I’m proud of Boone Shepard, but it took me a little while to get there.
This is somewhat complicated so I’ll do my best to explain. At the risk of sounding like an egotistical wanker, around the time the first Boone Shepard was gearing up for release, I’d gotten a little too used to being told I was brilliant after various Movie Maintenance episodes. In my defence, it was the first time in my life I’d had what amounted to any kind of following for my work, and that’s a hard thing to keep a level head about. People were tweeting and emailing me fairly regularly to tell me how excited they were for Boone Shepard, and maybe that somehow coloured how I actually saw the book.
On Movie Maintenance I was known for putting dark or revisionist spins on franchises, mainly horror. Boone Shepard, by contrast, was only ever intended as a quirky, gothic, children’s novel. But being released through Sanspants Radio as an audiobook read by me automatically linked the novel to the podcast, and the impression I got was that some fans of the show were let down by the book.
Look, I don’t want to speak for anyone’s experience. No book is for everyone and Boone Shepard is certainly no exception, but I heard from a few readers that they expected something more explosive or shocking from me, and that’s fair enough. I’m also sure there are plenty of readers who just didn’t like Boone Shepard very much and, that’s equally fair, just like there were plenty who liked Boone enough to send fan art and theories and all kinds of stuff that made me feel awesome. The value of what anyone creates is subjective and if there’s one massive lesson I learned from Boone and my time on Movie Maintenance, it’s that that’s okay. Somebody’s opinion on your work doesn’t reflect on you personally, whether positive or negative.
But I do feel like there was a contingent of Boone Shepard readers whose expectations didn’t meet the reality of the book, and it took me some time to wrap my head around that. Despite all the great feedback Boone got, I think I was a little let down by some of the reactions, and that led me to look at it through slightly cynical goggles. It was only really after the first book was shortlisted for the Readings Young Adult Prize that I let myself think it was maybe pretty good after all. Re-reading it then, a year after release, I was taken aback by how much I actually liked it.
I think that the first book, for the most part, works as the establishment of a character and a series. It’s super pacy; never spending a second longer than it needs to on any given stretch of the plot. The characters are pretty clearly defined and the dialogue is funny and bouncy. Both Boone and Promethia grow and change in tangible ways over the course of the book, and there are passages that lend the book enough thematic depth to make it more than just a rollicking adventure yarn.
I’m glad that I can still feel warmly about my first published novel three years later. The fact is that Boone Shepard is the best book I could have written at the time. I’m proud of it and I think, overall, the response it got vindicates me feeling that way But since it was released I’ve learned a lot and consequently, there are things I would approach differently if I was writing it today.
Like the prose. I don’t think it’s bad or anything, but there are times when the language is perfunctory at best, clunky at worst. This is one case where the timing of the book worked against me; I don’t think I really mastered prose in a way I was happy with until 2015. Boone Shepard was written in 2014. Looking at American Adventure and The Silhouette and the Sacrifice I feel like there’s a natural flow that isn’t always there in the first book.
Part of the flow issue might be due to the plotting. A big criticism that’s been levelled at the first Boone Shepard a few times is that it jumps around a lot. This is true and I think it’s hard to pinpoint with much specificity what the central plot of the book is before the end. Boone’s goal changes regularly; at the start he’s trying to eradicate a book that contains his secrets, in the flashback section he’s trying to become a famous journalist, in the back half of the book he’s trying to defeat his evil brother then, in the last two chapters, all the threads come together. I think the book’s fast enough for this to not be the biggest problem in the world, but in retrospect I probably could have found a way to give it one clear through line around which the other plots could orbit.
Tone is a bit of an issue too. For context, the Boone Shepard series was, in development, supposed to be goofy with flashes of darkness, but in practice I think it ended up closer to the other way around. Part of this is due to the fact that Boone Shepard was initially written as the darker sequel to a jaunty first book that was skipped by the publisher. It’s the reason American Adventure is my favourite of the three; ultimately it hews closest to what the series was originally meant to be.
I don’t think the foregrounded darkness is necessarily the worst thing in the world. Starting goofier might have made where the series went feel kind of jarring. I guess the problem is that now the weird silliness at times might feel a bit egregious. I don’t know what the solution to this could have been. In the end, without being at least a little goofy, Boone just wouldn’t be Boone. The series straddles some vast tonal shifts, and that’s always a tough thing to manage, especially when you’re going from silly manatee jokes to human experimentation and murder.
Speaking of murder.
If Boone Shepard was more well known, I think I’d be excoriated for the treatment of Marbier. A friend who read the book in the early days suggested that, in killing her off to drive Boone’s story, I’d ‘Gwen Stacey’d’ her. Which, look, yeah. I defended the choice at the time; Marbier was never some damsel in distress, besides which she had a larger role to play in the series and it wasn’t like her death marked the removal of the only major female character in the book. After all, Promethia Peters remained alive and kicking. Plus, the second book went on to introduce Jessie and Addison Cane; across the board, I’m proud that the Boone Shepard books boast a cast of female characters who are not only collectively tough and capable, but very different to each other. Promethia is immature and gleefully snarky, Marbier is laconic and mysterious, Jessie is excitable and optimistic while Addison delights in her own corruption and selfishness. I’m proud of the fact that I didn’t just write a pile of Black Widow-esque super cool tough girls and pat myself on the back for my stellar feminism.
But look, all of that dances around the fact that what happened to Marbier was a fridging, plain and simple. And the fact is, the early development of the series happened long before I had any idea what ‘fridging’ even was. By the time the term and its ugly implications entered my lexicon, there wasn’t much I could have done short of overhauling so much carefully planned narrative.
