Varuna: The Week I’ll Never Forget

Last November, I was lucky enough to win the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award from the Australian Society of Authors. The prize was a one week residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House. I never expected to win the award, so the residency was an absolute dream come true.

I rushed forward and took the residency in January this year. And it’s taken me a whole four weeks of sitting on my hands to work up the motivation to write about it. It was today that I realised why I’ve been putting it off for so long. It’s because once I write this, it will actually be over – a relic of memory and experience and nothing else. Subconsciously, I think I wanted to cling to it a bit longer; keep it in the present day. But the days are passing inexorably, and the memories are no longer fresh but faded.

So I want to record them, before they atrophy any further.

***

Monday 15th January 2018

This day barely counts as a day of my residency, because I was in Sydney for most of it. I had breakfast at a creperie with my teenage nieces and nephews. Double maple for me. I ordered in French to an entirely unimpressed French waitress.

Lunch was at a burger joint in Sydney’s CBD with my amazing literary agent, Haylee Nash of The Nash Agency. We spent about half an hour talking excitedly before either of us remembered we were actually meant to order food. It was a brilliant meeting and I left feeling so pumped for what’s ahead of me and INVISIBLE BOYS – in 2018 and beyond.

I swanned around the city for a few hours exploring – it was my first time in Sydney, ever, and I was so enraptured. It was like being back in Europe, but this city was also so unlike Europe, and certainly a long way from anything I had ever known as Australian.

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My first glimpse of the Blue Mountains, from the taxi heading to Varuna. Magnificent.

In the arvo, I collected my suitcase from my older brother’s office on George Street and then began my navigation of peak-hour traffic on Sydney’s trains. I was crushed into a skinny, cuboid version of myself – now that part was really reminiscent of being on the tube in London – and trained it out to the Blue Mountains.

I thoroughly underestimated how long the ride would take: I arrived at Varuna, the National Writers’ House, at around 8:30pm, travel-weary and kind of worried. I honestly expected to rock up to a darkened house; I kept imagining that I’d be knocking on the door to no response, calling every phone number I could to the dejection of unanswered voicemails. I figured I might have to curl up and sleep on the pebbles outside.

My reception at Varuna was actually very warm. Before I even got out of the taxi, one of the other four resident writers – the wonderful and celebrated poet (and fellow Perthite) Nandi Chinna – was already out the front of the house to greet me.

“You must be Holden,” she said. “We were worried about you.”

I was really touched by this. I was alone in a new place and a bit overwhelmed that I had even been chosen to go to Varuna. I will never forget her saying that.

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Out the front of Varuna House at sunset. NB: Not my Fiat. NB2: How much could this be somewhere in Italy, though?

The Varuna staff (who are all super nice people) had already gone home for the night, so the other writers took me into the house, gave me a tour and showed me to my room. The caterer, Sheila, had saved my dinner for me – a delicious chicken curry – so I microwaved it and wolfed it down while chatting to my fellow writers.

The vibes were immediately warm and supportive, which relaxed my nerves and made me feel ready for the next day.

***

Tuesday 16th January 2018

I usually wake up at 6am, so I must have been running on Perth time still as I woke at 9am and felt instantly like I’d wasted half my day. I was a bit thrown off, so I took my breakfast up to my studio to get to work straight away.

I’d been allocated the Bear Room, and I still find it hilarious that they chucked the gay bloke into something called the Bear Room. Alas, no hot bears within, but it was a charming and quaint bedroom and writing studio. I was instantly drawn to the space, even though it was the smallest of the five studios at Varuna. I could have had my pick of the bigger spaces if I’d chosen a later residency, but I was desperate to get to work as soon as possible, and January was the earliest slot that worked.

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Deffo the most appropriate room for a homo. Spoilers: no actual bears within.

As soon as I threw the curtains open, I realised this was the perfect place for a writer to work.

Morning mountain sunlight breaking over trees and green lawn and quaint gardens below. The workspace backs directly onto my bedroom, and used to be a sunroom, which is why it’s so incredibly light and airy. I took so many photos of my view, and not a single one of them gets close to doing the view any justice. Birds were chirping, which the other writers were able to name and identify, but with my ignorance of the animal kingdom I could only gaze on and appreciate their colours, and the flutter of their wings, and their uninhibited songs.

It really was tranquil and superb.

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The tranquil view from my desk. Feat: oats.

The first thing I did when I sat down at my desk was sigh and imitate Colin Firth in the film Love, Actually when he first arrives at his writing retreat in France.

“Alone again,” I muttered to the open window. “Naturally.”

And then the work began.

I looked over INVISIBLE BOYS – the manuscript that actually won me the residency – but there was really no further change I could make without wanting to heat up a hot poker and slide it slowly into my eyeball. I was done with it, for now. I’d just delivered a fresh revision to my agent and making any further changes would be counterproductive. Not to mention the whole poker/eyeball thing.

