The Cruel Tutelage of the Indie Author Life

“You gotta hustle,” my personal trainer explained to me recently.

“You’re like an entrepreneur – you gotta work hard, put in the hours to get what you want.”

He wasn’t talking about weight loss or muscle growth. In between squats and lunges (it was leg day), and the sweat stains on my Collingwood Football Club Official Training Shorts, and our usual discussions of footy (we’re both wanting either GWS or Richmond to come up with the goods) and betting (he is a sucker for the horses), we were discussing my career as an indie author.

I rarely consider how much unpaid time I put into this career, but I really do spend a huge chunk of my life on something I get no financial reward for. Such is the nature of passion: it makes fools of us all, and I am glad to be fool enough to follow my passion instead of work a soulsucking nine-to-fiver.

It often takes someone else, outside of me, to reflect back to me just how much I have been doing. To be honest, I spend a lot of my time feeling like a giant loser. It’s part and parcel of being a perfectionist who has chosen to shun traditional forms of validation (e.g. financial, social, critical, academic) and who has instead chosen to follow his dream, whether or not it leads him to end up a pauper in a gutter.

As I see it, I am training myself to be a writer the same way I am training my body at the gym five times a week. My whole life right now is tutelage. Sometimes cruel tutelage*. It’s hard to know it, especially for an outsider, because the training isn’t visible. You can see a footy player practicing her goal-kicking on an oval; you might see a dancer stretching his limbs in front of a mirror; and you may walk past a guitarist busking on the street moaning along to Wonderwall, but you never see the author in training – just the finished product. We train, and sweat, and suffer in silence; our pain and growth and existential angst is ours alone.

cruel tutelage
Yes, Pai Mei. Yes, it is.

Such is the life of an indie author, I guess. And I don’t regret the path I’ve chosen. The biggest inspiration I’ve had for living my life this way was not even literary. Like the bogan I am at my core, my actual touchstones for this artistic path are none other than 80s Aussie rockers, INXS. When I saw the telemovie about their lives a year or two ago, I was entranced by how they found success. It wasn’t just divine provenance or any form of privilege or sheer luck. It was first and foremost bloody hard work: the band toured relentlessly and locally, year after year, as a no-name rock group, working hard to develop a following and make something of themselves.

It inspired me more than almost anything – and made me want to do the same, even though I’m in a different field. It drove me to begin my career as an indie author, releasing short pieces in the lead up to my first novel, rather than solely wait for the glorious intervention of an interested publisher.

I spend my life working hard to get what I want. Because when I eventually impress an editor with my manuscript and secure a publishing deal, I want them to know that I’m not expecting them to market for me. I will work even harder once I have a publisher than I do right now – and I will prove that to them by putting in the hard yards now. Just wait and see what happens when a blue-collar labourer from Geraldton becomes a published author. He’ll work his fingers to the bone and sweat through his Akubra. I can’t wait to be given the chance.

INXS early
INXS circa 1977, when they were still The Farriss Brothers. They had five years of hard work ahead before their Aussie breakthrough album, and ten years before they would launch their world-beating master work, Kick.

The reason for this random, kind of unfettered and unedited blog post, is because I was just interviewed and profiled on The Dreamers Blog by Doug Geller. When I read the interview back, I realise just how hard I drive myself and how much I have accomplished in the last few months. It’s a good feeling to stop for a second and acknowledge the small wins along the way to my personal treasure.

You can read my interview with Doug here. In fact, you totally should. Go on, have a squiz. It’s worth it.

Peace out, mofos.

Holden

*Free Tim Tams** for anyone who gets the “cruel tutelage” reference.

**Said Tim Tams are imaginary and must be enjoyed figuratively. I do not possess the budget to actually purchase any Tim Tams, because I am a povo author.

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What It Feels Like to Finish a Novel

The first time I finished writing a novel was 1999.

I was eleven, and as far as I was concerned, the handwritten story that filled a whopping 64 pages of my blue-lined exercise book was an actual novel. Looking back, it would have been about 12,000 words or so: around the length of the Honours thesis I would go on to write 13 years later, and just a little longer than THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR.

