The Waiting Is The Hardest Part

The late (and extraordinary) Tom Petty once sang that “the waiting is the hardest part”.

Man, there’s nothing like becoming a writer to discover how true that saying is.

As much as we moan about having to spin our drafts out of thin air (we are basically wizards, thank you very much) or gnash our teeth over editing our messy manuscripts, both of these tasks are more pleasant than what comes next.

The WAITING.

It doesn’t matter much whether we write short form or long form, the publishing industry inevitably involves massive long wait times. Waiting for an agent or editor to respond to our query usually leaves most authors, including me, checking my inbox at least twice a day (even when your agent is as lightning-fast as mine was when she decided to represent me). The same goes for submitting short fiction to journals. In the past, when I’ve had something out on submission, it would drive me kind of nuts for those weeks or months until I had a response.

Of course, up until this year, I was submitting relatively sporadically, so there were spells where I’d have absolutely nothing on submission. This was actually quite restful, as it allowed me to feel like one of those normal human beings who have their hearts planted firmly within their chests. Being on submission, by contrast, feels to me like I am living each day with my heart dangling on the outside of my rib cage.

I feel like the world can see every fine detail printed on my heart’s ventricular muscles; every vulnerability of my soul is on lurid display for people to either nurture or spit on.

And most of the time, it gets spat on.

I know I ought to be more resilient than this (there I go finding fancy ways to say that violent word “should” again). But the reality is, every rejection hurts so much. I feel like I’ve offered up a vulnerable sliver of my inner essence on a golden platter and held it above my head as a sacrifice to the Writing Gods, hoping to please them. And when that ritual sacrifice is deemed not good enough, I feel that I have been deemed not good enough, and it feels like this foolish mortal shed blood for nothing at all.

Now, all this angsty cluster of writer feels was kind of bearable when I was submitting sporadically. I’d go through times of agonised waiting followed by months where I could cram my heart back into my body and feel the circulation gloriously return to my limbs.

But as of a few months ago, I’ve been on constant submission. My second novel is now on submission to publishers thanks to my brilliant agent (and publishing is an industry notorious for moving at a glacial pace, so I have nothing concrete to share yet). Beyond that, I’ve been subbing my short fiction to a range of literary journals, as well as pitching some ideas for freelance journalism to news outlets.

quote-the-waiting-is-the-hardest-part-tom-petty-106-43-49
Tom Petty knew what was up.

The upshot of this is: since March, I have been constantly waiting for one project or another to be accepted or rejected, with no real end in sight. This means I have been constantly living with my poor heart thumping desperately in the exposed, polluted air outside my body.

In the past, this sensation has overwhelmed me, and I’ve sought to numb the fragility of being an artist. Sometimes it was with substances (it’s hard to feel worried about your writing when you’re saturated in bourbon), othertimes it was with overwork (no time to worry about rejection if you’re too busy to even scratch yourself), and occasionally both of these crossed over and led to some inglorious meltdowns.

And at the very worst of times, I responded to this fearful state of vulnerability with the total abnegation of my role as an artist. That is, I stopped submitting, and I stopped editing, and I stopped writing. The most pronounced of these times were in 2010 and 2013, when I didn’t write a word (and as I’ve mentioned recently, not writing makes me sick).

But being on constant submission this past three months has made me realise something important. The “submission” phase of writing – where we jettison our precious creations into the ether to be either embraced or (more often than not) scorned – is not meant to be unusual or rare. It is a required part of the process, and for any of us to become successful or resilient writers, I think it needs to be regular.

I’m starting to see that the uncomfortable state of living with our hearts outside our bodies is not an unintended side-effect of being an artist. Being an artist requires it.

That is, for me to succeed as a writer, my art requires me to not just be vulnerable in my writing itself, but in life. And it’s supposed to be constant. In the past, I’ve tried to control my vulnerability. I’ve imagined I could turn it on and off like a tap. Time to write a first draft? Vulnerability on. Draft finished? Vulnerability off. (Yes, this is a bit of a wax on, wax off moment for Holden-san.) Consequentially, my writing progressed in fits and starts, and I would write only when I felt I was emotionally capable of surviving the rivulets of feelings that would come pouring out of me.

But being constantly on submission, and thus constantly vulnerable, since March has not actually been the torture I had anticipated.

Actually, it’s been profoundly productive, and kind of awesome, despite the waiting.

When you go out on submission, the first thing your agent tells you to do is start writing your next novel. This is to distract us authors and our hamster-wheel brains from freaking out about the waiting involved in the submission process, and it also ensures that we are focusing on producing more work to be submitted.

feel my feelings
I’m pretty sure all writers are “sensies” like JD from Scrubs. I know I am.

So, to occupy myself while being on constant submission, I’ve been constantly writing since March, which is around the same time I joined my awesome buds in the #5amwritersclub. As a result, I’ve churned out six pieces of short fiction – one piece of flash fiction, four short stories, and a whole novella – in just three months, not to mention writing a published article for Ten Daily and developing and performing an oral story for the Bright Lights, No City project. Outside of my frenzied novel-writing adventures, this is the most productive I’ve ever been with my writing.

