A few years ago, as part of my screenwriting masters at VCA, I decided to adapt my play Reunion into a feature screenplay. At the time it seemed a no-brainer; Reunion had only recently been performed for the first time, I knew the characters and the themes intimately, and it was a very personal story. As the kind of thing that I could spend a year working on and not get sick of, it made perfect sense.
The problem was that the VCA screenwriting course is a pretty vicious test of a story and your tolerance for it. Your script is subjected to almost weekly feedback sessions, mostly from difference voices all telling you why it doesn’t work and how to make it better. It can be hard to see anything beyond two obvious options; either ignore them all or take everything on board. Neither is helpful.
Reunion was a simple, sentimental little story about four estranged high school friends getting together for a drink and quickly, in each others’ company, regressing into the petulant teenagers they thought they’d grown beyond. It was based on myself and the friends group I desperately missed at the time, and as such certainly felt very close to home. Of course, a big lesson to learn in any form of writing is that just because something matters to you doesn’t mean it will to anyone else, and very quickly every tutor wanted to know what the hook was. Was it a serious drama? If so, the stakes needed to be raised. Was it a goofy comedy? Then it had to be broader, funnier and more action packed. I tried pushing in both directions and very quickly the script stopped looking like the story I wanted to tell. Eventually I ended up with something that technically was probably a stronger film, but lacked the soul that made Reunion mean anything to me. By the end of the first year I washed my hands of Reunion and moved on to something else.
There are two worst cast scenarios that can happen when faced with the prospect of redrafting. The first is that we remain too attached to the former version and therefore fail to make any tangible changes. We make excuses for the things that don’t gell and avoid any major overhauls that might create more work for us. We treat ‘redrafting’ as making a couple of tweaks, adding or removing a scene or two and maybe doing a final spruce up of the dialogue. That was essentially how I treated the first attempt to take Reunion from stage to screen. It’s what tends to happen when you’re still too close to the previous version; the prospect of re-writing from scratch can be both daunting and demoralising. We’re unwilling or unable to see the extent of the flaws and so we make excuses and brush off feedback. I’ve done this with plenty of projects, from Reunion to Below Babylon to various versions of Windmills. I wasn’t right in any of those cases.
The second worst case scenario is the exact opposite; that we take everyone else’s ideas of what our story could or should be on board and end up re-shaping it into something that no longer resembles what we originally fell in love with. This is also an unhealthy reaction to feedback; we become so demoralised and hate our work so much that we figure the only solution is to burn it all down and start again. A few years ago I wrote a novel called Phoenix, about a gang of teenagers surviving in a house after a nuclear war. Phoenix was slow and clunky but I couldn’t for the life of me work out why it wasn’t coming together properly. Eventually I can up with a drastically different version of the story, in which the protagonist wakes up after the bomb with amnesia in a house surrounded by strangers who all seem to despise him. In some ways that’s probably a better story with a more inherently interesting hook, but it wasn’t Phoenix. It turned a survival thriller into a mystery and drastically altered the themes and characters. Needless to say, I didn’t persist with it.
Stories develop over time, as we think about them more and figure out new solutions to old problems. The great and exciting thing about redrafting is the way in which a story reveals itself to you slowly, giving you a new understanding and a deeper love for what you’re trying to say. But it’s imperative, at every step of the process, to remember why you wanted to tell this story. What was it that you loved about it to begin with? That’s not to say you won’t find other things you love, but rather that the value of what initially drew you to the story can never be overstated. Because nine times out of ten, what first drew you to the story will form the crux of what makes it special. Whether it’s a character, a theme, a moment or an emotion, treat the first germ of the idea as an anchor, even if it doesn’t ultimately make it into the story. If you remember why you wanted to tell this story, you’re far less likely to get lost in insecurities.
Like almost everything about writing, re-drafting is a balancing act, one that requires you to be open to new ideas but to hold on to what you loved about the old ones. The body of a story always changes in the telling, but the soul almost never does. Almost.
Remember; no matter how much a story seems to be eluding you, nobody will ever know your own ideas with the same intimacy as you.
A few years back an ex-girlfriend asked me why I bothered with my blog if nobody read it. This was shortly before I won the Ustinov and the growth of Movie Maintenance, so I didn’t have much to my name and she probably had a point, although the ‘ex’ part of that descriptor probably gives you an indication of how willing I ultimately was to listen. But even knowing she might have been right, it wasn’t a question that really gave me pause or prompted any serious introspection regarding my motives. I blogged because I liked blogging. It was never something I started with the assumption that anybody outside of the occasional friend or family member would read. Questioning the futility of this isn’t invalid. Writing without an audience, on paper, can look a lot like yelling into the void.
But I don’t think writers fundamentally write for other people. I mean sure, being aware of prospective audiences and gearing your writing towards them is essential, but writing would be a hollow exercise if you were entirely telling stories for other people. Your work needs to come from somewhere real, otherwise it lacks weight. To me, writing should always come from an itch you have to scratch, a story you have to tell. That’s the basic seed from which the bigger piece grows.
For example; over Christmas I wrote a novella called Khancoban, a short thriller featuring Maggie from Sunburnt Country finding herself in the middle of a nightmare situation that she essentially has to fight her way out of. I was super proud of it; I thought it was tightly written and full of strong twists and turns. But outside of being available on my Patreon, I haven’t done anything with it yet. Maybe three or four people have read it. But as much as I’d love it to reach as many eyes as possible, I haven’t been going out of my way trying to make that happen. For now, being proud of Khancoban is enough; it was a successfully scratched itch that hopefully one day translates into something other people enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing it. But if that never happens? I’ll live.
My blog sort of fulfils a similar purpose writ large. It’s a place where I articulate and explore ideas that don’t have a home elsewhere. It’s somewhere I can get out my thoughts and opinions on writing, freed of having to be part of a work of fiction. And, beyond that it now provides for me personally a valuable record of my writing life, with entries spanning back to a very different time when my approach to things was largely divergent to what it is now. Add to that more personal reflections on my times overseas, and this blog essentially forms a kind of public journal.
