The first time I finished writing a novel was 1999.
I was eleven, and as far as I was concerned, the handwritten story that filled a whopping 64 pages of my blue-lined exercise book was an actual novel. Looking back, it would have been about 12,000 words or so: around the length of the Honours thesis I would go on to write 13 years later, and just a little longer than THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR.
My “book” was a sci-fi story called CAPRION’S WARNING. The main character, Nick, was a twelve-year-old Italian boy with seventeen immediate family members. I may have been projecting a little of myself, plus identifying with and/or being enamoured by Nick Kontellis from Emily Rodda’s Teen Power Inc books. Nick’s friend Luigi (Mario Kart was big at the time) got kidnapped by some aliens after a school disco (which figured prominently in my life at the time) and so Nick and his friends had to get in a spaceship and rescue Luigi. The whole story was essentially a global warming parable from the aliens; it was fun, but it made absolutely no logical sense.
I was quietly chuffed with myself when I finished that story. Looking back, I don’t
remember telling a soul. When it came to my creative side, I was incredibly withdrawn and secretive. My family never read a word of my work, nor my friends. In fact, the one time two of my mates tried to open an exercise book I’d accidentally left on my desk, I went into primal neanderthal mode and screamed at them to give it back. It culminated in a wrestling match in which the book was torn in half; thankfully, my desperation (and, I’m sure, their perplexed terror) enabled me to win that one – they never read it. (Incidentally, they are still good mates, they are possibly reading this, and they totally know who they are.)
In hindsight, finishing that story was kind of a non-event. I just turned the page and started the next little nonsensical pre-teen story – one that would never be completed.
I wrote constantly in the intervening years, but the next time I completely finished a project was 2011. For a number of reasons, I’m not going to name this project at the moment, but it occupied my mind and heart for a longer time than any other project to date has. This story was a piece of Pokemon fanfiction I posted on an online forum, and it had quite a large readership, especially in the first few years, though I retained a smaller group of dedicated readers until the end. I wrote the first chapter of this in late 2001, when I was thirteen, and completed the entire series of four novels in late 2011, aged twenty-three.
Actually completing that fanfic was one of the most difficult and gargantuan tasks I’ve ever undertaken – and I was once coerced into waiting eight hours in line for a Delta Goodrem concert in the middle of summer.
The feeling when I completed that series of four novels? Devastation. I fell apart and sobbed like you wouldn’t believe. Everything conflated at once: the joy of finishing such a long-term endeavour; the satisfaction of persevering for so long; the sorrow of saying goodbye to all those characters, whom I loved, especially the core cast; and the utter devastation at the end of my youth.
Because, of course, that whole project enveloped my formative years. Inhabiting that world was something I did daily, whether at the laptop or not, for an entire decade, and I grew so much during that time. At the start, I was a pimply thirteen-year-old dealing with puppy fat and wet dreams and dial-up Internet (and I couldn’t say which was the most awkward to deal with). By the end, I was in my early twenties, doing an Honours degree and working for a university and a bank simultaneously. The story had evolved, too, from being a juvenile “trainer fic” to an exciting action-adventure with a decent level of maturity. Even writing this now inspires me all over again.
I said once in an interview on that forum that I was treating that story like a training ground for my “real” writing. It was an astute observation: I knew that story could never get published given the trademark/licensing issues around fanfiction, so I just enjoyed it as a project of love and used the practice (and the feedback from some excellent readers) to hone my skills.
After that project was done, I was ready for the real deal.
In February 2015, after ten months of planning and three months of writing, I completed my first full-length novel of original work (YA Fantasy). I didn’t cry, which in hindsight tells me a lot. From memory, I moodily crept onto the patio, played Desperado by The Eagles on low volume from my phone, and smoked a cigarette or three while watching the sun rise (it was about 5am and I’d pulled an all-nighter). I did feel the achievement of finally completing my first novel: it was very gratifying.
But despite that smoky, nebulous state of triumph, I didn’t have a visceral response. The manuscript had a lot of structural problems, and I knew it. Beta reader feedback, a series of edits, a mentorship, and a copy edit all followed. When I completed draft number seven in late 2016, I was exhausted and sick of it, but my initial feedback from agents tells me it’s still not quite there.
