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.

corporeal manuscript
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

Speaking in Someone Else’s Voice

I’ve been thinking about voice a lot lately – specifically, the way the voices of the characters in my current project are developing.

As part of Camp NaNoWriMo, I’ve officially started my third novel. This novel is a standalone – not a part of a series or linked to any other project I’ve written – which means it’s a fresh start for me. New plot, new settings and most importantly, new characters.

As I started delving into this novel, I realised that my process of creating characters has changed dramatically since my first book.

When I wrote my YA fantasy novel (we are calling him Swordy McSwordface at present, just for shiggles), I was planning to make it the first in a series. With that series in mind, I wanted to get all my ducks in a row for continuity and thus set up this amazing, fully-thought-out universe.

When I say I wanted this, I think what I actually mean is that I felt I had to do it.

When I was growing up, I was so impressed with how J.K. Rowling had reams and reams of backstory on her characters (enough to create a whole website like Pottermore). It was amazing to see how, in interviews, someone would question the origins of some random goblin from Gringotts or one of Sirius Black’s relatives and she would just be able to rattle off their history and motivations and Hogwarts House and even their wand size (oh my).

rowling

As a reader, these interviews were exciting ways to learn more about the wizarding world I’d fallen in love with.

But as a writer, they had an unintended negative consequence.

When I heard that Rowling had all this extraordinary backstory on her characters, I figured this was the way a true writer creates their characters; that they have to know every single thing about them, because they invented them. That seemed to make sense to me.

Moreover, the impression I took away from this was that if I wanted to be a good writer with well-rounded characters, it was essential to have mapped their entire existence as a human being.

And consequently, if I didn’t do this, I would be a bad writer. Or an amateur writer. Or a lazy writer.

So, I thought I needed to know all the fine details. Hair colour and style, of course, but also my characters’ addictions and crutches, their weaknesses, their scars, physical or emotional. Who were they friends with in primary school? Why weren’t they friends anymore? Why do they wear that particular T-shirt? Why do they drink that brand of beer? What colour is their piss in the morning? (Okay, kidding on that one, but you get my point.)

With the exception of the pee example (usually clear, though radioactive yellow after a multivitamin), these are all things you’d probably want to learn about the characters in a book you’re reading. It gives you a better sense of who they are and why they behave the way they do; it also makes them more real.

So with this in mind, when I wrote my first novel, I first set about creating these extraordinarily long documents of character bios. I spent hour after boring hour agonising over the origins of nicknames, the hobbies, the favourite school subjects, until finally I had what I needed: a full dossier on all my main characters.

Now I’d like to tell you how many times I actually referred to that dossier.

It was zero.

Actually, that may not be 100% true, because I seemed to constantly forget basic stuff like eye colour and hair colour/style, so for purely physical stuff I did glance at the beginnings of the dossier at times, for continuity.

But after writing them, I never again referred to those dossiers for input on what to make my characters say or do. I didn’t consult them for guidance when I was stuck in a particular scene, or when a character had to make a particular decision. So much of those documents was never viewed again.

stephen king

The reason for this is that my character dossier, for all its statistics and descriptions, actually didn’t tell me anything about my characters as people.

My character bios were like swirling double-helix strands of Deoxyribonucleic Acid: they contained everything that made my characters who they were, and yet, I could have analysed them for a decade and still I would not have known how my character felt, or thought, or sounded, because I had never heard them speak.

This was a profound realisation. When I created characters in bios and dossiers, they were really just blueprints – a network of pins upon which I would hang the nerves and synapses of a real human. But the bio itself did not bring the character to life: it created a lifeless, faceless mannequin that had no autonomy, no presence and no voice.

When I wrote Invisible Boys, I didn’t spend hours and days on constructing meticulous character bios. I did have a bunch of brief character notes in one word document that I drew from, but what happened with that story was that the characters revealed themselves to me, rather than me creating them.

