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.
I have somewhat complicated – mostly positive, but still complicated – feelings on the Boone Shepard Trilogy. There’s so much in those books that I’m retrospectively proud of and I remain deeply fond of their world, characters, and inherent quirkiness. But there’s a lot about them that, I think, remains indicative of them being early career projects. A huge reliance on coincidences. Some pretty unpleasant tropes. A wild, disjointed structure that often leaves individual novels feeling like five different books in different genres mashed together. Some tricky tonal unbalances. Clunky prose. And so on.
I stand by the series, for all its flaws. I remain proud to call Boone Shepard my first novel and I’ve always said that the second book, Boone Shepard’s American Adventure, is tied with The True Colour of a Little White Lie as my personal favourite of my books so far. But with the decision to revisit American Adventure ahead of its five-year anniversary came a slight nervousness. I had not read it since its release and in the intervening years my career, life, and writing style have changed drastically. Which left me wondering if American Adventure would be one of those cases where I kind of wished I’d left the past in the past.
I was also a little worried that my fondness for this particular book was coloured by the thrilling period of my life I’ll always associate with it, the time of being on a major podcast with creative friends who daily inspired me, of regular involvement in ramshackle theatre productions, of that rocky but fun career stretch where I’d had just enough validation to know I wasn’t a hack but hadn’t yet managed to leverage what I had into a sustainable income.
American Adventure, in its content and development, feels symptomatic of that time. I’d written the first draft of it along with the other Boone Shepard books in 2014, but while the others hit shelves polished and fleshed out and refined but more or less the same as those original manuscripts, American Adventure was the problem child. The initial draft was a mess, alternatingly tedious and frenetic. It made no sense and was no fun to read. Looking at the text after the release of the first Boone Shepard, my publisher and I had no idea how to salvage it but were essentially locked in to doing so by the cliffhanger ending of the previous book.
The only way to make the story work was a total rewrite, one I was confident I could do because I’d come to understand that the tone this book needed was that of the Boone Shepard short stories I periodically wrote –rollicking, winking, warm-hearted fun with a melancholic sting. Without the pressure of establishing the world and characters, American Adventure could be that book. It just needed a complete overhaul to pull it off.
I was given a month to do so. And man I still think so warmly back on that time; tearing through the text with the help of my writer friends and in doing so finding what would end up being the central theme of the book – that we all make mistakes, we all fall short, but with determination and the help of those around us we can make good. It was tough. It was terrifying. But my god, it was fun.
Of course, it tracks that such a dizzying, exhilarating creative process would leave you feeling pretty positive about the final product, but that’s in no way indicative of whether it’s actually any good. The first Boone Shepard had plenty of critics. It also had plenty of passionate fans who told me regularly how much they loved it. American Adventure never got such a fervent response. In fact, despite it being my personal favourite of the three books, it tends to be written off in what limited discussion the series still gets as the awkward middle child, the slight, goofy detour between the gothic darkness of Boone Shepard and the emotional conclusion of The Silhouette and the Sacrifice. I can see why. American Adventure is a higher stakes story than the first, but it doesn’t feel like it. It also, as the middle part of the trilogy, feels like it doesn’t leave that much to be resolved in part three. This was deliberate, a kind of insurance policy in case we didn’t get a third book, but I wonder now if that choice somewhat undermined The Silhouette and the Sacrifice, leaving readers with the sense that they’d reached the end of the journey already.
But the biggest and most pleasant surprise of revisiting the book was how much I still love American Adventure. Re-reading the first Boone a few years back, I enjoyed it but found it to be a book trying to do way too much at once. American Adventure, by contrast, feels very intended. Despite the chaotic and convoluted conspiracy at the heart of it, there’s a focus that the first one lacks, a clear journey Boone has to go on that manages to ground the story despite all its absurd indulgences. And that journey, linked so directly to what I was trying to say and explore, gives it a cohesiveness that I’m not convinced its siblings share.
One of the things I think certain readers responded to in the first Boone Shepard was that, despite its humour and oddness, there is a sense of epic tragedy running through the whole thing; whether it’s Boone and Marbier’s doomed love story, the climactic rebellion of a downtrodden people, or the tortured conflict between Boone and his equally time-displaced brother Darius. But all of those aspects meant that the aforementioned humour could, at times, feel out of place. I wanted the Boone series to be quirky and funny with an underlying darkness, but the first book was almost the reverse of that. American Adventure gets the balance way more right. Sure, the fate of the world is at stake and people die because of it, but all that tends to happen off camera. It allows the tone to remain jaunty with moments of introspection. It also allows the humour to feel like it belongs. And I have to say, re-reading this book I laughed a lot. I’d forgotten most of the jokes or one liners or insane turns of events, and as such many of them came as pleasant surprises. The back-and-forth banter between Boone, Promethia Peters and Oscar Wilde is, I think, a heap of fun. The scene where an oblivious Boone meets Elvis Presley and he speaks only in Elvis quotes might be my peak as an author. The nonsensical send ups of cowboy archetypes, for me, land well.