And the reason I now know that for sure is that, one week ago, I completed my second novel.
And what a stark contrast it bears to the first one.
I started writing my second novel – let’s call it DAMAGE CONTROL, even though that’s just a placeholder title – in July this year. From the beginning, I had the overwhelming feeling that this book – a straight-up YA story – was the novel that would find publication first. Peter Parker would say his Spidey sense was tingling; Dennis Denuto would say he had a vibe; Kath Day-Knight would say she had a feeling in her waters. Everything just seemed to mesh together.
Call it what you will, but that feeling gripped me for two months and didn’t let go until I finished the final chapter last week. DAMAGE CONTROL is the most close-to-the-bone, intensely personal piece of fiction I have ever written. It felt like it poured out of me fully-formed; like twenty-nine years of pain were slowly and gingerly extracted from my blood. It was almost a channelling experience: when I reread some of the lines, I can’t even remember writing them.
As American sportswriter Red Smith famously said, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”
Red was right.
Once you open the vein and allow yourself to bleed, writing is the easiest and most natural thing in the world.
But it was something I had never done before.
CAPRION’S WARNING was more or less pure juvenile nonsense writing.
My teenage fanfiction was adrenaline-fuelled escapism.
And my first novel was essentially people-pleasing in literary form: calculating my moves, crafting a product for an imagined readership, second-guessing what the readers and market and editors and agents might want. In short, everything except being authentic, and genuine, and unabashedly myself.
DAMAGE CONTROL is me without a single inhibition. I’ve hidden nothing. Every fear, every fragility, every insecurity, every obnoxious word and thought is on display here for the world. It is a fictional work, entirely, but the characters embody the best and, frequently, the worst parts of me as the author: the things I am ashamed of; the things I’ve been hurt by.
My blood is on every page.
And it makes all the difference – because it actually works.
My first beta reader was completely blown away. He cried twice during the novel, especially towards the end.
“This is the best thing you have ever written,” he declared at the end, without hesitation. “This is very brave …”
As for how I felt when I finished it?
First was the sorrow: I cried, like a little kid who fell off his bike.
Then came the euphoria: I went to the gym and sprinted on the treadmill, adrenaline crushed into my bloodstream and music pounding in my ears.
And finally, satisfaction: I went out for ice cream with my fiance.
The most exciting outcome of finishing this novel was that it enabled me to understand, and define, myself in a way I hadn’t been able to do before. And my hope is that, in my being honest and vulnerable and brave, my readers will be able to make the same discoveries about themselves.
Finishing this novel has been an intense and rejuvenating experience.
Okay, so I’m going to start this with a disclaimer: I totally love Twitter.
I didn’t used to be such a fan. When I first started using the microblogging platform in 2014, I really didn’t get it. I was naturally inclined to be a private person anyway, so the idea of sharing every infinitesimal thought with a bunch of strangers didn’t just jar with my world view – it was also a vulnerable act. To the uninitiated (me), it also just seemed like a giant waste of time.
Thankfully, I decided to give it another go in 2016, and I am so glad I did. What I discovered was that there is an incredible community of writers and readers on Twitter who are happy to support each other. I always worried that I wouldn’t be able to do enough to reciprocate in supporting fellow authors, which kept me from interacting for a long time. Like, if someone asks me to read their work, I start wondering when the hell I will be able to fit that into my schedule and panic that I won’t be able to.
But I’ve found Twitter’s writing hashtags to be replete with fellow writers who are similarly time-poor and exhausted, but also aspirational, driven and optimistic.
We don’t all necessarily have time to read each other’s work. But we chat, like office workers around a water cooler (or these days, one of those lightning-fast hot/cold taps they install at the sink). We relate the struggles of our day jobs and the challenges we face with our writing. We favourite, we retweet, we reply to each other and celebrate one another’s achievements and successes.
As an indie author, Twitter is a nice place to be. I’m stoked I gave it another shot, because I really enjoy interacting with the new people I’ve met through Twitter.
So, why would I suggest in the title of this post that Twitter could be toxic?
