How A Moment of New Year’s Rage Made Me Set Goals Every Year

This time last year, I blogged about 2020 being a shitshow, but that it seemed like ‘the tide was turning’ for 2021.

Fucken woops.

For many, 2021 was as bad as, or worse than, 2020. And it looks like 2022 is heading for a rocky start, too.

It might seem weird to do things like goal-setting, or writing, when the world is a tyre fire.

But doom scrolling on Twitter isn’t useful: it’s a huge sapper of creative energy and is best avoided. The world’s fortunes are beyond my control.

What is within my control is what I’m going to spend my energy on this year.

I find solace in escaping into writing, and setting goals at the start of a new year always motivates me to work hard.

Before I evaluate my 2021 goals and set my 2022 goals, though, I want to touch on a couple of things around goals.

Earlier this week, an emerging writer contacted me for advice. He felt plagued by self-doubt (as we all do) and said that since I seem big on setting and reaching goals, he wanted to know how I keep focused.

We chatted about it, but his observation validated why I do these blogs each year, because there was a time when people in my life had no concept that I actually worked hard.

Years ago, I remember sharing some good career news with a family member, and he replied dismissively, ‘Oh yeah, you’re always just so lucky. Shit just falls in your lap.’

I wanted to shout at him, because this was such a skewed perspective. That opportunity did not just fall in my lap: I had to get a degree, then an Honours year, then achieve a bunch of stuff, then spend years networking, proving my worth and actually asking for it.

I outlined this to him, but he just shrugged like ‘sure, whatever man’.

His mind was made up: to him, I led an unfairly charmed life, and my success was due to me being more cosmically fortunate than him. Dumb luck.

I think this is really misunderstood about artists. Our successes seem to happen miraculously, but there is so much unseen, unpaid work behind all of it. For every publication, years of toiling at a desk, full of self-doubt, with zero promise of any payoff.

Creative success is an iceberg: people see the single achievement, but not the years of ruthless determination and work that made it happen.

So, when emerging writers ask for my advice, I always say you need to first set clear goals: what are you trying to achieve, and by when.

Next, you need to actively block out the time into your calendar, every week of the coming year, to allocate towards working at each goal.

Your goals need to dictate what your daily life looks like.

I don’t think this can be taught. There just needs to be a moment where the desire to achieve your goals overwhelms your fear and inertia to act on them.

For me, that moment was New Year’s Day 2014.

That day, the dawning of yet another year as an unsuccessful wannabe writer finally broke me.

I felt like a supreme failure; all talk. Since the age of seven I’d been saying I wanted to be an author, and yet here I was at twenty-five with nothing to show for it. Where’s your book, loser?

I had a moment where I got so angry, I just lost my shit. I grabbed an empty notebook and cut sick, ranting and raging in a stream-of-consciousness style, page after page.

Me, drunk, in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2014.

What emerged in those pages was that I was fed up investing all my time, money and energy into stuff that only took me further away from where I actually wanted to be in life.

So, New Year’s Day 2014 was the moment I furiously decided to burn all of that stuff down.

I renounced trying to have a good full-time job and career.

I renounced trying to earn lots of money.

I renounced academic validation.

Just now, I dug that particular notebook out of my filing cabinet. It’s a Game of Thrones notebook with an image of the Iron Throne on its cover. Among the many hectic, rage-fuelled, ink-scrawled pages that day in January 2014, I wrote:

I ain’t no good little straight A’s boy getting an office job to make everyone proud and happy.

I am a fucking artist and I am gonna sing for my supper forevermore.

I will make my life happen.

That moment was when my whole life changed, and I became a dedicated artist.

I started calling myself a writer, got working on my first manuscript, and set a goal to complete it by the end of that year.

Since I had a full-time job at the time, my only chance to achieve that goal was to use my nights and weekends. I had to sacrifice all my spare time. I used to fill my down-time with studying various qualifications and drinking and socialising with work mates, uni mates, school mates.

I sacrificed that. No more studying. No more socialising.

I only had so many hours to use per week. If I wanted to avoid being in the exact same place come January 2015, I had to actively make changes in my life.

I dedicated myself to the hustle: evenings and weekends became writing time.

Some shit I wrote on my arm in early 2014 to remind myself what I was giving up and what I really wanted. May have been drunk at the time. 😐

I didn’t miss my old pursuits. Working hard at my dream was a joyous end in and of itself. Even if I never got a book published, I felt alive and happy.

I’m sharing this because whenever someone asks me about goals and discipline as a writer, I feel I can only do so much in the way of advice.