Or maybe there was something I could have done. Maybe. Or I could have handled it differently. I don’t know. In isolation, Marbier’s fate is a valid plot point. But it doesn’t change the fact that even as recently as Deadpool 2 we’ve been seeing the clumsy death of the love interest to motivate the hero. It’s a trope I detest and yet one I still used because I guess I didn’t know any better. So what’s the solution? I wouldn’t change it, as it would dramatically alter far too much of the story. But I can’t pretend I’m happy with it as it stands. Which is a sticky place to be.
I guess, like anything, the lesson is not about changing what’s done, abut about knowing what you wouldn’t do again. Which is especially fitting for this retrospective as it’s essentially the theme of the whole Boone Shepard trilogy.
In a lot of cases, I might have taken the adage ‘write what you know’ a little too seriously. In my late teenage years I wrote a kind of novelised autobiography; a painstakingly true to life (at least insofar as my own biased recollections could be true) book that I for some reason thought would be super entertaining to anyone other than a nostalgic me looking back. It wasn’t.
I pretty quickly moved on from the idea of unaltered autobiography being something worth pursuing if you haven’t had a particularly interesting life, but that didn’t stop me outright lifting real events to use in stories. Or, in some cases, writing highly specific ‘what ifs’ populated with characters who were basically just people I knew with changed names (Hometown, Reunion, Regression).
Writers wouldn’t write if they didn’t have some stuff in their lives they wanted to work out to some degree or other. The challenge, of course, is making that stuff matter to anyone who isn’t us. Sometimes we do it by wrapping broad themes and ideas lifted from our own experiences in stories with far more action and excitement. Sometimes we do it by writing plays like Three Eulogies for Tyson Miller.
Three Eulogies for Tyson Miller tells the story of Quentin, a twenty-something journalist whose former best friend, Tyson Miller, has recently died in a car accident. When Tyson’s partner Jill asks Quentin to give the eulogy, he is initially reluctant but, thinking back on the good times, decides to say yes. Jill finds his first eulogy too sanitised, arguing that Tyson would have wanted honesty. So Quentin gets honest, in the process digging into what went wrong with their friendship and exactly who was to blame.
Structurally the play moves between the present-day conversations between Quentin and Jill, the three (spoiler) eulogies Quentin ends up writing, and flashbacks to Quentin’s friendship with Tyson that largely take place out of order, drip feeding bits of the puzzle as Quentin digs deeper and deeper into just how he feels about his friend now that he’s gone.
Quentin and Tyson’s relationship is less based on an old friendship of mine and more a direct depiction of it. Except, I should clarify, the real-life friend the play is based on isn’t dead. As far as I know, he’s actually doing very well for himself.
This friendship was something I wanted to write about for a long time. The issue, of course, was trying to find the hook that might make it remotely interesting to an outside audience. I toyed with a few different versions half seriously before stumbling on the eulogy angle. Immediately it gave the play structure and stakes; wanting to not screw up the last public word on somebody’s life is a pretty big deal.
The writing process was somewhere between cathartic and challenging. Personal stories always are; requiring you to hit a balance between honest and conscious of the fact that nobody except for you has any reason to care about this so you’d better work damn hard to give them one. Did I manage it? Honestly, I don’t know.
But I do know the reasons I wanted to write about this. Tyson Miller strays into new territory for me, as it’s a play specifically about the complexities of friendship. Especially friendship between young men. I think guys in their teens and early twenties can be destructive in their bonds with each other. Fuelled by insecurity, friendships can become ugly games of one-upmanship, figurative dick measuring contests that ultimately nobody walks out of happy. Because friendship isn’t a competition; it’s mutual affection and support. But masculine insecurity can destroy even the warmest of friendships, and that’s what this play looks at. It’s honest; uncomfortably so, at times. Like Quentin, I had to evaluate my own actions and, for the first time, admit fault where previously I had protested my own innocence. In re-examining a friendship, I eventually landed at a place where I realised that maybe it was for the best that it ended. On my last day of writing, realisation struck that in some ways what I had put together was both a play and a eulogy for a friendship that meant a lot to me once, but slipped away after years of hurts both real and imagined during which time we became different people and went in different directions. There were times, in writing it, when I felt really sad. Other times I found myself getting angry at decade-old slights. But ultimately I finished it with a weird sense of closure.
So yeah. Challenging and cathartic.
Will it work for a broader audience? I think so. I think it has a lot to say that will be relevant to a lot of people, and I suspect it gets to some ugly truths that are universal across our interactions with each other. I could be wrong about all of that, but if I am I’m still really glad I wrote this. The process was unlike anything I’ve done before; all the way through I challenged myself to ask whether this was what a real person would say, eschewing any kind of stylisation for an attempt at naturalism. I also identified any place where I was starting to feel uncomfortable and made myself face up to what it was that caused that feeling. The result, I suspect, could be something special. As always, we’ll see.
Saying goodbye to Boone Shepard had a much bigger effect on me than I thought it would. Before the release of The Silhouette and the Sacrifice I’d assumed that, given the manuscript had been completed for so long, I’d already kind of let go. But the day before publication it hit me hard; this was it for Boone. And while a few people who’ve finished the book have asked about the potential of a fourth instalment, I would put that in a box marked ‘extremely unlikely’. I wrote a little story to send him off into the sunrise, and since then there’s been a Boone shaped hole in my heart. His story feels finished, and it’s a hard thing to accept.
But maybe, in some ways, letting go of Boone has liberated me. Hindsight is very much 20/20 and it’s slowly become clear to me that, in some ways, the last decade of my writing life has been very much built around the twin pillars of Boone Shepard and Windmills. Without going into depressing detail, Windmills hit a couple of brick walls earlier this year that led me to put it on ice for the foreseeable future, while Boone came to his natural end. For the first time, I’m facing a slate of work that involves no variation on either property. And that feels bloody weird.