Well, not every corner of Twitter is such a cool little oasis in the middle of the Sahara.
Some hashtags are nicer than others.
Some segments of the community are nicer than others.
And, unfortunately, some segments of the Twittersphere are really bloody negative places to be.
They’re the rest of the Sahara: fiery swarms of hellish heat and fury; sand that burns your feet and stings your eyes; chilling, icy wind that cuts your skin at night.
An article on Vulture by writer and journo Kat Rosenfield got a lot of people in the writing and publishing sector talking about Twitter culture this week.
Rosenfield’s article “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter” discussed the phenomenon of mostly adult users subjecting new YA novels to some pretty nasty critiques.
No, critiques is the wrong word. Critiques are useful and are written with the author, the reader, and culture in mind. The idea is to provide a critical assessment of the book and its’ worth and contribution to the literary canon.
What Rosenfield identified – and linked to – were not critiques.
They were actions by some pretty nasty activists – nay, professional bullies.
These people are mostly activists concerned with the typical angles of cultural Marxist critique: gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ability.
While those discussions about representation and portrayal are so important, and valid, and happen all over the internet and in discourse in various forms (and rightly so!), these particular activists have taken it to another level.
Rosenfield talks about “callout culture” on Twitter. Users will scour new novels for the slightest indication of content that could be deemed offensive to anyone in any way, then decide to shame, blacklist and pile-on the poor author who has finally got their novel published. (Or in some cases, before they’ve even read it – they’re just assuming it might be offensive in some ridiculously confected way.)
The stuff described is basically mob mentality stuff: angry adult activists – universally on the left – band together to slam the author into oblivion. They callout and shame publicly; they tweet and retweet; they jump on Goodreads and Amazon and wherever else and give a slew of one-star reviews to attempt to annihilate the author and short-circuit their success.
I mean, this is nasty shit.
I really valued Rosenfield’s article, because this phenomenon is probably the worst trend in the literary community in the last decade.
There is now such a toxic culture online of not just shouting down ideas you don’t like, but actively seeking to destroy the reputation and name of both the offending book and the author, too.
I believe literary criticism – and, along with it, cultural criticism – should always be fostered and discussions about representation are valid and needed and must continue.
But this trend goes far beyond reasoned critiques or discourse: it is schoolyard bullying ramped up to eleven.
This kind of toxic callout culture is anti-art and anti-fiction, quite frankly.
As both a reader and an author, this has a chilling effect. The literary agent quoted in this article who says ‘spare yourself’ is quite astute. Most halfway decent people avoid these cruel, destructive pile-ons like the plague to save themselves. Sadly, this only means that the campaigns of hate and bullying come to completely dominate the discourse.
It’s a really disturbing trend, but I feel like Rosenfield’s article – and the ensuing online response to it – is a promising sign that people are recognising this toxic culture more and more.
I think it is important for all of us, as readers and writers, to speak our mind and say our piece. We must keep doing this.
We must also treat each other like human beings. We should engage in challenging dialogue when we disagree, but ultimately respect one another.
Everyone knows musicians and actors live for the spotlight and can sometimes tend to the narcissistic end of the spectrum. As Lady Gaga sang back in 2013, musicians “live for the applause”. 30 Rock‘s Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), an actress on the show-within-the-show, gave perhaps the best response when someone suggested they had stolen her thunder, dramatically screaming, “My whole life is thunder!”
Maybe a lesser known fact is that us writers also crave the limelight. Even the most introverted among us desire some level of attention: the quest for publication alone is admission of a desire for external validation. If we did not want a little thunder, we would be quite content to write endless novels on our laptops and leave them there until the beginning of the digital dark age.
But we want publication because like Gaga and Maroney, we have some level of fame whore within us. We create stories and worlds, and it’s a nice feeling when someone who isn’t us reads them and goes, “Oh, that’s so cool.”
I don’t think it’s super cool to admit we like the attention. Especially in Australia, where such an admission is going to get you chopped down (see: Tall Poppy Syndrome). But to some extent, it’s the truth for every artist, no matter how humble they try to appear. I’m not the only writer who likes the attention, surely?
