2023 saw two of horror’s most iconic properties return to the big screen, both largely sold on now-elderly original stars reprising their most famous roles. And that is roughly where the similarities between Saw X and The Exorcist: Believer end. One is the tenth instalment in a franchise commonly dismissed as cheap torture porn, which dominated the 2000s and has had trouble regaining a foothold ever since. The other is a legacy sequel to the genre’s most respected classic. One is steeped in the convoluted mythology of the many films preceding it. The other entirely ignores all but the first. One is directed by the guy most famous for directing the sixth and seventh instalments in the same franchise. The other, by a former indie darling now best known for successfully resurrecting another faded horror property. One was embraced by critics, sitting comfortably in the eighties on Rotten Tomatoes. The other has been roundly dismissed and only just managed to crack the twenties.
And it’s in that last key difference that everything gets a little weird. Because somehow Saw X has become an unexpected critical hit while The Exorcist: Believer is facing the most sneering contempt any Exorcist film has been met with since the largely derided Exorcist II: The Heretic.
Clearly it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Blumhouse, Universal and Morgan Creek bet big on David Gordon Green’s return to The Exorcist. Really big – Universal put down $400 million for the rights. And while this is obviously excessive, it’s hard not to see what they thought the potential could be. After all, 2018’s Halloween effectively established Green as the J.J. Abrams of horror – at least, J.J. Abrams circa 2015. A safe pair of hands to revive any dormant franchise thrown at him. Following his two less celebrated Halloween sequels you’d be forgiven for thinking the gamble was maybe a bit misguided, but by then Green’s theoretical Exorcist sequel trilogy was underway, and with the coup that was Ellen Burstyn’s first return to the role of Chris McNeil in fifty years there was no real reason to think the film would not be at least generally well liked. Legacy sequels are easy, right? Follow the beats of the original with new characters and one or two returning veterans, and you have box office gold.
Meanwhile the announcement of Saw X was met mainly with eye rolls. In stark contrast to The Exorcist franchise, which has somewhat retained the prestige of the revolutionary original and has at least a couple of cult classics among its relatively conservative output, Saw never got much critical respect. The first film, despite being a Sundance hit, was a nasty if clever low budget thriller that was supposed to go straight to DVD. After becoming wildly profitable, sequels were pumped out yearly, with the contained, restrained charms of the first film giving way to labyrinthine, soap opera plotting that saw every successive film starting right where the previous one left off before regularly jumping back in time to fill in narrative gaps, while the largely implied gore of the first two films was replaced by explicit and extensive dismemberment. Saw ran out of steam with 2010’s gimmicky Saw 3D, then suffered two failed attempts at reboots: 2017’s convoluted and contrived Jigsaw, and 2021’s awful Spiral, which sidestepped established plots and characters in favour of a new and far less entertaining narrative centring a perpetually squinting Chris Rock.
It’s worth noting that there is something of a false equivalency when it comes to making any comparison of the two franchises. The expected standards are vastly different. But at the same time, to dismiss Saw X as a comparatively low bar to clear ignores the fact that not even hardcore Saw devotees liked the last three films in the franchise, let alone mainstream critics. That, clearly, has not been the case with Saw X, the success of which looks even more unlikely when you consider that its setting between the first two films necessitates an 80-something Tobin Bell playing a 50-something John Kramer and a 50-something Shawnee Smith playing a 20-something Amanda Young. Another similarity then; like Believer, Saw X is also a direct sequel to the first film, but it still embraces the minutiae and mythology of the entire series. It is a surprisingly savvy move, one which makes the film accessible to new audiences while ensuring there are plenty of nods to the old.
Ironically, Believer might have fared better if it had taken more cues from the previous franchise extensions it was so quick to dismiss. Say what you will about the Exorcist sequels, but each one of them tried very hard to do their own thing, building on William Friedkin’s original without emulating it. None achieved the same impact as the first, but The Exorcist III is increasingly recognised as a horror classic in its own right while Paul Schrader’s Dominion (one of two attempts at an Exorcist prequel based on the same script) tends towards the evaluation of being an interesting failure, a backhanded compliment Believer couldn’t even earn.
It doesn’t help that The Exorcist already had a pretty great legacy sequel doing just about everything Believer does only better, in the form of the tragically short lived 2016 TV series. Both versions even feature an older Chris McNeil estranged from Regan due to the ways in which she capitalised on their traumatic experiences (arguably neither version is true to the established character). But the TV series, despite having neither Burstyn nor Linda Blair involved, was far superior, coming up with compelling new frights and new characters who, given time to develop, could have become icons in their own rights.
Look, nobody would have expected David Gordon Green to adhere to the continuity of a cancelled television series, and to be fair it’s not like he erases The Heretic or The Exorcist III so much as just doesn’t reference them. But the involvement of Burstyn plus his track record of culling the whole Halloween canon after the original film comes with an inescapable subtext – that this was supposed to be the true sequel to Friedkin’s classic. But as too many Terminator films have learned to their detriment, if you’re going to overwrite or implicitly position yourself as superior to other properties in the same franchise, especially ones with passionate defenders, then you’d better be offering something pretty excellent in their stead.
Believer does nothing new. Having two possessed girls rather than one only serves to involve more extraneous characters in the story. And the attempt to make the act of exorcism more one of ‘community’ than of Catholic doctrine, allowing the involvement of multiple faiths, is not only weirdly misty-eyed for an Exorcist film, but comes off as a cheap attempt to pander to 2020s sensibilities rather than honour the intention of the original. After all, author of both the original novel and screenplay William Peter Blatty was a devoted Catholic and while it’s testament to the power of his work that it is still powerful and gripping to non-believers, producing a ‘true sequel’ in which the Catholic priest cries in the car while the other religious representatives bravely take on the demon does not help alleviate the vague sense that Green had no real understanding of the film he was making a sequel to.
Then there are the characters, none of whom compel or move like Damian Karras, a priest losing his faith and belief in his own decency, or Chris McNeil, a staunch non-believer forced to confront the impossible in order to save her daughter. In Believer, our protagonist essentially repeats Chris’ arc. The parents of the other possessed girl are rendered so one-dimensional and unlikable it’s hard to care at all about their plight, and none of the various exorcists come close to the compromised, complex heroism of Fathers Karras or Merrin.
Ellen Burstyn remains, at ninety, a transfixing screen presence, but whatever the trailers led us to believe she is barely in the film. She turns up for about five minutes before being sidelined in a way that aims for shocking but just feels distasteful, then is forced to deliver a truly awful monologue outlining the film’s half-baked themes, apparently written with the assumption that if Burstyn delivers it audiences will take it seriously. The actress, and the character, deserve better.
Contrast this with Saw X’s treatment of Tobin Bell. True, the return of the Jigsaw Killer is nowhere near as big of a deal as Burstyn’s – we last saw him in 2017’s Jigsaw and he had been prominent in all seven films preceding that – but Saw X does something quietly innovative and makes him the protagonist. This time around we’re in Kramer’s shoes from the start. A lengthy first act shows him grappling with his cancer, the hope and desperation of being offered a miracle cure, the devastated rage when he realises it was all a scam. By letting us follow Kramer, a neat trick is played on the audience – to paraphrase the largely execrable Saw IV, we’ve been invited to ‘see as he sees’. And so when he starts raining down twisted justice on the scammers, it’s hard not to cheer him on.
There have been some critiques of Saw X positioning Kramer as a hero, but that’s not quite what the movie is doing. Consider Amanda’s conflicted feelings about their treatment of drug addict Gabriela, clearly damaged and in over her head with the con, and how Kramer coldly dismisses them. Gabriela makes Amanda – and us – question just how far we’re willing to support Kramer here, as does the third act involvement of a completely innocent party in the game. Yes, it’s true that next to those who masterminded the fraud Kramer is the more sympathetic party, but Saw X regularly plays notes of discomfort that stop us from siding with him completely.
