January 24, 2018

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Last Friday the Lady Holly and I were lucky enough to attend The Porch Sessions. Think of it as a travelling mini festival. Really mini. Set in someone’s backyard. Four musicians, which this year consisted of Ryan Martin John, Tim Hart, Stu Larsen, and Natsuki Kurai, travel around Australia in a number of vans, playing shows in backyards of people who volunteer the spaces. A small crowd of music lovers then spread out on the supplied rugs and blankets, underneath streamers and lights, and picnic and drink while listening to some great tunes. We were those people, and it was excellent. The atmosphere was perfect, intimate but relaxed, and the music incredibly enjoyable. The standout by far was Natsuki Kurai, a harmonicist from Japan, who performed his set with Stu Larsen. He did things with a harmonica that had be heard to be believed. It was like he was singing through it, so natural did he make the sound. He also managed to use the harmonica to make background sounds that matched the lyrics, beat box, and elevate every song it was a part of. Unsurprisingly, their duo is today’s blog song.

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Words written for the year: 19,539

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I wrote a few weeks ago about my four new years goals, which were, in short; writing, running, reading, and photography. The goal being to increase all of these activities, using a measurable target for each of them. But I also have an unofficial goal for this year as well, one linked to writing. It is thus:

Collect as many rejection letters as possible*.

At the tail end of last year I had two close calls with awards — a longlisting for pilot script, and a shortlisting for a novella — and those close calls have motivated me. I’m going to enter everything, I’m going to submit more of my writing to competitions and magazines than I ever have previously, and I’m going to collect rejection letters like twelve year old me collected pokemon cards.

You may be thinking, surely the goal should be to win or get published, not collect rejection letters, which is where the above asterisk comes in.

*and acceptance letters where possible.

There are a couple or reasons that asterik is a subset of the goal and not the main goal itself.

First, I have no control over whether I win, or whether an editor likes my story. Literally, none. I could try to change my writing so that it fits the niche of whoever I’m submitting it to, and I should definitely be aware of their preferences, but ultimately it’ll still be a Damian Robb story told in a Damian Robb way, and if a Damian Robb story is not what they’re looking for then there’s nothing I can do about that. So, setting my goal to “winning” is unrealistic and ultimately pointless.

Second, receiving rejection letters is what writers do. I’ve read a number of books on writing, and follow an even larger number of writers blogs, and without exception every writer I look up to has an impressive collection of rejection letters. Stephen King, in his early days, kept his rejection letters on a nail above his writing desk, and wrote this in his book; On Writing:

“By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”

Likewise his son, Joe Hill, also now an acclaimed author, shared this tweet on twitter showcasing the amount of rejection letters he got for a single story.

Of course both those guys are successful authors, so it’s easy for them to show off these war wounds, but it’s important to remember they weren’t when they received them. Being a seasoned writer means receiving rejection letters. It’s a collection, a thing to stockpile, to bring out and show your friends, not something to be ashamed of.

Third, I want to feel positive whenever I submit a piece of writing. I should, right? If I’m submitting something then I have 1) written something (that’s good!) and 2) had the courage and belief in that writing to share it out into the big bad world of possible rejection (also good!). Also, by changing my mindset so that receiving a rejection letter is seen as a good thing, a necessary step on the road to becoming a writer, that’ll stop me feeling like a failure whenever I receive one. I don’t want to feel like a failure, I want to feel like a writer, and they way to feel like a writer is to keep writing; something that becomes infinitely harder to do when I feel like a failure.

Fourth, that pile of rejection letters will become the metaphorical ladder I’ll use to reach greater heights. Writing, like any skill, requires practice and feedback; putting your work out there before it’s ready because that’s the way to make it ready. Having places to submit my writing gives me more reasons to write, and, if the magazine or competition offers it, will provide me with feedback on how to improve. The more rejection letters I receive, the better my writing should become, until, hopefully, they’re not rejection letters anymore.

I’m already off to a good start. I’ve made a spreadsheet (how I love a good spreadsheet) with a list of magazines to submit to on one axis, and a list of finished short stories on the other. There are already a number of crosses (indications of rejection letters) littered across the cells, and I plan to get a lot more before the year is out, and, possibly, a tick or two as well.

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Remember, the important thing isn’t to succeed, but to keep trying

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Talk soon,

Damian

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January 17, 2018

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Today’s blog song comes from the soundtrack for the film Pete’s Dragon. Admittedly I haven’t actually seen the film, but I did recently acquire the soundtrack after hearing this tune on spotify; Nobody Knows by The Lumineers. A lovely song, and the rest of the soundtrack isn’t half bad either, with a bunch of great instrumental tracks by composer, Daniel Hart.

