Letting Go: There is No ‘One Chance’

If there’s one thing I’m really bad at, it’s letting go.

I tend to tackle a difficult situation head on and go with the Hulk Smash, bull terrier kind of approach first. I try to call this my ‘assertive’ approach and I can usually avoid going anywhere near ‘aggressive’, even when I maybe kinda want to smash someone’s skull in, just a teeny bit (it would be for their own good, I swear …).

If and when that fails, I will possibly fall silent and let my failure to resolve an issue through direct action fester and haunt me for the rest of my days.

But I very rarely shrug my shoulders and go, “Well, ya know what? It didn’t work. Life goes on. Let’s see what’s on TV.”

I think letting go is actually an important life skill, and it’s something I need to work on more. I don’t have the solution to this yet, although I suspect it isn’t found by listening to that goddamn song from Frozen. (Sorry, parents … I bet you only just got that shit outta your head a few months ago. I recommend listening to Rebecca Black’s Friday to distract yourself … trust me …)

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No! NOOOOOOOOO! Get away from me, wickedly talented Adele Dazeem!

The reason I bring this up is that I had to force myself to let go of something recently, and it’s still got me thinking about why it was so hard to do.

I’m not talking about something particularly deep or meaningful here: I find that stuff nigh on impossible to let go of, despite my best efforts.

This was actually something writing-related. There was a call for submissions from a particular publication, and what they were seeking seemed like a golden opportunity for an emerging YA author like myself.

In fact, I was so convinced that it was going to be the right fit for me, I kept the damn thing in my calendar until super close to the deadline, when I finally forced myself to give up on it.

I had to give up and let it go, because I actually didn’t have anything written that matched the criteria they were looking for.

Most people would probably go, “Oh well. I’ll try next time.”

samuel-beckett-playwright-go-on-failing-go-on-only-next-time-try-to
Beckett knows what’s up.

Not me. I was so doggedly determined that I would find a way to churn out a suitable piece of writing that I self-flagellated for weeks. There had to be a way, I told myself. I wanted to wring the creative juices out of my squishy grey brain. Come on! Produce something amazing, brain! Don’t you know this might be the only chance you ever get?!

And there it was. Suddenly, I understood why I drive myself so hard with these kinds of things.

Don’t you know this might be the only chance you ever get?!

This is what I’m scared of as a writer. This is why it’s hard to let go of opportunities; this is why I have a word document stacked with calls for submissions I want to submit to and simply never will; this is why every internet browser on my phone or laptop has 34293235 tabs open, because I’m trying to remember every call for submissions I’ve ever seen.

I’m scared the opportunity I pass up will be ‘the one’. The one opportunity that somehow makes everything change. The one that puts me on the map, gets me more noticed, makes a publisher slide her wheely office chair over to her shiny desk phone, dial my agent’s number and go, ‘Heyyyy, how would Holden like a ten-book deal for a million billion trillion bucks?’

*cough* Publishers: I am totally open to this and if you think it would be a neat idea to invest a million bucks in me just to see what happens (could be a fun experiment, right?), I am sure my agent would love to hear from you. *cough*

Ultimately, I’m scared of passing up an opportunity because there is a pervasive myth, with a kernel of truth to it, that floats around all creative people like a cruel mist. The myth is of the discovery of the artist. The big break. The thing that made everything change overnight.

We’ve all heard the stories of actors and musicians who got their big break in the most unlikely of ways. Writing is a little different – sometimes extremely different – but some of those “big break” stories still echo through our collective consciousness.

Matthew Reilly’s chance encounter with a Pan Macmillan publisher which took him from self-published nobody to multi-million selling blockbuster author.

Stephen King throwing the draft of Carrie in the bin, only to have his wife fish it out and convince him to keep going: it became his first published novel and made him the biggest author on the planet.

And don’t even get me started on J.K. Rowling and Bloomsbury.

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Matthew Reilly: from self-published nobody to multi-millionaire bestseller.

The point is, most of us know that finding long-term success as an author depends on two things: talent and luck. The fear is that even the most eloquent, brilliant author in history might languish in eternal obscurity if he never jags the right editor at the right publishing house who would have championed his work. So what hope do the rest of us have?

But I’ve decided it’s not healthy to fixate on every opportunity as being so desperately make-or-break.

Firstly, because if I get off my neurotic writer hamster wheel for two seconds, I realise it’s not realistic. None of these submissions are going to be career make-or-break moments.