So I started work on my next novel instead. I had the deepest pangs of latent Catholic guilt about this and I was totally waiting for someone to turn around and boot me out of the house for working on a different piece than the one that won the award. Thankfully, the awesome people at the Australian Society of Authors (who offer the Ray Koppe Award) assured me this didn’t matter; as did the friendly team at Varuna House.

My next work in progress is a contemporary YA novel with a bit of a mystery element to it. It was originally conceived as a YA thriller and so I knew I had to do some work to rejig the outline and shift its focus and locus of control, as it were. I desperately wanted to just start throwing words on the page, but even though it would have felt productive, it would have been a Sisyphean task.

So I spent the whole day plotting. That’s it. All day. Plotting what would happen when. Changing characters’ names. Changing them all back two hours later. Deciding someone would die. Then saving them. Then killing them off again.

In the arvo, I went for a run around the nearby streets of Katoomba, which is the main town in the Blue Mountains. Katoomba is such a beautiful town: green and lush with trees so much bigger than the dirt and scrub I grew up around.

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On Katoomba’s main street. Is it just me or did this place just get a whole lot more STUDLY? 😉

What really threw me about Katoomba was how mountainous it was. Not just the nearby indigo shapes of the peaks: I mean just the streets themselves. I have never realised how incredibly flat Western Australia is compared to somewhere like the Blue Mountains. Every street was a massive slope, and I constantly felt like Atlas was about to shake the world globe and I’d go sliding off the face of the planet. On and off all week, I was actually pretty dizzy.

The run did me good after a day of heavy plotting. Sweating, getting back into my body, is some of the best healing I have found.

***

Wednesday 17th January 2018

When you’re a writer, and especially when you’re undertaking a residency, I think the expectation you put on yourself is that you will write a lot of pages. Pages are sexy.

But I spent Wednesday returning to my necessary outlining and planning documents, including Excel spreadsheets, which are the least sexy or creative thing in the entire universe.

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Hard at work in the Bear Room.

The Varuna staff asked me if I wanted a writing consultation with an excellent editor who could help me with my work. I had to say no – not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t afford it. That stung me, and made me feel like a bit of a lame duck.

Over the course of the day, I continued to work hard, but I started to feel frustrated. I wasn’t producing page after page of good writing. I wasn’t even producing page after page of shit writing that could be fixed later on. I was just plotting, and even though I knew it was necessary, I started to feel stagnant, like algae in a river’s listless meander.

In fact, I started to feel like a failure. And then a fraud. What kind of useless writer was I? Fucking around with plots and plans when the other four around me were probably churning out literary masterpieces with panache. Oh God. I’d actually won this place. Some very esteemed judges picked my writing over every other entrant’s.

And here I was screwing around in my spreadsheet. I bet the other entrants would have done so much better than me. Written more than me.

I spiralled down. Big time.

That night at dinner, the imposter syndrome ramped up to eleven. I don’t really know why, but probably because of the spiral I was already in, my insecurities got amplified.

Incidentally, one of my favourite things about the entire Varuna experience was that every night, all five resident authors come together in the dining room and share a catered meal together. The food by the amazing cook Sheila was delicious; the conversation was always vibrant and there was plenty of laughter.

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Dessert at Varuna: Some kind of molten chocolate delicacy that was so rich I don’t think any of us could finish it. But man, it was incredible.

There was also so much to learn from my fellow writers. About writing, about craft, about passion, about publishing, about promotion, about sales, about business. About being an artist.

This is, in fact, one of the most valuable things about being a Varuna writer. Having dinner and conversation with a diverse group of both emerging, developing and established authors every night for a week goes beyond even the best networking. I would liken it to being on summer camp. There’s something about sharing a living space with a group of people that bonds you in some way. It was truly an uplifting experience, and I grew from it – as an artist and as a man.

On the Wednesday night, however, I was spiralling hard. No matter what progress I make in my career as an author, I inevitably find myself feeling like an imposter. That night, as all these published and successful people sat around the table talking about something highly intellectual, I felt like the dumb outsider, the uncultured and poorly-read bogan, the country boy who for a whole number of reasons did not belong at that table, and never would.

I didn’t sleep that night.

***

Thursday 18th January 2018

When I say I didn’t sleep on Wednesday night, I’m exaggerating a touch. I crashed for three hours after chatting to my fiancé over text (silence is vital in the rooms at Varuna as the walls are thin and other writers might be concentrating). But I woke up at 2am and couldn’t get back to sleep. My synapses were sparking, still short-circuiting with the fear I didn’t belong here.

I opened the curtains of the Bear Room at around 4am. I listened to some music in my earphones and watched the sky outside slowly change colour, quietly hoping I could trick myself into sleep somehow.

