I’ve worked out why it’s been so hard to write lately. 🧐🧐
I’m not alone. I’ve spoken to or heard from so many other authors who are finding themselves stymied and creatively paralysed in the face of the global catastrophe we are all witnessing playing out around us in real time.
These past few weeks, I’ve been intensely tuned into what’s going on in the world, scouring and refreshing news feeds to find out the latest on this crisis.
But when I focus on facing outwards, it makes it impossible to look inwards. And that’s what I need to do to write. Although I believe good writing comes from scars, this doesn’t mean I need to suffer while I write. In fact, it’s the opposite: I write best when I am peaceful and can comfortably reflect on what’s going on inside, or what happened in the past.
This is why, many years ago, I made the decision not to express political opinions or become a writer-slash-activist. It is not good for me; it inhibits my ability to effect good things in the world through my words and my art. 🤘🤘
I see what’s happening in the world and I have spoken out on the things that matter to me. I will keep doing this when and if I choose. But I cannot make this my default setting. I will be of no use if my headspace is solely one of panic, rage and hypervigilance. I’ll never get any writing done.
So, I’m turning my energy and focus within. 🙏🙏
I’m safe at home for the foreseeable future, so I’ve decided to start my third novel as part of Camp NaNoWriMo in April. I’m aiming to have written 30,000 words by the end of the month.
I’m excited to lose myself in a made-up world again – I doubt there will ever be a better time for that than these coming months. I hope writing this new book is a comfort and panacea for me; and I hope you like it when I can finally share it!
The only way out is through. Take care everyone. ✌️✌️
When I last blogged two months ago, I was able to reflect, with some distance, on the experience of releasing my book. Getting my novel published was wild, joyous, and overwhelming. But most of all, it was big: to see a dream realised after years of longing was monumental.
But then the wheels fell off. Just as I was feeling well-rested and grinning like a boofhead, the comedown pimp-slapped me in the face.
The analogy of a comedown is apt: the thrill of publication truly is ecstatic, drug-like, a rush of dopamine. I could get my fix of validation and attention with new reviews, events, interviews, messages from readers, even social media posts. I spent a few months hitting the good stuff every chance I got – and like any drug, the applause/attention begins to wear off after time. My tolerance threshold increased. It was harder to get that dopamine spurt each time.
And then, of course, once everything quietened down over the summer, I needed my usual fix, but there was no fix to be had.
I’ve spoken to a few authors about this, since I’ve been feeling it, and it turns out that a post-book comedown is as commonplace to the writer experience as caffeine addiction, towering TBR piles and being terrified of the blank page.
And it’s not just about the push and pull of public attention, either. The thrill of publication is more than extrinsic validation. As artists we have our own intrinsic expectations and dreams, independent of other people’s valuations of our artistic output, and just being out there, having a book in the world, is its own reward and excitement. And when that hectic promo tornado breathes its last breath and spins itself into the ether, it can feel like it took all the oxygen with it.
So how did the comedown hit me? My mental and physical health both plummeted. This was compounded by other personal life stuff: a lot of things went wrong at once. For most of January and February, I plunged first into a depressive mood, and then into an elevated state of anxiety that saw me having bloody panic attacks again (I hadn’t had any in ages). Crappy mental health is not new to me, though in the past five years I’ve learned to manage it way better than in my self-medicating twenties. These days, I have better strategies in place and stronger connections to the world that keep me generally well.
But, for various reasons, some of these connections weren’t available to me during this comedown. A shoulder dislocation and other illnesses put me out of action at both the gym and at footy – which are both really important to my physical and mental wellbeing – and I wasn’t able to access my usual therapist during this time.
Long story short: I had a really shit couple of months to start the year.
Thankfully, after hitting bottom comes recovery. I’m back at the gym rehabilitating my shoulder, back to doing some light footy training, and back to seeing my counsellor. Being able to still go to footy training with the boys really helps my mood, and finally lifting some tiny dumbbells with my right arm last week made me ridiculously happy. I’m still many weeks away from being back to normal strength, but it has done me the world of good to know that I am on the upswing again.
Today, I woke up keen to write, which is a great sign that I’m past the worst of this comedown. I really missed the experience of writing in isolation. So much of the past year has been lived in front of other people, which is fun but also requires a different set of skills than writing a novel. I miss being able to lock myself away in my man cave and write a made-up story about made-up people. And that’s what I am now craving.
I handed the second draft of my second novel to my agent in January. This book has taken me much longer than Invisible Boys to write. The actual drafting process each time has been pretty quick – two or three months each time – but there have been many false starts on this project. I first started writing it in early 2014; then again in late 2016; then finally started a recognisable version in early 2018 while at Varuna; and finally finished it last year. It’s been developing on-and-off for six years, which feels like an eon.
My agent and I chatted on the phone the other day. There are some further edits to make, and they are good ones that will make this manuscript what it needs to be. I’ll do them soon, but I’ve also reached the point where I need a few months’ break from book two, or I think I’ll print it out just to set it on fire in a wild artistic rage.
Plus, something more exciting has my attention at the moment.
As I’ve emerged from my comedown, I’ve found my mind percolating with ideas for my third book instead. I wrote the first line for this book a couple of months ago, only because it came to me fully-formed, but I didn’t push it any further. Over the years I’ve learned to feel into the rhythms of my creative bloodflow, and I knew it was too soon to try to push for more words. But these past few weeks, more and more ideas have been coming to me. I’m jotting them down on my phone and emailing them to myself to keep track of them, but the percolating is happening faster and faster and I can feel it reaching a pinnacle, like a kettle coming to the boil. This happens for every book I’ve written. Eventually it builds up enough that I feel compelled to start writing, and I’m getting close to that point.
Today, I opened a word document to jot down a rough timeline of when I want to write this book, and before I knew it, I had working names for my two main characters, and about 500 words of ideas too. I’m getting so pumped about this new book and I can’t wait to write it down in full.
In Marie Kondo terms, this third book is sparking the most joy right now – so I’m gonna follow this bubbling excitement and see where it leads. My priority is going to be writing the first draft of this third novel. Once that’s done, I’ll circle back to edit the second book.
I’d love to share more about both books two and three, but at this stage I reckon I’m better served by shutting up and getting them finished.
The best thing about actively writing new material is that it is some of the best medicine I have ever known when it comes to my wellbeing: writing makes me feel good. This bodes well, because there will be lots of writing in the months ahead.
I can’t wait to share these new stories with you each.
So, I finally got what I’ve spent my whole life wanting.
I’ve mentioned before that I first wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old. It was only about three months ago, at thirty-one, that my debut novel was published.
Such a decades-long journey was a saga in itself, and most of the time it felt as painful, despairing and treacherous as a barefoot trek from The Shire to Mordor.
I had always imagined that final moment of triumph – of being a Published Novelist (TM) – would be a uniquely exhilarated instant. Arms raised to the heavens, chin up, crossing the finish line like a less athletic, more creative, just-as-sweaty Usain Bolt.
My imagination didn’t lie to me: that’s how it felt. It was fucken rad.
Releasing Invisible Boys into the world was a thrill-ride, from the moment I was shortlisted for the Hungerford Award in September 2018 until the end of my sixty-day book tour in October and November last year.
The whole thing was a really heady experience. It felt incredible to have finally achieved the thing I set out to do as a young boy. The validation, the sense of completion and the trophy-raising sense of triumph are all so intoxicating I am sometimes scared to dwell on them for too long in case they lose their potency.
