This is the second instalment in an ongoing series examining the lessons learned from early works. Read Part One here.
I’ve spoken before, always with a sense of mumbling embarrassment, about the project that followed Windmills in my final year of high school and first years of uni; a lengthy, rambling, novelised retelling of my teenage years. While writing it I would insist that this was either a no-holds-barred examination of growing up in Generation Y or else a Kerouac-esque act of artistic self-reflection, but let’s be real; it was a gigantic exercise in self-indulgence. I wanted to turn myself into the literal hero of my own story, so I did. I spent over two years on this and I am not proud of it.
I’ve always seen the clear importance of my early projects in moving me forward. The autobiographical thing, not so much. The only value I could see in it, apart from being a cautionary tale about self-involved wankerism, was as an object of personal nostalgia, the chance to read my teenage self’s account of being a teenager. But thinking back on it the other day, a different understanding started to emerge.
When you’re a teenager you tend to think good writing is having as many big words and pseudo-philosophical reflections as possible. This was absolutely true of the first versions of Windmills and Boone Shepard. But I couldn’t write my own story that way because that style wasn’t reflective of who I was (the lesson here is very obvious in hindsight). So instead, trying as best as I could to be true to real events and my feelings about them, I wrote something that was roughly in the territory of how actual teenagers think and speak.
And my entire writing style changed.
Not long after that project, I tried to write a kind of parallel sequel to Windmills, telling much of the same story from a side character’s perspective. Realising fast that this book did not work as its own narrative, I resolved to merge it with the original. But the new material was just too different to the old; in that the characters and narration sounded somewhat grounded as opposed to the work of an arts major clinging to a thesaurus. For all its apparent redundancy, the autobiographical project had killed my previous writing style and in its place left me with something far better – a naturalistic voice.
The shift was clear in my first play written exclusively for the stage; One Year Ago, a kind of comedic spin on The Butterfly Effect. Characters bantered. They swore a lot. They acted stupidly. They stumbled over their words and said the wrong things. When I decided in late 2011 to rewrite the entirety of the Windmills story I continued that approach; telling the same dark tale but with more humour and humanity. It still didn’t entirely work, but it showed that I could take an old piece of writing and apply new skills to improve it. Something I then attempted to repeat with absolutely no success by novelising Phoenix, a bad attempt at a generic post-apocalyptic web series I’d made just out of high school. For all its issues, Windmills had merit and meaning that could be built on. Phoenix, not so much. All the skills in the world don’t matter a lot if there isn’t any you in your stories.
Of course, it’s a balancing act. Around the same time I wrote a couple of plays that had the opposite problem. Hometown was a melancholic examination of my relationship with the town where I grew up, while Reunion was a frothy comedy that doubled as an expression of how much I missed my high school friends. Both were deeply personal. Neither offered a lot to audiences who weren’t, well, me. That said, there’s a lot I like about them. Hometown is a structural mess, but it’s also an occasionally nuanced exploration of how different people navigate the complicated relationship we all have with where we come from. But beyond its central themes, it represented the first major instance of what’s become a recurring element of my writing.
I needed a character to illustrate to my protagonist, the neurotic and pathologically nostalgic Charlie, the dangers of remaining fixated on the past. And given I’d just finished another version of Windmills in which a major subplot involved co-lead character Lucy Nicholson hiding out in a small town, it made sense that Lucy and Charlie could meet. Lucy has a significant role in Hometown, but the details of her vaguely alluded-to dark past would only be clear to the five people who read the self-published Windmills. Still, this was somewhat deliberate. I realised early on that as much as I enjoyed the extra time spent with Lucy, this was not her story. Her role here had to further Charlie’s arc rather than that of a totally different work.
In the context of Hometown, the specifics of Lucy’s past mattered less than the fact she was grappling with it. But if you were familiar with both Hometown and Windmills they’d enrich each other. The former would give more insight into Lucy’s choices in the latter, which in turn would give you the whole of her arc. It’s something I’ve basically been doing ever since, including rogue ex-cop Jack Carlin’s central appearances in The Pact, The Inheritance and The Consequence – which also features Windmills villain Dominic Ford.
There are a couple of reasons I do this. One is that I like the idea of multiple stories elevating each other even if they are fundamentally standalone (which I try to ensure they are). The other is more a matter of convenience – if I need a ruthless crime lord character, why come up with a new one when I can just borrow Dominic Ford? Hometown kicked off that logic for me and it immediately carried on into Reunion – Charlie was the central character of both.
For its part, Reunion felt almost embarrassing. I was ashamed of the fact that I had struggled to move on from my high school life and friends. I was ashamed that I was an ostensible adult still obsessing over my teenage years. I was, on some level, ashamed of the fact that those things ate at me enough to write a play about them, which made then directing said play a weird experience.
I was alternately defensive and dismissive of the script. I tried to act as though it was entirely fiction, as if anybody without Reunion’s exact themes on their mind would choose to write about them.
But late in the day something changed. Finn, one of the cast members, asked me outright why an audience should care about our characters. My initial response was a cavalier ‘they shouldn’t’ (because obviously the play was just a silly one note comedy not touching on anything more personal and anyone who believed otherwise was mistaken). But as I sat on the question, I started to see it less as an implicit insult and more as a challenge I was capable of meeting. I had an inkling that intense nostalgia bolstered by a conviction that you were happier in the past was not exclusive to me. What the characters were experiencing was, I suspected, universal enough that people might care.
At the next rehearsal I told the cast exactly that. I stopped writing the play off as something meaningless and saw it through to production with a newfound belief in it.
