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

The Importance of STOPPING (Before You Crash)

So, I finally stopped.

This past week I’ve been marvelling – like a bit of a glazed-eyed idiot – at how incredible it feels to do nothing. Since New Year’s Day, I’ve stopped everything. No work. No writing. No being productive, or responsible, or busy. Not even my usual obsessive checking of my work emails on my phone. Rien. Nada. Niente.

And fuck, it feels amazing. I feel more like a human being and less of a worker bee.

It’s strange how one man’s epiphany can be entirely obvious to someone else, though. We’ve had my sister and her boyfriend staying with us for a few weeks over the summer. Most mornings, my sister will take a cup of English Breakfast tea out onto the patio and I’ll follow her out there with my protein shake (an unholy melange of whey isolate protein and three or four raw egg whites). We chat for a few minutes, maybe half an hour, before beginning our respective days, and each morning I’ve waxed lyrical about how good it has felt to stop. She has fixed me with a dead-eyed stare each time, like I’m some unique new specie of moron she has not yet been trained to deal with.

It struck me, at this point, that I’m not quite normal, because most people DO stop, all the time, and so being mystified by the experience seems ridiculous. My sister works incredibly hard as a nurse, often working night shifts and usually with some intensely challenging patients, and she knows full well the value of downtime. She curls up with her boyfriend and watches TV and just veges the fuck out.

I’ve always been a bit of a high-functioning humanoid since my youth: working hard, taking on more and more stuff, seeking more information and input and stimuli. But I think when I was a kid I took a lot more time to chill. When I reflect on my past year – in fact, every year I can remember for the last decade – I feel like all I’ve been doing is hurtling through each day. Meetings for this job. Classes to teach for the other jobs. Do some emails for the fourth job. Work work work work work. (Insert either a Fifth Harmony or Rihanna intonation here – your choice.)

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast with American therapist Dr Bryan Robinson, who is an expert on work addiction, and a lot of what he described rang true for me in terms of my hectic approach to life. I overtax myself to the point of burnout quite regularly, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times previously on this blog. My modus operandi is to hurtle through one week, and the next, and I keep hurtling until I crash.

And I don’t react normally to a crash. I think a realistic reaction would be:

HOLY SHIT, GUYS, THE CAR’S CRASHED AND IT’S ON FIRE. GET SOME WATER OVER HERE. PUT THE FIRE OUT. YANK THE DRIVER OUT FROM BEHIND THE WHEEL AND WRAP HIM IN ONE OF THOSE SILVER SHEETS AND GIVE HIM A DRINK. REST, SON. JUST REST.

And for myriad reasons that I’d need a counsellor to drill down into accurately, my reaction has always been:

Well, the car’s crashed and it’s burning around me. Let’s see if I can get the motor running again. Oh, sweet, the engine turned over. Great. Let me just shake this glass out of my hair and then I can get this bastard on the freeway again. Why does it smell like smoke and burning rubber in here? Vroom!

You don’t need any more car crash metaphors to get the idea.

I’ll try not to beat up on myself for being the guy who just realised that resting and recharging is a bloody good idea. Instead I’ll just extol its virtues, and learn to do this more often, because it’s brought me back to the kind of guy I actually want to be. I feel like myself more than I have in a fair while, because I’m actually taking time for myself.

So what has stopping actually looked like for me this summer? So far it’s meant:

  • Working Out: This is my favourite release and the most enjoyable pastime I have outside of writing. I like being a cerebral and creative person, but I also love getting the hell out of my mind and into my body and just being a meathead for an hour or two each day. Getting down to the gym and lifting weights is a great workout (and release) and sprinting or cycling or jumping or climbing burns so much nervous fuel and energy it’s better than any drug.
  • Reading: I’ve been working my way through Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson – a book I actually didn’t think had hooked me at first, but about 100+ pages in, it snared me and now I really want to see where it goes.
  • Gaming: My boyfriend, who is a hardcore gamer with the headset and mic and keyboard and all, is always at pains to remind me I’m a casual gamer, not a “real” one. Still, I love spending hours just playing a good game. This summer I’ve been hooked on the latest Call of Duty (I love a good FPS; WWII is such a return to form) and Cities: Skylines (geeky af but I love building cities).
  • Soaking up some sun: Now that the sun’s out, I’m spending at least half an hour a day just sitting in the sun and working on my tan. I’m supposed to be an olive-skinned Sicilian, but winter always leaves me looking like a pale pommy bastard, so a bit of sun goes a long way.

