Arriving at Loch Ness was weird. I think when there are places we always dream of going we can build them up in our heads, so much so that when we finally do go they can only ever be anticlimactic. This was how I felt about going to Rome and Venice years ago; while there was a lot I loved about those places, they could never quite match up to the magic in my head.
I’m not really sure why Loch Ness was different. Maybe it was because I hadn’t been building it up in my head; I knew I was going and that I was excited, but I wasn’t spending every day feverishly anticipating it. So when the water first came into view and Molly told me that was it, I think the emotion surprised me. There was no build up or over intellectualising, just the sudden realisation that I was really here at the place I read about and obsessed over so much as a kid. I could barely keep the grin from my face.
It’s weird to think we’re leaving tomorrow. This was meant to be the long, lazy part of the trip, spent languidly Nessie hunting and writing in pubs. And yeah, there was a fair amount of both, but probably not the endless hours I’d anticipated. Five days in a part of the world as beautiful as this isn’t much and the fact is you want to see whatever you can while you’re here.
We spent our first night here having dinner in a small pub two doors up from our cottage, before settling in to watch Loch Ness at Loch Ness. The next day was fairly lazy; I did some writing, Molly did some drawing, we ate some food and that was about it. The next morning we went out on the Loch; the views were spectacular but I won’t lie, my eyes were predominantly glued to the water. After that we went to a Nessie exhibition, which was interesting if way too sceptical for my taste. Luckily, about a hundred metres down the road from there was a second Nessie exhibition, which was far tackier and way more determined to convince you there was a monster, which suited my tastes just fine.
On the third day we went to check out the beautiful national park of Glen Affric, and on the fourth day we went and looked at Urquhart Castle before heading up to Fort Augusta and having a horrible meal in a bizzare little restaurant right on the Loch where the two staff members pointedly avoided catching your eye when you wanted to order, didn’t seem to talk, and served burgers that contained nothing but a single dry broken in half patty. Each afternoon I headed to a pub around the corner (the closer one wore out its welcome due to high drink prices and a suspicious tendency to shut half an hour after I arrived, no matter how early it was) before coming home for dinner and lazy movie watching. In general the days unfolded with plenty to occupy us but lots of pleasant downtime as well, which was pretty much perfect.
The plan for today was to head out to the Isle of Skye, which was a reasonable drive. We left fairly early in the morning and as we rounded the bend near Urquhart Castle I saw something in the water. At first I thought it was a wave or the trail from a boat or something, but there was no boat in sight. It was long and grey, just slightly under the surface, moving deeper into the Loch before it submerged. It took me a few seconds to process it and when I did any attempt at reason flew out the window.
The weird thing that I hadn’t really said out loud was that, as we first arrived at the Loch I had this feeling that I was going to see something. It wasn’t much beyond that; I wouldn’t even go as far as to say it was a hope. Just this… sense, I guess. And then, this morning, there it was.
Of course, what ‘it’ was is the question here, and maybe there is a reasonable explanation. Maybe I imagined it or something. But I don’t think I did. And I’m not going to invite more scorn by putting my foot down and swearing blind I saw the monster, because I honestly don’t know what I saw; it was there for a few seconds and gone before I got a good look at it. But I saw something.
And hey, something is enough for me because it’s a damn sight more than nothing. And since I didn’t get a longer look and since there’s no way to reliably quantify it, you can probably guess what I’m gonna choose to believe I saw.
Writing a story is often a bit like a relationship. Especially when the project is a big one you find yourself at a bit of a loss when it ends. You might read over it again and again, find any excuse to look at your favourite passages or moments you’re especially proud of in what essentially amounts to drunk dialling your ex. You might decide it isn’t over and try to come up with a sequel, prequel or addendum that you hadn’t previously planned for. Or you might forcibly decide to move on by rebounding with a new story that isn’t ready to be written yet. But, like the end of a relationship, the end of a story is something that it takes time to come to terms with, even if you spend that time wishing you could either go back to before or else speed up this odd grieving process.
I’m kind of in that weird stage at the moment. As I’ve written a lot about recently, I’ve spent the last year buried in a new re-write of Windmills, which I think is probably the best the story has ever been or will ever be. Consequently this means that finishing this novel wasn’t just the end of another major project, but rather the end of an ongoing process that started in 2009. And so trying to work out what to do next has been tricky.
I’ve got no shortage of ideas. I want to adapt Heroes into a novel and Sunburnt Country into a screenplay. I was to write a Boone Shepard play. I have a bunch of film screenplay ideas; a coming of age drama, a quirky university set romantic comedy and, as of today, a family film about the discovery of the Loch Ness Monster. Every one of these pursuits could represent something new and exciting for me; every one could be the next thing that electrifies my imagination and becomes a lasting obsession. And yet I’m finding it hard to invest in any of them because I still have the lingering taste of Windmills. I’m still thinking about that world and those characters and consequently I’m finding my time in Scotland characterised by an inability to knuckle down and work on one new project, which is something I really wanted to do while here.
Molly and I spoke about this the other day, about feeling like a place should be inspiring you and getting your creativity going. I think Scotland is having that effect; I’ve come up with at least five new stories ideas while here, but making myself sit down and actually write is proving to be the problem, thanks to that nasty little Windmills hangover. That’s the main reason that I’m sitting in a Loch Ness pub right now bemoaning this feeling in text instead of working on something new.
But then I guess that old bit of advice for writing is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and just do it; if I sit around waiting for something to capture my mind the same way Windmills did then I’m probably going to be waiting a long time. So, capitalising on something that has been on my mind a fair bit recently, I think I’m going to take a run at that Heroes novel and see what happens. Otherwise I’ll be back to the blog before long.