This probably sounds disingenuous. I’m not cray-cray (well, no more than usual): I do understand that ultimately it was my fingers spidering over the keyboard that brought these characters into existence.

But I do also feel that I didn’t grow these characters in a clinical way, like embyros grown in a petri dish. Rather, it feels like I talked to them. I asked them to tell me who they were, and so they did.

My characters told me, and showed me, how they felt. They spoke to me in their own voices, and I was the scribe, and I recorded that snapshot of their lives for them.

It felt like they already existed, and I was just doing the hard work of asking them the right questions and getting them to reveal more and more about themselves. In hindsight, this reminds me of Michelangelo’s famous quote about freeing his statues from the stone:

“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” – Michelangelo

I imagine a lot of writers can relate to that quote – probably not just with character creation, but when it comes to editing a draft, too.

And writing characters like this felt natural and organic. Sometimes they did what they were supposed to do, but other times my characters kind of went rogue and did stuff I didn’t fully expect. And that was pretty damn awesome to be a part of.

So now that I am starting my third novel, I have made a conscious choice to not make any complex character dossiers. Instead, I’ve done up one-page bios on each of the five main characters, just to give me a factual reference point for stuff like what they look like, how many family members they have, etc. – mostly for continuity. But I’ve forbidden myself to write more than a page on each character.

I don’t want to tell them who they are and what they want.

I want them to tell me, in their words and their voice, who they are, and what their life is like, and how that feels for them.

characters off track

I don’t know if most writers work like this, or actually, if any work like this, but this is what feels right for me.

It does mean that, should someone one day quiz me in an interview about the full family tree of one of my characters, I may not be able to fully answer.

But at the same time, my gut response to that question is that I am not super interested in knowing everything about my characters. In fact, I would feel weirdly invasive telling a whole room of people what a particular character would do in a given situation. Unlike Rowling, I don’t think I’d have an answer prepared. I would probably have to write it as a scene and see what my character wanted to do.

I know I’m speaking about my characters like they are real entities with their own minds, as opposed to being figments of my imagination. But the reality is that I do see them as real, even while knowing they are fictional.

I see them as real because they are all, ultimately, fragments of my own self, expressed in different ways. Or as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it:

Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person. – F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Ultimately, that is what makes an authentic character for me: that they are a fragment of me each filtered in a slightly different way – like white light diffusing in a prism – and that they speak for themselves, rather than me speaking for them.

I don’t know if my process with character will change or evolve in the future. I’m certainly not dissing Rowling’s way, because frankly I’m still impressed and slightly envious of her control of character and world (not to mention for her success and wealth, but that’s a song for another day).

Ultimately, there’s no one way to do character, and every writer will have their preferred approach.

I’m just glad to have found mine.

Holden

What Self-Sabotage Really Looks Like

If I don’t write, I get sick.

I don’t mean physically sick in the guts. Although, that said, some of the overblown metaphors I’ve spun over the years have caused several readers to experience symptoms including head-spinning and projectile vomiting. (Exorcisms were needed.)

And I don’t mean the manflu that my partner accuses me of having every time a head cold knocks me for six and renders me a curled-up foetus watching old episodes of Pokemon and begging for cups of black tea. (“Please, baby, I’m too sick to boil the kettle …”)

The kind of sickness I’m talking about is more like a soul sickness.

A soul disease, maybe.

All I know is that when I spend too much time away from writing, everything goes to shit for me in terms of my mental and emotional wellbeing.

When I’m actively writing – whether it’s my blog or my creative work – there is an aliveness to my entire being – mentally, emotionally and physically.

Mentally, I’m stimulated as I reflect on my own experience and try to create meaning out of it (the blog) or dream up fictional characters and worlds and experiences (fiction).

Emotionally, I feel a certain level of satisfaction and catharsis at writing about certain topics. The actual act of writing itself is also deeply satisfying. Well, okay, sometimes the writing is frustrating enough to make you want to rip each individual hair follicle out of your scalp. But the point is, when a writer writes, we are in the process of flow, and we are doing the precise thing we were put on this giant blue marble for, and it makes us happy.