There were loads of other joyous moments. Sharing my writing and myself in an honest, open, unfettered way has made me feel more seen and more understood than I’ve ever felt. And since I spent bulk pockets of my life feeling unseen and misunderstood, this has been great for my wellbeing and personal development.
Sharing my story also felt purposeful, because I got to meet and speak with so many people (so many!) who shared their own experiences. Writing this book helped me process trauma, and reading it has helped readers to process theirs. It helped both me and them simultaneously to feel less alone. Altruistically, this is super rewarding.
If the thing humans crave most is connection, and if my soul had only really known societal disconnection since I was a child, then these moments of true connection were a Roman feast for my heart.
But I mean that in the way ancient Romans used to feast: you know, you eat, and eat, and eat, until you are too full, bloated and bursting, and you have to throw up, so you chunder and then you wipe your mouth, stretch out on your lounge and return to your gluttonous feast to keep eating.
It was strange, but so much connection eventually left me feeling like I needed a break. So much visibility made me want to go and hide in a cave until people forgot what my face looked like. I haven’t had any public appearances in over a month now and it’s been the best remedy I could have asked for.
I’m not ungrateful for the success this book has had. I know I am very, very lucky. The sales, critical acclaim and reader responses are all amazing. I’m so grateful to everyone who’s read and supported the book. And the book tour was a mammoth undertaking, and though it was intense, I will never regret doing it.
But that super intense promo period is done.
And now the dust has settled, I’m looking around to find I don’t know where I am. I’ve arrived somewhere I’ve never been. This is foreign terrain; a new land with no map.
Despite knowing better, on some level I thought being a published novelist would revolutionise my life.
I’d heard successful artists talk about this, how achieving your dreams can be amazing but also disillusioning, but I quietly hoped my experience would be different.
For most of my childhood, adolescence and adulthood, I’ve identified with the struggling artist mindset, and it’s made me who I am. I can work hard, achieve, pull all-nighters. I can burn out and recover. I can flail in desperation and pace myself. I can lose faith and think I’m a shit writer and two seconds later think I’m God’s gift to literature. I can withstand people mocking my dreams, telling me I should be an engineer instead, get a big boy job. I can survive people mocking my ambition. I can be dogged and bloody-minded. I can strive for a goal even if it seems impossible and takes twenty-three years.
All of this prepared me for one thing – how to reach my goal – but it didn’t prepare me for what happens after the goal has been reached.
That’s the foreign, mapless terrain I find myself in now.
Achieving a dream does what it says on the box, but no more. I dreamt of being a published novelist; I am now a published novelist, and holy fuck it feels awesome. My whole life, I’ve saddled this desperate thirst for validation, and getting my novel published did quench that. I feel validated in a way I always craved, and I no longer feel that craving, though it’s etched into my skin so deeply I’ll never forget it.
But that’s it. That sense of validation and victory does not inherently resolve any other deficiency or problem in my life. The same interpersonal conflicts, the same tensions, the same lack of money, the same angst, the same cruelty and neglect, the same self-abnegation, the same neurotic shit that belies my hubris … all of it’s still there.
Achieving your goals doesn’t fix you as a person. That is its own beast.
So, what now? Where am I? Where do I go from here? What happens next?
I’ve set some new goals for the year ahead. Firstly, I’ll keep promoting Invisible Boys: there are author talks, interviews and festival appearances lined up all year, thankfully more spaced out than my tour. I’ll also be polishing my second book, which is with my agent currently for her thoughts (and I’m freaking out about it). And this July, I’m planning to do Camp NaNoWriMo again to start my third novel.
Writing this, just now, gives me perspective. I’m no longer striving for these goals because I crave validation. Some of the self-imposed pressure has come off. I’m now writing because (a) these are stories I really want to tell and (b) writing is the funnest thing in the world to me. Upon reflection, this actually seems like a healthier mindset with which to tackle a writing project.
I’m also writing these books because my real dream, which I wrote about in this post about success, is not just to have one novel published. My dream is to be a full-time writer, earning a living off my books. I’m nowhere near that yet; this is the next goal. It may take another twenty-three years. I hope not, but it might, and if does take that long, I’ll survive. This journey has taught me patience, even though the lessons sometimes made me bleed.
And this moment of reflection makes me think back to my teenage self. How I used to lay on the trampoline on our half-acre block in Geraldton, staring up at the sky, thinking how it would feel to finally make it one day. Charlie in my book has this same energy, same desire. Back then, I’d watch clouds cross blue while my dog Ebony, a staffy cross, trotted around nearby. I used to look at the sky a lot, day and night. The full moon transfixes me; my biggest inspiration; the little beacon by which I promised myself, each month, one day I will make it.
The sky is possibility, potential, everything that could be but isn’t yet.
And the sky is my direction; I am climbing a mountain towards it while knowing I will never touch it.
Reflecting and recalibrating, in this moment now, makes me feel good. My first novel being published was the first peak on the way to a much higher summit. And though this terrain is new and uncharted, the ascent so far has given me all the tools I need.
I have the work ethic of a manual labourer who dug trenches in forty degree heat.
I have the doggedness of a struggling writer who took twenty-three years to break through.
And I have the imagination of a fourteen-year-old boy who stared up at the sky every Midwestern summer, dreaming of his mountain.
Well, I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to check in with my blog! To paraphrase one of the finest philosophers of the 1990s – one Miss Fiona Apple – I’ve been a bad, bad boy.
And also a bad, bad blogger.
I probably should have posted here a month ago to give you all the heads up about my brief absence: for those who don’t follow me on my social media, I have spent almost the entire last month abroad on my honeymoon.
In fact, I’m still swanning around Europe in a cologne-scented cloud of post-wedding bliss. I am currently in my hotel room in Rome, very close to the main bustle of the central Termini station. So close, in fact, that pretty much all we can hear from the hotel room window is:
cars beeping their horns (every fucking three seconds)
vendors shouting at people to buy their cheap-arse shit (yesterday it was raining and they were selling ponchos and umbrellas; today it’s sunny and they’re flogging hats and sunglasses – so adaptable!)
people at bars and cafes shouting for no apparent reason
people at bars and cafes laughing from being drunk
trucks revving their engines
police sirens blaring
trains pulling into the station
church bells chiming into oblivion
And, often times, all of these noises are happening simultaneously, which is kind of like living among havoc – especially since we’re up on the fourth floor of the hotel (shouldn’t it be vaguely quieter up here?). And having grown up in a country town and now living in the outer suburbs of Perth, all of this noise and chaos is foreign to me so it’s practically an adventure in itself.
By the way, I am absolutely loving being on honeymoon. So far my husband and I have visited Lyon, Nice, Antibes, Monaco, Cannes, Sanremo, Paris, Rouen and now Rome. It’s been awesome to see new parts of France and Italy, which are countries we both love. I really love the culture, language and food of both countries, and I’ve been digging having so much time to practice my French (which is decent) and my Italian (which is rusty, but given that I’m half Sicilian and spent 5 weeks in Italy when I was 18, it’s slowly coming back to me).
For those who have asked, *yes*, my husband is actually here with me on the honeymoon but no, we don’t like to post a lot of couples photos online, at least not to our public social media. We both put a lot of ourselves out there in the world – not just in our writing, but on social media and by going to events – so it actually feels really nice to keep our relationship as private as we can. So, that’s why you’re seeing a lot of pics of me on my socials but very few of us together. But rest assured, we’re both spending every day together and we’re having a blast. 🙂
The only downside is that I am defo eating way too much: pizza and pasta of course, but also overloading on crepes with cream, gelato with cream, hot chocolate with cream, cream with cream. We return to Paris this Sunday for our last week of honeymoon, so after that, I’ll be tightening the diet back up again, especially since I have some author appearances to do in about two weeks so I don’t wanna rock up on stage like the big fatty I’m feeling like currently. But the pizza in Rome is just so bloody good – how could I resist? And more to the point – why should I? It’s half of why we chose to come here anyway!