But what I think really makes American Adventure stand out among so much of my other work is its heart. At the centre of it is a group of disparate misfits who squabble and bicker and complain about each other but remain deeply connected. They’re all a bit messed up in their own ways, but together they form a strange little surrogate family. They support each other. They forgive each other. They are prepared to give up everything to rescue each other. Some of the best scenes are just these characters sitting around, talking and pretending not to enjoy each other’s company when it’s just so obvious that there’s nowhere they’d rather be. A lot of my work – and characters – can come off as hard edged and cynical. My plays tend to be full of snarky, childish, unpleasant manipulators. Even ostensible heroes in my more recent work, like Maggie or Jack Carlin, are violent, cold-blooded killers. Nelson in The True Colour of a Little White Lie, probably Boone Shepard’s closest cousin in terms of voice and personality, stumbles through self-centred choices that hurt a lot of people, even if he’s fundamentally not a bad kid. But there’s a decency to the ensemble of the Boone series, a shared love that they’re never quite willing to admit to but is always there in every interaction and hard-won victory.
I don’t think I’m afraid to be critical of old works, but I didn’t expect to find so little that I disliked in American Adventure. Which isn’t to say that problems aren’t there. The prose can veer into stilted and perfunctory at times. The opening stretch is a little slower than I remembered; it takes a while for the book to get going which, given it’s essentially a novella, isn’t ideal. However once the adventure kicks off in earnest it doesn’t really slow down. I read the first third of the book a few weeks back then got distracted by other things, not feeling all that compelled to pick it up again. I finally did the other day, intending to read over just a few more chapters, and ended up finishing it in one sitting. The second half absolutely moves – there’s always another action scene or funny encounter or revealing heart-to-heart over every page. There was some criticism on release that it was a little too fast paced, but I’m not sure I agree. American Adventure was supposed to be free wheeling and fun, and for my money it achieves that while still having time to breathe and, more pertinently, be about something.
For what is ostensibly a children’s book, American Adventure asks a lot of big questions without easy answers. Can we ever be more than the sum of our worst moments? Is there any such thing as heroes or are even the best of us just bumbling along trying and failing to do good? Are virtuous actions undermined by selfish intentions? The book makes time to consider all of these things and, crucially, link them to Boone’s emotional journey and its outcome.
I can’t speak for a reader’s experience of American Adventure. There could be people rolling their eyes at this retrospective, remembering only a flimsy, badly constructed book. In the end, every work lives and dies on the feelings of its readers. But listening back to an in-depth interview I did about the book at the time of release, I was struck by how much I found myself nodding along with my 2017 assessment of it. The thing about subjectivity is that, in the end, you can only base your feelings about your work on how well you think you achieved what you set out to. For better or worse, American Adventure is exactly the book I wanted to write at the time. It left me excited to re-read The Silhouette and the Sacrifice, largely because it also reminded me of how much I love these characters and how lucky I was to get to tell their story through to its end. The Boone Shepard Trilogy might be a long way from perfect, but to me American Adventure is the one I got right.
This is the second instalment in an ongoing series examining the lessons learned from early works. Read Part One here.
I’ve spoken before, always with a sense of mumbling embarrassment, about the project that followed Windmills in my final year of high school and first years of uni; a lengthy, rambling, novelised retelling of my teenage years. While writing it I would insist that this was either a no-holds-barred examination of growing up in Generation Y or else a Kerouac-esque act of artistic self-reflection, but let’s be real; it was a gigantic exercise in self-indulgence. I wanted to turn myself into the literal hero of my own story, so I did. I spent over two years on this and I am not proud of it.
I’ve always seen the clear importance of my early projects in moving me forward. The autobiographical thing, not so much. The only value I could see in it, apart from being a cautionary tale about self-involved wankerism, was as an object of personal nostalgia, the chance to read my teenage self’s account of being a teenager. But thinking back on it the other day, a different understanding started to emerge.
When you’re a teenager you tend to think good writing is having as many big words and pseudo-philosophical reflections as possible. This was absolutely true of the first versions of Windmills and Boone Shepard. But I couldn’t write my own story that way because that style wasn’t reflective of who I was (the lesson here is very obvious in hindsight). So instead, trying as best as I could to be true to real events and my feelings about them, I wrote something that was roughly in the territory of how actual teenagers think and speak.
And my entire writing style changed.
