My oldest friends still roll their eyes when I say the word Windmills. Which is fair enough, because at this point that word is synonymous with ‘pathological inability to let go’. Windmills was originally a novel I wrote in year twelve, which became a play which became a novel again which became a screenplay then a novel again and in between spawned all manner of sequels, spin offs and derivatives as I tried to find my way to a version that worked. The closest it came was the TV pilot adaptation that won the Ustinov in 2015, but even that ultimately never saw the light of day.
Time and time again I was told to let it go. Time and time again I refused. I was always sure that THIS version would be the one to get over the line. A belief quickly amended when the next version came along.
The last time I tried to tell this story, my now-agent very kindly pointed out how for many reasons it just fundamentally didn’t work. Finally I listened. I moved on. I wrote The Hunted, The Inheritance and The True Colour of a Little White Lie. For three years I stayed away from Windmills.
But a few months back, needing a new book for my YA contract and not having any ideas, I picked it up again. I didn’t advertise the fact. Too many times before I’d believed Windmills’ moment had come then been proven wrong. I fully expected the same thing to happen again. But I tried anyway. And with the benefit of distance, I approached it differently, treating it like a totally new book. Characters were overhauled, long clung-to plot points rethought. Crucially, I stopped thinking of it as Windmills but instead as something new emerging from the ashes of so many old drafts.
When the draft was finished I wasn’t sure what to think. After so long it was impossible to look at the manuscript with any clarity. But knowing I had done all I could, I sent it to my publisher and I waited. I was nervous, ready for the rejection, for yet another version of Windmills to be sent to the bottom drawer.
Today I got a phone call from her. I didn’t pick up straight away. It took me a moment of courage mustering. I had to try and keep the waver out of my voice when I finally answered and waited for her assessment.
I was overwhelmed with relief. But it was only after I got off the phone that something else hit me. The surreal realisation that after twelve years of obsession, this story, or a version of it, is finally going to hit shelves everywhere. It won’t be called Windmills and it won’t look very much like other versions you might have seen over the years, but at its heart it will be the same story I started writing when I was seventeen.
So many people have been a part of this journey. Too many to name. Everyone who read drafts and gave feedback, who performed in and directed the various stage versions. Every one of you who helped me see with a little more clarity what this story had to be. I owe you all so much.
The journey isn’t over yet. There will be edits and rewrites and promo but by this time next year the story will be out in the world and after that, its fate is no longer in my hands. For the first time in over a decade, I think I’m okay with that.
Anyway. I can now officially confirm that the novel formerly known as Windmills will be my next book.
Back in 2014, while working on a thriller manuscript, I ran into a problem. My main character, a good cop in a dangerous world, had ended up in an impossible corner and needed help. But a key part of the story was that he had been left without allies, which meant his rescuer had to be somebody new. Quickly I came up with a fun but functional character; a rogue ex-cop with underworld connections and a sharp, cutting wit, the kind of guy with a wolfish grin, a cigarette always stuck behind his ear and an ambiguous moral code. His name was Jack Carlin and, as intended, he turned up, played his part, and bowed out of the story after two brief scenes.
That book never saw the light of day. And while I’d enjoyed writing Jack, I didn’t really think about him again. Until I was writing the first draft of what would become The Inheritance. Maggie was exploring her father’s history as a corrupt cop and to further that I needed somebody who was from that world but on her side. Somebody whose dangerous exterior masked a twisted sense of honour. Jack fit that bill and so he jumped over from the previous manuscript, except this time his role was bigger and so I got to know him better, learning more of why he was the way he was, what drove him. He was still a joy to write, and I figured he would reappear down the line as a recurring role in further Maggie stories.
Then, while developing our lockdown web series The Pact last year, I was casting around for a surname for protagonist Morgan and caught sight of ‘Carlin’ on my bookshelf. Immediately I thought ‘damn, I’ve already used that’, then moments later thought ‘hang on, what if…’
So Morgan became Jack Carlin’s daughter and while The Pact was every bit her story, it gave me the opportunity to explore Jack from a different angle. It also meant that somebody had to play this character who had for so long existed only in my head.
