By anyone’s estimation I write a lot and I write fast. I’m proud of this, and I became especially so after hearing a lot of people commenting on the fact. Over time however, I started to believe this weird internal narrative that I was only worthwhile if I wrote at least a thousand words every single day. If I failed to do so, I was somehow letting myself down, putting paid to the perception of how amazingly prolific I was. The blank page became increasingly worrying, an indication that I was a fraud, that maybe I wasn’t as overflowing with good ideas as I wanted the world to think I was. If I went a few days without writing, well, that was a bad sign.
There were other factors in this clearly stupid degree of self-expectation. Namely that I’m always happiest and most fulfilled when I’m working on some kind of story. It follows that if I’m always writing, I’ll always be happy, right?
That happiness comes only partly from the satisfaction of having written a large amount. In reality, it’s predominantly the thrill of working on something that excites you, something that you can’t stop thinking about, that you’re so keen to share with the world when it finally starts to look ready. And for a story to achieve that quality, to be the kind of thing that fixates and energises you, it needs time to be discovered.
Earlier this year I went through a stretch of not doing very much writing. So I did this dumb thing that I’ve done several times before and has never once worked; I started writing something that I had no clear conception of. I well and truly know by now how my process works, but at least once a year some stupid little voice in my brain says ‘hey why don’t we do things differently’ and so instead of spending time thinking about a story until I can actually feel it, I put fingers to keyboard, write about two or three thousand words of directionless waffle, and inevitably give up. Because hey, writing something is better than that blank page, right?
The story in question was Madison’s Masterpiece, my idea for a sequel to Nelson and the Gallagher that takes the perspective of a supporting character from the other book and makes her the centre of her own story. In this case, I knew enough about what I saw the book being to write 20,000 words. Which is far from nothing! Maybe, I thought, this time the change in process will actually work.
Then I read over what I had written. Or at least, I tried.
For context, writing Nelson and the Gallagher was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as an author and it’s maybe my favourite thing I’ve ever written. It’s a deeply personal work of semi-autobiographical YA fiction that I’m so proud of, a feeling that only grew when HarperCollins picked it up for publication. I strongly feel that Nelson is very close to what I wanted it to be – a funny, wistful coming of age story about empathy and self-discovery. Note that key phrase – what I wanted it to be. I had at least a vague vision for the book before I started writing.
Then there’s Madison’s Masterpiece. In stark contrast, what I had written was not funny, not charming, not interesting; an ultimately pointless piece of writing. It wasn’t trying to say or be anything. It existed because I wanted to write something, not because I had something to write. I couldn’t even finish reading over the material I had.
With Nelson being signed for a two-book deal, I do need a follow up. But I started to think maybe Masterpiece wasn’t the right idea. I didn’t scrap it, but I put it on the backburner and began to toy with some of the other ideas I’d had that had ultimately fizzled out, concepts for more traditional sequels that followed Nelson in further semi-autobiographical exploits. None of them grabbed me. I didn’t want to write a series of fictionalised events from my own life (I did enough of that as a teenager). I wanted to use Nelson’s story as a platform for a series of novels set in a county high school that each take on a different character’s perspective. Basically, I wanted to write the YA version of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series.
Day after day I’d go for walks and let the different sequel concepts cycle through my head. And always, Madison’s Masterpiece floated to the top. There was something there, I just hadn’t let myself find it before I started writing. I knew what the plot of the story was. I even knew some of the themes. What I didn’t know was the soul of the thing.
So, coming home to Mansfield for Christmas, I decided to focus on Madison’s Masterpiece. But not to write – to think. To go for long walks past the locations that inspired parts of the story and let it all play out in my head, to consider characters and ideas and plot points then see if, through it all, something clear would emerge. Something that would give me a foundation to work from, that would make me love writing this as much as I loved its predecessor.
I don’t believe you can create a story from scratch. There has to be something there to start from; an emotion, a thought, an idea that you’re itching to explore. So I went over the moments that always popped into my head when I thought about the book, the scenes I could see with at least some clarity. And from them, something started to build. Mental dominoes fell and obvious solutions that had previously eluded me appeared with ease. Finally, yesterday, I had a run at a rough chapter outline. And as I did, I felt the flicker of something warm and urging in my chest that always accompanies the stories I really want to tell. I thought about Madison’s Masterpiece as a follow up to Nelson and the Gallagher and for the first time I saw them as potential equals.
It wasn’t, in the end, that I made any massive changes to the plot I already had. It was that I took the time to discover the little things that would give the books its heart and soul. And when, yesterday, I decided to try writing the first chapter, it flowed with ease.
That’s not to say it’s all smooth sailing from here, or that I’m totally in synch with what the book has to be. It’s more that breathing room has given me a lot more confidence that this is the story I want to tell next, that there is something emotionally real at the heart of it that can have the same importance to me as Nelson did, even if it’s not as directly based on personal experience.
The time you spend thinking about a story is just as valuable – occasionally more so – than the time you actually spend writing it. Because without those hours of what ultimately amounts to daydreaming, how can you be sure this is worth your time? And more to the point, the time of readers?
