I am immensely proud of my first novel.
That probably seems like a given, but I rarely remain happy with anything I’ve written two years after the fact. I write so much so consistently that improvement, however incremental, is inevitable. Therefore it becomes even more inevitable that I will look back at works that are not that old and shudder. Even fairly recent pieces like Below Babylon and Hometown seem kind of embarrassing to me now.
But Windmills, my self-published first novel, has remained immune to that. Part of that is down to sentimentality, part of it is down to the fact that the process of putting that book together was so exhaustive, such a full time job, that admitting any flaws in it is pretty much impossible for me. I started writing Windmills in early 2009, it went to print in mid-2012, and in between I barely let up on writing, re-writing, editing, writing sequels, writing a version for theatre, writing short stories about the characters and then mashing the whole lot together and re-writing it all into a cohesive whole. Windmills was my life for three years. There were other projects in that time, but nothing that consumed me the same way. Nothing has ever consumed me like Windmills did, before or after. I look at that book now and I see those years of my life, from the end of high school to uni, boiled down into those pages. I see the ideas that interested me, the people that were in my life, the things that happened to me, the emotions I felt in one form or another permeating those pages. I see characters I got to know over years of intense development, and a plot that I reworked until it emerged at its best.
Maybe this sounds conceited, but sometimes I marvel at how good Windmills is. There are layers to the story and characters that I don’t think anything else I’ve done has come close to achieving. Even the structure and pacing of the thing is great. It moves quickly and never gets bogged down with filler. Quite simply, it is a good and propulsive read. Even today when I pick it up to flick through it I find myself gripped by a story that I know better than any other.
But I’m still not satisfied. I look at that book and I think, what happens next? Appreciating that Windmills has a fairly conclusive ending that wraps up the entire plot, there is an undeniable sense of menace hanging over the last few pages. Maybe that’s because the protagonist orchestrates the murder of an innocent man and burns another one alive, but by Windmills standards that’s fairly par for the course. No, the menace I speak of is the feeling I have never been able to shake, the feeling that when Leo and Lucy drive away from their violent victory at the end, they are headed toward something darker.
I believe in resolution in stories. By which I mean, the bad guys do not get away unscathed. They don’t have to die, but they cannot win wholesale. Sure, that’s a very exciting and modern prospect in writing, but unconventional does not mean good. Letting the bad guy win is usually just cheating. In Windmills I more or less got away with it because the bad guys happen to be the protagonists; the audience just never realised how awful they truly were until that final page. And as a writer I’m sitting and laughing at my poor, unsuspecting readers for daring to like these two horrible, broken, monstrous people who have just done something unforgivable. But now I’m realising that I will not be truly happy with the story until I’ve seen them get what they deserve.
It’s pretty sadistic, especially considering I love Leo and Lucy like my own children. But that does not mean they deserve to get out of there. The more I look at the ending of Windmills, the more I see the opening for a new story. And the more I chase this vague notion down the rabbit hole, the more I realise how dark things will get if I keep following it. The other night, on a late night bus driving through the snowy trees down Mt Buller, I thought about the implications of revisiting Leo and Lucy. And suddenly I felt really, horribly scared. Because I realised exactly how this has to end if I decide to follow it through. And after years of letting these characters rest with a vague sense of unfinished business, knowing what will happen if I see them again is terrifying.
I don’t think Windmills needs a sequel. I think overall it is a strong standalone story. And I would hesitate to write a follow up for fear of diminishing what I consider to be my best creative achievement. But I can’t shake this feeling that there is a story waiting to be told about Leo and Lucy; a story heavy with dark inevitability. It’s making me feel conflicted, because while the idea of stepping back into the twisted world of Windmills is undeniably exciting, the knowledge of where it has to go makes me want to avoid the whole thing.
Not that that will ever stop me.
Everyone loves being told they’re amazing.
Anybody with a modicum of modesty will probably deny it. I personally get really uncomfortable with praise. I mean, I love hearing it, but I also never know quite how to react without seeming like a total idiot. It’s always tricky because you don’t want to undo that goodwill with any hint of arrogance. Maybe it all just comes down to wanting to be liked.
The thing is, I am generally pretty good with criticism, as far as my writing goes. After one of the performances of Below Babylon I had a chat to a good friend of mine, who asked if I wanted his opinion as a friend or as a highly critical media teacher. I asked for the latter and while he proceeded to deconstruct the script and point out a lot of flaws, I felt neither defensive nor offended. Constructive criticism, no matter how brutal, is only ever a good thing for a writer. It helps you get better, even if it stings a little at first.
But sometimes you get circumstances that are just awful. Yesterday, along with my cast and producer, I took my latest play, Beyond Babylon, to a one act play festival. From the start this was probably not a great idea; the festival was in a rural town and most of the other plays were quaint little community or youth theatre shows. Ours is a brutal, nihilistic thriller about the sanctity of human life, or lack thereof. Probably not what the generally 80-plus crowd was expecting. Anyway, the play went off without a hitch and I was very proud of how it came together. By all reports the audience were on tenterhooks the whole time and you could have heard a pin drop in that room.
Then we spoke to the adjudicator.
I honestly would not have minded if he had torn the play to shreds, called it a piece of shit and sent us out of there. I would have liked good feedback, but generally all I wanted was some helpful words about what worked and what didn’t work. What I neither wanted nor was prepared for was the blatant condescension with which he treated my cast and me. As someone who has been writing non stop since I was fourteen, who has had seven plays produced and has never stopped working on getting better, having this man turn to me and, in an almost pitying way tell me that ‘you’re still young mate’ and ‘writing plays isn’t easy’ was not what I needed. It made me feel like my work did not warrant being taken seriously, that I was just a kid who tried to write a play and put it on, without much success. This man seemed to think that I needed unquestioning consolation, not good, helpful feedback. And that says more than any spoken criticism. That is legitimately upsetting.
I have never doubted myself as a writer. I know I have flaws that need ironing out, as does everyone, but it has been a long time since I felt I was not being taken seriously. This man made me feel that way, and it was horrible. And yeah, it’s easy to write that off as being one person’s opinion, and it’s easy to just brush it off as being the inconsequential result of a small town festival, but it really did hurt. It was more than a criticism of my play; it was an implicit criticism of me as a writer and a person. It made me feel like an arrogant upstart who had no business taking my work to festivals and competitions. It made me feel like my output isn’t worth putting on stage.
I know Beyond Babylon is good. It’s short and sharp, it boasts two incredible central performances, it is tense and it is full of shifts in power and dynamic as well as reveals about the characters that are constantly changing what you think you know about them. It has one of the best twists I have ever written and some of my strongest dialogue. It deserves to be taken seriously, even if taking it seriously means you don’t like it.
As a writer and yes, as an artist I do not want or need your condescension. It’s not going to help me get any better and it certainly won’t make me stop doing what I’m doing. It’s just really unpleasant. And if that is all you have to offer me in lieu of legitimate criticism, then quite frankly you can fuck off. My work is not for you. Save it for somebody who has something interesting to say about it.
Just some thoughts.