I reckon it’s up to each individual artist to have their ‘fuck everything’ moment, where they get so mad they decide to actually do something about it.

If you’re struggling with this, I encourage you to lean into that moment and embrace it.

Not everyone is the same, of course, but it worked for me.

I spent 2014 working on my first draft, and completed that manuscript in January 2015. Finally, a new year rolled around where I felt satisfied. I wasn’t published, I had no accolades and still felt like a failure – but I was working my arse off to change it.

I was unsuccessful but trying, and that made all the difference.

I have kept this approach ever since, which has helped propel me year after year to keep chasing what I want.

I did the same in 2021, setting ten goals for the year: four writing goals and six personal life goals.

Here’s how I went:

2021 GOALS IN REVIEW

WRITING

1. Sign a publishing contract for Book 2 and do further edits on it.

This finally panned out in 2021. I signed a two-book deal with Text Publishing for my second novel, THE BRINK (out August 2022) and my third novel (out late 2023, probably). Big thanks to my agent, Gaby Naher of Left Bank Literary, for securing me an incredible advance that meant I could be a full-time writer – a lifelong dream come true.

On the editing front, I spent the year doing edits and the next draft is due back to my publisher at the end of January.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

2. Complete the second draft of Book 3.

This didn’t happen. I scheduled September and October to smash a second draft, but some crap personal life stuff happened and blew this to pieces. I had a shit few months and couldn’t write anything real. I wrote a Pokémon fanfiction novella to distract myself instead.

My third novel is due to my publisher this April, so I’ll work on it in the first half of this year.

RESULT: FAIL.

3. Progress the TV Series adaptation of Invisible Boys.

This project moved forward at speed in 2021. We got funding from Screen Australia, held a couple of writers’ rooms, got the first episode script written (holy shit, it’s awesome!), and in November 2021, we won a grant from streaming service Stan and Screenwest to develop the show into a ten-episode TV series.

TV development is a long process, but the next steps during 2022 will be to seek more funding to make this actually happen. Stay tuned.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

The Invisible Boys TV series has received development funding from streaming service Stan Australia, as well as Screenwest and Screen Australia. L-R: Producer Tania Chambers OAM, Invisible Boys book cover, director Nicholas Verso.

4. Get 1 piece of short fiction OR journalism commissioned, contracted or published.

This one worked out. My short story, Rappaccini’s Son, was published in the book HOMETOWN HAUNTS (Wakefield Press, 2021). A second piece, a short memoir titled Territory, was accepted for publication in the forthcoming book GROWING UP IN COUNTRY AUSTRALIA (Black Inc, March 2022).

I was also commissioned by WAToday to write a media article about gay conversion therapy, which was widely shared on social media and led to me fronting other press and radio opportunities to speak on the issue.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

LIFE

5. Maintain an average of 5 workouts per week (between weightlifting, footy and cardio).

I managed to maintain this all year and actually exceeded it. On average per week, I did four weights sessions and two cardio sessions (footy training and footy game) – six workouts total. I pushed myself to stick to this even when my nutrition was bad or my energy levels were low, and I’m glad of that.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

6. Get nutrition sorted to shred up and reach goal weight of 75 kg by 30 June 2021.

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. I failed this badly. I had a highly-disciplined first three months: by early April, I was down from 87 kg to 77.7kg, and it seemed I would achieve this. But my mental health nosedived in April, and I ate and drank heavily for months. By June, I was back at 86kg again, and by the end of December, I was still 84kg.

RESULT: FAIL.

7.Get first tattoos in 2021.

This didn’t happen either, and I’m getting mad about it. I wanna get my ink when I’m feeling good about my physique, so this goal is tied to me sorting out my nutrition. I also need money to spare for tattoos, which I currently don’t have as I’m living off advance and royalty income and need to conserve funds. Urgh.

RESULT: FAIL.

8. Train harder at footy and grow more confident and useful to the team in games.

I worked hard at this. For the first three months, I trained with an amateur AFL team, ECU Jets, in addition to the Perth Hornets AFL 9s team. I’ve always wanted to give full-contact AFL a crack. I enjoyed the training, but I felt badly out of my depth in terms of skills – sometimes, embarrassingly so – and I wasn’t able to make it work. The coaches and players welcomed me even knowing I’m a gay bloke, though, and I liked that. But combined with my mental health nosedive and years of crap self-esteem around sports, it became too much. I pulled out to focus on just AFL 9s.

