The Fallacy of Second Novel Syndrome

Lately, I feel like driving past my current work in progress, winding the window down and mooning it with my hairy wog arse while simultaneously flipping the bird.

(This is assuming someone else is driving the car, of course, or maybe that I’m an octopus.)

Seriously, writing can be a bitch sometimes. There are times when you’re on a luxury river cruise of creativity, soaking up the sunshine, knocking back a refreshing beer and chortling at how fucking amazing you are.

Other times you’re standing on the river bank, watching all the writer-boats sail past while you get sunburnt, spill your beer and step in day-old duck shit.

And for the last few months, I’ve been stepping in duck shit the way a kid jumps into a puddle of mud.

puddle
Yay, I suck!

I’m working on the first draft of my next contemporary YA novel, but my progress has been staccato from the start. I know it’s not unusual for writers to have issues with producing their second novel, but since Invisible Boys was my second novel written and this current one is my third, I figured I’d already managed to break the curse of the second novel.

WRONG.

With my first two novels, the first drafts were written very quickly. My YA fantasy novel was written in three months; Invisible Boys was even faster, barely a two-month timeframe.

But the wheels kind of fell off with this third novel, and as I sit here today reflecting on why, it’s pretty clear what’s going on.

Both my first two novels were written in total obscurity, and that is what gave me the license to write in an unfettered way, without considering the audience or market. All I had to consider was what I wanted to say, and then I gave myself total permission to say it.

With Invisible Boys in particular, I gave myself more freedom than I would give myself on this blog, or on social media, or in conversation. I told myself firmly, “there are no sacred cows: write whatever you feel like writing, what hurts, what burns at you, what you desperately wanted to say fifteen years ago but the words died on your tongue, and to hell with anyone having a problem with it”.

The freedom I granted myself writing Invisible Boys was spectacular. It sounds geeky to admit, but writing like this is one of the best feelings ever. The sensation of total liberty infused me with a general enthusiasm for living more boldly. I woke up each morning feeling like I had power; like I was able to say more than usual, because I was giving myself permission to not give a fuck about the consequences.

But a lot changed last summer. Invisible Boys won the Ray Koppe Award; I signed with an agent; and I undertook my residency at Varuna. Suddenly, I felt like other people were watching me, and this loaded a barbell of expectations onto my shoulders: a wordless and ineffable process, but nonetheless real.

My prevailing thought was:

If I’m an agented, award-winning author and also a friggin Varuna alumnus, I’d better be writing amazing works of staggering literary genius and if the next thing I produce isn’t amazing, people will realise I am an untalented turd and Invisible Boys was just a fluke.

As we know, first drafts are unequivocally duck shit. So, applying this kind of thinking when you’re drafting is capital-N Not Helpful.

And as it so happens, I started drafting this version of my third novel while I was at Varuna last January, so the soil this story springs from is kind of neurotic and self-doubty, reflecting the pressure I was putting myself under at the time. I only produced one chapter at Varuna, which I was disappointed with, and the quality wasn’t fantastic.

I returned to the manuscript between July and October, but my progress was staccato again. The last time I worked on it was late November. Life got in the way: I had edits and promo for Poster Boy, Hungerford promo, other writing events, day job, Christmas, and finally the structural edits for Invisible Boys (which are now finished, yay).

But this week, I am not excessively busy: I have time to dedicate to writing for the first time in two months and so I am forced to face my manuscript again. I don’t have the get-out-of-jail-free card of being ‘busy’. It’s just me and the novel.

And I realise those expectations I felt last summer at Varuna are still weighing on me now, perhaps more than ever, post-Hungerford.

And those expectations, really, are born from fears.

I am scared of this novel not being powerful.

I am scared it won’t impact upon people as much as Invisible Boys.

I am scared of being a one-trick pony.

I am scared people will be disappointed in me.

I am scared people will roll their eyes and say, ‘Really, he won awards for writing, and that’s the best he can do?’

I am scared readers will give up on me.

I am scared of losing everything.

I’m experiencing classic Second Novel Syndrome, only for me it’s Third Novel Syndrome. The number doesn’t really matter. If someone wrote six unpublished novels and their seventh got published, they’d go through Eighth Novel Syndrome.

The truth is, it’s not the second novel per se that gives writers more grief than any other; it’s whatever novel we write after experiencing some kind of success for a previous novel; the first novel we write when we are no longer working in total obscurity.

The fears I listed above are mostly centred on what other people think about my writing, which isn’t something I used to worry about. Prior to 2017, I felt no external pressure, only an internal desire to express myself.

I can’t go back to that state of obscurity – and nor would I want to. I worked hard to get to where I am, and things like the Hungerford Award are incredible gifts that I am deeply grateful for.

