At film school, the necessity of a good, clear theme was drummed into us time and time again. Our stories, we were told, had to have an overpowering ‘controlling idea’ or else they would completely fall apart. And if we thought our stories were so thematically all-encompassing that they were about everything, then they were almost certainly about nothing.
It’s funny, looking back, how much I struggled with this. I’ve always been a highly organic writer, somebody who likes to let the story tell itself and be taken along for the ride. At its best, writing feels effortless, like the story is telling itself and coming together in logical ways because it’s not really coming from you at all. But of course, that thought is fanciful. There isn’t some special magical dimension where stories come from; they all reside in your brain and as a writer, your job is to discover and excavate them to the best of your ability, to work away until it’s all on paper, as good as you can make it.
But at the time the concept of a ‘controlling idea’, even in name, was beyond offensive. What if I wanted my story to say a lot of things? How could I find anything organic in what I was writing if I had to pin it all to one single message?
This especially uncool form of rebellion played out for more or less the whole year and a half I was at VCA. I told anybody who would listen how terrible it was and insisted it was all for dummies, that I was somehow above controlling ideas. It wasn’t until one of my tutors told me to look over my work thus far and see if there were common themes threading through it all that I started to realise that I might have been wrong.
There have always been certain themes that I gravitate towards, in both the stories I write and the ones I love the most. I’m obsessed with prodigal son stories, with characters running away from their problems only to eventually have to come back and face them, in the process growing as a person. My favourite book, The Book of Joe, is one of those through and through. The Prince of Egypt, possibly the first film that really made me fall in love with cinema, is as well. And so, so many of my own stories have at least an element of it; from Boone Shepard, to Windmills to The Commune and Chris Hawkins.
Why do I love prodigal son stories so much? Maybe it’s rooted in a childhood spent moving around to many different places, from Canberra to the Central Coast to Mansfield then Melbourne. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a different home over my shoulder. But then, I don’t even know if that’s true. I think, in the end, there is just something inherently fascinating about a homecoming, about the conflicts both internal and external that stem from having to face your past. This, for the record, could be the reason I loved The Last Jedi so much; a film about a broken man confronting his legacy and failures was never not going to enrapture me.
Ambition, another pet theme, is self-explanatory. Stories like Whiplash, about characters giving up everything they have for something they want more than anything else, hit a personal note for me, as anyone who’s seen/listened to Springsteen or Heroes can attest. Coming of age and learning who you are is another big one; it took me a long time to really understand and accept the person I am and stories about characters grappling with their own natures will never not move me.
It’s funny; we really do tend to believe that as artists we’re eternally and exponentially creative, but the truth is that we’ll always come back to the things that fixate and drive us in the stories we try to tell. I can categorise everything I’ve ever written into one of about four boxes based on the ideas I was trying to explore rather than genre, target audience or even medium.
Once I understood this, my writing improved in a big way. Identifying your themes is actually the opposite of restricting; it’s liberating. If you know what you’re trying to say, you can say it with far more nuance, strength and confidence, and that will have a profound effect on your storytelling. Every new idea I come up with, I try and identify early what the theme is. But if I don’t know, I just write the story anyway, and the theme always comes to me. Because if you’re writing, it usually means there’s something you need to get off your chest, and knowing what that something is will never be a bad thing.
In the end, it all comes back to a matter of knowing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. I’ve said before; write the first draft as though you’re in love, write the second as though you’re in charge. There’s nothing wrong with writing a story for the fun of it with no clear idea of where it is going or what the point is, but knowing those things will almost always help.
Look at the films, books and TV shows you love. Look at the things that move, fascinate and fixate you. Ask why. And then examine whether they turn up in your own writing. For a normal person, identifying your obsessions is therapeutic. For a writer, it’s just part of the job.
If you were to ask me during most given times in a year how I feel about superhero films I would probably roll my eyes, groan and make some comment about how sick of them I am. And yet, I see every Marvel film the week of release and, on reflection, there are very few I outright dislike. Black Panther, The Incredible Hulk, and Doctor Strange are probably the only instalments in the franchise you would have a hard time convincing me to re-watch. There are a few I feel next to nothing about (Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor 1&2) but generally speaking I have a good time at these movies.
Yet I remain cynical.
I guess I have a complicated relationship with superhero movies. And that’s not to say it’s a deep, dark tortured thing, more just that I have trouble articulating exactly how I feel about a trend I disparage and actively contribute to at the same time.
I wasn’t a comic book kid. My first exposure to any of these characters was through the movies. I couldn’t have named any X-Men outside of Wolverine before the 2000 film, to say nothing of characters like Iron-Man or Doctor Strange. But the start of the superhero boom coincided with my adolescence, and so, growing up, movies like Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy, X-Men and The Dark Knight were a big deal. Even in early adulthood, I was susceptible. I was as excited as anyone for The Avengers and even Man of Steel.
But familiarity breeds contempt and soon I started to see Marvel as a byword for corporate cynicism. Is feeling that way fair? Well, only insofar as calling out any major blockbuster for being a predominantly moneymaking enterprise is fair. But it goes beyond that. We’ve all heard the horror stories of what went on behind the scenes of Thor: The Dark World and Ant-Man. There is a general acceptance that Marvel like to hire journeyman directors who can line up with their overall house style, and if a director tries to stray too far from the pack, well, God help them. It feels like lately someone in PR has been trying to combat that, with the hiring of indie auteurs like Ryan Coogler or Taika Waititi, but a few stylistic flourishes or moments of thematic lip service aside, neither created a film that bravely broke the established mould. There was nothing in Thor: Ragnarok or Black Panther that would on any level create trouble for the team behind Avengers: Infinity War. In fact, both films did a lot of heavy lifting in setting up the MCU ‘season finale’ and ensuring a smooth transition.
Here's a thought experiment for you. Would a Christopher Nolan box set feel complete without Batman Begins or The Dark Knight? Of course not. Those are films that could only have been made by him. In the visuals, the style and the themes, they are his work through and through. Now imagine a Taika Waititi collection WITH Thor: Ragnarok. Imagine a big, splashy, fun but forgettable Marvel film sitting alongside Boy, What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The fit isn’t nearly as comfortable, not least because Ragnarok can’t stand on its own. If this is the only Marvel film you ever see, you’re going to be very confused. And, considering the post credits scene, probably unsatisfied.