It didn’t work.

I was utterly wrecked on Thursday. I opened my laptop and felt like throwing up. Nope. Not today.

Instead, I read a novel: Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson. An excellent piece of fantasy spliced with sci-fi (or maybe the other way around).

I tried naps. They failed.

In the arvo, I abandoned trying to rest or trying to write. I put on my cap and my backpack and went for a hike up to Echo Point, which is where you can see the natural rock formations known as the Three Sisters. It was incredible to face out onto an open green valley and feel so tiny compared to the earth and its body.

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The famous Three Sisters feat. some tourist wanker. You can’t tell but I was reaching the limits of exhaustion in this photo.

There was a bar close to Echo Point. I went out onto the terrace which overhung the verdant valley. I drank lemonade over ice, stared out at nature, listened to tourists speaking foreign tongues around me, and wrote several pages of notes in the monogrammed Moleskine journal my agent gave me for Christmas.

I walked back to Varuna, thinking the walk would have exhausted me enough for a late arvo nap, but no cigar. I was at that point where tiredness turns to astonishment that you can possibly still be awake.

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Writing on the edge of a cliff at Echo Point.

Dinner that night was the best one of my whole stay at Varuna. Not in terms of the food – that was uniformly delicious – but the banter. The night started on a positive note, with fellow Varuna resident Miranda Luby finding out she had a short story shortlisted for an award. The spirit among everyone was one of congratulations and collegiality.

After our usual dinner conversation we went off on a tangent talking about words we each despise – stuff like the ambiguous “inappropriate” or actually saying the word “hashtag”. My word was “impactful”. It crops up more and more each year but it is NOT a bloody word. And even if “impactful” becomes a recognised word by some shitty dictionary, it shall nevertheless forever remain a hideously inelegant one.

Back in the Bear Room, sleep finally hit me, like a house brick to the face.

***

Friday 19th January 2018

It’s not until you wake up feeling human again that you realise you weren’t feeling human before. Friday morning did that: it was like I’d been booked into the Pokémon Centre overnight and was now at full HP and fighting fit again (thanks, Nurse Joy!).

So battle, at last, I did.

Friday was the day where the writing finally flowed. I wrote about 2000 words, which is more than my daily average when I do something like NaNoWriMo, so I’d call it a success. I reckon it felt especially exultant after the nadir of the previous couple of days.

There was a relief that came with writing what was basically the first chapter of my new novel. The pressure valve was released. I didn’t feel like a total fuck-up. And when I closed my laptop late that afternoon, I felt like I’d actually achieved some of what I was sent here to do.

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Working out in the Katoomba gym. There were no other humans in there. It was fairly eerie.

It made for an uplifting end to the week. I went to the local Katoomba shire gym (which, for any future resident’s knowledge, requires you to traverse one of the steepest slopes in town). I lifted weights. Sheila made us all pizza for tea. It was excellent.

At about 9:30pm I went for a night-time stroll down the main drag of Katoomba. With everyone else silent in their rooms, and after five days without a television or other background noise in the house, I desperately needed to be around some sound and movement.

I ended up at the Station Bar in the heart of Katoomba. Two hours of soul-replenishing live rock ‘n’ roll.

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A square in downtown Katoomba where I ate lunch.

***

Saturday 20th & Sunday 21st January 2018

After finally churning out some pages and making good progress on my novel, I relaxed a bit on the weekend – both Saturday and Sunday. I made time to finally explore Katoomba in more depth, by which I mostly mean I ate a lot of food. Gelato, waffles, coffee, baked goods, pretty much anything that I shouldn’t have been eating.

I also went to a local barber and got a haircut (the Mohawk doesn’t trim itself) and walked around a classic car convention that had taken over the main street. Katoomba has an artsy, touristy vibe the way WA’s South West towns do – though it’s probably amped up a lot more.

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Classic cars in the main street of Katoomba.

One thing I haven’t yet mentioned about Varuna is that each room has its own library, which is fundamentally cool. Even better, each library is different to the other in terms of the geographic origin of its tomes. For instance, one of the rooms might have Asian fiction, a second one might just have Australian books, and so on.

The Bear Room was home to the European Collection, and the calibre of novelists and writers and thinkers on the shelf beside me was unbelievable. I felt quite humbled, looking at these famous spines and titles, some of them household names and some of them quite unknown to me but critically acclaimed and influential writers of their times.

This also reignited the ambition flame in me: I want to be like them. I want to my books on these shelves. I want my name on spines.

I flicked through some books and read what I could, but there wasn’t time for everything. The piece I remember best was a story called “Adam, One Afternoon” in a collection by Italian writer and journalist Italo Calvino. It sticks in my mind because it was so incredibly light and very odd and unsettling at the same time. The flow of the writing was somehow hypnotic and I both liked and was unnerved by it.

