I think it was Stephen King (although I’m not sure) who compared writing to an act of excavation. Imagine a story like a buried dinosaur skeleton; upon discovery you have an idea of what it might be, but you have to keep chipping away in order to unearth it fully. Every new discovery gives a different context to what we think we’re looking at. Sometimes those new discoveries come years after we think we’ve unearthed the whole thing. Sometimes we get the whole thing on the first attempt. As a metaphor, it’s about as accurate as any. Smaller stories require smaller digs, bigger stories can take years.
While plays like Heroes or The Critic were easy digs, yielding a pretty good product after one or two attempts, they were never especially complex stories. Windmills and Boone Shepard, on the other hand, are both examples of stories that took several years and multiple attempts to see clearly. And it’s still hard to be sure if I’ve gotten them right.
In the case of Boone it’s a moot point; two novels have been published and a TV option has been signed. If I suddenly stumble on a new and definitive interpretation in a year’s time then, well, bad luck. The version that’s out in the world is the version people are going to get. It’s just lucky that I’m still pretty happy with that version.
Windmills, on the other hand, has never quite ignited the way I hoped it would, and I honestly think that’s for the best. It’s a big, tangled, complicated story of human failings and the domino effects they cause, spanning years and many different perspectives. Last night I finished a new draft of Windmills, and my personal suspicion is that this is as close as it’s going to get to what it needs to be.
There are a few reasons for this, and to fully understand them I had to think back on how this story began and how it got to where it is now. So, in the interests of transparently charting my process for those who might be interested, I wanted to write something about how this story developed and how, eventually, I unearthed something I think is worth being proud of.
The idea for Windmills first came to me in 2009 when I was watching a play about abortion. It wasn’t a great show and there was lots of discussion about the morals of having kids if you’re not ready for them and in the middle of this my mind wandered and suddenly an idea struck me. Imagine a wild high school party. Imagine two teenagers, drunk off their heads and maybe with a couple of other illicit substances in their systems, have sex. Imagine he remembers it and she doesn’t. Now imagine the boy has a publishing contract and a sterling reputation he doesn’t want to compromise, so he says nothing. Then it turns out the girl is pregnant.
Now let’s sprinkle in some new factors. The cruel setting of a judgemental Catholic school. A witness to the tryst who has reason to hurt the parties involved. Highly religious parents of the girl stopping her from having an abortion. Morality, choices, regret, corruption; all of these classic themes start to naturally filter through the conflicts established and suddenly we have a fucking story on our hands.
I wrote the first draft of Windmills fast. I was strongly influenced by The Kite Runner and There Will be Blood; I loved the idea of youthful rivalries and conflicts echoing through the years until they finally reached their conclusion when the characters are bitter adults haunted by their mistakes. But as I began to excavate I learned new things. The protagonist Leo Grey had a hedonistic best friend, Ed, who I kept wondering about. So a huge central part of the novel became devoted to Ed, a narrative detour that had little to do with the central plot but just felt like it needed to be there.
Being seventeen, the manuscript I ended up with wasn’t great. But at the time it was the best thing I’d ever written and I was proud enough to suggest it as a play to the youth theatre company I was involved with in my first year of university. They took it on, I adapted the book into a script and suddenly I wasn’t the only person invested in this story. With the cast I explored deeper and learned new things and this time it wasn’t Ed who caught my interest but Lucy, the main character’s girlfriend. She had been a minor character in the first draft and the play, but I was sure there was more to her.
So, coming off the play, I did something a little strange. I wrote a sequel in the form of a novel called Lucy, a book that essentially depicted the events of Windmills from her perspective, filling in narrative gaps and showing another side to a previously one note character. As a novel, Lucy was slow and narratively unsatisfying. As a character study, it was a goldmine.
I went back to Windmills shortly after, certain that the key to unlocking the potential of the story was Lucy. I mashed the two novels together, thinking the story would now work as a big epic saga jumping between multiple perspectives.
It did not.
Two books forced into one ended up being about as much of a mess as you’d expect. There were multiple climaxes, jarring shifts in time and character, and generally the fact that they were never meant to be the same book was painfully obvious. Undeterred, I kept working at it, editing, polishing, rewriting, until the point where I realised one of the big issues was the fact that, in 2011 I was simply a much better writer than I had been in 2009 making for some inconsistency between the various parts of the book.
So I started again. I scrapped everything and wrote Windmills again, this time incorporating some of the elements of Lucy, albeit in a way that felt more natural and cohesive. And for the most part it worked. So many late nights and early mornings hunched over that laptop in my Swanston St apartment, all of my new experiences as a broke uni student making much of the post school part of the narrative far more authentic than they ever had been before. When I finished this version of Windmills I was sure I’d gotten it right. So sure, in fact, that I went ahead and self-published it through a Melbourne Uni service that tended to result in lumpy, ugly books that even a bargain bin would be ashamed to accept.