I did become more useful to the team, and I was really proud when the Hornets coach awarded me the trophy for Most Improved Player last month. It’s the first time in my life I’ve won a trophy for anything sports-related. I’ll never be a natural athlete, but I was chuffed to be recognised for putting in the hard work. It’s hard to suck at something, in front of other people, week after week, but still show up and keep trying. I am proud of that.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

Receiving the Perth Hornets trophy for Most Improved Player in the Spring 2021 season was a huge highlight.

9. Do at least one guitar lesson.

After I failed my 2020 goal of doing a whole term of ten guitar lessons, I thought this was a nice, low-ball goal. Lol, nup. I didn’t fit in a single guitar lesson in 2021.

RESULT: FAIL.

10. Do some fun shit for pure enjoyment.

This was an odd goal, but I wanted to ensure I did stuff for fun. I went quad biking with mates, jumped on massive trampolines, went to concerts and went on a footy trip to Lancelin.

RESULT: SUCCESS.

Overall, I hit six out of ten goals in 2021. Not bad, not bad. I don’t stress about failed goals; they just kept me refocus on what I do and don’t want to keep trying at the following year.

My goals for 2021 look similar, but I’m simplifying down to just eight goals instead of ten. Four writing goals, four life goals:

2022 GOALS

  1. Complete the final edits for The Brink and promote its release.
  2. Complete the second draft of Book 3.
  3. Work on the TV Series adaptation of Invisible Boys.
  4. Get one piece of short fiction OR journalism commissioned, contracted or published.
  5. Maintain an average of 5 workouts per week (between weights, footy and cardio).
  6. Get nutrition sorted to shred up and reach goal weight of 75 kg by 30 April 2022.
  7. Get first tattoos in first half of 2022.
  8. Train harder at footy and grow more confident.

The first goal is massive, because the front end of the year will be preparing The Brink for release, and August onwards will be promoting it heavily with media and events. It will be hard to fit anything extra into 2022.

Because of this, stuff like guitar and fun shit will go on the backburner for a less hectic year. This year I’d love to go quad biking, go-karting or get out on a dirt bike, but I won’t set it as a goal. I’ve also left off full-contact AFL: I’m still interested, but it’s on the backburner.

I have a couple of more personal goals, too. I’m not sure if I’ll share them later or not, but I’ll be working on these quietly in my own time this year.

I’m keen to get started on smashing my goals now. The main joy for me is not necessarily being able to write ‘success’ or ‘fail’ at the end of each year, but just enjoying the dogged gut-fire I get that makes me work at each goal, week in, week out. It’s the most fun and rewarding way I know how to live.

In that notebook from 2014, I found a quote I wrote down from Paulo Coelho that I want to share here, to finish up. Coelho says, ‘Do something instead of killing time. Because time is killing you.’ I’ve always found that quote brutally motivational. I hope you might, too.

However you plan to spend your 2022, and whatever your own goals are, here’s to a year that, hopefully, has some good surprises in store for us all.

Holden

How Failure Made Me Who I Am

Like most writers, I have been sculpted by failure far more than success.

One failure in particular has always hurt me, because it was the first.

It was only tonight, here in 2020, when I was in the middle of judging a writing competition myself, that I reflected on this failure and realised it may not have been what I thought it was.

I’ll set the scene, Sophia Petrillo style. Picture it: Sicily, 1912.

Or, more accurately, picture it: Geraldton, 2000. An eleven-year-old Holden Sheppard submits a short story to a writing competition for the first time in his life. It was an original mystery/detective story in the style of Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books I was devouring from the primary school library at the time.

I had, at this point, been actively writing in my spare time for three years. There was almost nothing emotional or powerful about any of my writing, but the mechanics were pretty solid for a boy of my age. I knew I was a capable writer and that it was one of my strengths.

I wrote my piece, and even drew a small illustration of the story’s crime scene on the bottom of one of the pages. This was twenty years ago, so nothing was digital – hard copy was the only option – and this wasn’t the adult world of publishing, this was primary school, so everything was also handwritten.

I can’t remember what the competition was, but I know it was only for young writers, and I think it was across the whole of Western Australia.

A while later, the competition results were being announced with the stories entered being put on display at the Geraldton Regional Library. I went to the library and hunted excitedly for my story on the display. Had I won? Had I been placed second or third, or highly commended?

I had not.

My story not get any kind of placing or recognition whatsoever.

Worse, what I remember is seeing my story with a number written on it in pencil. From memory, it was #125.

I remember, vividly, feeling sick with disappointment. I have a vague recollection of one of the library staff telling me and my mother that there were something like six hundred entries. I have a much sharper recollection of all the adults present looking at me with what felt very much like schadenfreude. I felt it like a wave of psychic energy. Kid thinks he’s some kind of writing genius, huh? That’ll take him down a peg or two.