After a busy final day in London ping-ponging between various friends who all happened to be in the country at the same time as me, I arrived at Kings Cross reasonably early on Sunday and hung around checking out the tacky tourist trap that is the Platform 9 ¾ shop (I was totally a tacky tourist), ate the worst bacon sandwich ever, begrudgingly paid money to use a toilet, and then settled in for a four hour train ride that went by in a flash, due to the combination of lovely views and the fact that you can buy beer on English trains.
After meeting up with Molly on Sunday night, we spent yesterday walking around Edinburgh itself. Edinburgh Castle was fascinating; a labyrinthine, seemingly endless expanse of history that had something new to explore around every corner. We had lunch in a little nearby pub that served potentially the best soup I’ve ever had (I immediately ordered a second bowl) then explored the city from top to bottom. I’m not sure there’s much to be gained from writing about how beautiful a city famous for being beautiful is, but in the interests of clarifying my personal stance on the place, Edinburgh is beautiful.
Except, that is, for the charmer known as the ‘Museum of Childhood’. We were on our way back to the bus when we passed it and, somewhat curious and tempted by the ‘free entry’ sign, we went to check it out. A five-storey collection of old toys and games, it starts out quaint and charming enough then as you ascend the levels you descend into what feels like a bit of a nightmare. The exhibits get creepier and more sparsely occupied by tourists as you go, until the final level was empty except for many dead eyed, blank faced, oddly positioned mannequins and a looped recording of children singing. Beating a swift retreat was hardly comforting, as you still have to pass all the glassy eyed dolls and warped approximations of classic children’s characters, like a Puss in Boots that looked a) nothing like a cat and b) likely to sink its lopsided teeth into your jugular at any second. There was also a literal animal bone wearing a dress.
That night we headed into Glasgow to meet some Sanspants fans. After the fun I had doing the same thing in London I decided to throw out a last minute tweet seeing if anybody wanted to catch up for drinks and, to my enduring surprise, people did. It was another awesome night; we met some great people, had some fantastic chats, and I did not pay for a single beverage, although I was paying a little bit this morning. Hangovers aside, we left Edinburgh early and matched the passing landscape with listening to S-Town; I know I’m late to the party on this one, but it’s fascinating stuff, even if I can’t help but feel it’s somewhat exploitative in how it approaches the lives of the real people its storytelling is based around. But hey, I’m still hooked so I guess I can’t be that morally troubled by it.
Outside of Inverness we stopped at the Culloden Battlefield. I knew nothing about this particular part of Scottish history (I don’t know much about Scottish history that isn’t plesiosaur related) so learning about what happened in the visitor centre before heading to the site of the battle itself was an extremely interesting, if sobering experience. Coupled with grey and grim weather the desolate expanse of the battlefield felt especially bleak.
But, and I should probably have seen this coming, the best part of the last couple of days was catching the first sight of Loch Ness. I honestly didn’t think it would have an enormous effect on me; seeing places you’ve always wanted to go is rarely as amazing as you build it up to be in your head and I assumed the Loch would be the same. But seeing those waters for the first time, framed by sheer green hills and a light mist under a grey sky, got my heart racing and a lump in my throat. I’ve always been so in love with the mystery of the place, with the idea that there is something in this beautiful, remote part of the world that we can never fully comprehend or explain. I’ve loved the story of the monster since I was old enough to love anything, I’ve read books and watched documentaries on it, and being here for the first time is so, so exciting.
Because, maybe absurdly, part of me really believes that I just might see something out there. And I’ve got the next few days here to do it in.
Today is my last full day in London, although putting it like that makes it sound like a bigger deal than it is considering today is also only my third day in London. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind trip; I pretty much only just touched down and now I’m off again, heading to Scotland to meet the lady and make my fame and fortune when I inevitably find Nessie.
The last few days have been a bit strange, from leaving Melbourne to now. My flight was at 6am, so I decided to stay awake overnight before catching a (very) early morning Uber. This was probably the right decision but it did mean that upon arrival at the airport I was very tired and very grumpy. When I finally got on the plane I was stoked to see that I had a row to myself, and so pretty much immediately upon taking to the air I stretched out, put a blanket over myself, put on my eye cover thing and fell asleep only to be woken up five minutes later by a flight attendant roughly poking me to ask if I wanted a juice.
I was fucking mad.
Then, of course, I couldn’t get back to sleep properly and so the fourteen hour flight to Dubai passed in a weird twilight zone of drifting off, waking up, trying to watch a movie, drifting off again, repeat ad nauseum for what felt like an eternity. I was relieved to arrive in Dubai just to get a break from the vicious cycle, at least until I realised that Dubai was very much its own special class of nightmare. Signs that seemed designed to confuse you by directing you every way but the one you’re supposed to go, heat that was just that tiny bit too much, people everywhere, uniformed blokes standing guard outside the bathroom to welcome you and aggressively direct you into cubicles (I was so weirded out by this that I walked out and refused to go until I was on the plane despite the man yelling for me to come back); the feeling of going in increasingly frustrating circles was exacerbated as I found myself desperate to be back on a plane. Which, of course, was then another seven hours of trying and failing to sleep.
But everything clicked into place upon arrival. I spent my first morning in London trying to find my way from where I’m staying to the Thames; despite being told it was only a ten-minute walk I wandered around hopelessly lost for two hours until I arrived back where I had started and subsequently realised that it was only a ten minute walk, just in the opposite direction to the one I had set out in. Usually this would annoy me to no end, but I sort of just met it with a shrug before keeping on my way. This is one of the first times I’ve been travelling without a packed schedule, and I’ve absolutely loved the fact that I can just wander for hours on end, seeing the sights, experiencing the city, thinking my thoughts. It’s been so relaxing to just sort of dawdle from place to place, aimlessly killing time by exploring all the strange little alleys I stumble upon.
