The first time I finished writing a novel was 1999.
I was eleven, and as far as I was concerned, the handwritten story that filled a whopping 64 pages of my blue-lined exercise book was an actual novel. Looking back, it would have been about 12,000 words or so: around the length of the Honours thesis I would go on to write 13 years later, and just a little longer than THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR.
My “book” was a sci-fi story called CAPRION’S WARNING. The main character, Nick, was a twelve-year-old Italian boy with seventeen immediate family members. I may have been projecting a little of myself, plus identifying with and/or being enamoured by Nick Kontellis from Emily Rodda’s Teen Power Inc books. Nick’s friend Luigi (Mario Kart was big at the time) got kidnapped by some aliens after a school disco (which figured prominently in my life at the time) and so Nick and his friends had to get in a spaceship and rescue Luigi. The whole story was essentially a global warming parable from the aliens; it was fun, but it made absolutely no logical sense.
I was quietly chuffed with myself when I finished that story. Looking back, I don’t
remember telling a soul. When it came to my creative side, I was incredibly withdrawn and secretive. My family never read a word of my work, nor my friends. In fact, the one time two of my mates tried to open an exercise book I’d accidentally left on my desk, I went into primal neanderthal mode and screamed at them to give it back. It culminated in a wrestling match in which the book was torn in half; thankfully, my desperation (and, I’m sure, their perplexed terror) enabled me to win that one – they never read it. (Incidentally, they are still good mates, they are possibly reading this, and they totally know who they are.)
In hindsight, finishing that story was kind of a non-event. I just turned the page and started the next little nonsensical pre-teen story – one that would never be completed.
I wrote constantly in the intervening years, but the next time I completely finished a project was 2011. For a number of reasons, I’m not going to name this project at the moment, but it occupied my mind and heart for a longer time than any other project to date has. This story was a piece of Pokemon fanfiction I posted on an online forum, and it had quite a large readership, especially in the first few years, though I retained a smaller group of dedicated readers until the end. I wrote the first chapter of this in late 2001, when I was thirteen, and completed the entire series of four novels in late 2011, aged twenty-three.
Actually completing that fanfic was one of the most difficult and gargantuan tasks I’ve ever undertaken – and I was once coerced into waiting eight hours in line for a Delta Goodrem concert in the middle of summer.
The feeling when I completed that series of four novels? Devastation. I fell apart and sobbed like you wouldn’t believe. Everything conflated at once: the joy of finishing such a long-term endeavour; the satisfaction of persevering for so long; the sorrow of saying goodbye to all those characters, whom I loved, especially the core cast; and the utter devastation at the end of my youth.
Because, of course, that whole project enveloped my formative years. Inhabiting that world was something I did daily, whether at the laptop or not, for an entire decade, and I grew so much during that time. At the start, I was a pimply thirteen-year-old dealing with puppy fat and wet dreams and dial-up Internet (and I couldn’t say which was the most awkward to deal with). By the end, I was in my early twenties, doing an Honours degree and working for a university and a bank simultaneously. The story had evolved, too, from being a juvenile “trainer fic” to an exciting action-adventure with a decent level of maturity. Even writing this now inspires me all over again.
I said once in an interview on that forum that I was treating that story like a training ground for my “real” writing. It was an astute observation: I knew that story could never get published given the trademark/licensing issues around fanfiction, so I just enjoyed it as a project of love and used the practice (and the feedback from some excellent readers) to hone my skills.
After that project was done, I was ready for the real deal.
In February 2015, after ten months of planning and three months of writing, I completed my first full-length novel of original work (YA Fantasy). I didn’t cry, which in hindsight tells me a lot. From memory, I moodily crept onto the patio, played Desperado by The Eagles on low volume from my phone, and smoked a cigarette or three while watching the sun rise (it was about 5am and I’d pulled an all-nighter). I did feel the achievement of finally completing my first novel: it was very gratifying.
But despite that smoky, nebulous state of triumph, I didn’t have a visceral response. The manuscript had a lot of structural problems, and I knew it. Beta reader feedback, a series of edits, a mentorship, and a copy edit all followed. When I completed draft number seven in late 2016, I was exhausted and sick of it, but my initial feedback from agents tells me it’s still not quite there.
And the reason I now know that for sure is that, one week ago, I completed my second novel.
