What I will say is this; you surprised the hell out of me. I knew you’d be tough. I knew you’d be cool. I didn’t realise you would be so… you. My first clear image of you, the first glimpse I had in my head, was of a young woman in a car, covered in blood, fire behind her, screaming as she tore away from unseen attackers. I thought, then, that the scream was one of fear and relief at having escaped. I didn’t realise that it was the clearest encapsulation of who you were, a roar of animalistic rage, defiance and maybe something else, something more dangerous and terrifying than either. It took a while for the true meaning of that scream to become clear and by the time it did the fact that I was going to be strapped down in that car with you for the foreseeable future had become all too clear.
But it wasn’t supposed to be that way, was it? You were a supporting character, in place to help make the story happen, not to become the story. To be fair, I didn’t realise then that you were going to do and be exactly what you wanted and there was precious little I could enact to change that. And true to your very distinctive form, that realisation came slowly. That awful anecdote you always hear about a frog sitting in slowly heating water, not realising he’s being boiled alive until it’s too late – that was, basically, me when it came to you. I remember the moment I did finally understand. I was walking to catch up with friends at the pub, thinking about the short story I was working on, but those thoughts soon honed in on you and then I started grinning. I’m ashamed to admit it, but at the time I was listening to Ed Sheeran’s Galway Girl. Like it or not, that song always reminds me of you. As does the one that followed it that night, one that’s only a little more fitting; Rod Stewart’s Maggie May.
Except neither song is as incongruous as people might assume. Both are about being swept up against your intentions by a mysterious woman. One celebrates it, one laments it.
I doubt I’ll ever lament you coming into my life, but there are times you’ve given me pause. Time when you’ve done things that left me needing to get away from you for a bit. Times when it became evident that you don’t really have limits, that you will do what others might balk at and do it without hesitation or questioning. Maybe I sound like I’m being overdramatic, but you can be scary. Your presence isn’t always a comfortable one.
I think what fascinates and terrifies me about you is ultimately the same thing. It’s that, if I’m being totally honest, I don’t fully understand you yet. There’s so much about who you are and what you’ve been through that remains shrouded and secret. It makes me feel like I’m flying blind, like I’m irresponsible to put your story out in the world without fully comprehending the depths of it. But I want to know more, I want to understand you and the only way that will happen is if I stay in that car, holding on for dear life, smelling the blood and smoke and wondering how the hell I ended up here.
We’ve already been on a few trips together. Every time, a little more of you becomes clear. I think I know where we’re going. But I also know that my best laid plans don’t mean very much to you, just like I know that getting in that car with you changed my life forever. That’s not hyperbole. Whatever happens next, nothing will ever be the same as it was. That’s thanks to you. So in the end, I guess I’m obliged to trust you even if I’m not totally sure I should.
I suspect, although I could be wrong, that for all you are dangerous you are ultimately good. You are damaged and angry and ruthless, but you always come through. You know what it is to be abandoned and unloved, and that’s something that I think you want to protect people from. I don’t think you’re any kind of sentimental hero. I don’t think you concern yourself with the things that aren’t directly ahead of you. But where you can, you help. You save people. And while I’ve never said this before, out loud or in text, that’s what you did for me. At a time when I felt lost and defeated, you stepped on the accelerator and took me far away from that place.
We’re not always going to travel together. But what I know for sure is that every time you pull up in that car, I’ll get in. I owe you that much, and apart from anything else, I just want to see where you take me next.
Other people have already met you, but from tomorrow anyone who wants to will be able to get into the car with us. Some of them are going to jump out. That’s fair enough. To those who stay, I can’t promise anything. But I reckon it’ll be worth the ride. It sure as hell has been for me.
The final season of Scrubs – the real final season, season eight – aired during my last year of high school. It’s impossible to divorce my feelings about that final run of episodes from the time in which I viewed them, although that’s basically the case with all of Scrubs. A few years ago I tweeted a list of my favourite TV shows, including Scrubs, and a couple of friends reacted with incredulity. But any kind of media attains personal significance based less on its own merits and more on what it means to you, and Scrubs meant a huge amount to me growing up. It was the first TV show I fell truly in love with. I started watching it in 2006 and Scrubs, in a lot of ways, ran parallel to my coming-of-age. Saying goodbye to the show in 2009, then, became inextricably linked with saying goodbye to the last chapter of my pre-adult life. When I’ve looked back on Scrubs in the years since, it has always remained shrouded in a golden glow of nostalgia, forever tied to my adolescence.
I’ve mentioned in other blogs how much I’ve been enjoying the Fake Doctors, Real Friends podcast hosted by Zach Braff and Donald Faison; it’s the reason I’m thinking about Scrubs at all at the moment, as I’m re-watching the show along with every new podcast episode. But if I’m really honest I’ve found that in the years since the aforementioned tweet Scrubs has slipped in estimation for me. That doesn’t for a second mean I love it less or anything, just that I’ve come to understand that stubbornly insisting it is one of my top five favourite ever TV shows becomes a harder stance to maintain when my tastes have changed so much since I first discovered it. On reflection, the glib goofiness of the show is something I would struggle to get past nowadays, an element that on re-watch I find myself cringing at if anyone apart from myself is in the room.
For years, my Top Five movies and TV shows remained the same. I would proudly reel them off in any film-centric conversation, tweet them in response to prompts to name favourites. But to rigidly maintain the notion that your personal creative canon should always be these few things is to try and deny your own development as a human being.
Some properties have retained their place of significance for me. Jaws and Psycho remain at the top of my lists because those films have withstood shifting perspectives. Nostalgia is a key part of why I love them, but my relationship with them has grown over the years. I find new reasons to love them with every revisit. Scrubs? I’m not so sure anymore. I still think that Scrubs taught me early on that humour and heartbreak aren’t mutually exclusive in storytelling, that they’re both essential parts of the human experience and that a good story can include both and far more besides. The ambition of Scrubs to be gutsy and real even as it got increasingly silly remains, I believe, laudable. But twenty-eight-year-old me has found that as far as TV comedies go it’s shows like Community, shows that go deeper and darker and weirder, that hold more inspiration and emotional impact. Shows that, by the way, I think Scrubs partly paved the way for. Just like it paved the way for so much of my own creative sensibility.
It’s okay to know that you’ve moved beyond something but still love it for what it once meant for you. Ultimately, I think it underlines what I’ve suspected for a while; that set in stone ‘all time favourites’ are stupid. They don’t account for the different ways you can love something. Circa 2020 I love Community more than Scrubs, but the former wasn’t there when I was growing up and rightly or not that makes a big difference. Inglourious Basterds, for a long time loudly touted as my favourite ever movie, probably wouldn’t crack the top five anymore but that doesn’t change the fact that it remains one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had in a cinema. I never got to see Jaws or Psycho on the big screen until I’d already watched them countless times alone at home, and even seeing them at the movies felt in the end more like a novelty. The thrill of discovery, unlike Inglourious Basterds, was never really a factor there. That’s not nothing.
I suspect that re-watching Scrubs has basically plunged a stake through the heart of my categorising favourites into lists. You can love something without having to explain where it ranks and why. You can also change your mind about something (I did in the case of Community). As human beings we’re not fixed in who we are. Our relationships with the media that helped shape us shouldn’t be either.
