In 2008 I was obsessed with the Beatles and by extension, of all things, the conspiracy theory claiming that Paul McCartney had died in 1966 and been replaced with an imposter. It wasn’t that I believed it, just that I found it kind of fascinating. So fascinating, in fact, that I had a dream one night that I was an investigative journalist delving into said conspiracy while riding around the countryside on a giant tricycle.
It was a weird dream, but often it’s the weird ones that stick with you, that give you this strange feeling that somehow, for some reason, this is important. As with most things I can’t stop thinking about, I figured I had to write about it. So I came up with a story; a story that could balance the strangeness of the whole thing with the deeper pathos and creepiness that underpins any good conspiracy theory. And for that very particular story, I needed a very particular character.
The name Boone Shepard had been in my head for years; a name that I knew would one day belong to a hero in one of my stories. And the kind of hero who could investigate Beatles conspiracy theories while riding a giant tricycle was the kind of hero who deserved a name like Boone Shepard.
I wrote three stories about him that year. They weren’t great; a mismatch of violent darkness, weird nonsense and tragedy. They were overwritten and packed haphazardly with the things I loved at the time; gonzo journalism, gothic horror, murder mysteries, 60s hippy culture and time travel. The friends I showed them to reacted accordingly, saying that they were dumb and unrealistic compared to the other stuff I was writing at the time – considering the already dumb and unrealistic nature of that other stuff, the fact that Boone Shepard stood out probably said something – so I let Boone fade away and focused on other stories.
Years passed. I left school, went to uni, and wrote more – some bad stuff, some good stuff, most in between. Boone lingered in the back of my head; like most ideas I’ve had I entertained the notion of revisiting him, but never seriously.
Then along came the real hero of Boone’s story; April Newton. She read the old stories and, where nobody else had, saw potential. Her excitement for the world and the character reignited my own; soon the gears start turning and, as if he’d never been away, Boone rode back into my thoughts and quickly, back on to the page.
Some things changed. The weirdness was toned down. The giant tricycle became a battered motorbike. But the spirit of the old stories; the wild, strange sense of adventure, had gone nowhere. And at a time when I’d been writing mostly melancholic, personal plays and super dark novels, returning to Boone was a breath of fresh air and a homecoming that I think I really needed. Over 2013 and 2014 I wrote five novels, finally wrapping it all up with an ending that I still to this day think is one of the best things I’ve ever written.
I sent the first book to a few publishers and agents, but there was never much interest. Then April contacted me to tell me she was starting a publishing house and she wanted Boone Shepard to be her first title. There was no hesitation from my end. April understood Boone better than anyone and knew what the story needed to get the best out of it.
Some parts of the plan did change. The intended first book, The Broken Record, was skipped, with elements of it folded into the subsequent instalments. Book two, Darkening Ventures, became book one: Boone Shepard.
I can’t overstate the work April put in to make that first book a reality. But she did an incredible job and what resulted was the kind of book it was hard for me to believe my name was on. But the jury was still out on whether readers would see in Boone what we had.
The reaction to the first book was a learning curve. Thanks to my involvement with Sanspants Radio it reached a huge audience; the audiobook was listened to by thousands all around the world, and the responses were wide ranging. The very first bit of feedback I got was somebody tweeting me the morning of release to say ‘your book sucks mate’. Subsequently I heard it all. Some people thought it was a disappointment. Others told me it was their favourite book. I was sent fan-art and photos of kids dressed as Boone Shepard for Book Week. It was probably the widest audience my work had reached at that point and I learnt that what you write can never please everyone but as long as you know that you said what you set out to say, then you can be proud.
But that first book was only one part of the story. In retrospect, ending on a giant cliff-hanger was about the most presumptuous thing I could have done, as there was no guarantee of it selling or being well liked enough to get a sequel. Luckily, it did.
American Adventure might have debuted to a slightly more subdued response, but it did so at the same time that the first book was nominated for the Readings Young Adult Prize. I can’t stress enough what a moment of vindication that was. For months, Boone stood proudly on posters in every Readings store, side by side with some of the most talked about YA books of recent times. It was definitive proof that this strange idea of mine that somehow found its way into stores had managed to be seen as a contender. That was a pretty special feeling.
Merging the final two books was, in the end, not only practical but logical. I wasn’t arrogant enough to assume a fourth was likely, so we decided to go out with a bang. The final two books were always linked plot and theme wise anyway, and now it’s hard to imagine them as separate entities. The Silhouette and the Sacrifice probably needed the most work to bring together, but it paid off in a big way. The three books together tell one complete story and the final book, for my money, is comfortably the best; sprawling, emotional and with an ending, almost unchanged from what was written in 2014, that I think shows just what Boone Shepard was always about beneath the adventure and the manatee jokes.
And as of today, it’s out in the world. The whole story, all wrapped up for people to read or not read as they desire (please read it).
How do I feel in this moment of completion? It’s hard to say. Things in my life have been so busy for so long that Boone has almost become an afterthought. But today, more than any other day ever, is his day. Tonight the book officially launches at Readings Kids (6:30, come along, there’ll be wine) and after that, well, who knows?
But for now, Boone has ridden off into the sunset, along with Promethia, Oscar, Jessie, Marbier, Avery and all the rest. And I think for the rest of my life, no matter what I write or what happens, I’ll always have a certain singular fondness for that gang of misfits and miscreants. Boone’s story is one of hope and heroism, about overcoming the worst in yourself to find the best, about learning from your mistakes and saying goodbye to the past. It’s about becoming your own person and being better to those around you. It’s about, in short, all the lessons I learned in the years I was telling it. Beneath the craziness is the most personal thing I’ve ever written.
I hope you’ll read the end and I hope you’ll like it. But it’s out of my hands now. I’m finished.
Goodbye Mr Shepard. It was a pleasure and a privilege to have known you.
There’s an old saying, that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It’s one of those things that seems to make sense on the surface, until you look at it a little closer. For example, you can regularly sneak into a vicious country town with a bone-deep hatred of journalists and a marrow deep hatred of journalists named Boone Shepard and assume that, statistically speaking, it’s highly unlikely that said town will manage to catch and try to hang you every single time. After all, a town with such a particular and nonsensical prejudice probably, it stands to reason, isn’t populated with the brightest sorts.