I felt deeply embarrassed. I called myself a writer and had been working towards that for three years, only to have my first public attempt at writing deemed, effectively, a piece of shit, in front of my family, and the teachers and parents at the school, and my peers, who could all publicly see where my story had ended up. A hundred-and-twenty-fifth? What humiliation.

And amid that sense of shame was a sense of anger and injustice. Okay, maybe my story wasn’t good enough to win, I thought, but it was not a-hundred-and-twenty-fifth level bad. Was it?

Like any writer who cops a rejection, I wondered what I had done wrong. Was it the illustration that made the judges think I was just a dumb kid? Maybe it was supposed to be typed and printed instead of handwritten? Was my story just too derivative of Donald J. Sobol’s style? I hadn’t plundered his characters or stories: I had written an original piece, just following the same structure and stylings of those (dated) detective stories. Was it because I had set the story in America? Did the judges only want Aussie stories?

There was another fear that plagued me. I wondered if the judges thought I had plagiarised the piece, either by copying an existing story or having an adult write it for me.

The reason this was a fear of mine is that I was accused of it around the same time.

At the start of Year 7, our entire class was given a spelling test called the South Australian Spelling Test. We had to spell seventy words. They started out very simple and grew increasingly difficult.

A few days or weeks later, we were given our results. The mark out of seventy came with a corresponding score of what spelling age you were at. We were almost all eleven years old, so the idea was if you got a score that said your spelling age was 9 or 10, you were below average. 11 would be normal. 12 or over meant above average.

Our teacher – who was new to the school – handed back the tests in reverse order of success; that is, the lowest scoring student got their test results back first. I can’t remember if the teacher announced the scores aloud as he did this, but it’s quite possible, and likely, given what came next.

My test came back last: I had achieved the highest score. 69/70. I only spelled one word wrong. My spelling age was the maximum possible, which was listed as “greater than 15 years 6 months”.

I felt pretty good about this, until the teacher rounded on me in front of the entire class.

“You cheated,” he snarled. And it was a snarl.

“No, I didn’t,” I replied, absolutely horrified to have a teacher mad at me. I was a painfully obedient child in primary school, oppressively perfectionistic.

“You did. You cheated on this test.”

I denied it again. In fact, I had to deny it several times. I felt sick. This forty-year-old man was furious, almost seething, and hell bent on attacking a scrawny eleven-year-old nerd. I had never experienced anything like this from any adult before. Teachers usually liked me because I was both smart and well-behaved.

“I didn’t cheat. I would never cheat,” I told him meekly.

The other students – surprisingly, some of the worst-behaved students who would, on any normal day, give me shit for being a square – stood up for me.

“He didn’t cheat. He’s just really good at spelling. He’s smart.”

Our teacher wasn’t having a bar of it. “You’ve obviously done this test before and that’s how you knew how to spell the words,” he sneered. “But you got one wrong, didn’t you? Embarrassing.” He grinned down at me savagely. “How embarrassing for you.”

He threw this particular insult at me because the one word I misspelled was “embarrassing”. I spelled it with only one ‘r’. I have never spelled it wrong again in my life.

I offered one more denial of having cheated, and he concluded by threatening me that he was going to tell my parents at the upcoming parent-teacher interviews. And when those interviews rolled around, he did, too. My mother countered by letting him know that I was a bookish, intelligent kid. He still refused to believe me or her.

I learned a lot that day. I learned that teachers don’t always care about their students. I learned that adults can be petty and jealous. I learned that even when you are telling the truth, some people will refuse to believe you.

And I learned that sometimes, people in positions of power will be downright cunts to you, as that teacher was to me, and they will get away with it scot-free, because life is sometimes unfair.

I bring this story up in the context of that short story rejection for two reasons.

Firstly, because it illustrates why I was paranoid enough to wonder if the competition judges, like my teacher, had assumed I’d cheated, or plagiarised my story. Did they seethe at this well-crafted story? “How dare he! He obviously cheated! A-hundred-and-twenty-fifth place for him!”

Secondly, I guess it illustrates why I expected to have ranked a little higher than a-hundred-and-twenty-fifth. I was an intelligent kid and an exceptional writer for my age range. I had already written a whole “book” (it was sixty pages) in 1999, so I knew I had some level of ability. I could accept not being first, or in the top ten, but to score so crushingly low amid a field of peers my own age just hurt.

But that lesson from that cunt teacher – that adults can be cruel to children, and life can be unfair – actually helped me.