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Words written for the year: 14,330

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I have something to tell myself. It’s the one piece of writing advice — or, arguably, writing fact — that I most often forget. Like, daily. I need constant reminding of this little tidbit, and so that’s what today’s blog is for. For me to remind myself, and put down in writing for future-Damian, so he can be reminded too (and hopefully it’ll resonate with any non-Damian’s as well). So, here it is:

First drafts are just first drafts.

Fairly innocuous, right? It’s the kind of statement that sounds like it’s saying something without really saying something. Except it is, let me unpack it.

What I am trying to say to myself is this, a first draft won’t be an amazing work of art. It won’t be without faults, it won’t be without inconsistencies, it won’t be without superfluous bits, or boring bits, or even typos! The first draft won’t be the final draft. It will be a roughly cut bit of stone that kinda looks like something, but will only transform into the sculpture it’s suppose to be through the laborious act of chipping away at it using the hammer and chisel that is editing and redrafting.

Most importantly: It’s allowed to be shit.

Oddly, a blank page doesn’t fill me with despair like some writers, but rather excitement. I have so many ideas in my ideas folder that a blank page is the playground for them to finally run free in. It’s once the ideas are let out of their cages that the problems start.

The first few sessions working on something, I’m fine. I’m having fun exploring whatever the idea is, I’m learning about my characters and world, it’s great. Then there comes a turning point. It’s right about the time I realise I like what I’ve written and think it has potential to be something good. Then BAM! Anxiety and overthinking come barrelling in like two happy sheepdogs, and bowl me over.

That might be an exaggeration.

What I do do is start to analyse the writing as I’m writing it. I’m trying to think ahead. I’m trying to ask all the questions you should ask yourself during a second draft before I’ve even written the first. Unsurprisingly, this cripples the flow of the writing.

So, again, this blog is a reminder: Stop it, Damian. Stop.

What I really want is to get back into that original headspace. That place where it was more about ideas than story structure or perfect dialogue. It’s from that place where the rough kinda-looks-like-something stone comes from. It’s the right brain. But, for a story to work, for it to feel well rounded and succinct and whole, you need the left brain as well; and he’s the one who keeps butting in with his logical thoughts and analytical opinions and messing the whole thing up.

So, how do I handle my left brain so my right brain can get back to work? Well, one option is try to ignore it through force of will, remind myself of all the above stuff, and tell ol’ lefty his time will come, he just needs to wait for the second draft. But I’m not real great at that. I might put my left brain behind the baby gate, but he’s a screamer, and so the problem doesn’t really solve itself.

Another option is to try and sate my left brain, make him feel listened to. I can do this through outlining. Either roughly plot out the next few beats, or even scratch down an entire storyline, so that as I continue to write I feel like I have some idea where the story is going. I’ve found this to be pretty effective at quieting the left brain, but it can then cause right brain to throw a tantrum. He’s now worried that by outlining the story I’m restricting his creativity and imagination and not allowing enough room for cool and interesting and unexpected things to grow. And by he, I mean me, because they’re both parts of my brain, and this isn’t really how brains work anyway.

To get over this second, second guessing myself, I need one final reminder. The outline isn’t set in stone (too many stone metaphors, I know). The outline is fluid, and malleable, and can be thrown away completely if the story takes an unexpected twist while writing it.

Once I’m done shouting this list of reminders at myself I can then get back to writing the first draft…at least until tomorrow, when I forget them again, and need to start the process all over again.

So, once more, for all the Damians out there, past, present, and future:

First drafts are just first drafts.

Talk soon

Damian

The Chalk Man

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I write this in a dimly lit room, stark walls surround me, no windows. If my script is large or chaotic it is because I have left my glasses in the room next door. I allow not even a mug of water in my presence. I have discovered a myth, or something more, perhaps, and I do not want the subject of my study to see me; not yet.

Lost legends have him as the Chalk Man, less a name but a descriptor; given for his white and ashen skin. Which is wrong, as it’s not skin, but bone. Bone so old that it crumbles, leaving a fine powder of dust, akin to chalk dust, on whatever he touches. Man is also wrong, as he is of no gender, nor even human, but, for lack of appropriate terminology, we will use the pronouns referring to the masculine throughout this text.

The lost legends — that are now found, if only to myself — are, by a human understanding, ancient, as the Chalk Man hasn’t been spoken of, written of, or likely even thought of, for centuries. His existence slowly being lost from the collective consciousness one life at a time. By the Chalk Man’s point of view, however, they are practically modern, having been written within the last millenium.

His purpose, in those legends, is ill defined, if simply not mentioned at all, which is a shame because his purpose is a very important one, that contains many roles. He is a king to some, a servant to others, sometimes a friend, sometimes an enemy, an angel, or a demon. His job, as it were, is to appear as the honest reflection of us all. A confusing, if not mysterious, job description I am aware. Let me try and make more sense of it.