My “book” was a sci-fi story called CAPRION’S WARNING. The main character, Nick, was a twelve-year-old Italian boy with seventeen immediate family members. I may have been projecting a little of myself, plus identifying with and/or being enamoured by Nick Kontellis from Emily Rodda’s Teen Power Inc books. Nick’s friend Luigi (Mario Kart was big at the time) got kidnapped by some aliens after a school disco (which figured prominently in my life at the time) and so Nick and his friends had to get in a spaceship and rescue Luigi. The whole story was essentially a global warming parable from the aliens; it was fun, but it made absolutely no logical sense.

I was quietly chuffed with myself when I finished that story. Looking back, I don’t

Caprion's Warning
Caprion’s Warning: In 1999, I wrote about 2017 as if it were a futuristic sci-fi setting. Was I a prophet about how bad that year would be? Hope not.

remember telling a soul. When it came to my creative side, I was incredibly withdrawn and secretive. My family never read a word of my work, nor my friends. In fact, the one time two of my mates tried to open an exercise book I’d accidentally left on my desk, I went into primal neanderthal mode and screamed at them to give it back. It culminated in a wrestling match in which the book was torn in half; thankfully, my desperation (and, I’m sure, their perplexed terror) enabled me to win that one – they never read it. (Incidentally, they are still good mates, they are possibly reading this, and they totally know who they are.)

In hindsight, finishing that story was kind of a non-event. I just turned the page and started the next little nonsensical pre-teen story – one that would never be completed.

I wrote constantly in the intervening years, but the next time I completely finished a project was 2011. For a number of reasons, I’m not going to name this project at the moment, but it occupied my mind and heart for a longer time than any other project to date has. This story was a piece of Pokemon fanfiction I posted on an online forum, and it had quite a large readership, especially in the first few years, though I retained a smaller group of dedicated readers until the end. I wrote the first chapter of this in late 2001, when I was thirteen, and completed the entire series of four novels in late 2011, aged twenty-three.

Actually completing that fanfic was one of the most difficult and gargantuan tasks I’ve ever undertaken – and I was once coerced into waiting eight hours in line for a Delta Goodrem concert in the middle of summer.

The feeling when I completed that series of four novels? Devastation. I fell apart and sobbed like you wouldn’t believe. Everything conflated at once: the joy of finishing such a long-term endeavour; the satisfaction of persevering for so long; the sorrow of saying goodbye to all those characters, whom I loved, especially the core cast; and the utter devastation at the end of my youth.

LTL C90
As I grew up, my writing started to get very ~teenage~.

Because, of course, that whole project enveloped my formative years. Inhabiting that world was something I did daily, whether at the laptop or not, for an entire decade, and I grew so much during that time. At the start, I was a pimply thirteen-year-old dealing with puppy fat and wet dreams and dial-up Internet (and I couldn’t say which was the most awkward to deal with). By the end, I was in my early twenties, doing an Honours degree and working for a university and a bank simultaneously. The story had evolved, too, from being a juvenile “trainer fic” to an exciting action-adventure with a decent level of maturity. Even writing this now inspires me all over again.

I said once in an interview on that forum that I was treating that story like a training ground for my “real” writing. It was an astute observation: I knew that story could never get published given the trademark/licensing issues around fanfiction, so I just enjoyed it as a project of love and used the practice (and the feedback from some excellent readers) to hone my skills.

After that project was done, I was ready for the real deal.

In February 2015, after ten months of planning and three months of writing, I completed my first full-length novel of original work (YA Fantasy). I didn’t cry, which in hindsight tells me a lot. From memory, I moodily crept onto the patio, played Desperado by The Eagles on low volume from my phone, and smoked a cigarette or three while watching the sun rise (it was about 5am and I’d pulled an all-nighter). I did feel the achievement of finally completing my first novel: it was very gratifying.

TIS excerpt
The only glimpse I’ve given so far of the first novel – to be edited and reworked.

But despite that smoky, nebulous state of triumph, I didn’t have a visceral response. The manuscript had a lot of structural problems, and I knew it. Beta reader feedback, a series of edits, a mentorship, and a copy edit all followed. When I completed draft number seven in late 2016, I was exhausted and sick of it, but my initial feedback from agents tells me it’s still not quite there.

And the reason I now know that for sure is that, one week ago, I completed my second novel.

And what a stark contrast it bears to the first one.

I started writing my second novel – let’s call it DAMAGE CONTROL, even though that’s just a placeholder title – in July this year. From the beginning, I had the overwhelming feeling that this book – a straight-up YA story – was the novel that would find publication first. Peter Parker would say his Spidey sense was tingling; Dennis Denuto would say he had a vibe; Kath Day-Knight would say she had a feeling in her waters. Everything just seemed to mesh together.