But I didn’t see it like that. In my head I was a published author now, and in my limited way I enjoyed the success. In book form more friends seemed willing to read Windmills and the general consensus was really positive. I was on top of the world.
And so, in 2012, for the first time I felt like I was done with Windmills. It sat on my bookshelf, people had read it, and so I started to move on. See in the years since my finishing high school, while I had worked on other ideas, Windmills eclipsed them all. Maybe the minor satisfaction of cheaply self-publishing a novel was enough to at least briefly silence the insistent voice that this story deserved more, so I put Windmills behind me and wrote new things. I co-founded Bitten By Productions, wrote a whole pile of plays, wrote a couple of novels and generally became far more prolific than ever before because for the first time I wasn’t held back by a single minded obsession with one story.
Then in 2013 I returned to another old high school effort of mine and, over a year and a half, wrote the five Boone Shepard novels. In between I worked on a few plays and generally my output remained varied but consistent.
In all this time Windmills never quite went away. I would occasionally entertain ideas for a sequel, but none of them ever grabbed me enough to actually write them. I had a lot of fun with occasionally dropping in references or cameos in my other work, but with the exception of a couple of short stories about the characters of Ed and Charlotte, Windmills remained very much in the rearview mirror. I even mentioned in several blog posts about how done with that story I was. I was proud of where it had ended up, and that pride allowed me to move on.
But see, you can’t really move on from a story when there’s more story to tell. The other day a friend suggested a new version of my futuristic Babylon trilogy and I was taken aback by this because I hadn’t even thought about Babylon in ages. In those years away from Windmills it was always there, even if it wasn’t dominating my thoughts. There was always a niggling sense that there was more to say.
It’s hard to say what made me write a sequel. Maybe part of it was the fact that, by late 2014, I had finished the Boone Shepard books and needed something new to work on. Maybe it was just where I was in my life. Maybe it was that those characters had rested long enough for me to have the fresh outlook that I needed. But at the end of that year an idea came to me and, almost on a whim, I started writing. And that writing snowballed; suddenly I was churning out thousands of words a day. Windmills was all I could think about, and what was more, there was a passion and energy to this new manuscript that my work had not had in so long. Still to this day ‘Untitled Windmills Sequel’ might be the best thing I’ve ever written, and barely anyone has even read it.
It was a weird project; a follow up to a self-published novel that had zero potential of finding an audience by itself, but I think the reason it worked was that I was really writing it for myself. And by the time it was done I was more immersed in this world than I ever had been before. So I had a brainwave; during my Masters of Screenwriting at VCA I had been working on a few different projects I wasn’t all that passionate about, so why not scrap those and, in the final months of the course, work on Windmills?
It seemed a no brainer, but man, you should have seen the smirks and rolled eyes I got from every direction when I excitedly told people about it. By this point it had become a running joke that I couldn’t let go of Windmills and as such it was hard to imagine anyone else being excited about me having another go at telling that story. It still is.
But I persevered anyway, adapting Windmills into a TV show pilot, and it was the best choice I ever made. Because in mid 2015, around the time I finished my Masters, I entered that pilot in a certain international screenwriting competition and then Windmills, the project everyone said I should have let go of, the one story I had been unable to move on from, the title that had become a punchline for my unhealthy obsessions, got me a ticket to the International Emmys and changed my life.
I’ve written at length before about how my pride in winning the Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award stemmed more from the fact that it was Windmills that won than myself; a definitive vindication for all those years of fixation. For the first time I had a real, tangible reason to believe in Windmills beyond my own conviction that it would eventually go somewhere.
But in the months after winning the Ustinov, as various TV production companies looked at Windmills, a big problem with the text that I had always ignored became a gigantic Achilles heel. While the first part of Windmills (the part depicted in the TV pilot) took place in a high school, the rest followed the characters into their adult lives, and so the first question anybody asked was what this story was supposed to be; a dark young adult drama that swiftly follows the characters into maturity or an adult drama that starts in a high school? I didn’t really have an answer and so Windmills just sort of languished. The strength of the pilot was not in dispute; it was the rest of the story I now had to sell people on.
But then, just as in the wake of self-publishing the previous version, winning the Ustinov was satisfaction enough for me to, at least for a time, let sleeping Windmills’ lie. Besides, between Boone Shepard getting properly published, my theatre company going from strength to strength, and my podcast actually bringing me some degree of worldwide recognition, it was hard to feel too much like I needed to keep working on Windmills. Life was busy and I had other things to think about.
I mentioned before that the metaphor of a story as a dinosaur skeleton being unearthed is a good one, but that’s not entirely true. A dinosaur skeleton won’t bother you if you decide to leave it. A story left unfinished or yet to reach its potential will buzz around in your head until finally you have to do something about it.