But at a certain point you’re just making excuses without confronting the issue at hand, the issue at hand being that I, once again, was locked up in the cells of the Greenville Police Station waiting to be hanged at dawn, having once again snuck into the town in pursuit of a story and been caught because of an unexpected amorous midnight rendezvous between little old Mrs McCurdles and John the friendly butcher, who had chased me into the police station with his friendly battle axe.
It was also highly possible that the issue at hand was my own insanity, but that one would keep for dealing with at a later date. The same luxury was not offered by a meeting between my neck and a noose.
Leaning against the cold wall of the cell, I sighed. There weren’t many escape options being presented to me at that stage, which meant I would have to rely on my wit and charm when the morning came. That, given Greenville, was bound to be yet another case of doing the same thing and expecting a different result, although to be fair I might well end up vindicated this time – Greenville had never successfully hanged me before. That counted as a different result, right?
I looked around the cell for roughly the hundredth time, but to my surprise I was met with a different result. A face behind the bars was staring back at me, a face that did not belong to the policeman or the Mayor, who had a habit of turning up at all hours of the night to gloat. No, this face was far too young to be either. He was about ten, wearing plain overalls with glasses and a mess of thick brown hair.
‘Hello,’ I said.
‘Hello,’ he replied. ‘You’re Boone Shepard.’
‘Guilty as charged.’
'Is being Boone Shepard what they charged you with?’
‘Might as well have been,’ I grinned. ‘Prying, this time. Which is a change from the standard meddling, but both are pretty synonymous with being Boone Shepard.’
‘Do you think big words make you seem smart?’ he asked.
‘If I wanted to seem smart I wouldn’t be back in Greenville, would I?’
‘So why are you in Greenville?’
I shrugged. ‘There was a story. I heard Mrs McCurdles was running a jewel thieving operation by night. Turns out she was really just running a kissing-the-butcher operation, which doesn’t quite have the same front page potential.’
‘I dunno,’ the boy said. ‘Front pages last a day. That gossip will fuel Greenville for weeks.’
‘More than my finally being hanged?’
‘People care more about gossip than justice.’
I laughed despite myself. ‘That’s… that’s a cynical thing to think at your age.’
‘That’s a condescending thing to think at your age,’ he replied.
I nodded. ‘Fair enough. I’m sorry. People always underestimated me because of how old I was too. I should know better.’
‘But you don’t,’ the boy said. ‘You’re an adult. Adults are supposed to know best.’
I raised an eyebrow. ‘In your experience, has that ever been true?’
The boy grinned. ‘Guess not.’
‘I reckon it’s better to be proud of being an idiot than deluded about being smart,’ I said. ‘I can’t tell you why I don’t know better. I just don’t. Too curious. Too stupid. Too…’ There were other words for what I was too much of. That didn’t mean I wanted to say them. ‘What are you doing here, anyway?’
‘Never seen you up close,’ the boy said. ‘Only ever heard all the outraged stories. Thought I’d see if they were true.’
‘My Father says that you’re bad news because you dig up things that should stay buried,’ he said. ‘Truths that make dinner parties uncomfortable.’
‘Is your father an exception to the rule about adults knowing nothing?’
The boy shook his head. ‘I think he’s half the reason the rule exists. Do you think you’ll get out?’
‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘Probably. I usually do, right?’
‘But you don’t have a plan.’
‘Then how will you escape?’
‘Something always turns up.’
‘What if it doesn’t?’
‘If it doesn’t…’ I tried to think of a witty answer. But there wasn’t one. I thought of the noose. I thought of the faces of the town baying for my blood.
And then I thought about what I would see in that moment. About the bent gum trees and dry brown grass of my childhood. About the foggy streets of London now and then, about the rolling fields of England, about blood in the snow and pain and the subsequent endless pursuit of something even I didn’t quite understand.
‘If it doesn’t,’ I said, and tried to keep the tremor out of my voice, ‘then at least I know I’ve had a life.’
‘Everyone’s had a life,’ he said. ‘Some people even have long ones. Or good ones.’
‘Maybe you need the bad to see the good,’ I said. ‘Maybe the kind of life we should want is one that’s full, not one that’s good. Have a few stories to tell at the end of it.’
‘Well considering you might be at the end,’ the boy said, ‘what’s the best story you have?’
I looked at the roof. Closed my eyes. And smiled. ‘Once upon a time there was a boy. Not much was special about him. But he wanted more than what he had. So he did whatever he could to get it, until he learned that he’d been so focussed on one thing that there were a lot of other things he’d missed. And then he started to see those things and then…’ I opened my eyes. I looked at the boy. ‘And then life was full of colour. And the boy knew that as long as he kept seeing those colours, seeing colours even though other people told him they weren’t there, he would be okay.’
For a moment, there was silence.
‘Seeing things other people don’t is a sign of insanity,’ he said.
I winked. ‘There you go.’
For a moment, the boy just watched me. ‘I don’t know if I like that story.’
‘It’s the best one I’ve got.’
‘It’ll have to do I guess.’
He reached out a hand and dropped a key through the bars.
I stared at it, unsure if this was real. I looked back at the boy. He was smiling.
‘Something always turns up,’ he said. Then he was gone, vanished in the dark beyond the bars.
For a long moment I just sat there. Then I reached out and picked up the key. It was heavy and cool in my hand.
I unlocked the cell door and quietly slid it open. I moved through the still, silent and dark station before stepping out on to the cobblestoned main street of Greenville; just quiet, murky shadows at the point where night starts to become morning.
I found my bike around the back of the station and wheeled it down the main street, careful not to make a noise. But nobody else was awake. They slept their boring sleeps, waiting for the morning when they could watch a man hang. A morning that, for Greenville, might as well be a Christmas during which Santa had finally paid some actual attention to who was on the naughty list.
I arrived at the outskirts of Greenville just as the first fringes of sunrise lit the horizon. I stopped for a moment and watched. The distant waves of dark hills were slowly becoming green as fire grew in the sky above, seeping through the purple until it became a lighter blue. Another day, and I was still alive. I took a long, deep breath. The air was cool and bracing. I felt alive. I felt ready. For what, I didn’t know yet.