I’ve been exercising a lot while here. Most days I’ve racked up anywhere between 15,000 and 25,000 steps which is probably the only thing offsetting all the food I’ve imbibed. I’ve been doing some bodyweight exercises in my hotel room and some basic stuff with a tiny 5kg dumbbell I smuggled in my case, but it doesn’t do much. In Rouen I found some free open-air gym equipment beside the Seine river which was awesome, so I’d do a few sets of chest and back exercises in amongst my morning jogs. And here in Rome, I found myself going stir-crazy not having been to an actual gym for so long, so I trekked into the San Lorenzo district (which is ghettoville.com) and found a grungy gym and got a day pass for 10 euros. I was the only tourist in the gym I think – everyone else was a local and most of them seemed to know each other. I smashed out some chest and biceps exercises and a bit of abs, plus cardio, and I felt a load better for it.
Anyway … I am 100% sure not a single one of you follows this blog to hear about the banal minutiae of my diet and exercise regime – apologies!
I’m really posting here just to explain why things have been a little bit quiet here lately. In fact, this whole year I’ve only managed one post per month compared to like one post per week or fortnight last year. I’ve had a lot on my plate. From Jan – March I was working on the copy edits for Invisible Boys while simultaneously planning my wedding. In April I was occupied with planning my honeymoon and also finishing the first draft of my next novel. And I have spent basically all of May away from home: first at the Margaret River Readers & Writers Festival, then in Europe on honeymoon. Once we return to Perth, I’ll have a precious few hours at home before zooming up to my hometown of Geraldton, Western Australia for a week for the writers’ festival there.
Truth be told, I’m loving the magical air of suspension and lack of responsibility that comes with a long holiday – but in some weird way, it will be good to get back to normal life again once I’m back home in Perth in mid-June.
As for my writing (which, I remind myself, is what people *actually* follow this blog for), it’s been going really well. Some bullet point updates:
The cover for my debut novel Invisible Boys has been revealed – see the bottom of this blog post – it’s amazing and I love it!
Last week, I was announced as the winner of the 2019 Kathleen Mitchell Award from the Australia Council for the Arts. I am still pinching myself. Its a $15,000 prize, so it’s going to make a huge difference on how much time I can dedicate to writing over the next year. Plus it’s a huge vote of confidence in my book, which has now won three awards before even being published. I’m wildly grateful, still in mild disbelief that such good things could ever happen to me, and I’m desperately hopeful that people will actually like this novel once they finally get to read it in October.
My agent is now reading the manuscript of my second novel. I am freaking the fuck out on the inside while pretending to be a cool, jaded professional on the outside.
I promised myself I wouldn’t write while on honeymoon, as writing constitutes working. Instead, I allowed myself to read a lot, and think a lot. Not having regular access to Wi-Fi has made me pull my head out of my phone and has given my brain so much space to unwind and reflect and imagine, the way I used to years ago. Consequently, I now have a million and one ideas clamouring for my attention!
Among these ideas are:
my third novel, which I’ll say nothing about, other than I pitched the concept to my husband and his eyebrows leapt off his face and he said “whoa, you have to write that!”, which is saying something because he is usually more measured and critical in his feedback;
my fourth novel, which I’ll also say nothing about, but it’s incredibly important to me and I so want this book out in the world, like, yesterday;
a novella, which in some form has been floating around in the ether of my creativity since 2011-12 when I did my Honours thesis, and the other day I was on a train in France reading Bret Easton Ellis’ new book White and suddenly the novella idea just fell into place in a way it hasn’t for the past eight years. I can’t wait to write this one, too … and I can imagine it perhaps anchoring a collection of my short fiction in the future, maybe;
two other, entirely separate series (plural) of novels; and
a TV mini-series, which has been kicking around in my head for a few years now.
So, as you can see, I have enough to keep myself busy for the next few years at least!
In terms of what’s next, after life returns to normal-ish in late June, I’ll probably spend my writing time working on the edits for book 2, and getting back into the groove of a regular blogging practice.
Holden’s Heroes will also return in June with a new interview – I had hoped to do one in May, but it was impossible to fit in before I left overseas, and frankly, I need to learn to give myself a fucken break sometimes!
Thanks to all of you for being awesome, and I can’t wait to get back into the swing of regular blogging again in the month to come. 🙂
PS. Here’s the cover of Invisible Boys as promised – what do you reckon? I can’t get enough of it!
Sooo, this is kind of awkward. I didn’t mean for it to be this long, and I didn’t mean to just walk out on you like that, but everything went a bit nutso since we last spoke, and I sort of lost track of you.
And today, I felt bad, because it suddenly occurred to me that I never actually told you I wasn’t coming back.
I know that makes me sound like a dick. In my defence, you are a manuscript and not a sentient being, so I’m probably not really a dick.
But I’ll cop to being a tad abandon-y on your arse. I did the metaphorical version of pulling out, yanking my pants up and bolting from the room just as you were in a post-coital afterglow, when I probably should have stuck around and spooned you. I mean, for a minute or two. I haven’t got all day.
To be honest, I’m a bit surprised at my own treatment of you, because for a very long time, I thought you were My One True Book. When I had my epic meltdown at the start of 2014 and decided I was going to force myself to finally write my first novel that year come hell or high water, you were the idea that shone most brilliantly and the story I decided to write into a full-length book.
And everything seemed so exciting at the beginning. I thought your main characters were pretty cool; I liked your setting; I thought your plot was solid. I mean, of course I did, I was your author and I made all that shit up.
I also thought your action scenes and battle scenes were absolutely awesome, and I still stand by that. As objective as I can be about these scenes, I think they stack up pretty well against most published fantasy and adventure books.
I think this is what drew me to you in the first place, because you were exciting, and fun, and I was in a place in my life where I was working a very boring full-time job, and I felt unfulfilled, and I was treated poorly, and you were such a total escape from the banal 9-5 office life I was living.
But I’m afraid for all your fun moments and all the high-octane thrills you gave me, there was something missing in our relationship.
When we worked together with my mentor during 2016, I felt something between us wasn’t quite right. During a Skype call with my mentor – an incredibly esteemed editor from over east – I confessed, “This manuscript isn’t quite working … I want it to sing, and it’s not singing.”
And it’s not like I didn’t work on our relationship. After seven drafts, I thought things were looking pretty good, and my mentor seemed to think we’d taken things as far as we could. It was time to pitch.
I’m so sorry, but this is where the wheels fell off.
Because none of the agents I pitched to thought there was anything special about you.
Our relationship survived the total lack of response from one agent, and the form rejection from another, though I did curl up on the couch and sob uncontrollably that you hadn’t been good enough for someone to pick up.
But I’m afraid we couldn’t survive the third response. The agent who emailed me saying he was into your first three chapters and that he wanted to read more of you. That happened the day after the form rejection, and I was so convinced this was the universe opening a window after having slammed a door in my face the day before.
One day I came home from a walk around the block and got a phone call from the agent. I was so happy to hear from him, but he said my happiness was premature. He spoke to me on the phone for a whole 30 minutes, telling me not just that my writing was “competent” (a word that still pierces my ego, and perhaps always will) but that there were many, many problems with you.
