When I was eighteen I went and saw the film Animal Kingdom. For those who don’t know it, it’s an Australian crime thriller about a kid who, after the death of his drug addict mother, is sent to live with his crime matriarch grandmother and his three dangerous uncles. It was later adapted into an American TV show of the same name, which I haven’t seen but by all accounts is quite good. But whether it can match the original is questionable to me. Animal Kingdom is a modern classic; it’s brutal, hard hitting, chilling and immensely powerful. Every character feels fully realised, complex and fascinating and an equal part of the thrilling whole. It’s the kind of film that just feels complete, thought through and meticulous and firing on all cylinders. No part of it is superfluous.
When I later read that it took writer/director David Michod ten years to perfect the script and get the film made, I was taken aback for two reasons. One, that ten years seemed such a huge amount of time. And two, while watching the film, at 18, I remember so clearly thinking that this was exactly the sort of work I wanted my novel Windmills to be. But ten years? Surely it wouldn’t take ten years to get it right?
In a recent, lengthy blog I wrote about the long process of writing, re-writing and reimagining Windmills that has been a major fixture of my writing life so far. I spoke about writing as an act of excavation; like digging up a dinosaur skeleton, you keep working at it until you can see the whole thing clearly and there’s nothing left to find. But it’s easy to make mistakes. You’re excavating something new, so it stands to reason that you won’t really know what the whole thing is supposed to look like. You can reach a certain point and be sure you’re done, especially when you’re too close to the project to view it with any clarity. And ten years of work is exactly the kind of thing that leaves you too close to a project.
I’ve thought I was done with Windmills before. In 2010 I insisted that the version I’d written the year before and been tinkering with ever since was my best work. At that stage, it probably was. But it didn’t stop me re-writing the whole thing again the next year and then self-publishing it and then announcing that I was done and writing in multiple blogs that there was no way I’d ever revisit it. I was sure of that. And, well, even if you’ve only read a couple of my posts you probably know the rest.
After writing a new version of the novel last year, I was sure I was close to done. Without going into specifics, some conversations going on with major players suggested the same. But close to done isn’t done, and so I returned to Windmills again this year, first to adapt the whole book into a feature film to enter in a competition, then to make some structural changes to the novel by redistributing material along with newly written stuff to create a framing device for the high school events. I forced myself back into that world and I lived and breathed Windmills. I went for long walks thinking about it. I wrote many notes and I considered from every angle how the framing device would work. And, most crucially, I took my time. After deciding to add the framing device, I didn’t dive in straight away. I spent weeks considering it and ensuring it was justified on multiple levels. Then, when it was done, I let it sit for a couple of days before reading through the whole thing, editing and tweaking and perfecting all over again. I had to send the book off, but even once I was done I sat on it, fretting over whether it was as good as I needed it to be.
And then something magical happened. I went for one of my usual long walks to let ideas play out and percolate in my head, with the intention being to re-consider all of Windmills again. But instead my thoughts went to other projects. And that night, while sitting at home watching TV, my mind moved to Windmills only for a huge realisation to hit.
I had nothing left to think about.
My ambition for Windmills as a concept has almost always been greater than my ability to realise it. It’s a huge story, a sweeping saga about the long-term damage of one terrible teenage failing, and every single character in it has a part to play. Each have been developed extensively over a long period of time, changing, growing and shifting as I approached them all from different angles. Some, like hedonistic but deeply damaged party animal Ed, were pretty set in stone from the first draft. Others, like Lucy and Alan, didn’t become completely clear until much later. And the same went for plot points. In early drafts a lot of what happened was overly convenient or implausible. But slowly those aspects were reworked until they made sense and the story ended up somewhere close to watertight.
Over ten years, you experience a lot and your life changes in massive ways. When I first started writing Windmills at seventeen I didn’t have the experience or ability to write what was in my head. Every time I revisited it from the standpoint of being a little older and a little different, I found new elements. Windmills grew with me, but as I enter my late twenties and start looking down the barrel of a new and very different stage in my life, it’s become increasingly clear that I have run out of things to say with this story. There was a lot to say and it took a long time. But I think I’m finished.
Note the ‘I think’. I have strong reason to believe that Windmills as it stands is close to ready, based on a few conversations that have been happening, but in the end that decision isn’t mine to make. I’m not interested in self-publishing a second time, especially not a reworked version of the same book, but this time it’s not just my word suggesting things are close.
I think in the past I always knew I wasn’t quite done with Windmills, even when I insisted I was. I knew what the flaws were in the earlier versions, from being way too overwritten to certain plot points being circulatory and repetitive to the giant problem of just who the hell the audience of the thing was supposed to be. But now, thinking back through it all, those things have been addressed and the book feels complete in a way it never has before, something tight and solid that is infused with years’ worth of ideas. It has gained and lost along the way; there were things I loved about the 2012 self-published version that aren’t present in the same way anymore, because they just can’t be. Knowing what a book is also means knowing what it's not, and that means killing a darling or two. And the DNA of those aspects still lingers, I think. It has to, after all this time.
It's a weird and kind of melancholic thing to consider. After ten years it’s hard not to be just a little sick of something. It’s also hard not to love it dearly and be terrified of letting it go. Beyond that, there’s a strange, sad realisation that I will probably never write anything like Windmills again. The fact that I had this huge idea when I was seventeen and it took me the next decade to learn how to write it properly meant that there is a depth and weight to the work that is singular. After all this time, there can’t not be. I’m a far better writer now than I was then, but even if I have another idea on the same scale chances are I won’t spend the same amount of time on it, because it won’t take me as long to get it right, and that means that, consequently, it can’t quite achieve what I believe Windmills does. I’m sure I’ll write better stories, but nothing will ever be Windmills again. Honestly, that might be a good thing.
So, am I going to be back here in a year’s time insisting that this time it’s really done? Maybe. But I don’t think so. You know a story’s done when it’s done. And this one is done.
Writing words about writing words.