How Failure Made Me Who I Am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You did. You cheated on this test.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I didn’t stop writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holden

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

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

On Blind Ambition and Bucket Lists

About three years ago, during a time of massive failure, I went back to my uni to visit my writing lecturer.

At the time – early 2017 – I had both lost my full-time job and had to abandon my failure of a fantasy novel. From every angle, I felt like a loser. I wanted my lecturer’s advice, and comfort, and to try to recapture that student feeling that dreams could come true.

As I told my lecturer about my book’s inability to interest agents, and how I realised my novel wasn’t good enough, I tried to find a way to fan the flames in my chest into words.

“I’m going to make it,” I told her, resolutely.

“I know you will,” she replied.

No, she wasn’t getting it, I thought. I wasn’t just some writing student who sort of wanted to get published. This wasn’t just a career that I may or may not proceed with. This was my life. This was almost the only thing in the whole world that I cared about. This was the only way I made sense as a fully-rounded human.

“I mean I won’t stop until I make it,” I elaborated. “No matter what. Even if I have to write a whole new book, even if I have to self-publish first before I can get a traditional publishing deal, even if it takes me years and years, the rest of my life, I will get there.”

“I believe you,” she said, with an ‘ease up, turbo, or I’ll press the duress button’ kind of look.

I remember that day, and that era, as the point where I kicked my ambition up a notch.

Ambition had always been the undercurrent of my personality, since the age of seven, when I first knew I wanted to be a writer. I am not ashamed of my ambitious nature. I am proud of it, actually. It would have been easy to give up on this dream at an early age. A boy from a blue-collar background in a country town doesn’t have the most inspiring pedigree for a literary career. In order to become a bona fide published novelist, I had to reach beyond my station in life, defy expectations and obstacles, and keep going in the face of many years of scorn, disinterest, rejection and abject failure.

Ambition – that craving to get the thing I wanted – is what pushed me to persevere and rise above all of that. I believed – and still believe – that if you want something dearly, and work hard for it, you can eventually achieve it. I am living proof of this approach.

But at that particular time, I knew standard ambition wasn’t enough. I had to move to a total war, scorched earth approach to achieving my dreams.

So I did.

I doubled down on my ambition. This was the only way I could pick myself up from what is probably the nadir of my career so far; if I did not fight back and push on twice as hard, I would have crumpled.

This blind ambition moved me through a hard time, and made me achieve a lot. It made me dig deep and write about something real: my novel Invisible Boys was born from this process and was written in the winter of 2017.

Moreover, my blind ambition spurred me on to do more than just write. It made me get on social media and work hard at building a platform. It made me cut way back on socialising and prioritise the hustle. It made me treat my day jobs as secondary, so I was author first, worker second. It made me quit smoking, take up exercise, eat better, lose weight, push myself out of my comfort zone. It helped me get what I want and it made me increasingly happy.

As my dreams began to come to fruition, winning awards and landing a publishing contract, I started to think about where I was going.

In 2018, I wondered how I would measure success, and the best metric I had was unemployment. That is, the day I can quit my job and live off my writing full-time, I would have made it.

Earlier this year, I realised I was embarking on a career-long mountain climb – the first novel was just an early peak, but not the summit. I have my eyes on bigger goals now – a mountain still to climb.

In both of these reflections, my only metrics for success were the continued pursuit of my dreams. On one level, I don’t really have a problem with this. In 2018, I wrote how a quote from Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece, The Alchemist, sums up my approach to life:

“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.

The paragraph above is ripped word-for-word from my 2018 post, and still sums up how I feel. So, I guess I’m still blindly ambitious, although perhaps I’m using that term too liberally. Some people would interpret blind ambition as compromising your values to get what you want, stabbing people in the back and walking over their corpses to climb a career ladder, shouting “don’t you know who I am?” – that kind of shit. I haven’t done that, ever. (Well, okay, I have said the last one, but only as a joke, I swear!)

And while I’ll continue to be ambitious, something cropped up recently that made me think more deeply about what I want.

It started when I interviewed Natasha Lester at Perth Festival in February, and she talked about becoming a New York Times bestselling author. When her publicist said, “you can check that off your bucket list”, Natasha replied that she had never had it on there in the first place. (In a bit of a boss move, however, she did then jot it down and cross it off, just so she could say she had – ha!)

That interview drew my attention to the idea of a bucket list – the list of things you want to do before you die. Then, a few months later, I was filling out a player profile for my AFL 9s team, The Perth Hornets – a social media “get to know your player” thing. One of the questions was “what’s your top bucket list item?”

Well, I don’t have a bucket list, I thought. I just want to make a living from writing.

