Early last year, looking for a new book series to lose myself in, I decided to have a crack at The Wheel of Time. People who are even remotely familiar with those books will know exactly what a choice like that entails. Fourteen books, each longer than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, with so many characters, civilisations and subplots that you need a series-specific encyclopedia beside you at all times just to know what the hell is going on.
But hey, when you want to get lost in a story you can do a lot worse than something as huge and sprawling as Wheel of Time and there’s a reason the series is so well known; it’s very good. The characters are great, the twists are shocking, the lore is fascinating and it pretty much has all the things you could want from an epic fantasy.
And yet, it has a reputation as being a bit of a slog. People always warned me that the going gets a little tough later in the series, that things don’t stay as propulsive as they are at first. I shrugged this off; I survived Feast for Crows and Dance With Dragons, how hard could this be? Plus, the deeper I got into the series the more I was enjoying it. Book six was a clear high point. Book seven was great. Book eight had plenty of rad stuff going on. Book nine was a little slow but had a great climax. Book ten…
Book fucking ten. Crossroads of Twilight. The book that has been sitting in my bag for months on end now. The book that every day I pick up, determined to power through, certain that this time I can get through more than a page, knowing that everyone says it will be worth it, that it’s all smooth sailing from here.
A while ago I had a little tantrum on an episode of Movie Maintenance about the objectively bad TV show Jessica Jones. Apart from the shit acting, awful writing, glacial pace and dreadful characters, it suffers from arguably one of the biggest crimes you can commit as a storyteller; making your audience put up with something that has no discernible point, that adds nothing to the show, that swallows up screentime and detracts from any of the interesting stuff going on. In the case of Jessica Jones that something is the character of Jessica’s upstairs neighbour, a shrill, supremely irritating middle finger to the audience, a character who adds nothing to the plot, who isn’t funny, who is painful to watch and who, for some reason, the writers decide we need a decent serve of in every fucking episode.
I copped a lot of flak for going off in that episode and look, the truth is I was jetlagged at the time and probably could have been a bit more equivocal about the whole thing. But I stand by everything I said because including a character like that shows a profound disrespect for your audience and a frankly offensive carelessness toward the job of trying to tell a good story. I find it hard to believe that nobody in that writers’ room questioned the value of that character, which implies either incompetence or severe carelessness. And while we all have moments in our writing that don’t hit home the way we think they will, it’s hard to figure out what the writers of Jessica Jones thought that character would be. The only explanation is that they didn’t think, which simply isn’t good enough.
Now I’m finding that same feeling in Crossroads of Twilight. I recently endured three pages of two characters getting dressed, followed by those same characters engaging in page after page after page after page after fucking page of endless, circulatory discussion of things that seem to have no apparent bearing on the plot whatsoever. When I finally got through this one chapter (it took me about a month) I was greeted with the introduction of a whole new subplot about a whole new minor character when all I want to know about are the characters I’ve spent ten books getting invested in. And no, wanting to know about them does not mean wanting three pages of what they are wearing.
Earlier in this post I mentioned the great climax to book nine. It was a moment the whole series had built up to and it was just as satisfying and beautiful and exciting as anyone could have hoped. It leaves you with a giddy sense of wanting to know where the series could go from here, what the implications of this enormous moment are. But Robert Jordan apparently decided that we don’t need to know what happens next; what we instead need is to see how a whole bunch of minor characters in different parts of the world reacted to that big moment. I am just over halfway through the book now and it is yet to pick up the threads left at the end of the previous volume.
Why? Why is the author doing this to us? Why did he think this made for engaging, entertaining or important storytelling? It’s frustrating in the same way Jessica Jones was frustrating; because not only is it difficult, it’s impossible to see the value in it. It feels very much like I’m being punished, and I have no idea what for.
Ten books in, I can’t give up. I can’t be one of those people who puts down Wheel of Time and never finishes it. I’ve come too far to fail, but continuing is a grim proposition right now. I actually dread reading this book. I dread the frustration and the anger and the boredom that I get every time I try to struggle through another few pages. And I really hope the end is worth it, because this one book has been almost enough to undo all the goodwill the rest of the series built up.
