10 Things I Wish I Knew About Being an Author When I First Started

As a boy, I was easily duped by some of the myths that swirl around becoming an author. The Myth of Overnight Success. The Myth of the Rich and Famous Author. The Myth of the Divine Muse and Her Timely Inspiration. The Myth of the Validation of Publication.

It’s easy to get lost in the myths of an industry when you’re a total noob and don’t know anything about it. It wasn’t until I became a practising author that I discovered what was really involved – and, usually, I found out the hard way.

So, I wanted to share the 10 things I wish I knew about being an author when I first started this quest. These are the lessons that helped me grow from a wannabe into a published author.

1. Writing Time is Made, Not Found  

As a teenager, I would spend my summer holidays writing relentlessly, because for two months I had literally no other demands on my time. Man, I loved those days. But after I turned eighteen, adulthood struck me like a blunt shovel to the face. I found myself mired in a listless struggle. I was eternally wanting to work on my novel, but work, and study, and family, and relationships – not to mention bills and administration – all jostled for pole position in my schedule. Progress was not just painfully slow, it was often non-existent: there were a couple of years in there where I don’t think I wrote anything at all, other than notes.

The reason for my progress paralysis was that I was expecting to find those golden free months to write, but this time doesn’t happen when you’re a grown up. As an adult, one’s schedule – like nature – abhors a vacuum. Your days will constantly be full of the usual humdrum, and this won’t magically clear one day. You probably won’t get to the bottom of your email inbox. There will always be more housework to be done, or another friend to catch up with for a drink. You have to actually clear time in your diary. You have to make time for your writing.

Since learning this in 2014, I’ve made regular time for writing in my schedule. Every week, there are hours dedicated to both administration and creative time. This means that I sometimes withdraw socially, or don’t go to an event, or blow off some other work until a later date – but it’s what took me from a wannabe to a practising artist.

This is my first ever guest blog post for another author’s blog. Check out the rest of the list at Rebecca Cahill’s blog here.

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Just a Total Identity Crisis, Nothing to See Here …

I’m not messing around here: Who am I?

Or, more importantly, who do I think I am?

I have to admit I usually don’t bother myself with questions like this. Partly because I tend to think of them as pseudo-philosophical bollocks: there’s no point reflecting on who you are; just be. Partly because it is a super cliché artist question and I view it with some level of disdain (I have been told I am just a tad judgmental …). And partly because I can only hear “Who am I?” asked in a Derek Zoolander voice, and that thought makes the teenage boy inside me – who adulthood has never quite managed to kill off – guffaw like a boofhead.

But for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been dwelling pretty extensively on this question and others. Who is Holden Sheppard? What am I all about? Why do I exist? Why do I write? What do I want?

zoolander pic
Could I be the best actor-slash-model, and not the other way around?

It all started innocently enough: I attended a guest lecture by an advertising expert who talked about the importance of personal branding. I was intrigued and made some vague notes, but didn’t allocate much time to actually coming up with an answer.

A few weeks later, my quest for personal development brought me to a workshop at the Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre in Joondalup. The topic was Personal Branding, Marketing and Social Media for Authors, facilitated by a truly brilliant consumer psychologist and author, Glennys Marsdon. I don’t use the word “brilliant” lightly here: Glennys is a superstar and laser-sharp, and I could not recommend her advice more highly if you are an author at any stage of your journey.

I never knew a simple three-hour workshop could have such an impact on me.

Glennys’ workshop – both during and after – made me reflect deeply, and at length, about who I am and who I want to be. And finding a concrete, clear sense of identity was actually quite difficult.

Holden Sheppard - Sep 2017 head shot
My current head shot. Maybe good for a professional – but too squeaky-clean for an author?

I’ve been mulling this over for a few weeks now; this post, in fact, has been sitting as a draft for weeks because I couldn’t quite get my head around it.

I’ve been analysing myself, maybe a little too harshly, and essentially trying to work out why this is such a difficult task for me. And I think I’ve zeroed in on the crux: I have a lifelong tendency to be highly adaptable to my environment. My (very human) instincts as a kid and even as a grown man have been to adapt, fit in, be normal, as I found myself in each new environment.