But that goal begged a question: before I die, how do I want to live? What would I actually do with that full-time writer living if I achieved it?

My worker bee response to this was this: keep writing.

And this is where I discovered the downside of blind ambition. For all the success this approach has yielded, it has also left me stunted in my focus. I am a blinkered thoroughbred horse and I cannot see anything but the finish line of this enormous race I trained myself for.

On my player profile, I wrote my top bucket list item as:

“Owning some rural land with my dream ute and dirt bike – that’s it!”

Not super exciting, but it was my first, unfettered response, so I wrote it and moved on with my day.

But then a couple of things happened that brought my own mortality sharply into focus.

Firstly, my uncle died, far too young. He was a good man, and I care deeply about him and his family. I returned home to see my relatives, and attend his funeral. I delivered the eulogy, and as I rehearsed it, I was struck by how contented my uncle was with his life. Not only was he a kind, gentle and good-natured man – he was content. He worked hard as a bricklayer to provide for his family, but also to provide for himself. He enjoyed his life. He was at his happiest sitting on the balcony of the dream house he built for himself and his family, having his morning coffee and overlooking the spectacular cobalt blue of the Indian Ocean.

The second thing that happened was that I was in a car accident a few days ago.

It was, thankfully, not fatal. My car was stationary at the back of a long line of traffic on the freeway at peak hour, and the car behind me just didn’t stop – he ploughed directly into my Commodore and smashed it beyond repair – it’s a write-off. I was in shock and apparently responding quite slowly to paramedics and had back pain and whiplash, so I was taken to hospital by ambulance and wasn’t allowed to move my head or neck or spine for hours until they had done scans.

According to the X-rays, nothing was broken. I was released to go home and heal my back – which would be sore and stiff for a while, they said – and to take care of myself mentally and emotionally – which is expected to take longer. But all things considered, I appear to be okay. Hopefully there won’t be any long term impacts.

When we left the hospital, my husband (author Raphael Farmer) asked me if I’d had any revelations. Had the accident made me see life differently? I was alive, but that was pure luck: if the other car had been going faster, that might have been the end of me.

When I imagine my death, I see myself very old and grey, in bed with Raphael, and we both die in our sleep at the same time, peacefully and never having to mourn the other. This is what I hope for. But that night, had things gone worse, my death might have been in the twisted metal of a Holden Commodore on my way home from having San Churros with a mate, my last thought about how frustrating peak-hour traffic is on the Mitchell Freeway.

To say this was merely sobering is the same as saying 2020 has been just been a little challenging.

I told Raphael that no, I hadn’t had any great shake-up in terms of my life direction. Laying on that stretcher, I realised I am already living the life I want, which is reassuring. I have a husband I love, and who loves me; I have a fulfilling career as a writer; I have hobbies and pastimes and sports I enjoy and family and mates whose company I value.

Unexpectedly, the first thing I said to my husband was about a material desire: “I’m going to finally buy my ute.”

Maybe it’s dumb, but because I don’t come from money, and writing is rarely lucrative, I always knew I could have either the dream or the material possessions, but not both.

Blind ambition meant it was an easy sacrifice to make: the dream comes first.

But there are consequences to this way of living. I don’t spend money on my house: I live in a cheap rental in a cheap suburb and I don’t remember the last time I bought any furniture for it. I don’t spend money on my car: I drive (or drove) a cheap sixteen-year-old sedan. I don’t spend money on anything: for years, I haven’t replaced our broken washing machine, or our broken second-hand mattress that hurts our backs every night, or my ancient laptop which is so painfully slow I want to scream and throw it against the wall every time I use it. And so on, and so forth.

It always seemed like a worthwhile trade. Short-term pain for long-term gain. To some extent, it has made my achievements as a writer possible, so I don’t regret that.

But what if achieving a sustainable career as a writer takes another five, ten, twenty years? Would it be worth living a hindered, shitty quality of life for that long if it meant getting more novels published?

Before my uncle passed away, and before my car accident, I would have said yes.

Now, my answer is no.

I’ve been thinking more about how I want to live. Not my goals, but how I spend my day to day life.

So this is what I want, long term. I want to live with my husband on a bit of land – a good few acres, somewhere semi-rural, but close enough to the amenities of the city, where I can write from a writing den in my house and travel to the city/further afield for appearances and gigs. On said land, I’d like to have a dirt bike to ride around on, and I’d love to have my dream ute (a Holden SSV or Maloo).

That’s my bucket list. Everything else is gravy.

The house and land will take time to achieve – and the dirt bike is an extravagant toy.