As far as I was concerned, there was only one somebody for the job.
Greg Caine appeared in two episodes of The Pact and brought Jack to life perfectly. The little smirks, the quick responses, the glimmers of pain underpinning his seemingly harsh choices – he was every bit my character.
Clearly, by this point Jack Carlin had a hold on me. Which meant that when my agent asked if I’d be interested in writing an original novella for Audible, it took about three seconds for me to realise who it would be about. And one more second for me to realise who had to read it.
So, after seven years of supporting other character’s stories, Jack finally takes centre stage today in The Consequence, a crime thriller all his own. I wrote it alongside the final version of The Inheritance and while it’s linked to that book, it’s also very much its own thing; a bruising, wry, blast of pulpy Aussie noir. I’m really proud of this little story but more than that, I’m stoked that readers (listeners) now get to hear Jack Carlin’s own story in his own words, brought to life by Greg’s pitch perfect narration.
The Consequence is available to listen to now, free with an Audible subscription/trial. I hope you like it.
This is the second part of an ongoing Animorphs retrospective - check out Part One and Part Three.
One pleasant surprise about re-reading the early Animorphs books was that they felt more vital than I’d initially assumed they might; each one introducing cool new elements of character or worldbuilding that kept the plot advancing. But after about the eighth book or so they became more of a mixed bag. Some were still essential. Some weren’t, but approached characters or ideas from interesting angles. Others were totally pointless.
I left off my last blog having reached book fifteen and feeling a little trepidatious as the inconsistency had begun in earnest. But, including the spin off books (and considering them in release order), the next quarter of the series contained what I think might be Animorphs’ golden age – an unbroken streak of home runs that made my weekend reading sessions something I greatly looked forward to. Unfortunately all good things must come to an end, but the good in this chunk of the series was more than enough to make up for the less than good.
Things started off a little shaky. Book sixteen has one of the best moments of moral reckoning for the Animorphs as they confront a Yeerk serial killer who hunts and cannibalises other Yeerks – by murdering their human hosts. That by itself is chilling enough, but what really makes this book is how our protagonists (who are still kids by the way) more or less accept it and decide to let him keep doing his thing as he’s taking out Yeerks for them. There’s a suggestion at the end that Jake and Cassie might have eventually reneged on that decision, but the fact that they ever went along with it at all is pretty rough for a 90s children’s book. Or for any book, really. It captures what I love about this series and what I think is lacking in a lot of writing for young people today; a real willingness to engage with morally knotty territory and not preach but rather just let you make up your own mind.
All of that said, the above material is only covered by the end of the book – the rest is a pretty par-for-the-course Animorphs adventure, give or take Jake being traumatised after morphing a fly and getting swatted.
To be honest, that characterises most of the books to varying degrees – there’s powerful stuff, but a lot of filler and nonsense too and your mileage will vary on how much you’re willing to tolerate. For example, book seventeen ostensibly focuses on another moral dilemma as the Animorphs learn a way to seriously damage the Yeerks but to do so means attacking them in their most helpless state. Theoretically interesting – but given that the method of harm involves oatmeal being a Yeerk drug, it’s hard to take it all that seriously.
But then we get to an eight-book run of brilliance, encompassing books eighteen to twenty-three and two spin-offs published in the same period. Eighteen takes our heroes off world for an adventure that helps build the universe while also furthering the encroaching idea that the seemingly benevolent Andalites are not as great as they seem. Nineteen might be one of the best books in the series – pacifistic Cassie decides to quit the war only to end up stranded in a forest with a Yeerk controller. This book is written like a two-hander play, as Cassie and the Yeerk take turns justifying themselves and come away with a deeper understanding of each other, suggesting that peace and reason can in some instances make a difference. Cassie cops a lot of flack from fans for her perceived hypocrisy, but this book reads like a defence of her character and an argument for the necessity of the group having a moral centre, albeit a compromised one.