For instance, I was a bookish kid and I felt really isolated in a lot of ways during high school. There was an external persona that learned how to (barely) survive in peer groups at high school; while the more bookish, creative, outspoken side of me learned to flourish only in online forums among fellow writers and readers and gamers.

zorro the pumpkin 2005
Even in high school, I was a bit of a superstar, AKA weirdo.

This model of behaviour adaptation has chased me through life. At uni, I would drink coffee and talk about literature and theory and culture and feelings with my uni mates – during the day. At night I’d hang out with a different set of mates, drinking VB from long necks and playing pool and generally being bogans.

When I worked as a labourer and mini-excavator operator, I talked differently – every second word was “fuck” or “cunt”; when I went to a uni environment, my lecturers said they couldn’t understand me when I spoke, and so again I learned to adapt, speaking as clearly and professionally as I could.

The point I’m making is that I have successively adapted from the expectations of one setting to another, over and over, modifying my behaviour and personality to some extent each time. To some degree, this is quite normal and is probably a form of “code-switching”; it has also probably been the vehicle of my ability to succeed in a range of different sectors and environments.

The downside is that I have worked so hard to ensure I am meeting, exceeding and pleasing the expectations of external environments and people that my ability to meet, exceed and please my own sense of identity has atrophied over time.

labourer 2007
Sample dialogue from when I was a labourer: “All youse cunts are fucked, ay.”

When Glennys asked me to think about how Holden Sheppard, the author, was different to me as a person, I couldn’t find an answer. I realise, now, that is because there isn’t really a distinguishable difference. The way I present myself as an author is reflective of how I present myself as a person who works for a university.

Professional. Inoffensive. Clean. Even – shudder – kind of wholesome at times.

But does any of this let me express who I actually feel I am inside? The version of me that expresses itself in my personal life, in my self-expression, in my written expression? Is it what I’m really like in person, or who I want to be? Is it in line with my “personal brand” – or even with my actual, authentic personality?

Not at all.

So, my task is clear, and it’s no small feat. I need to dig around for a while and work out exactly who I think I am. More importantly, who do I want to be? What do I value? What’s important to me? This is actually very liberating, because so far I have been operating on the assumption that to be liked means I need to be neutral, professional and inoffensive – but these terms are nothing like how I would actually describe myself.

thug life 2013
Maybe this has been the real me this whole time?

I suppose you could say I’ve been putting on a particular front, or persona, to protect myself – and to avoid letting too much real stuff shine through.

 

That’s going to change.

I don’t have the answers just yet, but, as Cat Stevens once sang, I’m now on the road to find out.

I’m looking forward to the ride.

Holden

 

 

 

The Cruel Tutelage of the Indie Author Life

“You gotta hustle,” my personal trainer explained to me recently.

“You’re like an entrepreneur – you gotta work hard, put in the hours to get what you want.”

He wasn’t talking about weight loss or muscle growth. In between squats and lunges (it was leg day), and the sweat stains on my Collingwood Football Club Official Training Shorts, and our usual discussions of footy (we’re both wanting either GWS or Richmond to come up with the goods) and betting (he is a sucker for the horses), we were discussing my career as an indie author.

I rarely consider how much unpaid time I put into this career, but I really do spend a huge chunk of my life on something I get no financial reward for. Such is the nature of passion: it makes fools of us all, and I am glad to be fool enough to follow my passion instead of work a soulsucking nine-to-fiver.

It often takes someone else, outside of me, to reflect back to me just how much I have been doing. To be honest, I spend a lot of my time feeling like a giant loser. It’s part and parcel of being a perfectionist who has chosen to shun traditional forms of validation (e.g. financial, social, critical, academic) and who has instead chosen to follow his dream, whether or not it leads him to end up a pauper in a gutter.

As I see it, I am training myself to be a writer the same way I am training my body at the gym five times a week. My whole life right now is tutelage. Sometimes cruel tutelage*. It’s hard to know it, especially for an outsider, because the training isn’t visible. You can see a footy player practicing her goal-kicking on an oval; you might see a dancer stretching his limbs in front of a mirror; and you may walk past a guitarist busking on the street moaning along to Wonderwall, but you never see the author in training – just the finished product. We train, and sweat, and suffer in silence; our pain and growth and existential angst is ours alone.

cruel tutelage
Yes, Pai Mei. Yes, it is.