But since I need a new car now anyway – dammit, I’m gonna get a ute. I’ve wanted once since 2007. It’s unrelated to any sense of achievement. It doesn’t help my career. I just want it for me. I’ve been busting my arse working since I was seven. I think it’s time I got something nice for myself.

I’m gonna find a way to get a new mattress, and washing machine, and laptop, too. Chasing dreams is not pleasurable if I’m running the whole way with holes in my shoes.

I will always be ambitious and hardworking, but the time for unadulterated, blind ambition is, for me, over.

I’ve always been a country boy who wants far more from life than he was ever poised to inherit organically. I still want to achieve big things before I die. I still want to scale this mountain.

But now I’m looking forward to seeing, feeling and enjoying the climb, too.

Holden

Writing When the World’s a Tyre Fire

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. ✌️✌️

Holden

The Post-Book Comedown – and the Comeback

So, the comedown finally hit me.

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.

Holden

My dreams came true. Now what?

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.

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Tour highlight: speaking to a sold-out crowd in Geraldton.

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.

dymocks joondalup 5 remaining
One of my most exciting moment just after release, when the 25 copies of my book at Dymocks Joondalup had almost all been sold within just a couple of days.

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.

It didn’t.

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.

Nup.

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?

Holden age 14 or 15
Me at around 14 or 15, dreaming of being an author.

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.

Time to climb.

Holden

I’ve Been a Bad, Bad Boy

G’day crew,

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.

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In Monte Carlo, Monaco, visiting the late Prince Rainier’s private car collection – check out his sick Ferrari!

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. 🙂

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At the famous Colosseum of Rome, formerly known (as I learned today) as the Flavian Amphitheatre.

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.

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Chilling on the French Riviera after a run: the seaside city of Nice, Mediterranean Sea, sunshine – what better climate for a honeymoon?

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.

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Visiting the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France.

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. 🙂

Cheers,

Holden

PS. Here’s the cover of Invisible Boys as promised – what do you reckon? I can’t get enough of it!

invisible boys cover

 

 

 

A Letter to the Novel I Abandoned

Dear Novel Zero,

Whoa. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? My bad. ^_^

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.

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October 2015, with the printed 2nd draft of Novel Zero

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.

Yours, always,

Holden

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

Nothing turned out the way I thought it would.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And holy crap, what a year 2018 was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

holden alanis - Copy
Seeing Alanis Morissette live in Sydney!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I haven’t released my book yet.

I haven’t done the tour.

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

hard work
Training for the hard work ahead.

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

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

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

Here goes everything.

Holden

thank u

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

How To Be Authentic When Everyone’s Watching

Holy fuck.

I can barely remember how to write a blog post. How did I used to start off? I’m sure I used to be witty. Or maybe that was just in my head; maybe I was laughing at my own jokes, like J.D. from Scrubs.

In any case, the only suitable opening I can find today is “holy fuck”. Frankly, nothing else has the brevity or blunt power to encapsulate how I feel, and what’s happened, since I last blogged.

So, back in September, I was announced as one of the shortlisted authors for the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award, alongside some amazing authors such as Alan Fyfe, Yuot Alaak, Zoe Deleuil, Julie Sprigg and Trish Versteegen. I was pretty damn excited about just being shortlisted.

And then on the 15th November, at a big ceremony at the Fremantle Arts Centre, I was announced as the WINNER of the 2018 Hungerford Award. I won $12,000 and a publishing contract: my debut YA novel, Invisible Boys, will be published by Fremantle Press in October 2019.

I am absolutely stoked and my full emotional response to this still hasn’t hit me, I don’t think. It is incredibly exciting and a dream come true, and the fact that I can’t come up with anything beyond cliches tells me I still haven’t really processed it.

Hungerford with Brad
With City of Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt after winning the 2018 T.A.G. Hungerford Award.

But as a result of all this enormous news, the last three months – from the initial shortlisting until now – has been one of the most exciting, hectic, surreal, chaotic and overwhelming times of my entire life.

And because of that, I haven’t written a blog post since the shortlisting was announced. This is not for lack of wanting to, but time was at a premium. About five minutes after I won the Hungerford, I had a media itinerary pressed into my hand by the marketing manager at Fremantle Press, and suddenly it was all go – press and radio interviews, contracts, event bookings, existing events to attend. Thing is, I never really factored in what would happen if I *actually* won the award, and it so happens that November/December are the busiest times of the whole year in my current day job.