Nowadays, I’m flattered to hear quite regularly from young writers who find it of value. That’s another reason why establishing a blog, even if nobody initially reads it, is a worthwhile pursuit. Charting your development and the lessons you learn about your craft can, it turns out, be valuable to other people as well. Learning that was a really nice surprise; I never approached blogging with any notion that anybody else would get something out of it, so knowing that a small group of people have is awesome.
Maintaining a semi regular writing blog is a great way to keep yourself constantly reflecting on and considering your growth, development and approach to your craft. If you’re worried about people not reading it, don’t be; assume no-one will care, and you’re free of the need to write anything other than exactly what you want to. A love of writing, after all, is the first and most important criteria for pursuing a career in it. Getting people to actually read your stuff should come later. It’s also worth remembering that everything you write is a form of practice and every bit of practice helps you improve. A blog is a fantastic way to scratch a different creative itch, to keep a personal record and maybe, eventually, to provide worthwhile advice to those in the same position you once were.
Earlier today I did my periodic check on Goodreads to see if there were any new reviews or ratings for Boone Shepard. This isn’t something I do often; most responses happened back around the time the book came out and new ratings are only occasional. Besides, I’m well past the point of being hellbent on seeing reviews; in the two years since Boone Shepard came out I’ve heard everything from people calling it their favourite book to people saying it outright sucked and many, many more responses somewhere in between those two polar extremes.
Today there was one new rating for each book; five stars for Boone Shepard and three stars for Boone Shepard’s American Adventure, from the same reviewer. I didn’t take offense to this; rather it just struck me as further evidence of this weird divide I’m noticing in how I think about the books and how people react. It’s something that is especially obvious with kids, who aren’t so good at hiding their feelings; Boone Shepard gets a lot of love while American Adventure seems to have been treated as an inferior, forgettable follow up.
It’s interesting because I think American Adventure is a far stronger book. While I remain proud of Boone Shepard and wouldn’t change anything about it, I do think it was constrained by the pressure of being the debut release of a new publishing house along with my first novel. It was re-edited and reappraised so many times that when I look over it now I almost feel like it lost a bit of the loose, eccentric fun that I associate with the character. This probably wasn’t and isn’t the worst thing in the world; Boone Shepard had to establish the brand but do it within a plot that was originally designed to be the darker second book, so maybe there was an issue in that it started the series on a slightly more serious note than I had envisioned the default as being.
American Adventure, to me, was a chance to let my hair down a bit and write the kind of rollicking, silly adventure yarn that I had originally wanted the series to be comprised of. Knowing at the time that books three and four (which have been reworked now as one final volume) would only get darker, I decided to try and make American Adventure feel more like one of the Boone Shepard short stories; silly, action packed, implausible but with a persistent melancholic thread beneath it.
The result, I suspect, suffers in comparison to the first book. For all its quirky characters and literary references, the original Boone Shepard is still a story about murder, human experimentation, rising up against oppression and confronting your past. The stakes are pretty damn high and I remember people commenting to me after the release that, for a children’s book, it was very dark.
American Adventure, by contrast, probably feels more like a lightweight confection. Technically the stakes are higher (the villain is literally trying to take over the world) but they’re less personal and the characters don’t treat their situation with the same gravity they did in the first book. This was a conscious choice and I feel like I hit the mark, but I can understand why it would feel like a step down rather than an escalation.
Freed of the pressure of starting a series and a career, I had a lot more fun with American Adventure, which is probably why I like it more than the first book even if it’s less emotionally engaging. I can speculate on why it doesn’t get the same appreciation (for all I know it could just outright suck), but ultimately it comes down to a fact that every writer has to try and remember; for better or worse, your audience doesn’t see your work the same way as you do. It’s like your perspective is of someone looking at a tree with X-Ray vision; you can see the insects moving around inside it, the sap, the roots below and the soil feeding them. You have a clearer understanding of what has gone into it, but you can’t see how the thing looks to someone without that same X-Ray vision. You can guess and if you’re good enough at what you do the guess can be spot on, but it will never be 100% reflective of what an objective perspective might see.
No writer sets out to make something bad. I think the books, films etc that really work are the ones where the writers were best able to identify how the story would come across to an external party; something that comes with experience. And look, I think you’re doomed to fail if you try too hard to give an audience what you think they want, especially if that audience doesn’t exist yet. Writing is a tricky balancing act in which you need to create something that both comes from a real place but is geared towards readers or viewers who have no reason to care about the personal demons you’re trying to exorcise. Swing too far in either direction, and what you create becomes either self-indulgent or soulless.
In the end you can’t know how something is going to be received, even with the most well educated guesswork. Being close to something means missing the obvious. Feedback from trusted people can help to a degree; feedback from objective outsiders can help a lot, but all you can really do is follow your instincts and try your best.
And for the record, I still prefer American Adventure to Boone Shepard.
Cast your mind back to 2015. If you were a Star Wars fan, it was a pretty special time. At that point, the few bits of information we had about The Force Awakens had told us next to nothing; there was an intoxicating sense that the movie could be anything. Even as we walked into that first screening we had no real clue of what to expect. All we knew, all everyone agreed upon, was that the future of Star Wars looked very bright indeed.
Well, it didn’t really pan out that way.
Around this time last year I wrote a lengthy blog post bemoaning the state of the franchise, predominantly the fact that, with a glut of new content seemingly hinged on fan nostalgia rather than any clear creative vision, the saga had lost its shine. And to a degree, I still feel that way, but my growing apprehension was tempered somewhat by the pleasant surprise that was The Last Jedi, a film that, love it or hate it, was clearly driven by genuine creative vision, a film that subverted expectations and was thematically rich in a way that no other Star Wars film was before. It was a film that got better upon re-watch and single handedly restored my love and excitement for the franchise. The Last Jedi demonstrated that Star Wars can be more than just callbacks, that there was enormous potential within the sandbox to do new and bold things. It even managed to make me kind of excited for Solo.
But now, for the first time ever, I’m ready to stop calling myself a Star Wars fan. The problem isn’t Solo, The Last Jedi, or Kathleen Kennedy. The problem, to paraphrase a really good thriller I finished recently, is not that one big thing went wrong. It’s that a lot of little things have gone wrong and now the one point I agree on with the really awful ‘fans’ out there is that Star Wars is in serious trouble.