Such is the life of an indie author, I guess. And I don’t regret the path I’ve chosen. The biggest inspiration I’ve had for living my life this way was not even literary. Like the bogan I am at my core, my actual touchstones for this artistic path are none other than 80s Aussie rockers, INXS. When I saw the telemovie about their lives a year or two ago, I was entranced by how they found success. It wasn’t just divine provenance or any form of privilege or sheer luck. It was first and foremost bloody hard work: the band toured relentlessly and locally, year after year, as a no-name rock group, working hard to develop a following and make something of themselves.

It inspired me more than almost anything – and made me want to do the same, even though I’m in a different field. It drove me to begin my career as an indie author, releasing short pieces in the lead up to my first novel, rather than solely wait for the glorious intervention of an interested publisher.

I spend my life working hard to get what I want. Because when I eventually impress an editor with my manuscript and secure a publishing deal, I want them to know that I’m not expecting them to market for me. I will work even harder once I have a publisher than I do right now – and I will prove that to them by putting in the hard yards now. Just wait and see what happens when a blue-collar labourer from Geraldton becomes a published author. He’ll work his fingers to the bone and sweat through his Akubra. I can’t wait to be given the chance.

INXS early
INXS circa 1977, when they were still The Farriss Brothers. They had five years of hard work ahead before their Aussie breakthrough album, and ten years before they would launch their world-beating master work, Kick.

The reason for this random, kind of unfettered and unedited blog post, is because I was just interviewed and profiled on The Dreamers Blog by Doug Geller. When I read the interview back, I realise just how hard I drive myself and how much I have accomplished in the last few months. It’s a good feeling to stop for a second and acknowledge the small wins along the way to my personal treasure.

You can read my interview with Doug here. In fact, you totally should. Go on, have a squiz. It’s worth it.

Peace out, mofos.

Holden

*Free Tim Tams** for anyone who gets the “cruel tutelage” reference.

**Said Tim Tams are imaginary and must be enjoyed figuratively. I do not possess the budget to actually purchase any Tim Tams, because I am a povo author.

So, at what point can you call yourself a Writer?

In the last year or so I’ve encountered so many writers at different stages of their journeys. Some of them have been published novelists sharing their wisdom at events or in webinars (or, sometimes, in Tweets). Others, like me, are submitting short stories to journals or working on their first or second novels, and making their first foray into the sharkly world of agents and editors. Many authors I meet on Twitter and through Camp NaNoWriMo, are indie authors, or describe themselves as aspiring authors. And still others are bloggers or freelancers, sharing their life experience with the cybersphere.

On some level, we are all the same: artists and creators grappling with words and our own fears to craft something amazing, painful and beautiful and bring it into the world.

And yet, sometimes it feels like we are worlds apart from one another – especially, I think, those of us who haven’t yet had our first full-length work published (like me).

So, with so many stages and forms of this authory career, I’ve been thinking a lot about at what point we feel comfortable actually calling ourselves “writers” – and it’s quite a telling point to ponder.

Business man and woman shaking hands.
“Yes, ma’am, I’m a writer. No further questions kthxbye.”

Being a writer is a strange identity to occupy. We are not like a boy having a father figure or other male role model to look up to as he becomes a man. We are not like a Catholic going to church and learning the norms and customs from the other parishioners around us. We may share blood with our parents, but we are rarely cut from the same cultural fabric: very few of us would be descended from acclaimed writers (and those who are should count their blessings in terms of the networks that opens up for them!).

No: us weird little writers tend to incubate in obscurity and isolation through our childhood, until adolescence spits us out and we realise we can’t survive without writing.

But when are we allowed to actually become a writer? Imagine meeting someone for the first time (maybe at a conference or event or dinner party) and, when they ask you what you do, you respond with, “I am a writer.”

At what point in your writing career does that become kosher? Or believable?

It’s a slippery concept, because success as a writer was traditionally – and still is – so inextricably (and agonisingly) tied to having a full-length book published by a traditional publishing house.

Business People At The Meeting
You seem nice. Please, just take another free quiche and leave me the hell alone so I can dwell on my raging insecurities.

As a hangover from this – or, perhaps, as a mirror of our Western drive for achievement and validation – many writers do not publicly identify as such until they have a book published.