But maybe the most striking thing about Saw X is how, despite being a direct follow up to the first film, it refuses to fall into the trap of eschewing the less loved parts of the franchise. No, it doesn’t pay much tribute to Jigsaw or Spiral, but fan-favourite Kramer successor Mark Hoffman not only makes a post-credits scene appearance but is an off-camera player throughout the film, and the entire premise, of Kramer seeking an experimental therapy from a Norwegian doctor, has its origins in a Saw VI flashback where he attempts to get coverage for that exact treatment from his unscrupulous insurance company. In that film, when denied, Kramer retorts that he has money and can pay for it himself, inviting audience questions about why he didn’t. But by revealing the treatment to be a fraud, Saw X offers an explanation, not only tying itself closer to the history of the franchise at large, but doing so in a way that never once alienates casual viewers.
There has been an admirable reticence on the part of Saw’s producers to hit the reboot or retcon button. Even Jigsaw and Spiral, which positioned themselves as new starts for the series, still take place in the continuity of the first seven films. Saw, then, is the only horror franchise to reach ten films without ever once walking back or ignoring its less loved chapters. It’s one of the reasons why, despite the low critical ratings each new film might earn, fans remain passionate and invested.
As such it must be noted that Saw X’s unprecedented high critics score was almost certainly informed by a new generation of critics with fond memories of the older films. There’s no way this instalment is an improvement over the original, Saw II or Saw VI. It's not even an especially good movie, but it is a good Saw movie and a lot of this is due to the fact that, unlike Spiral, it’s not embarrassed to be a Saw movie.
Which should not suggest that dogmatic adherence to canon is inherently a virtue. In fact, The Exorcist franchise in all forms has always ignored everything but the original – Blatty’s III made no reference to John Boorman’s II, and while those movies could coexist without contradiction by merit of focusing on different characters, the plots of both Paul Schrader’s Dominion and Renny Harlin’s alternate version The Beginning directly undermined what Boorman did.
Nobody is claiming that Believer would have been better had Green embraced the entirety of The Exorcist’s messy cinematic history. But the bitter irony is that his true failing was not embracing their shared mandate; to use the story Blatty started as a foundation for something new.
It’s almost counterintuitive – that the less prestigious film franchise flourishes by leaning into its history while the ‘classier’ one arguably needs more radical, divergent takes to impress. But then, the first Exorcist was special precisely because nobody had ever seen anything like it before. That high standard leaves only one certainty – that following it by trying to do the same thing without a comparable level of originality is doomed to failure.
No, David Gordon Green should not have packed his film with callbacks to The Heretic. But he could have taken a lesson from that film’s willingness to swing for the fences. The interesting failure will always be preferable to the boring success, but Green’s film achieves neither.
So now that The Caretaker has been out for a couple of months, it’s probably a good time to discuss its biggest twists, reveals, and character journeys.
The best place to start would be Charlotte, a character who I was a little nervous about leading up to release. For the simple fact that I was once again writing a young woman on the run, but one seemingly without Maggie’s ruthless, decisive resourcefulness. Given that I know how much Maggie means to so many readers, it was hard not to fret about unflattering comparisons.
And look, there were certainly reviews that said Charlotte didn’t stack up to Maggie, as I knew there would be. Others didn’t mention the ‘M’ word but still expressed frustration at Charlotte's fearfulness and refusal to act.
But overall, Charlotte has been received really warmly. Quite a few readers have told me they actually like her more than Maggie for the simple fact that she’s so much more human. Maggie is more of a John Wick/Jack Reacher type, somewhat divorced from recognisable reality, but Charlotte, despite the heightened circumstances she ends up in, is a more relatable kind of anti-hero. Hearing this from so many is, of course, a big relief because my hope was always that readers would empathise with her despite her often terrible decision making.
Which of course brings me to the gradual reveal that Charlotte isn’t as far from Maggie as she might initially seem. She’s resourceful when she has to be, setting all kinds of traps to waylay her pursuers – traps that eventually save her life. And while her refusal to kill or harm others might look, at first, like the biggest point of difference, we of course come to learn that the very reason Charlotte avoids killing so desperately is because she did kill someone, for reasons she thought were right at the time but came to understand were very wrong. And where Maggie, who learned from a very early age how brutal and uncompromising the world can be, will generally shoot first, ask questions later, feel guilt never – Charlotte isn’t cut from that same cloth. Her act of murder has left her permanently scarred, unable to move on from the act that split her entire life and understanding of herself in half.
To me the question at the heart of The Caretaker is not whether Charlotte can be redeemed, or whether she deserves her freedom. I don’t think that question means much in real life, where people do the most terrible things for the most empty reasons and never seriously consider redemption or retribution. The question The Caretaker asks is twofold – can she learn from it, and can she live with it?
Charlotte’s refusal to directly harm anyone, even in the most seemingly impossible circumstances, is exactly what frees her at the end. She won’t kill Anders even as John makes it clear that doing so is the only thing that will make him spare her life. She refuses even though Anders, a cold blooded hitman, would happily have turned her over to her hunters. And once she has led John into the trap that seemingly (we’ll get to that) kills him, she saves the injured Anders – and in return gets a promise that he will tell those trying to find her that she is dead. The fact that saving Anders even when she shouldn’t have is what saves her, is what Charlotte needs in order to accept that she is not a ghost waiting to be finally vanquished, but a human being with an ugly past who has grown and changed and become more capable because of it.
I get asked a lot if Charlotte will be back. The answer is probably yes, but not in any kind of sequel. Her backstory coincides with another book I hope to write one day, and Charlotte would be a major character in that book – although her appearances would all be set before the present day timeline in The Caretaker. In terms of where she goes from here? I have some vague ideas, but nothing I think constitutes another book, at least not right now. I’m quite happy to let her escape to a peaceful future.
The other major characters are a very different story. First, John, the smiling, strangely avuncular serial killer who believes he’s helping Charlotte become ‘actualised’. It’s now that I can fully and officially confirm that John is, of course, none other than The Driver from my Audible Original The Hitchhiker, a character I enjoyed writing so much that I gave him a starring role in this novel. John will be back early next year in The Lodger, the direct sequel to The Hitchhiker – although in reality The Caretaker is essentially a de-facto middle chapter to the trilogy.
So yes, John survives his final fall in The Caretaker, just as he survived being stabbed at the end of The Hitchhiker. I promise I won’t keep employing these fake out deaths for him, but I do kind of like the idea that he’s maybe mildly supernatural, that he somehow always lucks out in surviving the seemingly unsurvivable. That’s not canon, by the way, I just enjoy the notion that John – or Paul, or The Driver or, as he’ll be called in The Lodger, George – is somehow other.
The third main character of the novel is probably my favourite. Anders, the droll Swedish hitman, was a character who originally came about as a suggestion from my publisher that Charlotte needed someone to talk to throughout the book. The original pitch was a partner or a child, but that wasn’t right – Charlotte had to be alone and isolated without allies. So to that, I figured the ideal compromise was a hired gun who she managed to overpower and then, due to her unwillingness to kill, was forced to keep captive in the basement.
I liked writing Anders a lot. I found his dry, deadpan, disinterested personality a fun contrast with the desperate Charlotte and happy-go-lucky John. I also enjoyed his growing curiosity towards Charlotte, the way he gradually realises the many ways he has underestimated her.
This is why I didn’t kill him off, as I’d originally planned to. The more I wrote the more I realised that there was a lot of mileage left in this guy, that down the line he could appear in other stories, maybe even get his own eventually.