Apart from an annual retrospective of what my theatre company has been up to, I don’t tend to write yearly summaries here. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done it before. Partly because I’ve never thought to and partly due to a vague superstition that announcing the glowing quality of the preceding twelve months of your life will consign the next twelve to grim mediocrity (don’t ask me why, it’s dumb). But given everything that’s happened in 2019, given the massive change in my life that it has signified, I wanted to write something about what this year has meant. Largely so I can arrange my own thoughts on it.
Last year, a comment on one of my blog posts pointed out a recent pattern in my writing that I’d had no idea was there. This person suggested that with short stories like Stars or Empty Orchestra I’d been writing a lot about false success, about characters who delude themselves into believing that they’ve achieved a lifelong dream in order to stave off the grim reality that they’re not even close.
I tend to think I have a pretty good handle on the themes I explore in my stories, by which I mean that I’m able to identify and develop them, but those short stories were clear cases of my having no idea until it was pointed out to me. And when it was, I didn’t know how to react. I wanted to argue. But the twisting feeling in my gut made it very clear that this person was right. I was writing about false success because on some level that was how I saw myself.
For my age, I had done a lot worth being proud of. Three published novels, plays produced interstate and overseas, several years of heading up a reasonably popular podcast, a major screenwriting award. And I was proud. I used those achievements to secure confidence in myself that I was doing well, that my writing career was well underway and I could see myself as a relative success.
But there was a needling undercurrent of feeling like an absolute failure. I couldn’t make any film or TV production companies take notice of me. The Boone Shepard books were doing okay-ish, but they hadn’t blown up in a way that would allow me to really see myself as a working author. Even the best of my plays still struggled to find audiences. I made money writing, but doing so meant taking on so many depressing freelance gigs for such a pittance that honestly, I might have been better off bartending again. I would have dreams about the shining success and validation I’d always wanted then wake up to the reality; I was barely getting by financially and my creative projects, when they didn’t stall outright, more often than not were met with a shrug.
I’m aware I’ve said a lot of this before, but I wanted to reiterate at least briefly to underline just how massive the change in circumstances this year was.
Again, I’ve spoken more extensively in other blogs about this. But at the start of this year there was no way I could have imagined the extent of what was about to happen. In January The Trial of Dorian Gray became my most successful play ever; selling out, extending, then selling out again. Four of my books sold to HarperCollins, two adult thrillers, two YA dramedies. Translation rights to The Hunted sold in multiple overseas territories. Film rights were acquired by a major LA company now actively developing with a view to shoot scarily soon. I was lucky enough to write the screenplay. I was flown to Sydney for several paid writer’s rooms. I’ve been commissioned to write the pilot for an in-development horror show that could (provided I haven’t screwed it up) be really awesome. I went to LA for a week of meetings and pitches leading to several ongoing discussions. Any one of these things could have been life changing alone. Any one could have turned 2019 into the most exciting year of my life.
Most of the time, none of it feels real. I mean, I know it is. I’m getting the flights, taking the meetings and for the first time in my adult life I’m financially stable. I’m currently looking at the beautiful first advance copies of The Hunted, complete with the little HarperCollins insignia on the spine. But how can you possibly adjust your mindset to a new reality that looks a lot like every single one of your long-held dreams is coming true? In rare moments that reality hits home and I find myself bursting into uncontrollable giggles. But the majority of the time I remain consumed by the same old anxieties, doubts and insecurities I’d always had. What if it all falls apart? What if everyone responsible for what’s happened realises they’ve made a mistake? What if, what if, what if.
What if it all works out?
The other day I was having a drink with an actor friend of mine who told me that, for the first time in his life, he’s started to enjoy auditions. I asked him why and he said that it’s simply because he’s learned to be content with knowing that he’s done the best job he could. He no longer questions every decision and interrogates where he’s messed up. He goes in, does his best, and leaves knowing that if he doesn’t get the part, it’s not because he screwed up somehow. If he’s right for it, it will work.
Creatives tend to capitulate to the inner critic way too much, that nagging voice whispering those what ifs and perpetually prodding you with doubts about how you handled any given situation or opportunity. But if you know you tried, really tried, then that inner critic has nothing of value to contribute. You can’t do any more than what you can.
I don’t know what will happen next, or what 2020 looks like. I hope for the best, of course, but I can’t really expect or anticipate beyond knowing that I’ll continue to work as hard as I can to keep this train on the tracks.
What I know is this; I worked hard to get here. Really fucking hard. I stumbled and I failed and I screwed up. I worked dreary hospitality and sales jobs for nearly a decade while writing in my spare time. I put every bit of writing I could out in the world and when they didn’t do well, I interrogated why and changed my approach. And what 2019 proves, beyond doubt, is that it was possible all along. That I wasn’t deluded. It took me a decade; more, really. But I got here.
See you in 2020.
Sequels are rare in theatre, and for good reason. In film, it’s not uncommon for a first instalment that didn’t do well to get a follow up because people discovered it later via home media. In theatre, unless you’re a big fan of grainy recordings with bad sound, that option isn’t really there. Short of your play being a genuinely massive hit, there’s probably not much point doing a part two.