Call it what you will, but that feeling gripped me for two months and didn’t let go until I finished the final chapter last week. DAMAGE CONTROL is the most close-to-the-bone, intensely personal piece of fiction I have ever written. It felt like it poured out of me fully-formed; like twenty-nine years of pain were slowly and gingerly extracted from my blood. It was almost a channelling experience: when I reread some of the lines, I can’t even remember writing them.

As American sportswriter Red Smith famously said, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”

Red was right.

Once you open the vein and allow yourself to bleed, writing is the easiest and most natural thing in the world.

But it was something I had never done before.

CAPRION’S WARNING was more or less pure juvenile nonsense writing.

My teenage fanfiction was adrenaline-fuelled escapism.

And my first novel was essentially people-pleasing in literary form: calculating my moves, crafting a product for an imagined readership, second-guessing what the readers and market and editors and agents might want. In short, everything except being authentic, and genuine, and unabashedly myself.

DAMAGE CONTROL is me without a single inhibition. I’ve hidden nothing. Every fear, every fragility, every insecurity, every obnoxious word and thought is on display here for the world. It is a fictional work, entirely, but the characters embody the best and, frequently, the worst parts of me as the author: the things I am ashamed of; the things I’ve been hurt by.

second novel
Proudly holding my second completed novel.

My blood is on every page.

And it makes all the difference – because it actually works.

My first beta reader was completely blown away. He cried twice during the novel, especially towards the end.

“This is the best thing you have ever written,” he declared at the end, without hesitation. “This is very brave …”

As for how I felt when I finished it?

First was the sorrow: I cried, like a little kid who fell off his bike.

Then came the euphoria: I went to the gym and sprinted on the treadmill, adrenaline crushed into my bloodstream and music pounding in my ears.

And finally, satisfaction: I went out for ice cream with my fiance.

The most exciting outcome of finishing this novel was that it enabled me to understand, and define, myself in a way I hadn’t been able to do before. And my hope is that, in my being honest and vulnerable and brave, my readers will be able to make the same discoveries about themselves.

Finishing this novel has been an intense and rejuvenating experience.

I cannot wait to share it with you each.

Holden

Failure, Triumph and Spear Tackling Demons

Last year I tried to do a thing, and I failed spectacularly.

The thing was NaNoWriMo – a wonderfully kooky-looking acronym that stands for National Novel Writing Month. Thousands of writers – from amateur to emerging to published and prolific – attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in the thirty days of November.

I tried my guts out last year, but it was just a hot mess.

Hell, I was a hot mess.

I’d just been told I was losing my job in a restructure; I had nothing concrete to fall back on; and I had something like eight or nine major projects or events to deliver in the space of six weeks.

And I thought this was a good time to burn the midnight oil and churn out that great Aussie novel.

50,000 word story short: I failed, badly.

I got just a little over half way, which is not too bad given the gauntlet I was facing at work. But I crashed and burned, and that manuscript – which was a YA Thriller, and which I actually really like – is collecting dust in a drawer. Or more accurately, succumbing to the early stages of data rot on my hard drive. In my head, it’s more like cake batter: I fully intend to bake a delicious sponge with it and the guests are going to love it, but the oven isn’t preheated yet.

In non-overly-extended metaphor terms: I have a few other writing projects taking priority.

One of which is my second novel.

So, July saw the latest outing for Camp NaNoWriMo, which is billed as a virtual summer camp for writers. We even had cabins, where I got to chat to my fellow writers and we could share our joys and frustrations.

Because I wanted to make some massive headway in July, I set my goal as the traditional 50,000 words and set off on Day 1, which is a good start as that doesn’t always happen in NaNoWriMo. Some writers – past me included – have a tendency to rock up late, like day 3 or 4, and then play what feels like a Sisyphean game of catch-up from there. You know you’re not off to a great start when you’re limping across the starting line.

Despite the demands of work and publishing THE BLACK FLOWER in mid-July and other life stuff, I managed to track ahead of my goal word count every day of November, which I am pretty pumped about.

And on Day 30, I finally passed 50,000 words and reached my goal.

Camp NaNoWriMo complete
July was a fruitful month, though I’m going to pretend that flat part of the graph doesn’t exist.

