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.
I’ve been planning to write a Ned Kelly play for a long time now, but outside of that I haven’t had much in the way of a concept. It’s one of those cases where my interest has come more from a place of passion for the story than from having anything to actually say about it.
Obviously this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve tackled a real life subject. Arguably my three most well received plays were We Can Work It Out, Springsteen and Moonlite, all stories rooted in fact. All three had amazing ticket sales and excellent reviews, and remain the three plays that regularly get put forward for a potential second run (stay tuned on the WCWIO and Moonlite fronts). But for my money there is another, more important reason that those shows hit the chords they did.
A couple of years ago I had a first run at writing a Ned Kelly play, and even finished a script. Called Glenrowan, it took place during Ned’s last stand and focused on the peripheral characters pulled into his orbit. In theory the play was about examining the moment when real events become legend. On paper, it didn’t really work that way. It essentially amounted to a lot of characters standing around debating with little plot momentum and not much that differentiated it from the many, many other retellings of Ned Kelly’s life. That script never saw the light of day or got further development because, in short, it sucked.
Some of its DNA did end up resurfacing in Moonlite, but far more effectively. Moonlite also used the last stand of a real bushranger as a way to examine the importance of reality when a legend has taken its place, but it was far more thematically cohesive, had actual plot/character progression, and was loaded with humour and toe-tapping tunes to keep it fun.
See the reason Moonlite worked, to me, is that it actually had something to say. It didn’t exist purely to relay a story that the key creatives were passionate about.
Likewise Springsteen and We Can Work It Out; riskier propositions in that they told the stories of people who are still alive and active today. But both plays used a foundation of fandom and reality to explore something deeper. We Can Work It Out was about the purpose of art, Springsteen was about learning to let go of ambition and recognise what really matters. Because while we might love the stories of real people, whether historical or contemporary, I really do believe that relaying them creatively without any deeper themes will always be a hollow enterprise.
Yesterday the brilliant guys at A Guide to Australian Bushranging published a long and well worth reading article about the upcoming True History of the Kelly Gang film. The article, while stressing that they were remaining open minded, was critical of many aspects of the film’s production, from casting to the professed interests of the key creatives to the fact that the novel the film is based on was not historically accurate and as such the film wouldn’t be either. And with cinema being unable to capture the voice that made the novel feel authentic, what was to differentiate this retelling from all the others?
Maybe a childish excitement for all things bushranger wins out here, but I’m not too concerned about historical accuracy. The first responsibility of a film is to engage and entertain and that is very hard to do if you’re adhering 100% to the letter of history. Real life, after all, scarcely fits comfortably into a three-act structure. My argument, then, is that I don’t really care if a film isn’t accurate, as long as it’s true to the spirit of the story and uses the changes it makes to enhance its central thesis/interpretation. I love the 2003 Heath Ledger Ned Kelly because as a kid it was practically a dream adaptation of a story that captured my imagination; sweeping, rousing, epic and passionate at the expense of accuracy. The Ledger film makes a lot of changes, some more egregious than others, and I can’t really begrudge anyone being unable to see past that, although I do think that in general people need to be a little more open minded to making changes to fact for the sake of entertaining fiction. After all, if you do your job well, people will likely go off and research the real story anyway. A good adaptation can introduce many more people to the facts and besides, I can’t see anybody walking out of any Hollywood interpretation of real events assuming that’s exactly how it happened (see: The Greatest Showman). The idea that an unfaithful retelling inherently propagates harmful untruths is, I feel, disrespectful to filmgoers.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that yesterday I did finally make a start on my own Ned Kelly play. The article I read got me thinking, and finally the disparate ideas I’d been entertaining for years came together in a take on the story that a) has a clear thematic thesis and b) has not been done before, at least to my knowledge.
The take is simple; what if Ned Kelly knew exactly what he was doing? What if Glenrowan was a planned attempt to martyr himself and his gang based on the fact that they could have more impact as dead legends than living criminals? Now what if his gang were not aware of this and one of them was to find out halfway through the siege? How would you feel to know that somebody you trusted and looked up to as a leader and protector was in fact planning to sacrifice you in service of a larger goal?
I am keenly aware that this has the potential to piss off just about anyone with a vested interest in the story. The “Ned Kelly was a murdering criminal” camp won’t like seeing him sacrificing all for what he perceives as a noble cause, the “Ned Kelly was a hero” camp won’t like this depiction of him as a ruthless manipulator and those who prize accuracy will balk at some of my reinterpretations of what went on inside the inn.
My pre-emptive defence is this; the story has been told hundreds of time and can survive a few alternate takes. Additionally I’m not for a second trying to suggest that this is anything other than fiction. It’s using the framework of a real story to pick up where Moonlite left off and continue exploring the themes of how legends are created and what their significance is compared to the real events that spawned them. Only this time, unlike Moonlite, the story will be about a legend deliberately created, exploring the use of stories and iconography as weapons at the expense of facts. So if anything, the wilful inaccuracy of the play kind of suits the theme.
So far I’m really excited by what I’ve written. It’s a theme that fascinates me and a story I love, which sort of doubles the thrill of finally writing my own version of this story. And if nothing else, I’m proud of the fact that I finally found an angle on this legend that, to me, is fresh and new.
There’s a great moment in a Rick and Morty episode where Morty is forced to listen to an aspiring screenwriter read his work. The screenplay opens with the protagonist in a terrible situation before flashing back to six months earlier. Immediately Morty sinks a little lower in his chair and we all laugh. Because the device is so very familiar.
I would be very surprised if there was a writer on the planet who hadn’t at least once opened a story in media res – starting with the end or else a particularly exciting/mysterious moment from later in the story. It can seem foolproof, a way to pull the audience in by promising later thrills to get them through a mundane opening. But, as Morty tells the outraged writer, ‘stories should start when they start’.