I looked over my shoulder. Greenville remained partly in shadow. But maybe, standing on the main street I had left the town via, I could see a shape. Maybe it was the figure of a young boy, watching. Maybe it was nothing.
But just in case, I waved.
I started my bike. The thrum of the engine filled the air. I revved it, once. It was like a roar. I laughed, and clambered on. My eyes moved to the road ahead, to the morning and the rolling fields beyond. I didn’t know where I was going to go. But I’d figure that out as I went. Something always came up. Always.
Whistling, I accelerated into the morning light.
See you around, Boone.
Some of you may or may not be aware that I’m a bit of a hobbyist sculptor, although even saying that probably gives my abilities more credit than they deserve. Making stuff out of clay is something I’ve enjoyed doing since I was a kid, and I’ve recently decided to commit to more frequent attempts, as, frankly, I need a low stakes creative hobby, something to focus attention on that isn’t writing.
It’s funny though, how similar the two things are in some respects. When you start making something out of clay you begin with a smooth sphere of the stuff, then slowly work it until it begins to take the shape of what you can see in your head. Clay doesn’t react well to you being too tough with it. If you work too long on one piece then it can dry out and start to crack. And the worst possible thing you can do it tear some off and stick in back on to fashion an arm or extra appendage or whatever. The moment the clay hardens, anything that’s been stuck on will fall away.
You have to roll with the (very) metaphorical punches. Sometimes trying to get the shape of the nose or mouth right will ruin another part. As much as individual aspects of the work require attention, you have to try and keep the whole of what you’re working towards in your head at all times. Overthinking can ruin it, but carelessness is just as detrimental. It’s also important to know when to stop. It’s hard to be a perfectionist with something that dries out after too long. Sometimes the rough parts are what adds character.
A novel or a script is pretty similar, but over a much longer stretch of time. The big difference is that the sculpting doesn’t end when you hit the conclusion of the story. The first draft is really just one step removed from the plain ball of clay that you started out with. The beginnings of the shape are there, but you’re a long way from the finished product, even if you think you are.
I used to finish something, decide I was largely happy with it, then move on. This is another reason working with clay is probably good for me; it provides a creative outlet in which I can do that. But in writing, I’ve found myself developing a new commitment to take my time. Instead of jumping erratically between projects, I’ve taken to spending a lot more time focussed on the ongoing development of a couple (in this case Sunburnt Country and Nelson and the Gallagher). I’ve taken my time; getting feedback on the drafts, letting those new ideas percolate, and then coming back to keep working at the thing.
A major adjustment in my thinking is patience. A few years ago I was desperate to be a famous writer. I didn’t care what theatre produced my plays or what publisher or agent I ended up with. I think I craved validation so much that it didn’t really phase me where I found it.
A few years later, that desperation is long gone. I’d much rather a story took a few years to be perfect, and the first step is to be flexible enough to never view anything as finished. Back in 2013 I chose to ignore extremely valuable feedback on Below Babylon because I didn’t want to do the work to get it up to scratch. I kind of shrugged and was like “oh well, too bad, it’s basically finished so there isn’t much I can do”. It’s the same way of thinking that led me to self-publish Windmills despite knowing on some level that it was yet to reach its full potential.
I’m not a patient person, but writing is a patient craft. Like sculpting, it takes time and a gentle touch to eventually find the right shape for a story. The difference with writing is that there’s rarely a time limit for finishing the work.
Take advantage of the fact.
A couple of weeks ago I got a call out of the blue from an old friend. We had been really close at the end of high school and in the years immediately after, but eventually drifted apart. At the time of this call, we hadn’t spoken in over three years.
I wish I could say it was one of those cases where we just picked up where we left off, as if nothing had changed, but it was pretty much the opposite. The conversation was stilted and awkward. There was no warm reminiscence or excited planning for a future catch up. The familiarity of the voice aside, I felt like I was talking to a total stranger. At one point, looking for common ground, I asked if he was still writing and performing music. One of the things that first brought us together was a shared artistic passion.
His response? “Oh, yeah. Sometimes. Here and there.”
There was no regret or self-consciousness in his reply. It was, fittingly enough, as if he was mentioning a half-forgotten friend from a long time ago. I didn’t say anything else about it, but it was a strange thing to hear from somebody who, at the time of our friendship, had loved his music the way I did writing. Someone for whom, once upon a time, the idea of ever giving up would have been tragic.
But he’s not the only one. Shortly out of school another close friend of mine was an extremely talented actor who could light up the stage and demand the attention of anyone watching her. She had this strange and singular quality; a kind of enigmatic, irreverent charisma, the sort of thing that I genuinely believed could have made her a star. She was also fiercely ambitious; driven and uncompromising in pursuing her dream of being a performer.
Except, well, she compromised. Spent years supporting a boyfriend who refused to get a job while he studied. Ended up in another relationship with a partner who didn’t approve of her acting because it might require her to ‘kiss other men’. She once told me that every morning on the way to work she would stand out the back of one of the bigger theatres in Melbourne, watch the cast members head in for a show, and cry. At the time I was living paycheck to paycheck, working late nights and dedicating all my free time to theatre. I urged her to do the same thing. As bad as things got, nothing could be worse than giving up.
Last I heard, she hasn’t acted in about four years. What she has done is buy a house, settle down, and make more money than I’ve ever seen in my life.
I’m not, for the record, trying to speak for her or say that she would have been happier chasing a near impossible dream. I don’t really know her anymore and as far as I can tell she’s in a good place. My point is that if you had asked me, years ago, I never would have guessed at where she ended up. I would have considered it tragic.
The list goes on. Talented actors who went into science or law degrees. Writers far better than me who travelled the world and settled into government jobs. Musicians who went from planning albums to working real estate. And of all those people who I’m still in touch with, when I ask them about their art it’s usually the same response. “Oh, yeah. Sometimes. Here and there.”
I want to be careful with writing this. I refer to these real people not to judge or claim that I’m doing better than them (I’m almost certainly not), but rather to explore something that I’ve been noticing more and more as I near my tenth year of adulthood. On some level I suppose I always knew that, when it comes to the creative arts, only a handful ever ‘make it’. I mean, for years I’ve been confidently espousing the necessity of commitment to your art at the expense of everything else (which I know is naïve, bear with me). But when I was eighteen, I think on some level I really did think that all the brilliant, excited, driven creatives I had surrounded myself with would all find success.
