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.
Writing words about writing words.