On Wednesday night I had a meeting with a producer followed by an animation networking event, which was really cool and resulted in my meeting some great people before jetlag made me look like that rude bastard yawning through speeches. I spent Thursday wondering again, stopping in at the occasional bar or café to do some writing before setting out again to just bounce around the place. Then last night I met up with a bunch of Sanspants fans at a London pub and had a fantastic time; we downed pints and chatted until the bar kicked everyone out. I always love getting to meet people who like the show and hanging out with them is always excellent.
So today I’m catching up with a few friends who also happen to be in London, then tomorrow morning I’m getting on a train and heading off for the next part of this trip. I’m pretty excited to see what Scotland holds, which I assume to be a certain plesiosaur in a certain loch that I will befriend and consider revealing to the world before realising that some mysteries are best left unsolved, but honestly I’ll be happy if I just keep having as much of a good time as I’m having here. It’s all been just a bit brilliant so far.
I think it was Stephen King (although I’m not sure) who compared writing to an act of excavation. Imagine a story like a buried dinosaur skeleton; upon discovery you have an idea of what it might be, but you have to keep chipping away in order to unearth it fully. Every new discovery gives a different context to what we think we’re looking at. Sometimes those new discoveries come years after we think we’ve unearthed the whole thing. Sometimes we get the whole thing on the first attempt. As a metaphor, it’s about as accurate as any. Smaller stories require smaller digs, bigger stories can take years.
While plays like Heroes or The Critic were easy digs, yielding a pretty good product after one or two attempts, they were never especially complex stories. Windmills and Boone Shepard, on the other hand, are both examples of stories that took several years and multiple attempts to see clearly. And it’s still hard to be sure if I’ve gotten them right.
In the case of Boone it’s a moot point; two novels have been published and a TV option has been signed. If I suddenly stumble on a new and definitive interpretation in a year’s time then, well, bad luck. The version that’s out in the world is the version people are going to get. It’s just lucky that I’m still pretty happy with that version.
Windmills, on the other hand, has never quite ignited the way I hoped it would, and I honestly think that’s for the best. It’s a big, tangled, complicated story of human failings and the domino effects they cause, spanning years and many different perspectives. Last night I finished a new draft of Windmills, and my personal suspicion is that this is as close as it’s going to get to what it needs to be.
There are a few reasons for this, and to fully understand them I had to think back on how this story began and how it got to where it is now. So, in the interests of transparently charting my process for those who might be interested, I wanted to write something about how this story developed and how, eventually, I unearthed something I think is worth being proud of.
The idea for Windmills first came to me in 2009 when I was watching a play about abortion. It wasn’t a great show and there was lots of discussion about the morals of having kids if you’re not ready for them and in the middle of this my mind wandered and suddenly an idea struck me. Imagine a wild high school party. Imagine two teenagers, drunk off their heads and maybe with a couple of other illicit substances in their systems, have sex. Imagine he remembers it and she doesn’t. Now imagine the boy has a publishing contract and a sterling reputation he doesn’t want to compromise, so he says nothing. Then it turns out the girl is pregnant.
Now let’s sprinkle in some new factors. The cruel setting of a judgemental Catholic school. A witness to the tryst who has reason to hurt the parties involved. Highly religious parents of the girl stopping her from having an abortion. Morality, choices, regret, corruption; all of these classic themes start to naturally filter through the conflicts established and suddenly we have a fucking story on our hands.
I wrote the first draft of Windmills fast. I was strongly influenced by The Kite Runner and There Will be Blood; I loved the idea of youthful rivalries and conflicts echoing through the years until they finally reached their conclusion when the characters are bitter adults haunted by their mistakes. But as I began to excavate I learned new things. The protagonist Leo Grey had a hedonistic best friend, Ed, who I kept wondering about. So a huge central part of the novel became devoted to Ed, a narrative detour that had little to do with the central plot but just felt like it needed to be there.
Being seventeen, the manuscript I ended up with wasn’t great. But at the time it was the best thing I’d ever written and I was proud enough to suggest it as a play to the youth theatre company I was involved with in my first year of university. They took it on, I adapted the book into a script and suddenly I wasn’t the only person invested in this story. With the cast I explored deeper and learned new things and this time it wasn’t Ed who caught my interest but Lucy, the main character’s girlfriend. She had been a minor character in the first draft and the play, but I was sure there was more to her.
So, coming off the play, I did something a little strange. I wrote a sequel in the form of a novel called Lucy, a book that essentially depicted the events of Windmills from her perspective, filling in narrative gaps and showing another side to a previously one note character. As a novel, Lucy was slow and narratively unsatisfying. As a character study, it was a goldmine.
I went back to Windmills shortly after, certain that the key to unlocking the potential of the story was Lucy. I mashed the two novels together, thinking the story would now work as a big epic saga jumping between multiple perspectives.
It did not.
Two books forced into one ended up being about as much of a mess as you’d expect. There were multiple climaxes, jarring shifts in time and character, and generally the fact that they were never meant to be the same book was painfully obvious. Undeterred, I kept working at it, editing, polishing, rewriting, until the point where I realised one of the big issues was the fact that, in 2011 I was simply a much better writer than I had been in 2009 making for some inconsistency between the various parts of the book.