So basically, any writers reading this, please make sure that whatever you choose to include in your story has a point. Please make sure it’s worth your audience’s time. Because somebody engaging with the story you’re trying to tell and choosing to spend their time on it is a special, precious thing that’s worth too much to waste on unnecessary bullshit.
When I was in high school I attended a talk by Jeff Lindsay, the author of the Dexter novels. Naturally at some point an audience member asked the mandated question that all these events endure at some point: “do you have any advice for aspiring writers?” Lindsay’s response, without missing a beat, was simply: “learn to weld”.
Of course, there were lots of laughs, but almost a decade later, his point has never felt more pertinent. Unless you’re a hotshot screenwriter or a bestselling author there is very, very little money in writing. And the truth is if you are making very, very little money writing then you are officially better off than almost every other writer on the planet.
A few months ago I was out with friends and told them I had to leave early due to having work in the morning. One of them scoffed that my job was writing stories – I could be hungover for that. At this I was presented with a strange dilemma. Obviously the job I was referring to was not writing anything, it was selling fireplaces and trying to look manly while driving a forklift, but this friend actually thought I made my living as an author. And I did not want to correct him. To do so would be to admit defeat, to reveal that as impressive as certain things seem, the depressing reality was that I still had to maintain a dull day job in order to eat.
Of course, being not a total wanker, I explained the truth to him. He was shocked; he thought I lived off Boone Shepard royalties. Fat chance. I get $2 per book, and while Boone has been doing very well for himself, you’d have to be selling an astronomical amount of books for that to translate into a reasonable income. Shortly after the release date I was doing a school talk in a small country town, after which I dropped by the local bookstore to see if they would stock Boone Shepard. They agreed to take a couple of copies, which I wasn’t about to complain over. Half an hour later I got a phone call; several kids from the school had come in asking for the book, as such they needed twenty more ASAP. So, feeling pretty good about myself, I headed back to the store, arms overflowing with books, thinking about how much money this would make, only to remember that if they all sold it would be exactly $40. Less money than I would make for two hours waiting tables or working in a bar.
There can be very good money in writing. There have been times I have been paid over a grand for three days of work. Once I got a similar amount for a job that took me roughly twenty minutes to do. But freelance work isn’t exactly consistent and while you can feel like a total king after one of those big paydays, they’re almost invariably followed by more months of rejection letters and frustrating day jobs.
But something has sort of shifted for me. Back in January I somehow managed to stumble on a couple of those bigger paydays. And then ever since then, more money has slowly come trickling in. A little from Boone, a little from Sanspants, a little from a youth theatre company doing one of my older plays, a little from Den of Geek and so on. And for the first time, I straight up haven’t been doing anything else for a living. Make no mistake; I am broke as balls and barely scraping by. But I am scraping by. Do I have a debt or two? Sure. Can I afford to eat out or go drinking? Not at all. Am I fare evading like a champion every time I take public transport? You bet. But I am happier than I have been in years because for the first time in my life, I’m surviving purely on writing work. For the first time in my life I feel like a straight up professional writer. And while I’ve got a long way to go before I am living as comfortably as I’d like to be, I’m alive, I’m doing what I love and I’m not doing much else.
The brutal reality is that the tiny modicum of money I’m bringing in is barely enough and doesn’t allow for any emergencies that may come up. The truth is that writing work being inconsistent means that the tiny trickle I’m surviving off could dry up in a heartbeat and leave me destitute. The responsible thing for me to do would be to go back to my day job and at least make sure I’m somewhat financially stable. Yet I’m finding it very hard to be responsible when I can be happy instead.
It would be fair to say that I listen to a potentially unhealthy amount of Bruce Springsteen. To the point where he probably constitutes roughly 60% of what I listen to in any given week. No matter how many times I hear them, I always find myself circling back to certain albums at certain times and never get bored (unless it’s High Hopes I’m listening to but to be fair I was bored of that the first time I heard it).