Around this time we also have a book that really surprised me – Megamorphs #2: In The Time of Dinosaurs. As a kid I adored this book because, well, take a wild guess. But reading fan blogs and whatnot, I got the sense that it’s pretty derided. On paper you can see why; the basic plot is that the Animorphs get caught in a nuclear blast that sends them back to the Cretaceous Period, where they have to morph dinosaurs to survive, try to get home and deal with a cold war between two alien races. It’s inherently silly, but the dinosaur angle keeps it fun and fresh – until the end.
Basically the Animorphs stumble into a struggle between the peaceful, crablike Mercora and the hive-mind, warlike Nesk. In dinosaur morph they steal a bomb from the Nesk, hoping the replicate the blast that sent them to the past. But the Nesk, in retaliation, leave the planet and direct an asteroid towards earth. The Mercora, who have sheltered and helped the Animorphs, ask for the bomb to destroy the asteroid before it enters the atmosphere. The Animorphs, however, realise what’s about to happen and the implications of changing it. They give the Mercora the bomb but secretly disable it, dooming the kindly aliens – along with the dinosaurs. The resultant impact replicates the initial explosion and sends them back to their own time, but not before they are treated to a fast-forward vision of mass extinction, including the haunting image of the last emaciated T-Rex wandering through a wasteland searching for non-existent prey until it finally keels over and dies.
Man, this book shook me. I was thinking about it for days afterwards. Applegate doesn’t shy away from the severity of the dilemma these kids face and the writing at the end there is exemplary. Not to sound like a crotchety old guy, but it made me realise that we bookish 90s kids really didn’t know how good we had it. It’s hard to conceive of any mainstream adult adventure story that would be willing to go there today, let alone one for kids.
But just in case you thought for a second that the trauma was over, it’s now that we come to the David Trilogy.
Everyone who read Animorphs in the 90s remembers these. Basically the Animorphs are forced to recruit a new member when a kid from their school discovers the morphing cube and becomes a target of the Yeerks. With his parents made into controllers and his home destroyed, David is understandably erratic. But as the Animorphs deal with a high stakes missions (saving the President from an attempted Yeerk infestation), David’s behaviour turns from mildly off-putting to genuinely disturbing, until the point where he is actively gunning for the Animorphs, isolating and attacking them in fiendishly clever ways that bring our heroes to the brink of defeat.
As a kid, I never finished the David Trilogy, but I so vividly remember the ending of the second book, with Tobias apparently dead and Jake bleeding out after a fight with David. Never reading the third one, the story remained in a permanent state of horrifying stasis. I remember standing in a circle at school as our teacher led us in a German folk song about summer being over and winter coming, thinking about Jake and Tobias, certain they were dead despite knowing they couldn’t be, shaken to my core.
I was eight.
Obviously they didn’t die, but that doesn’t stop the third part of the trilogy being maybe the darkest as David heads the Animorphs off at every turn, ultimately murdering then morphing Jake’s comatose cousin and taking his place in the family. Finally the Animorphs manage to trick David into morphing a rat then keep him in an enclosed space for more than two hours, trapping him in rat morph forever before abandoning him on a deserted island. The book ends by telling us that people don’t go near that island anymore because they’re certain they can hear screaming.
Yeah. Sit with that one for a moment.
Now, had I read strictly in release order it was at this point I should have been reading The Hork-Bajir Chronicles, which as I mentioned in my last blog is probably the jewel in the series’ crown. But due to the timing of my actually receiving the books, I read that earlier in place of The Andalite Chronicles, which for the purposes of my re-read took this spot.