Of course, one of the home truths in writing is that for every hard and fast rule there is at least one stone cold classic that breaks it. The trick, as I’ve said before, is to be able to offer rock solid justification for your decisions. In media res seems like the easy way to start a story, but in truth it more often than not comes off as kind of cheap and suggests a lack of confidence in on the part of the writer. Nine times out of ten the only reason it’s there is to keep people reading/watching, which suggests you don’t think your early chapters/scenes are strong enough. In those cases, it really is just a temporary bandage over a permanent wound; you might keep people interested, but it won’t paper over the inherent flaws in your writing.
People often point to Breaking Bad as an example of a story that uses in media res to great effect. That show became famous for cold opens that tended to come from later in the episode, but Breaking Bad was very clever about it and to assume that the iconic first scene of the pilot, depicting Walter White in the middle of a life or death situation before flashing back to his dreary home life, was only there to reel people in suggests a misunderstanding of what that show was doing.
I have a theory that in any scene or moment, you should be aiming to do about three things at once. The example I always point to is a moment in Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone where Hermione thinks that Snape is cursing Harry during a Quidditch match. She runs through the stands to set fire to Snape’s cloak and break his concentration, in the process knocking over Professor Quirrell. This scene is doing several things; it’s providing entertaining action that drives the plot and leads our characters to their next step, it tells us something about Hermione in that she is determined and proactive, and it plants a seed that will later help the reveal of Quirrell as the villain. In the moment, however, we read Hermione knocking Quirrell over as J.K. Rowling telling us just how driven and blinkered she is. It’s a Chekov’s gun disguised as character development wrapped up in plot. That is clever writing.
Breaking Bad’s cold open absolutely exists to grab your attention and make a promise of chaos to come, but it also does a lot more than that. The very first thing you see are a pair of trousers flying through the air, hitting the dusty ground only to be run over by a careening RV. Walter White’s boring life has been blown away and left behind by the choice he has made. When the scene cuts back to him presiding over a chemistry classroom and waxing lyrical about his subject being the study of change, we see the different parts of the script working in tandem to tell us exactly what this show is about. Change. The destruction of an ordinary world by one man’s ambition. The cold open also, in his actions, tells us everything we need to know about Walt. He is a man who, when cornered, will do anything he has to in the professed name of helping his family. Character, theme, hook; all in the space of a few minutes. That is a justified cold open.
The reason I’ve been thinking about this is that I’m currently in the process of reworking Windmills (yes, again, roll eyes and move on). This is a little different though; it’s not an overhaul or rewrite, but rather a restructuring of the existing material to make it a bit more tonally and thematically cohesive. It’s no secret that the big glaring issue of Windmills, in every incarnation, has been the matter of audience. It’s an adult thriller about high school students, and although it moves into their adult lives at the end, it can very easily be mistaken for YA.
As such I’ve added a framing device, the cousin of the in media res opening. Windmills now starts in the present day, with 27 year old author Leo Grey returning to his old school for his ten year reunion. It’s clear from the start that something in the past has made this event a little more fraught than your standard catch up, and before long we learn Leo’s real motive; he’s here to destroy an incriminating piece of evidence that he left behind as a student. In the process, he is approached from the shadows by a journalist who requests an interview, telling Leo “I know who you are, I know what you did, and I know what happened after.” Leo rebuffs the journalist, walks away and the moment he’s out of sight and alone he starts trembling uncontrollably as the memories return and we flash back to ten years earlier.
The bulk of the novel plays out in the past, but at the start of each of the six parts we get one present day chapter, alternating between continuing the story of Leo and showing Leo’s high school girlfriend Lucy, now in hiding with a fake name.
The main reason for the device is to plant Windmills squarely as an adult novel, to tell the audience right from the start that even though we’re predominantly in a high school setting, the material we’re dealing with is a lot more intense than what you might assume. But beyond that, it does wonders for illustrating themes and building tension. It allows the characters, looking back on events, to essentially comment on them, to show clashing perspectives on what happened and to examine the consequences of a mistake unatoned for; the central theme of the book. It also adds texture to the biggest question of the book; who is Leo Grey? In the past we see a scared teenager become calculating and ruthless as he makes mistake after mistake, in the present we see a man by turns regretful, manipulative and threatening. Ten years later, has he actually learned and changed or was the rot too deep? That is the question that the final scene answers, a question set up by the new in media res opening.
The framing device, at its core, exists to offset any confusion about the book’s intended audience. But before I could add it, I had to make sure it was doing more than that. If something is included for purely cynical reasons, then audiences will smell it from a mile away and it will put them off your story. They’ll be like Morty, sinking into the chair with a groan at your transparent attempt to pull them in without working for it.
It all comes down to the one golden rule of writing. Be able to clearly justify every artistic choice you make, and chances are you’ll end up with something pretty good.
The first and most important step for any writer is to consume stories. Most of the time, people who go on to write are people who have grown up as voracious readers, who obsessed over the films that inspired and excited them and who felt the need to replicate the things they loved about those stories.
For me, wanting to be a writer stemmed from being so head over heels in love with the stories I grew up with but knowing on some level that no matter how much I adored them they would never really be mine – they would always be the invention of the author. In the end, the only solution to that was to come up with stories completely my own that I could love just as much. This led to a balancing act; from my teenage years into adulthood, I would absorb TV shows, movies and books, become completely obsessed, and fold the themes, ideas and aspects that I loved into my own work, an act of cherry picking that, when combined with life experiences, led to the development of a unique voice.
The theory, this symbiotic relationship between the stories we tell and the stories we consume should continue forever. Watching a great TV show or being inspired by a brilliant book can be similar to putting fuel in the tank of a car; the healthy creative is one who learns from the genius of others rather than being jealous of it. And as we move from aspiring to professional it’s important that we keep a finger on the cultural pulse for more reasons than one. We need to know what types of stories are being told, we need to know what makes them good and, on a personal level, we need to keep alive that love for stories that first made us put pen to paper.