All writers think we have talent. It is how we get up in the morning and write, because we believe in our hearts that we have the ability to tell stories, and tell them well. From our very beginnings, it is fundamental to our craft that we have a tiny kernel of belief that we are actually good at this. If we didn’t, we would never pick up a pen in the first place.

At eleven, I thought I was talented, and perhaps even I knew I was, but it was not recognised in that competition. Maybe that particular story just wasn’t as shit-hot as I thought. Maybe it was just shit. Maybe there were a hundred and twenty four more talented child writers in my age bracket in WA that year(?!).

Or maybe there weren’t. It was tonight, as I was judging a young writers competition myself, that I not only smiled at the full-circle moment, but also realised how strange it was for judges to rank as far down as one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth. Most competitions I’ve judged, we judges decide on a longlist or shortlist, but that’s never more than say twelve or fifteen entries. It would take forever to do a detailed ranking beyond that. In light of this, I find it hard to imagine that all six hundred of those entries back in 2000 were individually ranked. Tonight, it occurred to me that the number scrawled in pencil on my entry was simply its number: entry number 125. I had a laugh about this with my husband, but then immediately went back to being quite sure it was indeed a ranking, because writer egos are like this: the self-doubt usually wins out.

In any case, it’s ancient history, and I’ll never know why I ranked so badly in that competition, and I still, to this day, feel sore and cheated by it – unduly screwed over.

But what I am proud of is how this failure shaped me. I did feel hurt, and yes, it was embarrassing.

But I didn’t stop writing.

That first rejection, the sinking-through-the-floor moment of standing in that library and trying to politely smile as I discovered, in front of others, that I sucked, only made me work harder towards becoming a better writer. I trained so hard. I read voraciously to get a sense of how published books sounded. I wrote more stories in my exercise books, and then began to post them online to an audience, who gave me invaluable feedback on how I could improve. I routinely studied the dictionary and thesaurus to expand my vocabulary and challenged myself to use those new words in my stories. I decided I would not stop until I had the recognition I craved.

It would be a long road ahead. Five years of hard work until I scored second place in the Randolph Stow Young Writers Award. Nine years until my first short story was published in a literary journal. Seventeen years until I won my first writing-related award. And nineteen years until my first book was finally published.

There have been many more rejections since that first one, and as a ratio, many more rejections than successes, even now. But that first rejection – and that first cruelty – hardened me in a way that helped me, and shaped me into the man I am today.

I’m thinking about the young people who entered this competition I’ve just finished judging. I wonder if the winners will go on to be writers. I would certainly encourage them to do so, heartily, if it’s something they want. But did the winners in the year 2000 go on to become published writers? I don’t know who they were or what they ended up doing. But I do know that the boy who landed at a dismal #125 was the one who was driven enough to make it in the long run.

I wonder if there is a teenage writer in this competition I’ve just judged who didn’t make the shortlist. One who wants to be a writer more than anything, one who will be devastated to have missed out, who will spend years wondering why they weren’t good enough, or thinking me cruel for having overlooked their talent.

If there is, I hope this rejection lights a fire in them like it did me. I know now that we learn more from being burnt than we do from being congratulated.

And while the flower that blooms in a fertilised garden is beautiful, the one that grows out of ashes is unstoppable.

Holden

PS. Although I did entertain the notion of naming my Year 7 teacher in this blog post, I won’t. I’m not really interested in revenge and besides that, I don’t need revenge because I feel like I won the first time. I was the calm, rational kid who didn’t do anything wrong, and he was the bullying adult who was not only deeply in the wrong but, objectively, a cunt of a human being. I will leave it to the universe to give him some solid karma.

Plus, to be frank, I’m pretty sure the only reason he lost his shit at me was because he got a lower score on that spelling test than an eleven-year-old boy. How embarrassing for him! 😛

After A Year Like This One I’ll Need a Good Whole 16 Months Alone

Nothing turned out the way I thought it would.

When I created my author Facebook page in September 2016, I wrote something vaguely aspirational in the “bio” section:

2017 and 2018 promise to be big years for my writing career, and I can’t wait to share this journey with you all.

I actually had nothing to back that up apart from hope and determination. I wrote those words because I desperately wanted 2017 and 2018 to be big years. I’d lost my job and I’d decided to really give my writing a go, so I thought “I am going to make them big years”.

But what I envisaged wasn’t what happened. I thought 2017 would be the year I signed my YA Fantasy novel to an agent and publisher and it would be published in 2018. Then I’d keep writing that series and be known as a fantasy author. Things took a different path, which I’ve spoken about before: that fantasy novel went in the drawer, I wrote  Invisible Boys instead, and the rest is history – although I guess that history is still very much in the making.