But times change and we change too. Passions develop or they die, and holding on to the dream you had as a kid proves a lot harder when adult life and responsibilities start bearing down on you.
I have a bit of experience with this. One thing I’ve mentioned a couple of times in interviews is that, when I was in high school, I wanted to be an actor. I grew up in a country town, taking part in every school show, working with theatre groups outside school before leaving when I was fifteen, having gotten a drama scholarship to a prestigious boarding school famous for its theatre program. For my first year there, I obsessed over being a great actor. I alienated so many people with how seriously I took myself and how certain I was in my own incredible talent.
But over my three years at that school, I saw what real talent looked like. I saw the people who were genuinely good and I slowly realised that I didn’t match up. Acting as a serious pursuit died very quickly when I was out of school, because what was the point?
The thing is, that didn’t hurt much. Or even at all. By the time I let go of the acting dream, the writing one had already taken its place, and so in the end it was just a matter of recognising my true talent and committing myself to that. And maybe that’s the best comparison to all the people I mentioned above. Maybe, in a lot of those cases, they found their true passion and put away childish things.
That’s the optimistic outlook. Because persisting as a creative means living with a grim reality every single day, the reality that chasing the dream of being a working artist is really fucking hard.
I’ve said this a lot, but I don’t think I ever really meant it. I don’t think I ever really understood how it felt to hit a genuine dead end and be left wondering exactly why you even bother.
This year I’ve hit several. 2017 was one of the most creatively fulfilling years of my life. 2018 has been a different beast altogether. Things that I was excited for were pulled out from under me. Projects I took for sure things turned out to be anything but. Others that I had reason to be very optimistic about fell apart in sometimes brutal, painful ways.
It all culminated with a couple of shit weeks that left me lying in bed, staring at the roof and realising that I had never been as demoralised as I was in that moment. In the past, I would be disappointed about things falling through for an hour or so, then I’d get back up and go on to the next pursuit. But I had found myself in a place where getting up again looked at best difficult, at worst pointless.
After a couple of days, I did pull myself up. There was stuff to do and stories to tell. But hitting that kind of unprecedented low point has a lasting effect. I feel like I’ve come out the other side a bit jaded. A bit less starry eyed. A bit more resigned to the worst things about this industry I’ve chosen. And a bit more understanding of those who decided to choose another one.
I’ve said a few times, half seriously, that I have to make it as a writer because I’m not good at anything else. I’ve said that was a weirdly comforting thought, and I still believe it is. But in the worst moments of this vocation, it looks the exact opposite of comforting. Because trying to be a creative means being at least a little bit deluded about your chances, and in the moments where that delusion drops away and you’re faced with the truth about how hard this game is, you find yourself wondering if maybe you would be better off doing something else.
I have enough to my name to know that I’m not barking up the wrong tree. I make my money as a working writer, and people the world over know my name and have read my work. I am lucky beyond belief and grateful for the fact. But on some level, I’m still rolling a boulder up a hill and hoping that this time it won’t come back down again. If it does, I’ll sigh, rest for a moment, and try again.
But if you’re standing at the top of that hill, watching the boulder get smaller and smaller as it rolls away and you decide that enough is enough then I can’t blame you. A year ago I would have thought your choice was sad. Now? It looks a lot closer to sanity.
A few years ago, as part of my screenwriting masters at VCA, I decided to adapt my play Reunion into a feature screenplay. At the time it seemed a no-brainer; Reunion had only recently been performed for the first time, I knew the characters and the themes intimately, and it was a very personal story. As the kind of thing that I could spend a year working on and not get sick of, it made perfect sense.
The problem was that the VCA screenwriting course is a pretty vicious test of a story and your tolerance for it. Your script is subjected to almost weekly feedback sessions, mostly from difference voices all telling you why it doesn’t work and how to make it better. It can be hard to see anything beyond two obvious options; either ignore them all or take everything on board. Neither is helpful.
Reunion was a simple, sentimental little story about four estranged high school friends getting together for a drink and quickly, in each others’ company, regressing into the petulant teenagers they thought they’d grown beyond. It was based on myself and the friends group I desperately missed at the time, and as such certainly felt very close to home. Of course, a big lesson to learn in any form of writing is that just because something matters to you doesn’t mean it will to anyone else, and very quickly every tutor wanted to know what the hook was. Was it a serious drama? If so, the stakes needed to be raised. Was it a goofy comedy? Then it had to be broader, funnier and more action packed. I tried pushing in both directions and very quickly the script stopped looking like the story I wanted to tell. Eventually I ended up with something that technically was probably a stronger film, but lacked the soul that made Reunion mean anything to me. By the end of the first year I washed my hands of Reunion and moved on to something else.
There are two worst cast scenarios that can happen when faced with the prospect of redrafting. The first is that we remain too attached to the former version and therefore fail to make any tangible changes. We make excuses for the things that don’t gell and avoid any major overhauls that might create more work for us. We treat ‘redrafting’ as making a couple of tweaks, adding or removing a scene or two and maybe doing a final spruce up of the dialogue. That was essentially how I treated the first attempt to take Reunion from stage to screen. It’s what tends to happen when you’re still too close to the previous version; the prospect of re-writing from scratch can be both daunting and demoralising. We’re unwilling or unable to see the extent of the flaws and so we make excuses and brush off feedback. I’ve done this with plenty of projects, from Reunion to Below Babylon to various versions of Windmills. I wasn’t right in any of those cases.
The second worst case scenario is the exact opposite; that we take everyone else’s ideas of what our story could or should be on board and end up re-shaping it into something that no longer resembles what we originally fell in love with. This is also an unhealthy reaction to feedback; we become so demoralised and hate our work so much that we figure the only solution is to burn it all down and start again. A few years ago I wrote a novel called Phoenix, about a gang of teenagers surviving in a house after a nuclear war. Phoenix was slow and clunky but I couldn’t for the life of me work out why it wasn’t coming together properly. Eventually I can up with a drastically different version of the story, in which the protagonist wakes up after the bomb with amnesia in a house surrounded by strangers who all seem to despise him. In some ways that’s probably a better story with a more inherently interesting hook, but it wasn’t Phoenix. It turned a survival thriller into a mystery and drastically altered the themes and characters. Needless to say, I didn’t persist with it.
