Failure, Triumph and Spear Tackling Demons

Last year I tried to do a thing, and I failed spectacularly.

The thing was NaNoWriMo – a wonderfully kooky-looking acronym that stands for National Novel Writing Month. Thousands of writers – from amateur to emerging to published and prolific – attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in the thirty days of November.

I tried my guts out last year, but it was just a hot mess.

Hell, I was a hot mess.

I’d just been told I was losing my job in a restructure; I had nothing concrete to fall back on; and I had something like eight or nine major projects or events to deliver in the space of six weeks.

And I thought this was a good time to burn the midnight oil and churn out that great Aussie novel.

50,000 word story short: I failed, badly.

I got just a little over half way, which is not too bad given the gauntlet I was facing at work. But I crashed and burned, and that manuscript – which was a YA Thriller, and which I actually really like – is collecting dust in a drawer. Or more accurately, succumbing to the early stages of data rot on my hard drive. In my head, it’s more like cake batter: I fully intend to bake a delicious sponge with it and the guests are going to love it, but the oven isn’t preheated yet.

In non-overly-extended metaphor terms: I have a few other writing projects taking priority.

One of which is my second novel.

So, July saw the latest outing for Camp NaNoWriMo, which is billed as a virtual summer camp for writers. We even had cabins, where I got to chat to my fellow writers and we could share our joys and frustrations.

Because I wanted to make some massive headway in July, I set my goal as the traditional 50,000 words and set off on Day 1, which is a good start as that doesn’t always happen in NaNoWriMo. Some writers – past me included – have a tendency to rock up late, like day 3 or 4, and then play what feels like a Sisyphean game of catch-up from there. You know you’re not off to a great start when you’re limping across the starting line.

Despite the demands of work and publishing THE BLACK FLOWER in mid-July and other life stuff, I managed to track ahead of my goal word count every day of November, which I am pretty pumped about.

And on Day 30, I finally passed 50,000 words and reached my goal.

Camp NaNoWriMo complete
July was a fruitful month, though I’m going to pretend that flat part of the graph doesn’t exist.

I have said it before but I will say it again: the benefits of applying an artificial and entirely arbitrary deadline to your creative practice can never be undersold. I take off my hat to the people at the Office of Letters and Light who make NaNo happen. It is, for me, the most productive way to write. I thrive off both the stress and the sense of competition.

Maybe it’s masochistic, but I work best when I know I am suffering intensely for a real, tangible and nearby reward: a completed manuscript.

And suffer I did.

This manuscript is the most personal thing I have ever written, and I am including my Honours thesis story ‘Full-Forward’ which genuinely drove me to drink.

This manuscript required me to tap into so much of my past suffering: the very worst of what others have done to me, and the very worst of what I have done to myself.

This manuscript demanded brutal honesty. From the first chapter, there could be no sacred cows, and so I refused to let myself have any. Nobody and nothing is safe from the torch beam of this manuscript. I forced myself to see it all, sit with it all, and most importantly, to speak about it all.

And I found I had so much to say.

I’m still working on this novel. There are a few chapters left to go. I’ll hopefully complete them within the next few weeks, and then the joys of editing will kick in.

Meantime, I’m enjoying the honest introspection – and extrospection – this process has offered me as a creator and a storyteller. The dogged honesty this work requires is forcing me to spear-tackle some demons, identify hard truths from chimeras, and valiantly step into marching boots I have held in the cupboard for years but have always been too terrified to lace up.

I really can’t wait to share this book with the world. I’ll be posting here about it from time to time over the coming months, so make sure to follow my blog and keep an eye on my social media channels, too.

More from me soon, in many ways.

Holden

Advertisements

So, at what point can you call yourself a Writer?

In the last year or so I’ve encountered so many writers at different stages of their journeys. Some of them have been published novelists sharing their wisdom at events or in webinars (or, sometimes, in Tweets). Others, like me, are submitting short stories to journals or working on their first or second novels, and making their first foray into the sharkly world of agents and editors. Many authors I meet on Twitter and through Camp NaNoWriMo, are indie authors, or describe themselves as aspiring authors. And still others are bloggers or freelancers, sharing their life experience with the cybersphere.