The last two weeks have been a whole other level, mostly because the last two weeks have coincided with the run of the Bruce Springsteen play I’ve been threatening to write for a few years now, along with his latest Australian tour. Add the rehearsal process and for a couple of months I have been living and breathing Bruce.
It has been a strange, thrilling, frustrating, special and deeply rewarding time. Coming into this project I had no idea how it would go down. Would the cast invest if they weren’t already Springsteen fans? Would the hardcore fans in the audience hate our less-than-glowing portrayal of the man and would the non-fans find it boring and inaccessible? Would the play drag due to the fact that it wasn’t a comedy or a twist-packed thriller?
Any of the above outcomes were foreseeable, but none of them came to pass. The cast took the material above and beyond, tirelessly researching and discovering their characters. In the process we ended up with one of the most close knit teams I’ve ever worked with. The final night was emotional for a lot of reasons, but chief among them was the huge amount of love this crew felt for each other and excitement at the prospect of taking this show to the next level.
As for the response, well it’s always hard to quantify just what the general reaction to a play is. But the reviews Springsteen got were great and multiple thrilled Facebook posts from Springsteen fans in addition to their demands to have photos taken with our lead actor at the end of the shows implied that we stumbled on something people seemed to really like. Obviously it’s a bit of a cheat when the subject matter is something certain people are already really passionate about, but the amount of fans who loved the play seemed only rivalled by the amount of people saying some variation of ‘I’m not a Springsteen fan but that was fantastic’. If I had to guess I would say that the commitment of the cast had a lot to do with this, making the stakes feel real and the characters more than just caricatures of actual people plenty of the audience would not be familiar with.
All through the rehearsal process uncertainty lingered, but there was definitely a sense that there was a bit of magic going on with this one. So many of our rehearsals were built around long, revealing discussions with each other about the very real emotions and experiences underpinning what we were exploring in any given scene. Over the months leading up to the shows there were more than a few raw, teary hours spent with each other as we got to the heart of what was going on here, with Bruce’s music providing a backdrop.
Being so focussed on this play added a whole new level to seeing the man himself last Thursday; the third Bruce concert I’ve ever been to. There was a really strange new sense of familiarity as he walked out on stage, a weird kinship all the way through that glorious three hour set. Absurdly, it was almost as though I knew him now, like I had a more personal connection than ever before. It was a feeling that seemed ridiculous until Bruce turned to his band and asked ‘are you with me?’ – perfectly mirroring the ending of our play. And that was a very, very special moment. A profound feeling of ‘man, we really got this right.’
Independent theatre can often feel like a thankless task – although, as I’ve said before, even calling it that feels inherently arrogant, like you’re expecting thanks for asking people to pay for stuff you’ve come up with in your spare time. But even so, that doesn’t eradicate the fact that it is a lot of work that usually results in a handful of people coming to see the show, a little bit of money in everyone’s pockets, and maybe a good review or two if you’re lucky. This show felt different. Every night was a full house, or else a few seats short or, in the case of our second week, well over capacity. The response across the board was glowing. The passion and love we were met with at the end of every show was enough to overcome any stress about the endless shit that the venue made us deal with. And while we have every intention of taking this play further, whether to a better Melbourne theatre or on a tour of some sort, if this first run was the end of it I would still feel totally satisfied with how it all went.
More than anything Springsteen felt like it represented another turning point for us as a company; proof that we can do something subtler and more character driven than most of our past work has been. I do wish we had put on more shows and tried to secure a better venue from the start, but ultimately I think we gave the audience their money’s worth. And more than that, I think that we pulled off something that everyone involved should be very, very proud of. Earlier in this blog I suggested that the play’s success was a bit of a cheat considering it was about a real person. That’s only half true. Being about Bruce Springsteen meant that we got people through the door, but had the play not been good, had everyone not been operating at a level that meant our portrayal of an icon was actually credible, it would have flopped hard and fast. If anything, the challenge was bigger than any we’ve done before. And, working together with the best team I could have asked for, we rose to that challenge and then some.
Writing words about writing words.