It’s an issue with multiple parts. The first, which I outlined in the aforementioned blog post, is ubiquity. In the next few years, we apparently have on the way an Obi-Wan film, a Boba Fett film, a new Rian Johnson trilogy, a separate film series from David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the new animated series Resistance and a live action TV show from Jon Favreau. It’s easy enough to see Disney’s logic here; the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after all, can spit out three films and multiple TV shows a year and only grow in popularity. But Star Wars isn’t Marvel. The Star Wars universe was never the same kind of fleshed out playground of endless possibility; it was the backdrop to a singular narrative. The fact that Rogue One and Solo, ostensibly the franchise’s opportunity to branch out and tell different stories, were so nostalgia heavy just proves it. Marvel is made up of many different sub-franchises with their own styles, concerns and characters. You might get three Marvel films a year, but you generally have to wait three years for a new Avengers. Those are the events, not the lead up instalments.
Star Wars loses its value if it’s not an event. And honestly, a yearly film is probably fine. The midnight screenings for The Force Awakens, Rogue One and The Last Jedi were buzzing with excitement and atmosphere. The midnight screening for Solo, just five months after a movie that people are still talking about, might as well have been a lazy afternoon visit to your sparsely attended local cinema. Nobody really cared, and the box office has shown it. Might it have been different if the film came out in December? I think so. Because then it would have been positioned as an event, and, whatever you think of the film, Star Wars would have retained its status. Solo’s close proximity to The Last Jedi has created a sense of Star Wars fatigue that hasn’t really turned up before, and that is dangerous for a franchise that has always thrived on being something hotly anticipated.
Yesterday I listened to a Star Wars podcast that was supposed to be a Solo review but devolved into a debate about The Last Jedi. That, I think, says it all. Solo was too bland and safe to wrestle the cultural conversation away from a film that is still very much being discussed. And even on social media, the big divide between Star Wars fans still uses The Last Jedi as its point of contention. Solo slipped by practically unnoticed, inoffensive to all. That’s not what a Star Wars film is supposed to do.
Mentioning the online debate naturally brings me to the main reason that I’m stepping away from calling myself a fan. Simply put, a Star Wars fan is not a fun thing to be anymore.
For context, I probably don’t watch movies the same way as most people. Having spent three years on a popular film podcast means that I approach films and the behind the scenes process with a level of scrutiny that isn’t common. But then, that’s also what happens if you’re a fan of something. You devour every bit of news, you discuss what announcements and events could mean, and generally you stay in the conversation even at times when new content isn’t forthcoming. But that conversation has become a very unpleasant place to be.
The Last Jedi backlash, rather than fading away as we all assumed it would, has devolved into something far uglier. In the last few weeks Twitter has been replete with people attacking anyone and everyone involved in the ‘Disney Canon’, and then reacting with outrage when those people stand up for themselves. For the record, these attacks go from insisting that the target has ruined the attacker’s childhood, to accusing them of deliberately killing the franchise, to death threats.
We all know the internet can be an ugly place, but the scale of this is unprecedented. And look, while there are many people who genuinely take issue with the creative direction of the film, an overwhelming amount of the backlash appears to be rooted in the film pushing ‘identity politics’, even though I’m pretty sure there’s no point at which Finn yells ‘black lives matter’ or Rey starts talking about the internalised misogyny of Jakku. They’re just characters who happen to not be what we’re used to seeing in Star Wars, and for some people that’s sacrilege. When Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose Tico in the film, ends up deleting her Instagram posts in response to the largely racist harassment she was receiving, you know that things have gone way too far. There are now corners of the internet where suggesting that you liked The Last Jedi is an invitation for an instant barrage of loathing, corners where being labelled a ‘cuck’, a ‘shill’, or an ‘SJW’ are among the nicer names you’ll be called.
This, I need to stress, is all because of how you felt about a movie.
The solution is probably obvious. Stay away from those corners of the internet. After all, if you’re a Star Wars fan who doesn’t go on forums or isn’t on Twitter then it’s possible that you’re unaware of all of this. It’s possible that your Star Wars experience is all based around the films themselves, which, arguably, is how it should be. But by and large that’s not really how fandom works anymore. Part of the fun of being a follower of something lies in reading articles and reviews, in joining in debates on social media, in the rampant speculation and discussion over which was your favourite and why. It wasn’t that long ago that all of these things were so much of what made Star Wars fandom awesome; a shared passion that brought people together, disagreements and all. That level of engagement is certainly not necessary to your enjoyment of the films, but it can and perhaps should be a valuable supplement.
It’s not, anymore. Not when you can’t express your feelings without being attacked. And let me clarify; this cuts both ways. There are hardcore fans of The Last Jedi who will write off those who disagree with them as racist manbabies, which is also unfair and unhelpful. Unless, of course, they are actually being racist manbabies, as in the case of what happened with Kelly Marie Tran. Disliking Rose Tico is fair game (I found her annoying and underwritten), but that should never, never spill over into harassment of the actor.
A few years ago I went to an all-day Lord of the Rings Extended Edition marathon at the Astor. I went by myself and was so excited to lose myself in one of my favourite ever film series. In the minutes before it started I sat in the foyer listening to the blaring soundtrack and was overcome with emotion and excitement. But, after a fourteen-hour long day of only Lord of the Rings, I walked out a bit sick of it. I was happy to not revisit Middle Earth for a while after that.
Currently, being a Star Wars fan feels similar, on a larger scale. The franchise dominates the culture, but not in a positive way. People aren’t speculating on what might happen next or discussing their favourite moments, they’re yelling at each other, name calling, and either actively willing the franchise to fail or wanting it to only exist if it can cater to their exact specifications.
Now, when I think back to being a kid, sitting in a darkened cinema as those familiar words came up on the screen, I find it hard to remember how it felt. I know there was a singular love and excitement that only came from Star Wars, but it feels far away now, buried under an exhausting amount of content and a nauseating degree of ugly fan negativity. I’m sick of talking about Star Wars and I’m sick of thinking about Star Wars even as I find myself writing blogs like this and reading think-pieces about the box office failure of Solo. But that’s the degree to which it dominates conversation, especially in my field.
If somebody told me tomorrow that there wouldn’t be another instalment for a decade, I’d be fine with it. But that won’t be the case. More films will come, and they’ll either be safe and dull or prompt outrage from ‘true fans’. And while those fans shriek and abuse, my suspicion is that the audience will slowly fade away until Star Wars is no longer special or exciting.