But at the same time, exciting. I can’t say much about a lot of the projects that have consumed my time in the last few months, but there has been some thrilling forward momentum for a couple of them. Nothing concrete, but enough to know that we’re on the right track. As for the stuff I can discuss, The Trial of Dorian Gray has no less than four different versions currently in production (a film and radio play in England, two stage versions in Australia) while I’ve been hard at work with an awesome team of writers developing Heroes into a web series, the pilot of which is scheduled to shoot early next year. The series will broaden the scope of the play/radio play over six ten-minute episodes. It’s been thrilling to see what different voices have done with these characters, and I can’t wait for people to see the finished product.
Meanwhile, my major literary project right now is the ongoing adventures of Maggie, the protagonist of Sunburnt Country around whom I’m planning a whole series of standalone novels. The first of which is an expansion of Sunburnt Country, the rest new ideas for crime stories shot through with horror. In some ways Maggie is a spiritual successor to Boone; the wandering nomad who stumbles into situations and rights wrongs, but in almost every way that matters they couldn’t be more different. Where Boone was fast talking and cocky, Maggie is laconic. Where Boone eschewed violence, Maggie’s quick to administer shotgun blasts to those who deserve them. Where Boone was weighed down by his past, Maggie doesn’t think about hers. At least, not until it comes back to bite her.
I love writing Maggie, and I think there’s a lot of potential in her stories. But it’s early days and it will take a long, long time to know whether this, or any of the other seeds I’ve been planting of late, will actually grow into anything.
But I’m optimistic. As I think you have to be. Pessimism hampers ambition, and honestly, I think working in this industry requires a willingness to be at least a little bit deluded.
This year marked the end of both Movie Maintenance and Boone Shepard, along with an indefinite hiatus on Windmills. I’d be lying if I tried to claim that these endings or pauses weren’t a mix of depressing and terrifying at times. It’s easy to rest on the laurels of proven successes. But nothing is permanent and if you rely too much on what’s already established you’ll find yourself at a loss when it’s suddenly pulled out from under you.
New horizons mean new possibilities. And, very probably, new failures as well. But you can't have one without the other.
In 2008 I was obsessed with the Beatles and by extension, of all things, the conspiracy theory claiming that Paul McCartney had died in 1966 and been replaced with an imposter. It wasn’t that I believed it, just that I found it kind of fascinating. So fascinating, in fact, that I had a dream one night that I was an investigative journalist delving into said conspiracy while riding around the countryside on a giant tricycle.
It was a weird dream, but often it’s the weird ones that stick with you, that give you this strange feeling that somehow, for some reason, this is important. As with most things I can’t stop thinking about, I figured I had to write about it. So I came up with a story; a story that could balance the strangeness of the whole thing with the deeper pathos and creepiness that underpins any good conspiracy theory. And for that very particular story, I needed a very particular character.
The name Boone Shepard had been in my head for years; a name that I knew would one day belong to a hero in one of my stories. And the kind of hero who could investigate Beatles conspiracy theories while riding a giant tricycle was the kind of hero who deserved a name like Boone Shepard.
I wrote three stories about him that year. They weren’t great; a mismatch of violent darkness, weird nonsense and tragedy. They were overwritten and packed haphazardly with the things I loved at the time; gonzo journalism, gothic horror, murder mysteries, 60s hippy culture and time travel. The friends I showed them to reacted accordingly, saying that they were dumb and unrealistic compared to the other stuff I was writing at the time – considering the already dumb and unrealistic nature of that other stuff, the fact that Boone Shepard stood out probably said something – so I let Boone fade away and focused on other stories.
Years passed. I left school, went to uni, and wrote more – some bad stuff, some good stuff, most in between. Boone lingered in the back of my head; like most ideas I’ve had I entertained the notion of revisiting him, but never seriously.
Then along came the real hero of Boone’s story; April Newton. She read the old stories and, where nobody else had, saw potential. Her excitement for the world and the character reignited my own; soon the gears start turning and, as if he’d never been away, Boone rode back into my thoughts and quickly, back on to the page.
Some things changed. The weirdness was toned down. The giant tricycle became a battered motorbike. But the spirit of the old stories; the wild, strange sense of adventure, had gone nowhere. And at a time when I’d been writing mostly melancholic, personal plays and super dark novels, returning to Boone was a breath of fresh air and a homecoming that I think I really needed. Over 2013 and 2014 I wrote five novels, finally wrapping it all up with an ending that I still to this day think is one of the best things I’ve ever written.
I sent the first book to a few publishers and agents, but there was never much interest. Then April contacted me to tell me she was starting a publishing house and she wanted Boone Shepard to be her first title. There was no hesitation from my end. April understood Boone better than anyone and knew what the story needed to get the best out of it.
Some parts of the plan did change. The intended first book, The Broken Record, was skipped, with elements of it folded into the subsequent instalments. Book two, Darkening Ventures, became book one: Boone Shepard.
I can’t overstate the work April put in to make that first book a reality. But she did an incredible job and what resulted was the kind of book it was hard for me to believe my name was on. But the jury was still out on whether readers would see in Boone what we had.
The reaction to the first book was a learning curve. Thanks to my involvement with Sanspants Radio it reached a huge audience; the audiobook was listened to by thousands all around the world, and the responses were wide ranging. The very first bit of feedback I got was somebody tweeting me the morning of release to say ‘your book sucks mate’. Subsequently I heard it all. Some people thought it was a disappointment. Others told me it was their favourite book. I was sent fan-art and photos of kids dressed as Boone Shepard for Book Week. It was probably the widest audience my work had reached at that point and I learnt that what you write can never please everyone but as long as you know that you said what you set out to say, then you can be proud.
But that first book was only one part of the story. In retrospect, ending on a giant cliff-hanger was about the most presumptuous thing I could have done, as there was no guarantee of it selling or being well liked enough to get a sequel. Luckily, it did.