My point is, my 2017 and 2018 weren’t what I had planned. Most of what’s happened in my life hasn’t actually gone to plan. My career and writing plans only seem to come through about 50% of the time, and all the other times, they go off the rails spectacularly.

holden sheppard jan 2018 summer shot
Taking a moment to myself in January 2018, before Sydney, and Varuna, and the rocketship that was 2018 took off.

And yet, every year at this time, I find myself in the same reflective, pensive, generally optimistic mood: ready to survey the trophies and carnage of the previous 365 days, and ready to foolishly make plans for the following calendar year. This year, I go in with eyes open to the fallibility of my plans, but who gives a damn – I have fun doing this, and it helps motivate me. Maybe the only reason I achieve those 50% of my goals is because I commit to them each New Year’s Eve? Who knows?

So, this is my reflection on 2018 and my look ahead to 2019.

And holy crap, what a year 2018 was.

This time last year I posted about how I was just proud to still be breathing after having exhumed past trauma to write Invisible Boys. The title of that post was drawn from Green Day’s 2016 song “Still Breathing”, which is about sobriety and recovery and staying alive, and I love it.

This year’s post title is also drawn from a song, because music is my go-to for processing how I think and feel, much more so than reading. The past few days, I’ve been humming (and occasionally singing, despite the pain inflicted on my boyfriend’s ears) a rare song known as “After A Year Like This One” from my favourite musical artist, Alanis Morissette. She wrote the song in late 1996 at the end of a phenomenally hectic two years touring for Jagged Little Pill, performed it live once and then to my knowledge never played it again, but the lyrics have been swimming to the forefront of my mind for days now:

After a year like this one I’m surprised I do not hate your guts

And, after a year like this one I’m surprised I still love music just as much

After a year like this one I’m surprised I did not eat my arm

And, after a year like this one I’m sorry if I’m not cordial to everyone

I think the reason these lyrics keep resonating with me is because I’ve never had a year like 2018 before, and at this point, I’m basically just permanently surprised about the whole thing.

In my experience, we usually don’t get a proper perspective on what’s happened to us until years down the track; when the storm is still raging, or the confetti still falling, it’s harder to make sense of anything. I expect in 2028 I’ll have a slightly clearer view of what this year really represented – but of course in 2028 I’ll be 40 (insert screaming face emoji) so let’s all do our best to not think about that, please.

What I do know, here in the present moment, is that 2018 feels like a breakout year for my writing career, and I think that will still be a true observation ten years from now. It was the year I forced myself to push against social anxiety and go to events, to meet people online and in person, to be a part of projects, to promote myself and my work more than I’ve ever had the confidence to. It was a year of holding my breath from March to November, while I waited to see if submitting my novel to the Hungerford Award would pay off or not. It was an incredibly lucky and elated moment when it actually won.

So, first, here’s the good shit that happened in 2018 – the highlights:

20180122_081117
My residency at Varuna in January this year was a big highlight – pictured here in Katoomba, NSW with fellow writer and Varuna alum, Miranda Luby

  • Varuna: I undertook a writing residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House, in the Blue Mountains in NSW – which, as I wrote at the time, I will never forget.
  • Sydney: Bf and I went there for the 1st time & celebrated our 10 year anniversary.
  • Alanis Morissette: Saw her live for the first time; fanboyish blog post here.
  • Acting: I acted in a play called “The Second Woman” as part of Perth International Arts Festival – an awesome experience that reminded me how much I love acting.
  • Writer buds: I joined the Perth tribe of the #5amwritersclub on Twitter – it made me more productive as a writer and I count these people as my buddies.
  • Bright Lights, No City: I told my story thanks to this Centre for Stories project.
  • Journo: I had my first commissioned journalistic article published by Ten Daily.
  • Rock ‘n’ Roll: Saw one of my favourite bands, Jet, play live at Metro City.
  • I Turned 30: Actually not as bad as I had catastrophised.
  • Wedding Plans: We set a date for our wedding in 2019 and starting planning.
  • Griffith Review: My novella POSTER BOY was announced as one of five winners of the 2018 Novella Project, was published in Griffith Review and launched in Perth
  • Festival: I attended my first writers festival – the ASSF 2018 – as a guest author.
  • Hungerford Award: My novel INVISIBLE BOYS was shortlisted for, and then won, the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award.

It’s a bit staggering to see the weight of all these things lined up in a row, especially since there’s loads of things I missed off this list. No wonder 2018 felt so hectic all the time!

holden alanis - Copy
Seeing Alanis Morissette live in Sydney!

