Australian indie author Justin Sheedy on memoir, motivation and creative productivity

We never know where our life's journey might take us, and I never expected that I might be thrown back into the orbit of someone I knew in my days of youthful folly.

A couple of years ago I re-connected with Justin Sheedy, purely by chance, and we intstantly reminisced about our days of glamorous excess. Justin went one step further and wrote a whole book about them!

Even more to the point, Justin has established himself as one of the most energetic, productive and successful indie writers in Australia, and is the very model of a modern author. With the launch of his new memoir, I asked Justin to talk about how he went from aspiring author to publishing dynamo:

It’s exactly the same for any aspiring writer as it is for an author of world renown:  Being creatively productive is a condition they crave.  Utterly.  So it’s bloody lucky that being creatively productive is also something they cannot help.  They’re never not:  Even when they’re stuck on a page or stuck for an idea (absolutely freakingly, hopelessly STUCK), they remain creatively productive by getting up from the page, up from the desk and going for a good, long bracing, solitary walk until that point at just about 30 minutes into it every time when that literary light bulb goes ON, the idea comes, the problem is solved, and the marvellous page goes on.  At least, they bloody-well hope it’s marvellous…  Marvellous times 240 if it’s a 240-page book…  Marvellous or not will be revealed when people say “I think your last book was marvellous.”  Or not.  

I recently launched my 4th book.  It’s called Memoirs of a Go-Go Dancer.  It’s 240 pages. 
Before the release of every book I am what is known in the literary world as shit-scared.  Yet being shit-scared apparently works for me.  Apparently…  Each of my first three books received a handful of readers assuring me that they will read the book more than once.  (And, yes, this could have been because the readers in question couldn’t understand my books and so need to read them again.)  In any case, after three well-reader-reviewed books I joked to my Facebook community that now at long last I might have qualified for a “Certificate of being Not Crap as an Author”.  In due course someone designed and sent me one.

Memoirs of a Go-Go Dancer is the sequel to my first book, Goodbye Crackernight from 2009, my portrait of childhood in 1970s Australia when a child’s proudest possession was not a smart phone but a second-hand bike.  Go-Go Dancer is my portrait of 1980s teenage years under the threat of nuclear annihilation, before I ever kissed a girl let alone lose my virginity. We had The Grim Reaper. Other horrors featured include 1980s fashion, 'Perfect Match', 'Miami Vice' and the music of Kenny Loggins.  The book also features the iconic events of the decade such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and Bob Hawke’s ‘any boss who sacks anyone for not coming in to work today is a BUM’ moment.

It took me nine months to write, re-write and polish, and at the end of almost every page I said to myself: “I am buggered if I know where the next page is coming from.”  But each and every time I said this to myself I forced myself to answer, “Now Justin. This is your fourth book.  And at the end of every key bit of your last three you had no idea where the next bit was coming from but it always did, didn’t it? It will again now, so start having some bloody faith in yourself.  Experience at long last shows that you should.  Doesn’t it?”

And it did:  I remained creatively productive every day for nine months despite every second day thinking that I wouldn’t.

So what was my motivation to press on through all the “buggered if I know what to do next” moments?  My motivation?  Well it certainly wasn’t THE MONEY.  As a self-published author, even if this next book of mine is a raging success I’ll basically cover my costs.  My reward is something different.  My reward is when complete strangers say, “Your book made me laugh and cry and on public transport.  You’re a bastard, Sheedy.”  (You heard it here first:  My reward for writing and reason for writing is to make people I don’t know laugh and cry on public transport.)  But seriously, folks, my reward is what keeps me motivated.  And my reward is to be sharing Australian stories with Australian and international reading audiences.  Because that’s what my books have been so far:  Goodbye Crackernight and now its sequel, Memoirs of a Go-Go Dancer, are celebrations of Australian social history.  I’ve also written two World War II historical fictions, Nor the Years Condemn and its sequel, Ghosts of the Empire.  These are remembrances of the stunning true (and untold) Australian story of how the best and brightest of a generation of young Australians flew against the forces of Nazi tyranny and won, albeit at staggering cost.  My books embody my passion: to share with others what I’ve seen, what I know, what I can imagine, and what I think MUST be told.  Nah, I just love making people embarrass themselves on public transport.  Motivation indeed.  To remain creatively productive.