I’ve been thinking a bit about the Raimi Spiderman Trilogy recently. The reason for this is last year’s release of Spiderman: Homecoming, arguably my favourite film in the MCU so far. I thought Homecoming was fantastic; it was funny, heartfelt, tense and had actual themes. But does it stand shoulder to shoulder with Raimi’s effort?
I suspect the answer depends on how you feel about those films, but to me, the Spiderman Trilogy of the 2000s was a far more complete experience. It flirted with territory that was positively Shakespearean, in its overarching plot of a young man’s conflict with the insane father of his best friend and the consequences when that friend learns the truth. Beyond that, there was just a richness to those films, from the textured characters to the odd little foibles and even the stuff that just didn’t work. For better or worse, they felt like part of somebody’s vision, the work of a filmmaker with a story to tell. Likewise, Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
The difference, for my money, is that Nolan and Raimi brought the material to them, while Waititi, Coogler and Homecoming director Jon Watts were brought to the material. Black Panther, for instance, would have happened regardless of Coogler’s involvement, and I daresay had a different director taken it on the end product wouldn’t be that different. After all, no matter Coogler’s sensibilities or ideas, it still had to fit into the overall Marvel tapestry.
Nolan and Raimi had no such stipulations. Their films didn’t exist in service to a larger vision, they told their own stories over a relatively conservative three distinct, individually crafted chapters and they ended. I’m not for a second claiming that those films wouldn’t have been made had Nolan or Raimi not signed on, but I think what we would have ended up with in that hypothetical would be almost nothing like what we got.
So what’s the solution? The question, I guess, is whether there even needs to be one. If someone like me still sees every Marvel movie, then they’re clearly doing their job and the execs probably don’t see much reason to change. And look, at least the films we’re getting are, even at their weakest, never less than competent. But they’re never really more than very good either.
Even that might not be a problem. I suspect that in fifty years people won’t remember the individual films, but they will remember the MCU as a storytelling experiment unlike any in history. And beyond that, I could be totally wrong about the weight and impact of the individual movies. Like I said; the superhero films of the 2000s were seen during very formative years for me. It’s not unlikely that Thor: Ragnarok could be many kids’ absolute favourite movie from now into adulthood. But then, the other key difference was that when I was growing up superhero films were an occasional treat, not a monthly occurrence. Maybe a lot of the Marvel films do have depth, weight and cultural significance; those things just become easy to miss when the next instalment is right around the corner and the current one hasn’t really had a chance to sink in yet.
Whether Marvel has any lasting impact on the cinematic landscape remains to be seen. So far no other studio has managed to emulate them with any real success, although not for lack of trying. It may be that the MCU will go down in history as the only experiment of its type, remembered as a unique anomaly of a cultural phenomenon. It’s honestly too early to tell or even extensively speculate.
But I have a feeling that we won’t see very many blockbusters in the vein of Nolan’s Dark Knight or Raimi’s Spiderman trilogies for a while yet. At least not in the superhero genre. And that’s more the pity.
When you have a shiny new toy you want to show it off, talk about it relentlessly, and remind everyone of its existence. This is my justification for the amount I’ve been blogging about my new manuscript Nelson and the Gallagher recently. For those who don’t follow this blog, a quick recap; Nelson is a comedic coming of age novel about being fourteen and not being very good at it. It’s loosely based on the year when my parents took over the running of a ski lodge on Mt Buller and I found myself in the middle of this strange and exciting new world. Real events, characters and lessons learnt are remixed and heightened into a (hopefully) entertaining and relatable narrative.
The process wasn’t unlike redrafting. Every time I rewrote Windmills or Boone Shepard from scratch I took the previous version and asked at every turn whether there were ways in which what I already had could be more dramatically interesting. Writing Nelson, essentially, was doing that with my own life. I won’t belabour the point, as I’ve been through this in other blogs, but doing this was imperative to make it work as entertaining fiction rather than a self-indulgent trip down memory lane. At every turn I had to remember that this was a novel first, a foray into nostalgia second.
In the end though, it wasn’t that hard. I approached Nelson from the start knowing what I wanted it to be and that meant there were very few moments where I found myself trying to shoehorn in a fond memory just for the sake of it. Besides, the events it was based on happened over a decade ago; my recollections are just too blurry to be recreated with any accuracy. It’s largely for that reason that I think Nelson works.
But I’ve found that trick hard to pull off a second time. For writers, autobiography can be tempting. We’re inherently reflective and often look back over past events in an attempt to understand what they meant and how they shaped us. Then there’s that perpetual question of happiness; was I better off back then? It invites retrospection, and when you have a blank page and a storytelling itch to scratch, it can be hard to resist the call of nostalgia. So many young writers take the adage ‘write what you know’ as an excuse to write autobiography, without really interrogating why it would be interesting to an external party. It would be hypocritical of me to suggest you shouldn’t do this, but you certainly should make sure you have something to say and that your story is objectively interesting (or at least, can be made so with a little creativity) before having a run at anything in the territory of memoir.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying I’ve found myself at a bit of an impasse with the sequel to Nelson I’ve been working on for the last couple of weeks. After finishing the first one I was keen to revisit the character, using the culture clash of a country kid going to boarding school as the foundation for his next adventure. Like its predecessor, I would mine my own experiences in an attempt to tell a funny, relatable story about growing up and learning tough lessons. And the boarding school setting seemed like a perfect next step; it provided immediate conflict and there were no shortage of dramas and embarrassments during my time there. Also, like the events that provided the inspiration for Nelson and the Gallagher, it was a time in my life that had a profound impact on me – in every way it seemed the logical next step.
I started plotting, writing out the broad strokes of what would happen in the novel, deciding which characters I wanted to use, then planning the narrative chapter by chapter. I sat in a pub, scrawling in my notebook and listening to the music that characterised that time, trying to get back in the headspace. And look, it worked. To a fault.