I don’t think I’m done with the franchise. I’ll probably see the new films and I’ll retain fond memories of what Star Wars meant to me as a kid. But right now? I’m no longer a Star Wars fan.
Recently I received the latest round of edits and notes on the third and final Boone Shepard novel. As usual, the entire manuscript had been heavily annotated, with many parts questioned and re-writes suggested all over the place. I’m pretty used to this by now, but on the night I opened the document and saw how many changes there were to make and how time consuming it would be, I couldn’t help but feel a little defeated.
I wrote the first versions of Boone’s adventures in 2008, when I was sixteen. I left him for years, then, in 2013, had a run at writing a new version of the series. Over the course of the next year and a half, I wrote five novels back to back; The Broken Record, Darkening Ventures, An American Adventure, The Silhouette and the Sacrifice and The Vengeance of Vincent Black. When the series was picked up for publication in 2015, the mutual decision was made to skip The Broken Record and make what was then called Darkening Ventures into the first novel, reworking it so that it could feel like an introduction. At the time, I was still close enough to the time I finished the series that recapturing the headspace was pretty easy. But as every year went by and I got further away from the massive writing binge that led to the initial drafts, getting back into Boone’s world became harder and harder. If you spend ages writing stuff that is tonally and stylistically as far from Boone Shepard as possible, you start to wonder how you can ever get back in touch with the person you were when you wrote those stories to begin with. What’s more, when the final novel is comprised of what were initially two different manuscripts mostly written in 2014, the job becomes to rewind four years and recapture the same passion that led to the last versions, except now you have to do it better.
The fact is that Boone Shepard has been a major fixture of my writing life for a long time now, and while I’ve loved documenting his journey and hearing from the people who enjoy reading it, I’m reaching a stage where I think I’m almost done with the character. That’s not to say I’ve fallen out of love with Boone and Promethia, just that there are other things I want to explore. After a decade, I just don’t think I have much left to say about him. More than ever before, re-writing can look like a chore, especially considering where my head has been recently.
Over the last few months, as I’ve extensively documented in this blog, my focus has been on Nelson and the Gallagher, a YA coming of age dramedy, and Windmills, a sprawling psychological thriller about the consequences of human failings. Voice wise, Nelson is a little closer to Boone, but not that much. Nelson was written in the voice of a bumbling, insecure teenager. Boone is a sarcastic but melancholic swashbuckler. There’s not much crossover apart from a slightly similar sense of humour. In fact, in some ways going from Nelson to Windmills was an easier transition because, while thematically they don’t come close to each other, they’re both naturalistic stories prominently featuring teenagers. Boone Shepard is a different matter together.
But the thing about taking steps into the territory of professional writing is that you no longer have the same luxury to pick and choose what you want to write and when. What I want to do is keep working to get Nelson as good as possible and start expanding Sunburnt Country into a full novel that can be the start of a series. What I have to do is finish Boone.
Of course, the best writing comes from loving what you’re doing and it’s hard to love something when you see it as a job. So I had to find a way to force myself to fall back in love with writing Boone Shepard. Re-reading the previous two novels to find the voice again wasn’t really an option; I did that before the last round of re-writes and doing it again so soon would only result in me hating my own work. So instead, I turned my attention to all the Boone Shepard short stories that I’d written over the last couple of years. Some have been published online, others haven’t, but all were only written so that I could have fun with my characters in the Booniverse. There was nothing mercenary about those stories, and what’s more, I’d barely looked over them since first writing them.
It worked a treat. Sitting at the pub the other afternoon, I read the shorts back to back and before long was wondering whether, with a couple more, these could be published as an anthology. And thinking about that got me thinking about Boone again which got me reconsidering the third novel and so the next day I started work. I scrapped the prologue and first chapter, re-writing both from scratch and in the process finding a far more exciting way to open the book that also ties disparate plot threads together far more effectively. Last night I effusively told my girlfriend all about the new ideas I’ve come up with and found myself reading her passages like a kid looking for approval about the new thing they’ve made. And that is precisely the feeling that writing should be giving you.
Finishing the novel no longer feels like a chore. There’s a lot of work to do, but rather than terrifying me, it excites me. Because, as I reminded myself the other day, this could be one of the last times I get to spend with these characters. And I care too much about Boone Shepard and Promethia Peters for their final adventure to be a half-formed, passionless slog.
You might feel like you’ve moved past a certain story or like you’ve got no passion left for it, but that story is a part of you, and that part of you isn’t going away. It might become harder to see, but all you need to do is remind yourself of why it mattered to you in the first place for the love to come cascading back.
Sometimes I feel like I’m a philistine who watches too many big, corporate mandated blockbusters at the expense of more interesting artistic films. Other times I feel like the exact opposite; a snob who thinks that anything with a budget over a hundred million is nothing more than a focus group mandated cash grab, designed to please everyone and challenge no-one.
Clearly the two self-perceptions don’t comfortably co-exist, yet co-exist they do.
My Dad, who can often get a bit pigheaded if challenged on just about anything, really pissed me off a couple of years ago when I told him I’d enjoyed Birdman and he responded with a withering dismissal about how my artsy film school sensibilities meant that I couldn’t see the obvious shortcomings of a film he deemed pretentious. Only a few months later, when I told him I enjoyed Terminator Genysys as a dumb popcorn diversion, he told me with equal scorn that I should know better because of, well, my artsy film school sensibilities. This whole idea that my education can be used to denigrate my opinion either way irritates me to no end. It’s like when people try to tell me I’m too critical to enjoy movies, or that I’m deliberately contrary. None of that is true, I want to scream while shaking them. I just enjoy what I enjoy. The only difference my education in writing for screen has given me is the ability to recognise and articulate why something works or doesn’t.
But that doesn’t change the fact that I can get a bit self-conscious about the broad palate of my cinema tastes. When I’m around friends who are in the arts, I don’t like admitting that I’m excited for the new Avengers or that I really loved The Last Jedi. Likewise, if I’m with the friends I grew up with back in the country, I have a terror of being judged if I try to talk about the new Richard Linklater film or that really cool play I saw a few weeks ago. On one extreme I feel tasteless, on the other, pretentious. I try to play up or play down my enjoyment either way, depending on the company. And that is stupid and annoying. I shouldn’t have to do that. But it comes from a valid place because people are judgemental and I don’t like having eyes rolled at me or assumptions clearly made about the kind of person I am when I admit to liking something outside the collective taste of the group I’m in.