On some level, we are all the same: artists and creators grappling with words and our own fears to craft something amazing, painful and beautiful and bring it into the world.

And yet, sometimes it feels like we are worlds apart from one another – especially, I think, those of us who haven’t yet had our first full-length work published (like me).

So, with so many stages and forms of this authory career, I’ve been thinking a lot about at what point we feel comfortable actually calling ourselves “writers” – and it’s quite a telling point to ponder.

Business man and woman shaking hands.
“Yes, ma’am, I’m a writer. No further questions kthxbye.”

Being a writer is a strange identity to occupy. We are not like a boy having a father figure or other male role model to look up to as he becomes a man. We are not like a Catholic going to church and learning the norms and customs from the other parishioners around us. We may share blood with our parents, but we are rarely cut from the same cultural fabric: very few of us would be descended from acclaimed writers (and those who are should count their blessings in terms of the networks that opens up for them!).

No: us weird little writers tend to incubate in obscurity and isolation through our childhood, until adolescence spits us out and we realise we can’t survive without writing.

But when are we allowed to actually become a writer? Imagine meeting someone for the first time (maybe at a conference or event or dinner party) and, when they ask you what you do, you respond with, “I am a writer.”

At what point in your writing career does that become kosher? Or believable?

It’s a slippery concept, because success as a writer was traditionally – and still is – so inextricably (and agonisingly) tied to having a full-length book published by a traditional publishing house.

Business People At The Meeting
You seem nice. Please, just take another free quiche and leave me the hell alone so I can dwell on my raging insecurities.

As a hangover from this – or, perhaps, as a mirror of our Western drive for achievement and validation – many writers do not publicly identify as such until they have a book published.

Many of us – especially the sensies among our ranks – experience the imposter syndrome. We really do fear that if we call ourselves writers, the logical next question from a well-meaning inquirer will do to us what a lawnmower does to a blade of grass:

“Oh, you’re a writer. So, what have you written?”

PANIC STATIONS!

Our fledgling writer turns heel and foots it out of dodge, with Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” blasting in his ears.

There is nothing more gut-wrenchingly, colon-emptyingly awkward and terrifying as calling yourself a writer and then mumbling a response to THAT QUESTION.

“Oh, nothing published yet,” you say, eyes down, desperate to get the heat off you.

the cool s
Remember these from Year 5?

All you want in that moment is for the person you’re talking to to go the hell back to the buffet table and freeload on some more spinach and feta quiches.

Many will find a way around this, and call themselves “aspiring writers”, but I actually feel quite passionately that this term is a misnomer. In fact, I actively encourage my students and writer friends not to call themselves this.

In my logic, an “aspiring writer” is someone who wants to write. You SHOULD call yourself an aspiring writer if you dream of one day writing an amazing novel, but you don’t know where to start, and you haven’t tried to write it yet, and it’s been seven years and all you have is a notebook with doodles of that cool stone S everyone used to draw in like Year 5.

HOWEVER.

If:

  • you are trying to write your first novel and have notebooks and MS word documents and Scrivener files full of first pages and first chapters; OR
  • you are practising writing short stories, creative non-fiction, memoir, poetry, scripts, whatever …

Then I would recommend you call yourself the dreaded Writer with a capital W.

Because despite the earthquakes of self-doubt that fracture your little writer heart every few weeks, or days, or hours, you are physically writing.

You are trying.

You are on your way and you are putting in all the blood, sweat and tears your caffeine-dehydrated body can afford to spare.

You are a writer.

writer not sane
Pretty much …

It does not matter one iota that nobody big and powerful and serious and acclaimed has yet recognised your genius, nor whether they have read your stuff, called it untalented tripe and kicked you twice in the kidney, leaving you in the gutter to die an artist’s death.

You are still a writer.

What defines us is our action and our spirit.

Our identity as writers is not tied to the quality of our work (how else would bad writers exist?) nor our publication status.