Many of us – especially the sensies among our ranks – experience the imposter syndrome. We really do fear that if we call ourselves writers, the logical next question from a well-meaning inquirer will do to us what a lawnmower does to a blade of grass:

“Oh, you’re a writer. So, what have you written?”

PANIC STATIONS!

Our fledgling writer turns heel and foots it out of dodge, with Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” blasting in his ears.

There is nothing more gut-wrenchingly, colon-emptyingly awkward and terrifying as calling yourself a writer and then mumbling a response to THAT QUESTION.

“Oh, nothing published yet,” you say, eyes down, desperate to get the heat off you.

the cool s
Remember these from Year 5?

All you want in that moment is for the person you’re talking to to go the hell back to the buffet table and freeload on some more spinach and feta quiches.

Many will find a way around this, and call themselves “aspiring writers”, but I actually feel quite passionately that this term is a misnomer. In fact, I actively encourage my students and writer friends not to call themselves this.

In my logic, an “aspiring writer” is someone who wants to write. You SHOULD call yourself an aspiring writer if you dream of one day writing an amazing novel, but you don’t know where to start, and you haven’t tried to write it yet, and it’s been seven years and all you have is a notebook with doodles of that cool stone S everyone used to draw in like Year 5.

HOWEVER.

If:

  • you are trying to write your first novel and have notebooks and MS word documents and Scrivener files full of first pages and first chapters; OR
  • you are practising writing short stories, creative non-fiction, memoir, poetry, scripts, whatever …

Then I would recommend you call yourself the dreaded Writer with a capital W.

Because despite the earthquakes of self-doubt that fracture your little writer heart every few weeks, or days, or hours, you are physically writing.

You are trying.

You are on your way and you are putting in all the blood, sweat and tears your caffeine-dehydrated body can afford to spare.

You are a writer.

writer not sane
Pretty much …

It does not matter one iota that nobody big and powerful and serious and acclaimed has yet recognised your genius, nor whether they have read your stuff, called it untalented tripe and kicked you twice in the kidney, leaving you in the gutter to die an artist’s death.

You are still a writer.

What defines us is our action and our spirit.

Our identity as writers is not tied to the quality of our work (how else would bad writers exist?) nor our publication status.

Personally, I thought of myself as a writer and was writing on and off from the age of seven, but I never dared to call myself one in public until my first short story was picked up and published in a literary journal when I was 20.

Until then, it seemed like Narcissus-level hubris to take on the moniker shared by King, Rowling, Tolkien and others.

But you know what? It still feels like that. Getting one short story published didn’t change that. Two didn’t. A bunch of journalistic stuff didn’t change it either.

And a lot of authors will testify that even getting one or two novels published still doesn’t change the sense that you’re not quite good enough yet.

Every time you introduce yourself as a writer, you’re waiting for Frau Farbissina to burst out from behind the bain maries at the networking dinner and scream, “LIES! ALL LIES!”

But really, I should have called myself a writer earlier, because (1) I have the spirit of whatever the fuck it is that makes us all creative and slightly cuckoo bubbling through my blood, and (2) I was writing actively, which satisfies my main criterion.

frau
When you have the audacity to introduce yourself as a writer.

I should have called myself a writer when I penned my little short story homage to Anton Chekhov’s “Misery” in my first year of uni.

I should have called myself a writer when I started writing my Pokemon fanfiction in 2001.

I should have called myself a writer when I was seven and writing about co-ed twelve year olds falling off Cornwall cliffs.

I do call myself a writer nowadays. In fact, I’ve been trying to consciously make myself say “writer” instead of my day jobs when people ask me what I do. It’s still a challenge in resolve, but I’m starting to actually do it.

You should, too.

If you write, call yourself a writer and cast aside the “aspiring writer” exercise in nervous hedging. You do not have to have anything published, or even finished, to be a real writer. You can survive telling a stranger that you aren’t yet published.

Just start writing, and carry yourself with the confidence of knowing you are a writer, just like Rowling. Sure, we may be less famous and poorer and less masterful, but we are still undeniably part of the same club. It’s just that we don’t have seats at the table yet.