I have said it before but I will say it again: the benefits of applying an artificial and entirely arbitrary deadline to your creative practice can never be undersold. I take off my hat to the people at the Office of Letters and Light who make NaNo happen. It is, for me, the most productive way to write. I thrive off both the stress and the sense of competition.

Maybe it’s masochistic, but I work best when I know I am suffering intensely for a real, tangible and nearby reward: a completed manuscript.

And suffer I did.

This manuscript is the most personal thing I have ever written, and I am including my Honours thesis story ‘Full-Forward’ which genuinely drove me to drink.

This manuscript required me to tap into so much of my past suffering: the very worst of what others have done to me, and the very worst of what I have done to myself.

This manuscript demanded brutal honesty. From the first chapter, there could be no sacred cows, and so I refused to let myself have any. Nobody and nothing is safe from the torch beam of this manuscript. I forced myself to see it all, sit with it all, and most importantly, to speak about it all.

And I found I had so much to say.

I’m still working on this novel. There are a few chapters left to go. I’ll hopefully complete them within the next few weeks, and then the joys of editing will kick in.

Meantime, I’m enjoying the honest introspection – and extrospection – this process has offered me as a creator and a storyteller. The dogged honesty this work requires is forcing me to spear-tackle some demons, identify hard truths from chimeras, and valiantly step into marching boots I have held in the cupboard for years but have always been too terrified to lace up.

I really can’t wait to share this book with the world. I’ll be posting here about it from time to time over the coming months, so make sure to follow my blog and keep an eye on my social media channels, too.

More from me soon, in many ways.

Holden

A Bad Day at Work vs A Bad Day at Dream

Man, it’s a hell of a lot of work to chase an artistic dream.

A lot of hard, tiring, unpaid work, to be precise.

And, to be really honest, as much as you’ll usually hear me beaming about how much the pursuit of my dream animates me – and it does – some days are better than others.

There are days where the chase is pure elation, and each microscopic win feels like running across the finish line of a marathon: you finish a chapter, you get an unexpected book review, a blog comment makes you smile, or a tweet goes mildly viral.

And then there are days where everything is a giant mess of shit.

You spend hours fiddling with formatting a table of contents, for instance. Or you are stuck copy-editing (or worse, proofreading) a short story before you submit it to prizes or journals. You tweet and nobody retweets it; you post on Facebook and nobody likes it; you blog and it is met with resounding indifference (you can only imagine the precipice my mood rests upon in writing this very post …).

Unlike a day job, you don’t get a paycheck at the end of a bad day as an artist. You just have a really shitty day. In fact, in economic terms, you theoretically lost money, because of the opportunity cost of spending two or three or ten hours working on your fledgling artistic career.

I’ve had a run of great writing days recently, as I plough through my second novel for Camp NaNoWriMo. My project is currently sitting at about 37,000 words (out of a goal of 50,000), so I’m closing in on my target.

But despite that success, there have also been a couple of really frustrating days in the past week where everything seemed to go wrong at once. Nothing catastrophic, just some medium-grade SNAFUs.

Today was one of them: a head-desk, “why me?” kind of day. I think I thought I was further ahead in my career than I really was, in some ways, and that crashed down all around me. I’m still torn between wanting to sweep everything off my desk in a melodramatic writery tantrum and wanting to curl up into the fetal position and rock myself to sleep.

I am also considering the sage counsel of the little girl from the Old El Paso ad: “Why not both?”

But, of all things, something that happened at work yesterday made me feel better about the whole mess.

Like a lot of writers/dreamers, I have a range of casual jobs to keep my head above water and my arse off the street corner, so to speak. Some of my jobs are more highly paid than others – and one of them, in particular, is now a couple of grades lower than I’m worth, so I pitched to my boss that I ought to have my position promoted.

My pitch was declined. I felt deflated and considerably undervalued, but I went about my day after that.

But when I thought about these crappy last couple of days, I realised something.

While I felt undervalued in my day job, where I am paid decently, I didn’t feel undervalued as a writer.

This is even though I am paid nothing.

If I look at the last month of preparing my new e-book, THE BLACK FLOWER, for publication, I was paid exactly $0.00 for every hour I spent writing, editing, proofing, formatting, blogging, marketing, submitting, designing, and so on. And there were many, many hours.