Secondly, it simply isn’t true that there is only one chance to get this right.

We know about the big breaks of Matthew Reilly and Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, but it’s false to assume that their careers would never have happened if those exact moments of luck hadn’t happened.

In fact, I’m quite certain they would have had amazing careers nonetheless, because, as with all writers, writing is in their blood. If Contest hadn’t been picked up by a publisher, Matthew Reilly would have kept writing: in fact, he was already working on his second novel. Likewise, Stephen King would have written something different. J.K. Rowling would have kept querying Harry Potter to other publishers, or started work a lot earlier on The Casual Vacancy, perhaps.

And because writing is in their blood, they would have kept writing, and kept querying, and kept trying until they finally did get their big break. The success equation is not just talent plus luck. It is talent plus luck … plus resilience.

Almost every published author has a similar tale: a barrage of rejections, twists and turns until, finally, against all odds, they got their first book published. And then the whole cycle probably repeated again for book number two. It’s not an easy career for any of us, published or otherwise.

The point is this: there is no “one chance”, taken or missed, that determines our fate. It is our willingness to be dogged, and resilient, and continue to pursue our dreams in the face of rejection and naysayers, that increases the odds of our success exponentially.

We are more than one story, one call for submissions, one novel, one series, or one lead character. We are writers. We have whole universes nesting in the starry recesses of our subconscious minds. The possibilities are endless, and our entire careers and fates do not rest on one single missed opportunity or failed idea.

So, I was a big boy and I let go of that particular call for submissions. That particular opportunity wasn’t the path the universe has in store for me. So be it. And guess what? The deadline passed, and I was alive after it had. Bully for me.

Moving forward, I’m going to make a conscious effort to get less wound-up about individual opportunities. What has buoyed me this far in my career will get me through the rest of it – and that isn’t any single chance encounter: it is resilience.

Holden

He Shoots, He … Well, He Tried

A week ago, I set a whole bunch of what I thought were quite achievable goals, and I promised that I would check back in to say how I travelled.

I’m doing this because making a goal without actually reporting back on the outcome, whether good or bad, feels incomplete. And, especially if I didn’t do well, it would be all too easy to just never bring this up again.

But I’m not doing this either to beat myself up or to clap myself on the back, really. I’m doing it to keep myself accountable, and also to find out if the goals I set for myself are actually realistic or not.

So – how did I do?

1. Get up on time for the #5amwritersclub (four times)

I actually managed to hit this goal! I had to use my Saturday morning in order to do it, but I got there, and I’m pretty chuffed. Waking up early is hard and to be honest it’s rare that I’m out of bed bang on 5am, but getting up for work and knowing I’ve already done my writing hours for the day is a very good feeling: it means I can start the day in a happy haze, almost like a post-coital afterglow. As Robert Hass said, “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.” This is very true.

2. Hit the Gym (four times)

My aim was to hit the gym four times, which is the new routine my trainer has set for me. The plan was to go on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

I manged to get to the gym three out of four times, which is not too bad and I’m not too bothered by missing the mark. Interestingly, I got there on Saturday instead of Friday, which has made me rethink how I’ll do this next time. Friday is one of my busiest days of the week with professional work and teaching at uni, so it makes absolutely no sense to try scheduling a workout in there, too.

Next week, I’m going to try for Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Thursday and Friday – my two most hectic days where I have a 1.5 hour commute each way to boot – will be kept sacrosanct, so when I get home I can just collapse. And Monday will be enshrined as my writing day, kept separate from every other commitment behind one of those thick velvet ropes.

3. Stick to my Meal Plan Perfectly (for seven days)

This is a big, fat, red-text fail. I already knew it would be hard not to snack while marking, and I held it together relatively well until Thursday, when the wheels fell off and I ended up spending $18 on creating the largest custom-made party mix known to mankind (and eating the entire thing in two days). In fact, in stark contrast to my goal, this week was probably the worst my diet has been for some time.

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My preciousssss!

On the upside, my meals were all still in line with my diet plan, and I still got in all my protein shakes and egg whites and all the plain meat and vegetables I’m supposed to consume. It’s just that my snacks got in the way, especially from Thursday to Saturday. Still, I live and learn. Not giving in to temporary setbacks and failure is how I’ve gotten anything I have in life: persistence is key, and eventually things fall into place.