You have to take yourself seriously as a writer to become a serious writer. And nobody else will ever take you seriously as a writer if you don’t.

Holden

Turning 29: A Writer Begins the Year of His Saturn Return

It was my birthday on Monday – and not just any birthday.

This was my 29th birthday: the much-feared last year of the twenties, or, in popular astrological terms, the year of my Saturn Return.

What on earth is the Return of Saturn?

For starters, it’s a bangin’ 2000 album by pop-rock band No Doubt. Incidentally, I listen to a track off that album every single year on my birthday – one of my weirder rituals. The song is called Six Feet Under and the chorus goes like this:

Today is my birthday and I get one every year

And someday, hard to believe but I’ll be buried six feet underground

Yep, the lyrics are kind of morbid but the song is a fizzy, rocky new-wave track and I just love it. I suppose I get a kick out of recognising how fleeting life is, and a birthday is probably a better time than most to acknowledge that. We are only on this planet very briefly, so I try to enjoy it as much as I can.

And the No Doubt example leads me to my point, really. Lead singer and songwriter Gwen Stefani wrote most of the album during her Saturn Return in the late 90s – hence the album title.

An astrological concept, a Saturn Return describes the return of the planet Saturn to the same celestial location it was in when a person was born. This usually takes about 29.5 years, so the year between 29 and 30 is considered the year of your Saturn Return, though, as the tale goes, the planet’s influence is felt from the ages of about 27-31.

The idea is that a Saturn Return signifies a time of self-evaluation and transition into a different life stage each time it occurs. At the first Saturn Return at 29, our youth ends and we enter adulthood. At 58, we enter maturity, and for those who make it to 87, the wisdom of old age awaits.

Now, for the record, no, I do not believe in horoscopes or any of that. In fact, the below meme best illustrates my beliefs regarding astrology.

horoscope-for-the-week-stars-and-planets-will-not-affect-your-life-in-any-way

That said, there is something curious and fascinating about the concept of the Saturn Return and how people apply it psychologically as a stage of development. Maybe it’s the story aspect of it that I like. Realistically, that’s what astrology is: take away the fact that it’s not scientific, and it’s really a form of storying our own existence and attempting to divine meaning from what surrounds us.

And storying our existence is fascinating to me – hence my choice to become a fiction writer and not an astronomer (which I once wanted to do).

I’ve been thinking a lot about my Saturn Return this week: about how I have now turned 29 and how, for the last couple of years, my life has shifted me quite dramatically in the direction I want to go in.

You see, despite always knowing I wanted to be a writer (since I was seven), I knew from a young age that this was not going to be an easy path.

Despite my desire to be a published author, there have been many times when I was faced with some negative attitudes, or, more often, when I panicked and didn’t back myself.

At 17, I chose a science degree as my top preference because I didn’t think I would be taken seriously if I studied writing. Thankfully, my mother advised me to do what I really wanted to do, whatever that was. I reflected, and changed my course preference to a Bachelor of Arts. Writing was all I wanted.

At 18, a lot of people – including a lot of so-called friends – looked down on me for pursuing my dream and studying writing. They saw writing as a low form of career, unlike law, engineering, medicine, business, or science. Some of them – several times – implied to my face that I was dumb, which was really quite silly as I’d won several academic awards for being among the brightest in the state and they were all B students. Maybe it was part jealousy. I don’t know for sure. Thankfully, social pressure has never affected me as much as my own fears. These attitudes galvanised me to keep going, because I saw these people as joyless and nasty and quite pitiable for shitting on the life of someone who dared to dream – and I never wanted to give up on dreaming and become one of them.

At 19, I wanted to drop out of uni after my first year because I didn’t feel like I fit in, and also because I was depressed. I decided to become a labourer and move back to Geraldton and just write in my spare time (ha! as if!). Thankfully, after three months labouring over the summer, I had an idea for a story and went back to uni to write it (it became “A Man”, which was published when I was 20).

At 21, I lost all confidence in myself when I graduated from uni, because I didn’t think I would be able to find a steady job as an Arts grad. I panicked and got a job in a bank for a year.

At 22, I quit the bank and did my Honours in creative writing, but then at 24, I finished my thesis and freaked out again, and went to work full time for two years in a senior admin role.