Personally, I thought of myself as a writer and was writing on and off from the age of seven, but I never dared to call myself one in public until my first short story was picked up and published in a literary journal when I was 20.

Until then, it seemed like Narcissus-level hubris to take on the moniker shared by King, Rowling, Tolkien and others.

But you know what? It still feels like that. Getting one short story published didn’t change that. Two didn’t. A bunch of journalistic stuff didn’t change it either.

And a lot of authors will testify that even getting one or two novels published still doesn’t change the sense that you’re not quite good enough yet.

Every time you introduce yourself as a writer, you’re waiting for Frau Farbissina to burst out from behind the bain maries at the networking dinner and scream, “LIES! ALL LIES!”

But really, I should have called myself a writer earlier, because (1) I have the spirit of whatever the fuck it is that makes us all creative and slightly cuckoo bubbling through my blood, and (2) I was writing actively, which satisfies my main criterion.

frau
When you have the audacity to introduce yourself as a writer.

I should have called myself a writer when I penned my little short story homage to Anton Chekhov’s “Misery” in my first year of uni.

I should have called myself a writer when I started writing my Pokemon fanfiction in 2001.

I should have called myself a writer when I was seven and writing about co-ed twelve year olds falling off Cornwall cliffs.

I do call myself a writer nowadays. In fact, I’ve been trying to consciously make myself say “writer” instead of my day jobs when people ask me what I do. It’s still a challenge in resolve, but I’m starting to actually do it.

You should, too.

If you write, call yourself a writer and cast aside the “aspiring writer” exercise in nervous hedging. You do not have to have anything published, or even finished, to be a real writer. You can survive telling a stranger that you aren’t yet published.

Just start writing, and carry yourself with the confidence of knowing you are a writer, just like Rowling. Sure, we may be less famous and poorer and less masterful, but we are still undeniably part of the same club. It’s just that we don’t have seats at the table yet.

You have to take yourself seriously as a writer to become a serious writer. And nobody else will ever take you seriously as a writer if you don’t.

Holden

I’m going to summer camp! But it’s not summer! And I’m not really going anywhere!

Since it was half-way through 2017 last week, I took the opportunity to look over my plans for the month ahead.

To my delight, my schedule – which is a hyper-organised, multicoloured Monica Geller wet dream sort of affair – for once did not seem to reflect someone on the verge of burnout.

In a nice change, for the first time since February this year, there was a whole heap of blank space. Apart from the upcoming publication of “The Black Flower” and a few assorted day jobs, I’ve got a relatively easy four weeks ahead.

Now, if self-care rated higher on my list of priorities, I would have kept the slate clean and spent the whole of July playing the Crash Bandicoot reboot and binge-watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

crash bandicoot
The new Crash Bandicoot reboot is totally gonna be N-Sane … when I actually get around to playing it.

But, much like nature, I abhor a vacuum.

So I decided to join a competition to finish my second novel by the end of July.

Camp NaNoWriMo is supposed to be the “light”, more fun version of NaNoWriMo, which I’ve taken part in (and blogged about) before. The cool part is that participants choose their own project and goal. There are virtual cabins where you can chat to other writers: I am the lone Aussie among 19 American writers, so at least that part of the camp experience is authentic. Of course, it’s -200 degrees here and there are no canoes, so it’s not quite a summer camp experience, but I will enjoy it nonetheless.

My project is a YA novel that originally began as a novella, which I completed the first draft of in February this year. With the working title of Damage Control (this will change, because I already have a few stronger titles in mind), it is by far the most vulnerable and personal work I have ever written. In some ways, it is difficult to write while drawing from that well of past pain. In other ways, it is a relief, like a toxin being extracted from my blood.

My goal was initially going to be 40,000 words in a month – a little less pressure than the traditional NaNoWriMo. But when I looked over my existing draft, I saw I already had about 20,000 words written – so, if I completed 50,000 in July, this would enable me to reach my target for the whole novel, which is 70,000.