I got to enjoy the view of my first few streamers of electricity this week. Firstly, I spotted my story The Scroll of Isidor charting on the Barnes and Noble bestselling fantasy short stories list (it started at #45, crept up to #31, and has now slid back to #33). That was a cool feeling, because it quantified the success of this story in an understandable way. I’ve been tracking the sales for the e-book, but it’s hard to know how they stack up compared to others in the field; a chart eliminates that query. It’s nice to enjoy a small modicum of success. As I like to think of it, it’s a taste of things to come.
A second burst of lightning came when I was profiled for the first time as an author. After we crossed paths on Goodreads, book blogger Mercedes Fox interviewed me this week for her website.
I had heaps of fun talking about my work as a writer and what drives me. The hardest question was about my favourite fictional character. I ended up choosing Nathan Drake from the Uncharted video game series, but it was a tough call. I tend to like intelligent, witty, dry-humoured alpha male characters, and there actually aren’t that many well-crafted ones out there. Drake, however, is a sick cunt. If I could be anyone fictional, I think I’d be him. When I was a kid, I liked Tintin a lot, but in terms of being a 3D character, he’s a bit lacking and rather milquetoast. Drake is like a more buff, more hardcore, more awesome version of Tintin, but more likeable than Indiana Jones.
We also talked about me getting carried away writing sex scenes (a challenge since I write YA!) and having an existential meltdown in 2014 and how that turned my life around and made me a harder worker.
So this was a big week, and like any slightly self-obsessed artist, I did enjoy the burst of attention. But now I’m hanging to crawl back into my hermit shell for some weekend downtime. And by downtime, I probably mean working on my current WIP. And possibly binge-watching Riverdale, because I was a huge Archie Comics geek growing up.
Wishing you guys an ace weekend: read and write well, and remember, like Jenna Maroney, YOUR WHOLE LIFE IS THUNDER!
In November last year, bestselling action author and bona fide super geek Matthew Reilly stopped off in Perth as part of his book tour to promote The Four Legendary Kingdoms, the latest instalment in his uber-successful Jack West Jr series.
Keen to hear him speak about being a writer, I went along to his packed-out evening talk at Wesley College, a posh private boys’ school. I scored a seat in the nosebleed section, looking entirely out of place decked out in my favourite Five Finger Death Punch jersey and Obey cap among the white-collar types and the blazer-wearers. I’m fairly sure a pre-emptive suspicious persons report was filled out in my honour.
But I digress. Matthew Reilly was fascinating to listen to, and spoke with the confidence of someone who has been successful for a long time. He handled the Q & A like a seasoned pro. What’s most interesting about Reilly is not so much his phenomenal success as an Australian author – for which I reckon he never gets enough credit in his homeland – but his path to becoming a megastar. After being rejected by every major publisher and their poodles, Reilly self-published his first novel Contest in 1996 when he was only in his early twenties. After convincing the owner of a local bookshop to sell it, the book was spotted by an editor from Pan Macmillan, and he picked up a publishing contract.
I look up to Matthew Reilly for a number of reasons. He’s an Aussie author. He writes action/adventure novels, which I love reading. Jack West Jr is an Australian character, which I think is awesome in a blockbustery kind of novel. My fantasy novels tend to the more actiony end of the spectrum, so Reilly’s also an influence on my own work. While he often cops stick for not being “literary” enough, critics who level that at him are a little off-base. Action thrillers are a different genre to literary fiction: fans read these books because they want to be entertained. They don’t want to see Jack navelgazing for two-thirds of the book about his feelings. Reilly writes his novels as if they’re films, and once you take that on board, it’s easier to see what he’s doing.
Anyway, after the talk, I waited in a very long line (about an hour and a half, from memory) to get my copy of The Four Legendary Kingdoms signed. We were given cupcakes by the organisers, which was a nice touch. Then I got to meet the author, shake his hand, take a photo and have a brief chat with him.
Seizing my chance for advice, I told Reilly I was writing a YA Fantasy novel, that he was an influence on my work, and if he had any advice for me as I approached the querying process.