My plan for the second book was to mix up events from three years of my life; 2007, 2008 and 2009. I would cherry pick the stuff that was interesting and work it around a theme. In the planning process I found myself focussing predominantly on 2007. That year had the most story-worthy drama, so it made sense as a backbone. But as I neared the end of my outline and started working in more events from later years, I started to get uncomfortable. The story was eluding me and what I had didn’t feel exciting in the same way as the first Nelson.
It didn’t take long to realise what the problem was. Looking over the outline, I had essentially just written down the events of my 2007, faithfully and without significant alteration. Trying to bring in stuff from later years was jarring and immediately threw me out of the headspace. I had basically just been on a nostalgia trip to that time rather than planning a good book. In short, I fell into exactly the trap that any writer telling a story based on their own life has to avoid; I’d been more interested in my own experiences than Nelson’s. The story was about me, not the character.
You’re probably asking what the difference is. If the story is autobiographical and the character based on me, isn’t it inherently about myself? And didn’t I say in another blog recently that almost everything a writer writes is in some way self-reflection? Well, yes and no. It was imperative in the first book that Nelson was Nelson and not Gabriel, because it provided the distance I needed to make the story stand on its own two feet. We might be similar, but we’re not the same. The story might reflect mine, but it isn’t mine. The difference is slight, but crucial. And that gap, in planning the second book, had closed.
This is the pitfall of autobiographical fiction; if we make the mistake of writing about ourselves, we become blind. We cease to see how the story might be interesting to a total stranger. And we become attached to the things we want to relive rather than what the story needs. Naturally this is less a problem if you have an amazing or fascinating life, but for those of us writing the mundane and universal, the balancing act is so delicate. The sales pitch for Nelson and the Gallagher is that it’s a story any awkward, dweeby fourteen-year-old can relate to. It’s written for kids similar to my younger self to read and know they’re not alone. It was a book written for an audience, not for myself. The second book, before I’d even started writing, lost that integrity.
Do I think it’s impossible to regain? Not at all. I suspect the problem is that, unlike the first book, I just dived straight into this one without letting the story percolate until it was ready to be written. Given that circumstance, of course I’d rely on the crutch of my own experiences.
It’s no secret that I get ahead of myself, and if I’m excited about a shiny new toy (new story) I’ll keep working at it or various extensions until the passion ebbs. A lesson I still have to learn is to stop while there’s still something in the tank, in this case to resist diving into a sequel to a novel that hasn’t even been seen by anyone in publishing and may be nowhere near as good as I think it is. I’ll let Nelson 2 come to me slowly, and I’ll start working on it when I know I have a good story to tell, not just a memory lane I want to revisit.
If you’ve ever been to a book signing or Q&A with an author, then you’re probably familiar with the following interaction:
Fan: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Author: Get used to rejection letters.
Audience: *Laughs uproariously.*
It’s a cliché that being a writer comes hand and hand with rejection. People tell you that you have to be ready for it, but almost nobody ever tells you the toll that repeated rejection can take. To illustrate my point, I’m going to be a bit of a wanker and share a quote from my play Regression.
“The biggest lie anyone told me was that you get used to rejection. You don’t. It’s easy when you’re fifteen, because you’ve still got so much to learn and look forward to. And hey, maybe at twenty five you still do. But that, that right there is the worst part. Because if you’re still no better than you were at fifteen then really, what’s the point? Why even try?”
This, of course, is very much a pessimist’s view, but on my darkest days it’s pretty close to how I feel. And that feeling can be a hard one to shake. When I was a teenager I was certain I’d get picked up by a publisher and hit the big time by twenty. Since then I’ve learnt a lot about the industry and my own abilities; namely that becoming a working writer is hard and becoming good enough to be taken seriously is even harder. Considering that, the fact alone that I’m paid for what I do puts me in the lucky minority, and for that I’m grateful. But it’s no secret that my dreams are far bigger than what I currently do.
A few months ago, in the midst of a burst of renewed motivation, I started entering every competition I saw. I went for every fellowship, applied for funding grants; all of it. I threw myself at opportunity after opportunity, certain that some of them would have to come off.
But the thing about throwing yourself at every opportunity is that more often than not you miss. Over the last few weeks I have received a deluge of rejection emails, often several in the same day, often for things I honestly thought I had a really strong chance at. This isn’t new; if you’re a writer and you’re remotely serious about making a go of it, you’ll know the feeling of being turned down time and time again. You’ll know the stab of pain and spite every time you read words to the effect of ‘thank you for your application; we were truly impressed by the quality of…’ And you’ll know the anger that comes with those emails that take a full paragraph to get to the ‘unfortunately’ part of their meaningless platitudes. In the end, rejection is rejection, and trying to dress it up with a copy-and-pasted niceties doesn’t ever soften the blow. It just makes you feel patronised as well as rejected.
My first instinct, every time, is to delete those emails when they come in. Because while I claim I’ve got thick skin and, comparative to some, probably do, it still stings and it still affects me. A whole bunch of new competitions have opened up recently, and I just haven’t bothered to enter. When my housemate/Movie Maintenance co-host Kath asked me if I was entering the Academy’s prestigious Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriters, I just shrugged. What would be the point?
The point, when all is said and done, is as tough as it is simple. The world is full of different opinions and different tastes. And when a lot of people vie for one opportunity, there have to be losers, and often those losers don’t lose for lack of talent or weakness of ideas. They lose because their work didn’t match the sensibilities of the judges. Or, more likely, they lose because the winner was just more deserving. There are a lot of talented people out there, and their existence doesn’t limit or cheapen your own abilities. It just offers competition, and competition is what keeps us trying our best.
And then there is the optimistic view of the whole thing; that you have to be in it to win it. If I’d never entered competitions, I wouldn’t be where I am. The ratio of hits to misses might be staggeringly disproportionate, but there is a ratio. There have been wins and shortlistings in there. Tiny encouragements that you have to remember the next time you enter something. Encouragements that remind you that you have worth, even as the rejections remind you how tough the industry you’ve chosen is.
That’s why you don’t delete rejection emails. That’s why you remember the bad reviews and the people who told you you’re not good enough. Because remembering your losses makes the wins that much sweeter. A hard-won victory always means more than a lucky one, and those rejections provide a constant push to try harder.