And there was stuff beyond the highlights that kept me busy. I don’t like to dwell too long on the bad shit – but at the same time, I want to acknowledge it. Reeling off a year’s worth of achievements is misleading and incomplete if I don’t also put in the context. It paints a picture that everything in 2018 was sunshine and blowjobs and the truth is there were big downs that came with the ups.

Despite being an amazing breakout year, 2018 was also really tough. I struggled to make ends meet and worked too many jobs, most of them casual or contract-based, so there was no job security or certainty and I was constantly stressed about money. I struggled to fit everything in. I felt burnt out a lot of the time and rarely made any time for myself. I got lots of rejections for my writing. I didn’t finish my next novel, which I had aimed to do by September. I had interpersonal ups and downs, plus some family relationships fell to pieces, which hurt a lot. My mental health had its usual ups and downs – I had anxiety and panic attacks, plus the bog-standard self-loathing that seems to accompany me everywhere, plus a couple of drinking relapses, and of course the constant self-doubt that every writer has (and I am learning that publication and awards do little to tune these doubts out!).

But I never get to the end of a year feeling defeated. Exhausted, yes, but defeated, never. 2019 represents a chance for lots more good shit to happen. Bad shit will happen, too, but I’ll roll with what comes. The good shit will make it worthwhile.

Hungerford with Brad
Winning the Hungerford was a massive highlight – not just of 2018, but of life! Pictured here with City of Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt.

And it’s hard to feel defeated when a lifelong dream is coming true. After years of hard work, my first novel is about to be published in October 2019. The year ahead is going to be incredibly exciting, and probably more hectic than 2018 was. But it’s the kind of busy that will be fulfilling and thrilling all the way through, so I’m pumped to get stuck into the year ahead.

My goals and major things to look forward to in 2019 are:

  1. Finish the edits on Invisible Boys.
  2. Finish my next novel.
  3. Get married.
  4. Go on honeymoon.
  5. Launch and promote Invisible Boys.

That isn’t a very long list, but each of those items is enormous and will take a huge chunk of time – so that’s enough for now.

I’d also really love to push beyond my own comfort zone and try some new things in 2019 – what those will be, I don’t yet know, but I think it would be great for my confidence to do stuff that I am not good at, and just do it for fun. I’ll see how this shapes up as the year begins.

The final lines of Alanis Morissette’s song “After A Year Like This One” are:

After a year like this one I’ll need a good whole sixteen months alone

And, after a year like this one I think I’ll make the west coast beaches my new home

I seriously relate to this. After a year like 2018 – with both the ups and downs – part of me wants to find a quaint log cabin in an alpine forest somewhere and curl up in a ball beside a fireplace. Or maybe escape for a year to a little town on the coast of Mexico or Hawaii and just wake up on the beach each morning. A random fantasy, but enticing when I’ve spent so much time driving myself hard.

Alanis did end up taking sixteen months off, or thereabouts. She fled to India, cocooned herself in anonymity and later wrote a hit song about it. But of course, this was after she had done the album release and world tour.

I haven’t released my book yet.

I haven’t done the tour.

The hard work has to come before the rest. And this year, though it was hard work, wasn’t actually the job I set out to do. This year, and everything leading up to it, was really me putting together my CV, pounding the pavement, going to metaphorical job interviews. I’ve now landed my dream job, and the hard work begins on Monday at 9am.

hard work
Training for the hard work ahead.

So, despite my longing for a break, 2019 won’t be the time to slow down. It will be a year on turbo mode; feet on accelerators and sometimes arms out the window. I have a huge amount of work spread out ahead of me: a long, glittering, potholey road to run down that will be exhilarating and will keep me busy for 2019 and probably a big chunk of 2020, too.

So that’s my focus for now. In my wannabe rockstar terms, it’s now time to drop my album and do the tour. And once that’s done, some time in 2020, I’ll give myself a holiday.

But first, hard yakka. I think I’m in for another year like this one.

Here goes everything.

Holden

thank u

PS. Thanks to each of you for being a part of my journey this year. It’s been probably the most unexpected joy of 2018 to have connected with so many like-minded readers and writers and supporters. I’d love to hear what your goals and dreams and resolutions for 2019 are, too – let me know in the comments below or on social media! Wishing you all an awesome 2019 – full of ups and downs and everything in between. 🙂

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 …)

idina-menzel-let-it-go-58169dfd5f9b581c0b6e46ef
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.