American poet Robert Hass probably said it best when he said, “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.” Of course, to get to the state of having just written, you need to slog it out and actually fucking write something. So we’re back to where we started.

quote-it-s-hell-writing-and-it-s-hell-not-writing-the-only-tolerable-state-is-having-just-robert-hass-71-84-52

And when everything is in alignment mentally and emotionally, things work out physically, too: I eat well, I hit the gym the right number of times per week, I sleep enough, and my energy levels are high.

But when I don’t write, this all goes to hell.

And it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that I haven’t been writing this month at all. It’s only today, sitting at my laptop and forcing myself to do something, that I realise what happened.

This little mini-crisis started, essentially, because I am the kind of writer who likes to keep on top of the numbers. I have a number of writer friends who determinedly don’t want to know how their books are selling, but I can already tell I’m not going to be one of them. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a bit obsessed with rankings and charts and classifications and numbers. Even now, the moment I get into a new band, the first thing I do isn’t listen to the rest of their back catalogue: I find their discography online and study it with the intensity of Hercule Poirot. I need to know which singles belong to which album, which ones were certified gold, which ones flopped and in which territories. Only then will I explore further.

Yes, I am a geek of the absolute grandest kind.

And this geekiness translates to how I approach my writing career. I like to check in relatively regularly with my sales and downloads graphs on Amazon and Smashwords. While my short stories A MAN and THE BLACK FLOWER are not big sellers, THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR does occasionally have sales spikes, and when it had some particularly big ones last year, I was also interested to follow its chart positions on iBooks and Barnes & Noble.

I also keep track of my blog hits, and unfortunately, this is what began my unravelling during the entire month of June.

It started at the very end of May. I was looking at my blog stats for the month, and comparing them to previous months, to see how things are tracking. To my delight, things had actually been going really well: my blog hits had increased, month-on-month, since December 2017 – and some of the increases were pretty significant.

The graph looked like this:

Blog Stats Graph - Holden
Blog Hits: Because I’m a geek.

So, from January through April, I was pretty chuffed, because my reach was growing. In fact, I got ahead of myself and I was all like, “hey, maybe I am not a total sphincter of a human being!”

This is bad for a number of reasons, not least because my self-worth really shouldn’t have any correlation to how many people are reading my blog.

Anyway, it was the month of May that ruined me.

Because, as you can see in the graph above, although April and May look roughly the same, May actually fell short of April’s peak by roughly 20 hits.

Your mentally-balanced, well-adjusted author – if he exists – would be like, “Gee, that’s swell! I guess this little blog is doing A-OK.” (For some reason, my mythical well-adjusted author talks in the same voice Eddie Murphy uses when he is parodying white people from the 1950s.)

But I am not your mentally-balanced, well-adjusted author.

The fact that May fell just short of April was just not good enough. I had failed to continue to grow my blog. This meant not only was the blog a giant pile of steaming failure, but I was, too. The old hydra of perfectionism reared its multiple heads.

And so I self-sabotaged. Without fully realising I was doing it, I kept putting off doing my next blog post, which I had been writing weekly until that point. And suddenly two weeks, then three, then four had passed – and my brain would not let me even entertain the thought of blogging.

Around the same time, in early June, I received a rejection for a short story I’d submitted to a prestigious journal. Now, being rejected is absolutely not a new experience for me, but this one stung me more than usual for two reasons. Firstly, I thought that particular story might have been a perfect fit for that particular publication, and it wasn’t. Secondly, I was already in a vulnerable, self-doubty kind of space, so it just layered on top of that.

The outcome? Not only did I continue my blogging hiatus, but I now stopped writing fiction with my 5am Writers’ Club as well. I was nearing the end of a new short story titled CRUMBS, and I just left it hanging mid-sentence. And interestingly, I stopped on the 12th of June – the same day I got the rejection. So I stopped writing at all, and I stopped getting up at 5am to work.