The Andalite Chronicles was one of my favourites as a kid. It’s the full story of Elfangor, the Andalite who gave the Animorphs their morphing power, and ends right as the main series begins. I was really looking forward to reading it again, especially after the emotional wallop of The Hork Bajir Chronicles. But The Andalite Chronicles doesn’t quite hold up the same way. The story itself is kind of all-over-the-place, veering between nightmare tragedy (Elfangor’s friend getting trapped forever as a monstrous, cannibalistic Taxxon) and straight up silliness (Elfangor, a blue alien centaur, driving into battle in a Mustang). But the conclusion, where Elfangor runs away to live as a human, fathers Tobias, then gets pulled back to the war by the all powerful Ellimist, is still powerful and beautifully written. One of the things I’ve most loved about rediscovering these books is how the writing is way, way more solid than you might assume from something with this much onomatopoeia.
The prose also shines in the very next book I read, twenty-three, which fittingly is the one where Tobias learns the truth about his parentage. It’s a big, game-changer of a book but it also finds time for some haunting reflections on war and the truth that humanity kind of sucks. If you’re the kind of person who’ll turn your nose up at Animorphs because of the silly covers and sheer number of books then I doubt there’s a lot I can say to convince you you’re wrong (and at times this series does itself no favours), but even the most hardened cynic has to concede that given what these books were intended for they absolutely could have gotten away with being a lot less than what they are.
Unfortunately the winning streak comes to a grinding halt after that – book twenty four is just dumb through and through; a supposedly “fun” story about miniature warlike aliens shrinking the Animorphs and Yeerks that in practice is just sort of tedious. Then there’s a largely pointless North Pole adventure. But Applegate again knocks it out of the park in twenty-six, another childhood favourite of mine, taking place on an alien planet where the Animorphs are chosen as the Ellimist’s champions protecting a species from his rival omniscient being The Crayak. Put up against the Crayak’s most vicious killing machine aliens, the Animorphs have to find a way to beat the unbeatable while also figuring out the significance of the seemingly awful species they’ve been enlisted to save. The answers to those questions are clever, satisfying and surprising – giving a more universal overview of exactly what’s at stake and, for my money, serving as the clear (in storytelling terms) midpoint of the series. After which the actual midpoint, twenty-seven, comes off as a pretty disposable underwater adventure.
Reaching the halfway point of anything encourages reflection on what’s been and what’s still to come. As it stands, I’ve enjoyed re-reading these books so much that I’ll definitely continue to take my time getting through the rest – I’m in no hurry to reach the end. That said, there are certain things that become a lot more grating after thirty-one books than after three. The tedious recaps. The two-page descriptions of morphs the characters have gone through countless times before. The resignation of getting through another 150 pages of filler. When your series comprises sixty-two books, not all are gonna be necessary.
I’ve also now reached the point where going forward, the majority of the books are ghostwritten. I’ve had a couple already and they were fine, but I’m aware that there are a couple of notoriously rough reads coming up. However the flipside is that from here on there are only a couple of books that I’ve actually read, as kid-me had, by this point, largely moved on to other things. While a lot of major events have been spoiled over the years, I still don’t broadly know how things play out in the back half of the series, and I’m so excited to find out.
Criticisms aside, if anything I’m now more passionate about this series than I was to begin with. I keenly look forward to cracking a new book every weekend, even when they’re lesser instalments. Reaching the point where there are less books I have fond memories of, I think the biggest surprise is how nostalgia has given way to a genuine need to know what happens next.
This is the first part of an ongoing Animorphs retrospective - check out Part Two, Part Three and Part Four.
As a kid I cycled through a lot of obsessions. There were the obvious ones like Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events or The Lord of the Rings. When I was slightly older there were the slightly less obvious ones, like all things Hannibal Lecter or Jaws. But maybe the earliest story obsession I ever had was Animorphs.
There was a lot to obsess over. There are 54 books in the series, plus eight spin offs. Finding them all in the correct reading order wasn’t easy, so I used to just read whichever book I could get my hands on, meaning my experience of the overall story was pretty disjointed and non-linear. I read the third book first (and consequently will forever be a Tobias kid) then jumped around with a disregard for continuity that would horrify my modern self. I didn’t care. I just loved Animorphs and wanted to read as much of it as I could. Eventually I moved on to other things and as such never reached the series’ grand finale, but I always remembered the books fondly.