The truth is that it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. In the last few weeks, I saw on their first day of release Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2 and Solo. I’ve also been to see Chappaquiddick, Tully, Cargo, Last Flag Flying, The Party and a whole bunch of other arthouse films that I catch at Lido’s cheap Tuesday every week. And I get different things from different films. Movies like Last Flag Flying really stuck with me, gave me things to think about and effusive recommendations to make to friends. Deadpool swept me up in action, adventure and laughs. Solo didn’t work on any of the above levels, but that’s another story.
I’ve been framing it to friends as though I catch the blockbusters for fun confections, and the indies for real, nutritious meals, but in truth it’s not that straightforward. There are great blockbusters (my all-time favourite film, Jaws, started the trend) just like there are utterly garbage indies (The Party, which I saw a few weeks back, was one of the most appalling films I’ve ever managed to sit through). Are big Hollywood blockbusters more generic overall than they used to be? Sure, but every now and then you get an exception, like The Last Jedi.
Let’s be clear; Last Jedi wasn’t impeccable cinematic craft in the same way as, say, A Quiet Place. In the grand scheme of things its themes weren’t especially challenging and its much-touted subversions were only subversive because we expected it to follow certain beats. Taken in isolation, the film isn’t as revolutionary as some people say it is. But it did more than it needed to, all within the framework of one of the biggest film franchises in history. The Last Jedi had to serve a lot more masters than Tully, and the fact that it took the risks it did comes close to miraculous. Seen in that context, it’s hard not to get excited about the perceived rule breaking of what, in essence, is a pretty straightforward Hollywood special effects extravaganza. And yet in certain circles, I still feel like an idiot for getting excited about The Last Jedi.
In the end, anybody who looks down on you for being passionate about something that is ultimately harmless is the one with the problem, not you. I genuinely believe that judging films on the merits of what they’re trying to be rather than what they aren’t is the only healthy way to consume movies. A film, ultimately, either makes a mark on you or it doesn’t. They are engines designed to make us feel something, and the only barometer of their individual effectiveness is in how successfully they achieve that goal. The budget, degree of studio interference and cultural significance is all secondary. You won’t remember any of that when you think about a film in five years’ times. If a movie can stick with you, then not much else matters.
I don’t think that tailoring your expressed excitement is really a bad thing. There’s no point in singing the praises of The Last Jedi to an audience of people who will never watch it. But that doesn’t mean pretending to have liked something less than you did. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Enjoy what you enjoy. Nobody can take that experience away from you.
When I was eighteen I went and saw the film Animal Kingdom. For those who don’t know it, it’s an Australian crime thriller about a kid who, after the death of his drug addict mother, is sent to live with his crime matriarch grandmother and his three dangerous uncles. It was later adapted into an American TV show of the same name, which I haven’t seen but by all accounts is quite good. But whether it can match the original is questionable to me. Animal Kingdom is a modern classic; it’s brutal, hard hitting, chilling and immensely powerful. Every character feels fully realised, complex and fascinating and an equal part of the thrilling whole. It’s the kind of film that just feels complete, thought through and meticulous and firing on all cylinders. No part of it is superfluous.
When I later read that it took writer/director David Michod ten years to perfect the script and get the film made, I was taken aback for two reasons. One, that ten years seemed such a huge amount of time. And two, while watching the film, at 18, I remember so clearly thinking that this was exactly the sort of work I wanted my novel Windmills to be. But ten years? Surely it wouldn’t take ten years to get it right?
In a recent, lengthy blog I wrote about the long process of writing, re-writing and reimagining Windmills that has been a major fixture of my writing life so far. I spoke about writing as an act of excavation; like digging up a dinosaur skeleton, you keep working at it until you can see the whole thing clearly and there’s nothing left to find. But it’s easy to make mistakes. You’re excavating something new, so it stands to reason that you won’t really know what the whole thing is supposed to look like. You can reach a certain point and be sure you’re done, especially when you’re too close to the project to view it with any clarity. And ten years of work is exactly the kind of thing that leaves you too close to a project.
I’ve thought I was done with Windmills before. In 2010 I insisted that the version I’d written the year before and been tinkering with ever since was my best work. At that stage, it probably was. But it didn’t stop me re-writing the whole thing again the next year and then self-publishing it and then announcing that I was done and writing in multiple blogs that there was no way I’d ever revisit it. I was sure of that. And, well, even if you’ve only read a couple of my posts you probably know the rest.
After writing a new version of the novel last year, I was sure I was close to done. Without going into specifics, some conversations going on with major players suggested the same. But close to done isn’t done, and so I returned to Windmills again this year, first to adapt the whole book into a feature film to enter in a competition, then to make some structural changes to the novel by redistributing material along with newly written stuff to create a framing device for the high school events. I forced myself back into that world and I lived and breathed Windmills. I went for long walks thinking about it. I wrote many notes and I considered from every angle how the framing device would work. And, most crucially, I took my time. After deciding to add the framing device, I didn’t dive in straight away. I spent weeks considering it and ensuring it was justified on multiple levels. Then, when it was done, I let it sit for a couple of days before reading through the whole thing, editing and tweaking and perfecting all over again. I had to send the book off, but even once I was done I sat on it, fretting over whether it was as good as I needed it to be.
And then something magical happened. I went for one of my usual long walks to let ideas play out and percolate in my head, with the intention being to re-consider all of Windmills again. But instead my thoughts went to other projects. And that night, while sitting at home watching TV, my mind moved to Windmills only for a huge realisation to hit.
I had nothing left to think about.
My ambition for Windmills as a concept has almost always been greater than my ability to realise it. It’s a huge story, a sweeping saga about the long-term damage of one terrible teenage failing, and every single character in it has a part to play. Each have been developed extensively over a long period of time, changing, growing and shifting as I approached them all from different angles. Some, like hedonistic but deeply damaged party animal Ed, were pretty set in stone from the first draft. Others, like Lucy and Alan, didn’t become completely clear until much later. And the same went for plot points. In early drafts a lot of what happened was overly convenient or implausible. But slowly those aspects were reworked until they made sense and the story ended up somewhere close to watertight.