If only it was that easy.
Recently I saw an article called ‘I have forgotten how to read’. I actually couldn’t finish it because it was so depressingly familiar; the author was talking about the fact that, whereas ten years ago they would be inclined to read a book before bed, now they just look at stuff on their phone. And now, when they do read, it takes a lot to maintain attention. In the past sticking with an initially slow book was par for the course. Now, it’s impossible.
I hated reading that article because I’ve felt the same way for so long. Half the reason I was so glad to commit to the fourteen book monstrosity of The Wheel of Time was because it meant that I always had something to read that I was invested in. The series was so long that I could keep going with it in the background, while occasionally reading other stuff if I needed a break. Over the course of the year it took me to finish those books, I read more than I have probably since high school.
The thing is, we live in a time when there is just so much content. Every week there is a new must-see Netflix show, another blockbuster movie, a new novel that all the highbrow literary websites tell us is required reading. And faced with all of these essential works, isn’t it so much easier to just… not? If I’ve finished a long day of work, if I’m tired and want to turn my brain off, I am so much more inclined to chuck on old episodes of Scrubs or Community than start that new show everyone is insisting is incredible. Recently, in response to me tweeting something about watching The Prince of Egypt for about the millionth time, somebody replied with the comment that I seem to just watch the same things over and over rather than any of the brilliant films people recommend me on a daily basis. That stuck with me because of how true it is.
It makes me wonder; what the hell happened to me? When I was a teenager, you could barely get my nose out of a book at any given minute. I watched movies almost nightly. I would start any TV show somebody told me was good. Same in my early years at uni. There was a time, not that long ago, where almost every night of the week I had new episodes of at least one great show I was following. The best nights were the ones where I had two or three. And when you’re a writer and you’re consuming that much good stuff on a regular basis, it’s hard not to exist in a state of almost perpetual inspiration.
A few factors contributed to the change. My TV habits fell off sharply after Dexter. Before that show I stuck with everything, even if it was only just north of mediocre. Before Dexter, if I was committed to a show I was committed. But after putting up with eight seasons of sharply decreasing quality that insulted anybody with even the slightest investment in the character, it was hard to feel anything other than betrayed. After Dexter I started dropping anything that didn’t hold my interest for more than a couple of weeks. Even shows I’d been really enjoying. The Americans, Ash Vs Evil Dead, Orange Is The New Black, House of Cards, The Exorcist – the list goes on. None of those shows came close to the level of shark jumping infamy as Dexter. Most, I’m assured, even got better. But once I’d checked out, I was out. And with that in mind, starting any new show felt like starting a new commitment I wasn’t sure I’d see through.
Similar things happened with books. At least once a year I decide to get gung-ho about reading again. I buy a bunch of books I’m slightly curious in. I read a couple, I enjoy them, and all it takes is one that doesn’t grab me early and the next thing I’ll go weeks, sometimes months without reading. Then the same vicious cycle will repeat. Habits, as it turns out, can be hard to form but easy to break.
I love watching a good TV show. I love reading a good book. There is, in fact, very little in the world I love more. But I seem to have reached a point where I’ve gotten it in my head that my time is so valuable I can only sit down and commit to the stories that really grab me. And that is not healthy at all. It has distanced me from the reason I became a writer in the first place.
I’m taking steps to change it. I’ve cleared every Tuesday to go to the cinema around the corner and watch two films. I don’t always get two in, but I’ll try. And nothing can get in the way of my movie day. I go alone, I see something I wouldn’t see normally, and sometimes I have a shit time but sometimes I see something special, something that otherwise would have slipped under my radar. I’ve found myself really looking forward to my movie Tuesdays, as a way to clear my head, escape the world, and regularly consume new stories. As I should always be doing.
Th truth is that it’s easy to be hard on ourselves, but life does get busy and mine, of late, has been especially so. But that doesn’t mean I should ever lose sight of the things that helped shape me into who I am. Things like picking up a random book or going to the movies to see a film I had only the barest interest in. Because if I had never done that stuff to begin with, I never would have discovered any of my enduring favourites.
I do know, from experience, that all it takes to break a habit is making an exception. A few years ago I used to go to a different arthouse cinema every Monday to see films. One Monday something happened and I didn’t go. After that it was easy to skip the next, and the next, and then the habit was gone. Maybe that will happen again, but I’m going to do my best not to let it. Because I’m really enjoying being surrounded by stories again. It’s doing a lot to keep alive my passion for telling my own.
At the risk of repeating a point I’ve made about a hundred times, writing is a hard bloody industry. Especially if, like me, your interest is less specifically in one form, i.e. screenwriting or prose, but the vocation in general. Every different discipline of writing has certain requirements and skill sets to learn, and every one has different paths to success.
Producing something yourself is seen a bit differently in theatre and film than in publishing. In both you’re almost expected to do a few independent projects before anyone notices you. Rare is the playwright or screenwriter who was snapped up for a major project before doing a lot of stuff off their own back first. But publishing is different, because self-publishing, with exceptions, is not generally considered a clear path to getting noticed. In fact, it’s almost the opposite; self-publishing comes with stigma, a sense of ‘you weren’t able to get this published elsewhere so you had to do it yourself.’
There is a bit of a narrative now that some of the stigma has lifted around self-publishing. It’s sort of true; not that long ago six of the top ten bestselling ebooks on Amazon were self-published. In fact, Kindle has made a veritable industry out of authors hoping to be the next big thing. But see, that’s the problem; when something becomes easy everyone starts doing it and when everyone starts doing it your chances of standing out from the pack, even if your work is exceptional, narrow down to just about zero. It’s no different to uploading a funny video on YouTube and waiting for the viral fame to hit; the internet may have democratised success, but there is more competition than ever before and success relies on so, so many factors.