American Adventure might have debuted to a slightly more subdued response, but it did so at the same time that the first book was nominated for the Readings Young Adult Prize. I can’t stress enough what a moment of vindication that was. For months, Boone stood proudly on posters in every Readings store, side by side with some of the most talked about YA books of recent times. It was definitive proof that this strange idea of mine that somehow found its way into stores had managed to be seen as a contender. That was a pretty special feeling.
Merging the final two books was, in the end, not only practical but logical. I wasn’t arrogant enough to assume a fourth was likely, so we decided to go out with a bang. The final two books were always linked plot and theme wise anyway, and now it’s hard to imagine them as separate entities. The Silhouette and the Sacrifice probably needed the most work to bring together, but it paid off in a big way. The three books together tell one complete story and the final book, for my money, is comfortably the best; sprawling, emotional and with an ending, almost unchanged from what was written in 2014, that I think shows just what Boone Shepard was always about beneath the adventure and the manatee jokes.
And as of today, it’s out in the world. The whole story, all wrapped up for people to read or not read as they desire (please read it).
How do I feel in this moment of completion? It’s hard to say. Things in my life have been so busy for so long that Boone has almost become an afterthought. But today, more than any other day ever, is his day. Tonight the book officially launches at Readings Kids (6:30, come along, there’ll be wine) and after that, well, who knows?
But for now, Boone has ridden off into the sunset, along with Promethia, Oscar, Jessie, Marbier, Avery and all the rest. And I think for the rest of my life, no matter what I write or what happens, I’ll always have a certain singular fondness for that gang of misfits and miscreants. Boone’s story is one of hope and heroism, about overcoming the worst in yourself to find the best, about learning from your mistakes and saying goodbye to the past. It’s about becoming your own person and being better to those around you. It’s about, in short, all the lessons I learned in the years I was telling it. Beneath the craziness is the most personal thing I’ve ever written.
I hope you’ll read the end and I hope you’ll like it. But it’s out of my hands now. I’m finished.
Goodbye Mr Shepard. It was a pleasure and a privilege to have known you.
There’s an old saying, that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It’s one of those things that seems to make sense on the surface, until you look at it a little closer. For example, you can regularly sneak into a vicious country town with a bone-deep hatred of journalists and a marrow deep hatred of journalists named Boone Shepard and assume that, statistically speaking, it’s highly unlikely that said town will manage to catch and try to hang you every single time. After all, a town with such a particular and nonsensical prejudice probably, it stands to reason, isn’t populated with the brightest sorts.
But at a certain point you’re just making excuses without confronting the issue at hand, the issue at hand being that I, once again, was locked up in the cells of the Greenville Police Station waiting to be hanged at dawn, having once again snuck into the town in pursuit of a story and been caught because of an unexpected amorous midnight rendezvous between little old Mrs McCurdles and John the friendly butcher, who had chased me into the police station with his friendly battle axe.
It was also highly possible that the issue at hand was my own insanity, but that one would keep for dealing with at a later date. The same luxury was not offered by a meeting between my neck and a noose.
Leaning against the cold wall of the cell, I sighed. There weren’t many escape options being presented to me at that stage, which meant I would have to rely on my wit and charm when the morning came. That, given Greenville, was bound to be yet another case of doing the same thing and expecting a different result, although to be fair I might well end up vindicated this time – Greenville had never successfully hanged me before. That counted as a different result, right?
I looked around the cell for roughly the hundredth time, but to my surprise I was met with a different result. A face behind the bars was staring back at me, a face that did not belong to the policeman or the Mayor, who had a habit of turning up at all hours of the night to gloat. No, this face was far too young to be either. He was about ten, wearing plain overalls with glasses and a mess of thick brown hair.
‘Hello,’ I said.
‘Hello,’ he replied. ‘You’re Boone Shepard.’
‘Guilty as charged.’
'Is being Boone Shepard what they charged you with?’
‘Might as well have been,’ I grinned. ‘Prying, this time. Which is a change from the standard meddling, but both are pretty synonymous with being Boone Shepard.’
‘Do you think big words make you seem smart?’ he asked.
‘If I wanted to seem smart I wouldn’t be back in Greenville, would I?’
‘So why are you in Greenville?’
I shrugged. ‘There was a story. I heard Mrs McCurdles was running a jewel thieving operation by night. Turns out she was really just running a kissing-the-butcher operation, which doesn’t quite have the same front page potential.’
‘I dunno,’ the boy said. ‘Front pages last a day. That gossip will fuel Greenville for weeks.’
‘More than my finally being hanged?’
‘People care more about gossip than justice.’
I laughed despite myself. ‘That’s… that’s a cynical thing to think at your age.’
‘That’s a condescending thing to think at your age,’ he replied.
I nodded. ‘Fair enough. I’m sorry. People always underestimated me because of how old I was too. I should know better.’
‘But you don’t,’ the boy said. ‘You’re an adult. Adults are supposed to know best.’
I raised an eyebrow. ‘In your experience, has that ever been true?’
The boy grinned. ‘Guess not.’
‘I reckon it’s better to be proud of being an idiot than deluded about being smart,’ I said. ‘I can’t tell you why I don’t know better. I just don’t. Too curious. Too stupid. Too…’ There were other words for what I was too much of. That didn’t mean I wanted to say them. ‘What are you doing here, anyway?’
‘Never seen you up close,’ the boy said. ‘Only ever heard all the outraged stories. Thought I’d see if they were true.’
‘My Father says that you’re bad news because you dig up things that should stay buried,’ he said. ‘Truths that make dinner parties uncomfortable.’
‘Is your father an exception to the rule about adults knowing nothing?’
The boy shook his head. ‘I think he’s half the reason the rule exists. Do you think you’ll get out?’
‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘Probably. I usually do, right?’
‘But you don’t have a plan.’
‘Then how will you escape?’
‘Something always turns up.’
‘What if it doesn’t?’