It started with re-addressing the pitch for the TV show. I drastically overhauled the plot outline, shuffling events around so that the bulk of the story now took place in high school, with only the very end happening after a time jump. Then, in a moment of luck that I’m very thankful for, 13 Reasons Why came out and proved that a dark story set in a high school could work. And so, at the start of this year, realising that selling the TV show would be easier if there was a good novel behind it, I made the entirely mercenary decision to write Windmills the book again, using the TV pilot and ensuing season outline as my guide.
And then, just to briefly return to the dinosaur skeleton metaphor, something magical happened. Because despite the fact that certain parts of the story felt a little dull due to the sheer amount of times I had already written them, other parts found new significance and meaning. The high school focus contextualized a lot of the story in ways that made more sense than previously, while the decision to write in third person instead of first meant that certain characters who had previously been left out in the cold developmentally finally got their dues. And as I wrote old plot holes were fixed and questions I had deliberately ignored were naturally answered by the changes I made, telling me that this was the shape the story had always needed to take.
And so, coming in at 80,000 words, Windmills 3.0 (7.0 if you count the various sequels and theatre/TV adaptions) was finally finished last night. There will doubtless be work to be done; edits and rewrites and all the rest. But more than ever before this feels like the best possible version of Windmills, if only because I’m pretty certain I just don’t have it in me to write this story again. For the first time I feel like I’ve effectively mined every character and subplot to bring them to their best possible self. Already there has been some interest from some heavy hitters, but we’ll see what happens. Although, to be honest, I feel like if this version of Windmills doesn’t find the audience I’m hoping for then no version ever will. And if that’s the case, well hey, at least I gave it more than a red hot go. And at least in the eight years I have spent with this story, writing and rewriting and re-interpreting and then doing it all again, I know that I have become a much better writer than I was when I first set out to tell this story. That alone has made it all worth it.
If nothing else, at least that skeleton is finally completely unearthed.
My mantra for a long time now has been ‘busy is better than bored’, because, frankly, it’s true. For the last couple of years I’ve been working through a fairly consistent stream of projects, and it’s been great; a wonderful change from those horrible times when I’ve had nothing to focus on or look forward to. But of course, busyness does come with certain difficulties, the primary one being that it’s very hard to strike a balance.
The last few days have been extremely tiring for me. We had a two day intensive workshop on my new play, The Commune, we had a one off performance of Heroes at Voltaire, in the middle of the play’s ongoing successful One Act Play Circuit run, we had a staged reading of my friend Sean Carney’s excellent screenplay Slowly, Slowly for charity and through it all I’ve had to review the new season of BoJack Horseman, which, by the way, I’m in no way complaining about. I just wish I’d had more time to enjoy my advance screeners.
Meanwhile other projects have ticked along in the background. I’m still working on the new version of Windmills, which seems to be going well, but keeping myself in the world of that story has meant that I haven’t been able to give as much time to my other commitments, namely Boone Shepard, which has been undergoing some exciting developments that I’m not totally at liberty to discuss yet. And none of this is mentioning Movie Maintenance, which has another live show next week that I am not remotely prepared for. Not to mention a show in Sydney in November. Oh yeah, and I’m going to Scotland next month at the same time as the Movie Maintenance crew publishes our horror novella anthology Seasons of Fear and rehearsals start for Moonlite, my first foray into musical theatre.
It’s brilliant, of course, that so much is happening. Having exciting and fulfilling stuff going on makes me feel alive in a way that little else does, and it’s hard to believe that as recently as last year I somehow managed to maintain a day job on top of the things I was doing. At this point in time that just wouldn’t be feasible anymore, which I guess means that I’ve officially crossed the threshold into being a full time writer. And to think I once thought it would be so easy.
But in all of this I have to remember to breathe. Creative success hardly means very much if you’ve got no-one to share it with, and I’ve been lucky enough this year to be surrounded by brilliant friends and a wonderful girlfriend. I used to always say that my writing was the priority and that everything else came second, but if there’s one major lesson I’ve learned it’s that you have to make time for both. In his autobiography Born to Run Bruce Springsteen warns the reader that no matter how hell bent you might be on whatever your creative pursuit of choice is, ‘life trumps art; always.’ When I was younger I had this idea that to be a great writer meant sacrificing everything for the dream. But without those personal connections around you, the dream starts to look awfully hollow and for the first time I think I’ve started to understand that I can be the writer I want to be and also make time for the people I love. I guess I’d never realised before that I believed otherwise, because I’d never really thought about it. But when you finally feel like you have a reason to live in real life more than in your art, it becomes pretty hard to think differently.
So yeah. Learn to balance. Make room for both. Because you can do it and you’ll be happier for it.
Writing words about writing words.