It's very easy to get swept up in the romantic stories of self-publishing triumphs, but look a bit closer and you’ll see common threads. Matthew Reilly went out of his way to make his book look as professional as possible, before lugging boxes around from book store to book store and begging them to stock it. And even then, his career only took off when an agent happened to pick it up. Which, I’m sure you can guess, doesn’t happen every day. Christopher Paolini’s wealthy parents paid for the print run of Eragon and then took the time to go on tour with their son around America, promoting the book in costume at various stores. To get something self-published out in the public eye, to make it stand out from all of the books that have cred behind them, takes time, money, lots of effort and a decent product that can find a place in the market. Both those cases required supreme effort and commitment, and they’re the lucky ones. So what happens to someone who self publishes without any of those things?
Funny you should ask.
In 2012 I self-published my novel Windmills. At the time I was at Melbourne Uni and they had a book printing service in the library. I was passing it one day and, demoralised from lots and lots of rejection letters, decided to look into it. It was expensive, but at that point, seemed the only option left to me.
Here’s a lesson I’ve learnt about myself; contrary to what I might have told people when I was younger, I don’t really care about fame and fortune. I mean they’d be nice and all, but honestly all I ever wanted was for people to read my stories and to make a living off that. And at that time, self-publishing seemed as good a way to achieve that goal as any. I paid the money, read through Windmills over and over until I was pretty sure I’d caught all the typos (I hadn’t), got a friend to design the cover and we were off to the races.
The result was… not good. Look, for the time I’m proud of Windmills as a piece of writing, but as a product it’s pretty garbage. The typesetting is a Microsoft Word document in A5, the cover is pixelated and overall the book just just looks cheap. The very first printed copies were especially terrible; they were worn and crinkled despite being freshly printed, the title was blurry and most of them fell apart the moment you opened them. Either that, or too much glue had been used, leaving the spine lumpy and misshapen.
Did I care at the time? Hell no. I was an author! But, tellingly, I didn’t go out and promote it at bookstores. I had a little launch in my hometown, sold it to friends, stocked it in a couple of second hand stores and that was pretty much it. On some level, I think I knew the book didn’t look right. This was later confirmed when a bookstore owner told me that if I was going to self-publish, I had to make sure it didn’t look self-published. I left that store in an offended huff. Criticism is always more upsetting when you know it’s true.
I self-published again a year later, this time a book of my early plays. It definitely was more impressive than the last time; I had a friend studying editing who did the typesetting and made it look professional and slick. But I didn’t even bother to try and sell many of those; I think I just wanted my theatre work to sit on the shelf next to my Martin McDonagh collection. Because yeah, Hometown was definitely in the same territory as The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
But in that lies the truth. Whatever I told myself and others, I didn’t self-publish because I thought it would actually help my career. I self-published because I wanted to hold a printed version of my book so I could feel like an author. And yeah, unwrapping that first copy of Windmills was exciting. But it didn’t feel like an achievement. Not really. Because I hadn’t achieved anything. I felt self-conscious whenever I sold it to people or spoke about it. When people congratulated me, I wondered why. I hadn’t done anything special or difficult. Anybody with the money and desire can self-publish a book. There are a whole bunch of vanity presses out there for that exact reason, to take advantage of would-be authors who haven’t been able to get published elsewhere and want to see their work in print.
Do I regret it? Not really. I recognise now, after the fact, that Windmills wasn’t ready yet and if I had put more work into making it really impressive or getting it into stores somebody might have noticed it, and that would not have been good for me trying to do more with it later. And look, one lesson I learnt from that whole experience is that people are far more likely to read your work in physical form than a PDF. Lots of people I know read and enjoyed Windmills, and that was, on some level, all I really wanted from it. I heard plenty of stories about people staying up all night to finish it. That, whatever the flaws of the execution, made me feel pretty good. And young writers don’t often find much to make them feel good.
None of this answers the question of whether self-publishing is worthwhile. The truth, to me, is that there isn’t an answer. I know quite a lot of people who have self-published; some of them have done it badly, others have produced books that look absolutely worthy of any heavy hitter publisher. Whether they recommend the endeavour or not is up to them to say. But I will point this out; of all the people I know who self-published, myself included, none of them have had the Matthew Reilly or Christopher Paolini thing happen to them. And some of them have written work that is far better than either of those authors.
There are other realities to consider. I made about three times as much money from every copy of Windmills than I do from Boone Shepard. Because when you have a publisher, you make at best $2 per book. Publish yourself, and the profits are all yours. That’s not nothing, especially if, like me, your publisher is an independent without a huge marketing budget.
Unless I ended up in a position where my platform was such that I could be sure of the worth, I doubt I would self-publish again (I don’t count Seasons of Fear, as that’s a collective passion project done with friends). Boone Shepard, for me personally, has proved in its reception that I am at a place in my career where I will be able to find publishers interested in my work. Even if it takes longer for it to happen, I’d rather be patient and give my work to people who know what they’re doing, rather than risk another Windmills situation.
But that’s just me and that’s just right now. Things can (and do) change, so who knows if I’ll hold firm to that position in a couple of years’ time. Speaking as somebody who’s done it, my only advice is to really think about why you want to self-publish, rather than do what I did and rush something out just so your book can sit on your shelf. And as for the stigma, well, the response to that is simple. If your book is good, if you tell a story that sweeps up, engages and moves the audience, then I can promise you that nobody gives a shit how it came to be in their hands. It’s up to you whether you think your story’s that good.
At film school, the necessity of a good, clear theme was drummed into us time and time again. Our stories, we were told, had to have an overpowering ‘controlling idea’ or else they would completely fall apart. And if we thought our stories were so thematically all-encompassing that they were about everything, then they were almost certainly about nothing.