So Anders too will be back – going head to head with Jack Carlin and Maggie in High Rise, my next adult thriller for HarperCollins, which I’m currently outlining. High Rise will be set post The Caretaker and The Lodger (which will also feature Maggie and Jack), but likely won’t have any direct references to either of them. Still, not to pre-empt too much, you can bet that Anders’ experiences in Caretaker, physically and emotionally, will have seen him somewhat changed.
I think. Look, it’s always tricky to make promises about books you haven’t written yet. Stories change so much in the telling, and things you believed to be certainties can slip away almost the second you start writing. That happened as recently as The Lodger, which at almost every turn revealed itself to be not the novel I’d planned – to the point where I can barely even remember the meticulous plot I spent weeks cobbling together. But for now, I feel pretty sure that Anders will have a major part to play in High-Rise.
I guess the other thing to talk about here is pace. A LOT of reviews have mentioned how much slower this is compared to The Hunted or The Inheritance – the majority cite this as a positive or at least a shift that works, others have complained about it. Which is par for the course; I’d never want or expect to please everyone but pleasing most, as The Caretaker looks to have done, is certainly not something I’m ever going to complain about.
I don’t think a slowed down pace is either better or worse than the other books by default. It’s a different story with a different character and that means a different approach. Maggie’s books are fast, bruising and punishing because, well, she is all those things. Charlotte didn’t suit a story told in that style. So instead of relying on action or shock twists, here my main tools were creeping tension and the gradual reveals of simmering mysteries that hopefully upend and complicate your allegiances at various turns. Even if The Caretaker had bombed catastrophically, I still would have been glad I took these risks.
One chapter in the book, as I spoke about a lot pre-release, was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever written in my life. Of course, that’s the chapter where we learn, through the fractured memories and hallucinations of Charlotte losing consciousness as she flees in the snow, that the person she murdered was her godfather 'Uncle Mac', after she learned he was a major crime lord gunning for her partner Dominic.
I knew early on this chapter would be the centrepiece of the book. I also knew that it couldn’t be just another flashback, because this is the event that defines who Charlotte is now, the moment she went from bystander to perpetrator, the moment she stepped fully into a world she’d previously benefitted from but always managed to keep blind to the realities of. The moment that shattered her, that turned her alcoholic and erratic and illogical until she made the choice to run away and separate herself from it all.
So I tried something I never had before. Four timelines, flowing into each other, all written in present tense unlike the rest of the book. With the same characters appearing in multiple timelines, many beats could be taking place in any of them. I wanted it to be blurry and discombobulating and still somehow clear at every turn what it meant and what was happening. It was the only way I could think of to convey what Charlotte went through and how entirely it transformed her. I wrote it in two days. I couldn’t write anything else for a long time afterwards. I wasn’t sure if it was the best or the worst thing I’ve ever written.
Of course, you can’t really define that for yourself, just like you can’t define for yourself what’s good or bad about any of your writing. All you can ever speak to with any authority is what you like about what you do, not its objective quality – if there even is such a thing.
So what I will say about that chapter is not that it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, but that it’s my proudest moment as a writer. I didn’t think I could write like that until I did. But then, I didn’t think I could write a book like Caretaker until I did, and once it was done and on its way into the world, I still wasn’t sure any of it had landed.
So to everyone who read it, who wrote me emails or messages or approached me at events, who reviewed it or posted about it – thank you for letting me be proud of one of the biggest risks I've ever taken.
Before The Caretaker comes out, I want to tell you a bit about Charlotte Laurent. But to talk about her, I have to talk about Windmills; which, as anyone who knows anything about my writing background will be aware, is the story I’ve been trying and failing to tell for the last thirteen years.
After I finished the first draft of Windmills in my last year of high school, I immediately wanted to write a sequel. I didn’t have much good creative reason to, just a vague sense that I’d written something that marked a real step forward for me and I should try to continue the momentum. So I came up with a kind of parallel plot; one of the key characters in Windmills was Dominic Ford, a charismatic yet coldly murderous drug lord, and I decided my ‘in’ was to explore Dominic from a different character’s perspective.
Enter Charlotte Laurent, a naïve young student who meets and falls for him. Windmills was always at its core about the terrible choices we’re all capable of in the right – or wrong – circumstances, and Charlotte’s story was to be no different. I pictured this epic, Godfather-esque saga which would result in her superseding Dominic to become a ruthless criminal mastermind.
It didn’t work. I wrote a few chapters and ran out of steam. But I found Charlotte oddly fascinating, so when I rewrote Windmills a few years later, I worked her into the plot. I got to know her more. Learned about her deep insecurities, her anger and desperation to be more than what she thinks she is. I also came to understand that the whole Walter White arc I’d envisioned for her was never going to land. Charlotte was many things, but a cold-blooded killer was not one of them.
So I was faced with a quandary. Charlotte had become, to me, as interesting and essential as any of the original Windmills characters, but she had also somewhat been grafted on to the already established plot in ways that left her a little underserved. She supported the story, certainly, but I never felt any version of that book really gave her the room to fully realise her potential.
Over the years Charlotte’s role fluctuated. In some drafts I tried to artificially inflate her subplot. In others, I removed her entirely. Neither approach felt right. I wanted to tell Charlotte’s story, but I was starting to think that maybe Windmills was not the place to do it.
Fast forward to 2021. I was developing a pitch for a standalone thriller set in an off-season ski resort and while I knew I loved the setting, the plots I was coming up with didn’t quite coalesce the way I wanted them to. I’d write full outlines and immediately forget about them. Nothing was sticking.
And then, on a walk one morning, an image struck me. Charlotte Laurent, scared and alone after the events of Windmills, hiding out as the caretaker of several empty ski lodges in a tiny, abandoned resort.
I turned the idea over in my head. It was a risk. A huge one. Given Windmills remained in a kind of stasis (it’s come close to publication several times and still hasn’t quite got there), was I really going to jump the gun and write a quasi-sequel/spin-off that would come out before any version of Windmills? And more to the point, could I? Could I tell this story in a way that would be its own entirely satisfying narrative that doesn’t rely on a book that might never be released?
In the end, questions of could or should didn’t much factor into it. I wanted to write The Caretaker. A lot. And while I guess I could have changed protagonists, Charlotte was just too perfect for this story. This, I knew as surely as I’ve ever known anything, was her story.
I took the risk and pitched it to HarperCollins. They accepted. And then came the challenge of writing the thing. Early drafts played too coy. I tried to split the difference between giving enough backstory to inform Charlotte’s character, but not enough to completely ruin Windmills for if that ever gets published. It didn’t work. To write this book, I had to almost forget about Windmills. Use what I needed from it, scrap what I didn’t. If future me was ever lucky enough to publish that book, then ensuring the canon lined up would have to be his problem. What mattered was that Charlotte’s story was told in its entirety, not compromised for the sake of a book that to date is only a pipe dream.
Slowly, The Caretaker became its own thing. An unsettling thriller about a broken woman putting herself back together. It doesn’t fit snugly with the more crime drama infused Windmills. But it doesn’t need to, because it’s not subservient to that story. In the end, if Windmills ever sees the light of day, it will owe far more to The Caretaker than vice versa. So while The Caretaker will be the official, published debut of several major Windmills characters, this time they’re in place to support Charlotte’s story, not the other way around.
In 2009, Charlotte Laurent was an underdeveloped addendum, a character I couldn’t get rid of but couldn’t make fit in the greater whole. But the one thing that has always defined her is that she is a survivor. In Windmills, she was the one character to escape the chaos of her own volition and try to make a better life for herself. And with that in mind, I can think of nothing more appropriate than Charlotte being the one character to break out of the never-ending mess of all those different attempts to tell that story, to finally get her much deserved spotlight after so many years.
It’s been three years since I was last in Europe, a trip I wrote about at the time with no shortage of insisting that I’d be back soon. Unfortunately, that being early 2020, my optimism proved somewhat misguided. Even once able to travel again, things were so busy that it wasn’t a realistic consideration.