Note: if you’re just looking to read the novella, it’s at the bottom of the page, but please do bear with me while I provide a bit of context to exactly what this is and how it should be read.
If you’ve followed any of my blog posts about the writing and publishing process of the Boone Shepard Trilogy then you’ll know what this is. Written in 2013, The Broken Record is a 28,000-word novella that was originally designed as the first instalment in a theoretical five book Boone Shepard series. It was a reworking of a bizarre draft I wrote in high school, intended as a fun little mystery that would serve to both introduce Boone as a character and establish the bigger questions that would drive the remainder of the series.
Obviously that did not happen. I was, at the time, proud of The Broken Record but it was met with a collective shrug from publishers and agents. When the series was eventually picked up by Bell Frog Books the mutual decision was made to skip The Broken Record and redevelop part two, then called Darkening Ventures, into the first instalment, retitled Boone Shepard.
Reading over The Broken Record again underlined for me that this was the right decision. There’s an inessential quality to it that, weirdly, was at least partly by design. Read in isolation you wouldn’t even know the series was supposed to be about time travel until the last page – intended as a mind-blowing twist, in execution more of a ‘Huh? What?’ moment that theoretical readers might not even have gotten to given that The Broken Record as book one in a series isn’t an especially compelling beginning. The mystery is easy to work out, the humour could and should be funnier, and Boone as a character comes off as pretty flat. Even my beloved Promethia Peters, who meets Boone for the first time in a brief subplot, here reads more as an unpleasant annoyance than the equal sparring partner she would be in the later books. I was lucky to get a book two after the first published Boone Shepard; had that been The Broken Record, even the best of luck wouldn’t have been enough.
This all probably makes it sound like I don’t like The Broken Record, which isn’t the case. On a personal level it’s a nostalgic read, taking me back to a time in my life when writing was what I did in stolen minutes between uni and working long hours at Dracula’s. The frenetic pace of the thing reflects how it was written; in a flurry of clacking keys at a time when I was so, so excited about the prospect of telling this story. My excitement, in this case, probably exceeded my ability, but I’m okay with that. It’s almost like I had to get this out of the way to write the better books that would become the published trilogy.
And it’s not like The Broken Record has nothing to recommend it, at least in my opinion. It’s a fleet, fast read, never lingering too long in any one place. There are lines and moments that make me smile, and a couple of clever little reversals that I’m prouder of than I thought I would be. In its best moments it reflects what I always saw the Boone Shepard series as; a story of fundamental optimism about finding the joy and the funny side in the darkest of circumstances.
Tonally it’s closest to Boone Shepard’s American Adventure; light, frothy with beats of melancholy among the absurdity. In fact, if you know the series reasonably well you’ll see how American Adventure in many ways works as a sequel to The Broken Record, as several major plot points in that book tie in fairly closely to the central mystery of this novella.
Which brings me to how I’d advise you look at the manuscript. It is by no means a polished product; apart from a couple of cosmetic tweaks, this is basically the same text I wrote in 2013, and as such it’s very much the work of a developing writer. I’d ask you to bear that in mind if you plan on reading it. Had The Broken Record been officially published and gone through rigorous editing it would likely look very different to this version. As such, while I doubt anyone would, I don’t recommend reading it if you’re not already interested in or a fan of the Boone Shepard books. Ultimately there’s a good reason it was not the story I chose to start Boone’s adventures with, despite it being the first written.
But for all intents and purposes this remains a key part of Boone’s journey, a missing piece of the series that I am glad to be able to share with the world now, even if only as a curiosity. It is both canon and prototype; the Boone Shepard of the trilogy absolutely went through the events of The Broken Record before readers first met him hanging off the side of a speeding train, but maybe think of this as Boone at a time in his life where he wasn’t quite sure of who he was, a time post-Marbier and pre-Promethia where he was struggling a bit to find his voice and regain his passion. The Broken Record, then, is the story of how both Boone and his author found what they needed to go on to the bigger, better adventures soon to come.
Despite my criticisms I do think it’s pretty readable and even enjoyable at parts, and hope that if you like the Boone books you’ll get something out of this. Just, you know, don’t judge it too harshly. We’ve all gotta start somewhere, and the Boone Shepard I grew to know and love started here.
I’ve written before about my feeble attempt at rebelliousness when I first started at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2014. In fact, even referring to it as such gives the whole thing more credit than it deserves.
The reason for it, as is the reason for most petulant behaviour, was insecurity. At the time I started at VCA I’d been writing for a few years, since early high school, and I had learned a lot of bad habits that I mistook for being my ‘process’. Learning concepts of structure and theme, of midpoints and reversals, harshly illuminated potential shortcomings in my own writing to the extent that I adopted the perspective that to subscribe to any theory about the ‘rules’ of storytelling was to be a hack who wrote by numbers. Writing, I believed, should a natural process stemming from the emotional truth of the author, something that unfolds organically without being hampered by concern over arbitrary rules dictated by screenwriting gurus.
The thing is, that philosophy is partly right. I’ve read that many stories that faithfully follow every rule taught at a place like VCA and yet they don’t work in the slightest because there’s no soul to them, nothing that the writer was aching to say. They’re technical exercises, not stories. But to assume that personal truth is enough to make a story work is limiting. My belief now is that the ‘rules’ are helpful tools to make your story as strong and engaging as possible, but in and of themselves not enough.
It’s funny how time and perspective has shone a light on truths I was too pigheaded to accept back then. At VCA I used to smugly cite Richard Linklater’s almost entirely conversational Before Trilogy as an example of films that didn’t follow traditional structure, ergo I shouldn’t have to either. After all, they were just people talking, right?
Well, if you think that I suggest watching this video, which beautifully articulates how wrong I now know I was. The Before films work because, apart from being heartfelt emotional powerhouses, they meticulously employ structure to ensure that they are always moving, even when they seem to just be meandering conversation. Seeing that video for the first time, my immediate response upon finishing it was to announce (maybe sounding a little choked up) ‘God I love that film’. Because revealing just how perfectly it follows the ‘rules’ to me has helped shine a light on why it works as damn well as it does. On why it’s such an incredible example of the craft of storytelling. Understanding its mechanics has made me like it more, not write it off as a by-the-numbers technical exercise.
Recently I’ve been really enjoying the Fake Doctors, Real Friends podcast, in which Zach Braff and Donald Faison re-watch every episode of Scrubs and reminisce on the making of a TV show that was maybe the first I ever truly loved. Before each new podcast I watch the episode they’re discussing, and it’s funny how my perspective has now changed on a show I thought I knew intimately. Years of studying story means that the curtain is lifted a bit. I recognise the reversals, the turning points, the moments that hit with precision every beat VCA tried to teach me was necessary. And like Before Sunset, it makes me like Scrubs more. Because I recognise how structure provides the framework to convey the sort of emotional truths that always made it work just a little bit better than your average goofy sitcom. The things that made me love it so dearly when I was a teenager.
One thing that always stuck with me from VCA was a tutor telling us that for every ‘rule’ of storytelling, we would be able to point to five classics that break it. This, to me, is because the ‘rules’ aren’t really rules at all. To paraphrase Pirates of the Caribbean, they’re more like guidelines. Helpful, worth knowing, but not essential. Even when employed to perfection, they should be almost invisible, employed quietly to keep your story moving but never drawing attention to the ways in which they’re being used (like in Before Sunset).
