A Letter to the Novel I Abandoned

Dear Novel Zero,

Whoa. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? My bad. ^_^

Sooo, this is kind of awkward. I didn’t mean for it to be this long, and I didn’t mean to just walk out on you like that, but everything went a bit nutso since we last spoke, and I sort of lost track of you.

And today, I felt bad, because it suddenly occurred to me that I never actually told you I wasn’t coming back.

I know that makes me sound like a dick. In my defence, you are a manuscript and not a sentient being, so I’m probably not really a dick.

But I’ll cop to being a tad abandon-y on your arse. I did the metaphorical version of pulling out, yanking my pants up and bolting from the room just as you were in a post-coital afterglow, when I probably should have stuck around and spooned you. I mean, for a minute or two. I haven’t got all day.

To be honest, I’m a bit surprised at my own treatment of you, because for a very long time, I thought you were My One True Book. When I had my epic meltdown at the start of 2014 and decided I was going to force myself to finally write my first novel that year come hell or high water, you were the idea that shone most brilliantly and the story I decided to write into a full-length book.

And everything seemed so exciting at the beginning. I thought your main characters were pretty cool; I liked your setting; I thought your plot was solid. I mean, of course I did, I was your author and I made all that shit up.

I also thought your action scenes and battle scenes were absolutely awesome, and I still stand by that. As objective as I can be about these scenes, I think they stack up pretty well against most published fantasy and adventure books.

I think this is what drew me to you in the first place, because you were exciting, and fun, and I was in a place in my life where I was working a very boring full-time job, and I felt unfulfilled, and I was treated poorly, and you were such a total escape from the banal 9-5 office life I was living.

But I’m afraid for all your fun moments and all the high-octane thrills you gave me, there was something missing in our relationship.

When we worked together with my mentor during 2016, I felt something between us wasn’t quite right. During a Skype call with my mentor – an incredibly esteemed editor from over east – I confessed, “This manuscript isn’t quite working … I want it to sing, and it’s not singing.”

And it’s not like I didn’t work on our relationship. After seven drafts, I thought things were looking pretty good, and my mentor seemed to think we’d taken things as far as we could. It was time to pitch.

corporeal manuscript
October 2015, with the printed 2nd draft of Novel Zero

I’m so sorry, but this is where the wheels fell off.

Because none of the agents I pitched to thought there was anything special about you.

Our relationship survived the total lack of response from one agent, and the form rejection from another, though I did curl up on the couch and sob uncontrollably that you hadn’t been good enough for someone to pick up.

But I’m afraid we couldn’t survive the third response. The agent who emailed me saying he was into your first three chapters and that he wanted to read more of you. That happened the day after the form rejection, and I was so convinced this was the universe opening a window after having slammed a door in my face the day before.

One day I came home from a walk around the block and got a phone call from the agent. I was so happy to hear from him, but he said my happiness was premature. He spoke to me on the phone for a whole 30 minutes, telling me not just that my writing was “competent” (a word that still pierces my ego, and perhaps always will) but that there were many, many problems with you.

Now, I could have worked on almost any of our problems, I swear I could have. The problems with the characters, the problems with the setting, the problems with the plot seemingly unsuccessfully straddling the two very different worlds of Young Adult and Fantasy.

And I would have worked on it because I thought you were the story I was *meant* to tell. I didn’t care how much money you made; I just wanted you to exist, and get out into the world and sing your lungs out. I would have been so proud of you just for doing that.

But this is the point at which I abandoned you.

The last thing I said to you, in this blog post I wrote in early 2017, was that I was going to come back to you. We were going to work on our problems together, we were going to do an eighth draft, and then a ninth, and however many drafts it took, because goddamn it all I wanted was to have a fucking novel published and why couldn’t I ever get anything right in my life. </writerfeels>

But I lied. I told you I was going to the servo for durries and I never came back.

I know it’s probably too late, and that you’ve probably moved on, but I wanted to let you know that I’m sorry I left the way I did.

And this is the hardest part to say: I didn’t bail on you because the agent didn’t like you, or that you weren’t good enough to get published.

I bailed on you because I didn’t love you.

This is why I spent a month feeling sad and fetal position-y in early 2017. This is why I cried. We’d gone through everything we went through only for me to realise that, when an agent criticised you, I didn’t have a comeback.

I could have fixed all the things he told me were wrong with you. I could have made your characters and plot and setting all breathe and operate just fine. But even if I did ten drafts, or a hundred, or a thousand, and even if, in that thousandth draft, all of those elements or plot and setting and character worked the way they were supposed to, it wouldn’t have been enough.

Because you didn’t have a heart.

And that’s why you couldn’t sing. There was nothing wrong with your lungs – you could produce the notes just fine – but no music can ever be made unless there is a heart involved.

So that is why I left you. I realised I didn’t love you, because you didn’t have a heart, and I didn’t say goodbye because you don’t need to say goodbye to things that don’t have a heart. Plus there’s the whole matter of you not being a sentient being.

I suppose I am writing this mostly to assuage my own guilt, because I think it seems like I dropped you like a hot coal the moment I realised you couldn’t make me rich and famous. But that isn’t true. If I loved you, I would have pitched you to every agent and publisher on the planet and, if that failed, I would have self-published you like I self-published my short story, “The Scroll of Isidor”. I had no qualms doing that.

So, for the record, I am afraid it is over between us. I believe you, in your current form, will remain in the drawer. There are parts of you I really like, and perhaps one day, if things go a certain way, I will be able to revisit you and maybe we can do something radical, like give you a heart transplant. Maybe then you will be able to sing. I really like this idea. Or perhaps I will revisit you and borrow some parts of you for another attempt at this story one day, if and when the time is right.

In the meantime, I have several other novels clamouring for my attention. These novels have been successfully pitched to my agent and are waiting to be written. But know that while I’m saying goodbye now, I am leaving the door open on our relationship, at best for the heart transplant, and at worst, for me to one day open the drawer and leaf through your pages and get lost in you again, just for old times’ sake.