If you’re an aspiring author (and even ‘great’ authors are still ‘aspiring’ authors) you will already know deep within you that writing isn’t just something you want to do; it’s something you have to do; something you cannot help.  You strive for the end-product bliss of getting something special between your ears down onto the page which, because it’s written with effective economy of language, is then read by a complete stranger who is, as a result, transported somewhere they have never before been.  This you will achieve, if you become any kind of decent author, as you’ll have caused your reader to have clean missed their normal bus stop: the noble result of your sustained creative productivity.

In any case, for any author, being creatively productive is the easy part.  Then you have to take your finished first draft, re-read and re-do it ten times, maybe twenty times, until it ends up the piece of writing it deserves to be.  But that’s your next stage in the writing process. 

Happy Writing,

Justin Sheedy

Ryan Holiday on blogging tactics, idea implementation and getting started on a limited budget

For some time now I have found that podcasts are my most important guide to book buying. Where once I relied on the Saturday newspapers for literary advice, I now keep an ear out for interviews, discussions and recommendations on the couple of dozen podcasts I listen to regularly. And I have found this a much more reliable guide.

This change could be bad news for authors who aren’t very good at chatting. I have certainly been put off a book I was previously interested in because of a pedestrian, grumpy or precious performance in a podcast interview. I have also been tricked. I won’t name names, but on a couple of occasions I have bought books by well-known marketing experts only to find that everything I needed to know about those books had been contained in the interviews that had so impressed me.

Fortunately, Ryan Holiday’s new little book Growth Hacker Marketing does not belong in that category. Holiday is a fascinating figure, and has become something of a cult leader in the field of online marketing. His work with American Apparel and Tucker Max and his fascinating book Trust Me I'm Lying have all lent him a certain amount of glamour and hipster cachet. But this book takes the reader a significant step further and is all about the doing, and not about the pointless speaking. It is packed to the gills with useful, actionable information and there is not a page wasted. It’s probably one of the best-value books I have purchased in a long time.

For those, like me, who may not be down with the latest terminology, “growth hackers” are those people – usually tech-savvy youngsters – who seek to grow their products and make a name for themselves using new technologies and very little money. They are finding new ways to get the word out and to get their customers and users to do the advertising and marketing work for them. Some examples he uses in the book are Instagram, Evernote and the venerable Hotmail (which I still proudly use).

Holiday’s background is in mainstream marketing, where big, expensive campaigns are launched to sell new products in time-honoured ways which are as much about tradition, superstition and ritual than any properly-measured results. He points out that that’s all changing now. As industries have less and less money to spend on those old excesses (and I’m in the book industry, which is suffering hardest of all) we are all looking for new ways to be successful, create popular products and services and let people know how to spend their money on them.

Enter the growth hacker. This book aims to turn us all into growth hackers, and as an author it helps that the principal examples he uses are in the launching of new books. I think that this is a book that every author (and, please God, publisher) needs to read right now.

Here are 5 great tips I got from the book – remember, there are many, many more, so get the whole book:

1.    Blog extensively before you publish – if you are putting together a non-fiction book start blogging on your subject now! Take notice of what blog posts get great responses and shares, and make sure those are a bigger part of your book. It’s about being responsive to your readership and giving them more of what they want.

2.    Question every assumption – just because you think it’s a good idea, doesn’t mean it is. For too long now we have just soldiered on blindly, hoping like hell people will like what we’ve decided to offer them. How about dealing with humility beforehand and actually asking people what they want? And then asking for honest feedback on what we produce and actually be willing to change it. Ask yourself: why would anyone want to read this? Who is this for? What value am I offering? REALLY ask yourself those questions, write down the answers and keep them in front of you.

3.    Create fun videos – videos that talk about your book, videos that instruct people, videos that show some of your personality. He quotes a number of online growth hacking successes that hinged on video content. It’s an area that’s going to grow, so get on the bandwagon now, and don’t worry about elaborate production values

4.    Seek out influential advisors and mentors – ask for their advice and guidance and follow it! Stop trying to be a one-man show. Take a risk and ask someone you respect for feedback. If they like what they see they might just become advocates for you and your work.