None of that is to suggest Reunion worked. I will always have a soft spot for it, but it very much belonged to the trial-and-error period of my writing life. More than anything it taught me that writing is a vulnerable vocation. If a story is worth telling it will almost always be because it’s raw and uncomfortable and you. Before Reunion, I was terrified of exposing anything too personal in my writing. Post Reunion – well, I’m still terrified, but I’m a little better at managing that terror.
This is the first instalment in an ongoing series examining the lessons learned from early works.
I would be very surprised if there was a writer in the world who didn’t experience imposter syndrome. Especially in the early stages of my career, I always had this deep-seated belief that the writers who were successful knew something I didn’t, that I was missing some crucial key to the craft but seeing as nobody was letting me in on the secret I’d have to keep pretending.
Of course there isn’t a secret, not really. The only thing that defines a writer is that they write.
The above might seem like a terrible oversimplification but I don’t think it is. I’ve known many, many people who tried to become writers by doing courses and whatnot while not spending much time actually writing. No matter what they learned, their work was never as good as the uneducated person who wrote whenever they could.
Sometimes I’ll go for a long walk and think back over everything I’ve ever written, from teenage attempts to my published novels. As chaotic as my writing history is, hindsight has allowed me to appreciate how every project I ever committed to advanced me slightly or more than slightly, even the ones that might have seemed like a step back.
So, going back to my first fumbling attempt at writing a novel, what did I learn?
My first finished book wasn’t much of a book. A very blatant attempt to rip off Saw, Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs all at once, I grappled with writing this through year nine, convinced that it would turn me into the next Thomas Harris overnight. Naturally it was an awkward, clunky, terribly written mess more fixated on imitating the stuff I found cool than exploring anything that was uniquely mine; but it was also a finished story and that, I found, changed the game. I’d always wanted to be an author but now I knew I could finish something, and weirdly that was enough – I never really looked at that book again or tried to explore publishing options. I just moved on and wrote more. A horror story that was brazenly emulating The Ring. A fantasy that I guess was a kind of attempt to do Tarantino in Middle Earth. A post-apocalyptic adventure with a central theme that could be summarised as ‘how cool are katanas?’ None of these had much of anything to them, none of them were personal or unique in any meaningful way. But that’s how you start. You look at the stories you love and you try to do what they do, like a kid imitating their parents. The best I can say for that early stuff is that maybe there was some very rudimentary experimentation in trying to mash up genres and techniques (the serial killer story, for example, was told out of order because I’d just seen Pulp Fiction), but ultimately they were surface level composites of badly imitated parts.
The first major turning point of my writing life came in early year ten. I wrote a story about a teenage boy struggling with the pressures of conformity who essentially starts a botched revolution with the help of his evil split personality. Yeah, I’d seen Fight Club around that time. But in writing it I could feel straight away that this was different, because for the first time I was telling a story that, derivative plot aside, was exploring ideas that mattered to me. Not with any nuance or finesse, but my own anger at feeling like I was constantly rejected, mocked and attacked for not fitting into comfortable social boxes spilled onto the page in glorious overwritten teenage melodrama. I posted chapters online and found a small audience. Which was so exciting that upon finishing I went straight into another story about the same character. And another. And another. In the end I wrote eight novelettes about my tortured teenage antihero Chris Hawkins. Maybe three of them were, by 2007 me standards, any good – those were the ones that used my own teenage anger and confusion as source material as opposed to the ones where I was just trying to write my own Skins or Cruel Intentions. And while I didn’t have the language to understand what I was doing at the time, there was an attempt to give them a melancholic, dreamlike feel where emotional logic trumped actual logic and everything had a heightened, almost operatic tinge to it. Of course, on the page it just came off as confused and unrealistic, but still, at least I tried.
I think maybe I’d started to understand that I had an individual voice and perspective at this point; not an especially developed or even interesting one, but one that was worth exploring. The next thing I wrote took that notion to the extreme; the first attempt at the Boone Shepard series. Those stories were chaos personified, full of amped up weirdness and silly humour that I tried to depict in a very ‘literary’ way with lots of flowery language and big words. They veered wildly from kid friendly comedy to extreme darkness, from wilful absurdity to terrible tragedy. They were bad. But they were also entirely me, for better or worse; reflective in every way of my burgeoning worldview and interests and preoccupations. Unfiltered, undisciplined and unrefined, but sometimes you have to push as far as you can to know when to pull back.
By my final year of high school, I was ready to try something darker than Boone and more realistic than Chris. It took me years to fully understand why that was; but I think the key lies in an encounter with the police during an underage drinking session in my hometown, an encounter in which I was terrified to the point of begging – essentially the kind of behaviour I would have loudly insisted to my friends I was braver than. The uncomfortable realisation that you don’t know how you’ll act in a difficult situation until you’ve been in that situation led directly to the first version of Windmills, the story that would come to dominate and define the next decade of my writing life.
What made Windmills special was that for the first time I was saying something relatively new with my writing, something that felt at odds with so many of the comfortable, good-defeats-evil stories I was used to. In Windmills the protagonist makes a bad choice, ends up in a moral dilemma, and then completely fails to do the right thing. Not because he’s a monster, but because he’s human and humans, even the mostly decent ones, often fail. Windmills had massive problems that got in the way of publication for years – some questionable plot points and resolutions, a tendency to jump wildly between genres and, in that first version, the kind of overwriting that only comes from way too much use of Microsoft Word’s synonyms function. But it also had something that none of my earlier stuff did; a point.
I knew, writing Windmills, that I had something. It would take years before the story became good enough to prove that to the world. But through writing it a truth became consolidated in my head, erasing just a tiny bit of my imposter syndrome; I had something to say and I was getting better at saying it. From then on everything else took a back seat. I was going to be a writer.
Writing words about writing words.