Now, I could have worked on almost any of our problems, I swear I could have. The problems with the characters, the problems with the setting, the problems with the plot seemingly unsuccessfully straddling the two very different worlds of Young Adult and Fantasy.
And I would have worked on it because I thought you were the story I was *meant* to tell. I didn’t care how much money you made; I just wanted you to exist, and get out into the world and sing your lungs out. I would have been so proud of you just for doing that.
But this is the point at which I abandoned you.
The last thing I said to you, in this blog post I wrote in early 2017, was that I was going to come back to you. We were going to work on our problems together, we were going to do an eighth draft, and then a ninth, and however many drafts it took, because goddamn it all I wanted was to have a fucking novel published and why couldn’t I ever get anything right in my life. </writerfeels>
But I lied. I told you I was going to the servo for durries and I never came back.
I know it’s probably too late, and that you’ve probably moved on, but I wanted to let you know that I’m sorry I left the way I did.
And this is the hardest part to say: I didn’t bail on you because the agent didn’t like you, or that you weren’t good enough to get published.
I bailed on you because I didn’t love you.
This is why I spent a month feeling sad and fetal position-y in early 2017. This is why I cried. We’d gone through everything we went through only for me to realise that, when an agent criticised you, I didn’t have a comeback.
I could have fixed all the things he told me were wrong with you. I could have made your characters and plot and setting all breathe and operate just fine. But even if I did ten drafts, or a hundred, or a thousand, and even if, in that thousandth draft, all of those elements or plot and setting and character worked the way they were supposed to, it wouldn’t have been enough.
Because you didn’t have a heart.
And that’s why you couldn’t sing. There was nothing wrong with your lungs – you could produce the notes just fine – but no music can ever be made unless there is a heart involved.
So that is why I left you. I realised I didn’t love you, because you didn’t have a heart, and I didn’t say goodbye because you don’t need to say goodbye to things that don’t have a heart. Plus there’s the whole matter of you not being a sentient being.
I suppose I am writing this mostly to assuage my own guilt, because I think it seems like I dropped you like a hot coal the moment I realised you couldn’t make me rich and famous. But that isn’t true. If I loved you, I would have pitched you to every agent and publisher on the planet and, if that failed, I would have self-published you like I self-published my short story, “The Scroll of Isidor”. I had no qualms doing that.
So, for the record, I am afraid it is over between us. I believe you, in your current form, will remain in the drawer. There are parts of you I really like, and perhaps one day, if things go a certain way, I will be able to revisit you and maybe we can do something radical, like give you a heart transplant. Maybe then you will be able to sing. I really like this idea. Or perhaps I will revisit you and borrow some parts of you for another attempt at this story one day, if and when the time is right.
In the meantime, I have several other novels clamouring for my attention. These novels have been successfully pitched to my agent and are waiting to be written. But know that while I’m saying goodbye now, I am leaving the door open on our relationship, at best for the heart transplant, and at worst, for me to one day open the drawer and leaf through your pages and get lost in you again, just for old times’ sake.
As for me, I’m much happier now than when we were together. I wrote a new novel called INVISIBLE BOYS that I love very much. It has a heart that pumps real blood, and it won an award and it’s getting published, which is super exciting (sorry to rub it in).
There is one more thing, and I’m afraid it is the proverbial vinegar-soaked sponge to the spear wound.
I am so sorry to do this to you, but I am afraid I can no longer call you “my first novel”.
I mean, you will always, always be the first novel I wrote and nothing can change that immutable fact.
But now that I have my debut novel soon due for publication – which I have spent a couple of years calling “my second novel” – I’m afraid the nomenclature is due for an overhaul, lest I will have readers hunting for a “first novel” that, to the world of publishing, does not exist.
So my novel, INVISIBLE BOYS, will now be referred to as my first novel, and the book I am currently drafting (and have nearly finished) will be my second.
But I won’t ignore your existence completely, because that feels wrong. So, I am going to call you Novel Zero, instead, because you and I had some good times, you know. You were the first attempt; the training ground. Sometimes your exciting twists and turns captured my imagination and made me dream; other times, you made me want to beat my head against a brick wall.
I wrote you under the influence of caffeine, when I still drank real coffee; so many cups of cheap black instant Nescafe were spent on you. And I wrote you under the influence of nicotine, back when I would break every hour and take my pack of Benson & Hedges out onto the patio for a dart or two. I remember the incredible NaNoWriMo marathons and the all-nighter I pulled to finish you, when I emerged from that electrified room and onto the patio and smoked a celebratory cigarette while watching the sun rise and listening to “Desperado” by The Eagles.
In fact, that was one of the most special moments of my entire life, so thank you, profoundly and sincerely, for being the first novel I ever finished. You showed me that my dreams could come true if I worked hard at them, a lesson I have taken on as a life mantra.
For that, I will be grateful for the rest of my days.
Lately, I feel like driving past my current work in progress, winding the window down and mooning it with my hairy wog arse while simultaneously flipping the bird.
(This is assuming someone else is driving the car, of course, or maybe that I’m an octopus.)
Seriously, writing can be a bitch sometimes. There are times when you’re on a luxury river cruise of creativity, soaking up the sunshine, knocking back a refreshing beer and chortling at how fucking amazing you are.
Other times you’re standing on the river bank, watching all the writer-boats sail past while you get sunburnt, spill your beer and step in day-old duck shit.
And for the last few months, I’ve been stepping in duck shit the way a kid jumps into a puddle of mud.
I’m working on the first draft of my next contemporary YA novel, but my progress has been staccato from the start. I know it’s not unusual for writers to have issues with producing their second novel, but since Invisible Boys was my second novel written and this current one is my third, I figured I’d already managed to break the curse of the second novel.
With my first two novels, the first drafts were written very quickly. My YA fantasy novel was written in three months; Invisible Boys was even faster, barely a two-month timeframe.
But the wheels kind of fell off with this third novel, and as I sit here today reflecting on why, it’s pretty clear what’s going on.
Both my first two novels were written in total obscurity, and that is what gave me the license to write in an unfettered way, without considering the audience or market. All I had to consider was what I wanted to say, and then I gave myself total permission to say it.
With Invisible Boys in particular, I gave myself more freedom than I would give myself on this blog, or on social media, or in conversation. I told myself firmly, “there are no sacred cows: write whatever you feel like writing, what hurts, what burns at you, what you desperately wanted to say fifteen years ago but the words died on your tongue, and to hell with anyone having a problem with it”.
The freedom I granted myself writing Invisible Boys was spectacular. It sounds geeky to admit, but writing like this is one of the best feelings ever. The sensation of total liberty infused me with a general enthusiasm for living more boldly. I woke up each morning feeling like I had power; like I was able to say more than usual, because I was giving myself permission to not give a fuck about the consequences.
But a lot changed last summer. Invisible Boys won the Ray Koppe Award; I signed with an agent; and I undertook my residency at Varuna. Suddenly, I felt like other people were watching me, and this loaded a barbell of expectations onto my shoulders: a wordless and ineffable process, but nonetheless real.
My prevailing thought was:
If I’m an agented, award-winning author and also a friggin Varuna alumnus, I’d better be writing amazing works of staggering literary genius and if the next thing I produce isn’t amazing, people will realise I am an untalented turd and Invisible Boys was just a fluke.
As we know, first drafts are unequivocally duck shit. So, applying this kind of thinking when you’re drafting is capital-N Not Helpful.
And as it so happens, I started drafting this version of my third novel while I was at Varuna last January, so the soil this story springs from is kind of neurotic and self-doubty, reflecting the pressure I was putting myself under at the time. I only produced one chapter at Varuna, which I was disappointed with, and the quality wasn’t fantastic.