But even when everything seems to go wrong, not one second of this feels like a waste of my time, because every second of this journey makes me feel alive. Every moment spent wading through molasses towards my dream is a moment in which I am aligned with my personal quest in this life.

I am always energised by it, and never drained, despite the unpaid element to this journey. The bad days never deter me. They can’t.

Reflecting on this made me feel better, because I now realise a day of unpaid writing is more valuable than a paid day of work.

Tonight, I will make my choice between a raging tantrum or cocooning myself in a blanket.

And tomorrow, I will pick myself up, dust myself off, listen to some Alanis Morissette and get back on the horse.

I am not there yet.

The road ahead is still very long.

Holden

 

So, at what point can you call yourself a Writer?

In the last year or so I’ve encountered so many writers at different stages of their journeys. Some of them have been published novelists sharing their wisdom at events or in webinars (or, sometimes, in Tweets). Others, like me, are submitting short stories to journals or working on their first or second novels, and making their first foray into the sharkly world of agents and editors. Many authors I meet on Twitter and through Camp NaNoWriMo, are indie authors, or describe themselves as aspiring authors. And still others are bloggers or freelancers, sharing their life experience with the cybersphere.

On some level, we are all the same: artists and creators grappling with words and our own fears to craft something amazing, painful and beautiful and bring it into the world.

And yet, sometimes it feels like we are worlds apart from one another – especially, I think, those of us who haven’t yet had our first full-length work published (like me).

So, with so many stages and forms of this authory career, I’ve been thinking a lot about at what point we feel comfortable actually calling ourselves “writers” – and it’s quite a telling point to ponder.

Business man and woman shaking hands.
“Yes, ma’am, I’m a writer. No further questions kthxbye.”

Being a writer is a strange identity to occupy. We are not like a boy having a father figure or other male role model to look up to as he becomes a man. We are not like a Catholic going to church and learning the norms and customs from the other parishioners around us. We may share blood with our parents, but we are rarely cut from the same cultural fabric: very few of us would be descended from acclaimed writers (and those who are should count their blessings in terms of the networks that opens up for them!).

No: us weird little writers tend to incubate in obscurity and isolation through our childhood, until adolescence spits us out and we realise we can’t survive without writing.

But when are we allowed to actually become a writer? Imagine meeting someone for the first time (maybe at a conference or event or dinner party) and, when they ask you what you do, you respond with, “I am a writer.”

At what point in your writing career does that become kosher? Or believable?

It’s a slippery concept, because success as a writer was traditionally – and still is – so inextricably (and agonisingly) tied to having a full-length book published by a traditional publishing house.

Business People At The Meeting
You seem nice. Please, just take another free quiche and leave me the hell alone so I can dwell on my raging insecurities.

As a hangover from this – or, perhaps, as a mirror of our Western drive for achievement and validation – many writers do not publicly identify as such until they have a book published.

Many of us – especially the sensies among our ranks – experience the imposter syndrome. We really do fear that if we call ourselves writers, the logical next question from a well-meaning inquirer will do to us what a lawnmower does to a blade of grass:

“Oh, you’re a writer. So, what have you written?”

PANIC STATIONS!

Our fledgling writer turns heel and foots it out of dodge, with Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” blasting in his ears.

There is nothing more gut-wrenchingly, colon-emptyingly awkward and terrifying as calling yourself a writer and then mumbling a response to THAT QUESTION.

“Oh, nothing published yet,” you say, eyes down, desperate to get the heat off you.

the cool s
Remember these from Year 5?

All you want in that moment is for the person you’re talking to to go the hell back to the buffet table and freeload on some more spinach and feta quiches.

Many will find a way around this, and call themselves “aspiring writers”, but I actually feel quite passionately that this term is a misnomer. In fact, I actively encourage my students and writer friends not to call themselves this.

In my logic, an “aspiring writer” is someone who wants to write. You SHOULD call yourself an aspiring writer if you dream of one day writing an amazing novel, but you don’t know where to start, and you haven’t tried to write it yet, and it’s been seven years and all you have is a notebook with doodles of that cool stone S everyone used to draw in like Year 5.

HOWEVER.

If:

  • you are trying to write your first novel and have notebooks and MS word documents and Scrivener files full of first pages and first chapters; OR
  • you are practising writing short stories, creative non-fiction, memoir, poetry, scripts, whatever …

Then I would recommend you call yourself the dreaded Writer with a capital W.