Stories develop over time, as we think about them more and figure out new solutions to old problems. The great and exciting thing about redrafting is the way in which a story reveals itself to you slowly, giving you a new understanding and a deeper love for what you’re trying to say. But it’s imperative, at every step of the process, to remember why you wanted to tell this story. What was it that you loved about it to begin with? That’s not to say you won’t find other things you love, but rather that the value of what initially drew you to the story can never be overstated. Because nine times out of ten, what first drew you to the story will form the crux of what makes it special. Whether it’s a character, a theme, a moment or an emotion, treat the first germ of the idea as an anchor, even if it doesn’t ultimately make it into the story. If you remember why you wanted to tell this story, you’re far less likely to get lost in insecurities.
Like almost everything about writing, re-drafting is a balancing act, one that requires you to be open to new ideas but to hold on to what you loved about the old ones. The body of a story always changes in the telling, but the soul almost never does. Almost.
Remember; no matter how much a story seems to be eluding you, nobody will ever know your own ideas with the same intimacy as you.
A few years back an ex-girlfriend asked me why I bothered with my blog if nobody read it. This was shortly before I won the Ustinov and the growth of Movie Maintenance, so I didn’t have much to my name and she probably had a point, although the ‘ex’ part of that descriptor probably gives you an indication of how willing I ultimately was to listen. But even knowing she might have been right, it wasn’t a question that really gave me pause or prompted any serious introspection regarding my motives. I blogged because I liked blogging. It was never something I started with the assumption that anybody outside of the occasional friend or family member would read. Questioning the futility of this isn’t invalid. Writing without an audience, on paper, can look a lot like yelling into the void.
But I don’t think writers fundamentally write for other people. I mean sure, being aware of prospective audiences and gearing your writing towards them is essential, but writing would be a hollow exercise if you were entirely telling stories for other people. Your work needs to come from somewhere real, otherwise it lacks weight. To me, writing should always come from an itch you have to scratch, a story you have to tell. That’s the basic seed from which the bigger piece grows.
For example; over Christmas I wrote a novella called Khancoban, a short thriller featuring Maggie from Sunburnt Country finding herself in the middle of a nightmare situation that she essentially has to fight her way out of. I was super proud of it; I thought it was tightly written and full of strong twists and turns. But outside of being available on my Patreon, I haven’t done anything with it yet. Maybe three or four people have read it. But as much as I’d love it to reach as many eyes as possible, I haven’t been going out of my way trying to make that happen. For now, being proud of Khancoban is enough; it was a successfully scratched itch that hopefully one day translates into something other people enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing it. But if that never happens? I’ll live.
My blog sort of fulfils a similar purpose writ large. It’s a place where I articulate and explore ideas that don’t have a home elsewhere. It’s somewhere I can get out my thoughts and opinions on writing, freed of having to be part of a work of fiction. And, beyond that it now provides for me personally a valuable record of my writing life, with entries spanning back to a very different time when my approach to things was largely divergent to what it is now. Add to that more personal reflections on my times overseas, and this blog essentially forms a kind of public journal.
Nowadays, I’m flattered to hear quite regularly from young writers who find it of value. That’s another reason why establishing a blog, even if nobody initially reads it, is a worthwhile pursuit. Charting your development and the lessons you learn about your craft can, it turns out, be valuable to other people as well. Learning that was a really nice surprise; I never approached blogging with any notion that anybody else would get something out of it, so knowing that a small group of people have is awesome.
Maintaining a semi regular writing blog is a great way to keep yourself constantly reflecting on and considering your growth, development and approach to your craft. If you’re worried about people not reading it, don’t be; assume no-one will care, and you’re free of the need to write anything other than exactly what you want to. A love of writing, after all, is the first and most important criteria for pursuing a career in it. Getting people to actually read your stuff should come later. It’s also worth remembering that everything you write is a form of practice and every bit of practice helps you improve. A blog is a fantastic way to scratch a different creative itch, to keep a personal record and maybe, eventually, to provide worthwhile advice to those in the same position you once were.
Earlier today I did my periodic check on Goodreads to see if there were any new reviews or ratings for Boone Shepard. This isn’t something I do often; most responses happened back around the time the book came out and new ratings are only occasional. Besides, I’m well past the point of being hellbent on seeing reviews; in the two years since Boone Shepard came out I’ve heard everything from people calling it their favourite book to people saying it outright sucked and many, many more responses somewhere in between those two polar extremes.
Today there was one new rating for each book; five stars for Boone Shepard and three stars for Boone Shepard’s American Adventure, from the same reviewer. I didn’t take offense to this; rather it just struck me as further evidence of this weird divide I’m noticing in how I think about the books and how people react. It’s something that is especially obvious with kids, who aren’t so good at hiding their feelings; Boone Shepard gets a lot of love while American Adventure seems to have been treated as an inferior, forgettable follow up.
It’s interesting because I think American Adventure is a far stronger book. While I remain proud of Boone Shepard and wouldn’t change anything about it, I do think it was constrained by the pressure of being the debut release of a new publishing house along with my first novel. It was re-edited and reappraised so many times that when I look over it now I almost feel like it lost a bit of the loose, eccentric fun that I associate with the character. This probably wasn’t and isn’t the worst thing in the world; Boone Shepard had to establish the brand but do it within a plot that was originally designed to be the darker second book, so maybe there was an issue in that it started the series on a slightly more serious note than I had envisioned the default as being.
American Adventure, to me, was a chance to let my hair down a bit and write the kind of rollicking, silly adventure yarn that I had originally wanted the series to be comprised of. Knowing at the time that books three and four (which have been reworked now as one final volume) would only get darker, I decided to try and make American Adventure feel more like one of the Boone Shepard short stories; silly, action packed, implausible but with a persistent melancholic thread beneath it.
The result, I suspect, suffers in comparison to the first book. For all its quirky characters and literary references, the original Boone Shepard is still a story about murder, human experimentation, rising up against oppression and confronting your past. The stakes are pretty damn high and I remember people commenting to me after the release that, for a children’s book, it was very dark.