I returned to the manuscript between July and October, but my progress was staccato again. The last time I worked on it was late November. Life got in the way: I had edits and promo for Poster Boy, Hungerford promo, other writing events, day job, Christmas, and finally the structural edits for Invisible Boys (which are now finished, yay).
But this week, I am not excessively busy: I have time to dedicate to writing for the first time in two months and so I am forced to face my manuscript again. I don’t have the get-out-of-jail-free card of being ‘busy’. It’s just me and the novel.
And I realise those expectations I felt last summer at Varuna are still weighing on me now, perhaps more than ever, post-Hungerford.
And those expectations, really, are born from fears.
I am scared of this novel not being powerful.
I am scared it won’t impact upon people as much as Invisible Boys.
I am scared of being a one-trick pony.
I am scared people will be disappointed in me.
I am scared people will roll their eyes and say, ‘Really, he won awards for writing, and that’s the best he can do?’
I am scared readers will give up on me.
I am scared of losing everything.
I’m experiencing classic Second Novel Syndrome, only for me it’s Third Novel Syndrome. The number doesn’t really matter. If someone wrote six unpublished novels and their seventh got published, they’d go through Eighth Novel Syndrome.
The truth is, it’s not the second novel per se that gives writers more grief than any other; it’s whatever novel we write after experiencing some kind of success for a previous novel; the first novel we write when we are no longer working in total obscurity.
The fears I listed above are mostly centred on what other people think about my writing, which isn’t something I used to worry about. Prior to 2017, I felt no external pressure, only an internal desire to express myself.
I can’t go back to that state of obscurity – and nor would I want to. I worked hard to get to where I am, and things like the Hungerford Award are incredible gifts that I am deeply grateful for.
However, my response to this recognition has been one of fear, which is now holding me back. I know the only way I can complete my third novel is by setting fire to my fears, giving them a good roasting and then plating them up and swallowing them.
So, here I go.
Firstly, I have to accept that my fears are beyond my control. Even if I write an amazing novel, people might still not like it. Ultimately, I have no power over how other people receive and interpret my work, and I never will.
Secondly, I have to remember how I began this journey: with nothing. I started out as a seven-year-old boy from Geraldton with an exercise book and a pen. I didn’t need anyone’s approval or support to write. I did it on my own because what I wanted more than anything was to express myself. It’s easier to risk losing what you have if you remind yourself that you coped just fine without any of it.
Ultimately, the only thing within my control is the writing itself. All I can do is get my arse in the chair, open my laptop and express myself one word, sentence, page, chapter at a time, until I’m done. Writing unabashedly has always brought me incredible joy and fulfilment. I can’t recreate the obscurity I used to experience, but there’s no reason I can’t write just as honestly and freely as I used to: it’s within my control, and so I will choose to do it.
And hell, maybe I’ll fail. Maybe all my fears will come true and everything will go tits up, but I can’t control that.
I only own my process, and my words, and that starts with my attitude.
Novel number three, prepare to be finished. No sacred cows. Duck shit ahoy.
It’s funny how a random memory can make you realise how much your life has changed.
An old photo popped up on my Facebook news feed this week. The photo was of me, two years ago, when I grew my hair long. At the time, I thought it made me look like Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, who, as we all know, is not just a total rock god but a man of extraordinary hair. Hence, Grohl became not just my rock idol but my hair idol.
For the sake of full disclosure, the wookie in the below image was me in early September 2016.
When this popped up the other day, I shared the image again on social media, because I thought it was funny. At the time, I thought draping my hair over my face, putting on my sunnies and pretending I was some kind of living hairball was the height of visual humour. I can confirm that two years later, nothing has changed: I am obviously still fucking hilarious. ^_^
When I shared this on social media, I said something vague like “this was me two years ago – never be afraid to change”. In hindsight, I thought this probably read like a dumb comment, because it’s pretty damn easy to change your haircut, and I don’t know many grown adults who are afraid of their barber.
But what I was thinking of when I said that was less the haircut and more what the haircut represented.
Because when I saw this picture, my first thought – after laughing at my own comic genius, of course – wasn’t how I bore a striking resemblance to Cousin Itt.
My first thought was: I remember what it was like being you.
I suddenly remembered how the 2016 model Holden felt, day-in, day-out, and it was not happy.
In September 2016, I was struggling with the later drafts of my first novel, and I think on some level I knew it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. This made me depressed because I wanted to be a great writer with a great novel and the novel I was working on at the time only felt “good”.
At the same time, I was working in a day job where I was being treated like crap by my boss – the passive-aggressive kind of shit that absolutely nobody needs in their life. I was struggling to stay sober. To cope with everything, I was smoking a lot (my car was practically an ashtray on wheels) and I shovelled the absolute worst shit into my body: a constant stream of Maccas and pizza and KFC and chocolate and cool drink and sugar. Not only did this hideous nutrition make me feel constantly gross, I was also obese, and you couldn’t force me to set foot in a gym.
When I waddled into the house each night after work wanting to burst into (very masculine) tears, I would think my sore feet and my endless burning acid reflux and my depressed state were just part of getting older. “I guess this is what it’s like to get to 28,” I remember thinking.
It saddens me that I thought obesity and depression were part of becoming an adult.
The truth is, part of me felt resigned to an impending adulthood that would tear my dream of being a writer out of my grasp.
Although I had decided, in 2014, to pursue writing, I still had a very old map of my future lodged in the haywire circuitry of my brain. Full-time work still came first, and writing was wedged around the sides. I still wanted to climb the corporate ladder – not that my ladder was particularly corporate, working at a university – but I desired to work my way up higher, be promoted, be more senior, be paid more, be more recognised. I thought that once I hit 30, that would be the time to build a house in the far northern suburbs, get a mortgage, start a family.
So, when I see this hairy photo, I see that slightly younger version of myself. A man who was struggling, and depressed, and had absolutely no idea what he was doing.
A few days after this photo was taken, everything changed.
There was a restructure at work, and I lost my job.
The day I lost my job, I felt like any guy who loses his job. I felt like a failure; I wondered whether any of it was personal; I wondered why I hadn’t been good enough to keep. I felt like someone had flung a medicine ball into my solar plexus.
But the next day, I didn’t wake up dreading going to work, because I knew it was no longer going to be my life. I woke up realising my life was going to change, and suddenly, change didn’t seem like a bad thing.
In fact, the more I thought about it, the more losing my job made me see my life more clearly than I ever had.
Because when it came to thinking about finding a new job – I realised I didn’t want to.
The more I reflected, the more I discovered I was supremely uninterested in working full time. I had learned the hard way that it didn’t make me happy, and that the chase for more money and more status was completely pointless and empty. Moreover, the chase itself wasn’t one I enjoyed. I was doing it because I thought I was meant to do it, not because I wanted to.
Same with the house and the mortgage and the family.
So when I thought about what I wanted, I came up with only one career goal: being a writer.
I decided in that moment that I would stop fucking around and relegating “writing” to the back seat. It was time to take myself seriously. Screw everyone’s opinions of what I should have been doing in my late twenties. Screw my own childhood impressions of success. I was going to be a writer, no matter what, and I would dedicate the rest of my life to the pursuit of that dream.
That was when my whole life changed.
I made the decision to never work full-time again, and to pick up part-time and casual work to support my lifestyle as an author. Fuck it, I thought. I can stand being a bit povo, but I can’t stand not having the time to be creative.
