On calling cards
Recently I was talking to a writer friend about a potential career opportunity that I thought he’d be perfect for. In order to pursue it he had to provide a few writing samples that illustrated his best work, so I asked; what’s your calling card? What, for you, is that one piece of writing that you’ll always automatically put forward as evidence of what you can do?
Most emerging writers, I think, have that piece. When we’re starting out our body of work tends to be a mix of the things we’re proud of and the things that we wish would just disappear. But usually there’s one story that stands out. Whether because we have a great feeling about it, because it’s the one that people most strongly respond to or, in many cases, because it achieved enough genuine industry attention for us to believe it’s good even if we don’t know why.
For a long time, that piece for me was Windmills, and the reason is a mix of all of the above. Windmills, in its first version written in high school, was the first story of mine that seemed to get great feedback from even outside my immediate friends circle. I knew pretty much from the moment of putting fingers to keys that there was something different about it, that it was, somehow, special. And over the years enough evidence crept along to maintain that belief; interest from agents and publishers and, of course, its award win in screenplay form.
Understand that for the most part writers don’t actually know if what they’re writing is any good. I mean, time and experience hopefully gives us a decent ability to gauge if something is working the way we want it too, but we’re always too close to know for sure. That cuts both ways; things that we’re sure are brilliant can be roundly rejected, things that we don’t think much of can be snapped up and celebrated. It’s discombobulating and can result in a strong sense of imposter syndrome. If you have no idea which of your stories has merit, then how can you possibly make a viable career?
Windmills, however, was the rare case of internal and external belief lining up. Because I’d worked on it for so long in so many different versions, and because the initial act of writing it was a genuine game changer for me, I had long been convinced that it was the one; the project of mine that was special and would make my career. So any time anyone important asked to see some of my writing it was the Windmills pilot that I gave them without a second thought.
And sure, that approach made perfect sense. Putting your best foot forward is only logical, especially when you’re not sure how to replicate what it was about that best foot that made it work. As the classic saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t supersede it with a different calling card. In the meantime, the vindication of seeing Windmills do so seemingly well provided an excuse for almost all of my attention to go into seeing it realised.
When, last year, both the novel and TV versions of Windmills were rejected by heavy hitters I’d been trying to get it to for a long time, I was gutted. It left me totally unsure of how to proceed, wondering where I’d went wrong. I had been so sure that Windmills was finally ready. But here was a strange new issue; because I’d never totally understood what worked about Windmills, I had no clear insight into what didn’t. The project, after a decade of work, had turned into a big, ungainly mess that I couldn’t see clearly anymore. My calling card, my destined big success, whatever; Windmills might have advanced my career and my abilities as a writer but my conviction of its worth had also held me back. It wasn’t that I hadn’t written other things in the time I was working on Windmills, but everything else was secondary to it. And that had to change. If I was going to create a career, I needed to write something new, something that could be just as much of a calling card but, crucially, would not be my only calling card.
It’s still staggering to me how quickly The Hunted both came together and found a home. The first version of the story had been rattling around since mid-2017 (back when it was a short horror novella called Sunburnt Country), but the actual process of turning it into a novel only took about a month. When I sent it to my now agent she suggested a few rewrites, I did them, she sent it out and within a month the book and film deals were both secured. It was the most painless and rapid development and acquisition process, something that seems increasingly insane when I remember that The Hunted was a total gamble; I wrote it at least in part to prove I could do something different but I had no idea how it would be received. I certainly didn’t anticipate it would garner the response it has, but here we are.
In the end, all it took was letting go of Windmills. That’s not to say that I’ll never revisit it or that Windmills won’t eventually be realised in one way or another, but that the key to my career reaching a new level was to finally take the plunge and put aside the project that had dominated my life for far too long.
I’m still proud of the Windmills pilot and it’s still something I’m happy to give prospective employers as proof of what I can do. But, crucially, it’s no longer the only thing I have. In diversifying my slate I now approach every meeting or discussion about writing stuff differently. Windmills isn’t for you? Try The Hunted. Or Nelson and the Gallagher. Or Boone Shepard. Or Below Babylon. Or Three Eulogies for Tyson Miller. Or We Can Work It Out. I’m proud of them all and yet none of them have anything in common with each other.
Calling cards are important. But don’t put all your eggs in one project. Take risks, stretch your creative muscles and see what you end up with. Because the great thing about not being able to see every story clearly is that you never know which one might change your life.
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