American Adventure, by contrast, probably feels more like a lightweight confection. Technically the stakes are higher (the villain is literally trying to take over the world) but they’re less personal and the characters don’t treat their situation with the same gravity they did in the first book. This was a conscious choice and I feel like I hit the mark, but I can understand why it would feel like a step down rather than an escalation.
Freed of the pressure of starting a series and a career, I had a lot more fun with American Adventure, which is probably why I like it more than the first book even if it’s less emotionally engaging. I can speculate on why it doesn’t get the same appreciation (for all I know it could just outright suck), but ultimately it comes down to a fact that every writer has to try and remember; for better or worse, your audience doesn’t see your work the same way as you do. It’s like your perspective is of someone looking at a tree with X-Ray vision; you can see the insects moving around inside it, the sap, the roots below and the soil feeding them. You have a clearer understanding of what has gone into it, but you can’t see how the thing looks to someone without that same X-Ray vision. You can guess and if you’re good enough at what you do the guess can be spot on, but it will never be 100% reflective of what an objective perspective might see.
No writer sets out to make something bad. I think the books, films etc that really work are the ones where the writers were best able to identify how the story would come across to an external party; something that comes with experience. And look, I think you’re doomed to fail if you try too hard to give an audience what you think they want, especially if that audience doesn’t exist yet. Writing is a tricky balancing act in which you need to create something that both comes from a real place but is geared towards readers or viewers who have no reason to care about the personal demons you’re trying to exorcise. Swing too far in either direction, and what you create becomes either self-indulgent or soulless.
In the end you can’t know how something is going to be received, even with the most well educated guesswork. Being close to something means missing the obvious. Feedback from trusted people can help to a degree; feedback from objective outsiders can help a lot, but all you can really do is follow your instincts and try your best.
And for the record, I still prefer American Adventure to Boone Shepard.
Cast your mind back to 2015. If you were a Star Wars fan, it was a pretty special time. At that point, the few bits of information we had about The Force Awakens had told us next to nothing; there was an intoxicating sense that the movie could be anything. Even as we walked into that first screening we had no real clue of what to expect. All we knew, all everyone agreed upon, was that the future of Star Wars looked very bright indeed.
Well, it didn’t really pan out that way.
Around this time last year I wrote a lengthy blog post bemoaning the state of the franchise, predominantly the fact that, with a glut of new content seemingly hinged on fan nostalgia rather than any clear creative vision, the saga had lost its shine. And to a degree, I still feel that way, but my growing apprehension was tempered somewhat by the pleasant surprise that was The Last Jedi, a film that, love it or hate it, was clearly driven by genuine creative vision, a film that subverted expectations and was thematically rich in a way that no other Star Wars film was before. It was a film that got better upon re-watch and single handedly restored my love and excitement for the franchise. The Last Jedi demonstrated that Star Wars can be more than just callbacks, that there was enormous potential within the sandbox to do new and bold things. It even managed to make me kind of excited for Solo.
But now, for the first time ever, I’m ready to stop calling myself a Star Wars fan. The problem isn’t Solo, The Last Jedi, or Kathleen Kennedy. The problem, to paraphrase a really good thriller I finished recently, is not that one big thing went wrong. It’s that a lot of little things have gone wrong and now the one point I agree on with the really awful ‘fans’ out there is that Star Wars is in serious trouble.
It’s an issue with multiple parts. The first, which I outlined in the aforementioned blog post, is ubiquity. In the next few years, we apparently have on the way an Obi-Wan film, a Boba Fett film, a new Rian Johnson trilogy, a separate film series from David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the new animated series Resistance and a live action TV show from Jon Favreau. It’s easy enough to see Disney’s logic here; the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after all, can spit out three films and multiple TV shows a year and only grow in popularity. But Star Wars isn’t Marvel. The Star Wars universe was never the same kind of fleshed out playground of endless possibility; it was the backdrop to a singular narrative. The fact that Rogue One and Solo, ostensibly the franchise’s opportunity to branch out and tell different stories, were so nostalgia heavy just proves it. Marvel is made up of many different sub-franchises with their own styles, concerns and characters. You might get three Marvel films a year, but you generally have to wait three years for a new Avengers. Those are the events, not the lead up instalments.
Star Wars loses its value if it’s not an event. And honestly, a yearly film is probably fine. The midnight screenings for The Force Awakens, Rogue One and The Last Jedi were buzzing with excitement and atmosphere. The midnight screening for Solo, just five months after a movie that people are still talking about, might as well have been a lazy afternoon visit to your sparsely attended local cinema. Nobody really cared, and the box office has shown it. Might it have been different if the film came out in December? I think so. Because then it would have been positioned as an event, and, whatever you think of the film, Star Wars would have retained its status. Solo’s close proximity to The Last Jedi has created a sense of Star Wars fatigue that hasn’t really turned up before, and that is dangerous for a franchise that has always thrived on being something hotly anticipated.
Yesterday I listened to a Star Wars podcast that was supposed to be a Solo review but devolved into a debate about The Last Jedi. That, I think, says it all. Solo was too bland and safe to wrestle the cultural conversation away from a film that is still very much being discussed. And even on social media, the big divide between Star Wars fans still uses The Last Jedi as its point of contention. Solo slipped by practically unnoticed, inoffensive to all. That’s not what a Star Wars film is supposed to do.
Mentioning the online debate naturally brings me to the main reason that I’m stepping away from calling myself a fan. Simply put, a Star Wars fan is not a fun thing to be anymore.
For context, I probably don’t watch movies the same way as most people. Having spent three years on a popular film podcast means that I approach films and the behind the scenes process with a level of scrutiny that isn’t common. But then, that’s also what happens if you’re a fan of something. You devour every bit of news, you discuss what announcements and events could mean, and generally you stay in the conversation even at times when new content isn’t forthcoming. But that conversation has become a very unpleasant place to be.
The Last Jedi backlash, rather than fading away as we all assumed it would, has devolved into something far uglier. In the last few weeks Twitter has been replete with people attacking anyone and everyone involved in the ‘Disney Canon’, and then reacting with outrage when those people stand up for themselves. For the record, these attacks go from insisting that the target has ruined the attacker’s childhood, to accusing them of deliberately killing the franchise, to death threats.