I decided I didn’t give a shit about owning a house just yet, and I still don’t.
And once I made these big changes, I felt incredibly happy. And inspired. And motivated.
So I started to do all the things that made me feel good. I joined a gym. I paid a personal trainer to help me get in shape. I worked out five times a week until I lost 30 kilos. I quit smoking. I cut the bad food in my diet and replaced it with nutritious shit that my body actually needs. I started writing more – not just my novel, but short stories and blog posts. I learned to express myself and my feelings authentically.
And yes, I cut my hair. I cut it super short, and bleached it, and for me this was a symbolic way of marking that I was going to live an alternative life to the one I thought was planned for me.
None of this was easy. Most of it was harrowing, and terrifying, because I couldn’t actually be certain that my future as a writer would all work out the way I wanted it to. Hell, I still don’t know what lies ahead for my writing career. I still don’t have my first novel published, and even when I do get published (positive thinking) I have no guarantee that people will actually want to buy the book. Or that anyone will want to publish my next one. There’s no certainty at all.
I ultimately believe success as a writer is drawn from three components: talent, hard work and luck.
You can hone talent, and you can work hard, but you can’t control luck. So it is for every author or creative or frankly, any human. Any number of aspects of my career might not pan out. This whole writing caper could go completely tits up for all I know.
But what I’ve learned is that living a life in pursuit of a dream is a reward all of its own.
And the only way I stand to gain everything I want is to risk everything first. Whether my dreams are achieved or not is ultimately out of my control. What is within my control is whether I choose to follow my dreams – and when I follow them, my soul, mind and body are all in alignment with the universe and I feel awesome.
If I die pursuing a dream that never came to fruition, I will have lived a life of feeling perpetually hopeful and purposeful and awesome, and to me that is worth much more than living the constrained and resigned traditional life I once thought I ought to lead.
So when I look at this hairy motherfucker in the photo, I feel energised, because I realise how far I’ve come.
And I also want to place my hands on this bloke’s shoulders and tell him to be brave, because he’s about to learn that in order to find himself, he will have to throw away almost everything he knows about his old life.
And very soon, he’ll be stepping onto a treadmill, earbuds in, with Jewel’s “Goodbye Alice in Wonderland” playing in his ears as his legs begin to run and his heart begins to pump harder than it has in years.
Goodbye Alice in Wonderland
You can keep your yellow brick road
There is a difference between dreaming and pretending
These are not tears in my eyes
They are only a reflection of my lonely mind finding
They are only a reflection of my lonely mind finding
I found what’s missing in my life
I’ve had so many unexpected conversations lately around the concept of success, and it’s really got me thinking about how we as scrabbling, imperfect humans measure and quantify success.
The other day, someone close to me declared her ambition to one day own a new, silver Mercedes. As she had never previously indicated any interest in motor vehicles, let alone luxury ones, I was bemused and asked her why. It turned out she saw a new Mercedes as a sign of success.
My first instinct was to roll my eyes at this. Not because I’m sneering at a new Mercedes – Jesus, I should be so lucky to stand in the general vicinity of one’s exhaust fumes!
No – it’s because I’m from a blue-collar background and I was raised to eschew material possessions as signs of success. Whatever the other parts of my upbringing I have rejected, or evolved from, this isn’t one of them. So, my reflex was to judge this person.
Later on, I started to think about why she would have such a materialistic desire. This person has spent much of her life struggling as a carer and a single parent, and she has worked doggedly to get a degree as a mature age student, and has now just finished her Master’s degree and landed a full-time role in her field. A flash new Mercedes has been completely out of her reach for most of her life, and it still is. So, the Merc stands as a symbol of a not-yet-attained success. It is a beacon and a dream, but moreover, it is a measurement: the day I can afford a new silver Mercedes is the day I will have achieved the success I desire.
Just a couple of days later, I was having a coffee with a colleague and, completely unprompted, she mentioned something unexpectedly similar about how she would know when she’d reached the level of success she wanted. But her measurement wasn’t a car.
Shoes, she said. Shoes or a handbag. (And she was not the kind of woman I would have expected to say something as stereotypically female as this, either.)
“I want to walk into a meeting with my Jimmy Choos and a designer handbag,” she said firmly. “Even if nobody else knows those labels, I’ll know, and that’s what matters.”
Again, this was something I had to ponder on. For so long, I haven’t thought of success in those kind of material terms, so I was trying to get my head around it. But it was the same principle as the Mercedes: the day I can afford Jimmy Choos is the day I will have achieved the success I desire.
So, naturally, because I’m a self-absorbed, navel-gazing author, I started thinking about what this meant for me.
What is my measurement? How will I know when I have achieved the success I desire?
Considering how navel-gazey I can be, I was surprised to find that I actually didn’t have an answer.
The more writers I speak to, the more I believe that success as an author is largely based on illusion. That is, when we regard a big shot bestseller or a distinguished award-winner, we are perceiving what we would consider a successful author. We say to ourselves, that guy has sold a million copies and had his books sold in other countries, adapted into films – he is successful. Or we tell ourselves that she’s so esteemed, the critics’ darling, and wins every award under the sun – she is successful.
But do those authors themselves feel successful?
What is their measurement?
Every time something good happens in my career, like the recent news that my novella had won a competition and is getting published, I feel an initial injection of elation. After a barrage of rejection, it’s so incredibly euphoric when the occasional thing actually goes right.
But very quickly, I’m back to where I started. That was good, I tell myself, but now you need to do better. Onwards and upwards. What is the next step?
I’ve been looking at my career as a giant spiral staircase, and I’m on one of the lowest rungs, and I can see so many amazing people ahead of me: climbing higher, climbing faster, standing proudly at the top of the stairs.
But nothing I’ve ever done makes me feel like I’ve reached the top of the stairs. Or like I’ve even reached a landing where I can stop and catch my breath, and appraise just how many goddamn steps I’ve hauled my arse up so far.
I tell myself this is because I still have such a long way to go – my first novel isn’t even published yet, after all – but I am starting to wonder whether publication would actually change this feeling.
And the more I speak to published authors, the more this seems common. People who have their first novel published don’t feel successful, even when they have won awards or sold a shit-ton of copies. Even authors with several books out don’t always feel like they’re at the top of the stairs, and nobody I know looks down at the staircase behind them and thinks they’ve come far enough.
My point here is that perhaps us writers and artists, more than other professions, don’t know how to quantify our success.
Part of this, I suspect, is because so much of our career trajectory rests on the caprices of fate, which is not exactly the steady kind of foundation you’d want to build a McMansion on and raise your 2.4 children.
Unlike many professions, pure hard work and talent don’t cleanly translate to monetary success. We are aware that despite all our blood, sweat and eyewater, it’s possible that the dreams we have may never see fruition in the way we want them, and that is pure agony.
The way I cope with this is to believe in a quote from Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece, The Alchemist, in which he states:
“No heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”
In other words, if you spend your whole life trying to become a successful writer, but never achieve fame and fortune, you’ll still have a happy heart and a fucking awesome life, because you spent all your time doing what makes you joyous: writing.
I truly believe this.
But believing this has also inoculated me against thinking about what will happen if I do find the success I desire (hell, I’ll be honest: I crave it). It’s a function of self-protection to avoid thinking about success, but the net effect of this approach is that when things do go well, I actually don’t pat myself on the back at all. I allow others to congratulate me and I am truly touched by their warmth and generosity, and I retweet their kind words, but on the inside I’m just like, but I’m not a published novelist yet.