Because despite the earthquakes of self-doubt that fracture your little writer heart every few weeks, or days, or hours, you are physically writing.

You are trying.

You are on your way and you are putting in all the blood, sweat and tears your caffeine-dehydrated body can afford to spare.

You are a writer.

writer not sane
Pretty much …

It does not matter one iota that nobody big and powerful and serious and acclaimed has yet recognised your genius, nor whether they have read your stuff, called it untalented tripe and kicked you twice in the kidney, leaving you in the gutter to die an artist’s death.

You are still a writer.

What defines us is our action and our spirit.

Our identity as writers is not tied to the quality of our work (how else would bad writers exist?) nor our publication status.

Personally, I thought of myself as a writer and was writing on and off from the age of seven, but I never dared to call myself one in public until my first short story was picked up and published in a literary journal when I was 20.

Until then, it seemed like Narcissus-level hubris to take on the moniker shared by King, Rowling, Tolkien and others.

But you know what? It still feels like that. Getting one short story published didn’t change that. Two didn’t. A bunch of journalistic stuff didn’t change it either.

And a lot of authors will testify that even getting one or two novels published still doesn’t change the sense that you’re not quite good enough yet.

Every time you introduce yourself as a writer, you’re waiting for Frau Farbissina to burst out from behind the bain maries at the networking dinner and scream, “LIES! ALL LIES!”

But really, I should have called myself a writer earlier, because (1) I have the spirit of whatever the fuck it is that makes us all creative and slightly cuckoo bubbling through my blood, and (2) I was writing actively, which satisfies my main criterion.

frau
When you have the audacity to introduce yourself as a writer.

I should have called myself a writer when I penned my little short story homage to Anton Chekhov’s “Misery” in my first year of uni.

I should have called myself a writer when I started writing my Pokemon fanfiction in 2001.

I should have called myself a writer when I was seven and writing about co-ed twelve year olds falling off Cornwall cliffs.

I do call myself a writer nowadays. In fact, I’ve been trying to consciously make myself say “writer” instead of my day jobs when people ask me what I do. It’s still a challenge in resolve, but I’m starting to actually do it.

You should, too.

If you write, call yourself a writer and cast aside the “aspiring writer” exercise in nervous hedging. You do not have to have anything published, or even finished, to be a real writer. You can survive telling a stranger that you aren’t yet published.

Just start writing, and carry yourself with the confidence of knowing you are a writer, just like Rowling. Sure, we may be less famous and poorer and less masterful, but we are still undeniably part of the same club. It’s just that we don’t have seats at the table yet.

You have to take yourself seriously as a writer to become a serious writer. And nobody else will ever take you seriously as a writer if you don’t.

Holden

I’m going to summer camp! But it’s not summer! And I’m not really going anywhere!

Since it was half-way through 2017 last week, I took the opportunity to look over my plans for the month ahead.

To my delight, my schedule – which is a hyper-organised, multicoloured Monica Geller wet dream sort of affair – for once did not seem to reflect someone on the verge of burnout.

In a nice change, for the first time since February this year, there was a whole heap of blank space. Apart from the upcoming publication of “The Black Flower” and a few assorted day jobs, I’ve got a relatively easy four weeks ahead.

Now, if self-care rated higher on my list of priorities, I would have kept the slate clean and spent the whole of July playing the Crash Bandicoot reboot and binge-watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

crash bandicoot
The new Crash Bandicoot reboot is totally gonna be N-Sane … when I actually get around to playing it.

But, much like nature, I abhor a vacuum.

So I decided to join a competition to finish my second novel by the end of July.

Camp NaNoWriMo is supposed to be the “light”, more fun version of NaNoWriMo, which I’ve taken part in (and blogged about) before. The cool part is that participants choose their own project and goal. There are virtual cabins where you can chat to other writers: I am the lone Aussie among 19 American writers, so at least that part of the camp experience is authentic. Of course, it’s -200 degrees here and there are no canoes, so it’s not quite a summer camp experience, but I will enjoy it nonetheless.

My project is a YA novel that originally began as a novella, which I completed the first draft of in February this year. With the working title of Damage Control (this will change, because I already have a few stronger titles in mind), it is by far the most vulnerable and personal work I have ever written. In some ways, it is difficult to write while drawing from that well of past pain. In other ways, it is a relief, like a toxin being extracted from my blood.