However, my response to this recognition has been one of fear, which is now holding me back. I know the only way I can complete my third novel is by setting fire to my fears, giving them a good roasting and then plating them up and swallowing them.

fear toasted
Fears: Extra delicious when roasted over an open fire.

So, here I go.

Firstly, I have to accept that my fears are beyond my control. Even if I write an amazing novel, people might still not like it. Ultimately, I have no power over how other people receive and interpret my work, and I never will.

Secondly, I have to remember how I began this journey: with nothing. I started out as a seven-year-old boy from Geraldton with an exercise book and a pen. I didn’t need anyone’s approval or support to write. I did it on my own because what I wanted more than anything was to express myself. It’s easier to risk losing what you have if you remind yourself that you coped just fine without any of it.

Ultimately, the only thing within my control is the writing itself. All I can do is get my arse in the chair, open my laptop and express myself one word, sentence, page, chapter at a time, until I’m done. Writing unabashedly has always brought me incredible joy and fulfilment. I can’t recreate the obscurity I used to experience, but there’s no reason I can’t write just as honestly and freely as I used to: it’s within my control, and so I will choose to do it.

And hell, maybe I’ll fail. Maybe all my fears will come true and everything will go tits up, but I can’t control that.

I only own my process, and my words, and that starts with my attitude.

Novel number three, prepare to be finished. No sacred cows. Duck shit ahoy.

Holden

What Self-Sabotage Really Looks Like

If I don’t write, I get sick.

I don’t mean physically sick in the guts. Although, that said, some of the overblown metaphors I’ve spun over the years have caused several readers to experience symptoms including head-spinning and projectile vomiting. (Exorcisms were needed.)

And I don’t mean the manflu that my partner accuses me of having every time a head cold knocks me for six and renders me a curled-up foetus watching old episodes of Pokemon and begging for cups of black tea. (“Please, baby, I’m too sick to boil the kettle …”)

The kind of sickness I’m talking about is more like a soul sickness.

A soul disease, maybe.

All I know is that when I spend too much time away from writing, everything goes to shit for me in terms of my mental and emotional wellbeing.

When I’m actively writing – whether it’s my blog or my creative work – there is an aliveness to my entire being – mentally, emotionally and physically.

Mentally, I’m stimulated as I reflect on my own experience and try to create meaning out of it (the blog) or dream up fictional characters and worlds and experiences (fiction).

Emotionally, I feel a certain level of satisfaction and catharsis at writing about certain topics. The actual act of writing itself is also deeply satisfying. Well, okay, sometimes the writing is frustrating enough to make you want to rip each individual hair follicle out of your scalp. But the point is, when a writer writes, we are in the process of flow, and we are doing the precise thing we were put on this giant blue marble for, and it makes us happy.

American poet Robert Hass probably said it best when he said, “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.” Of course, to get to the state of having just written, you need to slog it out and actually fucking write something. So we’re back to where we started.

quote-it-s-hell-writing-and-it-s-hell-not-writing-the-only-tolerable-state-is-having-just-robert-hass-71-84-52

And when everything is in alignment mentally and emotionally, things work out physically, too: I eat well, I hit the gym the right number of times per week, I sleep enough, and my energy levels are high.

But when I don’t write, this all goes to hell.

And it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that I haven’t been writing this month at all. It’s only today, sitting at my laptop and forcing myself to do something, that I realise what happened.

This little mini-crisis started, essentially, because I am the kind of writer who likes to keep on top of the numbers. I have a number of writer friends who determinedly don’t want to know how their books are selling, but I can already tell I’m not going to be one of them. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a bit obsessed with rankings and charts and classifications and numbers. Even now, the moment I get into a new band, the first thing I do isn’t listen to the rest of their back catalogue: I find their discography online and study it with the intensity of Hercule Poirot. I need to know which singles belong to which album, which ones were certified gold, which ones flopped and in which territories. Only then will I explore further.

Yes, I am a geek of the absolute grandest kind.

And this geekiness translates to how I approach my writing career. I like to check in relatively regularly with my sales and downloads graphs on Amazon and Smashwords. While my short stories A MAN and THE BLACK FLOWER are not big sellers, THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR does occasionally have sales spikes, and when it had some particularly big ones last year, I was also interested to follow its chart positions on iBooks and Barnes & Noble.

I also keep track of my blog hits, and unfortunately, this is what began my unravelling during the entire month of June.

It started at the very end of May. I was looking at my blog stats for the month, and comparing them to previous months, to see how things are tracking. To my delight, things had actually been going really well: my blog hits had increased, month-on-month, since December 2017 – and some of the increases were pretty significant.

The graph looked like this:

Blog Stats Graph - Holden
Blog Hits: Because I’m a geek.

So, from January through April, I was pretty chuffed, because my reach was growing. In fact, I got ahead of myself and I was all like, “hey, maybe I am not a total sphincter of a human being!”