And, like I said at the start, I got sick in the soul.

I was no longer writing in any form, and this persisted for three weeks. I was completely self-sabotaging my career as both a blogger and a fiction writer. It was the classic “if I don’t write anything at all, then there won’t be any way to be told that I’m not good enough”.

I’m not good enough. It’s a sentence almost every writer has said to themselves at least once, if not at least once a day.

This is paralysing for a writer, and it ultimately comes down to self-doubt: a perceived failure of my blog to continue to grow, combined with a rejection of my fiction, had me back to square one in the confidence stakes.

On top of this was the weighty gravity of expectation. I had recently had some positive feedback about my blog from multiple readers, and it seemed to be doing well. The resultant expectation I placed on myself was twofold: one, that I had to continue to grow without a single dip in monthly hits, and two, that every single blog post had to be fucking amazing and insightful.

The writing paralysis continued until this week. I attended the Penguin Teen Showcase on Wednesday night, which took place in Perth for the first time ever. During the Q & A panel at the end, authors Dianne Wolfer, Fleur Ferris and Emily Gale spoke about how long it takes them to write a first draft of a novel. Later, on Twitter, I was chatting to some authors about how I have written both of my first drafts in about 3 months each. When someone expressed surprise at how quick that was, my answer was simple:

quality tweet

It was only when I looked back on that Tweet today that I realised what has been missing from my writing practice: permission. That is, permission to write total horseshit. Giving yourself permission to write freely is extraordinarily liberating for a writer because it dampens the little spot-fires of self-doubt.

And frankly, giving myself permission to write badly is what made me become a serious writer in the first place. I spent all of 2013 – the entire year – paralysed with fear at the thought of starting my first novel because I was worried it – and consequently, I – wouldn’t be good enough.

When I gave myself permission to write whatever I wanted, with no expectation of quality, I churned out a whole novel, and then a second one, and then a regular blog and a whole litter of short stories.

So, now that I’m aware of what’s happened – and why I’ve been so frozen this past month – it’s time to make a change.

I’m giving myself permission again. Permission to write freely, in both blog form and fiction form. Maybe my blog will tank and become wildly unpopular, like the latest Sharknado sequel. Maybe my fiction will become utter drivel, like literally anything with the word Sharknado in the title.

But perception and reception are ultimately beyond my control.

What I can control is what I write, and how often I write. I can’t control whether or not people will like my stories, or whether people will enjoy every single blog post I put up, but I can control whether or not I do these things at all. And the reality is, I do them because I love doing them, not because of the feedback – positive or negative – that I receive.

So, it’s time for me to cowboy up and get on with it.

I’m committing to writing a regular blog again, so stay tuned for regular updates again.

I’m also committing to a regular writing practice again. And I’m kind of excited, because I’m about to dive into writing my third novel. So this is probably the right time to loosen the burden of expectations from my shoulders, and just write freely, and fast.

I have to remind myself that I am only human and I can only do my best.

And my best is good enough.

Holden

Letting Go: There is No ‘One Chance’

If there’s one thing I’m really bad at, it’s letting go.

I tend to tackle a difficult situation head on and go with the Hulk Smash, bull terrier kind of approach first. I try to call this my ‘assertive’ approach and I can usually avoid going anywhere near ‘aggressive’, even when I maybe kinda want to smash someone’s skull in, just a teeny bit (it would be for their own good, I swear …).

If and when that fails, I will possibly fall silent and let my failure to resolve an issue through direct action fester and haunt me for the rest of my days.

But I very rarely shrug my shoulders and go, “Well, ya know what? It didn’t work. Life goes on. Let’s see what’s on TV.”