4. Sleep a LOT

Yeah, look, I did sleep a lot, and I don’t really have anything exciting to say about it, other than I did what I set out to do. It takes some real goddamn skill to lay very still and do nothing for seven hours.

5. Don’t Burn Out Again

I didn’t burn out last week. The signs are starting to mount that I’m getting close to a burnout, though, so I need to start taking steps now to take proper care of myself.

6. Write a Blog Post

Bam! I nailed this. I think I wrote three blog posts in the space of a week: one about failure, one about new goals, and one which was a review of Louise Allan’s debut novel, The Sisters’ Song (which was remarkably successful compared to other reviews I’ve done ages ago, so maybe I need to do more of these!).

7. LIVE, DAMN YOU, LIVE!

I’m starting to realise that Holden is becoming a dull boy, and that’s really shitty, but I hardly did any living this past week. I set myself the goal of having the whole weekend to live and enjoy, and the reality was I ended up marking and editing and submitting short stories off to journals.

For whatever reason, my personality is so flawed that I find it difficult to find ways to have fun. I didn’t used to be like this, but the more I try to juggle everything at once (working several jobs, volunteering, writing, writer admin, gym) the more my fun time gets squeezed out of my schedule, like the last gasp of minty toothpaste from a rolled-up tube.

I really, really need to stop and take some time soon not just to rest, but to actively have fun.

On balance, despite fucking some of these goals up beyond all recognition, I reckon I did okay this past week. Most importantly, I’m keen to keep trying, and trying, until I get it right, which is, I reckon, the answer to most things in life.

Onwards and upwards.

Holden

 

 

The Most Terrifying Question in the World

Few questions strike horror into the heart of an author more than The Question That Must Not Be Named.

Ah, stuff it, I’ll risk the anguished shrieks of any authors reading this. The question is:

“What are you working on right now?”

Sounds innocuous enough, right? Don’t be fooled. This little rose of a question is studded with teeny tiny thorns that will draw droplets of fresh scarlet blood from our fragile author egos.

The reason it’s verboten is because half the time when we’re asked this, we’ve just finished a day, or a week, or a month of staring fruitlessly at a blank screen.

Or, sometimes worse, we’ve spent a long day poring over our current manuscript and have just decided it’s no longer a masterpiece novel, but the biggest, steamiest turd in the multiverse.

And sometimes, even the friendliest person asking us about our progress can feel a bit like Stewie from Family Guy passive-aggressively needling Brian about how long his novel is taking to write (AKA one of my favourite scenes of all time).

stewie brian
Stewie: How you, uh, coming on that novel you’re working on? Working on that for quite some time, huh? Talking about that three years ago, huh? You been working on that the whole time?

The upshot is that authors are sometimes just too writing-weary, depressed, agitated or just plain gutted to explain ourselves to inquiring friends, family and followers. Maybe we feel guilty about not working faster, or not having done more with our time. For the more paranoid among us, it sometimes feels like the inquirer has just noticed our total silence on the writing front, and has thought it felicitous to ask why our writing career seems to be flopping around like a dying fish at the bottom of an angler’s bucket.

So, depending on how our day is going, there is a decent chance that we would prefer to emit a whale-like groan, dramatically rend our garments and run naked through a plate glass window than actually answer this question in public.

For me, my response to this question lately has depended on how my day is going and how much detail I want to go into in that given moment. Depending on who’s asking, and how much they know of my work and my journey so far, I’ve been alternating between describing my current work-in-progress as either my “second” or my “third” novel.

However, if I’m in a rush or on my feet – say, at a book launch or a festival or a  networking event, or caught in a conversation in a corridor somewhere – I will get a bit thrown and end up splicing both versions of the tale together and hoping it makes sense. This results in me blurting out highly unintelligent stuff like:

“Yeah, it’s kinda my second novel but kinda my third novel as well. Have you tried the spinach and feta mini-quiches? They’re heaps good.”

The reactions I get to that range on a spectrum from polite chuckle to blank, querying stare all the way through to the this-bloke-is-clearly-a-bit-tapped eyebrow raise.

When I responded in a similarly confusing way to a fellow Twitter author from Switzerland recently, she said it sounded like there was a story behind the whole second-slash-third novel debacle. It was only then that it occurred to me how confusing this must sound to other people, and how confused it must make me sound.