I figured it might be a boring, common question for him that would receive a one-line response, but to my pleasant surprise, Reilly was incredibly generous with his time. He essentially stopped the queue and rattled off a sequence of rapid-fire advice to me, which I quickly tried to memorise.
He made a point of adding one final piece of advice.
“Revise your manuscript again,” he said, locking eyes with me in a way that said take this seriously. “No matter how much you think it’s finished and polished, there’s always one more revision to be done.”
I nodded and smiled and thanked him for his time, and shuffled along past the weary-looking event staff.
But did I take the expert advice of this intelligent, successful, bestselling author seriously?
Because I am what the French would call un connard, and the Aussies would call an arrogant fuckwit.
Most artists, myself included, tend to see-saw in a slightly unhinged manner between crippling, overwhelming self-doubt and full-blown narcissism. Sadly, that day was an egoic one: my head was wedged firmly within the warm dankness of my colon.
“Oh, Matthew, you know not who you are dealing with,” said a slightly medieval-toned fellow in my head. “For I have done seven drafts of this manuscript. I have worked with one of the greatest editors in the land, and another copyeditor has tidied it up. I am not some garden-variety amateur writer. I don’t need another revision. You, sir, are wrong.”
So I took my seventh draft of a manuscript and queried my first round of agents. I had to wait until the new year for responses. One finally came through: a form rejection, which stung. Another never replied after the initial acknowledgement of receipt.
But the third agent emailed back and said he was interested in seeing the full manuscript.
I did some metaphorical backflips, sobbed uncontrollably (that was a day of doubt) and then calmly replied with a “please see attached, kind regards” kind of way that successfully disguised how ecstatic/utterly destroyed I was.
Just getting a full request was proof, to me, that I wasn’t totally rubbish. I was good enough to generate professional interest. Even if it came back as a no, it was a confidence boost.
A couple of weeks later, I came back home from a run around the block and felt my phone vibrating. An Eastern states number. I tried to stop panting and answered in a level voice.
It was the agent who’d requested the full.
This is it, I thought. Agents don’t waste time calling people unless they’re offering representation. This is my moment!
“Great to hear from you!” I gushed to the agent.
There was an awkward silence at the other end of the line.
“Uh, you might want to hear what I have to say first, before you say that,” he said simply.
It was a rejection.
A thirty-minute phone call of a rejection, which is now my high water mark for how much disappointment my body can physically take.
The agent liked my manuscript. He said it was a strong read. He said he came to care about the characters and really liked some of them. But the word he used for the novel was “competent”, which cut me deeply. You want your accountant to be competent. You want a novel to excite you. And he wasn’t excited.
“It’s competent, but not good enough,” he said. “It really has got to be jolly good.”
I took copious notes, because this phone call – as crushing as it was – was a gift. This incredibly busy, successful agent was bothering to spend half an hour of his time on the phone with me, a no-name writer trying to get my first novel published who wasn’t an existing client. This was incredibly generous of him, and I asked as many questions as I could.
Some of his feedback didn’t land, because it was off-base for the type of story I wanted to write. But a lot of his feedback struck a nerve. It hurt because I knew he was right. Once I thought about it, and looked at the manuscript, I could see he was on point on a few matters. The manuscript still needed work.
After self-flagellating with a cat o’ nine tails and gnashing my teeth for the past few weeks, I’m finally ready to actually talk about this.
Because it means I’m no longer at the querying stage. I have to go back a step, and do an eighth draft.
You know, like Matthew Reilly told me to do.
Tail between my legs, I will admit I should’ve listened to him in the first place.
So what’s next? I’m working on a YA novel at the moment. I’m going to finish that first, because it’s burning with more urgency. And once the first draft of that is complete, I will return to my fantasy manuscript and start working on the eighth draft. And I’m going to make sure it’s bloody excellent.
Failure has always motivated me to do better, and this is no exception. I won’t finish with this novel until it is so good it demands a place on bookshelves; and I won’t stop until it’s published and sitting on one.
Both Woody Allen and Groucho Marx are credited with the quote in this blog post’s title, so pick your favourite and it can be attributed to them.