So I started again. I scrapped everything and wrote Windmills again, this time incorporating some of the elements of Lucy, albeit in a way that felt more natural and cohesive. And for the most part it worked. So many late nights and early mornings hunched over that laptop in my Swanston St apartment, all of my new experiences as a broke uni student making much of the post school part of the narrative far more authentic than they ever had been before. When I finished this version of Windmills I was sure I’d gotten it right. So sure, in fact, that I went ahead and self-published it through a Melbourne Uni service that tended to result in lumpy, ugly books that even a bargain bin would be ashamed to accept.
But I didn’t see it like that. In my head I was a published author now, and in my limited way I enjoyed the success. In book form more friends seemed willing to read Windmills and the general consensus was really positive. I was on top of the world.
And so, in 2012, for the first time I felt like I was done with Windmills. It sat on my bookshelf, people had read it, and so I started to move on. See in the years since my finishing high school, while I had worked on other ideas, Windmills eclipsed them all. Maybe the minor satisfaction of cheaply self-publishing a novel was enough to at least briefly silence the insistent voice that this story deserved more, so I put Windmills behind me and wrote new things. I co-founded Bitten By Productions, wrote a whole pile of plays, wrote a couple of novels and generally became far more prolific than ever before because for the first time I wasn’t held back by a single minded obsession with one story.
Then in 2013 I returned to another old high school effort of mine and, over a year and a half, wrote the five Boone Shepard novels. In between I worked on a few plays and generally my output remained varied but consistent.
In all this time Windmills never quite went away. I would occasionally entertain ideas for a sequel, but none of them ever grabbed me enough to actually write them. I had a lot of fun with occasionally dropping in references or cameos in my other work, but with the exception of a couple of short stories about the characters of Ed and Charlotte, Windmills remained very much in the rearview mirror. I even mentioned in several blog posts about how done with that story I was. I was proud of where it had ended up, and that pride allowed me to move on.
But see, you can’t really move on from a story when there’s more story to tell. The other day a friend suggested a new version of my futuristic Babylon trilogy and I was taken aback by this because I hadn’t even thought about Babylon in ages. In those years away from Windmills it was always there, even if it wasn’t dominating my thoughts. There was always a niggling sense that there was more to say.
It’s hard to say what made me write a sequel. Maybe part of it was the fact that, by late 2014, I had finished the Boone Shepard books and needed something new to work on. Maybe it was just where I was in my life. Maybe it was that those characters had rested long enough for me to have the fresh outlook that I needed. But at the end of that year an idea came to me and, almost on a whim, I started writing. And that writing snowballed; suddenly I was churning out thousands of words a day. Windmills was all I could think about, and what was more, there was a passion and energy to this new manuscript that my work had not had in so long. Still to this day ‘Untitled Windmills Sequel’ might be the best thing I’ve ever written, and barely anyone has even read it.
It was a weird project; a follow up to a self-published novel that had zero potential of finding an audience by itself, but I think the reason it worked was that I was really writing it for myself. And by the time it was done I was more immersed in this world than I ever had been before. So I had a brainwave; during my Masters of Screenwriting at VCA I had been working on a few different projects I wasn’t all that passionate about, so why not scrap those and, in the final months of the course, work on Windmills?
It seemed a no brainer, but man, you should have seen the smirks and rolled eyes I got from every direction when I excitedly told people about it. By this point it had become a running joke that I couldn’t let go of Windmills and as such it was hard to imagine anyone else being excited about me having another go at telling that story. It still is.
But I persevered anyway, adapting Windmills into a TV show pilot, and it was the best choice I ever made. Because in mid 2015, around the time I finished my Masters, I entered that pilot in a certain international screenwriting competition and then Windmills, the project everyone said I should have let go of, the one story I had been unable to move on from, the title that had become a punchline for my unhealthy obsessions, got me a ticket to the International Emmys and changed my life.
I’ve written at length before about how my pride in winning the Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award stemmed more from the fact that it was Windmills that won than myself; a definitive vindication for all those years of fixation. For the first time I had a real, tangible reason to believe in Windmills beyond my own conviction that it would eventually go somewhere.
But in the months after winning the Ustinov, as various TV production companies looked at Windmills, a big problem with the text that I had always ignored became a gigantic Achilles heel. While the first part of Windmills (the part depicted in the TV pilot) took place in a high school, the rest followed the characters into their adult lives, and so the first question anybody asked was what this story was supposed to be; a dark young adult drama that swiftly follows the characters into maturity or an adult drama that starts in a high school? I didn’t really have an answer and so Windmills just sort of languished. The strength of the pilot was not in dispute; it was the rest of the story I now had to sell people on.
But then, just as in the wake of self-publishing the previous version, winning the Ustinov was satisfaction enough for me to, at least for a time, let sleeping Windmills’ lie. Besides, between Boone Shepard getting properly published, my theatre company going from strength to strength, and my podcast actually bringing me some degree of worldwide recognition, it was hard to feel too much like I needed to keep working on Windmills. Life was busy and I had other things to think about.
I mentioned before that the metaphor of a story as a dinosaur skeleton being unearthed is a good one, but that’s not entirely true. A dinosaur skeleton won’t bother you if you decide to leave it. A story left unfinished or yet to reach its potential will buzz around in your head until finally you have to do something about it.
It started with re-addressing the pitch for the TV show. I drastically overhauled the plot outline, shuffling events around so that the bulk of the story now took place in high school, with only the very end happening after a time jump. Then, in a moment of luck that I’m very thankful for, 13 Reasons Why came out and proved that a dark story set in a high school could work. And so, at the start of this year, realising that selling the TV show would be easier if there was a good novel behind it, I made the entirely mercenary decision to write Windmills the book again, using the TV pilot and ensuing season outline as my guide.