So I guess my perspective has changed but not completely. When I see the mechanics of storytelling done well, I appreciate the craftmanship in a way I never could have before VCA. Not much gives me as big of a thrill as when I can recognise just how well a writer has manipulated me, using techniques that I recognise. But when all is said and done? I couldn’t give a shit about the rules.
Years ago I got into an argument with a deeply stupid person who tried to tell me Breaking Bad was an objectively terrible TV show, not because they didn’t enjoy it or it wasn’t to their taste but because some episodes didn’t have A, B and C stories – a classic tenet of broadcast television. Which, like, what? Who cares? If the story is engaging the story is engaging. Not following the rules doesn’t preclude something from being good, just like following the rules to a T isn’t a default defence from being bad.
Personally, since my education I don’t write all that differently from the way I always did. I let the story reveal itself to me and when I feel ready I put it on paper. Sometimes, accidentally, I’ll find it fits classic three act structure perfectly. Other times it doesn’t. If that’s the case, I consider whether I would be better served going about things more traditionally, but I certainly don’t write the story off as a failure. I make a judgement call on whether or not I think it works, based on advice and feedback from people I trust, and often I’ll employ some of what we learned at VCA to help tidy up the parts that aren’t working.
Don’t get me wrong; I credit my time at VCA with providing foundations that I absolutely needed to hone my understanding of story. But most of what I know comes from experience. And in my experience, most audience members couldn’t care less if your midpoint is in the right place or if your inciting incident and first act turning point have the right proximity from each other. They care if your story is good. How you ensure that happens, ultimately, is up to you.
So I guess I’m blogging about isolation. Which I didn’t especially want to do given it’s all anyone is talking about, but as it’s about the only thing anyone can talk about right now I’ll forgive myself.
It’s been a weird time. I mean, on a purely personal level not that weird as I predominantly work from home anyway, but the lack of any ability to go write in a pub, or do anything more involving outdoors than taking my dog for a walk is definitely strange. I’m keenly aware that ’m one of the very, very lucky ones in terms of the lack of overt impact it’s had – so many of my friends and family members are struggling, and the sooner this whole thing comes to an end the better. Because no matter what your situation, being stuck inside is not a healthy way to live.
It’s no surprise that several of my projects have been impacted by this worldwide debacle. The Lucas Betrayal’s radio play release and live reading managed to get through right before everything was shut down, but the physical release of The Hunted has been pushed back until August. Which is a bit of a shame in that I was and remain so keen to hold a final copy of my book, but at least the eBook and audio versions will still be out on May 18 and in the grand scheme of things the wait hasn’t been extended all that much. Meanwhile the film continues development, about which I can’t say too much except for that the casting conversations are giddily exciting. Hopefully I’ll have some good news to share on that front very soon, but we’ll see.
In general, my main focus has been staying productive and staying active. I’ve written up a fairly rigid daily schedule that I’m making myself stick to and that seems to be helping. Maintaining even a limited routine that ensures I do at least something of value every day has helped me retain a sense of usefulness that I think is key to not descending into glazed over video game playing inanity. Although let’s be real, I’ve been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas over the last week.
I’ve also been writing. Not as much as I’d probably like to be doing, but enough to ensure that all this indoor time will not be wasted. Predominantly I’ve been alternating between two manuscripts; The Lonely Grave Outside Glenrowan and Madison’s Masterpiece.
Lonely Grave is, in theory, the third in the series that The Hunted starts – a book I should stipulate that I am currently not contracted to be writing (please buy The Hunted when it comes out). In concept, it is one of the wildest, most ambitious things I’ve ever written; a murder mystery told through three alternating timelines over a hundred and forty years. Unsurprisingly, it has come with some big challenges. Finding the way to organically merge a thriller framework evocative of The Hunted’s pace with what is, in many ways, a deep dive into Australian history and the events that I believe fundamentally shaped our culture is a huge task that I’m still not entirely sure I’m up to, or should even be attempted at all. But I’ve been clear since the start that I don’t want this series to just be a succession of interchangeable action thrillers and I do believe that thematically this builds on the ideas that The Hunted establishes. In the end if it doesn’t work it won’t come out, but I’d rather go for the big swing and miss than safe repetition. That said, I’ve found myself having to take several breaks, in part because the many, many threads of the central mystery combined with the different timelines are enough to stretch anyone’s brain and while the story is revealing itself in ways that make me believe it’s worth pursuing, it’s not always easy.
Then there’s Madison’s Masterpiece, which I sort of am contracted for – or at least I am contracted for a second YA book after Nelson and the Gallagher that I’m pretty sure will be this one. Late last year I posted about how I felt I had finally cracked what Madison needed to be, which turned out to be enormously premature. So I won’t say that I’ve finally got it as it remains too early to tell, but what I do have feels like the best approach I’ve yet had for this story.
It's been a unique challenge on a couple of levels. As I discussed in the aforementioned blog post, the idea is that Nelson and the Gallagher and Madison’s Masterpiece will be the first two books in a series all set in the same high school, with each installment being from the perspective of a different character. I really believe this idea has enormous potential; I love the notion of exploring what it is to grow up in a small town from several vastly different viewpoints, and I’m always a sucker for fictional universes explored from various angles through many diverse voices.
But I dunno, I guess part of me wonders if I really want to write Madison’s Masterpiece or if I just love the concept of the series as a whole and see this as a necessary step along the way. One of the big issues with this book as opposed to its ostensible predecessor is that Nelson and the Gallagher, written initially without any real consideration toward starting a series, is a deeply personal work based explicitly on events from my own life. About 60% of what transpires in the manuscript, especially the setting and background to the main plot, is lifted directly from personal experience. And of course, protagonist Nelson is very much an author surrogate, albeit a far kinder and more emotionally intelligent kid than I was at fourteen. As such, Nelson was a pretty easy story to write, fueled at least partly by a sense of nostalgia.
Madison’s Masterpiece simply can’t have that same intimate quality, because while Nelson does appear in a supporting role, the book isn’t about him and as such isn’t about me in the same way. While elements of the book are absolutely based on real life (about 30% as opposed to Nelson's 60), the very concept of differing perspectives means that Madison has to be utterly distinct from Nelson, which in turn means that the connection I have to her isn’t the same. Nor should it be. Therefore I’ve had to really interrogate why I want to tell this story and whether I have enough to say to make it as good as Nelson.
It reminds me in some ways of writing Windmills, my first ever novel which I self-published in 2012 (and went on to rewrite again and again and again in many different forms). In its early, first person versions, Windmills alternated between three different voices and by far the most challenging for me was that of Ed Johnson, the hedonistic, witty, but deeply damaged best friend of story instigator Leo Grey. Leo’s voice came easily. Ed’s, not so much. I remember always struggling to find him in every draft. I remember constantly wondering if what I was writing was wrong. But, in every single form Windmills took, Ed was the character people responded to the most. Sometimes the stuff that isn’t so natural, the stuff that’s a little more hard earned, is the stuff that really speaks to an audience.