I’m going to risk doubling my wanker credentials and close with another quote from my own work, this time from Springsteen, a work written at a far better, more hopeful time in my life than Regression:
“You know what differentiates a good artist from a bad one? Persistence. It’s how they respond to that rejection. Someone tells you you’re not good enough, someone feeds you those platitudes you were talking about; you got two options. Let it bring you down, or take it as a challenge. Let it make you hungrier. When you came to me I thought you were good. I wondered if you could get better. So I said the things that I knew would hurt you. Now look at you.”
Skill and success are forged in the fire of failure. Remember that, even in your lowest moments, and you’re already ahead of the curve.
Earlier today the announcement hit that Movie Maintenance, the podcast I’ve been a part of for the last three years, is coming to an end with its 150th episode. This decision was made a few weeks ago, and despite the word ‘cancelled’ being bandied about, that’s not the best description for what happened.
Movie Maintenance has never been an easy show. There were bursts of creative energy, there were episodes we’re all hugely proud of, but the truth is that it just never quite hit the heights we wanted it to. Even at its best it was a weekly struggle to maintain (heh) the quality and the early idea, to every week deliver an amazing fix of a flawed film that made you sit up and say “if only!” quickly became unviable. Before long we were relying more on our own fan fiction pitches for dream sequels, prequels and reboots. The reason for this was simple; it’s easier and more enjoyable to write about something you like than something you don’t.
Over the course of its run, Movie Maintenance was often subjected to soft reboots. The cast changed, the format shifted, emphasis moved from fixes to pitches then back to fixes and finally to a format that allowed us more general discussion of writing craft. The premise of Movie Maintenance, which was always strong, never sat comfortably with what we really wanted to do. And while a lot of what we did would sort of count as a maintenance if you squinted, much was rightly called out by listeners as being a bit of a betrayal of the premise of the show.
Over the last year, passion and energy dwindled. I found myself running out of great ideas for takes on movies and finding excuses to remove myself from episodes. And while we were really enjoying the discussion based episodes (Toxic Fandoms, Dialogue, Franchise Fatigue etc), the pitches and fixes had become a chore. So we decided to reboot again, to bring in new formats like the Garbage vs Gold debates and challenge eps like Win Vin Diesel an Oscar. Fun for us, but still not really Movie Maintenance.
Meanwhile, our passion was moving elsewhere. Our spinoff series of audio dramas, Movie Maintenance Presents, has never been a conqueror in the downloads, but gave us as writers a chance to put original work out there, and while it was always far more work than the main show, it was in many ways more rewarding. Then there was Movie Maintenance AGM, our subscriber only pop culture news show which, as Handsome Tom pointed out, was so refreshing and enjoyable because it gave us a chance to talk about things we like.
Relentless negativity has long been a criticism of Movie Maintenance. For my money there’s a reason people still talk about episodes like Dracula, Jaws 5 and Sons of the West; they were based around things we were passionate about and let us convey that passion. That’s almost always more fun to hear than people just criticising something. I could never begrudge people disliking the show because of our negativity, but tearing movies apart was baked into our premise and honestly, on a show called Movie Maintenance there just wasn’t that much we could do about it.
Are you sensing a pattern here? More and more, we were fighting against our premise. And then there was the external problems it posed. Try meeting working screenwriters, directors and producers at industry events and telling them that your job is to, without much to your name, claim you can do better than them. There aren’t many ways to say that without sounding arrogant. And while I do believe that we always approached what we did from a place of loving film and wanting the best from our blockbusters, it’s easy to see why someone would assume otherwise and write us off as at best pretentious, at worst conceited and vindictive.
Breaking point came a couple of months back when our producer stepped down. We had been looking at launching the AGMs as a public parallel show to Movie Maintenance, called The Agenda, but without someone to edit and oversee the concept suddenly looked unfeasible. And when we met to record, we were at a loss. Finally I asked: what if we scrap Movie Maintenance and come up with something new in its place? Something that keeps the things we love about the show and removes the stuff that was detrimental? Something that has room to include the news discussion format of the AGMS, the challenges, the writing craft dissections and whatever else we have a mind to do?
I was ready to be shut down. I was ready to be told that was a stupid risk. But what I got was unanimous agreement, a shared admission that we’d all been feeling this way for a while and, with our 150th episode getting close, this move couldn’t come at a better time. And like that, within the space of a few minutes, the decision was made. Movie Maintenance would finish. And something else, something looser and vaguer and more fun, would take its place.
All of the above probably makes it sound like I disliked Movie Maintenance, which couldn’t be further from the truth. At its best it was exhilarating fun. Getting to tell stories that excited people all around the world was beyond rewarding. Getting to hear stories from the most talented writers I know was even better. Hearing appreciation for my work from people everywhere was something I had never experienced before, and the podcast provided the kind of platform that was beyond invaluable. It changed my life and revolutionised my career, and I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it. And, beyond that, for the fact that people listened and cared. That alone was more than I ever could have expected.
But everything has its time and everything ends. More information about the new show will land in weeks to come, but until then there are still a few more episodes of Movie Maintenance before our final live show extravaganza on May 18. And after that, in the immortal words of Hannibal, ‘fate and circumstance have returned us to this moment, when the teacup shatters.’
It’s been a blast. Thank you for listening.
Yesterday I started writing down notes for a sequel to Nelson and the Gallagher.
This, in every potential interpretation of the phrase, is me getting ahead of myself. The first book has not been published. It hasn’t even been seen by publishers. The first few chapters have been read by a handful of friends and the whole book by barely anyone. I have no tangible reason to think that writing a sequel is a worthwhile use of my time.
But here I am.
I’ve spoken in a couple of blogs about how special Nelson and the Gallagher felt to me. This was for a couple of reasons; the first being that it’s loosely autobiographical and as such is infused with a certain nostalgia that makes it more than just another story. But, reading over the whole thing the other day, I think it’s more than that. I think Nelson works because it knows exactly what it is and, impending rewrites notwithstanding, largely succeeds at its goal. Again, this is stupidly premature. It could go to publishers and be roundly shot down. But I’m not going to pretend I don’t think it’s strong or have a good feeling about it. I wanted to write something warm, funny, quirky and relatable, something that nerdy fourteen-year olds everywhere can read and see themselves in, and I honestly believe the book achieves that goal.