And if I keep going the way I’m going, I’ll never recognise success if I’m lucky enough to experience it. I might get published, and sell a lot, and win awards, but I’ll be endlessly stuck in this mire of self-flagellation if I don’t know what success looks like for me.
So, if life goes well, and the stars and planets align, and I get what I want, how will I know? What will be my measure of success?
I had to really think about this, because I didn’t have an immediate status symbol, like a brand of luxury car or fashion gear.
And don’t get me wrong, I am in no way a zen Buddhist dude who has rejected the material needs of human beings. I like shiny shit as much as the next gormless idiot.
I’ve always wanted a flash Maloo ute, for instance … yellow or black – or an SSV ute in atomic green, but they don’t make those anymore and I think by the time I can afford one, they’ll no longer be as fucking awesome as they were in like 2008.
I’ve always wanted to have enough money to fix up my classic 1968 Mini.
I’d love a bigger house, with a dedicated office for writing, or maybe even an actual den.
I’m sure I’d love some cool shit around the house, like how Matthew Reilly has all his sick memorabilia (I believe he owns a DeLorean), but there’s nothing I am that obsessed with that would make physical stuff any more than house decoration. Same with clothes and watches and any other accessories.
But I really struggle to equate any of these things to success. None of them stands out as the one thing that would define my moment of attaining the success I desire. And I could kind of live happily without any of these ever coming to fruition, as nice as some of them would be.
It took awhile, but I eventually found my measurement. The one thing I want to achieve in life; the one thing that, when I achieve it, I will know I am successful.
It turns out that thing is unemployment.
I want to one day be able to quit my day job, knowing that I am making a living income off my writing. That I will be able to sustain myself for the rest of my life as a writer and a speaker.
That’s actually the thing that makes me most excited of all – more than a souped-up ute, or a plush wood-panelled den, or some kind of outsized Pokemon memorabilia.
I imagine the day I can tell my (kind, supportive, amazing) bosses that my writing has become my primary source of income, and I can no longer work a day job.
That will be success for me: no longer having a job; feeling the freedom and excitement of being a full-time writer.
This gives me something concrete to aim for. Sure, it’s fucking distant, hard as hell, and will probably take me at least a decade from now to achieve, if I’m lucky, but it’s a measurement, and a goal, and a dream.
And when, not if, it finally happens (positive thinking, people), I promise to myself that I will give myself a proper rest. I will stop, and look down at the years of climbing that spiral staircase, and feel the burn in my quads and my glutes, and wipe the sweat off my forehead. I’ll acknowledge how much hard work it took to get there, and fucking congratulate myself on getting what I wanted.
And hell, maybe I’ll take my partner for a little holiday to Positano in the south of Italy to celebrate, too. (Or I’ll buy a Chev-badged Maloo ute – they’ll be dirt cheap by then!)
Until then, there’s a load of hard work ahead. But at least I know where I’m heading, and when I’ll decree myself a “successful” writer.
And there are loads of smaller milestones along the way to that dream. I’m going to make a conscious effort to be truly grateful for any of them I am lucky enough to actually achieve, and to stop on each of those landings on the way up the staircase to catch my breath.
Big breath in – it’s time to climb.
PS. I am super fascinated by how other people – writers and non-writers – measure their success. Let me know in the comments here or on FB/Twitter what your measurement of success is. I promise not to judge you if it’s a Maserati or a Lamborghini – and in return, you can let me take it for a spin one day, yes?
I’ve been thinking about voice a lot lately – specifically, the way the voices of the characters in my current project are developing.
As part of Camp NaNoWriMo, I’ve officially started my third novel. This novel is a standalone – not a part of a series or linked to any other project I’ve written – which means it’s a fresh start for me. New plot, new settings and most importantly, new characters.
As I started delving into this novel, I realised that my process of creating characters has changed dramatically since my first book.
When I wrote my YA fantasy novel (we are calling him Swordy McSwordface at present, just for shiggles), I was planning to make it the first in a series. With that series in mind, I wanted to get all my ducks in a row for continuity and thus set up this amazing, fully-thought-out universe.
When I say I wanted this, I think what I actually mean is that I felt I had to do it.
When I was growing up, I was so impressed with how J.K. Rowling had reams and reams of backstory on her characters (enough to create a whole website like Pottermore). It was amazing to see how, in interviews, someone would question the origins of some random goblin from Gringotts or one of Sirius Black’s relatives and she would just be able to rattle off their history and motivations and Hogwarts House and even their wand size (oh my).
As a reader, these interviews were exciting ways to learn more about the wizarding world I’d fallen in love with.
But as a writer, they had an unintended negative consequence.
When I heard that Rowling had all this extraordinary backstory on her characters, I figured this was the way a true writer creates their characters; that they have to know every single thing about them, because they invented them. That seemed to make sense to me.
Moreover, the impression I took away from this was that if I wanted to be a good writer with well-rounded characters, it was essential to have mapped their entire existence as a human being.
And consequently, if I didn’t do this, I would be a bad writer. Or an amateur writer. Or a lazy writer.
So, I thought I needed to know all the fine details. Hair colour and style, of course, but also my characters’ addictions and crutches, their weaknesses, their scars, physical or emotional. Who were they friends with in primary school? Why weren’t they friends anymore? Why do they wear that particular T-shirt? Why do they drink that brand of beer? What colour is their piss in the morning? (Okay, kidding on that one, but you get my point.)
With the exception of the pee example (usually clear, though radioactive yellow after a multivitamin), these are all things you’d probably want to learn about the characters in a book you’re reading. It gives you a better sense of who they are and why they behave the way they do; it also makes them more real.
So with this in mind, when I wrote my first novel, I first set about creating these extraordinarily long documents of character bios. I spent hour after boring hour agonising over the origins of nicknames, the hobbies, the favourite school subjects, until finally I had what I needed: a full dossier on all my main characters.
Now I’d like to tell you how many times I actually referred to that dossier.
It was zero.
Actually, that may not be 100% true, because I seemed to constantly forget basic stuff like eye colour and hair colour/style, so for purely physical stuff I did glance at the beginnings of the dossier at times, for continuity.
But after writing them, I never again referred to those dossiers for input on what to make my characters say or do. I didn’t consult them for guidance when I was stuck in a particular scene, or when a character had to make a particular decision. So much of those documents was never viewed again.
The reason for this is that my character dossier, for all its statistics and descriptions, actually didn’t tell me anything about my characters as people.
My character bios were like swirling double-helix strands of Deoxyribonucleic Acid: they contained everything that made my characters who they were, and yet, I could have analysed them for a decade and still I would not have known how my character felt, or thought, or sounded, because I had never heard them speak.
This was a profound realisation. When I created characters in bios and dossiers, they were really just blueprints – a network of pins upon which I would hang the nerves and synapses of a real human. But the bio itself did not bring the character to life: it created a lifeless, faceless mannequin that had no autonomy, no presence and no voice.
When I wrote Invisible Boys, I didn’t spend hours and days on constructing meticulous character bios. I did have a bunch of brief character notes in one word document that I drew from, but what happened with that story was that the characters revealed themselves to me, rather than me creating them.
This probably sounds disingenuous. I’m not cray-cray (well, no more than usual): I do understand that ultimately it was my fingers spidering over the keyboard that brought these characters into existence.
But I do also feel that I didn’t grow these characters in a clinical way, like embyros grown in a petri dish. Rather, it feels like I talked to them. I asked them to tell me who they were, and so they did.
My characters told me, and showed me, how they felt. They spoke to me in their own voices, and I was the scribe, and I recorded that snapshot of their lives for them.