Which isn’t to say I’m having the exact same experience with Madison or that the outcome will be comparable, but rather it serves as a gentle reminder that something being difficult doesn’t mean its not worth pursuing. The more time I’ve spent with Madison’s Masterpiece the more I’ve found in the character and narrative that is personal and worth exploring. I’ve also borrowed a lot from the structure of Lovesick, one of my favourite ever TV shows, to make the unfolding story of the book more of a fractured mystery in a way that, without spoilers, I think perfectly suits the themes that I’m setting out to examine. Add to this a couple of recent character revelations and slowly but surely I’m becoming steady in my belief that this story will be fantastic. But as always, we’ll see.
It’s slow going on both books, if I’m being honest. There are days I write nothing at all, and while my instinct is always to beat myself up about a perceived lack of productivity, it’s not like enforced indoor time immediately equals boundless creativity. It’s hard to feel especially inspired when the majority of what you’re seeing is the inside of your house and maybe a local walking route or supermarket.
It breeds a certain resentment towards all of those cloying, condescending “in quarantine X wrote Y so do the same!” posts that started cropping up only to be swiftly superseded by the equally irritating faux-sympathetic “it’s okay if you don’t write King Lear while in isolation”. I mean, yeah, obviously.
There are no rules or expectations regarding how to approach something as unprecedented as this, so don’t listen to anyone who tells you what you should or shouldn’t do with this time. Figure out what works for you and go with that. If you want to write, write, if you don’t, don’t. If you want to play a bunch of San Andreas, absolutely do. Personally I’m going with a mix of the above and so far am getting by.
Keep safe, keep sane and tell anyone trying to smugly dictate how to use your time to shut up. I'll see you on the other side.
Monday night’s live performance of The Lucas Betrayal and the simultaneous release of the radio play adaptation officially marked the 20th Bitten By Productions show. Seven years, twenty shows. Looking at the collage image I made yesterday of all our cast shots, it’s kind of staggering. It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was stumbling on stage, about to collapse with nervousness, to deliver the first line of our first production, Reunion. Which was, somewhat fittingly, ‘who the fuck thought this would be a good idea?’
Enough people to reach this point, apparently. And while not every show was an outright winner and the journey has been far from a smooth one, it’s hard not to feel a sense of pride at the milestone. Most independent theatre companies don’t get past one show. Some manage a couple before fizzling out. But I can say with absolute confidence that it’s the rare company on our small-scale level who, without any external funding, hit twenty shows.
There’s an argument to be made that the designation of twenty shows isn’t quite correct. After all, two of those shows were remounts of earlier productions, but I would rebut that the second iterations of both We Can Work It Out and The Critic were so vastly different to their previous incarnations that it would be doing the cast, directors and shows themselves a massive disservice to claim they were in any way the same production as the earlier one. Also The Lucas Betrayal, at least as it currently stands, is a staged reading and radio play – not a full season. But such has been the response to that show that we’re in the early stages of changing that, so very soon The Lucas Betrayal will absolutely have earned its place in that collage, if it hadn’t already.
So where does this leave us? An independent company, twenty shows and many more lessons in? In some ways, not much has changed. In other ways, the company couldn’t be more different to what it was in 2013. And while I’m not about to go through what worked and didn’t about each individual show (I’ve done that before), it’s worth considering how far we’ve come from humble beginnings.
When I wrote (and directed and produced and starred in) Reunion seven years ago, I wasn’t looking to start a company. I wasn’t looking to do anything other than tell a story that meant a lot to me. And with nobody seemingly taking that story very seriously, I figured I might as well take the experience I’d gained from my central involvement in two youth theatre companies and use it to produce a show all my own.
Understand; it really wasn’t a vanity thing. It couldn’t have been, given how cripplingly insecure I was about corralling friends into helping make something that I was pretty sure mattered only to me. I didn’t write Reunion as a star vehicle for my limited acting prowess. I performed in it because I couldn’t find anyone else to take that role. And even referring to myself as the director of the play feels a bit rich, given my ‘direction’ largely consisted of trying not to upset anyone and hoping that none of the cast hated the script that much.
I think the key moment in that production came towards the end. After one rehearsal Finn, who played my character’s sardonic best mate and who had the most professional theatre experience of any of us, flicked through the script and blithely asked me why anyone should care about our characters.
I think I literally answered ‘they shouldn’t’ because the question cut to the core of my worries about the play and I didn’t have a proper response. That worry stayed with me up until the week before we opened. Then, on a long train ride, I sat and I re-read the script. And as I did something weird happened. I remembered why I wanted to tell this story and why I thought it might matter to more than just me. This play, about a particular kind of painful, gnawing longing for a time when you thought you were happier, was not depicting an isolated experience. I believed that others would understand and so I told my cast exactly why I thought people should care. Because maybe they’d see themselves in the characters and maybe they’d know then they weren’t alone. And while that potential remained a maybe, to me it was reason enough to give it a shot.
Whether or not it worked, I don’t know. Reunion was no insightful masterpiece. The staging was clumsy, the dialogue was variable, the characters slight and the quality of the jokes mixed. But in the grand scheme of things none of that really matters. What matters is the feeling I had standing in the empty theatre after the final show. The feeling that we had managed to pull this off meaning it wasn’t so crazy to think about doing it again.
Over the following years, despite most of the shows being written by me, our output was fairly diverse. There was the post-apocalyptic noir of the Babylon Trilogy. There was the fast talking no-budget comedy stylings of We Can Work It Out, The Critic and The Lucas Conundrum – plays I considered a sort of thematic trilogy until I stuffed it all up by writing a direct sequel to Conundrum. There were outliers like the deeply melancholic (and deeply personal) Regression, the two-person psychological thriller Heroes, the fractured biopic Springsteen, the dark drama of The Commune, the philosophical back-and-forth of The Trial of Dorian Gray and our one and (so far) only musical Moonlite. Then of course there were the plays that weren’t mine, the ones that in some ways I’m the most proud of because they represent my dream for Bitten By; a company that can provide a platform for emerging writers to tell their stories with the help and support of an experienced team. I still hope that in time the likes of Dracula: Last Voyage of the Demeter, Dead Air and Eyes Wide Woke become the norm for us; interesting and diverse works by different writers.
And naturally there was A Good German, the catastrophic failure of an attempt to tell a story about The Holocaust that I won’t dwell on because I’ve written about it way too much, but bears mentioning because there it remains the work that I’ve learned the most from, precisely because of what an utter mess it was.
German remains indicative of a fundamental truth I’ve come to understand over the years of this company, which is that you always learn more from your failures than your successes. And while no other failure was as complete as that of A Good German, there were plenty of smaller ones that marred otherwise strong shows. Bad casting choices that caused problems both on and off stage. Scripts that needed more development to truly find their potential. Problematic venues that compromised shows for any number of reasons – from poor soundproofing to dodgy air conditioning to shocking organisation. Communication issues making things harder than they had to be.
I don’t need to trawl through specifics or dredge up past dramas but broadly speaking they matter because they become learning experiences that, hopefully, make it just a little easier to not do the same thing again. There has not been a single show of ours that didn’t have some kind of problem behind the scenes (or during them) but frankly that’s the nature of the beast. What I firmly believe is that with every passing show we’ve learned a little more and gotten a little better. Being twenty shows deep and still having incredible people wanting to work with us suggests that we’re not totally on the wrong track.