So, I thought I’d use this post to clarify where I’m at right now, and hopefully the next time I say something about this on social media, or to a friend at an event, or to my pillow as I sob myself to sleep *cough* it will make a bit more sense.

Novel #1: SWORDY MCSWORDFACE 

My first real, honest-to-goodness book is a Young Adult Fantasy novel, full of adventure and magic and a bit of teen angst. I don’t want to share the working title publicly yet, so let’s refer to this one as Swordy McSwordface. I wrote it primarily between November 2014 and January 2017, and had an excellent mentor and editor from the Australian Society of Authors to help me whip it into shape.

Although external editors and agents found the writing of this novel solid, and the plot makes for a really fun, adrenaline-fuelled ride, it wasn’t met with rapturous applause from the agents and publishers I subbed it to. Upon reflection at the time, I ultimately found it wasn’t compelling enough in its current form. So, just over a year ago, I put this novel in the metaphorical drawer, and I’ll tackle it again one day when I’m clearer on what it’s missing.

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This is Novel #1 – dust-coated, but not forgotten.

This novel is the crux of why my explanations of what I’m currently working on have been so convoluted lately. I felt that, since this novel had initially failed to get the attention of any publishers, it was a failed book and it was better to strike it from the record.

But as my Swiss friend aptly pointed out:

“You should definitely be counting novel 1 – just because it’s not published doesn’t make it any less of an achievement.”

I have to agree with this approach. I poured my blood, sweat, tears into this novel, not to mention bucketloads of caffeine, nicotine and swear words. And because of my imagination and my hard work, the novel now exists. It’s a real thing. This matters, because even if it never finds a home, this story was, and is, and always will be, my very first novel.

In fact, I’ve discovered it’s actually not uncommon for authors to land their debut publishing contracts with their second or third (or later) novel, not necessarily the first one they finished.

So, from today, I’m going to put more stock in it, and give this tale the respect it deserves. It will always be referred to as my first novel. It just probably won’t be my first published novel, but I am okay with that. There’s more work to be done, and I trust that I’ll return to this story – either to rework it as a novel, or pick over its bony carcass, vulture-style, for any valuable metaphors that could be torn from its pages and re-planted in a different book.

In any case, I’m no less proud of this novel than anything else I’ve written, and I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t exist anymore.

Novel #2: INVISIBLE BOYS

My most recently completed novel is the contemporary YA novel, Invisible Boys. After Swordy McSwordface went back in the drawer, I challenged myself to write something utterly real and unflinching, and so I wrote a fictional novel about some gay teenage boys.

And thus, Invisible Boys was born. And it was, hands down, the hardest thing I’ve ever written – at least in terms of content.

But with regards to the mechanics of writing, Invisible Boys was the easiest thing I’ve ever produced in that the whole story just kind of fell out of me fully-formed. I started the first draft in February 2017, and by December 2017 I had a third draft sent to my agent, who had signed me on the strength of the second draft.

Invisible Boys is the only novel that people have heard me talk about. This is probably cause it’s my only full-length manuscript so far to get some external attention: it won the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award and was Highly Commended in the ASA’s 2018 Emerging Writers Mentorship Prize.

I’m so pumped for this book to find a home, not least because having this story and these characters’ voices heard matters to me more than almost anything in the universe.

Novel #3: THE NOVEL THAT MUST NOT BE NAMED

I couldn’t even give you a fake working title for this one yet. It’s too new and I’m still feeling my way on where it will go, so I don’t want to say anything at this stage, other than to admit that a tentative draft has begun.

But that, at least, is progress, because until today, I would have faltered and flailed trying to work out how to present my current work-in-progress.

I know better now, and the next time you catch me hoovering mini-quiches into my gob at a book launch, I’ll be able to tell you, with confidence, “I’m currently working on my third novel.”

Without the awkward over-explaining I always do.

And, hopefully, without giving a whale-moan, flaying myself alive and careening through a plate of solid glass.

Holden

The Most Violent Word in My Vocabulary

That I put too much pressure on myself is not new information.

In fact, this is one of the oldest things I know about myself. My own expectations of what I should be achieving have shackled a yoke to my shoulders since I was a boy.

It’s the reason I took on five casual jobs last year, and subsequently burned out.

It’s why, a few years back, I made the reckless decision to complete an Honours degree in Writing whilst also doing a Diploma in French and a professional certificate simultaneously, alongside four day jobs. This was the workaholic version of sitting at a table in a burning house and saying, “Guys, I’m fine. This is fine.”