As for me, I’m much happier now than when we were together. I wrote a new novel called INVISIBLE BOYS that I love very much. It has a heart that pumps real blood, and it won an award and it’s getting published, which is super exciting (sorry to rub it in).

There is one more thing, and I’m afraid it is the proverbial vinegar-soaked sponge to the spear wound.

I am so sorry to do this to you, but I am afraid I can no longer call you “my first novel”.

I mean, you will always, always be the first novel I wrote and nothing can change that immutable fact.

But now that I have my debut novel soon due for publication – which I have spent a couple of years calling “my second novel” – I’m afraid the nomenclature is due for an overhaul, lest I will have readers hunting for a “first novel” that, to the world of publishing, does not exist.

So my novel, INVISIBLE BOYS, will now be referred to as my first novel, and the book I am currently drafting (and have nearly finished) will be my second.

But I won’t ignore your existence completely, because that feels wrong. So, I am going to call you Novel Zero, instead, because you and I had some good times, you know. You were the first attempt; the training ground. Sometimes your exciting twists and turns captured my imagination and made me dream; other times, you made me want to beat my head against a brick wall.

I wrote you under the influence of caffeine, when I still drank real coffee; so many cups of cheap black instant Nescafe were spent on you. And I wrote you under the influence of nicotine, back when I would break every hour and take my pack of Benson & Hedges out onto the patio for a dart or two. I remember the incredible NaNoWriMo marathons and the all-nighter I pulled to finish you, when I emerged from that electrified room and onto the patio and smoked a celebratory cigarette while watching the sun rise and listening to “Desperado” by The Eagles.

In fact, that was one of the most special moments of my entire life, so thank you, profoundly and sincerely, for being the first novel I ever finished. You showed me that my dreams could come true if I worked hard at them, a lesson I have taken on as a life mantra.

For that, I will be grateful for the rest of my days.

Yours, always,

Holden

After A Year Like This One I’ll Need a Good Whole 16 Months Alone

Nothing turned out the way I thought it would.

When I created my author Facebook page in September 2016, I wrote something vaguely aspirational in the “bio” section:

2017 and 2018 promise to be big years for my writing career, and I can’t wait to share this journey with you all.

I actually had nothing to back that up apart from hope and determination. I wrote those words because I desperately wanted 2017 and 2018 to be big years. I’d lost my job and I’d decided to really give my writing a go, so I thought “I am going to make them big years”.

But what I envisaged wasn’t what happened. I thought 2017 would be the year I signed my YA Fantasy novel to an agent and publisher and it would be published in 2018. Then I’d keep writing that series and be known as a fantasy author. Things took a different path, which I’ve spoken about before: that fantasy novel went in the drawer, I wroteΒ  Invisible Boys instead, and the rest is history – although I guess that history is still very much in the making.

My point is, my 2017 and 2018 weren’t what I had planned. Most of what’s happened in my life hasn’t actually gone to plan. My career and writing plans only seem to come through about 50% of the time, and all the other times, they go off the rails spectacularly.

holden sheppard jan 2018 summer shot
Taking a moment to myself in January 2018, before Sydney, and Varuna, and the rocketship that was 2018 took off.

And yet, every year at this time, I find myself in the same reflective, pensive, generally optimistic mood: ready to survey the trophies and carnage of the previous 365 days, and ready to foolishly make plans for the following calendar year. This year, I go in with eyes open to the fallibility of my plans, but who gives a damn – I have fun doing this, and it helps motivate me. Maybe the only reason I achieve those 50% of my goals is because I commit to them each New Year’s Eve? Who knows?

So, this is my reflection on 2018 and my look ahead to 2019.

And holy crap, what a year 2018 was.

This time last year I posted about how I was just proud to still be breathing after having exhumed past trauma to write Invisible Boys. The title of that post was drawn from Green Day’s 2016 song “Still Breathing”, which is about sobriety and recovery and staying alive, and I love it.

This year’s post title is also drawn from a song, because music is my go-to for processing how I think and feel, much more so than reading. The past few days, I’ve been humming (and occasionally singing, despite the pain inflicted on my boyfriend’s ears) a rare song known as “After A Year Like This One” from my favourite musical artist, Alanis Morissette. She wrote the song in late 1996 at the end of a phenomenally hectic two years touring for Jagged Little Pill, performed it live once and then to my knowledge never played it again, but the lyrics have been swimming to the forefront of my mind for days now:

After a year like this one I’m surprised I do not hate your guts

And, after a year like this one I’m surprised I still love music just as much

After a year like this one I’m surprised I did not eat my arm

And, after a year like this one I’m sorry if I’m not cordial to everyone

I think the reason these lyrics keep resonating with me is because I’ve never had a year like 2018 before, and at this point, I’m basically just permanently surprised about the whole thing.

In my experience, we usually don’t get a proper perspective on what’s happened to us until years down the track; when the storm is still raging, or the confetti still falling, it’s harder to make sense of anything. I expect in 2028 I’ll have a slightly clearer view of what this year really represented – but of course in 2028 I’ll be 40 (insert screaming face emoji) so let’s all do our best to not think about that, please.

What I do know, here in the present moment, is that 2018 feels like a breakout year for my writing career, and I think that will still be a true observation ten years from now. It was the year I forced myself to push against social anxiety and go to events, to meet people online and in person, to be a part of projects, to promote myself and my work more than I’ve ever had the confidence to. It was a year of holding my breath from March to November, while I waited to see if submitting my novel to the Hungerford Award would pay off or not. It was an incredibly lucky and elated moment when it actually won.