Have you ever caught your own reflection and for a moment thought someone else was looking back at you? Perhaps you saw a monster, or a stranger, or a royal, or a saint. Just for a second. That was the Chalk Man. Or at least, that is the Chalk Man at work, and he has been doing this work for a very long time.

It is presumed that the Chalk Man was present when we were still walking around on all fours. Indeed, it is likely he was there when our ameba ancestors were first beginning to divide. He watched us, they say, the legends that are both ancient and modern, from his reflective surfaces, waiting for the day when we would gain a level of sentience that could recognise our own image.

Some of the legends, that I have hunted down in hidden cities that no longer have names, argue that the Chalk Man did more than watch; that he, just once, stretched out a bony arm from his reflective kingdom and altered the course of man; that it is due to him that we are so different from the rest of the animals that we share this planet with. What it is the Chalk Man did to achieve this is not written, and so this theory is to be taken with a pinch of salt…or chalk dust, as it were.

The first recorded encounter with the Chalk Man came some time after, when one of the ancient civilisations, the residents of one of those cities without names, first started writing things down. One such text wrote of an encounter whereby a local woman went to drink from the underground river that fueled the city, peered into the inky water, and saw the Chalk Man staring back at her. The woman, a weaver by the name of Oma, cried out, but did not flee. Instead, once her breath and heart were once more under her control, she crawled back to look at the water. Once more she saw the Chalk Man, bony and white, her own reflection nowhere to be seen. He did naught but watch young Oma, who, after deeming him not a threat, went to gather others to show them the chalk figure in the water. By the time she brought the crowd to the water’s edge, he was gone; her own reflection returned to her. It would only be later, after multiple appearances, that Oma’s story would be believed.

The reason why the Chalk Man simply watched Oma, and especially why he watched her in his own form, has been much argued over the many years by the forgotten scholars that once studied the Chalk Man. Some claimed that by seeing the Chalk Man as he truly is allowed Oma some gaining of knowledge outside of our understanding, and caused some great shift in her life, and on mankind as a whole; and indeed Oma did go on to live a remarkable life. Some claimed that he fell in love with Oma, and stole her reflection for those few short minutes to take as his Queen, only to find a reflection was no substitute for the real thing; this too, may well be the case. For myself, I think the Chalk Man was simply studying, seeing some final aspect of mankind’s heart so he could then go on to do his true work.

The work, as one of the old texts described it, was: “Purveyor of understanding and dealer of truths”. This is the most accurate description I have found. Simply, the Chalk Man shows you what you need to see. If you be good, but lacking in courage, you may see yourself momentarily in a reflective surface as a hero. If you be evil, but lacking in morals, you may see yourself as a monster. You may see an angel when you need hope. You may see a devil when you need fear. You may see your mother when she needs you to visit. And on it goes. The Chalk Man knows what you need to see and shows it to you. Often, after a viewing, you may find some of his bone dust on a shoe, or you shirt. This is the way to know if was a true showing. Or, so the texts say.

One text, the latest I’ve found, goes one step further. It claims that behind every reflective surface lies a kingdom, his kingdom, and if you do not heed the truth he offers you that he will reach out and take you there, never to return.

The next question, and the one most pressing to my own research, is why was knowledge of the Chalk Man lost? Why has he left our collective consciousness? Many of the the legends I’ve found barely describe the Chalk Man whenever they reference him, so sure were they that the reader knew of whom they spoke. So how is it that he is not even a mythological figure today? I do not know, but I expect to find out soon for I think he watches me.

Twice now I have had a glimpse of something else in my mirror. First, I am sure it was his own figure, white and silent, then the second time I saw myself, only with unbroken skin where my mouth should be. After both instances I searched the area for dust, and both times found it.

I have collected the dust and added it to a small vial, to be sent to the university along with this manuscript. I hope to send it this very afternoon. This will of course require me to leave my matte room and pass my own reflection, be it in a window or pool of water. I am ready. I have my questions. If I see him again I will not look away, but will instead ask why he withdrew from our world — as I am sure now the lost knowledge of his person was at his own design — and if he is likely to return. I hope he does, this world could do with a good hard look at itself.

One final note. It occurs to me that perhaps I have been…foolhardy, cataloging this history, if indeed the Chalk Man does want to stay hidden. So if you are reading this, it might be best to steer clear of mirrors for a while. You never know when he might be watching.

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Thanks for reading,

Damian

January 3, 2018

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Music today comes from The Northern Folk, who I saw open for The East Pointers a few weeks back and was blown away by; not least because they are a ten piece band. Their sound was unique and folksy, utilising their many instruments, and with vocals to match. This one is called Stovetop Coffee

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Words written for the year: 2528

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Hello and welcome to 2018.