Over ten years, you experience a lot and your life changes in massive ways. When I first started writing Windmills at seventeen I didn’t have the experience or ability to write what was in my head. Every time I revisited it from the standpoint of being a little older and a little different, I found new elements. Windmills grew with me, but as I enter my late twenties and start looking down the barrel of a new and very different stage in my life, it’s become increasingly clear that I have run out of things to say with this story. There was a lot to say and it took a long time. But I think I’m finished.
Note the ‘I think’. I have strong reason to believe that Windmills as it stands is close to ready, based on a few conversations that have been happening, but in the end that decision isn’t mine to make. I’m not interested in self-publishing a second time, especially not a reworked version of the same book, but this time it’s not just my word suggesting things are close.
I think in the past I always knew I wasn’t quite done with Windmills, even when I insisted I was. I knew what the flaws were in the earlier versions, from being way too overwritten to certain plot points being circulatory and repetitive to the giant problem of just who the hell the audience of the thing was supposed to be. But now, thinking back through it all, those things have been addressed and the book feels complete in a way it never has before, something tight and solid that is infused with years’ worth of ideas. It has gained and lost along the way; there were things I loved about the 2012 self-published version that aren’t present in the same way anymore, because they just can’t be. Knowing what a book is also means knowing what it's not, and that means killing a darling or two. And the DNA of those aspects still lingers, I think. It has to, after all this time.
It's a weird and kind of melancholic thing to consider. After ten years it’s hard not to be just a little sick of something. It’s also hard not to love it dearly and be terrified of letting it go. Beyond that, there’s a strange, sad realisation that I will probably never write anything like Windmills again. The fact that I had this huge idea when I was seventeen and it took me the next decade to learn how to write it properly meant that there is a depth and weight to the work that is singular. After all this time, there can’t not be. I’m a far better writer now than I was then, but even if I have another idea on the same scale chances are I won’t spend the same amount of time on it, because it won’t take me as long to get it right, and that means that, consequently, it can’t quite achieve what I believe Windmills does. I’m sure I’ll write better stories, but nothing will ever be Windmills again. Honestly, that might be a good thing.
So, am I going to be back here in a year’s time insisting that this time it’s really done? Maybe. But I don’t think so. You know a story’s done when it’s done. And this one is done.
I’ve been planning to write a Ned Kelly play for a long time now, but outside of that I haven’t had much in the way of a concept. It’s one of those cases where my interest has come more from a place of passion for the story than from having anything to actually say about it.
Obviously this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve tackled a real life subject. Arguably my three most well received plays were We Can Work It Out, Springsteen and Moonlite, all stories rooted in fact. All three had amazing ticket sales and excellent reviews, and remain the three plays that regularly get put forward for a potential second run (stay tuned on the WCWIO and Moonlite fronts). But for my money there is another, more important reason that those shows hit the chords they did.
A couple of years ago I had a first run at writing a Ned Kelly play, and even finished a script. Called Glenrowan, it took place during Ned’s last stand and focused on the peripheral characters pulled into his orbit. In theory the play was about examining the moment when real events become legend. On paper, it didn’t really work that way. It essentially amounted to a lot of characters standing around debating with little plot momentum and not much that differentiated it from the many, many other retellings of Ned Kelly’s life. That script never saw the light of day or got further development because, in short, it sucked.
Some of its DNA did end up resurfacing in Moonlite, but far more effectively. Moonlite also used the last stand of a real bushranger as a way to examine the importance of reality when a legend has taken its place, but it was far more thematically cohesive, had actual plot/character progression, and was loaded with humour and toe-tapping tunes to keep it fun.
See the reason Moonlite worked, to me, is that it actually had something to say. It didn’t exist purely to relay a story that the key creatives were passionate about.
Likewise Springsteen and We Can Work It Out; riskier propositions in that they told the stories of people who are still alive and active today. But both plays used a foundation of fandom and reality to explore something deeper. We Can Work It Out was about the purpose of art, Springsteen was about learning to let go of ambition and recognise what really matters. Because while we might love the stories of real people, whether historical or contemporary, I really do believe that relaying them creatively without any deeper themes will always be a hollow enterprise.
Yesterday the brilliant guys at A Guide to Australian Bushranging published a long and well worth reading article about the upcoming True History of the Kelly Gang film. The article, while stressing that they were remaining open minded, was critical of many aspects of the film’s production, from casting to the professed interests of the key creatives to the fact that the novel the film is based on was not historically accurate and as such the film wouldn’t be either. And with cinema being unable to capture the voice that made the novel feel authentic, what was to differentiate this retelling from all the others?
Maybe a childish excitement for all things bushranger wins out here, but I’m not too concerned about historical accuracy. The first responsibility of a film is to engage and entertain and that is very hard to do if you’re adhering 100% to the letter of history. Real life, after all, scarcely fits comfortably into a three-act structure. My argument, then, is that I don’t really care if a film isn’t accurate, as long as it’s true to the spirit of the story and uses the changes it makes to enhance its central thesis/interpretation. I love the 2003 Heath Ledger Ned Kelly because as a kid it was practically a dream adaptation of a story that captured my imagination; sweeping, rousing, epic and passionate at the expense of accuracy. The Ledger film makes a lot of changes, some more egregious than others, and I can’t really begrudge anyone being unable to see past that, although I do think that in general people need to be a little more open minded to making changes to fact for the sake of entertaining fiction. After all, if you do your job well, people will likely go off and research the real story anyway. A good adaptation can introduce many more people to the facts and besides, I can’t see anybody walking out of any Hollywood interpretation of real events assuming that’s exactly how it happened (see: The Greatest Showman). The idea that an unfaithful retelling inherently propagates harmful untruths is, I feel, disrespectful to filmgoers.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that yesterday I did finally make a start on my own Ned Kelly play. The article I read got me thinking, and finally the disparate ideas I’d been entertaining for years came together in a take on the story that a) has a clear thematic thesis and b) has not been done before, at least to my knowledge.