My goal was initially going to be 40,000 words in a month – a little less pressure than the traditional NaNoWriMo. But when I looked over my existing draft, I saw I already had about 20,000 words written – so, if I completed 50,000 in July, this would enable me to reach my target for the whole novel, which is 70,000.

So, 50,000 it is.

camp nanowrimo
Camp NaNoWriMo: Like summer camp, but 1000%  geekier.

After yesterday’s late-night effort (Day 5), I’m sitting at 12,599/50,000. It’s actually one of the strongest starts I’ve had on a NaNo project in a long time, maybe ever. I’m also really excited by this novel and, dare I say it, I’m even a little more eager to share this one with the world than I am with my first novel.

But as I plug away on my Camp NaNoWriMo project this month, I’ll be paying attention to something I don’t usually pay attention, at least not very consciously: self-care.

Filling my once spacious July schedule with blocks of writing time made me realise just how much of my own time I spend on writing. In and of itself, that isn’t a problem. In fact, it’s pretty important when you’re trying to break through to become a professional writer that you put in a good amount of time.

But I suddenly realised how often I use my evenings and weekends for writing and writing admin.

Enthusiasm and (blind) ambition are two of my greatest qualities, and I consider them strengths. But it seems like I kind of suck at chilling out and having fun, which is kind of a sad thing to be bad at. Case in point: my copy of Crash Bandicoot is still in its plastic wrapping, unplayed, and I’ve had it for a week. I physically have not made time to have any fun. Gamer fail. Hell, human fail.

So while I’m going to push myself hard this month to achieve a goal that is incredibly important to me – the completion of my second novel – I am also going to be conscious about not burning out.

I’m going to make time to play video games.

aku aku
In the sage advice of Aku Aku: OOGA BOOGA!

I’m going to make time to watch something on TV.

I’m going to make time to go outside.

I’m going to set aside time to do absolutely nothing.

This sounds a bit common sense, but with my perfectionist tendencies, it isn’t easy to find a balance. It’s either all (multiple jobs and projects with deadlines) or nothing (burnout). To find a middlepath is a new challenge for me, and it’s one I’m looking forward to – albeit with some trepidation.

Here’s to a hybrid month: of productive, emotive, fulfilling novel writing, and an orange bandicoot smashing wooden crates, collecting Wumpa fruits and dealing with Aku Aku’s ambiguous sound effects.

Holden

 

Turning 29: A Writer Begins the Year of His Saturn Return

It was my birthday on Monday – and not just any birthday.

This was my 29th birthday: the much-feared last year of the twenties, or, in popular astrological terms, the year of my Saturn Return.

What on earth is the Return of Saturn?

For starters, it’s a bangin’ 2000 album by pop-rock band No Doubt. Incidentally, I listen to a track off that album every single year on my birthday – one of my weirder rituals. The song is called Six Feet Under and the chorus goes like this:

Today is my birthday and I get one every year

And someday, hard to believe but I’ll be buried six feet underground

Yep, the lyrics are kind of morbid but the song is a fizzy, rocky new-wave track and I just love it. I suppose I get a kick out of recognising how fleeting life is, and a birthday is probably a better time than most to acknowledge that. We are only on this planet very briefly, so I try to enjoy it as much as I can.

And the No Doubt example leads me to my point, really. Lead singer and songwriter Gwen Stefani wrote most of the album during her Saturn Return in the late 90s – hence the album title.

An astrological concept, a Saturn Return describes the return of the planet Saturn to the same celestial location it was in when a person was born. This usually takes about 29.5 years, so the year between 29 and 30 is considered the year of your Saturn Return, though, as the tale goes, the planet’s influence is felt from the ages of about 27-31.

The idea is that a Saturn Return signifies a time of self-evaluation and transition into a different life stage each time it occurs. At the first Saturn Return at 29, our youth ends and we enter adulthood. At 58, we enter maturity, and for those who make it to 87, the wisdom of old age awaits.

Now, for the record, no, I do not believe in horoscopes or any of that. In fact, the below meme best illustrates my beliefs regarding astrology.

horoscope-for-the-week-stars-and-planets-will-not-affect-your-life-in-any-way

That said, there is something curious and fascinating about the concept of the Saturn Return and how people apply it psychologically as a stage of development. Maybe it’s the story aspect of it that I like. Realistically, that’s what astrology is: take away the fact that it’s not scientific, and it’s really a form of storying our own existence and attempting to divine meaning from what surrounds us.