I learned this with the Babylon Trilogy – an ambitious but very flawed early project from the fledgling Bitten By Productions. Over 2014 and 2015 we produced three sequential plays; Below Babylon, Beyond Babylon and The Last Supper, all crime stories set in a post-apocalyptic future exploring the gradual collapse of an empire from the inside, utilising recurring characters and rippling consequences across the three plays. I was aware at the time that we couldn’t expect any audience members to have seen the preceding instalments and ergo each play had to be both a standalone and a single chapter in a grander story. My fix was to include lengthy recapping monologues in the second and third plays that bogged both down with exposition.
The sweet spot to theatre sequels is to aim for works that complement but aren’t beholden to each other. Think Martin McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy; three separate stories set in the same town packed with subtle references and set-ups but never relying on the audience having seen the other shows. Together they create a melancholy portrait of a decaying town where desperation and resentment curdles into violence. Separately, each play is a funny, sad, shocking gothic drama in its own right.
I was trying to achieve something similar with Babylon (at the time McDonagh was unquestionably my idol) but every play was directly informed by the one beforehand and I struggled to get around this in an elegant way. The Babylon Trilogy was a massive learning curve, but I’m the first to admit it was too big too early.
As of last week, I’ve tried again. Of all the scripts I could write a sequel to, The Lucas Conundrum (now available from Australian Plays) isn’t an obvious one. Produced in 2016, it was neither a massive hit (critically or commercially) or based on a known quantity that might justify a return to the well. It was a vicious, foul mouthed satire of blockbuster filmmaking written as a way to essentially comment on the state of Star Wars. It wasn’t my best work and would have been largely forgotten even by me if the cast and crew hadn’t done such an exemplary job bringing it to life.
It’s rare that I see a production of one of my scripts and am genuinely surprised. Conundrum was one of those cases. Ashley Tardy and her cast of four – Greg Caine, Alicia Beckhurst, Chris Grant and Angelique Malcolm – took a mean and immature text and imbued it with layers of pathos, warmth and heart that utterly elevated the material. To this day, both my parents still say it’s their favourite of all my shows. Most people who bring it up do so with a smile and a fond chuckle. It wasn’t a huge hit, but it was well liked and that was entirely down to the team who brought it to life. Thanks to them, it staked an unexpected claim in my heart.
Over the few years since that show, the blockbuster landscape has become more embattled and to me, more interesting. We’ve seen so many classic franchises brought back; sometimes with fanfare, sometimes with a shrug, and sometimes to be met with incandescent outrage from ‘fans’ who insist that the thing they love has been damaged beyond repair. The era of toxic fandoms and nostalgia fuelled reboots seemed ripe for a theatrical exploration, and the world and characters established in The Lucas Conundrum felt appropriate to provide the basis for the work. The idea started to percolate. Then, upon realising at the start of last week that I’d met all my deadlines and had a rare stretch of actual days off, I thought I might give it a go. I started writing on Tuesday. I finished Thursday afternoon. And I ended up with something I was really happy with.
The premise, essentially, is an imagined conversation between George Lucas and J.J. Abrams in a dive bar. What would they say to each other? Would the Lucas analogue have any respect for the man who took over his story? Would there be resentment that Abrams’ film was, at least initially, far better received than Lucas’ prequels? How would the Abrams analogue respond to the withering contempt of the man he once idolised? Then what happens if Rian Johnson joins the party?
Obviously the play is not about those real directors or, technically, Star Wars. To tell a story that I can’t get sued for I used Robert Stone, the vainglorious but deeply insecure protagonist of The Lucas Conundrum and his fake franchise to play out this little ‘what if’. Like Conundrum, it centres on a somewhat philosophical debate about artistic integrity and legacy, all building to a twist that pivots the story and leads to a chaotic (and hopefully funny) finale.
It’s very much its own story, with only one vague reference to the events of Conundrum. That said, for all that it stands alone I think it does further the themes of Conundrum and Robert’s journey, leaving him in a place that, to me, feels like the logical conclusion to an arc that began in the previous play. If you watched both back to back you’d get more out of them than if you watched them in isolation, but I don’t think Betrayal would suffer from a lack of familiarity with Conundrum. Realistically, it can’t. For it to work as a play that can find its own audience, its status as a sequel has to be incidental at most.
Writing it was a lot of fun. It struck me as I neared the end that it’s actually the first play I’ve written all year; things having escalated pretty drastically in 2019 means that I’ve had less time to write something just because I wanted to. And that, I think, is my favourite thing about Betrayal. It gave me the energising chance to write something purely for the fun of it.
I don’t entirely know what I’ll do with it yet. It’s a niche story and Bitten By’s slate for next year looks pretty busy already. My feeling is that it might be best suited to be developed and produced exclusively as a radio play, something that could be done fairly quickly and neither disrupt our planned shows for 2020 or force The Lucas Betrayal to wait for a time when its topics might lack the relevance they do now.
Whatever happens, I’m so glad I wrote it and I hope it will come to life one way or another.
Writing words about writing words.