And then, just to briefly return to the dinosaur skeleton metaphor, something magical happened. Because despite the fact that certain parts of the story felt a little dull due to the sheer amount of times I had already written them, other parts found new significance and meaning. The high school focus contextualized a lot of the story in ways that made more sense than previously, while the decision to write in third person instead of first meant that certain characters who had previously been left out in the cold developmentally finally got their dues. And as I wrote old plot holes were fixed and questions I had deliberately ignored were naturally answered by the changes I made, telling me that this was the shape the story had always needed to take.
And so, coming in at 80,000 words, Windmills 3.0 (7.0 if you count the various sequels and theatre/TV adaptions) was finally finished last night. There will doubtless be work to be done; edits and rewrites and all the rest. But more than ever before this feels like the best possible version of Windmills, if only because I’m pretty certain I just don’t have it in me to write this story again. For the first time I feel like I’ve effectively mined every character and subplot to bring them to their best possible self. Already there has been some interest from some heavy hitters, but we’ll see what happens. Although, to be honest, I feel like if this version of Windmills doesn’t find the audience I’m hoping for then no version ever will. And if that’s the case, well hey, at least I gave it more than a red hot go. And at least in the eight years I have spent with this story, writing and rewriting and re-interpreting and then doing it all again, I know that I have become a much better writer than I was when I first set out to tell this story. That alone has made it all worth it.
If nothing else, at least that skeleton is finally completely unearthed.
My mantra for a long time now has been ‘busy is better than bored’, because, frankly, it’s true. For the last couple of years I’ve been working through a fairly consistent stream of projects, and it’s been great; a wonderful change from those horrible times when I’ve had nothing to focus on or look forward to. But of course, busyness does come with certain difficulties, the primary one being that it’s very hard to strike a balance.
The last few days have been extremely tiring for me. We had a two day intensive workshop on my new play, The Commune, we had a one off performance of Heroes at Voltaire, in the middle of the play’s ongoing successful One Act Play Circuit run, we had a staged reading of my friend Sean Carney’s excellent screenplay Slowly, Slowly for charity and through it all I’ve had to review the new season of BoJack Horseman, which, by the way, I’m in no way complaining about. I just wish I’d had more time to enjoy my advance screeners.
Meanwhile other projects have ticked along in the background. I’m still working on the new version of Windmills, which seems to be going well, but keeping myself in the world of that story has meant that I haven’t been able to give as much time to my other commitments, namely Boone Shepard, which has been undergoing some exciting developments that I’m not totally at liberty to discuss yet. And none of this is mentioning Movie Maintenance, which has another live show next week that I am not remotely prepared for. Not to mention a show in Sydney in November. Oh yeah, and I’m going to Scotland next month at the same time as the Movie Maintenance crew publishes our horror novella anthology Seasons of Fear and rehearsals start for Moonlite, my first foray into musical theatre.
It’s brilliant, of course, that so much is happening. Having exciting and fulfilling stuff going on makes me feel alive in a way that little else does, and it’s hard to believe that as recently as last year I somehow managed to maintain a day job on top of the things I was doing. At this point in time that just wouldn’t be feasible anymore, which I guess means that I’ve officially crossed the threshold into being a full time writer. And to think I once thought it would be so easy.
But in all of this I have to remember to breathe. Creative success hardly means very much if you’ve got no-one to share it with, and I’ve been lucky enough this year to be surrounded by brilliant friends and a wonderful girlfriend. I used to always say that my writing was the priority and that everything else came second, but if there’s one major lesson I’ve learned it’s that you have to make time for both. In his autobiography Born to Run Bruce Springsteen warns the reader that no matter how hell bent you might be on whatever your creative pursuit of choice is, ‘life trumps art; always.’ When I was younger I had this idea that to be a great writer meant sacrificing everything for the dream. But without those personal connections around you, the dream starts to look awfully hollow and for the first time I think I’ve started to understand that I can be the writer I want to be and also make time for the people I love. I guess I’d never realised before that I believed otherwise, because I’d never really thought about it. But when you finally feel like you have a reason to live in real life more than in your art, it becomes pretty hard to think differently.
So yeah. Learn to balance. Make room for both. Because you can do it and you’ll be happier for it.
I have always preferred writing in first person. I find it far more natural to adopt the voice of a character and explore the narrative through their worldview than to take on the role of omniscient narrator. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried the alternative, to varying degrees of success.
I think the challenge I find when it comes to writing in third person is that it’s so much harder to explore what is going through a character’s head. In first person you essentially become the character and so articulating their experience is fairly straightforward but to do third person well you have to show rather than tell, and this is much harder, especially when you’re still trying to make the audience empathise.
It’s no coincidence that Windmills and Boone Shepard, the two of my stories that have persisted the longest, were both written in first person. Boone’s wry, exasperated, self deprecating approach to his adventures is fundamental to the style of his stories while one of Windmills’ biggest strengths was always the contrasting perspectives of its three central characters. First person allowed me to dig deep and I think was an inherent part of the reason those stories have always been so important to me.
And yet the time seems to have come where I have no choice but to kill that particular darling, at least as far as Windmills is concerned. I’ve been writing a fair bit in blogs lately about the current iteration of that novel, which I’ve been slowly working on over the last year, but one thing I haven’t mentioned is that, unlike previous versions, this one is in third person.
