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

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You Lose. Continue?

When the wheels fall off my life, I like to use it as a chance to reassess what I’m doing.

And this last couple of weeks, the wheels did kinda fall off. I’m talking action-movie style, tyres spinning off into burning alleyways while the metal underbelly of the cab churned against bitumen, rose-gold sparks spraying into the air until I crashed into a truck and burst into flames.

I did it again, didn’t I? I over-inflated an innocent metaphor and killed the poor bastard. Well, fuck it. As a writer, I reserve the right to make a mountain out of sawdust.

Anyway, the whole life unravelling thing pissed me off all the more because I’d made a great start to April. In terms of writing productivity, I was more productive than at any time in my career, with the probable exception of my NaNoWriMo efforts. It’s all thanks to my involvement in the Perth troupe (band? auxiliary? battalion?) of the #5amwritersclub. A bunch of us from across WA check in with each other on Twitter at 5am, churn out some writing and by 7am or so, we’re done. We keep each other accountable, get work done, and foster friendships by communicating solely through monosyllabic grunts, GIFs and references to how much we hate being awake at 5am.

everything is awesome
The official theme song to the #5amwritersclub.

Although I was initially kind of coerced into it, joining the club is one of the best decisions I’ve made for my writing career. Since joining in March, I’ve already used my early starts to complete three short story drafts: one called SECURITY, about a security guard (defo need a better title); one called MOONLIGHT (which has a title I love); and one based on my career as a banker, which I am not going to name yet for a couple of reasons.

Not only does developing a regular, early-morning writing practice boost my productivity, it also helps me start each day with a sense of achievement. I can get ready for work in the knowledge that I’ve already done my creative writing for the day, and I don’t need to stress about fitting it in when I get home all exhausted from my hellish day that nobody could possibly understand  fairly cushy university job.

But because writing in the #5amwritersclub makes my day, and my week, so much brighter, it wields the power of a double-edged sword – much like the kind Mickey Rourke tried to kill me with. (Sorry, I’m a hardcore 30 Rock fan and can’t write the words “double-edged sword” without making that reference.)

double edged sword
Gets me every time.

The point is – if I make it to the #5amwritersclub, I’m all pumped for the day. If I miss it, I’m back in Hulk Smash mode.

And so for the past couple of weeks, when I was staying up too late and overtired from work and marking papers, I began to struggle to wake up at 5am at all. Even 6am became impossible. I faltered. I was waking up more tired than when I went to bed, and I barely appeared at the morning roll call. And then last week I pretty much threw it in entirely and gave up.

Then it flowed on to everything: my eating (my meals were fine, but I snacked a lot while marking … helloooo Lindt dark chocolate), my exercise schedule (I only did two and a half workouts instead of four), my sleep (don’t have to be up at 5am? browse the Internet until you pass out!) and my overall wellbeing (I became overwhelmed and overstimulated by even the slightest things).

I even went to write a blog post about how I was failing at everything, and then I couldn’t even make the time for that. It sat there for days with nothing but a vague title that I later deleted.

Yes, I literally failed at writing about how I was failing.

I pushed all my writing tasks and the things I wanted to do back further and further, until they were looming over my weekend, and then I got sick. I left work on Friday with a sore throat, checked in the mirror to see lumps of pus the size of Ukraine on my tonsils, and called it a week. I flopped on the couch after work, and when I woke up I was dizzy and exhausted.

tired af
Failure can be so exhausting.

I spent most of Saturday in bed, steamrollered, and that was the point at which I stopped trying to make my week less of a failure. You know what? It just was. The whole week sucked. I sucked. Everything sucked.

Oddly, once I just accepted that, it became a lot easier for me to bear.

I have such a resistance to failure. Maybe it’s my own overachiever personality, or maybe the way society generally encourages us not to associate with failure (because who wants to be a loser?), but I really resist accepting when I’m beat.

But I think, sometimes, it’s okay to acknowledge that your week, or month, didn’t go the way you planned. You didn’t get everything done that you wanted to get done. Goals and deadlines went unmet. Perfection was not attained.

You failed.

And I’m learning that failure does not kill you; resisting it does.

And treating a one-off failure as a permanent state of being can paralyse you.

So, I’m going to try to view my failed week in the same way I view my successful weeks. That is, having a whole week of failure as a writer, just like having a whole week of success, is:

  • temporary
  • part of the process
  • normal
  • acceptable
  • survivable
  • not a permanent state of being
  • does not mean next week will necessarily be the same
  • not indicative of my value as an author
  • not indicative of my value as a homo sapien

In the fighting video game Tekken (or at least, in the 90s era Tekken 2), losing a fight resulted in the game announcing in a sinister, almost mocking voice:

“YOU LOSE.”

But it was never GAME OVER immediately. The game always gave you a choice to continue. You could go on fighting, maybe learn from your defeat, modify your technique and come back again with a win, or you could give up and choose game over. The choice always remained with the player.

michelle tekken
Come on, Michelle! GET UP! Ganryu won’t uppercut himself.

Having a shitty week is a gift in a way, because it gives me a choice: I could accept my bad week as game over, or I could spam the X button to continue the game and try again.

And the vigour with which I hit that X button tells me everything I need to know about myself. That I don’t need to worry about failures and setbacks, as long as I get back up, brush myself off and try one more time to defeat Kazuya.

So, I spent Sunday night reassessing, and making new goals for the week ahead, and here I am at #5amwritersclub, writing a new blog post. That’s one goal down.

It’s a new day, and a new week lies ahead, spread out like a dewy valley, untrammelled by either my boots or my neurosis. Anything can happen if I make it happen.

So, I’m back in the saddle and ready to get some shit done, but I think failure deserves three cheers for getting me back here.

Holden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was the agent who’d requested the full.

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

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

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

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

It was a rejection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know, like Matthew Reilly told me to do.

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

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

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

Holden