This is the first instalment in an ongoing series examining the lessons learned from early works.
I would be very surprised if there was a writer in the world who didn’t experience imposter syndrome. Especially in the early stages of my career, I always had this deep-seated belief that the writers who were successful knew something I didn’t, that I was missing some crucial key to the craft but seeing as nobody was letting me in on the secret I’d have to keep pretending.
Of course there isn’t a secret, not really. The only thing that defines a writer is that they write.
The above might seem like a terrible oversimplification but I don’t think it is. I’ve known many, many people who tried to become writers by doing courses and whatnot while not spending much time actually writing. No matter what they learned, their work was never as good as the uneducated person who wrote whenever they could.
Sometimes I’ll go for a long walk and think back over everything I’ve ever written, from teenage attempts to my published novels. As chaotic as my writing history is, hindsight has allowed me to appreciate how every project I ever committed to advanced me slightly or more than slightly, even the ones that might have seemed like a step back.
So, going back to my first fumbling attempt at writing a novel, what did I learn?
My first finished book wasn’t much of a book. A very blatant attempt to rip off Saw, Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs all at once, I grappled with writing this through year nine, convinced that it would turn me into the next Thomas Harris overnight. Naturally it was an awkward, clunky, terribly written mess more fixated on imitating the stuff I found cool than exploring anything that was uniquely mine; but it was also a finished story and that, I found, changed the game. I’d always wanted to be an author but now I knew I could finish something, and weirdly that was enough – I never really looked at that book again or tried to explore publishing options. I just moved on and wrote more. A horror story that was brazenly emulating The Ring. A fantasy that I guess was a kind of attempt to do Tarantino in Middle Earth. A post-apocalyptic adventure with a central theme that could be summarised as ‘how cool are katanas?’ None of these had much of anything to them, none of them were personal or unique in any meaningful way. But that’s how you start. You look at the stories you love and you try to do what they do, like a kid imitating their parents. The best I can say for that early stuff is that maybe there was some very rudimentary experimentation in trying to mash up genres and techniques (the serial killer story, for example, was told out of order because I’d just seen Pulp Fiction), but ultimately they were surface level composites of badly imitated parts.
The first major turning point of my writing life came in early year ten. I wrote a story about a teenage boy struggling with the pressures of conformity who essentially starts a botched revolution with the help of his evil split personality. Yeah, I’d seen Fight Club around that time. But in writing it I could feel straight away that this was different, because for the first time I was telling a story that, derivative plot aside, was exploring ideas that mattered to me. Not with any nuance or finesse, but my own anger at feeling like I was constantly rejected, mocked and attacked for not fitting into comfortable social boxes spilled onto the page in glorious overwritten teenage melodrama. I posted chapters online and found a small audience. Which was so exciting that upon finishing I went straight into another story about the same character. And another. And another. In the end I wrote eight novelettes about my tortured teenage antihero Chris Hawkins. Maybe three of them were, by 2007 me standards, any good – those were the ones that used my own teenage anger and confusion as source material as opposed to the ones where I was just trying to write my own Skins or Cruel Intentions. And while I didn’t have the language to understand what I was doing at the time, there was an attempt to give them a melancholic, dreamlike feel where emotional logic trumped actual logic and everything had a heightened, almost operatic tinge to it. Of course, on the page it just came off as confused and unrealistic, but still, at least I tried.
I think maybe I’d started to understand that I had an individual voice and perspective at this point; not an especially developed or even interesting one, but one that was worth exploring. The next thing I wrote took that notion to the extreme; the first attempt at the Boone Shepard series. Those stories were chaos personified, full of amped up weirdness and silly humour that I tried to depict in a very ‘literary’ way with lots of flowery language and big words. They veered wildly from kid friendly comedy to extreme darkness, from wilful absurdity to terrible tragedy. They were bad. But they were also entirely me, for better or worse; reflective in every way of my burgeoning worldview and interests and preoccupations. Unfiltered, undisciplined and unrefined, but sometimes you have to push as far as you can to know when to pull back.
By my final year of high school, I was ready to try something darker than Boone and more realistic than Chris. It took me years to fully understand why that was; but I think the key lies in an encounter with the police during an underage drinking session in my hometown, an encounter in which I was terrified to the point of begging – essentially the kind of behaviour I would have loudly insisted to my friends I was braver than. The uncomfortable realisation that you don’t know how you’ll act in a difficult situation until you’ve been in that situation led directly to the first version of Windmills, the story that would come to dominate and define the next decade of my writing life.
What made Windmills special was that for the first time I was saying something relatively new with my writing, something that felt at odds with so many of the comfortable, good-defeats-evil stories I was used to. In Windmills the protagonist makes a bad choice, ends up in a moral dilemma, and then completely fails to do the right thing. Not because he’s a monster, but because he’s human and humans, even the mostly decent ones, often fail. Windmills had massive problems that got in the way of publication for years – some questionable plot points and resolutions, a tendency to jump wildly between genres and, in that first version, the kind of overwriting that only comes from way too much use of Microsoft Word’s synonyms function. But it also had something that none of my earlier stuff did; a point.
I knew, writing Windmills, that I had something. It would take years before the story became good enough to prove that to the world. But through writing it a truth became consolidated in my head, erasing just a tiny bit of my imposter syndrome; I had something to say and I was getting better at saying it. From then on everything else took a back seat. I was going to be a writer.
Writing words about writing words.