I think letting go is actually an important life skill, and it’s something I need to work on more. I don’t have the solution to this yet, although I suspect it isn’t found by listening to that goddamn song from Frozen. (Sorry, parents … I bet you only just got that shit outta your head a few months ago. I recommend listening to Rebecca Black’s Friday to distract yourself … trust me …)

idina-menzel-let-it-go-58169dfd5f9b581c0b6e46ef
No! NOOOOOOOOO! Get away from me, wickedly talented Adele Dazeem!

The reason I bring this up is that I had to force myself to let go of something recently, and it’s still got me thinking about why it was so hard to do.

I’m not talking about something particularly deep or meaningful here: I find that stuff nigh on impossible to let go of, despite my best efforts.

This was actually something writing-related. There was a call for submissions from a particular publication, and what they were seeking seemed like a golden opportunity for an emerging YA author like myself.

In fact, I was so convinced that it was going to be the right fit for me, I kept the damn thing in my calendar until super close to the deadline, when I finally forced myself to give up on it.

I had to give up and let it go, because I actually didn’t have anything written that matched the criteria they were looking for.

Most people would probably go, “Oh well. I’ll try next time.”

samuel-beckett-playwright-go-on-failing-go-on-only-next-time-try-to
Beckett knows what’s up.

Not me. I was so doggedly determined that I would find a way to churn out a suitable piece of writing that I self-flagellated for weeks. There had to be a way, I told myself. I wanted to wring the creative juices out of my squishy grey brain. Come on! Produce something amazing, brain! Don’t you know this might be the only chance you ever get?!

And there it was. Suddenly, I understood why I drive myself so hard with these kinds of things.

Don’t you know this might be the only chance you ever get?!

This is what I’m scared of as a writer. This is why it’s hard to let go of opportunities; this is why I have a word document stacked with calls for submissions I want to submit to and simply never will; this is why every internet browser on my phone or laptop has 34293235 tabs open, because I’m trying to remember every call for submissions I’ve ever seen.

I’m scared the opportunity I pass up will be ‘the one’. The one opportunity that somehow makes everything change. The one that puts me on the map, gets me more noticed, makes a publisher slide her wheely office chair over to her shiny desk phone, dial my agent’s number and go, ‘Heyyyy, how would Holden like a ten-book deal for a million billion trillion bucks?’

*cough* Publishers: I am totally open to this and if you think it would be a neat idea to invest a million bucks in me just to see what happens (could be a fun experiment, right?), I am sure my agent would love to hear from you. *cough*

Ultimately, I’m scared of passing up an opportunity because there is a pervasive myth, with a kernel of truth to it, that floats around all creative people like a cruel mist. The myth is of the discovery of the artist. The big break. The thing that made everything change overnight.

We’ve all heard the stories of actors and musicians who got their big break in the most unlikely of ways. Writing is a little different – sometimes extremely different – but some of those “big break” stories still echo through our collective consciousness.

Matthew Reilly’s chance encounter with a Pan Macmillan publisher which took him from self-published nobody to multi-million selling blockbuster author.

Stephen King throwing the draft of Carrie in the bin, only to have his wife fish it out and convince him to keep going: it became his first published novel and made him the biggest author on the planet.

And don’t even get me started on J.K. Rowling and Bloomsbury.

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Matthew Reilly: from self-published nobody to multi-millionaire bestseller.

The point is, most of us know that finding long-term success as an author depends on two things: talent and luck. The fear is that even the most eloquent, brilliant author in history might languish in eternal obscurity if he never jags the right editor at the right publishing house who would have championed his work. So what hope do the rest of us have?

But I’ve decided it’s not healthy to fixate on every opportunity as being so desperately make-or-break.

Firstly, because if I get off my neurotic writer hamster wheel for two seconds, I realise it’s not realistic. None of these submissions are going to be career make-or-break moments.

Secondly, it simply isn’t true that there is only one chance to get this right.

We know about the big breaks of Matthew Reilly and Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, but it’s false to assume that their careers would never have happened if those exact moments of luck hadn’t happened.