This is bad for a number of reasons, not least because my self-worth really shouldn’t have any correlation to how many people are reading my blog.

Anyway, it was the month of May that ruined me.

Because, as you can see in the graph above, although April and May look roughly the same, May actually fell short of April’s peak by roughly 20 hits.

Your mentally-balanced, well-adjusted author – if he exists – would be like, “Gee, that’s swell! I guess this little blog is doing A-OK.” (For some reason, my mythical well-adjusted author talks in the same voice Eddie Murphy uses when he is parodying white people from the 1950s.)

But I am not your mentally-balanced, well-adjusted author.

The fact that May fell just short of April was just not good enough. I had failed to continue to grow my blog. This meant not only was the blog a giant pile of steaming failure, but I was, too. The old hydra of perfectionism reared its multiple heads.

And so I self-sabotaged. Without fully realising I was doing it, I kept putting off doing my next blog post, which I had been writing weekly until that point. And suddenly two weeks, then three, then four had passed – and my brain would not let me even entertain the thought of blogging.

Around the same time, in early June, I received a rejection for a short story I’d submitted to a prestigious journal. Now, being rejected is absolutely not a new experience for me, but this one stung me more than usual for two reasons. Firstly, I thought that particular story might have been a perfect fit for that particular publication, and it wasn’t. Secondly, I was already in a vulnerable, self-doubty kind of space, so it just layered on top of that.

The outcome? Not only did I continue my blogging hiatus, but I now stopped writing fiction with my 5am Writers’ Club as well. I was nearing the end of a new short story titled CRUMBS, and I just left it hanging mid-sentence. And interestingly, I stopped on the 12th of June – the same day I got the rejection. So I stopped writing at all, and I stopped getting up at 5am to work.

And, like I said at the start, I got sick in the soul.

I was no longer writing in any form, and this persisted for three weeks. I was completely self-sabotaging my career as both a blogger and a fiction writer. It was the classic “if I don’t write anything at all, then there won’t be any way to be told that I’m not good enough”.

I’m not good enough. It’s a sentence almost every writer has said to themselves at least once, if not at least once a day.

This is paralysing for a writer, and it ultimately comes down to self-doubt: a perceived failure of my blog to continue to grow, combined with a rejection of my fiction, had me back to square one in the confidence stakes.

On top of this was the weighty gravity of expectation. I had recently had some positive feedback about my blog from multiple readers, and it seemed to be doing well. The resultant expectation I placed on myself was twofold: one, that I had to continue to grow without a single dip in monthly hits, and two, that every single blog post had to be fucking amazing and insightful.

The writing paralysis continued until this week. I attended the Penguin Teen Showcase on Wednesday night, which took place in Perth for the first time ever. During the Q & A panel at the end, authors Dianne Wolfer, Fleur Ferris and Emily Gale spoke about how long it takes them to write a first draft of a novel. Later, on Twitter, I was chatting to some authors about how I have written both of my first drafts in about 3 months each. When someone expressed surprise at how quick that was, my answer was simple:

quality tweet

It was only when I looked back on that Tweet today that I realised what has been missing from my writing practice: permission. That is, permission to write total horseshit. Giving yourself permission to write freely is extraordinarily liberating for a writer because it dampens the little spot-fires of self-doubt.

And frankly, giving myself permission to write badly is what made me become a serious writer in the first place. I spent all of 2013 – the entire year – paralysed with fear at the thought of starting my first novel because I was worried it – and consequently, I – wouldn’t be good enough.

When I gave myself permission to write whatever I wanted, with no expectation of quality, I churned out a whole novel, and then a second one, and then a regular blog and a whole litter of short stories.

So, now that I’m aware of what’s happened – and why I’ve been so frozen this past month – it’s time to make a change.

I’m giving myself permission again. Permission to write freely, in both blog form and fiction form. Maybe my blog will tank and become wildly unpopular, like the latest Sharknado sequel. Maybe my fiction will become utter drivel, like literally anything with the word Sharknado in the title.

But perception and reception are ultimately beyond my control.

What I can control is what I write, and how often I write. I can’t control whether or not people will like my stories, or whether people will enjoy every single blog post I put up, but I can control whether or not I do these things at all. And the reality is, I do them because I love doing them, not because of the feedback – positive or negative – that I receive.

So, it’s time for me to cowboy up and get on with it.

I’m committing to writing a regular blog again, so stay tuned for regular updates again.

I’m also committing to a regular writing practice again. And I’m kind of excited, because I’m about to dive into writing my third novel. So this is probably the right time to loosen the burden of expectations from my shoulders, and just write freely, and fast.

I have to remind myself that I am only human and I can only do my best.

And my best is good enough.