‘If it doesn’t…’ I tried to think of a witty answer. But there wasn’t one. I thought of the noose. I thought of the faces of the town baying for my blood.
And then I thought about what I would see in that moment. About the bent gum trees and dry brown grass of my childhood. About the foggy streets of London now and then, about the rolling fields of England, about blood in the snow and pain and the subsequent endless pursuit of something even I didn’t quite understand.
‘If it doesn’t,’ I said, and tried to keep the tremor out of my voice, ‘then at least I know I’ve had a life.’
‘Everyone’s had a life,’ he said. ‘Some people even have long ones. Or good ones.’
‘Maybe you need the bad to see the good,’ I said. ‘Maybe the kind of life we should want is one that’s full, not one that’s good. Have a few stories to tell at the end of it.’
‘Well considering you might be at the end,’ the boy said, ‘what’s the best story you have?’
I looked at the roof. Closed my eyes. And smiled. ‘Once upon a time there was a boy. Not much was special about him. But he wanted more than what he had. So he did whatever he could to get it, until he learned that he’d been so focussed on one thing that there were a lot of other things he’d missed. And then he started to see those things and then…’ I opened my eyes. I looked at the boy. ‘And then life was full of colour. And the boy knew that as long as he kept seeing those colours, seeing colours even though other people told him they weren’t there, he would be okay.’
For a moment, there was silence.
‘Seeing things other people don’t is a sign of insanity,’ he said.
I winked. ‘There you go.’
For a moment, the boy just watched me. ‘I don’t know if I like that story.’
‘It’s the best one I’ve got.’
‘It’ll have to do I guess.’
He reached out a hand and dropped a key through the bars.
I stared at it, unsure if this was real. I looked back at the boy. He was smiling.
‘Something always turns up,’ he said. Then he was gone, vanished in the dark beyond the bars.
For a long moment I just sat there. Then I reached out and picked up the key. It was heavy and cool in my hand.
I unlocked the cell door and quietly slid it open. I moved through the still, silent and dark station before stepping out on to the cobblestoned main street of Greenville; just quiet, murky shadows at the point where night starts to become morning.
I found my bike around the back of the station and wheeled it down the main street, careful not to make a noise. But nobody else was awake. They slept their boring sleeps, waiting for the morning when they could watch a man hang. A morning that, for Greenville, might as well be a Christmas during which Santa had finally paid some actual attention to who was on the naughty list.
I arrived at the outskirts of Greenville just as the first fringes of sunrise lit the horizon. I stopped for a moment and watched. The distant waves of dark hills were slowly becoming green as fire grew in the sky above, seeping through the purple until it became a lighter blue. Another day, and I was still alive. I took a long, deep breath. The air was cool and bracing. I felt alive. I felt ready. For what, I didn’t know yet.
I looked over my shoulder. Greenville remained partly in shadow. But maybe, standing on the main street I had left the town via, I could see a shape. Maybe it was the figure of a young boy, watching. Maybe it was nothing.
But just in case, I waved.
I started my bike. The thrum of the engine filled the air. I revved it, once. It was like a roar. I laughed, and clambered on. My eyes moved to the road ahead, to the morning and the rolling fields beyond. I didn’t know where I was going to go. But I’d figure that out as I went. Something always came up. Always.
Whistling, I accelerated into the morning light.
See you around, Boone.
Some of you may or may not be aware that I’m a bit of a hobbyist sculptor, although even saying that probably gives my abilities more credit than they deserve. Making stuff out of clay is something I’ve enjoyed doing since I was a kid, and I’ve recently decided to commit to more frequent attempts, as, frankly, I need a low stakes creative hobby, something to focus attention on that isn’t writing.
It’s funny though, how similar the two things are in some respects. When you start making something out of clay you begin with a smooth sphere of the stuff, then slowly work it until it begins to take the shape of what you can see in your head. Clay doesn’t react well to you being too tough with it. If you work too long on one piece then it can dry out and start to crack. And the worst possible thing you can do it tear some off and stick in back on to fashion an arm or extra appendage or whatever. The moment the clay hardens, anything that’s been stuck on will fall away.
You have to roll with the (very) metaphorical punches. Sometimes trying to get the shape of the nose or mouth right will ruin another part. As much as individual aspects of the work require attention, you have to try and keep the whole of what you’re working towards in your head at all times. Overthinking can ruin it, but carelessness is just as detrimental. It’s also important to know when to stop. It’s hard to be a perfectionist with something that dries out after too long. Sometimes the rough parts are what adds character.
A novel or a script is pretty similar, but over a much longer stretch of time. The big difference is that the sculpting doesn’t end when you hit the conclusion of the story. The first draft is really just one step removed from the plain ball of clay that you started out with. The beginnings of the shape are there, but you’re a long way from the finished product, even if you think you are.
I used to finish something, decide I was largely happy with it, then move on. This is another reason working with clay is probably good for me; it provides a creative outlet in which I can do that. But in writing, I’ve found myself developing a new commitment to take my time. Instead of jumping erratically between projects, I’ve taken to spending a lot more time focussed on the ongoing development of a couple (in this case Sunburnt Country and Nelson and the Gallagher). I’ve taken my time; getting feedback on the drafts, letting those new ideas percolate, and then coming back to keep working at the thing.
A major adjustment in my thinking is patience. A few years ago I was desperate to be a famous writer. I didn’t care what theatre produced my plays or what publisher or agent I ended up with. I think I craved validation so much that it didn’t really phase me where I found it.
A few years later, that desperation is long gone. I’d much rather a story took a few years to be perfect, and the first step is to be flexible enough to never view anything as finished. Back in 2013 I chose to ignore extremely valuable feedback on Below Babylon because I didn’t want to do the work to get it up to scratch. I kind of shrugged and was like “oh well, too bad, it’s basically finished so there isn’t much I can do”. It’s the same way of thinking that led me to self-publish Windmills despite knowing on some level that it was yet to reach its full potential.