I’ve written autobiographical stuff before, an exercise I have mixed feelings about. From 2009 to 2011 I painstakingly wrote everything that had happened to me from the age of fourteen in a series of long, rambling, messy novels. I can’t honestly say why I thought that was a good idea. Probably mainly because I’ve always been prone to nostalgia and wanted to relive the events of a few years previous. I also think there was a big streak of vanity in that project – I genuinely believed my life, depicted as accurately as memory allowed, would be interesting as a book. It wasn’t.
As commercial narrative non-fiction, that project was doomed to fail. But as a personal chronicle of my teenage years, I’m glad I have it. It’s not something I will revisit, but it taught me a lot.
Nelson, by merit of what inspired it, does carry at least some of the DNA of that project, but it’s by no means an extension or revisitation of the same idea. The key difference is in the name; Nelson is not me, and therefore his story doesn’t have to match up with mine, even if the two run loosely parallel to each other. Nelson and the Gallagher was inspired by real events, but doesn’t depict them. It is fiction with a streak of reality running through it. And, if my instincts are correct and the story is worth continuing, then any sequels will be the same.
I think a lingering sense of embarrassment over the autobiographical thing has left me a little sensitive and almost defensive about Nelson. If the last time I wrote something based on my life came from a place of vanity then what’s to say this isn’t the same? Is it inherently arrogant to assume people want to read about your life?
The truth is this; we all go through experiences that teach us lessons and writers use those experiences to shape stories. The job of any writer is to find a way to make what matters to us matter to a wider audience. And if I’m really being honest with myself, there aren’t many things I’ve written that weren’t, in some way, about my own experiences or feelings. Hometown and Reunion were about people and places I missed. The Critic was about my experiences in the theatre scene. Regression was about my growing sense that I wasn’t the person I thought I was. Springsteen was about me slowly learning to appreciate the people in my life. Even when I’m writing about somebody who literally exists, I’m still kind of writing about myself.
Does that sound self-obsessed? Well consider the curtain lifted, because that’s what writers are. The vocation is basically a lifelong attempt to grapple with our own feelings and experiences. Writing, after all, is a lot cheaper than therapy.
So no, Nelson isn’t especially new for me. It’s just more obvious in what it’s doing. And it’s still fiction. The second book will feature a remix of events and characters from my later teenage years, shaped into a coherent and hopefully engaging narrative. And the intention will be the same as the first; to write a funny story about mistakes and embarrassments and pathetic moments that tells the target audience that no, you’re not alone. Even if you think life sucks, even if you think you’re a lame loser who everyone hates, you’re okay. Things get better, and you learn. You’re not the first person this stuff has happened to, and you won’t be the last.
Honestly? I think that’s a pretty worthwhile message to convey.
Anybody who knows me can confirm that I’m a wildly impatient person. Maybe it’s that alleged millennial need for instant gratification, but more probably it’s just a character flaw I’ve had since I was a little kid. I hate waiting for anything because I hate doing nothing or feeling like I don’t have options.
Impatience isn’t a great trait for any career, but in a writer it’s close to a death sentence. The problem is that it’s taken me a long time to learn that, and it’s something I’m still grappling with. Largely to my detriment. I have written about being patient with stories before, but today I want to examine why it’s important, not just from a creative standpoint but from a pragmatic, business minded one as well.
The thing about young writers is that you’re almost never as good as you think you are. Even the successful ones kind of suck; look at Eragon. It’s popular, sure, but it’s written by a fifteen-year-old and it shows. What seemed awesome when I was a kid is now kind of cringeworthy. And if you as a writer can say that about the work of another young writer, then you will almost definitely say it about yourself.
Writers, usually are fascinated with human experience. Something happens to you that makes you feel an emotion or consider an idea you never have before, chances are you want to write about it. And that tends to lead to creative advancement. The first thing I wrote that had what could, loosely, be considered artistic value was the first Chris Hawkins story, Born of Dread and Fear when I was fifteen. Prior to that most of my writing had been weird, adolescent mashups of Kill Bill, Lord of the Rings and The Silence of the Lambs. I saw the stuff I thought was cool and tried to emulate it. Born of Dread and Fear, however, was different because that story was about something that mattered to me. It was about the need to conform I felt every day in school and about how much I hated it. It was angry, bombastic, and trying to say something that I felt was important.
Was it good? Hell no. As you’ve probably guessed from the title, it was clunky, derivative, overwritten and shot through with self-seriousness. It was over the top in its attempted edginess and every character basically existed to worship at the altar of my protagonist. It was, in short, a book written by a fifteen-year-old. But I’m not ashamed of it, even if it will never see the light of day, because it was something I had to write to find my own voice. A means, not an end.
But around this time a high school girlfriend’s mother read the story and offered to pass it on to an author she knew. I was ecstatic; all my friends told me Born of Dread and Fear and its tangle of varied sequels were good, so surely this author would agree, pass it on to his publisher, and at sixteen I would be a celebrity author.
Well, spoiler alert, ten years later I’m still not so you can guess where this goes. The author gave me a phone call and was extremely encouraging. He thought I had talent for my age and clearly had a lot to say, but he felt about the story much the same way I do now. I was a little disappointed, but it did bode well, right?
I don’t regret that author reading my stories. It led to some early encouragement from a legitimate source that I probably needed, and in truth, there was no way Born of Dread and Fear was going to get published in any form. The issue was that, as I got older and surer of myself, I kept doing the same thing. Any time an opportunity arose for someone in the industry to read something of mine, I would seize it with both hands without ever really considering if the story was ready. And furthermore, I did something even worse. I sent first draft after first draft to agents and publishers, again and again. I hadn’t considered, for any of those stories, why anyone should read or enjoy them. I hadn’t thought about target audiences or marketing or what made my story special. I honestly just thought my obvious and formidable talent would mean that these people had to publish me. Even if I didn’t think the story was perfect, I did think I was too good to ignore.
Look, there was some interest here and there, but not much. And I sent a lot of emails. Mark Hamill said in a recent interview that the internet has changed the way fans engage with creators; it’s a lot easier to fire off a vitriolic tweet than it is to sit down, write a letter, find an address, and mail off your invective. Likewise with publishing; when you can just copy and paste a query email, attach a manuscript and send it off to a hundred people, you don’t take the time to consider whether you’re doing the right thing, or whether your story is even close to ready. As I said in another recent blog, publishing a book is expensive. If you can’t justify the cost of thousands of dollars to yourself, how can you ever expect anyone else will?