In fact, I’m quite certain they would have had amazing careers nonetheless, because, as with all writers, writing is in their blood. If Contest hadn’t been picked up by a publisher, Matthew Reilly would have kept writing: in fact, he was already working on his second novel. Likewise, Stephen King would have written something different. J.K. Rowling would have kept querying Harry Potter to other publishers, or started work a lot earlier on The Casual Vacancy, perhaps.

And because writing is in their blood, they would have kept writing, and kept querying, and kept trying until they finally did get their big break. The success equation is not just talent plus luck. It is talent plus luck … plus resilience.

Almost every published author has a similar tale: a barrage of rejections, twists and turns until, finally, against all odds, they got their first book published. And then the whole cycle probably repeated again for book number two. It’s not an easy career for any of us, published or otherwise.

The point is this: there is no “one chance”, taken or missed, that determines our fate. It is our willingness to be dogged, and resilient, and continue to pursue our dreams in the face of rejection and naysayers, that increases the odds of our success exponentially.

We are more than one story, one call for submissions, one novel, one series, or one lead character. We are writers. We have whole universes nesting in the starry recesses of our subconscious minds. The possibilities are endless, and our entire careers and fates do not rest on one single missed opportunity or failed idea.

So, I was a big boy and I let go of that particular call for submissions. That particular opportunity wasn’t the path the universe has in store for me. So be it. And guess what? The deadline passed, and I was alive after it had. Bully for me.

Moving forward, I’m going to make a conscious effort to get less wound-up about individual opportunities. What has buoyed me this far in my career will get me through the rest of it – and that isn’t any single chance encounter: it is resilience.

Holden

You Lose. Continue?

When the wheels fall off my life, I like to use it as a chance to reassess what I’m doing.

And this last couple of weeks, the wheels did kinda fall off. I’m talking action-movie style, tyres spinning off into burning alleyways while the metal underbelly of the cab churned against bitumen, rose-gold sparks spraying into the air until I crashed into a truck and burst into flames.

I did it again, didn’t I? I over-inflated an innocent metaphor and killed the poor bastard. Well, fuck it. As a writer, I reserve the right to make a mountain out of sawdust.

Anyway, the whole life unravelling thing pissed me off all the more because I’d made a great start to April. In terms of writing productivity, I was more productive than at any time in my career, with the probable exception of my NaNoWriMo efforts. It’s all thanks to my involvement in the Perth troupe (band? auxiliary? battalion?) of the #5amwritersclub. A bunch of us from across WA check in with each other on Twitter at 5am, churn out some writing and by 7am or so, we’re done. We keep each other accountable, get work done, and foster friendships by communicating solely through monosyllabic grunts, GIFs and references to how much we hate being awake at 5am.

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The official theme song to the #5amwritersclub.

Although I was initially kind of coerced into it, joining the club is one of the best decisions I’ve made for my writing career. Since joining in March, I’ve already used my early starts to complete three short story drafts: one called SECURITY, about a security guard (defo need a better title); one called MOONLIGHT (which has a title I love); and one based on my career as a banker, which I am not going to name yet for a couple of reasons.

Not only does developing a regular, early-morning writing practice boost my productivity, it also helps me start each day with a sense of achievement. I can get ready for work in the knowledge that I’ve already done my creative writing for the day, and I don’t need to stress about fitting it in when I get home all exhausted from my hellish day that nobody could possibly understand  fairly cushy university job.

But because writing in the #5amwritersclub makes my day, and my week, so much brighter, it wields the power of a double-edged sword – much like the kind Mickey Rourke tried to kill me with. (Sorry, I’m a hardcore 30 Rock fan and can’t write the words “double-edged sword” without making that reference.)

double edged sword
Gets me every time.

The point is – if I make it to the #5amwritersclub, I’m all pumped for the day. If I miss it, I’m back in Hulk Smash mode.

