This morning I’ve been revisiting the first full-length manuscript I ever completed – the still-unpublished Young Adult action/adventure novel I wrote from 2014-2016. The pic above is from early 2015, when I was close to finishing the first draft.
Before I wrote INVISIBLE BOYS or the current version of THE BRINK, this was the book I thought would be my first published novel, and I poured a lot of time and effort into it.
I worked very hard on this manuscript, writing it mostly during a time when I was working full-time at a university. I had a mentor through the Australian Society of Authors who helped me refine the later drafts – there were seven drafts in total. I was so sure that with enough work, this book would get published.
I’ve only ever spoken about this book in the context of it getting rejected by an agent in early 2017 (which I wrote about at length in an early 2019 blog posted titled A LETTER TO THE NOVEL I ABANDONED.) In some ways, I’ve spoken about it too much through that lens and not about the novel on its own terms. But that rejection was pivotal for me on two fronts.
One, it drove me into a total war/scorched earth kind of mentality – what I’ve described as “going black behind the eyes”. The failure of that manuscript hurt me so much that I doubled down on my desire for success. Weekdays, weeknights, weekends, weekend nights: all my spare time was devoted solely to the dogged pursuit of working on a new book and getting it published. No chilling, no socialising, no downtime. Work work work until I got what I wanted. I would get published or I would die trying. It’s a bit intense, but it also worked. So as much as there are unhealthy downsides to the hustle mentality, there’s also sometimes no way around it. I don’t think I would be a published author now if I hadn’t driven myself like this during that time.
Two, it catalysed the career I have now, because it made me shift the focus of my creative output. Whereas the YA action/adventure manuscript was focused on plot and action, I realised what my writing badly needed was a focus on character, humanity and heart.
It was from that new approach that INVISIBLE BOYS and THE BRINK were born.
Occasionally at events, people have asked if I would ever revisit that first, unpublished manuscript and try to get it published now.
I’ve usually said that it’s comfortably in the drawer, but that I do sometimes think about revisiting it. I’ve said that if I did, I would probably need to give the book a heart transplant, because that was the key element it was lacking, that made it unable to leap that last hurdle to becoming a publishable work.
I still think that’s what’s needed, but I spent some time reading parts of this manuscript this morning and I was surprised by a couple of things.
Firstly, I have always referred to this book as a YA fantasy novel. And it did have fantasy elements – a system of low-key magic and so on.
But at its core, it isn’t quite a fantasy novel. It’s much more an action/adventure novel, with explosions and gunfights and swordfights and running away from danger, and ancient mythologies and corrupt corporations and shady underworld organisations and a band of misfits pulled together as a kind of found family against the danger of it all.
It’s adventure fiction – like Matthew Reilly’s Jack West Jr series (The Seven Ancient Wonders etc.) mixed with Tintin and Tomorrow, When the War Began. So I reckon I’ll call it adventure from now on, rather than fantasy.
Secondly, I think if I did ever revisit this manuscript, I’d start with some fundamental changes. Apart from making it more character-driven, I’d be making it an adult protagonist instead of teenage – it just gives the story so much more room to breathe and also makes the plot more believable. I also think I’d strip out the fantasy elements and shift it towards being more of a straight-up adventure/action thriller. I think it could work that way and it would be a novel I’d actually want to write.
Thirdly, and most surprisingly, there were little glimpses of heart in this plot-driven book that I hadn’t really remembered being there. The teenage protagonist – an angry young man named Gabe – was not given a deep inner world the way my published protagonists have been. This reflects not just my tendency at the time to eschew character for plot in my writing style, but also my own inability to be emotionally vulnerable at the time. I couldn’t show real shit in my characters because I didn’t know how to confront my own feelings in real life, either.
But there are a few points in the manuscript where moments of emotion did spill through. What surprised me was that I had forgotten about some of them, and yet they showed up in different ways in the novels I wrote later on.
For instance, this scene, where Gabe storms out of the shack he is hiding in with some locals, contains elements that would later be published in INVISIBLE BOYS and THE BRINK:
(NB: I’ve never shared even a sentence from this novel publicly before, so this is a first, and for all I know, this might be the only part of the novel that ever sees the light of day … here goes.)
I threw the door open and stormed out, leaving the shack via the fly-wire door at the front. I didn’t care if anyone saw my face anymore. I didn’t care that I was bare-chested and barefoot, wearing only a loose pair of Heath’s boxer shorts. I didn’t even know where I was going, just that I needed to be alone. I needed to be outside and away.
I passed the burned remains of Peninsula Senior High School, the pungent smell of seaweed wafting up at me, and found myself on Peninsula Beach. I could see the CBD from here – the marina, the wharf, the port and its orange ship lifters, the markets, Horizon Terrace, the Vic, Hudson House – but it was distant. It was comforting to see it all like that, silent, spread out before the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean. It made everything feel insignificant.
