Review: The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan

When I was growing up, my Dad would mostly read biographies of prominent people: actors, musicians, politicians, public figures. But every now and then he would casually pick up one of my sister’s chick-lit books and have a bit of a gander. He was unfazed by the branding; he blithely called them “human interest” novels. I always thought this was kind of cool.

Perhaps this is why, when I was told that The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan was a book about motherhood and sisters, aimed primarily at women who were likely to be mothers themselves – and not at young childless men like myself – I wasn’t overly fazed. In fact, I was quite interested to experiment with reading beyond the borders of my usual genres and see what this story was all about.

And I’m bloody glad I did.

I was especially keen for two reasons. Firstly, since I kept seeing stuff on social media about people bursting into tears when they were reading it – which is a damn strong reaction for a book to provoke, and probably the one that must engender the most pride and satisfaction in an author.

Secondly, the author, Louise Allan, is well-known in Perth writing circles and I have a great deal of respect for her. Not only is Louise a fervent supporter of new and budding writers on Twitter, especially locals, she is also one of those people who radiates an aura of kindness. Before making a mid-life career change into becoming an author, she was a doctor, and I can only envy the empathy her patients must have received in those years. Most doctors usually just grunt at me.

So – what’s The Sisters’ Song about? *cough* SPOILERS AHEAD *cough*

Initially set in rural Tasmania in the 1920s, the novel centres on the relationship between two young girls, Ida and Nora. After their beloved father passes away, their mother becomes a bit of a useless mess and they are cared for primarily by their grandmother. During this time and during the post-grief haze, the girls’ personalities start to shine through: Ida is a nurturer, loves her doll, and wants to have a family; Nora, meanwhile, is a talented singer and pianist. With the encouragement of her grandmother, she pursues a career in opera singing – leading to small rifts with Ida and a more profound separation from her mother. As the girls reach adulthood in the late 1930s, it seems the book has set everything in motion for the rest of the novel: Ida is married to Len Bushell, she’s preggo and finally about to start a family of her own; Nora’s at a conservatorium in Melbourne, her singing having brought her wide acclaim and a ticket to a different life on the mainland, and she’s fallen in love with one of her tutors, the seductive Marco.

Forgive me for being a dunce, but I figured the rest of the novel was going to be about Ida raising rosy-cheeked babes in the dewy mists of Tasmania, planting her bulbs and scouring her pots while listening to an operatic coloratura on the gramophone. And Nora would wed Marco in the spring, continue swanning around the conservatorium in a sparkly red dress and then graduate to singing her own coloraturas on the stages of Milan and Vienna and New York, a regular Dame Nellie Melba.

Well, fuck me sideways. This is when the novel decides to punch you right in the guts, and then as you’re keeling over on the bitumen with spittle dangling from your broken jaw, it kicks you in the teeth for good measure.

Everything turns to shit!

At the beginning adult life, just as both girls seem to be on course to get everything they’ve ever wanted, it gets cruelly ripped away from them both. Ida miscarries tragically, and we experience the crushing lows of that. Just in case the author hadn’t beaten us into emotional submission already, Ida miscarries twice more, culminating in a breathtaking scene where she essentially races through a hospital against the Matron’s wishes to see her baby’s dead body. It is horrific.

Meanwhile, Nora’s career is torn from her when she falls pregnant to her tutor, Marco, only to discover he is married and she has been carrying on an illicit affair. The conservatorium is shamed by her female whoreish-ness and gives her the boot – because, in that era, Marco’s affair and her pregnancy are entirely her fault, of course, and in any case, premarital sex is unbecoming of an opera singer. In one fell swoop, Nora loses the love of her life and her dream of being a singer, and is left with a bitter reminder of the life she could have led in Teddy, her first son, and Alf Hill, the stoic miller who agrees to raise Marco’s son as his own.

This cruel irony – that Ida is left childless and aching for children, while Nora pops out three and couldn’t care less – is the source of the tension that drives the rest of the novel forward. Over several decades, the flowers borne from the seeds of this mutual bitterness wreak havoc with their relationships with their husbands, with their mother, with the children, with each other and, most importantly, with their own selves.

Louise Allan has woven a masterful tale here: a piece of realist fiction that offers a crystal-clear window into the traumas that bind and shape a family. Her prose is direct and clean – my favourite kind of prose. Her taut writing is especially effective in the novel’s more emotional scenes (and there are many): she makes more from saying less, and the novel is much stronger for it. The pacing is good, although (and I think this is my only feasible criticism of the novel) I think the first act, before the shit hits the fan, could have been a little shorter; it moved a little slower, whereas parts two and three I read at a cracking pace because the pace of the action was so absorbing. I absolutely loved the strength of Ida’s voice, the gentle humour that lifted the reader through the gaps between the more painful scenes, and the unexpected twists and turns this story takes as the years progress.