Not long after that project, I tried to write a kind of parallel sequel to Windmills, telling much of the same story from a side character’s perspective. Realising fast that this book did not work as its own narrative, I resolved to merge it with the original. But the new material was just too different to the old; in that the characters and narration sounded somewhat grounded as opposed to the work of an arts major clinging to a thesaurus. For all its apparent redundancy, the autobiographical project had killed my previous writing style and in its place left me with something far better – a naturalistic voice.
The shift was clear in my first play written exclusively for the stage; One Year Ago, a kind of comedic spin on The Butterfly Effect. Characters bantered. They swore a lot. They acted stupidly. They stumbled over their words and said the wrong things. When I decided in late 2011 to rewrite the entirety of the Windmills story I continued that approach; telling the same dark tale but with more humour and humanity. It still didn’t entirely work, but it showed that I could take an old piece of writing and apply new skills to improve it. Something I then attempted to repeat with absolutely no success by novelising Phoenix, a bad attempt at a generic post-apocalyptic web series I’d made just out of high school. For all its issues, Windmills had merit and meaning that could be built on. Phoenix, not so much. All the skills in the world don’t matter a lot if there isn’t any you in your stories.
Of course, it’s a balancing act. Around the same time I wrote a couple of plays that had the opposite problem. Hometown was a melancholic examination of my relationship with the town where I grew up, while Reunion was a frothy comedy that doubled as an expression of how much I missed my high school friends. Both were deeply personal. Neither offered a lot to audiences who weren’t, well, me. That said, there’s a lot I like about them. Hometown is a structural mess, but it’s also an occasionally nuanced exploration of how different people navigate the complicated relationship we all have with where we come from. But beyond its central themes, it represented the first major instance of what’s become a recurring element of my writing.
I needed a character to illustrate to my protagonist, the neurotic and pathologically nostalgic Charlie, the dangers of remaining fixated on the past. And given I’d just finished another version of Windmills in which a major subplot involved co-lead character Lucy Nicholson hiding out in a small town, it made sense that Lucy and Charlie could meet. Lucy has a significant role in Hometown, but the details of her vaguely alluded-to dark past would only be clear to the five people who read the self-published Windmills. Still, this was somewhat deliberate. I realised early on that as much as I enjoyed the extra time spent with Lucy, this was not her story. Her role here had to further Charlie’s arc rather than that of a totally different work.
In the context of Hometown, the specifics of Lucy’s past mattered less than the fact she was grappling with it. But if you were familiar with both Hometown and Windmills they’d enrich each other. The former would give more insight into Lucy’s choices in the latter, which in turn would give you the whole of her arc. It’s something I’ve basically been doing ever since, including rogue ex-cop Jack Carlin’s central appearances in The Pact, The Inheritance and The Consequence – which also features Windmills villain Dominic Ford.
There are a couple of reasons I do this. One is that I like the idea of multiple stories elevating each other even if they are fundamentally standalone (which I try to ensure they are). The other is more a matter of convenience – if I need a ruthless crime lord character, why come up with a new one when I can just borrow Dominic Ford? Hometown kicked off that logic for me and it immediately carried on into Reunion – Charlie was the central character of both.
For its part, Reunion felt almost embarrassing. I was ashamed of the fact that I had struggled to move on from my high school life and friends. I was ashamed that I was an ostensible adult still obsessing over my teenage years. I was, on some level, ashamed of the fact that those things ate at me enough to write a play about them, which made then directing said play a weird experience.
I was alternately defensive and dismissive of the script. I tried to act as though it was entirely fiction, as if anybody without Reunion’s exact themes on their mind would choose to write about them.
But late in the day something changed. Finn, one of the cast members, asked me outright why an audience should care about our characters. My initial response was a cavalier ‘they shouldn’t’ (because obviously the play was just a silly one note comedy not touching on anything more personal and anyone who believed otherwise was mistaken). But as I sat on the question, I started to see it less as an implicit insult and more as a challenge I was capable of meeting. I had an inkling that intense nostalgia bolstered by a conviction that you were happier in the past was not exclusive to me. What the characters were experiencing was, I suspected, universal enough that people might care.
At the next rehearsal I told the cast exactly that. I stopped writing the play off as something meaningless and saw it through to production with a newfound belief in it.
None of that is to suggest Reunion worked. I will always have a soft spot for it, but it very much belonged to the trial-and-error period of my writing life. More than anything it taught me that writing is a vulnerable vocation. If a story is worth telling it will almost always be because it’s raw and uncomfortable and you. Before Reunion, I was terrified of exposing anything too personal in my writing. Post Reunion – well, I’m still terrified, but I’m a little better at managing that terror.
Writing words about writing words.