And what a stark contrast it bears to the first one.
I started writing my second novel – let’s call it DAMAGE CONTROL, even though that’s just a placeholder title – in July this year. From the beginning, I had the overwhelming feeling that this book – a straight-up YA story – was the novel that would find publication first. Peter Parker would say his Spidey sense was tingling; Dennis Denuto would say he had a vibe; Kath Day-Knight would say she had a feeling in her waters. Everything just seemed to mesh together.
Call it what you will, but that feeling gripped me for two months and didn’t let go until I finished the final chapter last week. DAMAGE CONTROL is the most close-to-the-bone, intensely personal piece of fiction I have ever written. It felt like it poured out of me fully-formed; like twenty-nine years of pain were slowly and gingerly extracted from my blood. It was almost a channelling experience: when I reread some of the lines, I can’t even remember writing them.
As American sportswriter Red Smith famously said, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”
Red was right.
Once you open the vein and allow yourself to bleed, writing is the easiest and most natural thing in the world.
But it was something I had never done before.
CAPRION’S WARNING was more or less pure juvenile nonsense writing.
My teenage fanfiction was adrenaline-fuelled escapism.
And my first novel was essentially people-pleasing in literary form: calculating my moves, crafting a product for an imagined readership, second-guessing what the readers and market and editors and agents might want. In short, everything except being authentic, and genuine, and unabashedly myself.
DAMAGE CONTROL is me without a single inhibition. I’ve hidden nothing. Every fear, every fragility, every insecurity, every obnoxious word and thought is on display here for the world. It is a fictional work, entirely, but the characters embody the best and, frequently, the worst parts of me as the author: the things I am ashamed of; the things I’ve been hurt by.
My blood is on every page.
And it makes all the difference – because it actually works.
My first beta reader was completely blown away. He cried twice during the novel, especially towards the end.
“This is the best thing you have ever written,” he declared at the end, without hesitation. “This is very brave …”
As for how I felt when I finished it?
First was the sorrow: I cried, like a little kid who fell off his bike.
Then came the euphoria: I went to the gym and sprinted on the treadmill, adrenaline crushed into my bloodstream and music pounding in my ears.
And finally, satisfaction: I went out for ice cream with my fiance.
The most exciting outcome of finishing this novel was that it enabled me to understand, and define, myself in a way I hadn’t been able to do before. And my hope is that, in my being honest and vulnerable and brave, my readers will be able to make the same discoveries about themselves.
Finishing this novel has been an intense and rejuvenating experience.
Last year I tried to do a thing, and I failed spectacularly.
The thing was NaNoWriMo – a wonderfully kooky-looking acronym that stands for National Novel Writing Month. Thousands of writers – from amateur to emerging to published and prolific – attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in the thirty days of November.
I tried my guts out last year, but it was just a hot mess.
Hell, I was a hot mess.
I’d just been told I was losing my job in a restructure; I had nothing concrete to fall back on; and I had something like eight or nine major projects or events to deliver in the space of six weeks.
And I thought this was a good time to burn the midnight oil and churn out that great Aussie novel.
I got just a little over half way, which is not too bad given the gauntlet I was facing at work. But I crashed and burned, and that manuscript – which was a YA Thriller, and which I actually really like – is collecting dust in a drawer. Or more accurately, succumbing to the early stages of data rot on my hard drive. In my head, it’s more like cake batter: I fully intend to bake a delicious sponge with it and the guests are going to love it, but the oven isn’t preheated yet.
In non-overly-extended metaphor terms: I have a few other writing projects taking priority.
One of which is my second novel.
So, July saw the latest outing for Camp NaNoWriMo, which is billed as a virtual summer camp for writers. We even had cabins, where I got to chat to my fellow writers and we could share our joys and frustrations.
Because I wanted to make some massive headway in July, I set my goal as the traditional 50,000 words and set off on Day 1, which is a good start as that doesn’t always happen in NaNoWriMo. Some writers – past me included – have a tendency to rock up late, like day 3 or 4, and then play what feels like a Sisyphean game of catch-up from there. You know you’re not off to a great start when you’re limping across the starting line.
Despite the demands of work and publishing THE BLACK FLOWER in mid-July and other life stuff, I managed to track ahead of my goal word count every day of November, which I am pretty pumped about.
And on Day 30, I finally passed 50,000 words and reached my goal.