One of the really staggering things about looking at that collage was seeing in one place an indication of how many inspiring people we’ve worked with over the past seven years. And that photo can’t even encapsulate them all, because to make even the smallest play happen requires behind the scenes efforts that those cast photos just can’t capture. To think back to Reunion and then to consider the teams we’ve managed to assemble on plays since is discombobulating. I won’t name names because there are so many of them, and so many of them I want to celebrate but don’t have room for.
What I do have room for, though, is the people who make up our central committee. The people who are Bitten By Productions. It started with Justin Anderson and Ashley Tardy, back when we sank beers after a shift at the old theatre restaurant Dracula’s and mused aloud about starting a production company. The three of us used Reunion as a starting point before stumbling through a succession of shows that weren’t all great but allowed us to meet several wonderful people we’ve worked with every since. A few joined and left the committee in the intervening years, but Kashmir Sinnamon and Alicia Beckhurst stayed the distance, moving from appearing in our shows to helping see them realised, in the process bringing our company to a place where the term ‘well oiled machine’ wasn’t entirely off base. Together, the five of us have built this little idea into something that has lasted and looks to keep doing so, something that has entertained thousands and slowly established a reputation and a lasting place in the Melbourne theatre scene.
There will always be stuff to learn from and areas to improve. That much is inevitable, especially when you’re talking about a bunch of creatives trying to run something like a functioning business. But looking at The Lucas Betrayal the other night, performed in a swanky venue with a cast of four enviable actors and an audience who came out to have a laugh with us despite the constant current fearmongering surrounding a certain virus, it was hard not to think about how different everything is now to the nervous, uncertain days of Reunion. And, knowing what we’ve got up our sleeve for the next year and beyond, it’s hard not to imagine with excitement just how different things could look around the corner.
On February 17 2020, my Oma, Anna Bergmoser, turned 90. In many ways it snuck up on us. My grandparents, despite living on the other side of the world, were regular presences when we were growing up; their visits always the thing we looked forward to the most, their departures occupied by tears and begging for them to stay. They are lively, funny and loving people, and in my head they have always been the relatively energetic, sixty-something figures of my childhood.
My grandparents remain healthy and active. They walk every morning, they ride their bikes, they come for lunches and dinners with their family. But turning 90 makes the ticking clock that’s always been there a lot more obvious. And having not seen them in almost a decade, Oma’s 90th seemed the opportune time to go back to Austria. Understand, I’ve wanted to visit for years. But it’s only been recently that finances have allowed, and even once they did time quickly became a problem. I only booked this trip a month ago, capitalising on a three-week period between commitments. The only time I could fit it in, a time that happened to line up with Oma’s birthday.
Once the tickets were actually booked, a vague, creeping fear started to set in. What if Oma and Opa weren’t how I remembered them? What if they were disappointed by my terrible German? I knew it was irrational; my grandparents, who don’t speak a word of English, have been tolerating the broken German of the Australian side of the family for years, and both my parents and brother had reported on how they remain more or less the same as ever. But ten years is the kind of time that creates a feeling of pressure, pressure that made me almost dread walking up the stairs of their home.
I had a good week to get ready, even once the trip had begun. With the HarperCollins Literary Bites launch taking place the night before we flew, Molly and I arranged to go from Sydney – the trip kicking off with the wonderful whirlwind of the launch then a day spent wandering the city, having a slightly boozy (technically business related) lunch with the inestimable Tony Cavanaugh and Louise Lee Mei from Beyond Armana and then finally heading to the airport for our late night flight. Bad sleep, plane food, a stopover in the eerie early morning version of Doha airport and then we were in Vienna.
We only had one full day there and grappling with jetlag it probably wasn’t enough to fully appreciate a famously beautiful city. We got lost and separated in the enormous Natural History Museum (I reached what I thought was the end after a couple of hours only to realise there was a whole second floor) before heading to the Belvedere Palace, now a gallery home to several famous pieces of art. By that point, however, I was starting to flag, and so we had the obligatory schnitzel dinner then went straight to bed.
I was confronted with the limitations of my fractured German as I tried to order food and coffee from the quickly frustrated lady running the bakery up the road from our AirBNB (“um… spreche sie English?” “No.”). Molly, however, turned out to be basically fluent, which didn’t exactly help the growing panic over to what degree I would be able to speak to my family.
From Vienna we got the train to Salzburg. If you’ve ever caught one of these long-haul European trains you’ll know how great they are – comfortable chairs, tables (like the one I’m writing this at now) and beer (like the one I’m drinking now). Not to mention the stunning scenery as, in our case, we crossed into the more striking, mountainous part of Austria.
Salzburg, if you’ve never been, is a strong contender for the world’s most beautiful city. Ancient buildings surround a long, winding river, cobblestoned alleys, strange little boutique-y stores, overflowing cafes, expansive public squares, towering cathedrals and overlooking it all a sprawling mountaintop castle, striking against the expanse of snow-caps. We had three days there, spent with Molly’s friend Lenya from Germany, before heading on to my family’s hometown of Frankenmarkt. So we explored. Molly and Lenya went hunting Sound of Music locations while I went hunting a great European bar to write in. In the centre of a touristy city this did not prove easy; my broken German and attempts to make a joke out of it were largely met with unimpressed silences that left me a little resentful towards compulsory tipping. Still, on our second afternoon there we had a drink up at the castle, and in that moment everything became beautiful; the clouds cleared and we looked out over the city expanse and gleam of snow capped mountains under a sunny sky that, to me, so perfectly encapsulates Austria.
It’s hard to be in a place like Salzburg without ending up pretty inspired. A book that was previously eluding me seemed to become instantly clear in those surrounds and despite the unfriendly bar staff I furiously tapped away in spare minutes, finding Alpine Austria weirdly conducive to writing a story set in rural Australia.
On our last night in Salzburg we went to a brewery recommended by my parents. I say brewery but I’m not sure what the right word for it is – I’m not sure there is a right word for this place. It’s like an old monastery and seems as much when you enter it; all statues of saints and an eerie silence. Then you go through a door, take a left turn and suddenly you’re met with a succession of packed out beer halls and deli type stores for you to get whatever Austrian food you want. This, followed by a dingy dive bar that was basically exactly the place I’d been looking for, capped off our Salzburg trip with a feeling of real authenticity and beyond that, a feeling that I really wanted to return as soon as possible and really get to know this city.
But the next morning it was time to head to Frankemarkt and see the family. My cousin Nico picked us up early and we were on the way. As we drove and I watched the green hills, smatterings of villages and towering churches out the window, that vague sense of fear sharpened. I felt shaky and too warm. Passing the sign that welcomed us to Frankemarkt, I could barely speak. Ten years since I’d last been here. Now I was back and I couldn’t shake this terrible false sense that maybe I’d come too late.
My family live about five minutes outside of the town of Frankenmarkt. If you’re ever in the area you’ll immediately know where they are from the spread of greenhouses on a hill overlooking the town itself. The family business, Blumen Bergmoser, is floristry, with my Dad being the only one of Oma and Opa’s children who did not go into working with flowers somehow. His older brother Dietmar now runs the business, and he lives there in a large house behind the greenhouses, directly across from Oma and Opa.