So, 50,000 it is.

camp nanowrimo
Camp NaNoWriMo: Like summer camp, but 1000%  geekier.

After yesterday’s late-night effort (Day 5), I’m sitting at 12,599/50,000. It’s actually one of the strongest starts I’ve had on a NaNo project in a long time, maybe ever. I’m also really excited by this novel and, dare I say it, I’m even a little more eager to share this one with the world than I am with my first novel.

But as I plug away on my Camp NaNoWriMo project this month, I’ll be paying attention to something I don’t usually pay attention, at least not very consciously: self-care.

Filling my once spacious July schedule with blocks of writing time made me realise just how much of my own time I spend on writing. In and of itself, that isn’t a problem. In fact, it’s pretty important when you’re trying to break through to become a professional writer that you put in a good amount of time.

But I suddenly realised how often I use my evenings and weekends for writing and writing admin.

Enthusiasm and (blind) ambition are two of my greatest qualities, and I consider them strengths. But it seems like I kind of suck at chilling out and having fun, which is kind of a sad thing to be bad at. Case in point: my copy of Crash Bandicoot is still in its plastic wrapping, unplayed, and I’ve had it for a week. I physically have not made time to have any fun. Gamer fail. Hell, human fail.

So while I’m going to push myself hard this month to achieve a goal that is incredibly important to me – the completion of my second novel – I am also going to be conscious about not burning out.

I’m going to make time to play video games.

aku aku
In the sage advice of Aku Aku: OOGA BOOGA!

I’m going to make time to watch something on TV.

I’m going to make time to go outside.

I’m going to set aside time to do absolutely nothing.

This sounds a bit common sense, but with my perfectionist tendencies, it isn’t easy to find a balance. It’s either all (multiple jobs and projects with deadlines) or nothing (burnout). To find a middlepath is a new challenge for me, and it’s one I’m looking forward to – albeit with some trepidation.

Here’s to a hybrid month: of productive, emotive, fulfilling novel writing, and an orange bandicoot smashing wooden crates, collecting Wumpa fruits and dealing with Aku Aku’s ambiguous sound effects.

Holden

 

What I Learned From Failing NaNoWriMo

So, I failed.

In November 2016, I set myself the challenge of writing 50,000 words of a novel in one month – thirty friggin days! – as part of National Novel Writing Month, or as it is better known, NaNoWriMo.dane swan fail - Copy (2)

Three times before, I’ve hulk-smashed this challenge like no-one’s business.

In 2009 and 2011, I belted out the final book of a fanfiction series I’d been writing since I was a teenager. It was a huge sense of achievement to complete something I first set my mind to at the age of 13. That work was never designed to go further; it just tied the bow on that green-stemmed part of my journey as a writer. In those NaNoWriMos, I even posted on Facebook saying the 50K limit was “too easy”. (2016 me wants to strangle 2011 me. YOU KNOW NOTHING, JON SNOW!)

In 2014, I tackled the first draft of my first real proper grown-up honest-to-God NOVEL. Again, I hit 50K. And I spent the following December and January clattering on the keyboard like a possessed monkey until I completed that first draft.

NaNoWriMo has given me some of the most exhilarating, rewarding, exhausting days of my life thus far. My past attempts were characterised by pulling all-nighters as I fuelled myself with bucketloads of black coffee (usually instant … love me some bitter, cheap-arse Nescafe …) punctuated by (far too) frequent smoke breaks. Sheer determination to not be a failure of a writer – which is all I felt I was at that point – drove me to keep putting words on the page until I met that goal.

But my attempt at NaNoWriMo this year ended in failure. My word count maxed out at 18,126 words. I didn’t even make it halfway there. Jon Bon Jovi is gonna be pissed.

I could list reasons as to why this happened, but for someone who hates to fail at anything, any reason will sound like an excuse. And I don’t like excuses.

The truth of the matter is this: it hurts. It hurts to fail.