I’m not a patient person, but writing is a patient craft. Like sculpting, it takes time and a gentle touch to eventually find the right shape for a story. The difference with writing is that there’s rarely a time limit for finishing the work.
Take advantage of the fact.
A couple of weeks ago I got a call out of the blue from an old friend. We had been really close at the end of high school and in the years immediately after, but eventually drifted apart. At the time of this call, we hadn’t spoken in over three years.
I wish I could say it was one of those cases where we just picked up where we left off, as if nothing had changed, but it was pretty much the opposite. The conversation was stilted and awkward. There was no warm reminiscence or excited planning for a future catch up. The familiarity of the voice aside, I felt like I was talking to a total stranger. At one point, looking for common ground, I asked if he was still writing and performing music. One of the things that first brought us together was a shared artistic passion.
His response? “Oh, yeah. Sometimes. Here and there.”
There was no regret or self-consciousness in his reply. It was, fittingly enough, as if he was mentioning a half-forgotten friend from a long time ago. I didn’t say anything else about it, but it was a strange thing to hear from somebody who, at the time of our friendship, had loved his music the way I did writing. Someone for whom, once upon a time, the idea of ever giving up would have been tragic.
But he’s not the only one. Shortly out of school another close friend of mine was an extremely talented actor who could light up the stage and demand the attention of anyone watching her. She had this strange and singular quality; a kind of enigmatic, irreverent charisma, the sort of thing that I genuinely believed could have made her a star. She was also fiercely ambitious; driven and uncompromising in pursuing her dream of being a performer.
Except, well, she compromised. Spent years supporting a boyfriend who refused to get a job while he studied. Ended up in another relationship with a partner who didn’t approve of her acting because it might require her to ‘kiss other men’. She once told me that every morning on the way to work she would stand out the back of one of the bigger theatres in Melbourne, watch the cast members head in for a show, and cry. At the time I was living paycheck to paycheck, working late nights and dedicating all my free time to theatre. I urged her to do the same thing. As bad as things got, nothing could be worse than giving up.
Last I heard, she hasn’t acted in about four years. What she has done is buy a house, settle down, and make more money than I’ve ever seen in my life.
I’m not, for the record, trying to speak for her or say that she would have been happier chasing a near impossible dream. I don’t really know her anymore and as far as I can tell she’s in a good place. My point is that if you had asked me, years ago, I never would have guessed at where she ended up. I would have considered it tragic.
The list goes on. Talented actors who went into science or law degrees. Writers far better than me who travelled the world and settled into government jobs. Musicians who went from planning albums to working real estate. And of all those people who I’m still in touch with, when I ask them about their art it’s usually the same response. “Oh, yeah. Sometimes. Here and there.”
I want to be careful with writing this. I refer to these real people not to judge or claim that I’m doing better than them (I’m almost certainly not), but rather to explore something that I’ve been noticing more and more as I near my tenth year of adulthood. On some level I suppose I always knew that, when it comes to the creative arts, only a handful ever ‘make it’. I mean, for years I’ve been confidently espousing the necessity of commitment to your art at the expense of everything else (which I know is naïve, bear with me). But when I was eighteen, I think on some level I really did think that all the brilliant, excited, driven creatives I had surrounded myself with would all find success.
But times change and we change too. Passions develop or they die, and holding on to the dream you had as a kid proves a lot harder when adult life and responsibilities start bearing down on you.
I have a bit of experience with this. One thing I’ve mentioned a couple of times in interviews is that, when I was in high school, I wanted to be an actor. I grew up in a country town, taking part in every school show, working with theatre groups outside school before leaving when I was fifteen, having gotten a drama scholarship to a prestigious boarding school famous for its theatre program. For my first year there, I obsessed over being a great actor. I alienated so many people with how seriously I took myself and how certain I was in my own incredible talent.
But over my three years at that school, I saw what real talent looked like. I saw the people who were genuinely good and I slowly realised that I didn’t match up. Acting as a serious pursuit died very quickly when I was out of school, because what was the point?
The thing is, that didn’t hurt much. Or even at all. By the time I let go of the acting dream, the writing one had already taken its place, and so in the end it was just a matter of recognising my true talent and committing myself to that. And maybe that’s the best comparison to all the people I mentioned above. Maybe, in a lot of those cases, they found their true passion and put away childish things.
That’s the optimistic outlook. Because persisting as a creative means living with a grim reality every single day, the reality that chasing the dream of being a working artist is really fucking hard.
I’ve said this a lot, but I don’t think I ever really meant it. I don’t think I ever really understood how it felt to hit a genuine dead end and be left wondering exactly why you even bother.
This year I’ve hit several. 2017 was one of the most creatively fulfilling years of my life. 2018 has been a different beast altogether. Things that I was excited for were pulled out from under me. Projects I took for sure things turned out to be anything but. Others that I had reason to be very optimistic about fell apart in sometimes brutal, painful ways.
It all culminated with a couple of shit weeks that left me lying in bed, staring at the roof and realising that I had never been as demoralised as I was in that moment. In the past, I would be disappointed about things falling through for an hour or so, then I’d get back up and go on to the next pursuit. But I had found myself in a place where getting up again looked at best difficult, at worst pointless.
After a couple of days, I did pull myself up. There was stuff to do and stories to tell. But hitting that kind of unprecedented low point has a lasting effect. I feel like I’ve come out the other side a bit jaded. A bit less starry eyed. A bit more resigned to the worst things about this industry I’ve chosen. And a bit more understanding of those who decided to choose another one.
I’ve said a few times, half seriously, that I have to make it as a writer because I’m not good at anything else. I’ve said that was a weirdly comforting thought, and I still believe it is. But in the worst moments of this vocation, it looks the exact opposite of comforting. Because trying to be a creative means being at least a little bit deluded about your chances, and in the moments where that delusion drops away and you’re faced with the truth about how hard this game is, you find yourself wondering if maybe you would be better off doing something else.