I stomped a few metres along the beach sand before the desire to get wet suddenly came over me. I strode straight into the waves in my boxer shorts and waded in until I couldn’t feel the ground beneath my feet anymore.
Unlike last night’s torturous swim, the cold, salty water was refreshing. I breast stroked through the shallows for a bit and then floated on my back, eyes closed against the belting sun, as seagulls called out from the shore.
When my brain started to rumble, I dived underwater. It was cooling, satisfying, like a red-hot iron being dipped into ice water and sizzling with steam. I stayed underwater for as long as I could, my eyes closed and ears deaf, floating like a foetus in its amniotic sac.
I eventually waded back onto the beach and flopped on the soft, powdery sand, eyes shut.
A few minutes later, as the droplets of water on my bare chest began to evaporate, I heard a gruff voice behind me say, ‘Thought yer did a runner.’
‘Needed to clear my head,’ I said. I didn’t shift, didn’t open my eyes.
The sand shifted as Darren sat down beside me. ‘Does it feel clearer?’
What struck me in this scene was how much my angry teenage self was demanding expression in a novel that didn’t really have space for it. I also didn’t have the emotional intelligence in 2016 to give this scene – and Gabe – room to explore this anger. Not long after Darren arrives, it becomes a bit more surface-level, the older bloke giving the young lad a bit of a sermon, but it was all about intellectualising Gabe’s strife, rather than sitting in it and letting it be raw.
I’m also a bit happily surprised at how several parts of this scene showed up in later books. Gabe storming off in his boxer shorts is remarkably similar to Leonardo’s meltdown on Brink Island. The use of the ocean as a cleansing force and then flopping onto the sand afterwards to reflect is also very close to a scene later in THE BRINK when Leonardo flees to the island’s northern cape. Except when played out through Leonardo’s character, and written by an author who’s a few years older and more able to be vulnerable, it is a longer and deeper psychological dive into that character’s inner workings.
The part that is almost identical to something that later got published is the paragraph of Gabe looking at the burned-out remains of Peninsula Senior High School. In INVISIBLE BOYS, Charlie – my angry character of that novel – has a very similar moment of reflection from the rooftop of an abandoned school in the middle of town, where he feels better watching the town from a distance, hearing the waves of the Indian Ocean. In both scenes, the characters are at peace with how the schools are abandoned, destroyed, and therefore safe.
This might only be interesting to me, as the author, rather than to any readers. But it really does make me happy to have noticed these similarities. Until now, I really viewed my unpublished YA adventure novel as starkly separate to my later work: the surface-level, plot-driven stuff versus deeper, character-driven work.
But I can see now that I was trying. There were attempts to express my suppressed anger – and express myself – even in the earlier work. I just didn’t have the emotional bandwidth or literary skill to do it well, or sustain it for longer than a few sentences. There are only occasional glimpses of inchoate angst, a nebulous self finding brief moments to reveal itself before being swallowed by the camouflage of a plot-driven tale.
I still don’t know what I will do with this manuscript. It might stay in the drawer forever. Maybe it was just a necessary first attempt at a book – not a failure as such, but a bridge between writing fun adventure fiction and writing something more honest. Or maybe I will come back and shape it into an adult-led thriller with heart. I don’t know.
In any case, it’s not the next thing on my to-do list. I’ll be spending my summer reading some books I’ve wanted to read for a long time – for inspiration, for learning – and then the first half of 2023 will be spent doing the rewrites on my third novel. I haven’t said much about my third novel, other than it’s about an angry gym junkie named Dane hitting his thirties, and I’m glad, because I think I am going to do a pretty major rework as I write the third draft of it next year.
Even the title of book three is going to change, so I’m especially glad I didn’t follow one of my whims last year to reveal the title during the promo tour for THE BRINK. That would have been hard to walk back, especially as the old title said so much about the book’s content, and now the book is taking a different direction in some ways. In fact, currently I don’t even have a new title for it, and although I’ve brainstormed a bunch of working titles lately, I don’t think any of them will be the one that makes it to publication, because they’re not even good enough for me to want to pick them as working titles. I don’t think I’ll really get a handle on this until I’m working on it properly in like Feb/March next year.
All I do know is book three is next up, and I’m keen to share Dane Di Angelo, and his story, with youse.
And after that? Book four is about a trio of men in their twenties named Zeke, Charlie and Hammer. 😉
So, maybe my fifth book will be rework of this unpublished novel? Or maybe I’ll be inspired to chase down one of the dozen or so other book ideas I have patiently waiting for my attention. There’s a joy in not knowing, really, and a liveliness in just following my gut towards what most needs expression each time I start a new book. I’ll suss it out as I go, and just hope that people will come along for the ride.