Of course, the sharp sear of failure isn’t a new feeling. I wasn’t born yesterday and I haven’t had a privileged or sheltered or easy life. Like my fellow meta-humans – er, humans – I fail all the time, but I usually fail at other stuff. And those day-to-day fuck ups bother me less because they aren’t linked to the glowing talisman that buoys me through my quotidian routines – which is writing.

And failing at a writing challenge feels like I’m failing at the thing I was born to do.

(Incidentally, I’ve used the word failure a lot in this post, but I can’t think of a decent synonym for this context other than échec, which is French and won’t make any sense, and fuck-up, which isn’t quite right. Microsoft Word is suggesting I use catastrophe, fiasco or miscarriage, which seems pretty savage for a piece of software. Shut up, Word. Maybe I need to invent a politically correct neologism for failure to bubble-wrap my feelings. I’m success-challenged. No, better yet, success-diverse.)

It’s been nearly two weeks since NaNoWriMo ended, and I’ve been thinking about what I can take away from my 2016 misfire (there we go). The sting of defeat is only useful if you learn from it, after all.

So, what have I learned? Four things:

1) I need to make more time. My mantra for the past couple of years has been: “You don’t find time to write a novel. You make time.” I firmly believe this, and I’ve made time over the last two years to work on my writing. But I didn’t make time this November. On the contrary, I filled it up with work and other stuff – and I won’t make excuses (insert teeth grinding sound) but some of it wasn’t avoidable. I didn’t make enough time, so I didn’t write enough.

2) I need to fuel up. My hectic month didn’t lend itself to input, and output-only mode is not sustainable for a writer. As little time as I had to write, I had even less – none – to top up my tank. Good writing is fuelled by two things: life experience and imagination, which is spurred on by vicarious experience – reading books. I didn’t make time to live or to read. These things are vital to producing work as a writer.

3) I need to acknowledge the successes as well as the failures. Ultimately, writing 18,126 words in a busy month is better than writing zero words because I foresaw a hectic time and didn’t give it a bash at all. And writing at the rate I did, I would finish the first draft of this second novel in five or six months, which is actually not bad at all. I need to stop self-flagellating over my perceived disappointments and realise just how much I’ve achieved.

4) I need to go easy on myself because life can be a bastard. Sometimes life throws you a curve ball. And sometimes it likes to throw a dozen at you, all at the same time, just to fuck up your sense of balance. And it usually does this just around the time when you look around all wide-eyed and go, “Hey, things aren’t going too badly right now.” BAM. Life enters. And that means plans don’t always work out. I just have to adapt and adjust and keep moving towards the real goal – which was never to finish my second novel in a month, really. It was to finish my second novel. As long as I keep doing that, I’m on track.

I’m ultimately proud of my failure this month. Not because it’s fun (yay! I suck!) but because it has galvanised my resolve, made me more determined than ever, and made me keen not to repeat the same mistakes next year – which means I will be making changes in my approach come January.

2017 is going to be an epic year in a lot of ways. I can’t wait to get started.

Holden

“So, what’s the go with your book?”

Being decently vocal about working on a novel (okay, really vocal), I’ve been fielding this question for some time. It comes in various forms. “So, what’s the go with your book?” “Are you published yet?” “Will you sign a copy for me?” “Do I get a copy for Christmas?” and the perennial favourite, “Fuck’s sake, are you still not done?”frodo 2

Given it’s been two years since I began writing my work-in-progress (and just over a year since I last posted anything concrete about it), I thought it was time for an actual update. In October 2015 I posted a ludicrously inaccurate meme of Frodo Baggins against the backdrop of the flames of Mount Doom. “It’s done!” poor exhausted Frodo – and poor exhausted me – declared.

I’d finished the second draft of my first novel. A day or two later I printed the manuscript and made some reference to it being corporeal. Well, it was corporeal alright, but it was still a hot mess, and at 140,000 words it was a gigantic slab of text no publisher would look at from a first-time novelist.

I won’t belittle the sense of achievement that second draft offered me. In keeping with the Middle Earth references, the first draft was both exciting and daunting, but it was like The Fellowship of the Ring, where the landscape is still fresh and green and everyone’s swanning around that elf palace and nobody’s really died yet.