There’s a great article called “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script”. Apart from explaining all the reasons that I don’t give feedback on people’s work without being paid, it also has a great anecdote about an aspiring writer who sent his work to a professional then, not long after, sent a follow up email saying something to the effect of ‘don’t read what I gave you, read this one instead’. The first time I read it, I cringed. Because I’ve been that guy. And now I know what the other side feels like. If you send work to anyone in the industry, telling them shortly after to read an updated version instead is the ultimate signifier of unprofessionalism. It says that you wasted their time with something that wasn’t up to scratch and furthermore, that you knew it wasn’t up to scratch. Sterling way to get respect right there. If you’re not confident about something, don’t send it, unless you specifically want developmental feedback on that version. And if you’re not a hundred percent confident, don’t expect for a second that the response will be glowing praise and an instantaneous contract. You’d be stupid to expect that even if you think your work is impeccable. Other people don’t see what you see, they don’t fill in gaps in the story with what they know you were trying to achieve. They just see the work, as it is. And if the work is a messy first or second draft, well…
Here’s my imperfect litmus test; after you’ve written a story, after you’ve done the first round of edits and gotten feedback from a couple of honest friends, put it in a drawer for six months or even a year. Let that overpowering joy you felt upon finishing the story dissipate. Forget about it and write something else. Then, when your palate is well and truly cleansed, when you’re as clear eyed as it’s possible to be, pull it out again and see what you think.
In high school and early uni, even a year after finishing a story, I would cringe when I looked back at it. That doesn’t happen anymore. There’s stuff I wish I could change in Boone Shepard or Springsteen, but not major stuff. I wouldn’t be ashamed of any industry heavy hitter reading or watching anything I put out to the public in the last three years, and a big part of that is because none of that stuff was rushed. Most went through multiple drafts. Most sat there for a while even after I finished it and told everyone how proud I was. When those stories went out into the world, I was confident I had achieved what I wanted to with them. Whether I succeeded is up to the consumer and always will be.
None of this is suggest you shouldn’t try getting feedback on something. Of course you should. But if you have any contacts who can really help you, hold off until you’re sure. Wait until you’re absolutely confident in something before assuming anyone else might be too. It can be frustrating, but it’s far more likely to pay off.
Recently, while discussing with a friend the ongoing tortured process that has been grappling with my novel/TV series/play/headache Windmills, I mentioned the fact that I’ve been working on this story in one form or another for almost a decade. It was a throwaway comment, but the fact stuck with me.
It’s staggering to think that it’s been almost ten years since I started Windmills, and even more so to think that it’s still a going concern. Since I wrote the first draft in 2009, the only year in which I wasn’t actively working on a version of it was 2013. Otherwise, Windmills has never gone away.
But maybe the time will soon come when that changes. I wrote a lot last year about the process of writing another version of the novel, and while that version isn’t completely ready, I believe it’s close. There are still hurdles to jump, but it’s starting to dawn on me that I’m probably closer to the end of my time working on Windmills than the beginning.
And it’s not just Windmills. I wrote the first draft of what would become Boone Shepard in 2008, ten years ago, and this year, if all goes to plan, the final published book in the series will come out, bringing that adventure to an end. I don’t think it will be the last time I write about Boone and Promethia; they’re too much fun to spend time with for that, but it’s the end of the main story. Anything past this is just bonus. Additionally, Chris Hawkins, a character I came up with when I was fifteen and wrote about a lot in high school, recently featured in a new play of mine, one that revisits the character as an adult in a standalone drama. It’s possible that Chris will reappear in another story, but currently I don’t have any plans for one.
Basically, Leo Grey, Boone Shepard and Chris Hawkins, all of whom have remained going concerns to varying degrees for the last decade, are close to taking their last bows, at least for me.
It’s a less melancholic idea than you might think. This isn’t a case of familiarity breeds contempt or anything, but ten years is a long time, even for the most beloved characters. And let me stipulate; those character are beloved. You can’t spend so long writing about somebody without starting to see them as a real person, without their voice feeling synonymous with your own and an encyclopaedic knowledge of their foibles developing. But, when writing that new version of Windmills last year, I had to concede that I just didn’t have all that much left to say about the story or characters. That version of the book, largely, had to be definitive because it’s highly questionable that I have another draft in me. Some scenes were chores simply because of how many times I’d written them. And while I don’t think that feeling hurt the book in any way, I don’t think I’d be so lucky in another draft.
I’ve come up with a lot of characters in my time, but largely they serve their purpose and they leave the stage. Will from Regression, Jamie from The Critic, Robert Stone from The Lucas Conundrum – all characters I liked, but not ones I had much interest in revisiting. Their stories and arcs were self-contained, their personalities functional for the story they were designed to tell. That’s not to say they were bad or shallow characters, but they didn’t invite extension.
Boone, Chris and Leo have endured precisely because I always felt like there was more to them. For Boone and Chris, that exploration took the form of ongoing instalments, for Leo, many, many drafts of the same story, each digging a little deeper into him and his supporting cast. But now I’m at the point where the exploration is close to finished. And while removing the crutch of familiarity that has arguably been the backbone to my career thus far might have once terrified me, it doesn’t now because I’m starting to see a new guard of enduring characters moving in to take their place.
When I wrote Sunburnt Country last year it was intended just as a one off horror story, a nightmare thrill ride designed to sicken the nauseous and thrill the gorehounds. But partway through writing I found myself fascinated and fixated by the character of Maggie; a laconic, enigmatic fugitive with a dark past and a ruthless sense of self preservation. And as Maggie, battered, bruised and bloodied, fought her way through a town of murderous psychopaths, I realised that I wanted to see more of her. I revisited her in an even more violent novella, Khancoban, that I wrote over Christmas, and I’ve got plans for several more adventures. I see her as a Mad Max or Man With No Name type figure – driving into town after town in her beat up old ute with her shotgun and proceeding to right wrongs and deal out justice, all the while grappling with her slowly eroding humanity. Like Boone Shepard or Promethia Peters before her, she’s one of those characters who basically writes herself and I can’t wait to revisit her.