Part of the reason for this is the condensation of the narrative. Originally Windmills took place in four distinct parts over several years, each told from the perspective of a different character. The current version essentially tells the same stories in a much smaller time frame, meaning they largely occur parallel to each other, and this made writing in first person much more challenging. I briefly considered pulling a George R.R. Martin and having the story alternate between the perspectives of three viewpoint characters, but it doesn’t really suit Windmills; certain extended parts have to be told from one character’s point of view while others require more jumping between perspectives. Some of this structure is due to the fact that this particular iteration of Windmills was originally designed for television, where I could be far looser about whose eyes we saw events unfold through, but in a first person novel that has as much going on as Windmills does that becomes an impossible task and so, to tell this story the way I felt I needed to, my only choice was to bite the bullet and shift to third person.
It’s been a weird experience, to say the least. The writing hasn’t felt nearly as natural as previous versions, and yet reading back over it I think it’s significantly better than any of them. Third person has certainly given me the narrative flexibility I needed but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m so used to telling this story through the eyes of specific characters that taking a step back makes me feel oddly disconnected, like I’m not as invested as I have been in previous attempts. Of course part of this is certainly due to the fact that I’ve been working on various reworkings of Windmills for so long that it’s a legitimate surprise that I have any passion left for the story at all, but being unable to relay events in the unique voices of Leo, Lucy and Ed is weird.
That said, I think it’s largely been a benefit. I mentioned above that third person requires you to show more than you tell and so I’ve taken this as an opportunity to introduce more subtlety and ambiguity to the narrative. I can depict the actions of the characters with the barest glimpse of their thoughts and let the audience put two and two together regarding the whys of their choices. It gives a slight detachment to proceedings, but I think it makes for a more interesting novel on the whole. I’ve always had a tendency to over-explain in my writing and telling the story this way kind of forces me to do the opposite in order to make it compelling. It’s a weird, uncomfortable step into new and different territory for me, but reading over the novel so far makes me think it’s working. When you’ve written a story as many times as I’ve written Windmills it’s easy to become set in your ways but important to be willing to break said ways to break new ground and give yet another version of the same story a valid reason to exist.
If you want to progress as a writer you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone in more than just the territory you explore. Even if it seems scary or like you have to say goodbye to something you loved, the results may just surprise you.
One of the first pieces of advice you’ll ever get when you set out to be a writer is to ‘kill your darlings’. It’s a phrase that refers to the practice of getting rid of passages, phrases, characters or subplots that you really like when they’re not serving the story properly. Generally speaking it’s a good rule; every storyteller will sooner or later find themselves in a situation where the only justification for including a certain story element is ‘but I really like it!’, which, simply put, isn’t good enough.
Bad stories come in many forms but the worst offenders tend to be stories that force the audience to put up with things that aren’t necessary or entertaining. It’s in these instances that ‘kill your darlings’ might have saved the narrative, as a writer who seriously interrogates the worth of every aspect of their story tends to tell a story worth hearing.
Which brings me to Windmills. For those unaware (and I can’t imagine you’re reading this if you’re unaware), Windmills has long been the love of my storytelling life, a psychological thriller I first wrote in high school that I’ve never quite been able to leave alone, whether I’m adapting it into a play, self-publishing it as a novel, adapting it into a TV screenplay or, as I currently am, reworking it as a novel again. Windmills tells the story of Leo Grey, a teenager who makes a terrible mistake that haunts him for the rest of his life as his continued failure to do the right things leads to his moral decay and causes a domino effect that destroys the lives of those he cares about. The process of revisiting Windmills again and again over the last eight (!) years has been at times frustrating but ultimately satisfying as bit by bit I’ve gotten closer to what I think the story has to be.
Of course, over such a long period there have been characters and plot elements added and detracted from the first draft. Some of these have helped while others have slowed down the process, but one character has managed both. Charlotte Laurent was never present in the original draft; in fact she first came into being as the protagonist of a companion novel I tried to write immediately after the first draft. Charlotte was the girlfriend and eventual wife of Dominic Ford, the drug lord antagonist of Windmills, and the companion book would have depicted her corruption in a way that paralleled Leo’s, leading up to a showdown between the two. The more time I spent on the novel however the more I realised it wasn’t working, and Charlotte’s arc ended up predominantly as backstory for the next version of Windmills, in which Charlotte herself became a supporting character.
Maybe in part due to the fact that Charlotte was meant to be a protagonist but ended up being more secondary, she’s always been a big favourite of mine. As a character she’s innately fascinating to me; younger than the rest of the cast, she basically gets dragged into a world she doesn’t fully understand which proceeds to twist and change her until she is finally forced to decide where she stands. Charlotte is one of the few Windmills characters who eventually got a happy ending because she was one of the few I really felt didn’t deserve to suffer in some way.
However, after Windmills won the Ustinov award and I started developing it as a TV series concept in earnest, some darlings faced the chopping block and Charlotte was chief among them. The reason for this was simple; Charlotte’s role in the story took place entirely in the extensive part of Windmills that followed the central characters out of high school, and the TV version of Windmills, tweaked in the interest of making it an easier sell as a young adult story, only leaves high school at the very end, meaning there was very little room for Charlotte to appear in any way that felt natural. I tried really hard but in the end the best I could settle for was a brief cameo at the end that didn’t touch on all the backstory or relationships she had originally had with the other characters. And with the new version of the novel closely following the TV series outline, it stood to reason that Charlotte’s role would remain unfortunately minor.
Weirdly, however, for a character who never existed in the earliest versions of the story, the loss of Charlotte was something of a fatal blow. Try as I might, the story just didn’t quite feel like Windmills without her. Charlotte is so central to so much of the mythology that without her it felt somewhat like I was working on a high school drama that included some of the elements of Windmills without ever getting near the soul of it. Because, as I slowly learned, Charlotte, like Leo and Lucy and Dominic, is now part of the DNA of the narrative and without her it could never quite feel complete.