I have enough to my name to know that I’m not barking up the wrong tree. I make my money as a working writer, and people the world over know my name and have read my work. I am lucky beyond belief and grateful for the fact. But on some level, I’m still rolling a boulder up a hill and hoping that this time it won’t come back down again. If it does, I’ll sigh, rest for a moment, and try again.
But if you’re standing at the top of that hill, watching the boulder get smaller and smaller as it rolls away and you decide that enough is enough then I can’t blame you. A year ago I would have thought your choice was sad. Now? It looks a lot closer to sanity.
A few years ago, as part of my screenwriting masters at VCA, I decided to adapt my play Reunion into a feature screenplay. At the time it seemed a no-brainer; Reunion had only recently been performed for the first time, I knew the characters and the themes intimately, and it was a very personal story. As the kind of thing that I could spend a year working on and not get sick of, it made perfect sense.
The problem was that the VCA screenwriting course is a pretty vicious test of a story and your tolerance for it. Your script is subjected to almost weekly feedback sessions, mostly from difference voices all telling you why it doesn’t work and how to make it better. It can be hard to see anything beyond two obvious options; either ignore them all or take everything on board. Neither is helpful.
Reunion was a simple, sentimental little story about four estranged high school friends getting together for a drink and quickly, in each others’ company, regressing into the petulant teenagers they thought they’d grown beyond. It was based on myself and the friends group I desperately missed at the time, and as such certainly felt very close to home. Of course, a big lesson to learn in any form of writing is that just because something matters to you doesn’t mean it will to anyone else, and very quickly every tutor wanted to know what the hook was. Was it a serious drama? If so, the stakes needed to be raised. Was it a goofy comedy? Then it had to be broader, funnier and more action packed. I tried pushing in both directions and very quickly the script stopped looking like the story I wanted to tell. Eventually I ended up with something that technically was probably a stronger film, but lacked the soul that made Reunion mean anything to me. By the end of the first year I washed my hands of Reunion and moved on to something else.
There are two worst cast scenarios that can happen when faced with the prospect of redrafting. The first is that we remain too attached to the former version and therefore fail to make any tangible changes. We make excuses for the things that don’t gell and avoid any major overhauls that might create more work for us. We treat ‘redrafting’ as making a couple of tweaks, adding or removing a scene or two and maybe doing a final spruce up of the dialogue. That was essentially how I treated the first attempt to take Reunion from stage to screen. It’s what tends to happen when you’re still too close to the previous version; the prospect of re-writing from scratch can be both daunting and demoralising. We’re unwilling or unable to see the extent of the flaws and so we make excuses and brush off feedback. I’ve done this with plenty of projects, from Reunion to Below Babylon to various versions of Windmills. I wasn’t right in any of those cases.
The second worst case scenario is the exact opposite; that we take everyone else’s ideas of what our story could or should be on board and end up re-shaping it into something that no longer resembles what we originally fell in love with. This is also an unhealthy reaction to feedback; we become so demoralised and hate our work so much that we figure the only solution is to burn it all down and start again. A few years ago I wrote a novel called Phoenix, about a gang of teenagers surviving in a house after a nuclear war. Phoenix was slow and clunky but I couldn’t for the life of me work out why it wasn’t coming together properly. Eventually I can up with a drastically different version of the story, in which the protagonist wakes up after the bomb with amnesia in a house surrounded by strangers who all seem to despise him. In some ways that’s probably a better story with a more inherently interesting hook, but it wasn’t Phoenix. It turned a survival thriller into a mystery and drastically altered the themes and characters. Needless to say, I didn’t persist with it.
Stories develop over time, as we think about them more and figure out new solutions to old problems. The great and exciting thing about redrafting is the way in which a story reveals itself to you slowly, giving you a new understanding and a deeper love for what you’re trying to say. But it’s imperative, at every step of the process, to remember why you wanted to tell this story. What was it that you loved about it to begin with? That’s not to say you won’t find other things you love, but rather that the value of what initially drew you to the story can never be overstated. Because nine times out of ten, what first drew you to the story will form the crux of what makes it special. Whether it’s a character, a theme, a moment or an emotion, treat the first germ of the idea as an anchor, even if it doesn’t ultimately make it into the story. If you remember why you wanted to tell this story, you’re far less likely to get lost in insecurities.
Like almost everything about writing, re-drafting is a balancing act, one that requires you to be open to new ideas but to hold on to what you loved about the old ones. The body of a story always changes in the telling, but the soul almost never does. Almost.
Remember; no matter how much a story seems to be eluding you, nobody will ever know your own ideas with the same intimacy as you.
A few years back an ex-girlfriend asked me why I bothered with my blog if nobody read it. This was shortly before I won the Ustinov and the growth of Movie Maintenance, so I didn’t have much to my name and she probably had a point, although the ‘ex’ part of that descriptor probably gives you an indication of how willing I ultimately was to listen. But even knowing she might have been right, it wasn’t a question that really gave me pause or prompted any serious introspection regarding my motives. I blogged because I liked blogging. It was never something I started with the assumption that anybody outside of the occasional friend or family member would read. Questioning the futility of this isn’t invalid. Writing without an audience, on paper, can look a lot like yelling into the void.
But I don’t think writers fundamentally write for other people. I mean sure, being aware of prospective audiences and gearing your writing towards them is essential, but writing would be a hollow exercise if you were entirely telling stories for other people. Your work needs to come from somewhere real, otherwise it lacks weight. To me, writing should always come from an itch you have to scratch, a story you have to tell. That’s the basic seed from which the bigger piece grows.