It’s funny, looking back, how much I struggled with this. I’ve always been a highly organic writer, somebody who likes to let the story tell itself and be taken along for the ride. At its best, writing feels effortless, like the story is telling itself and coming together in logical ways because it’s not really coming from you at all. But of course, that thought is fanciful. There isn’t some special magical dimension where stories come from; they all reside in your brain and as a writer, your job is to discover and excavate them to the best of your ability, to work away until it’s all on paper, as good as you can make it.
But at the time the concept of a ‘controlling idea’, even in name, was beyond offensive. What if I wanted my story to say a lot of things? How could I find anything organic in what I was writing if I had to pin it all to one single message?
This especially uncool form of rebellion played out for more or less the whole year and a half I was at VCA. I told anybody who would listen how terrible it was and insisted it was all for dummies, that I was somehow above controlling ideas. It wasn’t until one of my tutors told me to look over my work thus far and see if there were common themes threading through it all that I started to realise that I might have been wrong.
There have always been certain themes that I gravitate towards, in both the stories I write and the ones I love the most. I’m obsessed with prodigal son stories, with characters running away from their problems only to eventually have to come back and face them, in the process growing as a person. My favourite book, The Book of Joe, is one of those through and through. The Prince of Egypt, possibly the first film that really made me fall in love with cinema, is as well. And so, so many of my own stories have at least an element of it; from Boone Shepard, to Windmills to The Commune and Chris Hawkins.
Why do I love prodigal son stories so much? Maybe it’s rooted in a childhood spent moving around to many different places, from Canberra to the Central Coast to Mansfield then Melbourne. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a different home over my shoulder. But then, I don’t even know if that’s true. I think, in the end, there is just something inherently fascinating about a homecoming, about the conflicts both internal and external that stem from having to face your past. This, for the record, could be the reason I loved The Last Jedi so much; a film about a broken man confronting his legacy and failures was never not going to enrapture me.
Ambition, another pet theme, is self-explanatory. Stories like Whiplash, about characters giving up everything they have for something they want more than anything else, hit a personal note for me, as anyone who’s seen/listened to Springsteen or Heroes can attest. Coming of age and learning who you are is another big one; it took me a long time to really understand and accept the person I am and stories about characters grappling with their own natures will never not move me.
It’s funny; we really do tend to believe that as artists we’re eternally and exponentially creative, but the truth is that we’ll always come back to the things that fixate and drive us in the stories we try to tell. I can categorise everything I’ve ever written into one of about four boxes based on the ideas I was trying to explore rather than genre, target audience or even medium.
Once I understood this, my writing improved in a big way. Identifying your themes is actually the opposite of restricting; it’s liberating. If you know what you’re trying to say, you can say it with far more nuance, strength and confidence, and that will have a profound effect on your storytelling. Every new idea I come up with, I try and identify early what the theme is. But if I don’t know, I just write the story anyway, and the theme always comes to me. Because if you’re writing, it usually means there’s something you need to get off your chest, and knowing what that something is will never be a bad thing.
In the end, it all comes back to a matter of knowing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. I’ve said before; write the first draft as though you’re in love, write the second as though you’re in charge. There’s nothing wrong with writing a story for the fun of it with no clear idea of where it is going or what the point is, but knowing those things will almost always help.
Look at the films, books and TV shows you love. Look at the things that move, fascinate and fixate you. Ask why. And then examine whether they turn up in your own writing. For a normal person, identifying your obsessions is therapeutic. For a writer, it’s just part of the job.
If you were to ask me during most given times in a year how I feel about superhero films I would probably roll my eyes, groan and make some comment about how sick of them I am. And yet, I see every Marvel film the week of release and, on reflection, there are very few I outright dislike. Black Panther, The Incredible Hulk, and Doctor Strange are probably the only instalments in the franchise you would have a hard time convincing me to re-watch. There are a few I feel next to nothing about (Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor 1&2) but generally speaking I have a good time at these movies.
Yet I remain cynical.
I guess I have a complicated relationship with superhero movies. And that’s not to say it’s a deep, dark tortured thing, more just that I have trouble articulating exactly how I feel about a trend I disparage and actively contribute to at the same time.
I wasn’t a comic book kid. My first exposure to any of these characters was through the movies. I couldn’t have named any X-Men outside of Wolverine before the 2000 film, to say nothing of characters like Iron-Man or Doctor Strange. But the start of the superhero boom coincided with my adolescence, and so, growing up, movies like Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy, X-Men and The Dark Knight were a big deal. Even in early adulthood, I was susceptible. I was as excited as anyone for The Avengers and even Man of Steel.
But familiarity breeds contempt and soon I started to see Marvel as a byword for corporate cynicism. Is feeling that way fair? Well, only insofar as calling out any major blockbuster for being a predominantly moneymaking enterprise is fair. But it goes beyond that. We’ve all heard the horror stories of what went on behind the scenes of Thor: The Dark World and Ant-Man. There is a general acceptance that Marvel like to hire journeyman directors who can line up with their overall house style, and if a director tries to stray too far from the pack, well, God help them. It feels like lately someone in PR has been trying to combat that, with the hiring of indie auteurs like Ryan Coogler or Taika Waititi, but a few stylistic flourishes or moments of thematic lip service aside, neither created a film that bravely broke the established mould. There was nothing in Thor: Ragnarok or Black Panther that would on any level create trouble for the team behind Avengers: Infinity War. In fact, both films did a lot of heavy lifting in setting up the MCU ‘season finale’ and ensuring a smooth transition.
Here's a thought experiment for you. Would a Christopher Nolan box set feel complete without Batman Begins or The Dark Knight? Of course not. Those are films that could only have been made by him. In the visuals, the style and the themes, they are his work through and through. Now imagine a Taika Waititi collection WITH Thor: Ragnarok. Imagine a big, splashy, fun but forgettable Marvel film sitting alongside Boy, What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The fit isn’t nearly as comfortable, not least because Ragnarok can’t stand on its own. If this is the only Marvel film you ever see, you’re going to be very confused. And, considering the post credits scene, probably unsatisfied.