So for about three weeks, my routine was:

  • Wake up at 5:30am feeling rat shit
  • Try to tackle incoming emails/social media notifications/tasks
  • Go to work for the day
  • Come home, open laptop, continue tackling inbound emails/notifications
  • Fall asleep with laptop open on my lap
  • Wake up and repeat the whole thing

I don’t think I had an iota of downtime for at least two weeks. I won’t pretend this wasn’t a really exhilarating time, though. The thrill of winning an award as prestigious as the Hungerford – and the realisation that my novel is finally going to be published – buoyed me through the hectic pace of post-award life.

(Suggestion for any future Hungerford shortlisted authors in 2020 or beyond who might stumble across this post: I recommend clearing your schedule for the whole week after the award announcement, just in case. If you win, you’ll have some breathing space around your crazy schedule. If you don’t win, you’ll have some downtime to curl up in the fetal position and take care of yourself.)

But it’s been almost an entire month now since the award announcement, and the noise and rush and overwhelm has finally settled. And better, I’m now on my third day of holidays: I have an entire glorious month off work over the summer. Right now I am sitting at an alfresco cafe in Fremantle. I’m drinking an apple juice with ice blocks in it. The sun is beaming down from a cloudless sky and a warm breeze tells me it’s going to be a nice hot day. I’m listening to a man across the street busking, playing blues guitar, and I feel more relaxed in this moment than I have for a very long time.

So it’s time to sit down and write how I’m feeling. Since I was a kid, writing stuff down has always been my way of processing how I think and feel; my tool for making sense of what’s happened. (I am very mature because I am totally resisting the urge to make a very crude tool joke right now.) My happiest times as a kid were sitting down on a weekend with my notebook and just being creative – drawing pictures, maps, or writing down thoughts, feelings, story ideas, or actual stories. This is one of my favourite ways of getting in touch with myself; of knowing who I am.

And I’ve commented to my boyfriend a few times this past month that I barely felt like I knew myself, which makes sense, since I wasn’t writing or blogging or doodling in a notebook. I desperately needed to write stuff down so I could comprehend what had happened, how I felt about it, and who I am now in what feels like a new era for my career and my life.

And now that I’ve given myself a few minutes to stop and think, the first thing I’ve noticed, or remembered, is that actually, there were loads of times over the past three months that I badly wanted to write a blog post. A few times I even jotted something down on my phone, thinking it would make a good post to share. But something stopped me – an invisible force that had nothing to do with my claims of being too busy (which I was) or not having enough time (which I didn’t).

So, the truth is, I actually stopped blogging for three months because I was really fucking scared.

Almost every time I thought of something I wanted to comment on or share, a thought bubbled up from within my blood – an acidic, corrosive thought:

What if you write how you are feeling, and Fremantle Press happen to read the blog post, and realise you’re sometimes sensitive/boofheaded/confident/a bit odd/a bundle of nerves/cocky/a total mess? 

That thought was like a springy, five-metre high diving board into an overly-chlorinated pool of an even more insidious thought:

If they know what I’m really like as a person, flawed and sensitive, they might decide not to publish me. 

And that little rhizome of terror took root in my psyche; like a weed choking a flower, it overpowered the cheers of support from friends and fellow writers. The fearful thoughts were actually louder than the momentous fact that the publisher had gone and shortlisted me in the first place.

So I froze for three months, and I chose to write nothing at all. I became completely paranoid that if I said one slightly dumb or embarrassing comment in a blog post, I might lose everything.

I’m not particularly proud of shying away from blogging like this, but when I reflect upon it, I would probably do it the same all over again if I had to. I have wanted to be a writer since I was seven; this is the dream and goal I’ve been working towards my whole life. Three months of dubious self-censoring was worth it even if, on the other side of receiving the award, I can see it was probably just fear talking. The people who work at my publisher are totally amazing people – I feel like I’ve joined a new family – and I feel very welcomed as both a writer and a human. I don’t have anything to worry about from that perspective.

But things have changed. Prior to the shortlisting, I felt like I was just some random toiling away in obscurity; now, I feel like people are actually watching, listening, waiting for my novel to drop.

And to be honest, I’m not used to people watching me. Nobody was watching when I fell apart trying to complete my Honours writing project in 2012. Nobody saw my quiet struggles in 2014-2016 of working on my first fantasy novel. Comparatively few people engaged with my short stories when I released them digitally in 2017.

It was easy to be authentic in those eras, because nobody knew who I was and even when they did, few people cared.

The post-Hungerford world feels different. I have to consider the other partners in my publishing career – such as my agent and my publisher. And every now and then I think about the fact that fellow authors, some much more established and esteemed than me, also follow me on social media, and thus might see my blog posts, and thus might judge me for how I write and talk and feel.