While I’ve never stopped believing in my dream, fear has sometimes made me jam the brakes on for a year or two at a time. At those shaky times, I’ve been so scared of failing at being a writer that I never really gave it a proper go.

It wasn’t until the year I turned 26 that I had an epic “I don’t give a fuck” moment – and I came out of that year losing a lot of illusions.

I decided to give up financial security, academic validation and societal approval.

I decided to just do the thing I was put on this planet for: be a writer, and do it as well as I possibly could.

So, at 27 – the age the influence of Saturn is supposed to begin – things began to pick up pace in my writing career: I got another publication, and a grant, and a mentorship.

When I was 28, the part-time job I had was taken away from me through a workplace restructure. It was a horrible time – months of anxiety and stress and uncertainty – but this time, unlike basically every time before that, I didn’t freak out.

At least, I didn’t freak out in the same way, because this time I didn’t give up on my writing.

Rather, I saw the loss of my job as a good omen: that it was time for me to put even more of my time and energy into my writing.

And so, I did.

I finally put my work out into the world, and I’ve been stoked with the response from the public.

Now at 29, I am investing more and more of my time, energy and even my own (scraps) of money into my writing career.

I have finally learned to back myself: I have said no to several day jobs in the past year, because I don’t want to lose sight of achieving my writing goals.

I have finally learned to structure my week to ensure I actually have hours put aside for both writing admin (marketing, website maintenance, editing, publishing, blogging) and writing creation (actually putting the arse in the chair and writing words).

Most importantly, I have finally learned how to operate my writing career with a foot on the accelerator – something I have never mastered previously. It is an exhilarating feeling to actually be a working writer.

Saturn’s return is supposed to push us into the role we are supposed to occupy in our adult lives: in my case, this means becoming a career author.

I enjoyed my youth, but for all its exuberance, it also came with a cacophony of fear and self-doubt that, at 29, I feel I have pushed through.

And it’s going to get better and more exciting from here. Not because a planet is hurtling into the same spot it was at back in 1988, but because I’m going to take action and make it better.

I know. I’m kind of intense.

But I don’t care anymore.

I won’t stop until my ambition is a reality – and nothing can deter me from this path.

Onwards and upwards.

Holden

I got writing advice from Matthew Reilly and ignored it. Because I’m a fuckwit, that’s why.

In November last year, bestselling action author and bona fide super geek Matthew Reilly stopped off in Perth as part of his book tour to promote The Four Legendary Kingdoms, the latest instalment in his uber-successful Jack West Jr series.

Keen to hear him speak about being a writer, I went along to his packed-out evening talk at Wesley College, a posh private boys’ school. I scored a seat in the nosebleed section, looking entirely out of place decked out in my favourite Five Finger Death Punch jersey and Obey cap among the white-collar types and the blazer-wearers. I’m fairly sure a pre-emptive suspicious persons report was filled out in my honour.

But I digress. Matthew Reilly was fascinating to listen to, and spoke with the confidence of someone who has been successful for a long time. He handled the Q & A like a seasoned pro. What’s most interesting about Reilly is not so much his phenomenal success as an Australian author – for which I reckon he never gets enough credit in his homeland – but his path to becoming a megastar. After being rejected by every major publisher and their poodles, Reilly self-published his first novel Contest in 1996 when he was only in his early twenties. After convincing the owner of a local bookshop to sell it, the book was spotted by an editor from Pan Macmillan, and he picked up a publishing contract.

I look up to Matthew Reilly for a number of reasons. He’s an Aussie author. He writes action/adventure novels, which I love reading. Jack West Jr is an Australian character, which I think is awesome in a blockbustery kind of novel. My fantasy novels tend to the more actiony end of the spectrum, so Reilly’s also an influence on my own work. While he often cops stick for not being “literary” enough, critics who level that at him are a little off-base. Action thrillers are a different genre to literary fiction: fans read these books because they want to be entertained. They don’t want to see Jack navelgazing for two-thirds of the book about his feelings. Reilly writes his novels as if they’re films, and once you take that on board, it’s easier to see what he’s doing.

Anyway, after the talk, I waited in a very long line (about an hour and a half, from memory) to get my copy of The Four Legendary Kingdoms signed. We were given cupcakes by the organisers, which was a nice touch. Then I got to meet the author, shake his hand, take a photo and have a brief chat with him.