So, first, here’s the good shit that happened in 2018 – the highlights:

20180122_081117
My residency at Varuna in January this year was a big highlight – pictured here in Katoomba, NSW with fellow writer and Varuna alum, Miranda Luby
  • Varuna: I undertook a writing residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House, in the Blue Mountains in NSW – which, as I wrote at the time, I will never forget.
  • Sydney: Bf and I went there for the 1st time & celebrated our 10 year anniversary.
  • Alanis Morissette: Saw her live for the first time; fanboyish blog post here.
  • Acting: I acted in a play called “The Second Woman” as part of Perth International Arts Festival – an awesome experience that reminded me how much I love acting.
  • Writer buds: I joined the Perth tribe of the #5amwritersclub on Twitter – it made me more productive as a writer and I count these people as my buddies.
  • Bright Lights, No City: I told my story thanks to this Centre for Stories project.
  • Journo: I had my first commissioned journalistic article published by Ten Daily.
  • Rock ‘n’ Roll: Saw one of my favourite bands, Jet, play live at Metro City.
  • I Turned 30: Actually not as bad as I had catastrophised.
  • Wedding Plans: We set a date for our wedding in 2019 and starting planning.
  • Griffith Review: My novella POSTER BOY was announced as one of five winners of the 2018 Novella Project, was published in Griffith ReviewΒ and launched in Perth
  • Festival: I attended my first writers festival – the ASSF 2018 – as a guest author.
  • Hungerford Award: My novel INVISIBLE BOYS was shortlisted for, and then won, the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award.

It’s a bit staggering to see the weight of all these things lined up in a row, especially since there’s loads of things I missed off this list. No wonder 2018 felt so hectic all the time!

holden alanis - Copy
Seeing Alanis Morissette live in Sydney!

And there was stuff beyond the highlights that kept me busy. I don’t like to dwell too long on the bad shit – but at the same time, I want to acknowledge it. Reeling off a year’s worth of achievements is misleading and incomplete if I don’t also put in the context. It paints a picture that everything in 2018 was sunshine and blowjobs and the truth is there were big downs that came with the ups.

Despite being an amazing breakout year, 2018 was also really tough. I struggled to make ends meet and worked too many jobs, most of them casual or contract-based, so there was no job security or certainty and I was constantly stressed about money. I struggled to fit everything in. I felt burnt out a lot of the time and rarely made any time for myself. I got lots of rejections for my writing. I didn’t finish my next novel, which I had aimed to do by September. I had interpersonal ups and downs, plus some family relationships fell to pieces, which hurt a lot. My mental health had its usual ups and downs – I had anxiety and panic attacks, plus the bog-standard self-loathing that seems to accompany me everywhere, plus a couple of drinking relapses, and of course the constant self-doubt that every writer has (and I am learning that publication and awards do little to tune these doubts out!).

But I never get to the end of a year feeling defeated. Exhausted, yes, but defeated, never. 2019 represents a chance for lots more good shit to happen. Bad shit will happen, too, but I’ll roll with what comes. The good shit will make it worthwhile.

Hungerford with Brad
Winning the Hungerford was a massive highlight – not just of 2018, but of life! Pictured here with City of Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt.

And it’s hard to feel defeated when a lifelong dream is coming true. After years of hard work, my first novel is about to be published in October 2019. The year ahead is going to be incredibly exciting, and probably more hectic than 2018 was. But it’s the kind of busy that will be fulfilling and thrilling all the way through, so I’m pumped to get stuck into the year ahead.

My goals and major things to look forward to in 2019 are:

  1. Finish the edits on Invisible Boys.
  2. Finish my next novel.
  3. Get married.
  4. Go on honeymoon.
  5. Launch and promote Invisible Boys.

That isn’t a very long list, but each of those items is enormous and will take a huge chunk of time – so that’s enough for now.

I’d also really love to push beyond my own comfort zone and try some new things in 2019 – what those will be, I don’t yet know, but I think it would be great for my confidence to do stuff that I am not good at, and just do it for fun. I’ll see how this shapes up as the year begins.

The final lines of Alanis Morissette’s song “After A Year Like This One” are:

After a year like this one I’ll need a good whole sixteen months alone

And, after a year like this one I think I’ll make the west coast beaches my new home

I seriously relate to this. After a year like 2018 – with both the ups and downs – part of me wants to find a quaint log cabin in an alpine forest somewhere and curl up in a ball beside a fireplace. Or maybe escape for a year to a little town on the coast of Mexico or Hawaii and just wake up on the beach each morning. A random fantasy, but enticing when I’ve spent so much time driving myself hard.

Alanis did end up taking sixteen months off, or thereabouts. She fled to India, cocooned herself in anonymity and later wrote a hit song about it. But of course, this was after she had done the album release and world tour.

I haven’t released my book yet.

I haven’t done the tour.

The hard work has to come before the rest. And this year, though it was hard work, wasn’t actually the job I set out to do. This year, and everything leading up to it, was really me putting together my CV, pounding the pavement, going to metaphorical job interviews. I’ve now landed my dream job, and the hard work begins on Monday at 9am.

hard work
Training for the hard work ahead.

So, despite my longing for a break, 2019 won’t be the time to slow down. It will be a year on turbo mode; feet on accelerators and sometimes arms out the window. I have a huge amount of work spread out ahead of me: a long, glittering, potholey road to run down that will be exhilarating and will keep me busy for 2019 and probably a big chunk of 2020, too.

So that’s my focus for now. In my wannabe rockstar terms, it’s now time to drop my album and do the tour. And once that’s done, some time in 2020, I’ll give myself a holiday.

But first, hard yakka. I think I’m in for another year like this one.

Here goes everything.

Holden

thank u

PS. Thanks to each of you for being a part of my journey this year. It’s been probably the most unexpected joy of 2018 to have connected with so many like-minded readers and writers and supporters. I’d love to hear what your goals and dreams and resolutions for 2019 are, too – let me know in the comments below or on social media! Wishing you all an awesome 2019 – full of ups and downs and everything in between. πŸ™‚

How To Be Authentic When Everyone’s Watching

Holy fuck.

I can barely remember how to write a blog post. How did I used to start off? I’m sure I used to be witty. Or maybe that was just in my head; maybe I was laughing at my own jokes, like J.D. from Scrubs.

In any case, the only suitable opening I can find today is “holy fuck”. Frankly, nothing else has the brevity or blunt power to encapsulate how I feel, and what’s happened, since I last blogged.