It’s been a great 11 days so far and I’m so glad I took the time to stop properly. I won’t forget how important this is, and I’ll make sure to do it again soon. I’ve got a couple more days of chilling out, and then I’ll be flying across to the other side of the country for two weeks to get stuck into some work.

My writing residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House (in the Blue Mountains), begins next week and I reckon it’s going to be an incredible experience. I’ll be given a room and a studio to work from and a whole week to work on my next novel – which is so unreal. To have no distractions or responsibilities for a week, and just be able to focus on my writing, is a dream come true.

Stay tuned – I’ll share updates from the week and definitely some photos. Apparently there are beautiful sights up in the Blue Mountains!

Holden 🙂

The Parting of the Ways

Whenever I speak to someone about something I’ve written, I am always at pains to point out that it is fiction and therefore totally made up.

Sometimes – like with works of epic fantasy – it’s easier for people to swallow: I don’t usually need to break a sweat trying to convince someone I am not a warrior mage from Dervine, for instance.

But when you write contemporary YA – which is the genre/category of my upcoming novel – the line between the characters of fiction and the author who brought them into being becomes blurry.

All novels are, by their nature and definition, works of fiction – but there’s no denying that they also serve to crystallise many fragments of the author. It may be elements of our psyche, our history, our politics or our worldview, but some hidden shards of us end up in the final product, like tiny cracked eggshells accidentally sprinkled into the pudding.

The degree to which this happens varies from author to author, novel to novel.

I’ve recently been poring over my printed manuscript, going over some notes from the editor and immersing myself in the novel’s aura, and today a quote came to me from the abyss.

Okay, it was from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but “abyss” had more gravitas.

Towards the end of that book [SPOILER ALERT, if you’re 17 years behind …], in the penultimate chapter titled “The Parting of the Ways”, Harry is forced to recount the trauma of what just happened to him at the end of the Triwizard Tournament. He’s witnessed Cedric being murdered in front of him; witnessed the spectral reincarnation of his dead parents for a cruel, infinitesimal moment; and seen the Dark Lord rise again.

In short, he’s had a bloody shit night out and the thought of talking about it is too painful.

When I first read this novel at age twelve, there was a line from this chapter that stood out to me. In subsequent years, as I’ve attempted to recover from some of the trauma I’ve put myself through in life, that line has glowed in my mind with the ferocity of a lightning bolt-shaped scar:

“Once or twice, Sirius made a noise as though about to say something, his hand still tight on Harry’s shoulder, but Dumbledore raised his hand to stop him, and Harry was glad of this, because it was easier to keep going now he had started. It was even a relief; he felt almost as though something poisonous was being extracted from him; it was costing him every bit of determination he had to keep talking, yet he sensed that once he had finished, he would feel better.”

The part in bold is what resonates with me, now, as I look at the mess of papers that constitutes my manuscript’s current draft.

I had the same feeling when I started writing this book: that something toxic was being extracted from my blood; with each sentence I pounded out on the keyboard, a few more drops of latent venom leaked out of my veins, slowing filling the vial.

Acidic pain.

Boiling rage.

Noxious regret.

Caustic shame.

It finally escaped my body and became contained in its own vessel: the manuscript that sits before me now, marked in editor’s pencil and illuminated by the afternoon sunlight.

Yes, it’s entirely fictional. The characters are made up, and so is the story. It will be read, first and foremost, as a tale. But the themes this novel tackles are so close to the bone that I drew plenty on my own past in fleshing out some elements.

My writing process for this novel reflects Harry’s experience and exhaustion, too. I had to plumb some deep reserves of determination to keep writing when I was so shattered, but I knew that once I finished, I would feel better.

I do feel better now.

Moreover, writing this book represented a Parting of the Ways of my own. That vial full of poisonous venom has left my body and is contained in the manuscript now. Now that it’s outside of me at last, I can see it more clearly. I can experiment with it. I can open it and close it. I can hold it in my hands and feel its weight.

My task now is to make some final touches and then send it into the world, where my work can, I hope, serve as balm for others whose skin right now is as burnt and raw as mine once was.

Holden