5.    Think viral referrals instead of costly marketing and promotion – give away your product to people who matter and who might influence the opinion of others. He talks about how Uber built its profile by giving out free ride vouchers at tech conferences. This is dirt-cheap promotion, and yet I see so many companies and providers balk at it. Instead of spending thousands on an ad that might reach no-one important, why not drop a couple of hundred on getting to a more targeted audience and building some buzz about you and your product.

My copy of the book is heavily underscored with multiple pages turned down – I simply want to put everything into action and I have made copious notes as well. It is rare I am so excited about a book, especially one with such a potentially dull subject matter. But please believe me when I say this is essential reading that will inspire all kinds of ideas. 

Caroline Ford's Sydney Beaches

For me, a beach is a beach. I didn't know there were different types, and I had never really troubled myself with their social history. But yesterday I was at the most fascinating talk at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, where I heard historian Caroline Ford talking about her gorgeously illustrated history of Sydney's beaches, and I realised the full complexity of the situation.

Ford has written a history of Sydney’s ocean beaches, from the obsession with sharks and nets in the 20s and 30s to the protests against sewage dumping in the 1980s. Researching the Sate records of NSW she has found the most fascinating files from Manly and Waverley councils detailing their attempts to erect shark nets not necessarily, as we would assume, in the name of human safety, but more for the economic benefits. People could be made to pay to swim in netted areas, and beachside councils have always been keen to make people pay more for access (witness the present-day parking fees charged at beachside areas).

In December 1929 Bondi had just finished its beautification project, which included the grand Pavilion, but it had proved to be something of a white elephant.

The Bondi Pavilion

The Great Depression had just begun, and people weren’t spending money on seaside entertainments. Stories like this are what makes Dr. Ford's book so utterly fascinating. She is telling the hidden stories of our beaches. As she says, it is not all "just people lying on sand." It is about people moving to beachside areas (the fascinating phenomenon of country people retiring to Manly) and the population laying claim to freely access the beach - not a given in 19th century Sydney where most of the beaches were privately owned.

Sydney Beaches: A History has lots of wonderful, nostalgic photographs of beach goers in years past. I was fascinated to see Manly's shark tower, a futuristic object which rose straight up in an almost occult-looking needle.

Manly shark tower

Sadly gone. The beaches have always been sites of dispute between state and local governments - just who owns the sand, the water and the foreshores. And who is responsible for their upkeep and the safety of the people who visit them? Such arguments continue into the 21st century, particularly when it comes to beachside developments, a hobby in Sydney as old as white settlement.

It's a remarkable book, and one that will be of enormous interest to anyone who loves Sydney and her beaches. A great gift, too. I look upon beaches with new eyes, more aware of the poltics, the assumptions and the different ways of managing them that have evolved over time.

Mary-Lou Stephens on writing, privacy and insane thinking

Mary-Lou Stephens

 A couple of years ago I heard by chance an author being interviewed on a Sydney AM radio station. She was talking about drug addiction, meditation, spirituality and creating a new life and I thought to myself, "Heavens, that sounds like a book I'd like to read." Unfortunately I was hanging my washing out at the time and when I went to write down the details I'd forgotten everything. That night I checked my email, and what should be waiting for me but a message from the very author I had been listening to saying, "Someone told me we should be in touch." It was, of course, Mary-Lou Stephens. Never let anyone tell you that synchronicity isn't at work in this universe.
Mary-Lou's first book, Sex, Drugs and Meditation, was just about my favourite book that year, and it remains one of my all-time favourite memoirs. And of course, her follow-up How to Stay Married was one of my Best Books of 2014 - a painfully honest look at marriage, relationships and travel.
Mary-Lou is one of the most fascinating writers at work in Australia today, and I wanted to ask her a few questions about why and how she wrote and published her new book, how she dared to write the things she did and how she has managed to remain happily married. Here's what she had to say:

1.    Can you tell us briefly about your creative journey - when were you convinced that you could publish your writing?

I never thought I’d be a writer - a songwriter yes, but not a published author. I trained as an actor and played in bands until I got a real job, in radio. It was after I’d been working in radio for a while that I went to the USA for a holiday. On my return friends asked to see photos of my trip. I had taken only twelve photos on a disposable Instamatic and three of those were blurry. A colleague said, “Clearly photography is not your thing, why don’t you write about your trip instead?” So I did. That led to me writing a weekly column for the local newspaper for five years.