I’ve been thinking a bit about the Raimi Spiderman Trilogy recently. The reason for this is last year’s release of Spiderman: Homecoming, arguably my favourite film in the MCU so far. I thought Homecoming was fantastic; it was funny, heartfelt, tense and had actual themes. But does it stand shoulder to shoulder with Raimi’s effort?
I suspect the answer depends on how you feel about those films, but to me, the Spiderman Trilogy of the 2000s was a far more complete experience. It flirted with territory that was positively Shakespearean, in its overarching plot of a young man’s conflict with the insane father of his best friend and the consequences when that friend learns the truth. Beyond that, there was just a richness to those films, from the textured characters to the odd little foibles and even the stuff that just didn’t work. For better or worse, they felt like part of somebody’s vision, the work of a filmmaker with a story to tell. Likewise, Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
The difference, for my money, is that Nolan and Raimi brought the material to them, while Waititi, Coogler and Homecoming director Jon Watts were brought to the material. Black Panther, for instance, would have happened regardless of Coogler’s involvement, and I daresay had a different director taken it on the end product wouldn’t be that different. After all, no matter Coogler’s sensibilities or ideas, it still had to fit into the overall Marvel tapestry.
Nolan and Raimi had no such stipulations. Their films didn’t exist in service to a larger vision, they told their own stories over a relatively conservative three distinct, individually crafted chapters and they ended. I’m not for a second claiming that those films wouldn’t have been made had Nolan or Raimi not signed on, but I think what we would have ended up with in that hypothetical would be almost nothing like what we got.
So what’s the solution? The question, I guess, is whether there even needs to be one. If someone like me still sees every Marvel movie, then they’re clearly doing their job and the execs probably don’t see much reason to change. And look, at least the films we’re getting are, even at their weakest, never less than competent. But they’re never really more than very good either.
Even that might not be a problem. I suspect that in fifty years people won’t remember the individual films, but they will remember the MCU as a storytelling experiment unlike any in history. And beyond that, I could be totally wrong about the weight and impact of the individual movies. Like I said; the superhero films of the 2000s were seen during very formative years for me. It’s not unlikely that Thor: Ragnarok could be many kids’ absolute favourite movie from now into adulthood. But then, the other key difference was that when I was growing up superhero films were an occasional treat, not a monthly occurrence. Maybe a lot of the Marvel films do have depth, weight and cultural significance; those things just become easy to miss when the next instalment is right around the corner and the current one hasn’t really had a chance to sink in yet.
Whether Marvel has any lasting impact on the cinematic landscape remains to be seen. So far no other studio has managed to emulate them with any real success, although not for lack of trying. It may be that the MCU will go down in history as the only experiment of its type, remembered as a unique anomaly of a cultural phenomenon. It’s honestly too early to tell or even extensively speculate.
But I have a feeling that we won’t see very many blockbusters in the vein of Nolan’s Dark Knight or Raimi’s Spiderman trilogies for a while yet. At least not in the superhero genre. And that’s more the pity.
When you have a shiny new toy you want to show it off, talk about it relentlessly, and remind everyone of its existence. This is my justification for the amount I’ve been blogging about my new manuscript Nelson and the Gallagher recently. For those who don’t follow this blog, a quick recap; Nelson is a comedic coming of age novel about being fourteen and not being very good at it. It’s loosely based on the year when my parents took over the running of a ski lodge on Mt Buller and I found myself in the middle of this strange and exciting new world. Real events, characters and lessons learnt are remixed and heightened into a (hopefully) entertaining and relatable narrative.
The process wasn’t unlike redrafting. Every time I rewrote Windmills or Boone Shepard from scratch I took the previous version and asked at every turn whether there were ways in which what I already had could be more dramatically interesting. Writing Nelson, essentially, was doing that with my own life. I won’t belabour the point, as I’ve been through this in other blogs, but doing this was imperative to make it work as entertaining fiction rather than a self-indulgent trip down memory lane. At every turn I had to remember that this was a novel first, a foray into nostalgia second.
In the end though, it wasn’t that hard. I approached Nelson from the start knowing what I wanted it to be and that meant there were very few moments where I found myself trying to shoehorn in a fond memory just for the sake of it. Besides, the events it was based on happened over a decade ago; my recollections are just too blurry to be recreated with any accuracy. It’s largely for that reason that I think Nelson works.
But I’ve found that trick hard to pull off a second time. For writers, autobiography can be tempting. We’re inherently reflective and often look back over past events in an attempt to understand what they meant and how they shaped us. Then there’s that perpetual question of happiness; was I better off back then? It invites retrospection, and when you have a blank page and a storytelling itch to scratch, it can be hard to resist the call of nostalgia. So many young writers take the adage ‘write what you know’ as an excuse to write autobiography, without really interrogating why it would be interesting to an external party. It would be hypocritical of me to suggest you shouldn’t do this, but you certainly should make sure you have something to say and that your story is objectively interesting (or at least, can be made so with a little creativity) before having a run at anything in the territory of memoir.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying I’ve found myself at a bit of an impasse with the sequel to Nelson I’ve been working on for the last couple of weeks. After finishing the first one I was keen to revisit the character, using the culture clash of a country kid going to boarding school as the foundation for his next adventure. Like its predecessor, I would mine my own experiences in an attempt to tell a funny, relatable story about growing up and learning tough lessons. And the boarding school setting seemed like a perfect next step; it provided immediate conflict and there were no shortage of dramas and embarrassments during my time there. Also, like the events that provided the inspiration for Nelson and the Gallagher, it was a time in my life that had a profound impact on me – in every way it seemed the logical next step.