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Two of the books I read while in the Bear Room. Camus’ “The Rebel” was not a novel, but an essay – and rather masterfully written (though I didn’t have time to read it all).

The other aspect of Varuna that I haven’t really talked about is the fellow writers. I am reticent to go into too much detail about the other authors I stayed with, because I guess that’s their story and I don’t know how much detail they like to share about their jaunts and residencies. They may be intensely private people, so I’ve kept this part minimal.

But honestly, the other authors are such a massive part of what makes a residency at Varuna worthwhile. I learned so much from them in different ways.

Gabrielle Carey (non-fiction author, and co-author of the very famous novel Puberty Blues) had some real insights on the publishing industry. She also holds the distinct honour of being the person who (very generously) taught me step by step how to make percolated coffee when she found me bumbling around the Varuna kitchen on my first day.

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The view from Varuna’s kitchen. NB: Rum not included in the residency.

Stuart Cooke (published poet and academic) shared so much about the inner workings of the poetry world, and of the difference between poetry in different languages. He is also well-versed in cat videos and is the most proficient dishwasher stacker known to man.

Nandi Chinna (poet, essayist, eco-activist) has one of the most friendly spirits of any human I’ve encountered. Apart from making me feel exceedingly welcome, she also taught me a lot about publishing, and poetry, and ecology, and birds. She also made me stop beating myself up about not making progress and stressed the importance of taking break days – which was vital to getting through my Varuna experience with my ego intact.

Miranda Luby (fellow YA author) was a kindred spirit in a lot of ways. We both write YA fiction; we’re both emerging authors; we’re both enjoying the last of our twenties; and we are both ambitious and relentless in our drive to get our debut novels published. I had a fantastic time connecting with Miranda and we’ve continued to connect on social media. Watch out for this one – I think her debut novel will do big things, and I’m kind of quietly hoping we’ll both end up on some YA author panel at a festival a few years from now.

I think the main thing I want to point out here is that the five of us were all so different from one another. Non-fiction authors. Academics. Poets. YA contemporary and YA fantasy authors. Despite my insecurities earlier in the week, by the time it came to Sunday night dinner I realised Varuna House is a place for all writers. We all belonged there.

Even displaced country boys who write YA fiction.

***

Monday 22nd January 2018

Miranda and I left Varuna in a taxi Nandi had kindly arranged for us. As the taxi arrived, I realised I hadn’t written in the Varuna guest book, so I dashed out the quickest and most uninspired message in history while the taxi driver waited. Then, duty done, I fled.

I had a great chat with Miranda on the journey back to Sydney. And as viridian mountains receded to the fumes and umber of the outer suburbs, I realised this whole adventure really was over. I felt like an American kid coming back from summer camp. I’d learned a lot. I’d seen new places. I’d made new friends. And I wanted to come back again next summer, preferably for even longer.

 

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At Katoomba Station with Miranda Luby. NB: Not our shit on the bench, we asked some bloke to move so we could take our selfie.

So many published authors tell younger writers that the key to success is to “write every day”. The spectre of this advice cast a long shadow over my stay at Varuna, until I recently saw a tweet by bestselling fantasy author Garth Nix.

Garth made a point that writing every day does not necessarily mean pumping out words of usable prose daily. It also means outlining. Dreaming. Plotting. Picking character names. Making Excel spreadsheets for chapter outlines. Writing a sentence and deleting it. Jotting down notes in a journal. Exploring a new place. Reading books and finding inspiration. Even just staring into space thinking about what you’re going to do next with the unwieldy blob of clay that is your work in progress.

And Varuna made all of that happen for me. I got a lot done. I made some progress on my next novel. I learned about writing and editing and publishing. I learned about mountains and birds and nature and poems. I learned about myself and I slayed a few demons (or at the very least, I fired some warning shots across their noses).

I have to thank everyone who made this experience possible for me: the awesome team at the Australian Society of Authors; Ray Koppe and the Koppe family for their generous legacy and gift; the award judges Tristan Bancks and Aoife Clifford for thinking INVISIBLE BOYS was good enough; and the team at Varuna who were so willing to help with anything I needed during my stay.

If you’re ever considering a residency at Varuna, or anywhere else, do it.

Especially do it if you think you’re not good enough, or that you won’t belong there, because you might just get lucky and discover that you are, and you do.

Holden

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I’ll never forget my week here.
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10 Things I Wish I Knew About Being an Author When I First Started

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

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

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

1. Writing Time is Made, Not Found  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was the agent who’d requested the full.

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

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

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

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

It was a rejection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know, like Matthew Reilly told me to do.

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

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

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

Holden

Notes on “A Man”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading!

Holden

What I Learned From Failing NaNoWriMo

So, I failed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what have I learned? Four things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holden

“So, what’s the go with your book?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she liked my manuscript. She really liked it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holden