So what do you do? Logic dictates you kill this darling, and yet instinct begs you not to. I struggled with this for a while but in the end I decided that I just had to persevere and try to ignore the gaping hole left by Charlotte. I couldn’t, after all, twist the entire structure of the story just to include one character whose role in the narrative wasn’t all that important.
The funniest thing about writing is how often you don’t recognise the obvious. Plot points can hit you in a wave of glorious inspiration that of course this is how the story is supposed to go, how could you have been so stupid? And once that realisation hits home, it becomes clear just how flawed the story was before, how this new development actually solves several issues you didn’t even know were there.
For context, I’d planned the new version of Windmills to take place in six parts, each of which focusses on a different character (kind of like Skins with more murder and suicide and… well actually, just like Skins). The final part would come after a time jump, but the preceding five all took place in close succession, predominantly set in and around a school, starting with Leo Grey’s mistake and following the repercussions. But one issue I was finding was that the time jump, on paper, was a little too abrupt and jarring. Characters would be in one place emotionally at the end of part five and then turn up in part six having made major decisions or forged important new relationships off screen. What I needed was a way to show the passage of time, to set up the choices of the characters that would lead to the finale, to illustrate the changes so essential to the way it all wrapped up. What I needed was a fresh perspective to provide a new context to what we had already seen and what we were about to see, a new character who could raise the stakes and through whose eyes we could see the resetting of the board in time for the endgame. What I needed was Charlotte.
Within minutes of this realisation the plan changed and Windmills went from six parts to seven. And suddenly issues I had had with the new version seemed to melt away. Plot points were set up more effectively, characters could be developed more thoroughly and suddenly the novel I have been working on feels like Windmills in a way it didn’t quite before, because a character I underestimated the importance of has finally come home, taking her rightful place among the rest and, in the way all the best characters do, shining a light on the obvious in order to allow the story to take the right path forward.
Eureka moments like this make writing worth it for me. It often feels like there’s some magic at play, something beyond you just coming up with an idea in order to entertain people. I guess if there’s a moral to the saga of Charlotte’s triumphant homecoming it’s that killing your darlings is important, but trusting your instincts is infinitely more so. If the story seems to be pushing you in one direction, do what it says. Because nine times out of ten the story knows best.
There’s a few well known quotes that basically espouse the idea that what makes theatre special among all the storytelling mediums is impermanence. A book will last as it’s in print and people buy it, a film as long as there are copies in circulation. But theatre is different; even if a play has many productions and interpretations, each essentially represents a new artwork and once it’s finished, that’s it. Even the most long running plays will essentially offer a different experience night to night, as different actors step in or new inflections give new meaning to previously unimportant lines or moments. Despite our best efforts, theatre shows are never exactly the same twice, and that’s part of what makes them so thrilling and exciting. You are watching these actors live in front of you, and anything could go wrong at any moment. If you wanted to you could get up and run on stage and break the spell (don’t ever do that) or the lights could fail or a prop could break or someone could forget a line. Plays don’t have the luxury of being pre-recorded and every successful show is, in some ways, a minor miracle.
Of course you can always film a play, but watching a recording is never the same in a medium that is designed to be live. And while some plays are turned into films or radio dramas, taking away the ‘live’ part of live theatre will always, to some degree or another, take something away.
It’s for this reason that the end of any play is bittersweet. Especially in independent theatre, where your best efforts to fill seats will never quite bring in the numbers you’d ideally like and there will always be a couple of friends or family members you wish could have seen the show who didn’t. I have always been guilty of insisting at the end of any of my shows that this needn’t be the end, that we can go on to tour or do another season in a bigger theatre or develop it into a film or something, but on a certain level this isn’t much more than me being in denial about the end of something that meant a lot to me.
Certain plays of mine have had encores. Beyond Babylon appeared at a couple of one act play festivals, while The Lucas Conundrum made appearances in regional towns after its first season finished. But none of these encores were extensive, and certainly none of them eclipsed the original runs.
But after years of threatening to take shows on the One Act Play circuit one of them has managed to get there with some degree of success. Heroes finished its Melbourne run with good audiences and great reviews, but actors Matt Phillips and Blake Stringer saw potential to take it further, and so Heroes was entered in most of the Victorian Drama League festivals. While I was glad to see the life of the show extended, I didn’t pay much attention to the process. Until the show premiered at the Gemco festival and won best production. Then did the same at Mansfield. Then had a great one-off show in Benalla that led to offers for further touring engagements after that. And suddenly Heroes seems to be in the prime of its performing life, rather than in protracted death throes.
In many ways Heroes is the perfect touring show. Coming in at a tight forty five minutes after a few edits, with a sparse set and only two actors, it is singularly easy to take from theatre to theatre. And furthermore, it happens to be pretty good.
While this might sound like a case of the writer blowing his own horn, it’s hard to argue with reviews and audiences who sit in riveted silence but for the occasional gasps and laughs at all the right moments. I can’t tell you how awesome it felt to be sitting in the Mansfield festival last weekend and to hear total strangers telling each other that ‘you have to see Heroes’ and that it is ‘the one to beat.’ And while yeah, I have always been one to let my imagination run away with me, it’s hard not to wonder about the ongoing potential of this play. Performances in Brisbane and Sydney, maybe in conjunction with Movie Maintenance live shows, seem well within the realm of possibility, and if they work out then why not go further? Why not bring it back for another Melbourne season if it continues to win awards on the One Act Play Circuit? Basically, why not take whatever chance we can to get this play in front of as many eyes as possible? Heroes still has quite a few One Act Play Festival engagements to go and after that it’s almost a definite that it will make at least a couple of other appearances, but as far as I’m concerned the longer we can keep this train going the better.