When I started thinking about this last week, I had the horrible thought that I was now going to have to be more cautious in what I write. And that thought snowballed. Shit, I’m going to have to censor myself. I should probably try to come across positive all the time, especially since I’m getting published so I should just try to be permanently happy and grateful and never say anything dark or negative again. I shouldn’t talk about how I feel as frankly as I used to. I shouldn’t blog in the unfettered, authentic way I used to. What if people think I’m a tool? What if they think I’m too soft, too annoying, too cocky? Or what if they just want me to shut the hell up since I’ve won the Hungerford? What if everyone’s already sick of me?  

This led to a truly abysmal weekend. I felt like I was suffocating; like I couldn’t be myself anymore. It was painfully similar to how I felt when I was younger and in the closet: thinking that how I am is inherently not okay; that I needed to put on some kind of front to be accepted by the people around me. It really affected me, and eventually, on Sunday, the bough broke. My anxiety skyrocketed, and I felt physically and emotionally sick. The option of shutting up, or of sanitising my online presence to present a more polished “published author” vibe from now on, loomed over me – a quiet, claustrophobic death of expression.

A death of my authentic self in the place of a palatable, saleable version of Holden.

While I was in this headspace, a lyric from one of my favourite Cranberries songs, “Free to Decide”, kept spiralling to the top of my consciousness:

It’s not worth anything more than this at all
I’ll live as I choose, or I will not live at all

I have always loved this song and this lyric, but Dolores O’Riordan’s words meant something new to me on Sunday. I realised in that moment that a life without free expression is not a life I want to lead. If self-censorship were ever the price of my career, the career simply wouldn’t be worth it.

And so I decided, on Sunday afternoon, that I won’t pay that price.

And as soon as I made that decision, my anxiety ebbed back to low tide. I felt immediately human again; and I felt like me again. My three-month-long self-imposed moratorium on expression had been shattered and I decided never to go back there. That’s no way to start a career as a novelist, and no way to live any kind of meaningful life.

The reality is, I can’t breathe if I can’t express myself freely. I’m pretty sure the free expression is what actually makes my writing worth anything, anyway. I am bolder in my writing than I am anywhere else, and that bravery occasionally leads to a good story or a good novel or a good blog post. Other times it doesn’t, but you win some, you lose some.

What matters to me as a writer and a man is that I am free to say what I want to say. When I am free and unencumbered, I feel like myself.

So, on Sunday night, I decided to commit myself to being as authentic and honest as I always have been. I value these qualities, in my writing and in my life, over almost all others. I don’t want to be seen as singularly positive and happy, nor singularly angry or anxious or depressed. I want to make space for all emotions. I want to be okay with them, not just as they happen, but in the sharing and expressing of them, if I so choose.

I am sometimes light and sometimes dark; both parts exist within me, within all of us, and I am going to allow myself to express these parts of myself as they come up.

Maybe this isn’t normal once people are watching and expecting certain things of my writing, but I don’t care. It feels right to me to be unfettered. I can’t live any other way.

This mindset feels like a good way to tackle the adventure that’s just over the horizon. 2019 is going to be an incredible year. The Invisible Boys era is about to begin, and I can’t wait to share all of it with you – the ups and also the downs, honestly and openly – over the year to come.

Here’s to a big year of triumphs and fuck-ups and everything in between.

Holden

New Interview with the 2018 Australian Short Story Festival

Hey guys,

It’s only two weeks until my first *ever* appearance at a writers’ festival and I am SO pumped.

I’ll be making two appearances at the 2018 Australian Short Story Festival on 20th October in Perth, both at the Centre for Stories in Northbridge.

The first appearance is on a storytelling panel for the Bright Lights, No City project I took part in back in May this year, which was all about telling stories of what it was like growing up gay in country WA. At this panel, I’ll be chatting with amazing storyteller (and my coach/mentor for the project) Sisonke Msimang, plus Josie Boland and Damien Palermo, my fellow storytellers from that project. It’s going to be pretty intense and vulnerable but I can’t wait to hang out with those three again and share my true story in oral storytelling form to a new audience.

The second appearance is my first time as a panel chair. I’ll be chairing a session called The Ventriloquists, which is all about the importance of voice in the creation of short fiction. I’ll be chatting with H.C. Gildfind, Luke Johnson and M.J. Reidy, who are all very talented writers.

As part of the promo for the festival, the awesome people at the Australian Short Story Festival interviewed me about my writing. The interview is available here if you are interested! Being the classy mofo I am, I used the words “buttloads” (thinking it would be more polite than “fuckloads” which was my instictive response) and “horseshit”. I am starting to suspect I may drag this literary festival into the gutter ever so slightly. I hope they don’t mind! 😉

Back to regular blogs soon, I swear … til then, happy weekend all! 🙂

Cheers,

Holden