I wanted it to.

My final step was to seek a copy edit from a reputable editing service over east. This was to tidy things up: fix typos and grammar and syntax, flag continuity problems, and so on. It was due back in early November, but I received the edited manuscript three weeks early, with a note from the editor: she’d loved it so much she’d taken her laptop to bed to keep reading it, hence the rapid turnaround.

And so, exactly two years since I began this novel, I find myself in the final throes of editing my seventh draft. Namely, this is going through and reviewing all the track changes the copy editor made. I have one scene to edit significantly; most of the rest is grammatical and stylistic. Apparently I have beaten the comma to within an inch of its life (kind of the way J.K. Rowling used/abused the semi-colon, but less elegantly). I need to do some hardcore comma purging.

What’s next? Well, once that’s done, that Frodo Baggins meme will actually be applicable. I will be done. My manuscript will be as finished as I can make it. And it will be time to seek publication for my debut novel.

But a novelist doesn’t make a career from one book (well, except for Harper Lee). There’s no rest planned. I’m about to start work on my second novel. I’m trying my hand at a thriller. Further up and further in.

So that’s the go with my book. And while there won’t be copies flung around as povo Christmas presents this year, I can say this with confidence: Yep, once it’s released, I will totally sign a copy for you.

Holden