TSS folded pages
I told myself I’d fold the corner of the page of The Sisters’ Song each time something powerful happened. It ended up looking like this … (the top is the end of the book)

In fact, what makes this story feel so realistic is that the cruel shifts of fate were not hammered in relentlessly, but rather were spaced out strategically (and rhythmically). This is what happens in most families, I think. There were massive downs: not just the aforementioned traumas, but stuff like the girls’ mother eventually passing away, and Nora’s abuse of her children, their fear of her, her mental illness, and even what happens to Ted and, ultimately, Alf, later in the novel. And possibly the most heartbreaking moment in the novel: Ida racing down the street after the Doctor. Breathtaking.

But for most, family (and life) is not typically a purely harrowing experience, and Allan reflects that so well here. Like any family, there are seasons of joy, brief moments when things seem to be tolerable and perhaps, optimistically, on the upswing. This happens for both girls, whether through Ida being able to care for Nora’s children and pretend they are her own, or Nora later developing a new lease on life and playing the piano for her local church again.

Ultimately, the ebbs and flows of family over a long period of time were so well-drawn here, and as someone with a sprawling Sicilian-Australian family, I really related to that aspect of the novel. I felt like I was peering through a window into another family’s actual life, and there were times when I wondered if maybe Ida and Nora could have been real people back in the day. I could certainly imagine them as real.

Moreover, the novel’s undulations are relatable because, sadly, this is sometimes how life goes. Hopes and dreams can be dashed, and this is one of the cruellest things about being a human being. People’s lives are ultimately marked by how they respond to their own devastation: defeat and surrender, or hope despite the pain, or stoic resilience (resilience being, I think, an underlying theme here, too).

This, actually, is what I feel is the main point of the novel, in a way: how we deal with the damage done to us by life. Both Ida and Nora, and even Len and Alf, are wounded humans, trying to continue on in spite of their own ongoing pain. Mental illness stalks the edges of this story, only being named as such once, really, when Nora is in hospital, but it’s everywhere. Ida suffers terribly from the grief of her miscarriages; Len is deeply hurt by her excursions to the country to take care of Nora’s kids instead of him; Nora’s twice-broken heart (love and career) bleeds all over her life; and Alf …

Man, I feel like I could write a separate essay just about the character of Alf Hill. In some ways, he is the most tragic character in the novel. His moment near the end of the novel absolutely knocked the air out of my lungs: he is a good man and his life is an example of what stoicism can do for men – for better, and for worse. He was very relatable.

Likewise, I found myself relating to Ted as he reached adulthood. It’s not often I read about another seventeen-year-old Italian-Australian who is bookish and angsty and has both an attitude problem and an identity crisis. I became quite fond of him, which I’m not sure was supposed to happen, but I think I am drawn to tragic boys for some reason.

Speaking of relating – I can see why the marketing arm of Allen & Unwin would pitch this kind of fiction to women and mothers, as they would be the primary market that relates to a tale like this. But I want to say here that I related to this story a lot as a young man, and I suspect that gets overlooked in the (entirely necessary) discussion about how to position a title in the market. I’ll admit the specific motherhoody aspects are less relatable for a male audience, for sure – although the amount of times Ida had to scour a pot did successfully put me off ever doing the dishes again. But moreover, so much in this novel – from the mental health stuff, to the resilience, to parental disapproval and family breakdown, to Ted’s angst – is actually quite relatable for a male reader because all this stuff happens to us, too.

Even the prominent role opera music plays in this story resonated with me. I don’t think I know a single opera song, or if calling it an “opera song” is even correct, but as a big fan of rock music I know that my world has been torn open by guitar riffs and solos, and I could relate so much to both Ida and Nora’s relationship to music.

And stuff that is probably meant to be specifically relatable for a female audience can sometimes be entirely universal. A scene early in the novel, where Grandma offers her old red gown to Nora, but not to Ida, struck a very deep chord in me. Not because I am sensitive to the correct handing-down protocol of ancient frocks, but because there is a universality in feeling what Ida felt in that moment: that her family/parent figure did not regard her as the special one; that she was not as loved as her sibling.

This, really, is Louise Allan’s strength in writing: she can take the minutiae of quotidian life and spin up a moment as poignant as an operatic crescendo.

The Sisters’ Song is a triumphant debut novel by a talented West Aussie (and Tasmanian) author. I loved it, and I recommend reading it if you are in possession of a pulse.

Holden

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The Most Terrifying Question in the World

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

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

“What are you working on right now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novel #1: SWORDY MCSWORDFACE 

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

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

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

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

But as my Swiss friend aptly pointed out:

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

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

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

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

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

Novel #2: INVISIBLE BOYS

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

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

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

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

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

Novel #3: THE NOVEL THAT MUST NOT BE NAMED

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

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

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

Without the awkward over-explaining I always do.

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

Holden

It’s 5am, I Must Be Lonely …

I did something new this morning.

After being slightly encouraged, slightly heckled by some writing buddies on Twitter – they know who they are – I decided to join the WA branch of the #5amwritersclub.

“Branch” makes it sound far more bureaucratic and formal than it actually is: it’s a new and small collective of West Aussie writers who commit to waking up early and getting some writing done at five o’clock in the morning.