But a few months back my parents mentioned that they’d be going to Austria in June for work before spending some time with the family. Checking my diary, I had a two-and-a-half-week free block between commitments around the same time they’d be going, and it was too good an opportunity to pass up, coinciding my trip with other family members being in the area at the same time.
It was only once I’d already booked my flights that it occurred to me this could be the perfect chance for me to fulfil a long held if vague dream and visit Florence. It’s no secret that I’m a massive Hannibal Lecter fan (I mean, I’m writing an entire book on the subject) and Florence is a key location in the franchise; the city where Lecter hides out after his escape. At times the novel Hannibal reads almost like a vivid travelogue of the city, and both the 2001 film and the TV series depict it in ways both eerie and strikingly beautiful.
I wanted to go to Florence, I was going to be in Europe, and I was in the midst of writing a Hannibal Lecter book. It was kind of like the universe was trying to tell me something.
So I booked flights – semi inconveniently I’d arrive in Vienna, spend a night there, then go to Florence for two nights before returning to Vienna and from there head to the family home in Frankenmarkt near Salzburg. A whirlwind few days but, I figured, worth it.
I flew out from Melbourne late Saturday night. The older I’ve gotten the more I’ve started to dread long haul flights, but since I’ve taken to paying for extra legroom (I am long of shank and planes are short of space) they’ve been a little more tolerable. What was less tolerable was the child sitting next to me, who every two seconds would scream at his Mum because he had pulled out his headphones or opened the tray table or gotten bored of the movie he was watching. None of which he could apparently rectify himself. Then he started jumping on the seat, leading to me watching his newly delivered food with trepidation that proved founded when his juice ended up all over me. I did not like that child.
Anyway, I reached Doha alive if annoyed and after five hours of zombielike wandering around the airport I got on the plane to Vienna, which was thankfully free of demon children. I had to contend with the most unpleasant train conductor in history when it turned out the ticket I had paid for was not the right ticket for the train I was on (my ticket was significantly more expensive, but he somehow seemed to think I was trying to pull one over him), but soon enough I was settling into my hotel then heading out for an evening walk to stave off falling asleep until a reasonable hour.
I spent the next morning exploring and subsequently getting very lost in Vienna, before returning to the airport to fly to Florence. About five minutes after the plane took to the air it was heading down again, then it was a quick tram ride and suddenly I was standing in front of the Duomo.
Look, I’ve been to Rome and Venice. I’ve been wowed by Basilicas before. But the Duomo is just something else. I remember seeing the way it was presented in the TV show Hannibal, a famously stylised series, and thinking they’d used CGI to augment it. Not so. The gargantuan size, the intricate detail of statues in little nooks that pepper the façade, and the striking greens and ivories of the stone – the moment I saw it I had to stop and just stare. Which I’d have plenty of opportunity to do given I was staying in the same square as it.
I dropped my stuff and quickly got to exploring. Within minutes I was looking at the Palazzo Vecchio with a giddy grin, predominantly because I recognised the balcony where Hannibal hangs Rinaldo Pazzi. Naturally I had dinner in the shadow of it, before wandering the streets a little more, watching buskers and stopping for beer and basically just soaking it all up.
Jetlag being jetlag, I woke up at 5am the next day and decided this was a good opportunity to climb up to the Belvedere fort and, in true Lecter fashion, see the Duomo from it. It turned out the Belvedere was closed and you can't get much of view from outside it due to trees and walls, but given I was able to wander through more of the city and have a lovely breakfast overlooking the river, I wasn’t about to complain.
I returned to the Palazzo Vecchio after that to properly explore the interior, and man wasn’t that just the best. From Machiavelli’s office to the beyond ornate Salon of the Lilies, to the chapels and the big central hall and the terrace out the back looking over the city, I adored just working my way through it all.
The owner of my B&B had also told me about some ancient tombs I should check out, and given I love a crypt I followed his advice. Except his advice was a marking on a map and it took me a while to find what I thought I was looking for. Cue me going inside and asking how much entry was and the woman at the counter staring at me in abject confusion.
‘Are these tombs?’ I asked.
‘This is a school,’ she said.
I backed away and gave up on the tombs.
By now my legs were hurting from all the wandering, but there was still so much more I wanted to see. I washed my hands at the Porcellino Fountain (just like in the movie!). I sat beneath ancient statues in varying states of anguish and ecstasy. I stopped for espressos at cluttered cafes spilling off the footpaths. I dodged cylists and taxis and Americans on my way down to the Santa Croce church, where Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli are buried, and also where Rinaldo Pazzi made his first attempt to get Hannibal’s fingerprints by extorting a local gypsy contact of his. After that I planned to find the Palazzo Capponi, where Hannibal lives while in Florence, but after half-limping back across and down the river (like Hannibal does after being brutalised by Jack Crawford in episode 6 of season 3) I arrived only to learn that the Capponi family had a lot of Palazzos and this was not, in fact, the correct one. Turned out I’d walked past the correct one on my way there.
Back in town, I got talking to a tattoo artist and fashion designer over a beer, before having a pasta dinner and returning to the shadow of the Duomo to do some work on The Lodger, which has been causing me some trouble of late. Turns out that a pretty effective cure for writers block is sitting in one of the most beautiful cities in the world with an awe inspiring cathedral visible right behind your laptop.
I was flying out the next evening, but I still planned on making the most of my trip. I set out early that morning to find the more pertinent-to-my-purposes Palazzo Capponi, which is predominantly used as a hotel now and as such the best I could do there was stand appraisingly across from it. A coffee and a croissant later, I decided to head to the Bardini Gardens, adjacent to the Belvedere and with a view of the city below.
And damn if this wasn’t worth every cent (10 euros, would have been worth a hundred). Working my way up winding garden paths to a café that gave the most spectacular imaginable view (given the café at the top was called the Café Belvedere I have now technically seen the Duomo from the Belvedere). It was a blue skied, warm day and I sat with a drink working at The Lodger, the words just cascading out with the Florentine skyline and the lush gardens lit up in the afternoon sun to my left. I didn’t want to leave. I lingered for ages, just taking in this sprawling, magnificent city.
But I had a plane to catch, so I got some lunch and took one last walk around the Duomo, which I would have loved to see inside of but the lines literally encircle the place. Then it was back on the tram and back to Austria. This leg of the trip was capped off by a very different train conductor, who waved me on with a smile and a wink when I asked to buy a ticket from him, so I have now made peace with the profession and that has been my character arc for this trip.
Which brings me to now, aching and worn and weary but so very glad I went. I wrote, I walked, I ate, I drank and I saw some stuff I’ll never forget and hope to see again before too long. And it’s all thanks to a fictional cannibal.
This blog contains spoilers for Glass Onion, Knives Out and several Saw movies.
This might be contentious, but I stand by it; Saw II has one of the best twists of all time.
For those who don’t remember/don’t plan on watching the film, a quick recap. Corrupt hothead Detective Eric Matthews manages to track down the serial killer Jigsaw – a cancer stricken moralist who puts people he sees as underserving of their lives into elaborate, violent 'games' that usually require some kind of sacrifice to survive. But before Matthews can bring Jigsaw in it’s revealed via a discovered video feed that another of the killer’s games is in motion – several criminals have been locked in a house full of traps with only two hours to find the way out before a deadly nerve agent kills them. And Matthews’ estranged son Daniel is among them. Suddenly, the cop who never follows the rules has no choice but to do exactly that in order to save his son. Jigsaw’s instructions? Daniel will be released if the cop sits and talks with the killer – something that sends the tension skyrocketing as we regularly cut to what is playing on the feed and see the increasingly dire situation Daniel is in.