And I can track this kind of learned behaviour back a long way. It’s why I had a massive meltdown in the first few weeks of year twelve: I was trying to overachieve, and take on every opportunity that came my way, and it was utterly unsustainable.

It’s easy to look back on a bright (if slightly neurotic) sixteen-year-old boy and tell him to chill the fuck out, but at the time it wasn’t such an easy task, because I kept telling myself I should be doing more … and I still am.

In fact, the word “should” has always been the most violent word in my vocabulary, especially when I apply it self-reflexively.

I tell myself I should be:

  • More determined.
  • More disciplined.
  • More hard-working.
  • More successful.
  • More celebrated.
  • More productive.

The last one is the real kicker. It’s actually impossible to satisfy my expectations of how productive I should be, because every second I spend Tweeting, or at the gym, or napping, or playing video games, is a second my brain tells me I could have been writing. There is always more I could be doing.

Somehow, my poor brain got snared on a belief at a young age, and I still haven’t ripped the hook out of my bleeding mouth.

The belief is:

If you aren’t as productive as possible, you are not good enough as a human being.

Recently, I’ve realised just how common this self-flagellating behaviour is among fellow writers. A fellow Perth-based author was recently on Twitter having a mild freakout about her own (perceived) lack of productivity. Having just finished a novel a couple of months ago, she felt like she was not really a “writer” anymore because she hadn’t written anything since. She was promptly reassured by many, including myself, that this was totally normal, which was encouraging to see – and emblematic of the supportive culture among authors.

What struck me about this, though, was how very easy it is for me to be kind to another writer, and how hard it is to be kind to myself.

I have a good sense of what expectations are reasonable for an author and what is too much –but when it comes to my own career, I am a tyrant. Nothing I do is good enough. Even amazing steps forward in my career only delight me briefly, and then it’s back to, “Well, what have you achieved lately?”

Sometimes I feel like if I don’t achieve anything substantial – meaning I receive external validation in some way – in any given week, it was a failed week. If a whole month of this goes by, I am a failed author.

This showed up most recently when I did my writing residency at Varuna. The weight of expectations I placed on myself to churn out absolutely phenomenal writing and make shitloads of progress on my third novel was extraordinary, and so cruel.

And it’s happened since I returned home, too. Even though I know my calendar is particularly rammed until June, leaving me incredibly time poor, I’m still riding myself like a meth-fuelled jockey. I should be making faster progress on my third novel. I should be writing some new short stories and submit them to journals and competitions. I should release something new as an e-book. I should blog more frequently.

Should, should, should. Same old mantra.

perfectionism

In one way, it’s heartening to know, via Twitter, that so many other authors are going through these same inner struggles.

But in another way, it’s tragic, because it means we are all being so fucking hard on ourselves.

So, what am I going to do about it?

Well, I already know how to be kind to other authors, so I’m going to make sure I keep doing that. The big challenge ahead of me is to start being nice to myself. To ease the pressure off a little, and be happy with excellence instead of perceived (and unattainable) perfection.

I will never, ever be as productive as I want to be in my mind. I am a human being. I will get busy, and I will get tired, and sometimes what I want to do won’t always be realistic, or reasonable, or kind. Some days, I’m going to get home from work and will be in that general “fuck the world, I’m not doing anything else all night” mood. I think this is okay sometimes.

So I’m going to replace the word “should” with the word “want to”, and use that as the test of whether or not I ought to proceed with something.

Will I continue working hard on my third novel? Of course, but because I want to, not because I feel I must. My ambition and my drive won’t falter, but I’m going to make sure my self-care ranks as just as important as my goals. It will be an eternal balancing act, and I’m sure I’ll fuck it up several times as I learn my way.

But, eventually, I should get it right.

Holden

2017 Is Done, And I’m Still Breathing

I always find it hard to sum up a year when I’m still living it.

Every 31st December, the prevailing sentiment for most people is that we are weary battlers who made it through another year of global spite and personal chaos. So often, we are quick to deliver the departing year a few quick bludgeons on the back of the head as it crosses the threshold from felt experience into history. I know I’ve shared more than one meme about the years lining up to beat the living shit out of me.

Sometimes it really feels that way, doesn’t it? We barely escape a calendar year with our sanity and hope intact, only to get clobbered by the next January.