And storying our existence is fascinating to me – hence my choice to become a fiction writer and not an astronomer (which I once wanted to do).

I’ve been thinking a lot about my Saturn Return this week: about how I have now turned 29 and how, for the last couple of years, my life has shifted me quite dramatically in the direction I want to go in.

You see, despite always knowing I wanted to be a writer (since I was seven), I knew from a young age that this was not going to be an easy path.

Despite my desire to be a published author, there have been many times when I was faced with some negative attitudes, or, more often, when I panicked and didn’t back myself.

At 17, I chose a science degree as my top preference because I didn’t think I would be taken seriously if I studied writing. Thankfully, my mother advised me to do what I really wanted to do, whatever that was. I reflected, and changed my course preference to a Bachelor of Arts. Writing was all I wanted.

At 18, a lot of people – including a lot of so-called friends – looked down on me for pursuing my dream and studying writing. They saw writing as a low form of career, unlike law, engineering, medicine, business, or science. Some of them – several times – implied to my face that I was dumb, which was really quite silly as I’d won several academic awards for being among the brightest in the state and they were all B students. Maybe it was part jealousy. I don’t know for sure. Thankfully, social pressure has never affected me as much as my own fears. These attitudes galvanised me to keep going, because I saw these people as joyless and nasty and quite pitiable for shitting on the life of someone who dared to dream – and I never wanted to give up on dreaming and become one of them.

At 19, I wanted to drop out of uni after my first year because I didn’t feel like I fit in, and also because I was depressed. I decided to become a labourer and move back to Geraldton and just write in my spare time (ha! as if!). Thankfully, after three months labouring over the summer, I had an idea for a story and went back to uni to write it (it became “A Man”, which was published when I was 20).

At 21, I lost all confidence in myself when I graduated from uni, because I didn’t think I would be able to find a steady job as an Arts grad. I panicked and got a job in a bank for a year.

At 22, I quit the bank and did my Honours in creative writing, but then at 24, I finished my thesis and freaked out again, and went to work full time for two years in a senior admin role.

While I’ve never stopped believing in my dream, fear has sometimes made me jam the brakes on for a year or two at a time. At those shaky times, I’ve been so scared of failing at being a writer that I never really gave it a proper go.

It wasn’t until the year I turned 26 that I had an epic “I don’t give a fuck” moment – and I came out of that year losing a lot of illusions.

I decided to give up financial security, academic validation and societal approval.

I decided to just do the thing I was put on this planet for: be a writer, and do it as well as I possibly could.

So, at 27 – the age the influence of Saturn is supposed to begin – things began to pick up pace in my writing career: I got another publication, and a grant, and a mentorship.

When I was 28, the part-time job I had was taken away from me through a workplace restructure. It was a horrible time – months of anxiety and stress and uncertainty – but this time, unlike basically every time before that, I didn’t freak out.

At least, I didn’t freak out in the same way, because this time I didn’t give up on my writing.

Rather, I saw the loss of my job as a good omen: that it was time for me to put even more of my time and energy into my writing.

And so, I did.

I finally put my work out into the world, and I’ve been stoked with the response from the public.

Now at 29, I am investing more and more of my time, energy and even my own (scraps) of money into my writing career.

I have finally learned to back myself: I have said no to several day jobs in the past year, because I don’t want to lose sight of achieving my writing goals.

I have finally learned to structure my week to ensure I actually have hours put aside for both writing admin (marketing, website maintenance, editing, publishing, blogging) and writing creation (actually putting the arse in the chair and writing words).

Most importantly, I have finally learned how to operate my writing career with a foot on the accelerator – something I have never mastered previously. It is an exhilarating feeling to actually be a working writer.

Saturn’s return is supposed to push us into the role we are supposed to occupy in our adult lives: in my case, this means becoming a career author.

I enjoyed my youth, but for all its exuberance, it also came with a cacophony of fear and self-doubt that, at 29, I feel I have pushed through.

And it’s going to get better and more exciting from here. Not because a planet is hurtling into the same spot it was at back in 1988, but because I’m going to take action and make it better.

I know. I’m kind of intense.

But I don’t care anymore.

I won’t stop until my ambition is a reality – and nothing can deter me from this path.

Onwards and upwards.

Holden