So, back in September, I was announced as one of the shortlisted authors for the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award, alongside some amazing authors such as Alan Fyfe, Yuot Alaak, Zoe Deleuil, Julie Sprigg and Trish Versteegen. I was pretty damn excited about just being shortlisted.

And then on the 15th November, at a big ceremony at the Fremantle Arts Centre, I was announced as the WINNER of the 2018 Hungerford Award. I won $12,000 and a publishing contract: my debut YA novel, Invisible Boys, will be published by Fremantle Press in October 2019.

I am absolutely stoked and my full emotional response to this still hasn’t hit me, I don’t think. It is incredibly exciting and a dream come true, and the fact that I can’t come up with anything beyond cliches tells me I still haven’t really processed it.

Hungerford with Brad
With City of Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt after winning the 2018 T.A.G. Hungerford Award.

But as a result of all this enormous news,Β the last three months – from the initial shortlisting until now – has been one of the most exciting, hectic, surreal, chaotic and overwhelming times of my entire life.

And because of that, I haven’t written a blog post since the shortlisting was announced. This is not for lack of wanting to, but time was at a premium. About five minutes after I won the Hungerford, I had a media itinerary pressed into my hand by the marketing manager at Fremantle Press, and suddenly it was all go – press and radio interviews, contracts, event bookings, existing events to attend. Thing is, I never really factored in what would happen if I *actually* won the award, and it so happens that November/December are the busiest times of the whole year in my current day job.

So for about three weeks, my routine was:

  • Wake up at 5:30am feeling rat shit
  • Try to tackle incoming emails/social media notifications/tasks
  • Go to work for the day
  • Come home, open laptop, continue tackling inbound emails/notifications
  • Fall asleep with laptop open on my lap
  • Wake up and repeat the whole thing

I don’t think I had an iota of downtime for at least two weeks. I won’t pretend this wasn’t a really exhilarating time, though. The thrill of winning an award as prestigious as the Hungerford – and the realisation that my novel is finally going to be published – buoyed me through the hectic pace of post-award life.

(Suggestion for any future Hungerford shortlisted authors in 2020 or beyond who might stumble across this post: I recommend clearing your schedule for the whole week after the award announcement, just in case. If you win, you’ll have some breathing space around your crazy schedule. If you don’t win, you’ll have some downtime to curl up in the fetal position and take care of yourself.)

But it’s been almost an entire month now since the award announcement, and the noise and rush and overwhelm has finally settled. And better, I’m now on my third day of holidays: I have an entire glorious month off work over the summer. Right now I am sitting at an alfresco cafe in Fremantle. I’m drinking an apple juice with ice blocks in it. The sun is beaming down from a cloudless sky and a warm breeze tells me it’s going to be a nice hot day. I’m listening to a man across the street busking, playing blues guitar, and I feel more relaxed in this moment than I have for a very long time.

So it’s time to sit down and write how I’m feeling.Β Since I was a kid, writing stuff down has always been my way of processing how I think and feel; my tool for making sense of what’s happened. (I am very mature because I am totally resisting the urge to make a very crude tool joke right now.) My happiest times as a kid were sitting down on a weekend with my notebook and just being creative – drawing pictures, maps, or writing down thoughts, feelings, story ideas, or actual stories. This is one of my favourite ways of getting in touch with myself; of knowing who I am.

And I’ve commented to my boyfriend a few times this past month that I barely felt like I knew myself, which makes sense, since I wasn’t writing or blogging or doodling in a notebook. I desperately needed to write stuff down so I could comprehend what had happened, how I felt about it, and who I am now in what feels like a new era for my career and my life.

And now that I’ve given myself a few minutes to stop and think, the first thing I’ve noticed, or remembered, is that actually, there were loads of times over the past three months that I badly wanted to write a blog post. A few times I even jotted something down on my phone, thinking it would make a good post to share.Β But something stopped me – an invisible force that had nothing to do with my claims of being too busy (which I was) or not having enough time (which I didn’t).

So, the truth is, I actually stopped blogging for three months because I was really fucking scared.

Almost every time I thought of something I wanted to comment on or share, a thought bubbled up from within my blood – an acidic, corrosive thought:

What if you write how you are feeling, and Fremantle Press happen to read the blog post, and realise you’re sometimes sensitive/boofheaded/confident/a bit odd/a bundle of nerves/cocky/a total mess?Β 

That thought was like a springy, five-metre high diving board into an overly-chlorinated pool of an even more insidious thought:

If they know what I’m really like as a person, flawed and sensitive, they might decide not to publish me.Β 

And that little rhizome of terror took root in my psyche; like a weed choking a flower, it overpowered the cheers of support from friends and fellow writers. The fearful thoughts were actually louder than the momentous fact that the publisher had gone and shortlisted me in the first place.

So I froze for three months, and I chose to write nothing at all. I became completely paranoid that if I said one slightly dumb or embarrassing comment in a blog post, I might lose everything.

I’m not particularly proud of shying away from blogging like this, but when I reflect upon it, I would probably do it the same all over again if I had to. I have wanted to be a writer since I was seven; this is the dream and goal I’ve been working towards my whole life. Three months of dubious self-censoring was worth it even if, on the other side of receiving the award, I can see it was probably just fear talking. The people who work at my publisher are totally amazing people – I feel like I’ve joined a new family – and I feel very welcomed as both a writer and a human. I don’t have anything to worry about from that perspective.

But things have changed. Prior to the shortlisting, I felt like I was just some random toiling away in obscurity; now, I feel like people are actually watching, listening, waiting for my novel to drop.

And to be honest, I’m not used to people watching me. Nobody was watching when I fell apart trying to complete my Honours writing project in 2012. Nobody saw my quiet struggles in 2014-2016 of working on my first fantasy novel. Comparatively few people engaged with my short stories when I released them digitally in 2017.

It was easy to be authentic in those eras, because nobody knew who I was and even when they did, few people cared.

The post-Hungerford world feels different. I have to consider the other partners in my publishing career – such as my agent and my publisher. And every now and then I think about the fact that fellow authors, some much more established and esteemed than me, also follow me on social media, and thus might see my blog posts, and thus might judge me for how I write and talk and feel.