It is, in the most traditional sense, the family home. Outside of when I was too small to remember it, I had been there twice before; in 2010 and 2003. But of course it has always remained clear in my head, and as always there was no overwhelming sense of nostalgia upon pulling up there again, just a quiet feeling of ‘there it is.’ The moment I got out of the car I ran straight up the stairs to Oma and Opa’s house.
I should never have worried. My Oma remains astounding. Even seeing her then, the day of her 90th birthday, it really struck me how little she has changed. How little she ever does. She walks easily and without assistance, she laughs and jokes and waves her hands around when she gets excited. She overflows with love for all of her now huge family. Nico told me she was worried that she wouldn’t make it to ninety, that she would miss seeing everyone. Well I can tell you, if you met this woman you’d have no doubt whatsoever that she’ll make a hundred at a canter. When I told her she had not changed in ten years she laughed me off, before going into the next room and proudly reporting to Opa what I’d said.
Opa has maybe changed more. He’s always been the more active of the two and that remains so, but at 86 he’s a little quieter now, a little more withdrawn. But he remains a wry, warm, always smiling presence, a man of many hobbies and eccentricities. His study is absolutely coated in photos of the family from all times and places. He makes things with his hands, feathers on rocks creating little birds, Edelweiss flowers glued to stones that look like mountains. His Wintergarten boasts part of his massive collection of stones and gems, along with handmade murals of every branch of the Bergmoser family’s lives; homes, partners, pets, everything. In the centre of the Wintergarten is a huge, painted image of Australia, with photos of all of us attached to the places where we live. The pride in where we have all gone and what he have done permeates all of my grandparents’ home.
It’s always the way with these things that immediately it becomes as though you never left. And while my German isn’t great, it was enough. Walking with my Opa in the forest that fringes the family home, I was able to tell him about what I’ve done and what I’m working on, knowing from his small smiles that he understood. He showed me through the greenhouses, naming for me the different trees and flowers growing there. That fear might as well have never been present. All I felt, those first few days there, was an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I could be here now, that I could share these moments, that I had reached a place in my life where this was all possible.
Routine formed quickly. A walk in the forest every morning, followed by a couple of hours writing in the Wintergarten then lunch with Dietmar and his wife Gabi before, usually, an adventure of some kind in the afternoon. We’d go to neighbouring towns, walk the sides of lakes, and then go to either Dietmar’s or the nearby home of Sylvia, my aunt with whom my brother Tristan and his partner were staying while we were there. Inevitably, beers would be had along with a schnapps or two, then a lot of shared stories and big laughs, alternating between German and English. The sense that I was in the middle of the best holiday of my life began to grow in those times.
The big official lunch for Oma’s birthday was that Saturday, at a hilltop Gasthouse. Lots of Austrian food and a huge family photo against the backdrop of the surrounding mountains; a perfect celebration of why we were all there, and Oma humble and smiling at the centre of it all, matter of factly treating it like none of it was a big deal.
The next day Molly headed back to Australia, as she needed to be home for work a week before me, and so the last week was spent in relative laziness, maintaining this newfound routine with only a couple of breaks; the traditional Fasching carnival through the centre of Frankemarkt (a carnival characterised by floats throwing sweets and colourfully dressed people coming up and offering you schnapps that makes you feel as though your throat is on fire) and, on that last Tuesday, a day spent skiing.
Tristan and I went with Sylvia, her husband Wolfgang and Nico. They commented several times on how bad the snow was, but for us it was perfect. Long runs that take half an hour to get to the bottom of, the constant view of all the surrounding mountains, the regular slope-side places to stop for a hot chocolate, a strudel, a beer or a schnitzel. My skiing experience in Australia looked very limited indeed after that.
Slowly, over the last couple of days, that vague fear began to creep back in a different way. Because the reality is this; for all that they remain healthy and independent, my grandparents are not getting any younger and they live on the other side of the world. And while I am now in a position where further trips to Austria relatively soon are not some far-flung pipe dream, it’s still a lot of money and a long way. At this stage, due to book stuff it looks like I will likely be able to come back in July but still. Time is moving on and I don’t know what things will look like a year, two, or three from now.
I grappled with this gnawing feeling for the last few days, somewhere between wanting to be sick and wanting to burst into tears. I told Oma and Opa several times I would see them in July, but I was just as much saying it to myself. And I did say it to myself; over and over as the end got near. I told myself not to get upset, not to treat this like the last time because it wouldn’t be the last time and after seeing them so healthy I had good reason to believe that.
How do you approach a goodbye that you don’t want to be a final goodbye, that likely won’t be a final goodbye, but might be? The truth, in the end, is that there is no right way to do this. As so as the hours crept towards the time I had to get in Dietmar’s car to head to the train station, I fluctuated between relaxed and smiling, on edge, and seconds from tears. And when the moment came, it went fast. I hugged my Opa, gripped his shoulder and, voice cracking, told him I would see him in July. I kissed my Oma on the cheek, told her how wonderful it was to see her, and that I would be back soon. And as I walked out of the house I caught the eyes of my family members; red rimmed because they knew.
Driving to the train station I played out those last exchanges in my head, over and over. I started to worry that it hadn’t been enough. I hadn’t wanted to draw it out, but at the same time – what if those brief goodbyes were the last time I saw them?
I messaged Tristan and Molly to share how I felt, and they told me exactly what I needed to hear. Tristan explained how the last time he’d been over, two years ago, he had been overwhelmed by the goodbye. But he realised that for Oma and Opa, quicker was better. There are so many family members and for every goodbye to be treated like it might be the last is just too much.
What Molly said followed on from this perfectly. That what mattered was not the goodbye, but the time spent. The mornings writing there while Oma made sure I had enough coffee and pastries. The afternoons on the couch with Opa, reading our respective books. The walks in the forest. The conversations, of which there were many, only slightly inhibited by my clumsy grasp of the language.
At this, I found myself thinking of a quote from Lord of the Rings, a quote that originated in a very different context, but summed up exactly what I felt.
“If this is to be our end, then I would have them make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.”
I believe I will see my grandparents again. I believe when I do it will be wonderful. But if I don’t, this was a time worthy of remembrance. A time I know with quiet certainty that I will treasure forever. A time I’m so glad I had.
Last January, in need of a creative boost, I impulsively decided to try and write seven short stories in seven days. I thought it might be a fun challenge but it ended up being precisely what I needed; a burst of spontaneous creativity that left me feeling reinvigorated after a pretty flat 2018. It worked so well, in fact, that I decided I would do the same every January going forward.
That… might have been ambitious.
This year I thought I was fully prepared for it. I designated a starting date, Tweeted about it a bunch and tried to get a few others on board with me. I was all ready to go but January 2020 looked a lot different to January 2019, in all the best ways. Namely, I have been inundated with writing work, meaning that when the starting date rolled around I had clean forgotten about the whole thing. Stress and a niggling sense that I was letting paid work and major commitments slip by the wayside provided a less-than-inspiring foundation for this year’s attempt, and very quickly the whole thing started to look a lot more like a chore than the total joy it had been last time. But I was determined to see it through, and so I did.