Is the waiting hard? Hell yeah.

But does it actually make me a better, more productive writer? Hell yeah.

I’m now comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable for a living. It’s possible that for much of the rest of my life I will constantly have a piece of work out in the world that I’m waiting to hear back on. I’m okay with this. It means I’m constantly trying, even if I regularly fail. Maybe most importantly, the waiting teaches me that vulnerability, and feeling my feelings, will not actually kill me. Accepting my vulnerability makes me a better human and a better writer.

I’m learning that an artist’s heart can survive outside the body for many years, and rather than wilt or perish, it only learns to pump harder than ever.

Here’s to the waiting, Tom.

Holden

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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.

Contest-cover-2
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

He Shoots, He … Well, He Tried

A week ago, I set a whole bunch of what I thought were quite achievable goals, and I promised that I would check back in to say how I travelled.

I’m doing this because making a goal without actually reporting back on the outcome, whether good or bad, feels incomplete. And, especially if I didn’t do well, it would be all too easy to just never bring this up again.

But I’m not doing this either to beat myself up or to clap myself on the back, really. I’m doing it to keep myself accountable, and also to find out if the goals I set for myself are actually realistic or not.

So – how did I do?

1. Get up on time for the #5amwritersclub (four times)

I actually managed to hit this goal! I had to use my Saturday morning in order to do it, but I got there, and I’m pretty chuffed. Waking up early is hard and to be honest it’s rare that I’m out of bed bang on 5am, but getting up for work and knowing I’ve already done my writing hours for the day is a very good feeling: it means I can start the day in a happy haze, almost like a post-coital afterglow. As Robert Hass said, “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.” This is very true.

2. Hit the Gym (four times)

My aim was to hit the gym four times, which is the new routine my trainer has set for me. The plan was to go on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

I manged to get to the gym three out of four times, which is not too bad and I’m not too bothered by missing the mark. Interestingly, I got there on Saturday instead of Friday, which has made me rethink how I’ll do this next time. Friday is one of my busiest days of the week with professional work and teaching at uni, so it makes absolutely no sense to try scheduling a workout in there, too.

Next week, I’m going to try for Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Thursday and Friday – my two most hectic days where I have a 1.5 hour commute each way to boot – will be kept sacrosanct, so when I get home I can just collapse. And Monday will be enshrined as my writing day, kept separate from every other commitment behind one of those thick velvet ropes.

3. Stick to my Meal Plan Perfectly (for seven days)

This is a big, fat, red-text fail. I already knew it would be hard not to snack while marking, and I held it together relatively well until Thursday, when the wheels fell off and I ended up spending $18 on creating the largest custom-made party mix known to mankind (and eating the entire thing in two days). In fact, in stark contrast to my goal, this week was probably the worst my diet has been for some time.

party mix extreme
My preciousssss!

On the upside, my meals were all still in line with my diet plan, and I still got in all my protein shakes and egg whites and all the plain meat and vegetables I’m supposed to consume. It’s just that my snacks got in the way, especially from Thursday to Saturday. Still, I live and learn. Not giving in to temporary setbacks and failure is how I’ve gotten anything I have in life: persistence is key, and eventually things fall into place.

4. Sleep a LOT

Yeah, look, I did sleep a lot, and I don’t really have anything exciting to say about it, other than I did what I set out to do. It takes some real goddamn skill to lay very still and do nothing for seven hours.

5. Don’t Burn Out Again

I didn’t burn out last week. The signs are starting to mount that I’m getting close to a burnout, though, so I need to start taking steps now to take proper care of myself.

6. Write a Blog Post

Bam! I nailed this. I think I wrote three blog posts in the space of a week: one about failure, one about new goals, and one which was a review of Louise Allan’s debut novel, The Sisters’ Song (which was remarkably successful compared to other reviews I’ve done ages ago, so maybe I need to do more of these!).

7. LIVE, DAMN YOU, LIVE!

I’m starting to realise that Holden is becoming a dull boy, and that’s really shitty, but I hardly did any living this past week. I set myself the goal of having the whole weekend to live and enjoy, and the reality was I ended up marking and editing and submitting short stories off to journals.

For whatever reason, my personality is so flawed that I find it difficult to find ways to have fun. I didn’t used to be like this, but the more I try to juggle everything at once (working several jobs, volunteering, writing, writer admin, gym) the more my fun time gets squeezed out of my schedule, like the last gasp of minty toothpaste from a rolled-up tube.

I really, really need to stop and take some time soon not just to rest, but to actively have fun.

On balance, despite fucking some of these goals up beyond all recognition, I reckon I did okay this past week. Most importantly, I’m keen to keep trying, and trying, until I get it right, which is, I reckon, the answer to most things in life.

Onwards and upwards.

Holden

 

 

Review: The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan

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

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

And I’m bloody glad I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything turns to shit!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holden

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.

everything is awesome
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.

tired af
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.

michelle tekken
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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novel #1: SWORDY MCSWORDFACE 

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

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

20180405_101347_resized
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