When I started thinking about this last week, I had the horrible thought that I was now going to have to be more cautious in what I write. And that thought snowballed. Shit, I’m going to have to censor myself. I should probably try to come across positive all the time, especially since I’m getting published so I should just try to be permanently happy and grateful and never say anything dark or negative again. I shouldn’t talk about how I feel as frankly as I used to. I shouldn’t blog in the unfettered, authentic way I used to. What if people think I’m a tool? What if they think I’m too soft, too annoying, too cocky? Or what if they just want me to shut the hell up since I’ve won the Hungerford? What if everyone’s already sick of me?Β Β 

This led to a truly abysmal weekend. I felt like I was suffocating; like I couldn’t be myself anymore. It was painfully similar to how I felt when I was younger and in the closet: thinking that how I am is inherently not okay; that I needed to put on some kind of front to be accepted by the people around me. It really affected me, and eventually, on Sunday, the bough broke. My anxiety skyrocketed, and IΒ felt physically and emotionally sick. The option of shutting up, or of sanitising my online presence to present a more polished “published author” vibe from now on, loomed over me – a quiet, claustrophobic death of expression.

A death of my authentic self in the place of a palatable, saleable version of Holden.

While I was in this headspace,Β aΒ lyric from one of my favourite Cranberries songs, “Free to Decide”, kept spiralling to the top of my consciousness:

It’s not worth anything more than this at all
I’ll live as I choose, or I will not live at all

I have always loved this song and this lyric, but Dolores O’Riordan’s words meant something new to me on Sunday. I realised in that moment that a life without free expression is not a life I want to lead. If self-censorship were ever the price of my career, the career simply wouldn’t be worth it.

And so I decided, on Sunday afternoon, that I won’t pay that price.

And as soon as I made that decision, my anxiety ebbed back to low tide. I felt immediately human again; and I felt like me again. My three-month-long self-imposed moratorium on expression had been shattered and I decided never to go back there. That’s no way to start a career as a novelist, and no way to live any kind of meaningful life.

The reality is, I can’t breathe if I can’t express myself freely. I’m pretty sure the free expression is what actually makes my writing worth anything, anyway. I am bolder in my writing than I am anywhere else, and that bravery occasionally leads to a good story or a good novel or a good blog post. Other times it doesn’t, but you win some, you lose some.

What matters to me as a writer and a man is that I am free to say what I want to say. When I am free and unencumbered, I feel like myself.

So, on Sunday night, I decided to commit myself to being as authentic and honest as I always have been. I value these qualities, in my writing and in my life, over almost all others. I don’t want to be seen as singularly positive and happy, nor singularly angry or anxious or depressed. I want to make space for all emotions. I want to be okay with them, not just as they happen, but in the sharing and expressing of them, if I so choose.

I am sometimes light and sometimes dark; both parts exist within me, within all of us, and I am going to allow myself to express these parts of myself as they come up.

Maybe this isn’t normal once people are watching and expecting certain things of my writing, but I don’t care. It feels right to me to be unfettered. I can’t live any other way.

This mindset feels like a good way to tackle the adventure that’s just over the horizon. 2019 is going to be an incredible year. The Invisible Boys era is about to begin, and I can’t wait to share all of it with you – the ups and also the downs, honestly and openly – over the year to come.

Here’s to a big year of triumphs and fuck-ups and everything in between.

Holden

New Interview with the 2018 Australian Short Story Festival

Hey guys,

It’s only two weeks until my first *ever* appearance at a writers’ festival and I am SO pumped.

I’ll be making two appearances at the 2018 Australian Short Story Festival on 20th October in Perth, both at the Centre for Stories in Northbridge.

The first appearance is on a storytelling panel for the Bright Lights, No City project I took part in back in May this year, which was all about telling stories of what it was like growing up gay in country WA. At this panel, I’ll be chatting with amazing storyteller (and my coach/mentor for the project) Sisonke Msimang, plus Josie Boland and Damien Palermo, my fellow storytellers from that project. It’s going to be pretty intense and vulnerable but I can’t wait to hang out with those three again and share my true story in oral storytelling form to a new audience.

The second appearance is my first time as a panel chair. I’ll be chairing a session called The Ventriloquists, which is all about the importance of voice in the creation of short fiction. I’ll be chatting with H.C. Gildfind, Luke Johnson and M.J. Reidy, who are all very talented writers.

As part of the promo for the festival, the awesome people at the Australian Short Story Festival interviewed me about my writing. The interview is available here if you are interested! Being the classy mofo I am, I used the words “buttloads” (thinking it would be more polite than “fuckloads” which was my instictive response) and “horseshit”. I am starting to suspect I may drag this literary festival into the gutter ever so slightly. I hope they don’t mind! πŸ˜‰

Back to regular blogs soon, I swear … til then, happy weekend all! πŸ™‚

Cheers,

Holden

INVISIBLE BOYS Shortlisted For The Hungerford!

G’day crew,

I’m meant to be having some downtime away from screens today (ha, oops!) so I’ll keep this post short.

Big mea culpa here … things have been so hectic lately I haven’t even updated my blog with the usual frequency. Let’s face it, I’ve barely had time to scratch me own arse, andΒ  I’ll get things ticking over here again in no time, I swear. November is looking like it will have lots of days where I can breathe easy and I am looking forward to that.

I’m currently mired in the first draft of my next novel, a contemporary YA with a mystery element. I’ll be posting with a proper blog about that process and experience soon, because it is definitely not easy to write a third novel. This novel is due to my agent on 31st October, so it’s nose to the grindstone, arse in the writing chair time. (This is why November should allow me to be slightly more human.)

Meantime, I need to fill you in on what’s been happening with INVISIBLE BOYS, the second novel I wrote.Β As many of you will have already seen on social media, INVISIBLE BOYS has been shortlisted for the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award. This means the manuscript is now in the running for a $12,000 cash prize and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press.