The take is simple; what if Ned Kelly knew exactly what he was doing? What if Glenrowan was a planned attempt to martyr himself and his gang based on the fact that they could have more impact as dead legends than living criminals? Now what if his gang were not aware of this and one of them was to find out halfway through the siege? How would you feel to know that somebody you trusted and looked up to as a leader and protector was in fact planning to sacrifice you in service of a larger goal?
I am keenly aware that this has the potential to piss off just about anyone with a vested interest in the story. The “Ned Kelly was a murdering criminal” camp won’t like seeing him sacrificing all for what he perceives as a noble cause, the “Ned Kelly was a hero” camp won’t like this depiction of him as a ruthless manipulator and those who prize accuracy will balk at some of my reinterpretations of what went on inside the inn.
My pre-emptive defence is this; the story has been told hundreds of time and can survive a few alternate takes. Additionally I’m not for a second trying to suggest that this is anything other than fiction. It’s using the framework of a real story to pick up where Moonlite left off and continue exploring the themes of how legends are created and what their significance is compared to the real events that spawned them. Only this time, unlike Moonlite, the story will be about a legend deliberately created, exploring the use of stories and iconography as weapons at the expense of facts. So if anything, the wilful inaccuracy of the play kind of suits the theme.
So far I’m really excited by what I’ve written. It’s a theme that fascinates me and a story I love, which sort of doubles the thrill of finally writing my own version of this story. And if nothing else, I’m proud of the fact that I finally found an angle on this legend that, to me, is fresh and new.
There’s a great moment in a Rick and Morty episode where Morty is forced to listen to an aspiring screenwriter read his work. The screenplay opens with the protagonist in a terrible situation before flashing back to six months earlier. Immediately Morty sinks a little lower in his chair and we all laugh. Because the device is so very familiar.
I would be very surprised if there was a writer on the planet who hadn’t at least once opened a story in media res – starting with the end or else a particularly exciting/mysterious moment from later in the story. It can seem foolproof, a way to pull the audience in by promising later thrills to get them through a mundane opening. But, as Morty tells the outraged writer, ‘stories should start when they start’.
Of course, one of the home truths in writing is that for every hard and fast rule there is at least one stone cold classic that breaks it. The trick, as I’ve said before, is to be able to offer rock solid justification for your decisions. In media res seems like the easy way to start a story, but in truth it more often than not comes off as kind of cheap and suggests a lack of confidence in on the part of the writer. Nine times out of ten the only reason it’s there is to keep people reading/watching, which suggests you don’t think your early chapters/scenes are strong enough. In those cases, it really is just a temporary bandage over a permanent wound; you might keep people interested, but it won’t paper over the inherent flaws in your writing.
People often point to Breaking Bad as an example of a story that uses in media res to great effect. That show became famous for cold opens that tended to come from later in the episode, but Breaking Bad was very clever about it and to assume that the iconic first scene of the pilot, depicting Walter White in the middle of a life or death situation before flashing back to his dreary home life, was only there to reel people in suggests a misunderstanding of what that show was doing.
I have a theory that in any scene or moment, you should be aiming to do about three things at once. The example I always point to is a moment in Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone where Hermione thinks that Snape is cursing Harry during a Quidditch match. She runs through the stands to set fire to Snape’s cloak and break his concentration, in the process knocking over Professor Quirrell. This scene is doing several things; it’s providing entertaining action that drives the plot and leads our characters to their next step, it tells us something about Hermione in that she is determined and proactive, and it plants a seed that will later help the reveal of Quirrell as the villain. In the moment, however, we read Hermione knocking Quirrell over as J.K. Rowling telling us just how driven and blinkered she is. It’s a Chekov’s gun disguised as character development wrapped up in plot. That is clever writing.
Breaking Bad’s cold open absolutely exists to grab your attention and make a promise of chaos to come, but it also does a lot more than that. The very first thing you see are a pair of trousers flying through the air, hitting the dusty ground only to be run over by a careening RV. Walter White’s boring life has been blown away and left behind by the choice he has made. When the scene cuts back to him presiding over a chemistry classroom and waxing lyrical about his subject being the study of change, we see the different parts of the script working in tandem to tell us exactly what this show is about. Change. The destruction of an ordinary world by one man’s ambition. The cold open also, in his actions, tells us everything we need to know about Walt. He is a man who, when cornered, will do anything he has to in the professed name of helping his family. Character, theme, hook; all in the space of a few minutes. That is a justified cold open.
The reason I’ve been thinking about this is that I’m currently in the process of reworking Windmills (yes, again, roll eyes and move on). This is a little different though; it’s not an overhaul or rewrite, but rather a restructuring of the existing material to make it a bit more tonally and thematically cohesive. It’s no secret that the big glaring issue of Windmills, in every incarnation, has been the matter of audience. It’s an adult thriller about high school students, and although it moves into their adult lives at the end, it can very easily be mistaken for YA.
As such I’ve added a framing device, the cousin of the in media res opening. Windmills now starts in the present day, with 27 year old author Leo Grey returning to his old school for his ten year reunion. It’s clear from the start that something in the past has made this event a little more fraught than your standard catch up, and before long we learn Leo’s real motive; he’s here to destroy an incriminating piece of evidence that he left behind as a student. In the process, he is approached from the shadows by a journalist who requests an interview, telling Leo “I know who you are, I know what you did, and I know what happened after.” Leo rebuffs the journalist, walks away and the moment he’s out of sight and alone he starts trembling uncontrollably as the memories return and we flash back to ten years earlier.
The bulk of the novel plays out in the past, but at the start of each of the six parts we get one present day chapter, alternating between continuing the story of Leo and showing Leo’s high school girlfriend Lucy, now in hiding with a fake name.
The main reason for the device is to plant Windmills squarely as an adult novel, to tell the audience right from the start that even though we’re predominantly in a high school setting, the material we’re dealing with is a lot more intense than what you might assume. But beyond that, it does wonders for illustrating themes and building tension. It allows the characters, looking back on events, to essentially comment on them, to show clashing perspectives on what happened and to examine the consequences of a mistake unatoned for; the central theme of the book. It also adds texture to the biggest question of the book; who is Leo Grey? In the past we see a scared teenager become calculating and ruthless as he makes mistake after mistake, in the present we see a man by turns regretful, manipulative and threatening. Ten years later, has he actually learned and changed or was the rot too deep? That is the question that the final scene answers, a question set up by the new in media res opening.