A couple of days ago I also finished my new YA novel; a coming of age dramedy called Nelson and the Gallagher, basically a book about being fourteen and not being very good at it. It was semi-autobiographical but largely fictionalised and Nelson, originally a stand in for a teenage me, soon developed into a person in his own right. Awkward and anxious with a sharp sense of humour and a fundamental optimism, I’ve never really written a character like him before, a character who is flawed, petulant, downtrodden and bumbling but largely decent and free of cynicism. I really liked Nelson and, while his book wasn’t designed as a series starter, I’d love to follow his journey further, to see him bumble his way into young adulthood. The book and character were so different to anything I’d done before, that they left me feeling refreshed and excited to write more stories like this.
Nelson and Maggie, then, represent a future for my work beyond the long-held dominance of Leo, Boone and Chris. Obviously I’ll keep writing standalone short stories and plays, but it’s nice to know that I have at my disposal two characters who will not only reward further adventures, but actively invite them. Characters like that, in a weird way, can be like guiding stars; friends to take a journey with. You don’t always travel together, but when you do it always feels a bit like coming home.
Yesterday, sitting in a pub in my hometown, I wrote the final line of my new novel, Nelson and the Gallagher. Finishing a story is always a weird experience. Sometimes you’re satisfied, other times you’re fretting about that bit on page 45 that contradicts a later plot development, and other times you’re just glad the ordeal is over and ready to move on to something new.
Finishing Nelson was squarely in the first category. Potentially more so than ever before, I felt really good about what I’d just written. Having not read over the complete story I’m certain it won’t be perfect, that there will be parts that can be cut or beefed up or re-written entirely, but by and large I’m pretty sure I achieved what I set out to with this story. Which isn’t always a sure thing.
Nelson had a pretty quick turnaround from idea to finished draft. I first entertained the notion of the story back in December, while away for Christmas with my family and looking for something to write. While walking around Thredbo I came up with a rough plot, but ended up writing thriller novella Khancoban instead. The idea for Nelson lingered, however, and after spending an afternoon outlining the whole novel in my notebook, I started writing on February 22. Just over a month ago.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that makes the process sound rushed, but I write fast, I knew what I wanted and the finished book was only ever going to sit around 40,000 words; roughly the same length as Boone Shepard’s American Adventure, a pretty fleet read. Besides, I was uniquely placed to have a decent handle on the plot, themes and characters of this story, because a lot of them were lifted directly from my own life.
For context, back in 2005, when I was 13 and living in Mansfield, my parents took on running the kitchen of the Ivor Whittaker Memorial Lodge, a ski lodge up on nearby Mt Buller. As a pretty avid skier, this was a dream come true; every weekend I would go up the mountain with Mum and Dad and, while they worked, I could do pretty much whatever I wanted. Buller was my playground; I could go out on the slopes, I could sit inside reading a book, I could explore, I could hang out with the staff – the freedom was more than I’d ever experienced before. And there was an added appeal; at the time, surprising pretty much no-one reading this, I was far from a popular kid. I had exactly one friend in those days at high school, and he had just moved to a different town, leaving me more or less alone. School was a daily misery. But on the mountain, things were different, and with regular tourists coming up from Melbourne, many of whom had kids my age who had no idea I was actually a geeky loser, it was pretty easy to reinvent myself and live a very different life up there. Those days were like a weird dream; during the week I was the derided weirdo, on the weekends I was someone else entirely. And that, at 13, is a pretty powerful thing.
It was a special time to me, but in retrospect it wasn’t all that interesting outside of my personal nostalgia for it. But for a while I’ve wondered if there wasn’t a way for me to leverage the setting and a few of those experiences to come up with a good story. Heighten the drama, add some raised stakes, and essentially use that period of my life as a platform for the sort of coming of age story I loved reading as a teen.
Often you’ll start writing a novel or a play and within a few weeks you’ll be out of fuel, having learnt that you just didn’t really have the passion for it you thought you did. I half wondered if that was what would happen with this, but in the end I turned the whole thing around in just over a month. Perhaps due to the fact that it’s autobiographical, it was pretty easy to write, and had the added bonus of feeling like I was revisiting one of the best times of my life.
Of course, that does beg the question of whether this story will mean anything to anyone who isn’t me, but I think it actually has more potential to find an audience than just about anything I’ve written before. The reason for that is simple; in its themes and ideas, I doubt I’ve ever written anything so broadly relatable.
“Have you ever played a game of Monopoly and found that you just never quite land on the right squares, no matter how hard you try? That basically summed up my high school life so far.”
The above is one of the early lines from the novel. Essentially, that feeling is what Nelson is all about; that time in your life where everything seems unbalanced and out of your control. It’s about how powerful and intoxicating it can be when something does go right and it’s about how easy it can be to screw that up as well. It’s about how our teenage years basically operate as a practice run for everything else, how they’re a time in which we do our best, make mistakes, and learn. And it’s about how that is important, even when the disappointments hurt like hell.
I’ve written autobiographical stuff before, but Nelson isn’t really like that. About 50% of it is true; the basic set up, most of the characters and some of the individual events are straight from my own life, but the plot is largely fiction. And Nelson, our protagonist, isn’t me. Granted he’s a teenage dweeb with no friends and a love of horror movies, but he’s a lot more articulate, likeable and self-aware than I ever was at that age. Telling an autobiographical story that was set free from the constraints of actual autobiography turned out to be really liberating, and, I think, means that Nelson is able to speak to the broader teenage experience rather than just my own. My girlfriend asked me yesterday if I’d taken it as a chance to rewrite history and indulge in a form of retrospective wish fulfillment, but if anything the opposite is true; Nelson’s life is a lot more dramatic and disappointing than mine ever was. because it had to be if it was going to be a halfway engaging story.
Of course, all of this is just me saying how good I think the story is. A few people have read excerpts of it and the response has been really encouraging, but I have no way of knowing if it’s actually worthwhile. I could be looking back on this blog in a year’s time with head shaking incredulity. But in the end, I have to kind of trust my instincts on this, and they’re telling me I’ve written something that could be really special. Time, and plenty of editing and re-writing, will tell.