I won’t find out the winner until the actual awards ceremony on Thursday 15th November, which is still over a month away, so cross your fingers and toes for me that I have a win.

I am still pinching myself that a fictional story born from the emotional trauma of my youth has been shortlisted for this award.Β  I don’t want to say it too often in case I dilute the meaning of these words, but I really thought I would take all of my teenage experiences of growing up gay in the country to an early grave. I did. I never thought I’d tell people, and I never thought I would write about it – so the idea that aΒ bunch of judges read this manuscript and decided it could be worth sharing with the world is a real buzz.

I so want this story out in the world so I am hopeful for a win. Plenty of people have reminded me that even if I don’t win the Hungerford, the shortlisting itself is an honour and a good omen for this book. My friend and writing buddy Louise Allan had her manuscript shortlisted in the 2014 version of this award, and while she ultimately did not win, her manuscript – which became the acclaimed novel THE SISTER’S SONG – ended up landing a deal with Allen & Unwin and it has won her a lot of accolades and praise.

So, I am trying to remind myself that whatever happens, hopefully great things lay ahead for this little story.

The media release about the shortlisting is here. I’m stoked to be shortlisted alongside some other great emerging WA writers. I’ve briefly met all five other writers on the shortlist, and they are all super chill. Through some of the radio promo we did on RTR FM and Radio Fremantle, I’ve had the chance to chat some more with Yuot Alaak (shortlisted for his manuscript Father of the Lost Boys) and Alan Fyfe (shortlisted for Floaters) and they are both really friendly and supportive. Their stories sound both important and timely.

I still don’t know if I have fully felt the impact of being shortlisted for this award. Usually, my imposter syndrome flares up when something like this happens, but this time around I am just feeling deeply grateful and excited about the opportunity. I hope this feeling lasts!

More to come, soon, when I get my act together.

Holden

How Losing My Job Saved My Career

It’s funny how a random memory can make you realise how much your life has changed.

An old photo popped up on my Facebook news feed this week. The photo was of me, two years ago, when I grew my hair long. At the time, I thought it made me look like Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, who, as we all know, is not just a total rock god but a man of extraordinary hair. Hence, Grohl became not just my rock idol but my hair idol.

For the sake of full disclosure, the wookie in the below image was me in early September 2016.

holden long hair 2016
Yep, that’s my hair.

When this popped up the other day, I shared the image again on social media, because I thought it was funny. At the time, I thought draping my hair over my face, putting on my sunnies and pretending I was some kind of living hairball was the height of visual humour. I can confirm that two years later, nothing has changed: I am obviously still fucking hilarious. ^_^

When I shared this on social media, I said something vague like “this was me two years ago – never be afraid to change”. In hindsight, I thought this probably read like a dumb comment, because it’s pretty damn easy to change your haircut, and I don’t know many grown adults who are afraid of their barber.

But what I was thinking of when I said that was less the haircut and more what the haircut represented.

Because when I saw this picture, my first thought – after laughing at my own comic genius, of course – wasn’t how I bore a striking resemblance to Cousin Itt.

My first thought was: I remember what it was like being you.

I suddenly remembered how the 2016 model Holden felt, day-in, day-out, and it was not happy.

DAVE GROHL
My hair idol, Dave Grohl.

In September 2016, I was struggling with the later drafts of my first novel, and I think on some level I knew it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. This made me depressed because I wanted to be a great writer with a great novel and the novel I was working on at the time only felt “good”.

At the same time, I was working in a day job where I was being treated like crap by my boss – the passive-aggressive kind of shit that absolutely nobody needs in their life. I was struggling to stay sober. To cope with everything, I was smoking a lot (my car was practically an ashtray on wheels) and I shovelled the absolute worst shit into my body: a constant stream of Maccas and pizza and KFC and chocolate and cool drink and sugar. Not only did this hideous nutrition make me feel constantly gross, I was also obese, and you couldn’t force me to set foot in a gym.

When I waddled into the house each night after work wanting to burst into (very masculine) tears, I would think my sore feet and my endless burning acid reflux and my depressed state were just part of getting older. “I guess this is what it’s like to get to 28,” I remember thinking.

It saddens me that I thought obesity and depression were part of becoming an adult.

The truth is, part of me felt resigned to an impending adulthood that would tear my dream of being a writer out of my grasp.

Although I had decided, in 2014, to pursue writing, I still had a very old map of my future lodged in the haywire circuitry of my brain. Full-time work still came first, and writing was wedged around the sides. I still wanted to climb the corporate ladder – not that my ladder was particularly corporate, working at a university – but I desired to work my way up higher, be promoted, be more senior, be paid more, be more recognised. I thought that once I hit 30, that would be the time to build a house in the far northern suburbs, get a mortgage, start a family.

So, when I see this hairy photo, I see that slightly younger version of myself. A man who was struggling, and depressed, and had absolutely no idea what he was doing.

A few days after this photo was taken, everything changed.

There was a restructure at work, and I lost my job.

The day I lost my job, I felt like any guy who loses his job. I felt like a failure; I wondered whether any of it was personal; I wondered why I hadn’t been good enough to keep. I felt like someone had flung a medicine ball into my solar plexus.

But the next day, I didn’t wake up dreading going to work, because I knew it was no longer going to be my life. I woke up realising my life was going to change, and suddenly, change didn’t seem like a bad thing.

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more losing my job made me see my life more clearly than I ever had.

Because when it came to thinking about finding a new job – I realised I didn’t want to.

The more I reflected, the more I discovered I was supremely uninterested in working full time. I had learned the hard way that it didn’t make me happy, and that the chase for more money and more status was completely pointless and empty. Moreover, the chase itself wasn’t one I enjoyed. I was doing it because I thought I was meant to do it, not because I wanted to.

Same with the house and the mortgage and the family.

So when I thought about what I wanted, I came up with only one career goal: being a writer.

best news ever
Losing my job actually ended up being the best thing to happen to my career.