It felt like they already existed, and I was just doing the hard work of asking them the right questions and getting them to reveal more and more about themselves. In hindsight, this reminds me of Michelangelo’s famous quote about freeing his statues from the stone:
“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” – Michelangelo
I imagine a lot of writers can relate to that quote – probably not just with character creation, but when it comes to editing a draft, too.
And writing characters like this felt natural and organic. Sometimes they did what they were supposed to do, but other times my characters kind of went rogue and did stuff I didn’t fully expect. And that was pretty damn awesome to be a part of.
So now that I am starting my third novel, I have made a conscious choice to not make any complex character dossiers. Instead, I’ve done up one-page bios on each of the five main characters, just to give me a factual reference point for stuff like what they look like, how many family members they have, etc. – mostly for continuity. But I’ve forbidden myself to write more than a page on each character.
I don’t want to tell them who they are and what they want.
I want them to tell me, in their words and their voice, who they are, and what their life is like, and how that feels for them.
I don’t know if most writers work like this, or actually, if any work like this, but this is what feels right for me.
It does mean that, should someone one day quiz me in an interview about the full family tree of one of my characters, I may not be able to fully answer.
But at the same time, my gut response to that question is that I am not super interested in knowing everything about my characters. In fact, I would feel weirdly invasive telling a whole room of people what a particular character would do in a given situation. Unlike Rowling, I don’t think I’d have an answer prepared. I would probably have to write it as a scene and see what my character wanted to do.
I know I’m speaking about my characters like they are real entities with their own minds, as opposed to being figments of my imagination. But the reality is that I do see them as real, even while knowing they are fictional.
I see them as real because they are all, ultimately, fragments of my own self, expressed in different ways. Or as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it:
Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person. – F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Ultimately, that is what makes an authentic character for me: that they are a fragment of me each filtered in a slightly different way – like white light diffusing in a prism – and that they speak for themselves, rather than me speaking for them.
I don’t know if my process with character will change or evolve in the future. I’m certainly not dissing Rowling’s way, because frankly I’m still impressed and slightly envious of her control of character and world (not to mention for her success and wealth, but that’s a song for another day).
Ultimately, there’s no one way to do character, and every writer will have their preferred approach.
The late (and extraordinary) Tom Petty once sang that “the waiting is the hardest part”.
Man, there’s nothing like becoming a writer to discover how true that saying is.
As much as we moan about having to spin our drafts out of thin air (we are basically wizards, thank you very much) or gnash our teeth over editing our messy manuscripts, both of these tasks are more pleasant than what comes next.
It doesn’t matter much whether we write short form or long form, the publishing industry inevitably involves massive long wait times. Waiting for an agent or editor to respond to our query usually leaves most authors, including me, checking my inbox at least twice a day (even when your agent is as lightning-fast as mine was when she decided to represent me). The same goes for submitting short fiction to journals. In the past, when I’ve had something out on submission, it would drive me kind of nuts for those weeks or months until I had a response.
Of course, up until this year, I was submitting relatively sporadically, so there were spells where I’d have absolutely nothing on submission. This was actually quite restful, as it allowed me to feel like one of those normal human beings who have their hearts planted firmly within their chests. Being on submission, by contrast, feels to me like I am living each day with my heart dangling on the outside of my rib cage.
I feel like the world can see every fine detail printed on my heart’s ventricular muscles; every vulnerability of my soul is on lurid display for people to either nurture or spit on.
And most of the time, it gets spat on.
I know I ought to be more resilient than this (there I go finding fancy ways to say that violent word “should” again). But the reality is, every rejection hurts so much. I feel like I’ve offered up a vulnerable sliver of my inner essence on a golden platter and held it above my head as a sacrifice to the Writing Gods, hoping to please them. And when that ritual sacrifice is deemed not good enough, I feel that I have been deemed not good enough, and it feels like this foolish mortal shed blood for nothing at all.
Now, all this angsty cluster of writer feels was kind of bearable when I was submitting sporadically. I’d go through times of agonised waiting followed by months where I could cram my heart back into my body and feel the circulation gloriously return to my limbs.
But as of a few months ago, I’ve been on constant submission. My second novel is now on submission to publishers thanks to my brilliant agent (and publishing is an industry notorious for moving at a glacial pace, so I have nothing concrete to share yet). Beyond that, I’ve been subbing my short fiction to a range of literary journals, as well as pitching some ideas for freelance journalism to news outlets.
The upshot of this is: since March, I have been constantly waiting for one project or another to be accepted or rejected, with no real end in sight. This means I have been constantly living with my poor heart thumping desperately in the exposed, polluted air outside my body.
In the past, this sensation has overwhelmed me, and I’ve sought to numb the fragility of being an artist. Sometimes it was with substances (it’s hard to feel worried about your writing when you’re saturated in bourbon), othertimes it was with overwork (no time to worry about rejection if you’re too busy to even scratch yourself), and occasionally both of these crossed over and led to some inglorious meltdowns.
And at the very worst of times, I responded to this fearful state of vulnerability with the total abnegation of my role as an artist. That is, I stopped submitting, and I stopped editing, and I stopped writing. The most pronounced of these times were in 2010 and 2013, when I didn’t write a word (and as I’ve mentioned recently, not writing makes me sick).
But being on constant submission this past three months has made me realise something important. The “submission” phase of writing – where we jettison our precious creations into the ether to be either embraced or (more often than not) scorned – is not meant to be unusual or rare. It is a required part of the process, and for any of us to become successful or resilient writers, I think it needs to be regular.
I’m starting to see that the uncomfortable state of living with our hearts outside our bodies is not an unintended side-effect of being an artist. Being an artist requires it.
That is, for me to succeed as a writer, my art requires me to not just be vulnerable in my writing itself, but in life. And it’s supposed to be constant. In the past, I’ve tried to control my vulnerability. I’ve imagined I could turn it on and off like a tap. Time to write a first draft? Vulnerability on. Draft finished? Vulnerability off. (Yes, this is a bit of a wax on, wax off moment for Holden-san.) Consequentially, my writing progressed in fits and starts, and I would write only when I felt I was emotionally capable of surviving the rivulets of feelings that would come pouring out of me.
But being constantly on submission, and thus constantly vulnerable, since March has not actually been the torture I had anticipated.
Actually, it’s been profoundly productive, and kind of awesome, despite the waiting.
When you go out on submission, the first thing your agent tells you to do is start writing your next novel. This is to distract us authors and our hamster-wheel brains from freaking out about the waiting involved in the submission process, and it also ensures that we are focusing on producing more work to be submitted.
So, to occupy myself while being on constant submission, I’ve been constantly writing since March, which is around the same time I joined my awesome buds in the #5amwritersclub. As a result, I’ve churned out six pieces of short fiction – one piece of flash fiction, four short stories, and a whole novella – in just three months, not to mention writing a published article for Ten Daily and developing and performing an oral story for the Bright Lights, No City project. Outside of my frenzied novel-writing adventures, this is the most productive I’ve ever been with my writing.
Is the waiting hard? Hell yeah.
But does it actually make me a better, more productive writer? Hell yeah.
I’m now comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable for a living. It’s possible that for much of the rest of my life I will constantly have a piece of work out in the world that I’m waiting to hear back on. I’m okay with this. It means I’m constantly trying, even if I regularly fail. Maybe most importantly, the waiting teaches me that vulnerability, and feeling my feelings, will not actually kill me. Accepting my vulnerability makes me a better human and a better writer.
I’m learning that an artist’s heart can survive outside the body for many years, and rather than wilt or perish, it only learns to pump harder than ever.