I have said it before but I will say it again: the benefits of applying an artificial and entirely arbitrary deadline to your creative practice can never be undersold. I take off my hat to the people at the Office of Letters and Light who make NaNo happen. It is, for me, the most productive way to write. I thrive off both the stress and the sense of competition.
Maybe it’s masochistic, but I work best when I know I am suffering intensely for a real, tangible and nearby reward: a completed manuscript.
And suffer I did.
This manuscript is the most personal thing I have ever written, and I am including my Honours thesis story ‘Full-Forward’ which genuinely drove me to drink.
This manuscript required me to tap into so much of my past suffering: the very worst of what others have done to me, and the very worst of what I have done to myself.
This manuscript demanded brutal honesty. From the first chapter, there could be no sacred cows, and so I refused to let myself have any. Nobody and nothing is safe from the torch beam of this manuscript. I forced myself to see it all, sit with it all, and most importantly, to speak about it all.
And I found I had so much to say.
I’m still working on this novel. There are a few chapters left to go. I’ll hopefully complete them within the next few weeks, and then the joys of editing will kick in.
Meantime, I’m enjoying the honest introspection – and extrospection – this process has offered me as a creator and a storyteller. The dogged honesty this work requires is forcing me to spear-tackle some demons, identify hard truths from chimeras, and valiantly step into marching boots I have held in the cupboard for years but have always been too terrified to lace up.
I really can’t wait to share this book with the world. I’ll be posting here about it from time to time over the coming months, so make sure to follow my blog and keep an eye on my social media channels, too.
Since it was half-way through 2017 last week, I took the opportunity to look over my plans for the month ahead.
To my delight, my schedule – which is a hyper-organised, multicoloured Monica Geller wet dream sort of affair – for once did not seem to reflect someone on the verge of burnout.
In a nice change, for the first time since February this year, there was a whole heap of blank space. Apart from the upcoming publication of “The Black Flower” and a few assorted day jobs, I’ve got a relatively easy four weeks ahead.
Now, if self-care rated higher on my list of priorities, I would have kept the slate clean and spent the whole of July playing the Crash Bandicoot reboot and binge-watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
But, much like nature, I abhor a vacuum.
So I decided to join a competition to finish my second novel by the end of July.
Camp NaNoWriMo is supposed to be the “light”, more fun version of NaNoWriMo, which I’ve taken part in (and blogged about) before. The cool part is that participants choose their own project and goal. There are virtual cabins where you can chat to other writers: I am the lone Aussie among 19 American writers, so at least that part of the camp experience is authentic. Of course, it’s -200 degrees here and there are no canoes, so it’s not quite a summer camp experience, but I will enjoy it nonetheless.
My project is a YA novel that originally began as a novella, which I completed the first draft of in February this year. With the working title of Damage Control (this will change, because I already have a few stronger titles in mind), it is by far the most vulnerable and personal work I have ever written. In some ways, it is difficult to write while drawing from that well of past pain. In other ways, it is a relief, like a toxin being extracted from my blood.
My goal was initially going to be 40,000 words in a month – a little less pressure than the traditional NaNoWriMo. But when I looked over my existing draft, I saw I already had about 20,000 words written – so, if I completed 50,000 in July, this would enable me to reach my target for the whole novel, which is 70,000.
So, 50,000 it is.
After yesterday’s late-night effort (Day 5), I’m sitting at 12,599/50,000. It’s actually one of the strongest starts I’ve had on a NaNo project in a long time, maybe ever. I’m also really excited by this novel and, dare I say it, I’m even a little more eager to share this one with the world than I am with my first novel.
But as I plug away on my Camp NaNoWriMo project this month, I’ll be paying attention to something I don’t usually pay attention, at least not very consciously: self-care.
Filling my once spacious July schedule with blocks of writing time made me realise just how much of my own time I spend on writing. In and of itself, that isn’t a problem. In fact, it’s pretty important when you’re trying to break through to become a professional writer that you put in a good amount of time.
But I suddenly realised how often I use my evenings and weekends for writing and writing admin.
Enthusiasm and (blind) ambition are two of my greatest qualities, and I consider them strengths. But it seems like I kind of suck at chilling out and having fun, which is kind of a sad thing to be bad at. Case in point: my copy of Crash Bandicoot is still in its plastic wrapping, unplayed, and I’ve had it for a week. I physically have not made time to have any fun. Gamer fail. Hell, human fail.