I decided in that moment that I would stop fucking around and relegating “writing” to the back seat. It was time to take myself seriously. Screw everyone’s opinions of what I should have been doing in my late twenties. Screw my own childhood impressions of success. I was going to be a writer, no matter what, and I would dedicate the rest of my life to the pursuit of that dream.

That was when my whole life changed.

I made the decision to never work full-time again, and to pick up part-time and casual work to support my lifestyle as an author. Fuck it, I thought. I can stand being a bit povo, but I can’t stand not having the time to be creative.

I decided I didn’t give a shit about owning a house just yet, and I still don’t.

And once I made these big changes, I felt incredibly happy. And inspired. And motivated.

So I started to do all the things that made me feel good. I joined a gym. I paid a personal trainer to help me get in shape. I worked out five times a week until I lost 30 kilos. I quit smoking. I cut the bad food in my diet and replaced it with nutritious shit that my body actually needs. I started writing more – not just my novel, but short stories and blog posts. I learned to express myself and my feelings authentically.

And yes, I cut my hair. I cut it super short, and bleached it, and for me this was a symbolic way of marking that I was going to live an alternative life to the one I thought was planned for me.

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October 2016: New hair, new attitude – and visiting the Centre for Stories for the first time.

None of this was easy. Most of it was harrowing, and terrifying, because I couldn’t actually be certain that my future as a writer would all work out the way I wanted it to. Hell, I still don’t know what lies ahead for my writing career. I still don’t have my first novel published, and even when I do get published (positive thinking) I have no guarantee that people will actually want to buy the book. Or that anyone will want to publish my next one. There’s no certainty at all.

I ultimately believe success as a writer is drawn from three components: talent, hard work and luck.

You can hone talent, and you can work hard, but you can’t control luck. So it is for every author or creative or frankly, any human. Any number of aspects of my career might not pan out. This whole writing caper could go completely tits up for all I know.

But what I’ve learned is that living a life in pursuit of a dream is a reward all of its own.

And the only way I stand to gain everything I want is to risk everything first. Whether my dreams are achieved or not is ultimately out of my control. What is within my control is whether I choose to follow my dreams – and when I follow them, my soul, mind and body are all in alignment with the universe and I feel awesome.

If I die pursuing a dream that never came to fruition, I will have lived a life of feeling perpetually hopeful and purposeful and awesome, and to me that is worth much more than living the constrained and resigned traditional life I once thought I ought to lead.

So when I look at this hairy motherfucker in the photo, I feel energised, because I realise how far I’ve come.

And I also want to place my hands on this bloke’s shoulders and tell him to be brave, because he’s about to learn that in order to find himself, he will have to throw away almost everything he knows about his old life.

And very soon, he’ll be stepping onto a treadmill, earbuds in, with Jewel’s “Goodbye Alice in Wonderland” playing in his ears as his legs begin to run and his heart begins to pump harder than it has in years.

Goodbye Alice in Wonderland
You can keep your yellow brick road
There is a difference between dreaming and pretending
These are not tears in my eyes
They are only a reflection of my lonely mind finding
They are only a reflection of my lonely mind finding
I found what’s missing in my life

Never be afraid to change your life.

Holden

How Do You Know If You’re Successful?

Are you successful?

How do you know?

I’ve had so many unexpected conversations lately around the concept of success, and it’s really got me thinking about how we as scrabbling, imperfect humans measure and quantify success.

The other day, someone close to me declared her ambition to one day own a new, silver Mercedes. As she had never previously indicated any interest in motor vehicles, let alone luxury ones, I was bemused and asked her why. It turned out she saw a new Mercedes as a sign of success.

My first instinct was to roll my eyes at this. Not because I’m sneering at a new Mercedes – Jesus, I should be so lucky to stand in the general vicinity of one’s exhaust fumes!

No – it’s because I’m from a blue-collar background and I was raised to eschew material possessions as signs of success. Whatever the other parts of my upbringing I have rejected, or evolved from, this isn’t one of them. So, my reflex was to judge this person.

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Sure, it’s shiny, but if it’s not a Commodore, I’m not impressed. ^_^

Later on, I started to think about why she would have such a materialistic desire. This person has spent much of her life struggling as a carer and a single parent, and she has worked doggedly to get a degree as a mature age student, and has now just finished her Master’s degree and landed a full-time role in her field. A flash new Mercedes has been completely out of her reach for most of her life, and it still is. So, the Merc stands as a symbol of a not-yet-attained success. It is a beacon and a dream, but moreover, it is a measurement: the day I can afford a new silver Mercedes is the day I will have achieved the success I desire.

Just a couple of days later, I was having a coffee with a colleague and, completely unprompted, she mentioned something unexpectedly similar about how she would know when she’d reached the level of success she wanted. But her measurement wasn’t a car.

Shoes, she said. Shoes or a handbag. (And she was not the kind of woman I would have expected to say something as stereotypically female as this, either.)

“I want to walk into a meeting with my Jimmy Choos and a designer handbag,” she said firmly. “Even if nobody else knows those labels, I’ll know, and that’s what matters.”

Again, this was something I had to ponder on. For so long, I haven’t thought of success in those kind of material terms, so I was trying to get my head around it. But it was the same principle as the Mercedes: the day I can afford Jimmy Choos is the day I will have achieved the success I desire.

adidas jeremy scott
I don’t care much for shoes, but these go okay. I don’t know if I’d call them a status symbol, though.

So, naturally, because I’m a self-absorbed, navel-gazing author, I started thinking about what this meant for me.

What is my measurement? How will I know when I have achieved the success I desire?

Considering how navel-gazey I can be, I was surprised to find that I actually didn’t have an answer.

The more writers I speak to, the more I believe that success as an author is largely based on illusion. That is, when we regard a big shot bestseller or a distinguished award-winner, we are perceiving what we would consider a successful author. We say to ourselves, that guy has sold a million copies and had his books sold in other countries, adapted into films – he is successful. Or we tell ourselves that she’s so esteemed, the critics’ darling, and wins every award under the sun – she is successful.

But do those authors themselves feel successful?

What is their measurement?