Of course, Matthews' patience fails him. He snaps, beats Jigsaw to a pulp, and forces the killer to take him to the site of the game. A brutalised Jigsaw obliges and Matthews arrives only to find no sign of his son – the feed was pre-recorded. The game happened hours before. Daniel is safe, but Matthews is ambushed by a Jigsaw acolyte and abandoned chained in a bathroom for his failure.
It's a brilliant, exhilarating reveal because it has the absolute rush of ‘oh my god, of course’ that characterises a good twist. And furthermore, it’s a twist that is completely rooted in the perspective of our protagonist, the perspective we’ve essentially shared for the whole film. There are plenty of clues the videos aren’t what they seem, but we don’t suspect that because Matthews doesn’t suspect that. It’s one of the reasons I still, somewhat controversially, think Saw II is the best of the Saw franchise.
But one of the reasons it’s so good is that it seems to understand something the later films don’t – which is that for a twist to work, it has to be a shock to the characters as well as the audience. Both the fourth and eighth Saw films feature similar timeline twists – in Saw IV the reveal is that the whole film has taken place at the same time as Saw III, in Jigsaw (8), the reveal is that that game we thought was happening simultaneous to the investigation actually took place ten years previously. On the surface, not dissimilar to the twist in Saw II. Except the timeline reveals mean nothing to the characters because a) they know what timeline they’re in and b) there are no stakes for them. And yes, both those films include a predictable reveal of a secret Jigsaw apprentice, just like Saw II, but in both the timeline twist is treated like its big, clever sleight-of-hand and in both they ring hollow because they don’t exist for any reasons of plot or character and they only work by the filmmakers not playing fair with the audience.
Which brings me to Glass Onion.
I want to make a couple of things clear. I liked Glass Onion and I like Rian Johnson. I think the first Knives Out is fantastic. I think The Last Jedi is the closest a Disney Star Wars project has come to reaching greatness. I haven’t loved everything Johnson has made (Looper has massive flaws and Brick is overrated) but he’s always interesting and Hollywood is a better place for having him. I’ll watch everything he does.
And look, catching Glass Onion at the movies by myself in the middle of a stressful day was exactly the tonic I needed. I laughed. I was engaged. I was entertained. When the midway reveal landed, I felt the same thrill as I did in the first film’s daring exposure of the killer in the first act.
But as the film went on something jarred for me, something that came into focus watching Glass Onion again with my family on Christmas. See, I’ve rewatched the first Knives Out several times. I believe a key mark of a great movie is being able to come back to it again and again. And yet watching Glass Onion a second time, I was bored. And quickly, the issue I’d had with it the first time around crystalised in my head. See, Glass Onion is breezy and fun and entertaining. It also absolutely does not play fair with the audience.
In the second half, we get a twist that is initially shocking but quickly rings hollow because it relies entirely on us not being shown a lot of crucial information that the protagonists are privy to. I mean, the film literally goes back and plays out its first half again with missing footage put back in to give context and reveal what Benoit Blanc and Helen are really up to. This allows for some gasp-worthy moments, but it’s like one of the traps from the later Saw movies where the characters can’t escape. There’s no tension if the outcome is assured. And there’s no marvelling at the cleverness of a mystery writer if they skip over clues that should be hidden via misdirection rather than straight up omission.
The issue is one of perspective. In most murder mysteries, we see from the point of view of the detective. We get all the same clues as them. In the end, they’ll piece it all together and reveal what happened and a good reveal will have us shaking our heads in disbelief because everything we needed to find the answer was hiding in plain sight all along. But the writer was smart enough to make us look elsewhere and of course, only the detective had the brilliance to piece it together. Good mysteries stand up to repeat viewings/readings because there’s fun to be found in noticing all the clues you missed the first time around, allowing you to marvel at how brilliantly you were played.
Glass Onion does not play us brilliantly. It cheats. There’s no way for us to guess that Andi is actually dead and the person we thought was her was in fact her twin sister Helen. There’s no way to guess that Benoit Blanc is in fact playing the vapid rich people on the island because Johnson removes all the moments where we see his plan in action, only showing them to us later. And this means that Glass Onion is a story told from nobody’s perspective but Johnson’s. We’re not in Blanc or Helen’s points of view, even though they’re our protagonists. It makes for a kind of untethered experience – all surface thrills, no real connection with anyone.
And the thing is, Glass Onion almost gets away with it because the ‘twist’ is so initially exciting that it becomes misdirection of a different kind, distracting us from the lack of a perspective character and ringing reminiscent of the first film’s early reveal of the killer – except that choice actually strengthened our connection with Marta (the protagonist) at the same time as thrilling us by breaking the supposed rules of the genre.
Look, I’m never going to be one of those bleating writers who insists on arbitrary ‘rules’ being followed at every storytelling juncture. Early on I was taught (and still believe) that for every storytelling rule you’re taught you can point to five classics that break it. What matters is that the audience are entertained, and Glass Onion achieves that. But I find myself a little bemused by all the breathless reviews hailing it as better than the first one (as far as I can tell purely because Edward Norton is Elon Musk and that’s a kicked goal for progressivism or something) when it doesn’t actually approach the clever, careful storytelling that made that film such a hit. And to me, the test was that lazy Christmas rewatching. I spent most of it on my phone. I didn’t much care to watch the film again because there wasn’t a lot to discover or further appreciate the second time around.
Anyway. It’s not for me to tell someone on Rian Johnson’s level what they’re doing wrong. Glass Onion is clearly a hit. But an Oscar contender that tops its predecessor? Come on. I guess my takeaway is that even if you’re not playing by the rules, you get a better result by at least playing fair.
Maybe the most reductive and common question about writing, outside of ‘where do you get your ideas?’, is ‘are you a plotter or a pantser?’ For those who don’t know, a ‘plotter’ is somebody who meticulously plots every single aspect of their story, a pantser is somebody who discovers it as they go, flying by the seat of their pants. This is also known as the ‘architect vs gardener’ binary, and it’s annoying because in most cases it isn’t a binary at all.
Even famous ‘gardeners’ like George R.R. Martin vaguely know where they’re going, while I can’t think of many plotters who don’t at least consider some of the different potential directions that become clear as the story goes. Personally, I think being entirely one or the other is dangerous unless you’re a special kind of genius – stick to a pre-existing plan too closely and you don’t allow for the kind of organic discovery that can make a story truly surprising and special, don’t plan at all and you’re very likely to get lost in the reeds (or spend eleven years and counting trying to finish The Winds of Winter).
I’ve always seen myself as somewhere in the middle, maybe leaning a little more towards the ‘plotter’ side. I almost always have at least a vague idea of where I’m going, but I don’t like to be too rigid or specific with that because it can trip you up when those magical moments happen and you go ‘wait, what if this is how it’s supposed to go?’ But then, even that isn’t a universal description of how I write. I started The Inheritance, for example, with no real clue of how it was going to go other than that Maggie would return to Melbourne and grapple with her father’s legacy. I started writing, got swept up in it, and then at about the halfway mark realised I had no idea how it was going to end, who the antagonist was, or what the point of any of it was. I limped on and made up an ending, only for my publisher to point out none of the second half worked and I had to entirely rewrite it in the space of a couple of months. I was happy with how it landed, but I never want to repeat that experience ever again.
And now I seem to be having the opposite problem in Andromache Between Words, the new middle-grade book I’m working on for HarperCollins. I’m not going to say much about what you can expect from the book (saving that for my next newsletter – subscribe!), but I will say that it’s an idea I’ve had for a long time, one I’ve been idly developing over the past few years until I knew pretty clearly what all the major beats were. As such, mapping out a rough shape when Harper gave me the go ahead to write was pretty easy. Starting to write, even easier. Andromache has flowed like a dream. It’s vastly different to the thriller stuff I’ve been working on recently, and that has been enormously refreshing. I hit 40,000 works the other day and, given the book is middle grade, figured I was no more than a couple of weeks away from being done.