Seizing my chance for advice, I told Reilly I was writing a YA Fantasy novel, that he was an influence on my work, and if he had any advice for me as I approached the querying process.

I figured it might be a boring, common question for him that would receive a one-line response, but to my pleasant surprise, Reilly was incredibly generous with his time. He essentially stopped the queue and rattled off a sequence of rapid-fire advice to me, which I quickly tried to memorise.

He made a point of adding one final piece of advice.

“Revise your manuscript again,” he said, locking eyes with me in a way that said take this seriously. “No matter how much you think it’s finished and polished, there’s always one more revision to be done.”

I nodded and smiled and thanked him for his time, and shuffled along past the weary-looking event staff.

But did I take the expert advice of this intelligent, successful, bestselling author seriously?

No.

Because I am what the French would call un connard, and the Aussies would call an arrogant fuckwit.

Most artists, myself included, tend to see-saw in a slightly unhinged manner between crippling, overwhelming self-doubt and full-blown narcissism. Sadly, that day was an egoic one: my head was wedged firmly within the warm dankness of my colon.

“Oh, Matthew, you know not who you are dealing with,” said a slightly medieval-toned fellow in my head. “For I have done seven drafts of this manuscript. I have worked with one of the greatest editors in the land, and another copyeditor has tidied it up. I am not some garden-variety amateur writer. I don’t need another revision. You, sir, are wrong.”

So I took my seventh draft of a manuscript and queried my first round of agents. I had to wait until the new year for responses. One finally came through: a form rejection, which stung. Another never replied after the initial acknowledgement of receipt.

But the third agent emailed back and said he was interested in seeing the full manuscript.

I did some metaphorical backflips, sobbed uncontrollably (that was a day of doubt) and then calmly replied with a “please see attached, kind regards” kind of way that successfully disguised how ecstatic/utterly destroyed I was.

Just getting a full request was proof, to me, that I wasn’t totally rubbish. I was good enough to generate professional interest. Even if it came back as a no, it was a confidence boost.

A couple of weeks later, I came back home from a run around the block and felt my phone vibrating. An Eastern states number. I tried to stop panting and answered in a level voice.

It was the agent who’d requested the full.

This is it, I thought. Agents don’t waste time calling people unless they’re offering representation. This is my moment!

“Great to hear from you!” I gushed to the agent.

There was an awkward silence at the other end of the line.

“Uh, you might want to hear what I have to say first, before you say that,” he said simply.

It was a rejection.

A thirty-minute phone call of a rejection, which is now my high water mark for how much disappointment my body can physically take.

The agent liked my manuscript. He said it was a strong read. He said he came to care about the characters and really liked some of them. But the word he used for the novel was “competent”, which cut me deeply. You want your accountant to be competent. You want a novel to excite you. And he wasn’t excited.

“It’s competent, but not good enough,” he said. “It really has got to be jolly good.”

I took copious notes, because this phone call – as crushing as it was – was a gift. This incredibly busy, successful agent was bothering to spend half an hour of his time on the phone with me, a no-name writer trying to get my first novel published who wasn’t an existing client. This was incredibly generous of him, and I asked as many questions as I could.

Some of his feedback didn’t land, because it was off-base for the type of story I wanted to write. But a lot of his feedback struck a nerve. It hurt because I knew he was right. Once I thought about it, and looked at the manuscript, I could see he was on point on a few matters. The manuscript still needed work.

After self-flagellating with a cat o’ nine tails and gnashing my teeth for the past few weeks, I’m finally ready to actually talk about this.

Because it means I’m no longer at the querying stage. I have to go back a step, and do an eighth draft.

You know, like Matthew Reilly told me to do.

Tail between my legs, I will admit I should’ve listened to him in the first place.

So what’s next? I’m working on a YA novel at the moment. I’m going to finish that first, because it’s burning with more urgency. And once the first draft of that is complete, I will return to my fantasy manuscript and start working on the eighth draft. And I’m going to make sure it’s bloody excellent.

Failure has always motivated me to do better, and this is no exception. I won’t finish with this novel until it is so good it demands a place on bookshelves; and I won’t stop until it’s published and sitting on one.

Holden