My 2017 culminated in a flurry of activity; appropriate, seeing how that’s how most of the year felt. It began with the arrival of Brother Jonathan from the distant shores of Austria, with my  future sister in law, Alexandra, on his arm. Their return home (at least, my home) is always a welcome one, but especially so this time, as it had been over a year since I held my brother in my arms. Things didn’t stop once all the hugging was caught up on though, as my other brother, the one they call Matthew, and I still had a half marathon to complete (as previously mentioned) I’m happy to say it went well. We started at six in the morning joined by our cousin Dominic, all of us fresh and chatty, and ended at just after eight, significantly less fresh and chatty. Two solid hours of running. The breakfast that followed felt well earned.

Christmas came next, spread out over two days to accommodate all the family. Many presents, drinks, food, and games meant the days had the special feel that holidays should, helped along by not having to go to work, or even plan out much beyond eating. This didn’t last long, however, as come boxing day, Jonathan, Alex, Holly and I, headed back to Melbourne to jump on a plane and fly over to the North Island of New Zealand. We were there for a wedding, and so our visit was a short one, four days, but full to the gills with driving, walking around beautiful places, a heavy dose of bananagrams (look it up), and of course, a wedding. It was the first time I had ever been to a wedding where I was a stranger to both the bride and groom, as they were friends of Holly made from her time living in London. It’s an odd thing to introduce yourself to someone whilst simultaneously congratulating them on the ceremony you’d just witnessed. Still, the night was a good one, and my lack of familiarity with the happy couple didn’t diminish the joy of celebration.

We got back to Australia just in time to celebrate the coming of the new year, more fun and family, and here we are; 2017 over.

It was an incredible year for me. I got engaged, traveled to Borneo, was nominated for awards, and had a book released with my writing buds, plus plenty more. All of it felt like moving closer to the mountain. It was, without doubt, one for the books.

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Now with 2017 in the rear view mirror it’s time to look ahead at 2018. This time last year I wrote about how I wanted to write every day, crossing off each successful day on a giant wall calendar as motivation. Here is how that calendar ended up:

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As you can see I had a rocky start, then managed to find my groove, with most of the blank spaces that followed either due to holidays or special events. I’m proud of that spread, but want to kick it up another notch this year. Which brings us to the first on my new years goals.

I wrote a few weeks ago about Brother Matthew’s impressive goal list for 2017. He had nine, which also happens to be his favourite number, and so for this year he’s given himself another nine. When he told me this I jokingly responded that as my favourite number is four (D is the fourth letter of the alphabet — younger me was very logical when it came to choosing a favourite number) then I only had to have four goals. The more I thought about it, the more I liked having a list of four goals for the new year. Four would fit well to the unofficial goals I already had in my mind, and if I wrote them down and defined them properly I was more likely to stick to them. So, using the S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-focused, Time-bound) goal setting technique the Lady Holly uses with her students I wrote down my four goals for 2018.

The first, as alluded to earlier, is a writing one. Last year to get the daily cross off on the calendar I just had to write something, a single line would do the job, preferably more, but if that’s all I had then that would do. This year it’s not that simple, as my first goal is to write 600 words a day on average across the year. That ‘on average’ is important, because it means I can write excess and have words in lieu, or make up missed days later if I need to. I’m hoping the former is more the case. Usually I don’t like the idea of running-on goals and being able to make up for missed days later, because it can be too easy to use this as an excuse to be lazy and then have a insurmountable number to hit. To negate this I’m making it so I have to use my weekends to catch up on any word counts missed during the week, so that number doesn’t snowball on me if I start missing days. Instead of the wall calendar this year I have a spreadsheet with every day of the year written in one column and a word count column right next to it waiting to be filled. I’ll also keep a running log of the ‘words written for the year’ on every blog post, instead of the former ‘current chain of writing days’.

The second goal I stole from Brother Matthew’s own goal list; run 1000 km across the year. Another goal that requires consistency every week, but one I believe is achievable.

Goal number three is likewise stolen, and that is to read 25 books (or more) during the year. Far too often I waste time browsing on my computer, at either social media or who knows what, only to later lament that I never have time for reading. This year I want to flip that, less screen time, more page time.

These first three goals were easy, all being continuations of goals I already had, just better defined. But of course my favourite number isn’t three (my name doesn’t start with a C after all) and so I needed one more goal. After allowing my brain some time to marinate on it I decided I wanted it to be a photography based goal. I often take plenty of photos on holiday but want to get back into the habit of taking photos of everyday life as well. So, in order to achieve this, I’ve brushed the dust off my old blipfoto account, a site by which you add one photo a day, taken on that day. If you wish, you can follow along here.

That covers most of the main stuff, there are other things of course, like getting married to a girl called Holly, but one thing at a time, yeah?

Wish me luck.

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Remember, take a breath. Here we go again.

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Talk soon,

Damian