When I was first invited (peer pressured?) to join the other authors in this endeavour, my first response was there was no fucking way this was going to happen.

Not because I didn’t want to join them: they’re all grouse people and we chat on Twitter all the time.

Not because I don’t like the idea of being productive with my writing – there is almost no better feeling than having just written something.

No, I was reluctant because it involved waking up so bloody early. I feel like I’ve already sacrificed all semblances of luxury by strategically setting my alarm at 6am each morning (and then 6.10 … and 6.15 … I’m one of those desperate snooze-button fiends).

5am felt like a bridge too far.

But then I got to thinking about how hard it’s been over the past three weeks to make time for my writing. As I tutor at a university, in addition to my other jobs, the start of the uni semester always leaves my head spinning. In fact, apart from a whole lot of thinking and planning and plotting, I don’t think I’d written a word of a creative nature since February.

Crapola, I thought. No damn wonder I’ve been feeling listless and rudderless, like an athlete trapped in a hotel room.

As soon as I saw it that way, I really did start to feel caged by the chaos of my quotidian “busy-ness” and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s putting being an adult before being an artist. So it was a no-brainer after that. I desperately wanted to pull my sneakers on, escape the metaphorical hotel suite and go for a sprint around the block.

I went to bed early last night, and set my alarm for 4:55am. When it went off this morning, for a change I didn’t hit snooze. I admit I did go into HULK SMASH mode for the first couple of minutes, both in terms of wanting to communicate solely in monosyllabic grunts and also in terms of wanting to shatter my phone with my fist and curl back up into bed.

But I have a stubborn streak that sometimes works to my advantage: once I set my mind to something, I do it, and I do it well.

hulk smash
Actual footage of me waking up at 5am.

So I yanked my laptop across the plush carpet beside my bed – where I had strategically placed it last night, anticipating my Hulkish mood – flipped it open and just began writing.

I actually didn’t even sit up, which is really bad for the neck: I just remained laying in bed with the laptop awkwardly perched on my abs. (Hah! Kidding. I mean my gut. If I have abs, they are as hidden as Donald Trump’s compassionate side.)

I had a blank word document, and absolutely no plans on what I wanted to write. There was no expectation of penning an amazing literary work, nor working on my third novel draft (which is still in the planning phase).

So I sat for about thirty seconds, and a line just drifted into my mind, like I’d plucked it right out of the soul of the universe. More of an image, than a complete sentence. Within seconds I had an opening scene, and two characters, and a plan.

I wrote furiously from 5am until 7am, and in that sacred two hour block, I churned out just over 1400 words. To put this into context, when I do NaNoWriMo, which is a month-long writing sprint, my daily word count needs to remain at 1667, so to churn out 1400 words in one morning is fantastic progress.

So, what was it that I wrote? It’s definitely not a novel, or a novella. It’s the first half, maybe the first third, of a short story. It taps into a really random idea I’ve had for awhile now about a security guard, so that’s what I’m working on.

As much as the flow kind of consumed me for those two hours, I reached a point where my motor began to putt and before I knew it, I was out of fuel and running on fumes. It’s really odd how that happens when I write: one moment I’ll be excited and driven by what I’m writing, and a second later I’ll be jaded like an aristocrat slumming it at a dinner party below their station. “What is this measly short story in front of me? Ugh. Get it away. I want caviar.”

I’ve learned to listen to my writing impulses, and make way for both the flow and the ebb, so I stopped and I knew I was done for the day.

This is good, though, because it gives me something to leap straight back into when I write tomorrow. And it gives me the goal of finishing this particular short story by the end of the week.

I have no idea if taking part in the #5amwritersclub is going to work out for me long term. It worked today because Monday is my home day where I write and do admin stuff, but it might be a different story tomorrow. I’ll take it as it comes.

What I do know is that I’m keen to finish this particular short story, and I’m excited at hopefully developing a regular writing practice again.

And it makes all the difference knowing that some other writer buddies are waking up, and struggling, and striving, and tweeting, and cheering on, and succeeding right along side me.

Hulk out.

Holden

What’s in the box?

G’day folks,

So, I had an exciting parcel arrive in the post late last week, and it was something I’d been looking forward to receiving for quite a while.

I made a short video about this exciting new arrival – check it out here!

More to come …

Holden

What It Feels Like to Finish a Novel

The first time I finished writing a novel was 1999.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red was right.

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

But it was something I had never done before.

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

My teenage fanfiction was adrenaline-fuelled escapism.

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

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

second novel
Proudly holding my second completed novel.

My blood is on every page.

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

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

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

As for how I felt when I finished it?

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

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

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

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

Finishing this novel has been an intense and rejuvenating experience.

I cannot wait to share it with you each.

Holden

Is Twitter Toxic?

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.

Toxic_Spikes_Move_Game
TOXIC SPIKES: Still probably hurts less than people being mean on Twitter.

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.

toxic britney
This whole time, maybe Britney was just trying to warn us about Twitter.

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.

We should strive to be creators, not destroyers.

Holden

My Whole Life is Thunder!

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.

You can check out the full interview here.

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!

Holden