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.

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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

The Parting of the Ways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acidic pain.

Boiling rage.

Noxious regret.

Caustic shame.

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

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

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

I do feel better now.

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

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

Holden