This is just life, of course. With each passing year, I’ve come to realise that it’s the nature of every year that there are some significant highs and often some crushing lows. Even when I’ve had a terrible year – like perhaps 2010 and 2013 (not incidentally, years where I worked full-time in day jobs and didn’t write a word) – there were some really amazing things that I enjoyed about those years. Likewise, happier years like perhaps 2008 (when I hit my stride at uni) and 2011 (when I started my Hons degree and finished an important story) had their share of bullshit and pain, too.

fork in the road 2017a
As usual at this time of year, I find myself at a literal fork in the road.

2017 is no different. The year started horrendously: I had just been made redundant at my old full-time job, and the novel I had spent two and a half years working on garnered no interest from literary agents. At first, I fell into an abyss and gave myself permission to stay there for a little while.

But I always prefer to push on, and not wallow. So I decided to see losing my job and my first novel’s failure to get any interest from agents as a chance for a new beginning. I was determined to find a new job that I really loved. I would push on and work harder to get published. And dammit, I would try to change my unhealthy habits along the way, too.

If I could encapsulate this year in one image and one moment, it would be me sprinting and sweating on a treadmill at sunset while “Marry the Night” by Lady Gaga throbbed in my eardrums. Man, that song was a driving force behind me all year long.

2017 for me was a year of intensely hard work; and a year where I learned intensely hard work does not just apply to paid jobs or manual labour. I worked hard and sacrificed – day and night, weekdays and weekends – until I got bits and pieces of what I wanted.

In the work domain, I eventually landed a bunch of casual jobs that just barely allowed me to make ends meet. It was uniquely stressful trying to cram so many roles into my week’s calendar, but I did it. Often it was not enough money to pay for everything, so it was a damn tough year financially and I had to sacrifice and struggle, but I refused to give in and go back to full time work. That part of my life is now over. I am a writer, first and foremost, now, and I will take on only part-time and casual work to get me through.

In the writing sphere, I had the best year of my life, hands down. I released three of my short-stories as e-Books, and got to see one of them chart on iBooks in the US which was incredible. I became the Vice-President of my local writing centre. I wrote a significant and highly personal article on same-sex marriage for the Huffington Post which went viral and briefly tapped into the national conversation. I was interviewed a few times on commercial, community and AM radio.

And best of all, I wrote my second novel. This novel was birthed as a novella in February, and came screaming and kicking out of me in July and August. INVISIBLE BOYS was completed this year, and went on to win the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award. It also caught the interest of literary agent extraordinaire Haylee Nash of The Nash Agency, who I gleefully signed to in November.

I also kept working on my fitness this year: I lost another 20 kilos (bringing the grand total to 30 kg lost since 2016) but most importantly, I kept and maintained a dedicated fitness and diet regime, which continues into 2018. I also finally quit smoking (again) but this time it seems to have stuck: as of five hours from now, 2017 will be my first whole year without a cigarette since 2009, and I am very thrilled about this.

Often these kinds of “year-in-review” posts can be seen to be in bad taste. I see people on Facebook often mocked for showing off their achievements, or cherry-picking only the good stuff. I guess I see the humour in that (the Bell Tower Times had a hilarious post about this just today) but I also see the value in reflective thinking and summarising one’s experience in a way that starts to build a narrative for oneself.

And no, 2017 was not uniquely a good year. In fact, in a whole load of private ways, this year was one of the most painful and difficult of my entire life. I don’t dwell on these matters, or even identify all of them, because I don’t want to and it’s too painful. But I suppose I want to acknowledge that they’re there.

The only one I will cast some light on is that writing a novel like INVISIBLE BOYS was a total headfuck and required me to mine the depths of some very old trauma and pain, and this had an enormous effect on me. In fact, when I lived some of the experience that contributes to this fictional book, it nearly killed me. And when I first tried to write about it in 2012, it nearly killed me a second time. In 2017, I managed to revisit it and write about it with honesty and transparency and no sacred cows, and I am still breathing.

In fact, that’s my proudest achievement of 2017: that even after tackling my demons, I’m still breathing.

2018 promises to be an even more arduous year of hard work, dedication, sacrifice and courage (and probably spear-tackling some demons again, just for good measure), so I’m excited to dive in and keep breathing through next year, too.

Congratulations to all of you for surviving 2017, and I can’t wait to travel more of this road with you next year. Happy new year! 🙂

Holden

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.

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