I think the results, comparative to the previous attempt, do indicate that my heart wasn’t in it in the same way. Additional to this there were some major setbacks; namely that the one story that I thought could be truly excellent was lost 2000 words in when my computer crashed and didn’t save it. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t lead to a bit of irrational resentment towards the whole thing.
All of that said, I don’t think it was a waste of time or that the stories are uniformly terrible. In 2019 I ended up with a couple of pieces (Last Call and Three Dollars) that I thought were as good as any short I’d ever written. This year I don’t think the same thing happened. I don’t know that any of these stories are really bad, but with the exception of The Yew Bow I can’t say I’m especially proud of any of them.
There’s some pretty good writing in there, I think. Like in 2019 I started with a basically autobiographical piece (The Girl and the Grey then, The Substitute now) that, while not exactly an example of sterling narrative craft, has some prose that I believe is super solid. Also reflecting last year, despite my attempts to make every story something totally new, one among them does feature a major character from a novel of mine – last year it was the adult version of Nelson from Nelson and the Gallagher (coming March 2021), this year it was Maggie from the The Hunted (May 18, pre-order now). In both cases I think the respective pieces ended up the weakest of the lot, maybe partly because they were both written at the point where I was running out of ideas and as a Hail Mary resorted to familiar ground.
In both instances of trying this experiment I ended up with a central theme, by accident more than anything else (although whatever subconsciously led to this, who can say). In 2019 every story was in some way about compromised human connection; The Girl and the Grey was about a brief fling that ends up meaning the world to the protagonist, Last Call is about a guy trying to come to terms with who his now dead best mate was, Fanboy Tears was about somebody trying to maintain perceived personal integrity in the face of a potential relationship that might require him to abandon it, Three Dollars was about a kid using an act of bare minimum compassion to impress a girl, Grandpa’s Attic was about a woman trying to reconcile the grandfather she loves with a terrible choice he made years ago, Ghosts in the Snow was about a guy whose current relationships don’t compare to those he formed one winter over a decade ago and The Crime Writer was about the deadly intersection of friendship, ambition and creativity. Every character in every story was driven by a kind of yearning for connection, every story about how they try to achieve it – or, in some cases, what they do about the fact that they can’t.
This year, every story was about something that happened in the past affecting the present of the character. I won’t go through them one by one; I’d rather let you discover them for yourselves (provided you still want to after this negativity). If I’m proud of one thing about this year’s attempt, it’s how the stories all provide a different angle on the same idea, creating a sort of thematic narrative that ties them all together.
Anyway, now that I’ve finally had the time to read through the seven stories, here they are for anyone who cares to check them out. Part of the crux of this exercise is that the stories are uploaded with only a cursory edit; raw and rough and more or less as they were upon being written, a kind of naked creativity. If you do want to give them a read, I hope you find something to enjoy in there. I should clarify; for all that I might seem down on this bunch, I’m still glad I went for it and remain happy to share them. Even when writing becomes as much of a full time job as it now is for me, it’s still really important to find the time to write just for the hell of it, to make something without worrying about whether it will be any good or not. For better or worse, that’s what I’ve tried to do here.
A couple of days ago Daniel Handler, the author better known to most as Lemony Snicket, posted a cryptic image on Twitter alluding to a top-secret upcoming project. Given the suggestion of mystery, most people, myself included, took this to be indicative of a new chapter of some description in his fictional universe that started with A Series of Unfortunate Events.
If I was to list my top five favourite fictional properties, the Snicketverse would absolutely be among them. I think A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of the greatest works of children’s literature ever. Its TV adaptation, while imperfect, complements and enriches the books in all kinds of immensely satisfying ways. The prequel series, All the Wrong Questions, manages to be both fan catnip and something that stands entirely on its own two feet. I love everything Unfortunate Events adjacent, treated the arrival of each new ATWQ book and season of the show as an essentially religious event and yet my main emotional reaction upon seeing this new post was more or less ‘oh cool, looking forward to that’.
It’s not that I got over the franchise. Far from it. It’s the rare long-running fictional property that doesn’t have any real disappointments to its name (I even like the 2004 film). But if I was to guess as to why I’m not overcome with giddy excitement in the same way I was when the TV show was first announced? I’d say it’s because, by and large, I’ve had my fill.
This is a hard thing to quantify, given that if we like something we tend to want more of it. I’ve definitely been as guilty of this as anyone. But often there are only so many places for a story to go, and sooner or later we start to realise that the stories we love have been to just about all of them. In the best (and rarest) case scenario, arriving at this place takes the shape of my current feelings towards the Lemony Snicket franchise – I still love the series, I’ve never been let down by it, but there’s just not that much more I could ask from it. Usually, however, it’s either not quite enough, or too much.
When I was a teenager my favourite book series was Koji Suzuki’s Ring series. I’d fallen in love with the American and Japanese film adaptations and, wanting more, read the novels. This is where I found the real paydirt and to this day I think it’s such a shame that the books aren’t more well regarded. Suzuki used the tale of a cursed videotape as the springboard for an immense apocalyptic sci-fi saga that remains surprising and affecting through various mutations that, in less sure hands, could have been straight up ridiculous. His initial trilogy, Ring, Spiral and Loop build on each other to arrive at one of the most touching and haunting ambiguous endings I’ve ever read, something that leaves you wanting more even though you know it’s great as it is. And because you’re left wanting more, that means that when there is more you grab at it. In Suzuki’s case, ‘more’ was initially the short story anthology Birthday that served as a kind of parallel epilogue (makes sense if you’ve read it, trust me) to his trilogy, culminating in a conclusion to Loop that, upon reading it, I found weirdly disappointing despite it providing exactly what I thought I wanted. It wasn’t bad, just unnecessary. It was as though by leaving room for more but not filling it, Suzuki invited us to imagine the final beats of the story ourselves and in doing so gave some kind of strange ownership to his audience. Providing that final puzzle piece himself ultimately left the series too complete, somehow. It is, now that I’m writing about it, basically how I felt about El Camino. I was so excited for another instalment in the Breaking Bad story until I saw it and realised that it had no reason to exist other than the fact that, due to the existence of couple of loose ends that weren’t really that loose, it could. Nothing essential was added to a story that was already great and consequently fulfilling a vague desire for more became detrimental. Not enormously so – neither was a Scrubs Season Nine scenario – but still somehow undermining the integrity of endings that hit hard because they weren’t as neat as they perhaps could have been.
Incidentally, Suzuki has since returned to the Ring saga twice more. When his fifth instalment, S, was released in English in 2018 I was so, so excited. More than a decade since Birthday, nostalgia had set in and while I wasn’t exactly desperate to return to the world the chance to do so was very welcome. Besides, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe this new chapter would reignite that mysterious and singular power that the Ring books once had over me, whether Suzuki had found some exciting new corner of his world to play in. I bought the book, cleared a day to devote myself to it, and found it to be fine. It was, ultimately, another epilogue. There was nostalgia to it, but not much else. I saw some old favourite characters again, but I wasn’t left feeling like the story had been furthered or deepened in any crucial ways.