Holden

Why Promo Makes Me Crap My Pants

It’s no wonder people think writers are head cases. We make absolutely no sense as creatures, and least of all to ourselves. There are about 8263283 reasons why this is a true statement, but for today I’m focusing on our unique capacity to vacillate between Regina George-level attention whores and panicky, milquetoast, aw-shucks-m’am Clark Kent types.

Specifically, when it comes to promo.

So, in late July, and again in mid-August, a couple of opportunities cropped up for me to promote my work (and myself) on radio.

On one hand, as a writer, I crave attention. I want my work to be well-received and for it to reach as many people as possible. And I really enjoy speaking about my stories, too. So these opportunities were incredible, and I jumped at them both.

But despite being a fairly extroverted kind of guy, especially for a geeky artist, I was completely shitting myself both times.

My first instinct when it comes to promotion is panic. There is something incredibly vulnerable about actually putting yourself out there for people to listen to, or read about. It taps in to many old insecurities: what if I am not interesting? Unlikable? Sound foolish? Get tripped up by a popular culture reference I don’t understand? And then there’s all the more primal insecurities: what does my voice sound like on radio? Is it rich enough, compared to the seasoned broadcasters? Do I sound too much like a bogan? What if I have a sneezing fit at the exact moment I go on air?

The second response is “say yes, you dumb arse, before they change their mind and rescind the invite!”

I’ve been fostering my writing career for some time, so I’m savvy enough to say yes to every opportunity. Well, every good opportunity. There are a lot of dodgy offers out there, though mostly on the Internet as opposed to the traditional media. Nonetheless, once I do agree to some promo, it brings on nights of restless sleep and causes my stomach to churn even more frequently than Harry Potter’s did in The Order of the Phoenix. (Seriously, Rowling mentions his guts roughly once every ten pages. Especially when Cho Chang is around. Check if you don’t believe me.)

When I was featured on Thursdays with Robyn on Twin Cities 89.7 FM in July, I was

twin cities fm photo
RADIO GA GA: Hanging out after the show with the lovely Robyn from Twin Cities FM.

nervous as hell right up until we went on air. Once that switch was flicked on the console, I reverted back instantly to my days as a radio host (many moons ago, I did some community radio) and the confidence came back. Robyn was a fantastic host, highly accomplished and professional and we had some great banter. I was thrilled to read excerpts from THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR and THE BLACK FLOWER, as well as chatting about my writing, my background and writing in general. The full clip is on my YouTube channel here.

I really enjoyed the experience in and of itself – but I was also delighted when I had a huge sales spike that same day. That spike helped land THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR at #3 on the iTunes Epic Fantasy Chart and #19 on the Barnes & Noble Fantasy Short Stories Chart. I was stoked. Pushing through the nerves paid off.

More recently, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about Australia’s same-sex marriage postal vote, which is hugely contentious right now. The piece was unexpectedly very well received and went viral. I had messages from people across the country – everything from dissent and abuse to praise and thanks and support. I was very touched by the response to the article, and so glad that something I wrote (initially intended for this blog) ended up not only getting published in the mainstream press but seemed to make an impact on the discourse around this issue.

One of the people who read the piece was Tanya Wilks, co-host of the breakfast show on Newcastle’s top-rated brekky radio show, Tanya & Steve, on KOFM 102.9 FM Newcastle. Tanya’s producer reached out to me and the next morning, I was on air discussing not just the article, but the highly personal nature of it.

I was a giant bundle of nerves for the entire day and night before the interview. (Harry’s stomach tumbled like a washing machine as he spotted Cho drinking a butterbeer …) This one was more nerve-racking than the first. Instead of talking about my writing output and myself as an author, I was talking about a very hotly-debated topic and about myself as a human – and as a man who is affected directly by the marriage equality debate.

Cho-Chang-and-Harry-Potter-cho-chang-28000697-428-285
*stomach gurgling intensifies*

As it panned out, Tanya and Steve were fantastic hosts and asked some really insightful questions. I didn’t make a complete idiot of myself on air; I didn’t pass out from sharing stuff that was too close to the bone; and I didn’t drop a turd in my jocks. These are all my criteria for nailing it at life, so that was a win.

What I’ve really learned from these experienced is that I want to get more comfortable with doing promo. I absolutely love sharing and talking about my work, and I am a good public speaker and an engaging presenter and lecturer, but I want to get even better at this. So, as with anything worth doing, I’m going to start seeking out more opportunities to practice this whole promotion shebang. Like a runner training for a marathon, I want to start getting in shape and really stepping up my game in how I approach promo and how I handle the nerves. I want to be able to tackle these opportunities with aplomb.

My measures for success? No more Order of the Phoenix stomach-sloshing every time Cho Chang appears.

And clean pants.

See you at the next promo op!

Holden