Conversely, the second draft was like taking my hairy bare feet on a months-long trek over the savage hot stones of Mordor while a murderous Gollum taunted me. It hurt. I fell down. I failed. I gave up half way through and had to put it aside for a few months. My brain told me I sucked. I frequently believed it. Then I got up and kept writing while I gnashed my teeth.

So finishing that second draft felt like I’d reached the summit at long last. But in the coming weeks and months, I realised it was more like one of those adventure movies where the heroes crest a sand dune in the desert and see a thousand more dunes ahead, each as dry and desperate as the last.

I had to keep working. After giving myself a couple of months to be a human being again, I began a third draft in early 2016. That one was bloody hard work. I erased some characters from existence. I deleted entire plotlines. For the first time, the manuscript seemed to be taking proper shape.

Then came the real learning curve. I applied for a mentorship with the Australian Society of Authors, and was successfully paired up with an experienced editor. Actually, that undersells her: my mentor was an absolute gun editor – a former commissioning editor at one of Australia’s major publishing houses and a legend of the Australian publishing landscape. She was also the editor of one of my favourite novels of all time, which may have resulted in some incidental fanboying on my part.

And she liked my manuscript. She really liked it.

But that pleased and stung me in equal measure. Like wasn’t good enough. I needed this manuscript to be great, not just good.

So I worked with my mentor for the better part of five months. There were emails and phone calls and Skype calls. Microsoft Word track changes became my bread and butter. I worked during the day then came home and smashed away on the laptop like a monkey at a typewriter. It was gruelling work. I was constantly overtired and irritable, and I’d quit smoking, so I was occasionally ready to kill.

During 2016, my mentor guided me through my fourth, fifth and sixth drafts. At a glacial pace, my manuscript got better and better. I feel like I grew up during the mentorship. Despite having a couple of short stories published and an Honours degree in writing behind me, this was the first real developmental edit I’d had to help me become a novelist. And it was one of the most worthwhile things I’d ever done.

To supplement the mentorship, I also spent the remainder of my ArtStart grant money on a whole series of PD sessions: mostly webinars, some pre-recorded, some live. I heard directly from published authors, agents, editors and publishers. I immersed myself in blogs, website subscriptions, magazines and mailing lists. I learned about the Australian publishing landscape. I learned about the American market. I learned where my manuscript would fit among it all.

In early October, I finally had a polished and completed sixth draft. My final Skype call with my mentor told me everything I needed to know: she loved it now. And I loved it, too. The novel was in great shape. It was lean and mean at 112,000 words, and we were both proud of it. The action was high octane, thrilling, explosive. The characters were well-drawn, realistic, and worked well together. The plot made sense. The voice was unforgettable. The narrative was finally singing like I wanted it to.

My final step was to seek a copy edit from a reputable editing service over east. This was to tidy things up: fix typos and grammar and syntax, flag continuity problems, and so on. It was due back in early November, but I received the edited manuscript three weeks early, with a note from the editor: she’d loved it so much she’d taken her laptop to bed to keep reading it, hence the rapid turnaround.

And so, exactly two years since I began this novel, I find myself in the final throes of editing my seventh draft. Namely, this is going through and reviewing all the track changes the copy editor made. I have one scene to edit significantly; most of the rest is grammatical and stylistic. Apparently I have beaten the comma to within an inch of its life (kind of the way J.K. Rowling used/abused the semi-colon, but less elegantly). I need to do some hardcore comma purging.

What’s next? Well, once that’s done, that Frodo Baggins meme will actually be applicable. I will be done. My manuscript will be as finished as I can make it. And it will be time to seek publication for my debut novel.

But a novelist doesn’t make a career from one book (well, except for Harper Lee). There’s no rest planned. I’m about to start work on my second novel. I’m trying my hand at a thriller. Further up and further in.

So that’s the go with my book. And while there won’t be copies flung around as povo Christmas presents this year, I can say this with confidence: Yep, once it’s released, I will totally sign a copy for you.

Holden