When I was writing the column I became interested in pursuing writing as a career. My research told me that at the time, early 2000’s, most published Australian authors earned about $3,000 a year. I was earning that just from writing my column and I was published every week. So I kept working in radio and writing in my spare time. I wrote short stories, took many classes at the Queensland Writers Centre and began working on my memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation.

I joined a writing group, took six months leave without pay to write a novel, and quite accidentally received some interest from a literary agent for Sex, Drugs and Meditation. She thought the book had potential but wasn’t where it needed to be. Although I was a long way from being published at that point, it was the first time I really thought I could be a published author.


2. What are some of the barriers that held you back from more fully expressing your creative impulses?

When I was contacted by the literary agent it was still very early in my writing journey. (An acquaintance who liked my work had sent a sample to the agent without me knowing.) The agent asked to see everything I had written and naively that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t know back then that first draft material really shouldn’t leave the privacy of your room. As Stephen King says, “Write the first draft with the door closed and the second draft with the door open.”

Unsurprisingly the agent went cold on the book but gave me some invaluable advice. She told me that if Sex, Drugs and Meditation was going to work as a book then I had to get really, really honest. Up until that stage I’d been a bit flippant with events, more Bridget Jones’ Diary than the book it is today. The idea of being really, really honest, of baring all, terrified me so much I stopped working on the book and wrote a novel instead.

It wasn’t until many years later and after much more meditation that I gained the detachment and compassion to write the book that Sex, Drugs and Meditation needed to be. The agent was right. Once I was able to be really, really honest the manuscript buzzed with incredible energy and developed a life of it’s own. I felt as though it flew out of my hands when it was ready to go out into the world.

3. Do you think this is a good time to be a writer, or are you more gloomy about the future of books?

It’s a fabulous time to be a writer. There are so many avenues open to us. However it’s not a good time to be a paid writer. It’s a double edged sword. People who love reading have more books than ever to choose from and are, I think, reading more. However because there are so many ebooks offered for free or for 99 cents  it is tough for writers to make money.

4. If there's someone out there with a story burning inside them that they need to tell, what would your advice be?
Find a space where you feel comfortable to write. When I first began writing I was extremely self conscious about what I was doing. There was no way I could do it in a cafe. It had to be somewhere private where I wouldn’t be interrupted. Door closed writing. Through the years I’ve become more relaxed about it. I’ve had more practice and that makes it easier to write wherever I am. Some of How To Stay Married was written on the couch with The Hubby beside me. I still prefer privacy though and I hate being interrupted. I know it sounds really basic but without the confidence of being able to write freely it can inhibit your ability to get the words you really want to, really need to, down on the page.

If you’re writing memoir I suggest following Barbara Turner-Vesselago’s advice. She’s written a book called Writing Without a Parachute: The Art of Freefall. One of her precepts is the ten year rule - any autobiographical material needs to be at least ten years old. I had followed this precept without even realising it. Once your material has had the time to compost it’s much richer, more fertile.

5. Do you suffer from writer's block, and if so, how do you beat it?

It’s like trying to see a distant star. If you look right at it it fades away. If you look slightly to the side you can see it in your peripheral vision. Sometimes it’s best to write around the thing you really want to write but can’t. Take the pressure off. Write something different.

But the one tried and true method I have for boosting creativity and for coming up with a million ideas, characters and story lines, is meditation. Especially a silent meditation retreat. No distractions and a monkey mind! The idea of meditation is not to stop thinking, that’s impossible, but in the process of observing the thoughts when they come up you’ll be amazed at the concepts and ideas that arise.

6. Your new book How to Stay Married is about some deeply personal stories and events in your life. Do you ever worry about the things you expose while writing a memoir?

When I signed the contract for my first book Sex,Drugs and Meditation I was terrified. I woke the next morning in a state of panic. The whole world was going to know all those secrets I’d kept hidden. There was a real danger that I would lose my job, my friends and my family. But the energy around signing that contract was far greater than letting it slide by. The end result was that I didn’t lose my job, my friends love me even more and almost all of my family still talk to me.