Contest-cover-2
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

Success is an Iceberg

It was to my absolute surprise a couple of weeks ago that my debut YA novel, INVISIBLE BOYS, was announced as the winner of the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award.

This award recognises the outstanding manuscript of a young Australian writer (under the age of 30). It is run by the Australian Society of Authors, provides the winner with a one-week residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House, and was judged by some fantastic and well-known published authors (Aoife Clifford and Tristan Bancks).

In short: it was a significant win, and definitely the most significant win of my writing career thus far.

It also caught the attention of a wonderful literary agent in Sydney, whom I have now signed with: again, a massive win in my career as an author.

The truth is, though, I never expected to win this award, and I was utterly shocked (and elated) when I did.

I apply for as much as I can, partly because I believe in seizing as many opportunities as possible, and partly on the advice New York agent Janet Reid always gives on her blog, which is, in a nutshell, “Write well, and query widely.”

I pretty much operate by that mantra. I write as well as I can. I seek constant feedback. I am always trying to improve, to write more economically, to write from the heart about what hurts, to avoid the cliche.

And I query as widely as I can. Not just in my submissions to agents and publishers, but when I send short stories to journals, and in my applications for residencies, mentorships, writing programs of all shapes and sizes – you name it.

Mind you, I don’t just hurl applications into the stratosphere and hope something sticks. I only apply for stuff where I fit the criteria, and stuff that I really want.

When I first got the email about my award win, I was confused, because I’d just applied for something completely different a few days ago, and I wondered how they could possibly have turned that around in such a short space of time.

Then the penny dropped.

Fuck, I lost my shit, man.

I won’t go into too much detail, but there was some jumping, some shouting, and some very loud music. I spun around my home office like a dervish whirling, though I don’t know any dervishes who like whirling to “Marry the Night” by Lady Gaga.

This was all the more sweet because, to be frank, 2017 has been a hard bloody slog.

I worked hard all year building my career as an indie author. I released three short stories, two of which sold decently and one which sold surprisingly well. I tweeted and Facebooked and blogged. I managed my own website, my own promotion. I poured what little money I have into my writing career instead of saving it. So many days, I would knock off from a day at working one of my five jobs (sometimes doing several of them in a single day), and then, before I could sit down and write my novel, I’d have to drag my arse to my trainer at the gym, who would pummel me for an hour – mentally and physically. And only then would I get home, shower, eat, and get stuck into a few more pages.

I burned out several times. When I wasn’t burnt out, I was either a pre-burnout neurotic mess or a post-burnout shell. I had to fit in doctor’s visits and counselling sessions into what was already a ridiculous schedule.

And during all of those godawful days, I never once thought of giving up.

Not once did I wonder if I would ever get anywhere with my writing.

At every stage, I just wondered, “How long will it take?”

Because I’m so deadset on my career as an author, nothing will stop me. If everything else fails and I lose everything, I’ll be that crazy homeless guy in the park and I’ll just read my novels aloud to the people walking by on their lunch break trying to avoid my gaze.

Of course, I hope it won’t come to that. The signs are really good. But I’m half Sicilian, and Sicilians can be a little cautious and a little superstitious.

There is some overused meme out there in the cyber-ether that says success is an iceberg. It is very, very true. I’m surprised at how many people recently have suggested, after congratulating me on the award win or landing my agent, that everything’s always rosy for me.

I probably should just let those comments slide – especially as they are usually well-intentioned – but, perhaps because I’m a writer, I want the picture painted by passing words to be accurate. Not just for myself, but for other writers to know that it’s the same for all of us. That’s why I’m at pains to point out that the overnight successes are never overnight, nor are they pure success.

In fact, in 2017 I think I faced more rejection than ever.

My first manuscript (not INVISIBLE BOYS, but a fantasy novel) was rejected by everyone who laid eyes on it.

And my other works were knocked back by journals, magazines, newspapers, websites, writing centres and publishers.

Over and over.

I don’t announce every rejection. Firstly because they hurt; secondly because I don’t want to be a downer.

But they happen all the time. They happen to every writer, aspiring, emerging and yes, even published authors get rejected.

This hasn’t been an easy year, so having a win at the end becomes an even bigger celebration for me.

I am so, so grateful that Ray Koppe’s legacy has enabled young writers like myself to have this opportunity. And I’m thrilled that the Australian Society of Authors keeps this program going.

The moment in the sun has reached its twilight now. I have deadlines now, and I need to make some edits to my manuscript, so it’s back to hard work mode.

But, man, after everything – the hard work, the failure, the sacrifice – it was really nice to have a bloody win this year.

More from me, soon.

Holden