Personally, I’m gonna side with Groucho on this one, only because he’s funny like Eddie Murphy or Tina Fey are funny. Whereas Woody Allen is funny like the-wasted-hobo-screaming-racial-epithets-on-the-street-is-looking-at-me-kinda-funny.
Anyway, all of this is to say I joined a bunch of stuff this week and it makes me feel much more writery. I feel no more cultured and no more intelligent, mind, but I feel like I’m at least doing the stuff that a 21st Century Digital Writer should do (free lamingtons if you get the punk reference).
The first thing I did was join WordPress at last. I knew I’d eventually need to start a damn blog like all the cool writers, but I kept putting it off the way you put off a trip to the dentist. The thought of having to write stuff that wasn’t fiction on a regular basis was literally as frightening to me as a root canal. Or that giant suction tube they stick down your throat. *shudder*
But now that I’m here, I can see that a blog, like brushing my teeth and flossing regularly, is actually pretty good for my health. I think I’m gonna like it here.
Then I joined Goodreads. That is a brand new experience for me, as both a writer and a reader. I’m still getting my head around how massive that site is. Especially how many levels of groups and discussions there must be. I did, however, introduce myself in a thread only to have another user recognise me from Twitter, so that was interesting to see how the social circles for writers must be quite small.
I do have a confession about Goodreads though. When they asked me to review like 20 books before I could continue to the next step, I randomly clicked on stuff that I *thought* would be okay. As in, I hadn’t actually read some of them. I thought The Martian by Andy Weir was probably a good book since the movie, uh, was a big deal and had Matt Damon in it. I didn’t realise this shit was going on my permanent record! Like, everyone can see it. So I’ve now had to go back and unrate all these rando novels because the guilt was just too much. (NB: This is what being raised Catholic can do to you.)
Last of all, as I’m *ahem* a full member of the Australian Society of Authors, I set up my new member portfolio on their website. It’s actually incredibly schmicko and looks ace. It’s an excellent, brief summary of my background, publishing history and credits, and my relevant skill set. The best thing is, employers can find me, so if they’ve got some doubloons to ditch at a penniless author at some point in the future, I might just be that author! Check it out here – and if you’re an Aussie author, get yourself signed up for one of these bad boys.
So it’s been a week of joining all these gnarly new platforms. Now I gotta start bloody well using them. 😀
‘Cause I’m a 21st Century Digital Boy
I don’t know how to get published but I’ve got a lot of online platforms …
As a teenager I was so ashamed of reading this book, I hid it with my porn stash.
Whoa, did this book have an incredible impact on me as a kid.
When you’re a teenage boy, there are so many things you want to ask about being a bloke.
You want to ask your dad, your brothers, your cousins, even your mates – but you don’t, because this is a verboten topic. You’re expected to know how to become a man without ever talking about it – because to talk about being a man means you must still be a boy, and the last thing a teenage boy wants to be called is a boy and not a man.
I remember finding Secret Men’s Business in the town library and being fascinated that a man had actually sat down and written all of this for us boys to just pick up and learn what we wanted to know. What an absolute champion. Marsden’s book tackled a wide range of topics, from the emotional to the sexual and highly visceral – the stuff you really couldn’t talk about with your dad. It was a thrilling, captivating read and it hit the mark.
My most vivid memory of the book is of hiding it. I don’t think my parents or anyone else knew I was reading it. I only read it in bed, after everyone in the house was asleep. It was hidden in a secret place in my bedroom. In fact, I hid it where I hid my porn magazines, and I would have probably had the same reaction if either item had been unwittingly found. There was a shame that came with reading this – because I felt like I should have already known it all: that manly wisdom should arrive via osmosis or telepathy, not from a book.
But despite that, I was still compelled to read this book. I had to know all the secret stuff about being a man – the stuff that nobody talked about. This book had it all. And I felt better once I’d finished it. I was less insecure; more confident. This book helped shape me as a man. It also helped shape me as a writer. I wanted to incorporate some of these themes, some of this masculine wisdom, some of this unabashed honesty, into my fiction – if I could find a way to do it well, of course.
John Marsden found a niche with this excellent book, and I’m so glad, because it changed my life for the better.