So while I’m going to push myself hard this month to achieve a goal that is incredibly important to me – the completion of my second novel – I am also going to be conscious about not burning out.
I’m going to make time to play video games.
I’m going to make time to watch something on TV.
I’m going to make time to go outside.
I’m going to set aside time to do absolutely nothing.
This sounds a bit common sense, but with my perfectionist tendencies, it isn’t easy to find a balance. It’s either all (multiple jobs and projects with deadlines) or nothing (burnout). To find a middlepath is a new challenge for me, and it’s one I’m looking forward to – albeit with some trepidation.
Here’s to a hybrid month: of productive, emotive, fulfilling novel writing, and an orange bandicoot smashing wooden crates, collecting Wumpa fruits and dealing with Aku Aku’s ambiguous sound effects.
Wow! Well, I wrote an article about the 20 year anniversary of the publication of the first Harry Potter novel – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – and the good folks at the Huffington Post liked it and published it!
I wanted to write a piece that wasn’t detached and soulless about the anniversary: I wanted to speak from the heart, and as a fan – which is what I did.
The full article is published at the Huffington Posthere.
(Incidentally, while I’m in fanboy mode anyway, it was very cool seeing my article on HuffPost’s home page!)
Everyone knows musicians and actors live for the spotlight and can sometimes tend to the narcissistic end of the spectrum. As Lady Gaga sang back in 2013, musicians “live for the applause”. 30 Rock‘s Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), an actress on the show-within-the-show, gave perhaps the best response when someone suggested they had stolen her thunder, dramatically screaming, “My whole life is thunder!”
Maybe a lesser known fact is that us writers also crave the limelight. Even the most introverted among us desire some level of attention: the quest for publication alone is admission of a desire for external validation. If we did not want a little thunder, we would be quite content to write endless novels on our laptops and leave them there until the beginning of the digital dark age.
But we want publication because like Gaga and Maroney, we have some level of fame whore within us. We create stories and worlds, and it’s a nice feeling when someone who isn’t us reads them and goes, “Oh, that’s so cool.”
I don’t think it’s super cool to admit we like the attention. Especially in Australia, where such an admission is going to get you chopped down (see: Tall Poppy Syndrome). But to some extent, it’s the truth for every artist, no matter how humble they try to appear. I’m not the only writer who likes the attention, surely?
I got to enjoy the view of my first few streamers of electricity this week. Firstly, I spotted my story The Scroll of Isidor charting on the Barnes and Noble bestselling fantasy short stories list (it started at #45, crept up to #31, and has now slid back to #33). That was a cool feeling, because it quantified the success of this story in an understandable way. I’ve been tracking the sales for the e-book, but it’s hard to know how they stack up compared to others in the field; a chart eliminates that query. It’s nice to enjoy a small modicum of success. As I like to think of it, it’s a taste of things to come.
A second burst of lightning came when I was profiled for the first time as an author. After we crossed paths on Goodreads, book blogger Mercedes Fox interviewed me this week for her website.
I had heaps of fun talking about my work as a writer and what drives me. The hardest question was about my favourite fictional character. I ended up choosing Nathan Drake from the Uncharted video game series, but it was a tough call. I tend to like intelligent, witty, dry-humoured alpha male characters, and there actually aren’t that many well-crafted ones out there. Drake, however, is a sick cunt. If I could be anyone fictional, I think I’d be him. When I was a kid, I liked Tintin a lot, but in terms of being a 3D character, he’s a bit lacking and rather milquetoast. Drake is like a more buff, more hardcore, more awesome version of Tintin, but more likeable than Indiana Jones.
We also talked about me getting carried away writing sex scenes (a challenge since I write YA!) and having an existential meltdown in 2014 and how that turned my life around and made me a harder worker.
So this was a big week, and like any slightly self-obsessed artist, I did enjoy the burst of attention. But now I’m hanging to crawl back into my hermit shell for some weekend downtime. And by downtime, I probably mean working on my current WIP. And possibly binge-watching Riverdale, because I was a huge Archie Comics geek growing up.
Wishing you guys an ace weekend: read and write well, and remember, like Jenna Maroney, YOUR WHOLE LIFE IS THUNDER!
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?
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.