I started plotting, writing out the broad strokes of what would happen in the novel, deciding which characters I wanted to use, then planning the narrative chapter by chapter. I sat in a pub, scrawling in my notebook and listening to the music that characterised that time, trying to get back in the headspace. And look, it worked. To a fault.
My plan for the second book was to mix up events from three years of my life; 2007, 2008 and 2009. I would cherry pick the stuff that was interesting and work it around a theme. In the planning process I found myself focussing predominantly on 2007. That year had the most story-worthy drama, so it made sense as a backbone. But as I neared the end of my outline and started working in more events from later years, I started to get uncomfortable. The story was eluding me and what I had didn’t feel exciting in the same way as the first Nelson.
It didn’t take long to realise what the problem was. Looking over the outline, I had essentially just written down the events of my 2007, faithfully and without significant alteration. Trying to bring in stuff from later years was jarring and immediately threw me out of the headspace. I had basically just been on a nostalgia trip to that time rather than planning a good book. In short, I fell into exactly the trap that any writer telling a story based on their own life has to avoid; I’d been more interested in my own experiences than Nelson’s. The story was about me, not the character.
You’re probably asking what the difference is. If the story is autobiographical and the character based on me, isn’t it inherently about myself? And didn’t I say in another blog recently that almost everything a writer writes is in some way self-reflection? Well, yes and no. It was imperative in the first book that Nelson was Nelson and not Gabriel, because it provided the distance I needed to make the story stand on its own two feet. We might be similar, but we’re not the same. The story might reflect mine, but it isn’t mine. The difference is slight, but crucial. And that gap, in planning the second book, had closed.
This is the pitfall of autobiographical fiction; if we make the mistake of writing about ourselves, we become blind. We cease to see how the story might be interesting to a total stranger. And we become attached to the things we want to relive rather than what the story needs. Naturally this is less a problem if you have an amazing or fascinating life, but for those of us writing the mundane and universal, the balancing act is so delicate. The sales pitch for Nelson and the Gallagher is that it’s a story any awkward, dweeby fourteen-year-old can relate to. It’s written for kids similar to my younger self to read and know they’re not alone. It was a book written for an audience, not for myself. The second book, before I’d even started writing, lost that integrity.
Do I think it’s impossible to regain? Not at all. I suspect the problem is that, unlike the first book, I just dived straight into this one without letting the story percolate until it was ready to be written. Given that circumstance, of course I’d rely on the crutch of my own experiences.
It’s no secret that I get ahead of myself, and if I’m excited about a shiny new toy (new story) I’ll keep working at it or various extensions until the passion ebbs. A lesson I still have to learn is to stop while there’s still something in the tank, in this case to resist diving into a sequel to a novel that hasn’t even been seen by anyone in publishing and may be nowhere near as good as I think it is. I’ll let Nelson 2 come to me slowly, and I’ll start working on it when I know I have a good story to tell, not just a memory lane I want to revisit.
If you’ve ever been to a book signing or Q&A with an author, then you’re probably familiar with the following interaction:
Fan: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Author: Get used to rejection letters.
Audience: *Laughs uproariously.*
It’s a cliché that being a writer comes hand and hand with rejection. People tell you that you have to be ready for it, but almost nobody ever tells you the toll that repeated rejection can take. To illustrate my point, I’m going to be a bit of a wanker and share a quote from my play Regression.
“The biggest lie anyone told me was that you get used to rejection. You don’t. It’s easy when you’re fifteen, because you’ve still got so much to learn and look forward to. And hey, maybe at twenty five you still do. But that, that right there is the worst part. Because if you’re still no better than you were at fifteen then really, what’s the point? Why even try?”
This, of course, is very much a pessimist’s view, but on my darkest days it’s pretty close to how I feel. And that feeling can be a hard one to shake. When I was a teenager I was certain I’d get picked up by a publisher and hit the big time by twenty. Since then I’ve learnt a lot about the industry and my own abilities; namely that becoming a working writer is hard and becoming good enough to be taken seriously is even harder. Considering that, the fact alone that I’m paid for what I do puts me in the lucky minority, and for that I’m grateful. But it’s no secret that my dreams are far bigger than what I currently do.
A few months ago, in the midst of a burst of renewed motivation, I started entering every competition I saw. I went for every fellowship, applied for funding grants; all of it. I threw myself at opportunity after opportunity, certain that some of them would have to come off.
But the thing about throwing yourself at every opportunity is that more often than not you miss. Over the last few weeks I have received a deluge of rejection emails, often several in the same day, often for things I honestly thought I had a really strong chance at. This isn’t new; if you’re a writer and you’re remotely serious about making a go of it, you’ll know the feeling of being turned down time and time again. You’ll know the stab of pain and spite every time you read words to the effect of ‘thank you for your application; we were truly impressed by the quality of…’ And you’ll know the anger that comes with those emails that take a full paragraph to get to the ‘unfortunately’ part of their meaningless platitudes. In the end, rejection is rejection, and trying to dress it up with a copy-and-pasted niceties doesn’t ever soften the blow. It just makes you feel patronised as well as rejected.
My first instinct, every time, is to delete those emails when they come in. Because while I claim I’ve got thick skin and, comparative to some, probably do, it still stings and it still affects me. A whole bunch of new competitions have opened up recently, and I just haven’t bothered to enter. When my housemate/Movie Maintenance co-host Kath asked me if I was entering the Academy’s prestigious Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriters, I just shrugged. What would be the point?
The point, when all is said and done, is as tough as it is simple. The world is full of different opinions and different tastes. And when a lot of people vie for one opportunity, there have to be losers, and often those losers don’t lose for lack of talent or weakness of ideas. They lose because their work didn’t match the sensibilities of the judges. Or, more likely, they lose because the winner was just more deserving. There are a lot of talented people out there, and their existence doesn’t limit or cheapen your own abilities. It just offers competition, and competition is what keeps us trying our best.