The closest comparison I can think of to this strange sensation of enjoying something but finding it still disappointing and hollow, is weirdly the feeling I got when I played Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories. I had a lot of nostalgia for the original Vice City and the chance for a new adventure in that very familiar setting was beyond enticing. Then I played it and, yeah, it was the same map, just like I remembered it. The buzz of warm recognition soon gave way to the realisation that I wasn’t getting a whole lot new out of the experience. Just re-treading old ground. Pleasant and comforting, but nothing else.
I’ve written before about how stories need endings to have any meaning whatsoever, but realistically that can never sate our desire for more of the thing we love, especially if the thing we love has left loose ends. Look at Watchmen; I was always keen to continue that story. The Before Watchmen comics offered the warm recognition of being back in the world I loved, but not much more. Then Damon Lindelof came along with his masterful sequel TV series and gave me everything I could have wanted in a Watchmen follow up and more. I loved every second of that show but when it ended (perfectly, I might add) there was no part of me crying out for another instalment. I’ll watch it if it comes, of course, but at the moment the notion prompts the same reaction as the thought of more Snicket – ‘oh, cool, I’d check that out’.
And that’s okay! Better than okay; it’s ideal, really. We’ve all seen so many properties we love driven into the ground by endless returns to increasingly dry wells. It’s never a one size fits all thing; Watchmen and Unfortunate Events retained vitality through finding new perspectives on their fictional worlds and events that honoured the past but offered a future. Hannibal the TV series re-interpreted and remixed its source material to create something both familiar and utterly original. Maybe the key is that in these cases the new offerings were less direct continuations, but satellite reinterpretations, jumping into new mediums with different voices or else offering new stories that stood on their own two feet without demanding to be seen as the logical extension of the original. What they all prove is that there are ways to make franchise extensions interesting and vital, but it’s not always as straightforward as just continuing a finished story and hoping for the best. Because to do so more often than not results in the dilution of everything that made the story special to begin with (cough Star Wars cough).
I guess ultimately I would love to end up in a similar place to where the first season of Hannibal took me. I wasn’t overwhelmed with excitement for the TV series when it was announced. I was mildly interested having long loved the books, but I had no reason to think the show would be anything special. The realisation that it was became a dizzying thrill that reinvigorated my love for the originals and consolidated my passionate fandom for years to come. I thought I’d had enough. Now, I still find myself yearning for more. And isn’t that just a dream come true?
By anyone’s estimation I write a lot and I write fast. I’m proud of this, and I became especially so after hearing a lot of people commenting on the fact. Over time however, I started to believe this weird internal narrative that I was only worthwhile if I wrote at least a thousand words every single day. If I failed to do so, I was somehow letting myself down, putting paid to the perception of how amazingly prolific I was. The blank page became increasingly worrying, an indication that I was a fraud, that maybe I wasn’t as overflowing with good ideas as I wanted the world to think I was. If I went a few days without writing, well, that was a bad sign.
There were other factors in this clearly stupid degree of self-expectation. Namely that I’m always happiest and most fulfilled when I’m working on some kind of story. It follows that if I’m always writing, I’ll always be happy, right?
That happiness comes only partly from the satisfaction of having written a large amount. In reality, it’s predominantly the thrill of working on something that excites you, something that you can’t stop thinking about, that you’re so keen to share with the world when it finally starts to look ready. And for a story to achieve that quality, to be the kind of thing that fixates and energises you, it needs time to be discovered.
Earlier this year I went through a stretch of not doing very much writing. So I did this dumb thing that I’ve done several times before and has never once worked; I started writing something that I had no clear conception of. I well and truly know by now how my process works, but at least once a year some stupid little voice in my brain says ‘hey why don’t we do things differently’ and so instead of spending time thinking about a story until I can actually feel it, I put fingers to keyboard, write about two or three thousand words of directionless waffle, and inevitably give up. Because hey, writing something is better than that blank page, right?
The story in question was Madison’s Masterpiece, my idea for a sequel to Nelson and the Gallagher that takes the perspective of a supporting character from the other book and makes her the centre of her own story. In this case, I knew enough about what I saw the book being to write 20,000 words. Which is far from nothing! Maybe, I thought, this time the change in process will actually work.
Then I read over what I had written. Or at least, I tried.
For context, writing Nelson and the Gallagher was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as an author and it’s maybe my favourite thing I’ve ever written. It’s a deeply personal work of semi-autobiographical YA fiction that I’m so proud of, a feeling that only grew when HarperCollins picked it up for publication. I strongly feel that Nelson is very close to what I wanted it to be – a funny, wistful coming of age story about empathy and self-discovery. Note that key phrase – what I wanted it to be. I had at least a vague vision for the book before I started writing.
Then there’s Madison’s Masterpiece. In stark contrast, what I had written was not funny, not charming, not interesting; an ultimately pointless piece of writing. It wasn’t trying to say or be anything. It existed because I wanted to write something, not because I had something to write. I couldn’t even finish reading over the material I had.
With Nelson being signed for a two-book deal, I do need a follow up. But I started to think maybe Masterpiece wasn’t the right idea. I didn’t scrap it, but I put it on the backburner and began to toy with some of the other ideas I’d had that had ultimately fizzled out, concepts for more traditional sequels that followed Nelson in further semi-autobiographical exploits. None of them grabbed me. I didn’t want to write a series of fictionalised events from my own life (I did enough of that as a teenager). I wanted to use Nelson’s story as a platform for a series of novels set in a county high school that each take on a different character’s perspective. Basically, I wanted to write the YA version of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series.
Day after day I’d go for walks and let the different sequel concepts cycle through my head. And always, Madison’s Masterpiece floated to the top. There was something there, I just hadn’t let myself find it before I started writing. I knew what the plot of the story was. I even knew some of the themes. What I didn’t know was the soul of the thing.
So, coming home to Mansfield for Christmas, I decided to focus on Madison’s Masterpiece. But not to write – to think. To go for long walks past the locations that inspired parts of the story and let it all play out in my head, to consider characters and ideas and plot points then see if, through it all, something clear would emerge. Something that would give me a foundation to work from, that would make me love writing this as much as I loved its predecessor.
I don’t believe you can create a story from scratch. There has to be something there to start from; an emotion, a thought, an idea that you’re itching to explore. So I went over the moments that always popped into my head when I thought about the book, the scenes I could see with at least some clarity. And from them, something started to build. Mental dominoes fell and obvious solutions that had previously eluded me appeared with ease. Finally, yesterday, I had a run at a rough chapter outline. And as I did, I felt the flicker of something warm and urging in my chest that always accompanies the stories I really want to tell. I thought about Madison’s Masterpiece as a follow up to Nelson and the Gallagher and for the first time I saw them as potential equals.
It wasn’t, in the end, that I made any massive changes to the plot I already had. It was that I took the time to discover the little things that would give the books its heart and soul. And when, yesterday, I decided to try writing the first chapter, it flowed with ease.
That’s not to say it’s all smooth sailing from here, or that I’m totally in synch with what the book has to be. It’s more that breathing room has given me a lot more confidence that this is the story I want to tell next, that there is something emotionally real at the heart of it that can have the same importance to me as Nelson did, even if it’s not as directly based on personal experience.
The time you spend thinking about a story is just as valuable – occasionally more so – than the time you actually spend writing it. Because without those hours of what ultimately amounts to daydreaming, how can you be sure this is worth your time? And more to the point, the time of readers?
Writing words about writing words.