In short, I’ve got a good feeling about this.
Jumping the shark is a funny phrase. Ostensibly it refers to the tipping point in the life cycle of any ongoing series where it goes from quality to terrible. It’s like the moment milk turns bad or meat goes off; something has been left too long and is now past the point of no return. I agree with all of that, but to add my two cents, I actually think jumping the shark refers to something a little deeper and sadder than that. To me, the moment a story jumps the shark is the moment you lose faith in the storyteller.
I’ve been re-watching a lot of Scrubs lately, as I usually like to chuck on something that doesn’t require thought over breakfast. I’ve been jumping pretty erratically between seasons and it’s striking how clearly this illustrates a decline in quality; early episodes are clever, well written and occasionally raw and wrenching. Later episodes are overblown cartoons that swing for the fences in every joke and more often than not miss the mark significantly. In a nutshell, it’s the difference between what I love about the show and what its detractors hate. The DNA of what Scrubs became may have been present from the beginning, but in the early days the balancing act was a lot defter. At a certain point the writing just got sloppy.
Season one features an episode where all the characters talk to a shrink while a microscope is put over JD and Elliot’s brief relationship, jumping back and forwards in time. It’s barely funny, but it rings true and feels, at times, uncomfortable for just that reason. Moments and episodes like this abound early on. Season five features an episode where the main concept is that every joke is one we’ve already heard. Season six goes a step further with a risible clip show episode. It also features a fantasy sequence where Turk holds in a fart so long he flies.
The thing about stories is that they need to end, because eventually the ideas and characters just don’t have much left to them. The reason the Scrubs characters became cartoons is because the early years were so packed with development and real emotion that eventually, there just wasn’t anywhere new to take them and so they stagnated. Likewise Dexter, which was a top tier TV show, give or take a couple of hiccups, until a creative nosedive in season six that it never recovered from because the show had just run out of anything new to say and would not be allowed to die due to its success. And hey, if one writer washes their hands of a TV show that they’re done with, you can always hire another, right?
But what about in the case of a series with only one creator? Recently I’ve started re-reading John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, one of my all-time favourites. The early Tomorrow books are still brilliant for all the right reasons. The characters are vivid and feel real. The action is pulse pounding, the themes are haunting, the twists shocking and the writing excellent. By the time we reach the ninth book, however, we’re treated to interminable scenes of cattle farming and a moment where the protagonist climbs to the bottom of a cliff and up again with a kid hanging from her back, using her bare hands.
This is different because, in theory, John Marsden could have stopped writing Tomorrow books whenever he wanted. He had a bunch of other bestsellers to his name and could comfortably assume that any new book he released would do well. It’s not like he needed the money or anybody was forcing him to continue. So why did he keep going? And in the end, what did that mean for the legacy of his series?
In my own pretty humble experience, it can be hard to let go of a character that means a lot to you. You tend to only write a story because it’s important to you and if you stumble on one of those special characters, you find yourself looking for any excuse to spend more time with them, even if ultimately that is to their detriment.
When I was fifteen I wrote a story about a kid called Chris Hawkins, a thinly veiled analogue of myself grappling with extremely dramatized versions of retrospectively mild situations I’d been in. Maybe by merit of being the first thing I’d written that really came from a personal place, I kept writing about Chris, encouraged by friends who seemed to like the stories, until there were about eight different novellas of increasing ridiculousness. In one Chris became a drug dealer. In another he fought his evil alter ego in a strange dreamscape while in a coma after being thrown in front of a speeding car. Eventually, I ran out of anything real to say about him but, not wanting to let go, I continued until the stories descended into absurdity and everybody stopped caring.
I wouldn’t presume to say this was what happened with John Marsden; the guy is a better writer than I will ever be and has affected more lives with his work than I could dream of, but it’s inarguable that there was a clear point at which the Tomorrow books and their sequel series The Ellie Chronicles stopped being essential or special and just kept going past the point where anybody really cared. And once you’ve lost that investment, it’s very hard to get it back.
The creative nadir of Marsden’s series was Incurable, the aforementioned ninth book. When the tenth (and final) book came out I thought it was a comparative return to form, but the damage had been done. I just didn’t feel the same way about Ellie and her friends. I didn’t care where they ended up. Likewise when Dexter had a brief resurgence of creative energy in season seven; it was nice to enjoy Dexter again, but it was no longer my Dexter. The feeling of betrayal that came from the shark jumping was, in the end, too much. The story was just too tainted.
Scrubs, for my money, won back a lot of goodwill in its eighth and final season (the garbage spin off marketed as season nine does not and will never count), partly because it was clearly moving towards a definitive end and did all the things the final season of a well-loved sitcom should. Season eight had great moments and a pitch perfect finale, but if you put any of those episodes against one from the early years the comparison is not flattering. Scrubs was forgivable not because it returned to early heights, but rather because it knew it was time to end, it knew people cared and so it did what it could to make its last run at least decent. In the end, that effort was enough for me to remember Scrubs far more fondly than I do Dexter.
Shark jumping comes in many forms. In Sons of Anarchy or Game of Thrones it was a slow process, an incremental decline in quality until the point where you realise that you’re just not enjoying yourself anymore. In other cases it’s instantaneous, one bad episode or book enough to destroy a series. But in almost all cases, the turned milk analogy is apt; once it’s off, it’s off.
Can you regain trust? Yeah, but it’s hard, and even if achieved a legacy is almost always tarnished. Breaking Bad and Mad Men don’t have any unfortunate asterisks hanging over them because they ended at the right point and were never less than excellent. Star Wars or X-Men might still have a great movie here and there, but nobody will ever again tell you that every instalment is an essential masterpiece. Basically, trust is hard to win and harder to get back, which means that nine times out of ten it’s better to quit while you’re ahead and leave people wanting more, because even a late in the day return to form is scarcely enough to regain what was lost, and even if it does things can never be the same.
And for the record, I did eventually revisit Chris Hawkins in a new play that I think is my best yet, so I guess you can’t really quantify these things. But it’s definitely easier if you don’t have the pressure of a multi-million strong fanbase being disappointed in you.
Just some thoughts.