For example; over Christmas I wrote a novella called Khancoban, a short thriller featuring Maggie from Sunburnt Country finding herself in the middle of a nightmare situation that she essentially has to fight her way out of. I was super proud of it; I thought it was tightly written and full of strong twists and turns. But outside of being available on my Patreon, I haven’t done anything with it yet. Maybe three or four people have read it. But as much as I’d love it to reach as many eyes as possible, I haven’t been going out of my way trying to make that happen. For now, being proud of Khancoban is enough; it was a successfully scratched itch that hopefully one day translates into something other people enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing it. But if that never happens? I’ll live.
My blog sort of fulfils a similar purpose writ large. It’s a place where I articulate and explore ideas that don’t have a home elsewhere. It’s somewhere I can get out my thoughts and opinions on writing, freed of having to be part of a work of fiction. And, beyond that it now provides for me personally a valuable record of my writing life, with entries spanning back to a very different time when my approach to things was largely divergent to what it is now. Add to that more personal reflections on my times overseas, and this blog essentially forms a kind of public journal.
Nowadays, I’m flattered to hear quite regularly from young writers who find it of value. That’s another reason why establishing a blog, even if nobody initially reads it, is a worthwhile pursuit. Charting your development and the lessons you learn about your craft can, it turns out, be valuable to other people as well. Learning that was a really nice surprise; I never approached blogging with any notion that anybody else would get something out of it, so knowing that a small group of people have is awesome.
Maintaining a semi regular writing blog is a great way to keep yourself constantly reflecting on and considering your growth, development and approach to your craft. If you’re worried about people not reading it, don’t be; assume no-one will care, and you’re free of the need to write anything other than exactly what you want to. A love of writing, after all, is the first and most important criteria for pursuing a career in it. Getting people to actually read your stuff should come later. It’s also worth remembering that everything you write is a form of practice and every bit of practice helps you improve. A blog is a fantastic way to scratch a different creative itch, to keep a personal record and maybe, eventually, to provide worthwhile advice to those in the same position you once were.
Earlier today I did my periodic check on Goodreads to see if there were any new reviews or ratings for Boone Shepard. This isn’t something I do often; most responses happened back around the time the book came out and new ratings are only occasional. Besides, I’m well past the point of being hellbent on seeing reviews; in the two years since Boone Shepard came out I’ve heard everything from people calling it their favourite book to people saying it outright sucked and many, many more responses somewhere in between those two polar extremes.
Today there was one new rating for each book; five stars for Boone Shepard and three stars for Boone Shepard’s American Adventure, from the same reviewer. I didn’t take offense to this; rather it just struck me as further evidence of this weird divide I’m noticing in how I think about the books and how people react. It’s something that is especially obvious with kids, who aren’t so good at hiding their feelings; Boone Shepard gets a lot of love while American Adventure seems to have been treated as an inferior, forgettable follow up.
It’s interesting because I think American Adventure is a far stronger book. While I remain proud of Boone Shepard and wouldn’t change anything about it, I do think it was constrained by the pressure of being the debut release of a new publishing house along with my first novel. It was re-edited and reappraised so many times that when I look over it now I almost feel like it lost a bit of the loose, eccentric fun that I associate with the character. This probably wasn’t and isn’t the worst thing in the world; Boone Shepard had to establish the brand but do it within a plot that was originally designed to be the darker second book, so maybe there was an issue in that it started the series on a slightly more serious note than I had envisioned the default as being.
American Adventure, to me, was a chance to let my hair down a bit and write the kind of rollicking, silly adventure yarn that I had originally wanted the series to be comprised of. Knowing at the time that books three and four (which have been reworked now as one final volume) would only get darker, I decided to try and make American Adventure feel more like one of the Boone Shepard short stories; silly, action packed, implausible but with a persistent melancholic thread beneath it.
The result, I suspect, suffers in comparison to the first book. For all its quirky characters and literary references, the original Boone Shepard is still a story about murder, human experimentation, rising up against oppression and confronting your past. The stakes are pretty damn high and I remember people commenting to me after the release that, for a children’s book, it was very dark.
American Adventure, by contrast, probably feels more like a lightweight confection. Technically the stakes are higher (the villain is literally trying to take over the world) but they’re less personal and the characters don’t treat their situation with the same gravity they did in the first book. This was a conscious choice and I feel like I hit the mark, but I can understand why it would feel like a step down rather than an escalation.
Freed of the pressure of starting a series and a career, I had a lot more fun with American Adventure, which is probably why I like it more than the first book even if it’s less emotionally engaging. I can speculate on why it doesn’t get the same appreciation (for all I know it could just outright suck), but ultimately it comes down to a fact that every writer has to try and remember; for better or worse, your audience doesn’t see your work the same way as you do. It’s like your perspective is of someone looking at a tree with X-Ray vision; you can see the insects moving around inside it, the sap, the roots below and the soil feeding them. You have a clearer understanding of what has gone into it, but you can’t see how the thing looks to someone without that same X-Ray vision. You can guess and if you’re good enough at what you do the guess can be spot on, but it will never be 100% reflective of what an objective perspective might see.
No writer sets out to make something bad. I think the books, films etc that really work are the ones where the writers were best able to identify how the story would come across to an external party; something that comes with experience. And look, I think you’re doomed to fail if you try too hard to give an audience what you think they want, especially if that audience doesn’t exist yet. Writing is a tricky balancing act in which you need to create something that both comes from a real place but is geared towards readers or viewers who have no reason to care about the personal demons you’re trying to exorcise. Swing too far in either direction, and what you create becomes either self-indulgent or soulless.
In the end you can’t know how something is going to be received, even with the most well educated guesswork. Being close to something means missing the obvious. Feedback from trusted people can help to a degree; feedback from objective outsiders can help a lot, but all you can really do is follow your instincts and try your best.
And for the record, I still prefer American Adventure to Boone Shepard.
Just some thoughts.