And then there is the optimistic view of the whole thing; that you have to be in it to win it. If I’d never entered competitions, I wouldn’t be where I am. The ratio of hits to misses might be staggeringly disproportionate, but there is a ratio. There have been wins and shortlistings in there. Tiny encouragements that you have to remember the next time you enter something. Encouragements that remind you that you have worth, even as the rejections remind you how tough the industry you’ve chosen is.
That’s why you don’t delete rejection emails. That’s why you remember the bad reviews and the people who told you you’re not good enough. Because remembering your losses makes the wins that much sweeter. A hard-won victory always means more than a lucky one, and those rejections provide a constant push to try harder.
I’m going to risk doubling my wanker credentials and close with another quote from my own work, this time from Springsteen, a work written at a far better, more hopeful time in my life than Regression:
“You know what differentiates a good artist from a bad one? Persistence. It’s how they respond to that rejection. Someone tells you you’re not good enough, someone feeds you those platitudes you were talking about; you got two options. Let it bring you down, or take it as a challenge. Let it make you hungrier. When you came to me I thought you were good. I wondered if you could get better. So I said the things that I knew would hurt you. Now look at you.”
Skill and success are forged in the fire of failure. Remember that, even in your lowest moments, and you’re already ahead of the curve.
Earlier today the announcement hit that Movie Maintenance, the podcast I’ve been a part of for the last three years, is coming to an end with its 150th episode. This decision was made a few weeks ago, and despite the word ‘cancelled’ being bandied about, that’s not the best description for what happened.
Movie Maintenance has never been an easy show. There were bursts of creative energy, there were episodes we’re all hugely proud of, but the truth is that it just never quite hit the heights we wanted it to. Even at its best it was a weekly struggle to maintain (heh) the quality and the early idea, to every week deliver an amazing fix of a flawed film that made you sit up and say “if only!” quickly became unviable. Before long we were relying more on our own fan fiction pitches for dream sequels, prequels and reboots. The reason for this was simple; it’s easier and more enjoyable to write about something you like than something you don’t.
Over the course of its run, Movie Maintenance was often subjected to soft reboots. The cast changed, the format shifted, emphasis moved from fixes to pitches then back to fixes and finally to a format that allowed us more general discussion of writing craft. The premise of Movie Maintenance, which was always strong, never sat comfortably with what we really wanted to do. And while a lot of what we did would sort of count as a maintenance if you squinted, much was rightly called out by listeners as being a bit of a betrayal of the premise of the show.
Over the last year, passion and energy dwindled. I found myself running out of great ideas for takes on movies and finding excuses to remove myself from episodes. And while we were really enjoying the discussion based episodes (Toxic Fandoms, Dialogue, Franchise Fatigue etc), the pitches and fixes had become a chore. So we decided to reboot again, to bring in new formats like the Garbage vs Gold debates and challenge eps like Win Vin Diesel an Oscar. Fun for us, but still not really Movie Maintenance.
Meanwhile, our passion was moving elsewhere. Our spinoff series of audio dramas, Movie Maintenance Presents, has never been a conqueror in the downloads, but gave us as writers a chance to put original work out there, and while it was always far more work than the main show, it was in many ways more rewarding. Then there was Movie Maintenance AGM, our subscriber only pop culture news show which, as Handsome Tom pointed out, was so refreshing and enjoyable because it gave us a chance to talk about things we like.
Relentless negativity has long been a criticism of Movie Maintenance. For my money there’s a reason people still talk about episodes like Dracula, Jaws 5 and Sons of the West; they were based around things we were passionate about and let us convey that passion. That’s almost always more fun to hear than people just criticising something. I could never begrudge people disliking the show because of our negativity, but tearing movies apart was baked into our premise and honestly, on a show called Movie Maintenance there just wasn’t that much we could do about it.
Are you sensing a pattern here? More and more, we were fighting against our premise. And then there was the external problems it posed. Try meeting working screenwriters, directors and producers at industry events and telling them that your job is to, without much to your name, claim you can do better than them. There aren’t many ways to say that without sounding arrogant. And while I do believe that we always approached what we did from a place of loving film and wanting the best from our blockbusters, it’s easy to see why someone would assume otherwise and write us off as at best pretentious, at worst conceited and vindictive.
Breaking point came a couple of months back when our producer stepped down. We had been looking at launching the AGMs as a public parallel show to Movie Maintenance, called The Agenda, but without someone to edit and oversee the concept suddenly looked unfeasible. And when we met to record, we were at a loss. Finally I asked: what if we scrap Movie Maintenance and come up with something new in its place? Something that keeps the things we love about the show and removes the stuff that was detrimental? Something that has room to include the news discussion format of the AGMS, the challenges, the writing craft dissections and whatever else we have a mind to do?
I was ready to be shut down. I was ready to be told that was a stupid risk. But what I got was unanimous agreement, a shared admission that we’d all been feeling this way for a while and, with our 150th episode getting close, this move couldn’t come at a better time. And like that, within the space of a few minutes, the decision was made. Movie Maintenance would finish. And something else, something looser and vaguer and more fun, would take its place.
All of the above probably makes it sound like I disliked Movie Maintenance, which couldn’t be further from the truth. At its best it was exhilarating fun. Getting to tell stories that excited people all around the world was beyond rewarding. Getting to hear stories from the most talented writers I know was even better. Hearing appreciation for my work from people everywhere was something I had never experienced before, and the podcast provided the kind of platform that was beyond invaluable. It changed my life and revolutionised my career, and I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it. And, beyond that, for the fact that people listened and cared. That alone was more than I ever could have expected.
But everything has its time and everything ends. More information about the new show will land in weeks to come, but until then there are still a few more episodes of Movie Maintenance before our final live show extravaganza on May 18. And after that, in the immortal words of Hannibal, ‘fate and circumstance have returned us to this moment, when the teacup shatters.’
It’s been a blast. Thank you for listening.
Just some thoughts.