A radio play has already been recorded, so I guess that Heroes has already been preserved in a way that means a version of it will always be available, but for my money the best way to experience this story will be to see the live stage version, and even if an ongoing season/tour doesn’t get huge audiences, then at least we will know that we gave as many people as possible the chance to see a play that all involved are extremely proud of and, based on the accolades and response, is very worth seeing.
The last couple of months have been a weird time for me. After the insane busyness of the first half of this year, I decided to embrace having a little time off, to relax, come up with some new ideas and basically enjoy myself. When I wrote Springsteen last year I was at a point in my life where I realised that I had prioritised my work over the people in my life, and that play was a sort of attempt to explore that and maybe work out how to change. But the fact of the matter is that I am an inherently creative person and the thing about creative people is that they don’t do well if they’re not creating. Lately I’ve been trying to work out how to balance things; I’ve been doing more sociable stuff, spending time with the lady, going to Sovereign Hill with friends, seeing musicals and whatnot while at the same time chipping away at a few projects.
The main thing that has been taking up my time over the last week is Windmills. I can pretty much hear the collective eye roll from people reading this, but hear me out. It’s no secret that Windmills has long been The Big One, that project I can’t seem to let go of. I wrote it as a novel in my last year of high school, adapted it into my first play the next year, wrote a sequel, mashed them together into one book, self-published that book, turned it into another play, adapted it into a TV pilot script while studying at VCA, won a major international screenwriting award for said TV pilot script and now I’m back to re-writing it as a novel.
What is it about Windmills that disallows me to let it go? So many things. Windmills feels like a melting pot of all the themes and ideas I’ve spent my writing life so far exploring, and as I’ve gotten older and learned new things I’ve found new ways to look at Windmills. I think there’s an inherent power to a story about how a single mistake can ripple through the years, corrupting and destroying as the person responsible fails to learn from his shortcomings, and for that reason among others I never really get tired of this story.
That said, this latest iteration has presented challenges. When you’ve written certain parts of a story this many times, it gets harder to find a new angle. Of course that means you pretty much stick to what works and only shake the narrative up when you reach the new ideas that made you want to return to the story in the first place, but it’s hard to infuse well-trodden material with any new passion. At VCA we were told to ‘write the first draft as though you’re in love, write the second draft as though you’re in charge’. I don’t know what number draft this is of Windmills, but it feels like the first one where I haven’t been head over heels in love with the story. Initially that seemed scary and like a bad omen, but the more I think about it the more I realise that the time has come to write the story as though I’m in charge, to take off the rose coloured glasses and really evaluate what this story needs to be if it is to reach the audience I believe it deserves to reach.
And I think I’m close. I really do. This meant sacrificing some parts of the original Windmills story that I always loved, like the fact that it took place over a decade, in order to focus the narrative, keep it set in high school and make it an easier sell as a dark YA novel. On the one hand this has meant saying goodbye to some beloved characters and plot points, on the other hand it has been a welcome challenge that I think has actually made the narrative more intricate, complex and immediately satisfying.
However when I started on this endeavour earlier in the year I found my interest waning after about 30,000 words. I just didn’t seem to be hitting the new heights I needed to and I was feeling more and more like I was filling the text with lengthy passages describing how the characters felt in order to try and hit the emotional heights of earlier versions. It was only when I re-read everything this week that I realised that the emotions of Windmills are baked into the essence of the story and I need to trust that. So I went through and meticulously removed anything I thought was too waffly and over-explanatory, ultimately binning about 4000 words of text. The result is a novel that feels leaner, subtler and so much more powerful, a novel I’m really excited by. And, without giving too much away, it seems I’m not the only one. The future feels brighter here than it ever has before.
But Windmills hasn’t been my only creative endeavour. Recently I wrote two plays in a week, ideas that have been rattling around in my head for a while. One is called True Crime and tells the story of a failing TV channel that try to fake a gang war in order to improve ratings, the other, The Trial of Dorian Gray, is about a young woman who essentially puts Oscar Wilde’s classic antihero on trial for his decades of crimes, only for things to take some surprising turns. It’s a twisty two hander in the vein of Heroes, and I’m really excited to bring it to life.
And speaking of Heroes, after a pretty well received Melbourne season in May, it’s currently touring the one act play circuit and doing very well for itself, cleaning up Best Drama, Best New Play and Best Production at the recent Gemco Festival. Naturally this doesn’t mean it will continue that success everywhere, but it bodes pretty well, even if we got an abusive anonymous message saying we were too professional to compete. Which it’s hard to take as anything other than a compliment.
Meanwhile we’re gearing up for our next play, The Commune, which opens in November, and my first foray into musical theatre, Moonlite, which will open at the Midsumma Festival in January. Plus, while my head certainly isn’t yet in the zone, at some point I will have to start thinking about Boone Shepard again. The draft manuscripts for books 3 and 4 are finished, so now it’s just a matter of seeing what’s possible when. In the wake of the kick sales got due to the shortlisting for the Readings Young Adult Prize, it feels as though Boone’s time is only just beginning.
I guess I’ve been doing a lot, really, even if no one project has dominated my life. But maybe that’s for the best. Maybe it’s not a bad idea to juggle a few different things and see which one takes off first. And do my best to keep trying to strike that balance with actually living.
Just some thoughts.