Every time something good happens in my career, like the recent news that my novella had won a competition and is getting published, I feel an initial injection of elation. After a barrage of rejection, it’s so incredibly euphoric when the occasional thing actually goes right.

But very quickly, I’m back to where I started. That was good, I tell myself, but now you need to do better. Onwards and upwards. What is the next step?

I’ve been looking at my career as a giant spiral staircase, and I’m on one of the lowest rungs, and I can see so many amazing people ahead of me: climbing higher, climbing faster, standing proudly at the top of the stairs.

But nothing I’ve ever done makes me feel like I’ve reached the top of the stairs. Or like I’ve even reached a landing where I can stop and catch my breath, and appraise just how many goddamn steps I’ve hauled my arse up so far.

spiral-staircase-photography-2
Don’t. Look. Down.

I tell myself this is because I still have such a long way to go – my first novel isn’t even published yet, after all – but I am starting to wonder whether publication would actually change this feeling.

And the more I speak to published authors, the more this seems common. People who have their first novel published don’t feel successful, even when they have won awards or sold a shit-ton of copies. Even authors with several books out don’t always feel like they’re at the top of the stairs, and nobody I know looks down at the staircase behind them and thinks they’ve come far enough.

My point here is that perhaps us writers and artists, more than other professions, don’t know how to quantify our success.

Part of this, I suspect, is because so much of our career trajectory rests on the caprices of fate, which is not exactly the steady kind of foundation you’d want to build a McMansion on and raise your 2.4 children.

Unlike many professions, pure hard work and talent don’t cleanly translate to monetary success. We are aware that despite all our blood, sweat and eyewater, it’s possible that the dreams we have may never see fruition in the way we want them, and that is pure agony.

The way I cope with this is to believe in a quote from Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece, The Alchemist, in which he states:

“No heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”

In other words, if you spend your whole life trying to become a successful writer, but never achieve fame and fortune, you’ll still have a happy heart and a fucking awesome life, because you spent all your time doing what makes you joyous: writing.

I truly believe this.

But believing this has also inoculated me against thinking about what will happen if I do find the success I desire (hell, I’ll be honest: I crave it). It’s a function of self-protection to avoid thinking about success, but the net effect of this approach is that when things do go well, I actually don’t pat myself on the back at all. I allow others to congratulate me and I am truly touched by their warmth and generosity, and I retweet their kind words, but on the inside I’m just like, but I’m not a published novelist yet.

And if I keep going the way I’m going, I’ll never recognise success if I’m lucky enough to experience it. I might get published, and sell a lot, and win awards, but I’ll be endlessly stuck in this mire of self-flagellation if I don’t know what success looks like for me.

So, if life goes well, and the stars and planets align, and I get what I want, how will I know? What will be my measure of success?

I had to really think about this, because I didn’t have an immediate status symbol, like a brand of luxury car or fashion gear.

And don’t get me wrong, I am in no way a zen Buddhist dude who has rejected the material needs of human beings. I like shiny shit as much as the next gormless idiot.

I’ve always wanted a flash Maloo ute, for instance … yellow or black – or an SSV ute in atomic green, but they don’t make those anymore and I think by the time I can afford one, they’ll no longer be as fucking awesome as they were in like 2008.

I’ve always wanted to have enough money to fix up my classic 1968 Mini.

I’d love a bigger house, with a dedicated office for writing, or maybe even an actual den.

I’m sure I’d love some cool shit around the house, like how Matthew Reilly has all his sick memorabilia (I believe he owns a DeLorean), but there’s nothing I am that obsessed with that would make physical stuff any more than house decoration. Same with clothes and watches and any other accessories.

But I really struggle to equate any of these things to success. None of them stands out as the one thing that would define my moment of attaining the success I desire. And I could kind of live happily without any of these ever coming to fruition, as nice as some of them would be.

hsv_maloo_eseries_ser1_01
I’ll take one in each colour. Plus the dirt bikes. Though I am likely to fall off them …

It took awhile, but I eventually found my measurement. The one thing I want to achieve in life; the one thing that, when I achieve it, I will know I am successful.

It turns out that thing is unemployment.

I want to one day be able to quit my day job, knowing that I am making a living income off my writing. That I will be able to sustain myself for the rest of my life as a writer and a speaker.

That’s actually the thing that makes me most excited of all – more than a souped-up ute, or a plush wood-panelled den, or some kind of outsized Pokemon memorabilia.

I imagine the day I can tell my (kind, supportive, amazing) bosses that my writing has become my primary source of income, and I can no longer work a day job.

That will be success for me: no longer having a job; feeling the freedom and excitement of being a full-time writer.

This gives me something concrete to aim for. Sure, it’s fucking distant, hard as hell, and will probably take me at least a decade from now to achieve, if I’m lucky, but it’s a measurement, and a goal, and a dream.

And when, not if, it finally happens (positive thinking, people), I promise to myself that I will give myself a proper rest. I will stop, and look down at the years of climbing that spiral staircase, and feel the burn in my quads and my glutes, and wipe the sweat off my forehead. I’ll acknowledge how much hard work it took to get there, and fucking congratulate myself on getting what I wanted.

And hell, maybe I’ll take my partner for a little holiday to Positano in the south of Italy to celebrate, too. (Or I’ll buy a Chev-badged Maloo ute – they’ll be dirt cheap by then!)

Until then, there’s a load of hard work ahead. But at least I know where I’m heading, and when I’ll decree myself a “successful” writer.

And there are loads of smaller milestones along the way to that dream. I’m going to make a conscious effort to be truly grateful for any of them I am lucky enough to actually achieve, and to stop on each of those landings on the way up the staircase to catch my breath.

Big breath in – it’s time to climb.

Holden

PS. I am super fascinated by how other people – writers and non-writers – measure their success. Let me know in the comments here or on FB/Twitter what your measurement of success is. I promise not to judge you if it’s a Maserati or a Lamborghini – and in return, you can let me take it for a spin one day, yes?

positano
The dream: on the terrace of one of these villas in Positano, celebrating with my partner that I have become a full-time writer.