And so for the past couple of weeks, when I was staying up too late and overtired from work and marking papers, I began to struggle to wake up at 5am at all. Even 6am became impossible. I faltered. I was waking up more tired than when I went to bed, and I barely appeared at the morning roll call. And then last week I pretty much threw it in entirely and gave up.

Then it flowed on to everything: my eating (my meals were fine, but I snacked a lot while marking … helloooo Lindt dark chocolate), my exercise schedule (I only did two and a half workouts instead of four), my sleep (don’t have to be up at 5am? browse the Internet until you pass out!) and my overall wellbeing (I became overwhelmed and overstimulated by even the slightest things).

I even went to write a blog post about how I was failing at everything, and then I couldn’t even make the time for that. It sat there for days with nothing but a vague title that I later deleted.

Yes, I literally failed at writing about how I was failing.

I pushed all my writing tasks and the things I wanted to do back further and further, until they were looming over my weekend, and then I got sick. I left work on Friday with a sore throat, checked in the mirror to see lumps of pus the size of Ukraine on my tonsils, and called it a week. I flopped on the couch after work, and when I woke up I was dizzy and exhausted.

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Failure can be so exhausting.

I spent most of Saturday in bed, steamrollered, and that was the point at which I stopped trying to make my week less of a failure. You know what? It just was. The whole week sucked. I sucked. Everything sucked.

Oddly, once I just accepted that, it became a lot easier for me to bear.

I have such a resistance to failure. Maybe it’s my own overachiever personality, or maybe the way society generally encourages us not to associate with failure (because who wants to be a loser?), but I really resist accepting when I’m beat.

But I think, sometimes, it’s okay to acknowledge that your week, or month, didn’t go the way you planned. You didn’t get everything done that you wanted to get done. Goals and deadlines went unmet. Perfection was not attained.

You failed.

And I’m learning that failure does not kill you; resisting it does.

And treating a one-off failure as a permanent state of being can paralyse you.

So, I’m going to try to view my failed week in the same way I view my successful weeks. That is, having a whole week of failure as a writer, just like having a whole week of success, is:

  • temporary
  • part of the process
  • normal
  • acceptable
  • survivable
  • not a permanent state of being
  • does not mean next week will necessarily be the same
  • not indicative of my value as an author
  • not indicative of my value as a homo sapien

In the fighting video game Tekken (or at least, in the 90s era Tekken 2), losing a fight resulted in the game announcing in a sinister, almost mocking voice:

“YOU LOSE.”

But it was never GAME OVER immediately. The game always gave you a choice to continue. You could go on fighting, maybe learn from your defeat, modify your technique and come back again with a win, or you could give up and choose game over. The choice always remained with the player.

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Come on, Michelle! GET UP! Ganryu won’t uppercut himself.

Having a shitty week is a gift in a way, because it gives me a choice: I could accept my bad week as game over, or I could spam the X button to continue the game and try again.

And the vigour with which I hit that X button tells me everything I need to know about myself. That I don’t need to worry about failures and setbacks, as long as I get back up, brush myself off and try one more time to defeat Kazuya.

So, I spent Sunday night reassessing, and making new goals for the week ahead, and here I am at #5amwritersclub, writing a new blog post. That’s one goal down.

It’s a new day, and a new week lies ahead, spread out like a dewy valley, untrammelled by either my boots or my neurosis. Anything can happen if I make it happen.

So, I’m back in the saddle and ready to get some shit done, but I think failure deserves three cheers for getting me back here.

Holden

The Most Terrifying Question in the World

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

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

“What are you working on right now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novel #1: SWORDY MCSWORDFACE 

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

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

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

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

But as my Swiss friend aptly pointed out:

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

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

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

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

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

Novel #2: INVISIBLE BOYS

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

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

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

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

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

Novel #3: THE NOVEL THAT MUST NOT BE NAMED

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

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

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

Without the awkward over-explaining I always do.

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

Holden

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