We all know the internet can be an ugly place, but the scale of this is unprecedented. And look, while there are many people who genuinely take issue with the creative direction of the film, an overwhelming amount of the backlash appears to be rooted in the film pushing ‘identity politics’, even though I’m pretty sure there’s no point at which Finn yells ‘black lives matter’ or Rey starts talking about the internalised misogyny of Jakku. They’re just characters who happen to not be what we’re used to seeing in Star Wars, and for some people that’s sacrilege. When Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose Tico in the film, ends up deleting her Instagram posts in response to the largely racist harassment she was receiving, you know that things have gone way too far. There are now corners of the internet where suggesting that you liked The Last Jedi is an invitation for an instant barrage of loathing, corners where being labelled a ‘cuck’, a ‘shill’, or an ‘SJW’ are among the nicer names you’ll be called.
This, I need to stress, is all because of how you felt about a movie.
The solution is probably obvious. Stay away from those corners of the internet. After all, if you’re a Star Wars fan who doesn’t go on forums or isn’t on Twitter then it’s possible that you’re unaware of all of this. It’s possible that your Star Wars experience is all based around the films themselves, which, arguably, is how it should be. But by and large that’s not really how fandom works anymore. Part of the fun of being a follower of something lies in reading articles and reviews, in joining in debates on social media, in the rampant speculation and discussion over which was your favourite and why. It wasn’t that long ago that all of these things were so much of what made Star Wars fandom awesome; a shared passion that brought people together, disagreements and all. That level of engagement is certainly not necessary to your enjoyment of the films, but it can and perhaps should be a valuable supplement.
It’s not, anymore. Not when you can’t express your feelings without being attacked. And let me clarify; this cuts both ways. There are hardcore fans of The Last Jedi who will write off those who disagree with them as racist manbabies, which is also unfair and unhelpful. Unless, of course, they are actually being racist manbabies, as in the case of what happened with Kelly Marie Tran. Disliking Rose Tico is fair game (I found her annoying and underwritten), but that should never, never spill over into harassment of the actor.
A few years ago I went to an all-day Lord of the Rings Extended Edition marathon at the Astor. I went by myself and was so excited to lose myself in one of my favourite ever film series. In the minutes before it started I sat in the foyer listening to the blaring soundtrack and was overcome with emotion and excitement. But, after a fourteen-hour long day of only Lord of the Rings, I walked out a bit sick of it. I was happy to not revisit Middle Earth for a while after that.
Currently, being a Star Wars fan feels similar, on a larger scale. The franchise dominates the culture, but not in a positive way. People aren’t speculating on what might happen next or discussing their favourite moments, they’re yelling at each other, name calling, and either actively willing the franchise to fail or wanting it to only exist if it can cater to their exact specifications.
Now, when I think back to being a kid, sitting in a darkened cinema as those familiar words came up on the screen, I find it hard to remember how it felt. I know there was a singular love and excitement that only came from Star Wars, but it feels far away now, buried under an exhausting amount of content and a nauseating degree of ugly fan negativity. I’m sick of talking about Star Wars and I’m sick of thinking about Star Wars even as I find myself writing blogs like this and reading think-pieces about the box office failure of Solo. But that’s the degree to which it dominates conversation, especially in my field.
If somebody told me tomorrow that there wouldn’t be another instalment for a decade, I’d be fine with it. But that won’t be the case. More films will come, and they’ll either be safe and dull or prompt outrage from ‘true fans’. And while those fans shriek and abuse, my suspicion is that the audience will slowly fade away until Star Wars is no longer special or exciting.
I don’t think I’m done with the franchise. I’ll probably see the new films and I’ll retain fond memories of what Star Wars meant to me as a kid. But right now? I’m no longer a Star Wars fan.
Recently I received the latest round of edits and notes on the third and final Boone Shepard novel. As usual, the entire manuscript had been heavily annotated, with many parts questioned and re-writes suggested all over the place. I’m pretty used to this by now, but on the night I opened the document and saw how many changes there were to make and how time consuming it would be, I couldn’t help but feel a little defeated.
I wrote the first versions of Boone’s adventures in 2008, when I was sixteen. I left him for years, then, in 2013, had a run at writing a new version of the series. Over the course of the next year and a half, I wrote five novels back to back; The Broken Record, Darkening Ventures, An American Adventure, The Silhouette and the Sacrifice and The Vengeance of Vincent Black. When the series was picked up for publication in 2015, the mutual decision was made to skip The Broken Record and make what was then called Darkening Ventures into the first novel, reworking it so that it could feel like an introduction. At the time, I was still close enough to the time I finished the series that recapturing the headspace was pretty easy. But as every year went by and I got further away from the massive writing binge that led to the initial drafts, getting back into Boone’s world became harder and harder. If you spend ages writing stuff that is tonally and stylistically as far from Boone Shepard as possible, you start to wonder how you can ever get back in touch with the person you were when you wrote those stories to begin with. What’s more, when the final novel is comprised of what were initially two different manuscripts mostly written in 2014, the job becomes to rewind four years and recapture the same passion that led to the last versions, except now you have to do it better.
The fact is that Boone Shepard has been a major fixture of my writing life for a long time now, and while I’ve loved documenting his journey and hearing from the people who enjoy reading it, I’m reaching a stage where I think I’m almost done with the character. That’s not to say I’ve fallen out of love with Boone and Promethia, just that there are other things I want to explore. After a decade, I just don’t think I have much left to say about him. More than ever before, re-writing can look like a chore, especially considering where my head has been recently.
Over the last few months, as I’ve extensively documented in this blog, my focus has been on Nelson and the Gallagher, a YA coming of age dramedy, and Windmills, a sprawling psychological thriller about the consequences of human failings. Voice wise, Nelson is a little closer to Boone, but not that much. Nelson was written in the voice of a bumbling, insecure teenager. Boone is a sarcastic but melancholic swashbuckler. There’s not much crossover apart from a slightly similar sense of humour. In fact, in some ways going from Nelson to Windmills was an easier transition because, while thematically they don’t come close to each other, they’re both naturalistic stories prominently featuring teenagers. Boone Shepard is a different matter together.