With How To Stay Married I had already revealed so much of myself the process was much easier. I was concerned for my husband but he gave me his blessing to write whatever I needed to write. I gave him first right of veto when the manuscript was finished and he only requested a couple of very small changes.
There is one section in the book that was extremely hard to write. It shows the extent of how insane my thinking can be, and how damaging to myself and others. I gave the section to my writing group to read and asked them whether I should keep it in the book. They were deeply affected by it, to the point of tears, because they had all experienced the same kind of thinking but had never dared talk about it. They encouraged me to keep that chapter because it would help other people who had been through a similar situation.

7. This time around you chose indie publishing. Why did you do this, and at this stage of your journey do you have some tips for other people considering the same?

I knew I couldn’t self-publish Sex, Drugs and Meditation. I needed a major publishing house and their legal team to avoid getting sued. With How To Stay Married the only person who could possibly sue me is my husband and he’s promises not to.

I’ve interviewed many authors in my job with the ABC and increasingly they are self-published. Adam Spencer decided to self-publish his Big Book of Numbers because he wanted complete control to be as nerdy as he needed to be. I’m keen to investigate the hybrid model where some of my books are self-published and others are with a traditional publisher. Authors are doing this very successfully these days, including Stephen King.

My frustration with being published with a major publisher is with the pricing of ebooks. I would love to be able to play with price points and to do special promotions but that has not been possible. With so many inexpensive ebooks on the market it is hard to compete when your ebook is priced over a certain point. Having said that I am in negotiations to have my world ebook rights revert to me. When that comes through I can begin to play.

I wanted to explore the possibilities of indie publishing with How To Stay Married and it’s been an adventure and a great learning experience. The support from other indie writers has been overwhelming. There is a real community of writers who want to see other writers succeed. Their generosity has been an eye-opening and heart-opening experience.

There are expenses involved in self-publishing and I must admit it is nice to have all of them paid for by a publisher when you go the traditional route. However these are necessary expenses to deliver a book that serves you and your readers well. I have beta readers and I took their feedback on board but I also paid two editors to improve certain aspects of How To Stay Married.  Other costs included a cover designer and professional formatter for ebook and print.

Marketing an indie book can be tough but then marketing a traditionally published book can also be tough. It’s hard to gain traction. From what I’ve observed successful marketing is about creating relationships with your readers. That takes time and trust. You’re building emotional connections with people. You need to find a way of adding value to their lives. Think about giving them a gift from time to time as well. Everyone loves  getting a present, everybody loves to feel appreciated. This is very different from the sell, sell, sell approach. There’s so much noise out there, why not offer your readers a refuge, a place where they can relax and enjoy your writing?

8. If there was one thing everyone reading this could do right now to help them enrich their intimate relationships, what would it be?
There are Seven Tips for a Happy Marriage (and one from my mum) at the end of  How To Stay Married. The most important tip I ease the reader into gradually and have it as tip number three. It’s probably the hardest one to adhere to consistently but it is vital for a successful relationship. That tip is Own Your Own Crap.

If something annoys you in your relationship look at your part in it. Then look at why it annoys you. It’s your responsibility. It’s so easy to blame someone else for everything. I know, I spent most of my life doing it. But if I constantly play the victim where does that leave me? What can I learn or improve from that position of helplessness? Playing the victim may feel easy at the time but it’s a cop-out. In the long term, it kept me stuck and miserable.

Now when I feel bad and I want to blame The Hubby, I have the tools, thanks mainly to meditation, to turn it around knowing and really understanding that I am responsible for my own misery and my own happiness. I take him out of the equation and own my own crap. He can’t do anything about my crap and I can’t do anything about his, but to the best of our ability we don’t dump it on each other. That, my friend, is the one big not-so-secret secret of a happy relationship. Own your own crap. And do something about it so you don’t feel crappy.

You can follow Mary-Lou Stephens on Twitter @missymarylou
Join her Facebook Fan Page
Mary-Lou's website is

My Three Words for 2015

January is not quite over, and so I have time to set myself three words to help guide me through the year.