I was an idiot.
See, I didn’t feel that Andromache was all that intensely planned, but nearly a decade worth of thinking about it has meant that certain moments, images, characters and twists are pretty rigid in my mind. I’ve thought about this book a lot. But the flip side to that is that I’ve been happily writing along, following my by-now ingrained understanding of how the story was going to go, and then the other morning it suddenly struck me that the entire third act does not work, at least not in the way that I’d envisioned it. Too much of it is just repeating beats from the middle of the story, but changing either would have a domino effect that would throw motivations, thematic points and big reveals completely out of whack. Basically, if I change the run up to the ending now, the ending no longer works. And if I go back and alter earlier scenes to avoid that repetition, the run up doesn’t work either.
I probably sound like I’m being super vague and to a point I am – obviously I want people to buy and read the book when it eventually comes out and I don’t want there to be a hint of behind-the-scenes problems when it does. And look, I’m not panicking; it’s literally my job to work these issues out and it’s far better to stumble on them now rather than weeks from publication (that has happened to me before and is another experience I am not keen to repeat). But I’m realising that for all I don’t consider myself a meticulous planner, the only way I’m going to solve these issues is by letting go of convictions I’ve had about the story for a long, long time. Basically, following the number one rule of writing; to kill your darlings. Except, of course, the longer a darling has been around the harder it is to kill.
I have always believed that stories teach you how to write them, but you can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to be taught, or to put it another way, you can’t make new discoveries when you’re desperately clinging to old ideas. Which I guess brings me to my ultimate take on the architect vs gardener binary – don’t define yourself by either, or even by a specific place on the imaginary spectrum. Some stories need meticulous planning, others need to be found as you write. Most are in the middle and that’s where, I think, it makes the most sense to start. Veer left when you should have gone right, and it can take you a long time to realise you’re heading in the wrong direction.
The publication of the Boone Shepard Trilogy was defined by compromise. The most romantic painting of it would focus on a scrappy, unorthodox-by-necessity approach that was entirely in the spirit of the books and in the end managed to bring the series to thousands of worldwide readers and build a small but very real following. But looking at it that way, while not invalid, does mean ignoring a series of very real frustrations and disappointments.
If you’re reading this you probably know the broad strokes of the story behind the story. Boone Shepard started out as a series of deliberately absurd yet oddly pretentious novellas I wrote in high school then revisited in university as a (initially) five-book saga that was eventually published by a friend who passionately believed in the story’s potential. But of course, independent publishing is a battle without a budget, and so there was always a ceiling for Boone’s success. The first book sold about as well as it possibly could have (helped in no small part by a big award nomination), but the majority of its audience came through the audiobook, released in weekly instalments by Sanspants Radio.
The audiobook brought Boone to thousands of international listeners. It was also free, meaning that the following it built didn’t much bolster print book sales and allow the same money to go into a sequel. American Adventure, then, was done without the same marketing push of the first, and made even less. For a while there, it looked like the series wouldn’t be finished.
I’d been somewhat prepared for this, ending American Adventure with a little more closure just in case. But the story would always be incomplete without its grand finale, and I don’t think I ever could have been satisfied leaving it at two books with two more to go (my planned first instalment, The Broken Record, had already been skipped). So I went to my publisher with a pitch; what if I merged books three and four into one big final novel?
This approach was agreed on, but the compromise went further; to get a release, The Silhouette and the Sacrifice would have to be a print-on-demand title. So, faced with the option of either a stunted release or no release at all, I went with the former and got to work trying to merge two very different books into one.
Re-reading Silhouette, the struggles of its gestation are extremely obvious – almost as obvious as the fact that it is clearly two novels stitched together. The first half is a fairly straightforward, stripped back murder mystery. The second is the real finale; a big, bombastic, globetrotting adventure with an overpowered villain, curtain call moments for every recurring character, and a high stakes, explosive climax. Silhouette goes from the most muted Boone novel to the most excessive, and it does not handle the transition gracefully.
In terms of making the two halves feel like the same story, I think I did the best job I could; threading key set ups into the first half and reworking its central mystery to be a key part of the second’s narrative. But that doesn’t change the fact that both halves have their own premise, climax, resolution and antagonist. They just don’t feel like the same book.
I’m not sure how big a problem this is for anyone except major narrative structure sticklers. After all, if you like the series you’re essentially getting two books for the price of one. But there’s a laboured, lurching quality to Silhouette; both halves were heavily compressed from their original full-novel forms, losing a lot of the colour and eccentricity that should characterise a Boone story. That’s not to say there isn’t any, but stripping the narrative down to essentials means that the attempts at levity and absurdity come off as jarring. Re-reading American Adventure, I laughed out loud several times. Here, a couple of funny lines aside, the tone just doesn’t work as well. One moment the murder mystery is serious business, with previously ridiculous characters suddenly acting like real people – the next, Boone and Promethia are wearing silly disguises and infiltrating an underground manatee fight.
The Boone novels were always deceptively difficult when it came to tone. They might be pitched as kooky adventure stories and in many ways they are, but the journey of the key characters and the central themes were never treated as jokes and I’m not convinced I was a good enough writer at the time to strike that balance right. Occasionally I got close (American Adventure), but often I missed the mark. And in all honesty, in the case of Silhouette I might have managed a little better if my heart had been more in it.
Just like with American Adventure (my favourite of the three), I think it’s impossible for me to divorce the book from the time of my life I was working on it. While I wrote the first drafts in 2014, Silhouette required enormous retooling and much of 2018 was spent trying to make the thing work. It was a challenge I grew to resent, and I think that shows. I remember doing an interview about the book shortly before release and having next to nothing positive to say about it. 2018 was a personal low point for a lot of reasons, the closest I ever came to giving up writing, and where American Adventure’s rewrite had been a delightful blast, Silhouette’s felt like an increasingly pointless chore. I suspected nobody really cared about these books and wondered if I was finishing them for anyone but myself. Apart from a couple of new scenes that I think really sing, most of my rewrites became cursory box ticking exercises.
From its cobbled together nature to its regular spelling mistakes and lower print quality, Silhouette is in every way a compromised book. And that is a shame because what works about it really works.
The majority of that is stuff that was in place from the initial drafts in 2014. The big reveal of Marbier’s identity, teased from the first book, lands hard, driving the plot and characters in ways beyond just a smug unveiling. The themes of regret and influence are, if I do say so myself, beautifully articulated and in many ways quite bold for what is ultimately still a kid’s book. There are some chuckle worthy lines (“if you go around accusing everyone and their dog of being a murderer then someone or their dog is likely to get upset”) and tender, moving moments of reflection. The final resolution to Boone and Promethia’s relationship is satisfying, and main antagonist Vincent Black is a great villain; tortured and ruthless and vulnerable and not entirely wrong.
But the thing that makes me still proud of Silhouette despite its many issues is the ending. The other night a friend asked me what my top five moments as a writer are, and the conclusion of Silhouette immediately led that list. If you haven’t read the book I won’t spoil it (assuming that the above critiques haven’t totally put you off doing so), but in the last pages of Silhouette I pulled off what I’d always wanted to with Boone’s story; a conclusion that not only answers the central thematic and dramatic question of the series (how do we deal with a past that we can’t let go of?), but brings Boone Shepard the character to an earned ending that closes his arc and left me without anything else to say about him. It was the first time I’d ever realised I was saying goodbye to a character who’d been with me a long time, and it hit me hard.
I’ve written before that concerns over the impact Boone wasn’t having somewhat blinded me to the impact he was. The Hunted might have been a bestseller with a film version in development, but I have never once seen a single piece of fan art for it. For Boone, it was not uncommon at all for various readers to tweet me their own pictures of the characters or of key moments. Most school talks I do, I will get at least one kid telling me how much they love the Boone Shepard series. And when I got the library stats for my books earlier this year, I was stunned by how regularly Boone still gets hired out.