But the thing about taking steps into the territory of professional writing is that you no longer have the same luxury to pick and choose what you want to write and when. What I want to do is keep working to get Nelson as good as possible and start expanding Sunburnt Country into a full novel that can be the start of a series. What I have to do is finish Boone.
Of course, the best writing comes from loving what you’re doing and it’s hard to love something when you see it as a job. So I had to find a way to force myself to fall back in love with writing Boone Shepard. Re-reading the previous two novels to find the voice again wasn’t really an option; I did that before the last round of re-writes and doing it again so soon would only result in me hating my own work. So instead, I turned my attention to all the Boone Shepard short stories that I’d written over the last couple of years. Some have been published online, others haven’t, but all were only written so that I could have fun with my characters in the Booniverse. There was nothing mercenary about those stories, and what’s more, I’d barely looked over them since first writing them.
It worked a treat. Sitting at the pub the other afternoon, I read the shorts back to back and before long was wondering whether, with a couple more, these could be published as an anthology. And thinking about that got me thinking about Boone again which got me reconsidering the third novel and so the next day I started work. I scrapped the prologue and first chapter, re-writing both from scratch and in the process finding a far more exciting way to open the book that also ties disparate plot threads together far more effectively. Last night I effusively told my girlfriend all about the new ideas I’ve come up with and found myself reading her passages like a kid looking for approval about the new thing they’ve made. And that is precisely the feeling that writing should be giving you.
Finishing the novel no longer feels like a chore. There’s a lot of work to do, but rather than terrifying me, it excites me. Because, as I reminded myself the other day, this could be one of the last times I get to spend with these characters. And I care too much about Boone Shepard and Promethia Peters for their final adventure to be a half-formed, passionless slog.
You might feel like you’ve moved past a certain story or like you’ve got no passion left for it, but that story is a part of you, and that part of you isn’t going away. It might become harder to see, but all you need to do is remind yourself of why it mattered to you in the first place for the love to come cascading back.
Sometimes I feel like I’m a philistine who watches too many big, corporate mandated blockbusters at the expense of more interesting artistic films. Other times I feel like the exact opposite; a snob who thinks that anything with a budget over a hundred million is nothing more than a focus group mandated cash grab, designed to please everyone and challenge no-one.
Clearly the two self-perceptions don’t comfortably co-exist, yet co-exist they do.
My Dad, who can often get a bit pigheaded if challenged on just about anything, really pissed me off a couple of years ago when I told him I’d enjoyed Birdman and he responded with a withering dismissal about how my artsy film school sensibilities meant that I couldn’t see the obvious shortcomings of a film he deemed pretentious. Only a few months later, when I told him I enjoyed Terminator Genysys as a dumb popcorn diversion, he told me with equal scorn that I should know better because of, well, my artsy film school sensibilities. This whole idea that my education can be used to denigrate my opinion either way irritates me to no end. It’s like when people try to tell me I’m too critical to enjoy movies, or that I’m deliberately contrary. None of that is true, I want to scream while shaking them. I just enjoy what I enjoy. The only difference my education in writing for screen has given me is the ability to recognise and articulate why something works or doesn’t.
But that doesn’t change the fact that I can get a bit self-conscious about the broad palate of my cinema tastes. When I’m around friends who are in the arts, I don’t like admitting that I’m excited for the new Avengers or that I really loved The Last Jedi. Likewise, if I’m with the friends I grew up with back in the country, I have a terror of being judged if I try to talk about the new Richard Linklater film or that really cool play I saw a few weeks ago. On one extreme I feel tasteless, on the other, pretentious. I try to play up or play down my enjoyment either way, depending on the company. And that is stupid and annoying. I shouldn’t have to do that. But it comes from a valid place because people are judgemental and I don’t like having eyes rolled at me or assumptions clearly made about the kind of person I am when I admit to liking something outside the collective taste of the group I’m in.
The truth is that it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. In the last few weeks, I saw on their first day of release Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2 and Solo. I’ve also been to see Chappaquiddick, Tully, Cargo, Last Flag Flying, The Party and a whole bunch of other arthouse films that I catch at Lido’s cheap Tuesday every week. And I get different things from different films. Movies like Last Flag Flying really stuck with me, gave me things to think about and effusive recommendations to make to friends. Deadpool swept me up in action, adventure and laughs. Solo didn’t work on any of the above levels, but that’s another story.
I’ve been framing it to friends as though I catch the blockbusters for fun confections, and the indies for real, nutritious meals, but in truth it’s not that straightforward. There are great blockbusters (my all-time favourite film, Jaws, started the trend) just like there are utterly garbage indies (The Party, which I saw a few weeks back, was one of the most appalling films I’ve ever managed to sit through). Are big Hollywood blockbusters more generic overall than they used to be? Sure, but every now and then you get an exception, like The Last Jedi.
Let’s be clear; Last Jedi wasn’t impeccable cinematic craft in the same way as, say, A Quiet Place. In the grand scheme of things its themes weren’t especially challenging and its much-touted subversions were only subversive because we expected it to follow certain beats. Taken in isolation, the film isn’t as revolutionary as some people say it is. But it did more than it needed to, all within the framework of one of the biggest film franchises in history. The Last Jedi had to serve a lot more masters than Tully, and the fact that it took the risks it did comes close to miraculous. Seen in that context, it’s hard not to get excited about the perceived rule breaking of what, in essence, is a pretty straightforward Hollywood special effects extravaganza. And yet in certain circles, I still feel like an idiot for getting excited about The Last Jedi.
In the end, anybody who looks down on you for being passionate about something that is ultimately harmless is the one with the problem, not you. I genuinely believe that judging films on the merits of what they’re trying to be rather than what they aren’t is the only healthy way to consume movies. A film, ultimately, either makes a mark on you or it doesn’t. They are engines designed to make us feel something, and the only barometer of their individual effectiveness is in how successfully they achieve that goal. The budget, degree of studio interference and cultural significance is all secondary. You won’t remember any of that when you think about a film in five years’ times. If a movie can stick with you, then not much else matters.
I don’t think that tailoring your expressed excitement is really a bad thing. There’s no point in singing the praises of The Last Jedi to an audience of people who will never watch it. But that doesn’t mean pretending to have liked something less than you did. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Enjoy what you enjoy. Nobody can take that experience away from you.
Just some thoughts.