I did it in 2013, and found it a great help to staying focused on the values that are important to me. The whole exercise, of course, is taken from online marketing guru Chris Brogan, and you should check out his three words for 2015.

In 2013 my words were: Joy, Lovingkindness and Consistent. Now, those should really be my guiding words every year, and I look back at "consistent" with some mirth. Consistency is not a strong point, and is something I really struggle with.

What am I inspired by this year? Well, here are my three words:

Cheer - I have nominated 2015 my Year of Cheer, and this old-fashioned quality is one that has interested me for some years. It might surprise you to know that I am in fact quite a grumpy soul, given to periods of depression, anger and sanctimony. Being cheerful in spite of it all is my chosen self-discipline this year, and in many ways is an homage to my beloved late grandmother Ethel Barrett, who espoused the efficacy of cultivated good cheer. I am actively seeking to manifest more cheer in my life and plan to write about it extensively.

Creativity - This year I plan to create more than I consume, and that is quite a challenge because I am a monstrously lazy soul who is never happier than when passively absorbing a book, film or work of art. I plan to cultivate and honour my creative thinking and to honour all of the wonderful and crazy ideas that flood my head daily. It also helps that this year I am teaching creativity a lot more, so will be learning a lot more about the process along with my students. It is also something I am writing on.

Adventure - I am just about to embark on a 6 week trip to Vietnam and I have a couple of other overseas journeys planned for the year. This year I am going to say "yes" to adventure more, and give in les to my impulse to isolate, sit at home and complain about my health. I want to learn more new things, take more risks and meet more new people. I want to challenge my intellect and I want to walk right into parties and say "Hi" to whoever is standing near me and get to know about them and their fascinating lives.

I'd love to encourage you to consider your won three words for the year. It’s not too late. Set your own compass towards those ideas and qualities you think would improve your life. And let me know what they are.

Susannah Fullerton on Literary New York at Ashfield Library Wed 11 February at 1 PM

New York Public Library

If you have never heard the superb Susannah Fullerton lecture, you really need to come along to this free event at Ashfield in February.

Susannah Fullerton is one of the world's most acclaimed Jane Austen experts

Susannah is a living Sydney treasure, and her knowledge of literature and her enthusiasm for books and writing are unequalled. I have been to hear her speak 6 or 7 times now, and each time has been totally fascinating.

I have heard her lecture on Literary London, Roma and Paris, so I very much look forward to hearing her talk about New York!

What's even better, the good folks at Ashfield Library are putting this event on for free, so you really have no excuse not to come along.


Susannah Fullerton on Literary New York at Ashfield Library Wed 11 February 2015 at 1 PM 

Susannah's talks are very popular, so I advise getting there in good time to get a good spot.

The talk is on Level 6, in the Council Chambers - take the lift from the library.

If you've never visited Ashfield Library before, it's very conveniently located about 5 minutes walk from Ashfield Station. Drivers can park at the attached shopping centre carpark.

Reading Gibbon in 2015

I have a number of big projects already planned for 2015. Most of them have been prepared for several months already.

But one that has been thrust upon me is the reading of Gibbon's mammoth classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was a wonderful, unexpected gift from my sister this Christmas, and I know that I must start it now, or else I will put it aside for years.

Edward Gibbon

She gave me the very handsome Folio Society edition, which is solidly bound and quite compact in two slipcases. And very, very heavy.

I have decided to take it at a pace of 20 pages a day. This is realistic, as I always have some much other reading to do and I really can't dedicate my whole life to Gibbon. I think I am going to have to keep an accompanying notebook, as I would never dare write in such lovely editions, but I know I am going to have to make extensive notes f I am ever going to keep track of this project.

I plan to report back to you regularly with details of my reading, how I am going, how I am finding it and what new things I have learned. I really am tremendously excited by the whole idea.

I have wanted to read Gibbon since I first found out about him as a precocious literary teenager, but of course I had no access to a set of the books in rural North Queensland. And then, in my youth, no money to buy my own set. It is one of those incredible luxuries which you never really feel quite right about indulging in. Nancy Mitford said it made the ideal wedding gift, though I can only imagine the looks on the faces of her newly married friends. Certainly, if it were ever legal for me to get married I should have delighted in such an obscure gift.

Here's to some solid reading in 2015! 
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