The framing device, at its core, exists to offset any confusion about the book’s intended audience. But before I could add it, I had to make sure it was doing more than that. If something is included for purely cynical reasons, then audiences will smell it from a mile away and it will put them off your story. They’ll be like Morty, sinking into the chair with a groan at your transparent attempt to pull them in without working for it.
It all comes down to the one golden rule of writing. Be able to clearly justify every artistic choice you make, and chances are you’ll end up with something pretty good.
The first and most important step for any writer is to consume stories. Most of the time, people who go on to write are people who have grown up as voracious readers, who obsessed over the films that inspired and excited them and who felt the need to replicate the things they loved about those stories.
For me, wanting to be a writer stemmed from being so head over heels in love with the stories I grew up with but knowing on some level that no matter how much I adored them they would never really be mine – they would always be the invention of the author. In the end, the only solution to that was to come up with stories completely my own that I could love just as much. This led to a balancing act; from my teenage years into adulthood, I would absorb TV shows, movies and books, become completely obsessed, and fold the themes, ideas and aspects that I loved into my own work, an act of cherry picking that, when combined with life experiences, led to the development of a unique voice.
The theory, this symbiotic relationship between the stories we tell and the stories we consume should continue forever. Watching a great TV show or being inspired by a brilliant book can be similar to putting fuel in the tank of a car; the healthy creative is one who learns from the genius of others rather than being jealous of it. And as we move from aspiring to professional it’s important that we keep a finger on the cultural pulse for more reasons than one. We need to know what types of stories are being told, we need to know what makes them good and, on a personal level, we need to keep alive that love for stories that first made us put pen to paper.
If only it was that easy.
Recently I saw an article called ‘I have forgotten how to read’. I actually couldn’t finish it because it was so depressingly familiar; the author was talking about the fact that, whereas ten years ago they would be inclined to read a book before bed, now they just look at stuff on their phone. And now, when they do read, it takes a lot to maintain attention. In the past sticking with an initially slow book was par for the course. Now, it’s impossible.
I hated reading that article because I’ve felt the same way for so long. Half the reason I was so glad to commit to the fourteen book monstrosity of The Wheel of Time was because it meant that I always had something to read that I was invested in. The series was so long that I could keep going with it in the background, while occasionally reading other stuff if I needed a break. Over the course of the year it took me to finish those books, I read more than I have probably since high school.
The thing is, we live in a time when there is just so much content. Every week there is a new must-see Netflix show, another blockbuster movie, a new novel that all the highbrow literary websites tell us is required reading. And faced with all of these essential works, isn’t it so much easier to just… not? If I’ve finished a long day of work, if I’m tired and want to turn my brain off, I am so much more inclined to chuck on old episodes of Scrubs or Community than start that new show everyone is insisting is incredible. Recently, in response to me tweeting something about watching The Prince of Egypt for about the millionth time, somebody replied with the comment that I seem to just watch the same things over and over rather than any of the brilliant films people recommend me on a daily basis. That stuck with me because of how true it is.
It makes me wonder; what the hell happened to me? When I was a teenager, you could barely get my nose out of a book at any given minute. I watched movies almost nightly. I would start any TV show somebody told me was good. Same in my early years at uni. There was a time, not that long ago, where almost every night of the week I had new episodes of at least one great show I was following. The best nights were the ones where I had two or three. And when you’re a writer and you’re consuming that much good stuff on a regular basis, it’s hard not to exist in a state of almost perpetual inspiration.
A few factors contributed to the change. My TV habits fell off sharply after Dexter. Before that show I stuck with everything, even if it was only just north of mediocre. Before Dexter, if I was committed to a show I was committed. But after putting up with eight seasons of sharply decreasing quality that insulted anybody with even the slightest investment in the character, it was hard to feel anything other than betrayed. After Dexter I started dropping anything that didn’t hold my interest for more than a couple of weeks. Even shows I’d been really enjoying. The Americans, Ash Vs Evil Dead, Orange Is The New Black, House of Cards, The Exorcist – the list goes on. None of those shows came close to the level of shark jumping infamy as Dexter. Most, I’m assured, even got better. But once I’d checked out, I was out. And with that in mind, starting any new show felt like starting a new commitment I wasn’t sure I’d see through.
Similar things happened with books. At least once a year I decide to get gung-ho about reading again. I buy a bunch of books I’m slightly curious in. I read a couple, I enjoy them, and all it takes is one that doesn’t grab me early and the next thing I’ll go weeks, sometimes months without reading. Then the same vicious cycle will repeat. Habits, as it turns out, can be hard to form but easy to break.
I love watching a good TV show. I love reading a good book. There is, in fact, very little in the world I love more. But I seem to have reached a point where I’ve gotten it in my head that my time is so valuable I can only sit down and commit to the stories that really grab me. And that is not healthy at all. It has distanced me from the reason I became a writer in the first place.
I’m taking steps to change it. I’ve cleared every Tuesday to go to the cinema around the corner and watch two films. I don’t always get two in, but I’ll try. And nothing can get in the way of my movie day. I go alone, I see something I wouldn’t see normally, and sometimes I have a shit time but sometimes I see something special, something that otherwise would have slipped under my radar. I’ve found myself really looking forward to my movie Tuesdays, as a way to clear my head, escape the world, and regularly consume new stories. As I should always be doing.
Th truth is that it’s easy to be hard on ourselves, but life does get busy and mine, of late, has been especially so. But that doesn’t mean I should ever lose sight of the things that helped shape me into who I am. Things like picking up a random book or going to the movies to see a film I had only the barest interest in. Because if I had never done that stuff to begin with, I never would have discovered any of my enduring favourites.
I do know, from experience, that all it takes to break a habit is making an exception. A few years ago I used to go to a different arthouse cinema every Monday to see films. One Monday something happened and I didn’t go. After that it was easy to skip the next, and the next, and then the habit was gone. Maybe that will happen again, but I’m going to do my best not to let it. Because I’m really enjoying being surrounded by stories again. It’s doing a lot to keep alive my passion for telling my own.
Just some thoughts.