There’s a peace to be found in that. His story is still being discovered and is still landing for readers. Whatever the downbeat me of 2018 might have thought, people cared and continue to care about these characters and this world.
Some writers cringe at old work and I’ve been guilty of that. But despite their very real flaws, I can’t be anything but proud of the Boone Shepard books. They’re not reflective of the writer I am today, but they’re an essential part of how I became the writer I am today, and while they might be an apprenticeship work in many ways, they also deserve their place side by side with everything I’ve written since. Because none of it would exist without them.
This is the fifth instalment in an ongoing series examining the lessons learned from early works. Read Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here and Part Four here.
I’ve written a lot – a lot – about the process of writing Windmills/Where The End Began. But what I’ve never really delved into was how I came to write the TV pilot version that won the Sir Peter Ustinov Award and changed my life. It’s funny – the award was such a singular watershed moment for me, one I’ve discussed so much in blogs and school talks and interviews, but I’ve never seriously examined how I won it.
Look at the context – by 2015 I’d been writing consistently for a decade. But I’d never, by anyone’s estimation, had any real success. Yeah I had a bunch of produced plays, but with the exception of a couple of rural youth theatre productions, I’d produced them myself. Likewise anything I’d published, in print or online. I’d never been paid for a piece of my writing. I’d never won or been shortlisted for any awards. Most reviews of my work were tepid. To clarify for anyone following along – this was pre the relative success of We Can Work It Out or publication of Boone Shepard. As I alluded to in my last blog, 2015 was a bad year for me in many ways, the first time I started to really wonder if I was barking up the wrong tree, when I first understood that the only person whose word I had for me being a halfway decent writer was my own.
The best thing I had to cling to was my acceptance into The Victorian College of the Arts’ Master of Screenwriting, a selective course with a decent hit rate of alumni becoming successful writers, but by the start of my final semester there in 2015 I wasn’t feeling all that warmly towards the course. I’d come into it with a combination of arrogance and excitement, believing that my preternatural writing abilities would wow everyone, that I’d be taken under the wing of a mentor who might kindly correct a couple of minor shortcomings then usher me on my way to the big time. Not so. I’d quickly been intimidated by the abilities of everyone else. My ideas were met with a collective shrug. The tutors were quick to point out glaring issues in my writing that I’d never considered before. My response to all of this was to turn defensive and dismissive. As I’d tell anyone who listened, the course was trying to make us write by numbers, everyone was trying to bastardise my brilliant ideas, the tutors just didn’t get me, etc. I was insufferable and tiresome. But really I was just deeply insecure, a young writer starting to realise that he wasn’t as incredible as he liked to believe.
Maybe this is why I floundered so much in my first year at VCA. The final outcome of the course was either a feature film script or a TV pilot and pitch bible, something we in theory would work on for the entire year and a half we spent there. I went in planning to write a feature adaptation of Below Babylon. When nobody seemed to think that concept was as awesome as I did, I pivoted to reworking my play Reunion for the screen before jumping to a not-especially-original concept about money counterfeiting then a black comedy show about a uni student moonlighting as a hitman (several years pre-Barry, this idea would later be re-developed in my podcasting days as an aborted web series called Mel MacDuff) then back to Reunion again. None of this was a waste – for example there was a lot to be learned in taking a small scale, contained stage show and trying to turn it into a Hangover-esque caper comedy film, but by the end of 2014 I was realising with a faint sense of desperation that I had no passion left for Reunion, that I’d pushed the themes and concept as far as they could go and I couldn’t spend another six months working on it. Which left me with the problem of what I’d write instead.
It was over the summer break that I wrote, almost on impulse, the Windmills sequel manuscript. And as I revisited these characters who had been such a massive fixture in my writing life, the blindingly obvious became clear to me. I needed a new concept that I had enough passion for to see me through to the end of the course, but one which knew well enough to not be set back by starting from scratch. Windmills, arguably, was the only thing I could have written at that point.
Looking back on this, I feel so sorry for my tutor, Peter Mattessi. He’d already endured my flip-flopping between projects and my poorly formed understanding of what I actually wanted to do. He must have been so exasperated when I got back from the holidays insisting that no, this idea was the right one. But, bless him, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work helping me shape the story into one that could work on TV.
Here's the thing about Windmills at that stage – yes, it had been the biggest part of my writing life so far, but it had also never had any real external input, never had a firm editorial voice to suggest what I should or shouldn’t do with the story. Consequently there were a lot of aspects I’d always taken for granted that Peter challenged. The great thing about Peter as a teacher is that he has this unique ability to ask tough questions without ever coming off as adversarial. This meant that the petulant defensiveness that had characterised my first year at VCA had nowhere to go, and I had to instead consider Peter’s points. And he had a lot. He interrogated the inciting incident and the end-of-episode cliff-hanger (both of which would eventually change). He pulled me back when I went too dark or too baroque. He kept me coming back to real emotions and relatable themes that stopped the story from becoming just, in Peter’s words, ‘bad people doing bad things to each other.’
And look, maybe that first year at VCA had humbled me. Or maybe it was a few too many bad reviews or a sense that I had to do something to change my approach. But whatever it was, I listened. I engaged with every note Peter gave me. I admitted when I didn’t have an answer or hadn’t thought about one. And slowly the script took shape. Every scene built character and advanced story. Everything earned its place. It was in turns tightened and relaxed where needed. It became structured; allowing my more developed skills of dialogue and character development to have their place without becoming crutches.
But here’s the crucial thing; for all the ways it changed from my original high school manuscript or the version I’d self-published in 2012, it was still absolutely the same story. It was just a much better version of it. And through it I realised that taking on board the lessons of VCA did not restrict me; it unleashed me. By using the tools they’d taught us, I could tell my stories and explore my ideas with renewed clarity, purpose, and self-reflection. I stopped accepting the most convenient solutions to complicated plot problems. I made myself think stuff through, to look for the most satisfying and compelling way to say and show what I had to.
Even if I’d had any doubts about the ways in which I’d become a better writer thanks to not just what I’d learned through study but the experience of really interrogating a longstanding project, winning the Ustinov for that script quickly proved that the process had worked. I’ve experienced doubts and low points since, of course. But I never again had quite that same gnawing insecurity manifesting as ugly arrogance. The award showed me I was capable of good writing. I just had to put the work in to get there.
This is the third instalment in an ongoing series examining the lessons learned from early works. Read Part One here, Part Two here and Part Three here.
There was a reason Boone Shepard became my first published novel and Windmills didn’t. It’s hard now not to view the publication of Boone Shepard as a culmination of sorts, the first time I really managed to put all of the lessons learned on earlier projects into practice.
In the years following my first high school attempts, I’d always wanted to come back to Boone Shepard but never knew how. Whenever I’d toyed with making it darker or grittier or more realistic I lost interest fast. But as I started to reconsider those stories in 2013 I realised that the key was not doing any of those things. The key was tempering all the extremes so that the different moving parts could work in concert without undermining each other. Boone Shepard could absolutely be both silly and tragic, dark and optimistic all at the same time. But to avoid head-spinning tonal whiplash things had to be shifted. Characters redeveloped, slashed throats replaced with offscreen gunshots, giant tricycles with motorbikes; altogether bringing the series into the realm of an action-packed adventure story with a melancholic heart and a streak of absurdity.
The moment I started planning, I knew I had something. It was personal but not to a fault. It was uniquely me in style and content. It offered something to audiences who didn’t care about any of the above. It sat squarely in a recognised genre, comparable to popular titles without imitating them.
