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.
Writing words about writing words.