That doesn’t mean the Boone Shepard Trilogy was perfect. There is so much I would change about those books if I were to write them today. But then, I’m not convinced I could write them today. Sometimes you can revisit old works again and again, finding new notes to play and new ways to approach previously shaky ideas. But other times you have to accept that the piece was representative of the person you were at a different stage of your life, and that for better or worse it fulfilled the vision and intentions of that person.
Boone Shepard was published by Bell Frog Books, a tiny publishing house started by a friend of mine who had read the original high school drafts and was convinced that there was something to them. She believed in Boone enough to invest considerable money and resources in getting his story out into the world, but both of us were new to this and I suspect we both wondered if we were going to look stupid on the other side of the release.
When Boone Shepard was nominated for the Readings Young Adult Prize alongside books that have gone on to be modern classics, such as The Road to Winter and The Bone Sparrow, my imposter syndrome retreated just a little further. Not because that external validation meant that Boone or myself suddenly had worth we hadn’t previously, but because seeing my strange little high school fever dream sitting on shelves next to some serious heavy hitters, I started to think maybe there wasn’t some big secret to being a writer after all. Maybe it really was just time and effort and lessons learned. Or maybe I’d just managed to trick everyone. Either, really, was fine by me.
But there was maybe one thing I was missing before I could realistically consider myself a good writer, and it was something I stumbled on completely by accident in 2014, a little while before the first Boone Shepard book was published. Nearing the end of my Masters of Screenwriting with no clue of my next step, I was at a weird kind of personal crossroads, lost and alone and unsure of my future or who I was. In that lonely period I took solace in old friends. Namely, I wrote a sequel to Windmills.
It was something I’d thought about doing for years, despite the original’s peak success being a badly self-published version that sold maybe thirty copies. But I’d never really had a sequel idea that stuck until, suddenly I did. The story basically tumbled out of me fully formed; there was very little hair pulling or agonising, I knew where the characters were, what they were going through and what was going to happen. It remains to this day the easiest and most enjoyable writing experience I ever had because I just felt so in tune with the story, as though everything I was writing worked with startling ease.
But what stood out the most was something I’d never considered myself to have a great handle on, which was the prose. Or maybe more specifically, the voice. I wrote it from three alternating perspectives; those of Leo and Lucy, the survivors of Windmills, and of Ben Hanks, a good but troubled cop looking into the events of the previous book. In the very first paragraph of the first chapter, written from Ben’s perspective, I started writing in a way I’d never done before. It wasn’t the grandiose, faux-sophisticated style of my early stuff, the more conversational approach I’d adopted post the autobiographical project or even the quirky-but-still-conversational style of Boone Shepard. No, Ben’s voice was totally different. Cynical but decent, hardened but not emotionless, haunted but not ruined. I’d never written a character like him before. I’d never thought I could. Most of my characters sounded like slight variants of myself. But writing as somebody so removed from me in both perspective and experience freed me up somehow. It let me experiment a little, let me for the first time try to write something with its own unique sort of beauty. I don’t want to go as far as to say I was aiming for poetic because I wasn’t, but I was beginning to understand that alterations in voice and style could create the tone I was looking for, one of melancholy, regret and fragile but maybe underserved hope.
I think it was and remains one of the best things I’ve ever written. But none of that mattered. It was a direct sequel to a self-published novel that was required reading for this one to make any sense. I wasn’t keen to self-publish again, so the new book ultimately ended up as something I wrote for myself and the handful of people who were interested in the next chapter. I’m still proud of it and it’s still just sitting in a folder on my computer, unlikely to ever see the light of day. But what it did was lead me to fall back in love with a story that was, after no small amount of difficulty, about to change my life.
This is the third instalment in an ongoing series examining the lessons learned from early works. Read Part One here and Part Two here.
It was from my early plays that I began to understand something too many writers nowadays overlook, especially in the theatre. If you want audiences to pay for your work and consequently allow you to make a living, then you have to give them more than just self-expression. Your work must be personal, but there’s no reason a stranger should care about that if they’re looking to be transported for a while. Entertain first, express-self second.
On this front I initially overcorrected. The next thing I wrote after Bitten By Productions’ 2013 debut Reunion was Below Babylon, a dystopian noir play about a former hitman in a rundown bar waiting for his old associates to come and kill him. I had ideas for Babylon; big ideas of something that merged elements of Cowboy Bebop, Red Dead Redemption, Blade Runner and all things Tarantino. I was energised writing it, feeling like I was breaking new ground, embracing genre conventions then twisting the hell out of them, putting together something cool, something that would blow up theatre by using the medium to tell the kind of story we never see on stage anymore.
In reality, Below Babylon was just a refined version of the stuff I wrote as a kid, a chaotic blend of disparate influences. It was more original than Phoenix, sure. It didn’t have that much more me in it, though. Nor did A Good German, the next play I wrote. I’ve spoken extensively about the lessons I learned on German, but recently I’ve started to look at it a little differently. The script had a willingness to explore difficult territory and questions that don’t have easy answers. In retrospect it was less brave than arrogant, but it certainly wasn’t hollow. The problem with German was that I was far too underdeveloped a writer to explore what I wanted to and was unable to recognise the fact, to my detriment.
But those plays were only the beginning of maybe my most prolific stretch as a writer. Being part of a production company meant that, between 2013 and 2017, I wrote a lot of plays.
During the production of Below Babylon I had an idea for a follow up about one of the surviving characters, which became the two-hander Beyond Babylon. Beyond has always, to me, seemed like a bit of an also-ran – it had more thematic bite than Below but was too talky and static to be much fun on stage. However thinking back now it’s clear to me that Beyond, the first thing I wrote while studying screenwriting at the Victorian College of the Arts, was in a lot of ways a prototype for the plays I’d spend the next few years writing. That is to say, it was a play focused squarely on one central question that it tried to interrogate from as many angles as possible. It’s a type of theatre that a later review of The Critic referred to as ‘a play of ideas’.
Beyond’s problem was that no amount of philosophical intention was going to make its extended, one-note conversation all that engaging for an audience. So when I wrote The Last Supper, the third Babylon play, I tried to merge the lessons of Below and Beyond. Supper had the action, violence and twists of the former but the central thematic cohesion of the latter, in this case an exploration of what makes good leadership. Supper was, consequently, a marked improvement on everything that had come before. But it still suffered in one major regard; like Beyond, its theme wasn’t anything that meant a lot to me personally.
Everything changed with my next play, We Can Work It Out. Not in a way that would be hugely obvious to any distant observer; I continued producing no-budget, one scene/one room shows in dingy Melbourne theatres. But to be in the audience the nights We Can Work It Out was performed was to see a marked difference in response.
We Can Work It Out had four things going for it, four things that only came together due to mistakes made, lessons learned and my time at the VCA. The first was that it was about the Beatles, meaning there would be a built-in appeal to a distinct audience. The second was that it was funny, giving it something tangible to offer in the way of entertainment. The third was that it had a central theme that mattered to me; namely, what the purpose of art should be. The fourth was that, written at a time when I deeply doubted myself as a writer, it was very, very personal. In its depictions of creative insecurity and fear of losing your passion, it came from a real place. Every time We Can Work It Out has been performed it has done well. And that’s because, I think, it works on several different levels. It completely changed the way I wrote plays going forward.
Like Beyond, We Can Work It Out was a ‘play of ideas’. The difference is that it was a good one. And that formula continued going forward. The Lucas Conundrum, The Critic, The Trial of Dorian Gray, The Lucas Betrayal, Heroes – for a few years there I kept writing plays that applied comedic techniques and story structure to explore something that I was deeply interested in, usually capped off with a big twist. And for the most part, they were well received. Coupled with the simultaneous development of the Boone Shepard Trilogy (we’ll get to that), I was starting to feel like for the first time I sort of knew what I was doing. Only sort of, but it was a big step in the right direction.
Writing words about writing words.