For the uninitiated, the fundamentals: five teenagers (Jake, Cassie, Rachel, Marco and Tobias) take a shortcut through an abandoned construction site one night only to witness an alien spaceship crashing. The mortally wounded pilot, a telepathic space centaur (Andalite) named Elfangor, warns them that earth is in the midst of a silent invasion by the Yeerks, sluglike parasites that crawl into the ears of their hosts and take them over. Meaning anyone –friends, family, teachers, bosses – could be an enemy in a secret war. Before dying, Elfangor gifts our five newly recruited heroes with the Andalite race’s greatest weapon, the ability to acquire the DNA of any creature they touch and then morph into them for a limit of two hours. After that, the kids are on their own. No mentor, nowhere to turn, no choice but to fight. To paraphrase the glorious theme song of the slightly less glorious TV adaptation, it’s all in their hands.
This set-up, for a kid, is kind of irresistible. Of course there’s the wish fulfilment element of being able to become a bird or a tiger or anything, but beyond that there’s the whole ‘chosen one’ appeal of being the only people on the planet who can stand up against a gigantic, all-conquering threat who can never find out who you really are.
But what really lodged Animorphs forever in the fond memories of everyone who read the series was how famously bleak it got. How it never pulled its punches. As the story went on and the spin off books lent increasing context to the intergalactic conflict, it slowly morphed from a fun action adventure with hints of darkness to an epic, universe spanning tragedy. Good guys do terrible things. Bad guys reveal empathetic motives. Heroes die. Villains win. Recently, talking to my Mum about some of the particularly messed up plot points, she exclaimed ‘and I let you read these books?’ But the truth that Daniel Handler always so beautifully understood with his Lemony Snicket series also holds true here – kids can handle a lot and hate being patronised. Animorphs never, ever patronised.
So when I saw recently that the first book had been adapted into a graphic novel by Chris Grine, I immediately grabbed a copy, settled in with a beer, and got to reading. Which predictably sent me plummeting down a rabbit hole of nostalgia that led to a throwaway yet ultimately fateful thought – ‘wouldn’t it be cool to have the whole collection?’
Idly I went looking online, figuring I could get the lot for like, $150 max. No such luck. The cheapest I could find the collection was well over $1000. So began a still ongoing hunt to track them all down. I spent hours scouring the internet looking for anyone selling bulk lots. I bought the first 20 for $100 only to immediately see the first 40 selling for the same price – I bought those too, figuring I could sell the excess. After that it became a case of daily checks and constant messages asking if people would be willing to sell certain volumes individually. Slowly my collection built. At the time of writing there are only two books I don’t have either on order or on my shelf – 42 and the finale, 54.
But here’s the thing; despite all the money I was spending I’m not sure I actually intended to read the whole series again, at least not initially. Part of that was a time thing, but also due to the lingering worry that they wouldn’t hold up. I was probably more excited by the prospect of owning the whole series than truly revisiting it.
Then I got back from Sydney right after their recent covid outbreak with a sore throat, so I got tested, isolated, and decided to just read the first Animorphs book. It took less than two hours, so I read the second. The next day, confirmed covid-free, I read the third and the fourth. Then I started having weird Animorphs dreams so I resolved to only read the books on weekends. Which I’ve been doing ever since and I’m now a quarter of the way through the whole series with every intention of seeing it through to the bitter end.
So, does Animorphs hold up?
Yes – with caveats. The biggest problem with Animorphs, and likely the biggest barrier to the series in its original form seeing any kind of mainstream resurgence, is that it is very much a product of its time – that time being the 90s reign of Goosebumps and Scholastic book fairs. Each of the books are short enough to read in under a couple of hours, but in several instances they’re also disposable and repetitive, existing more to fill out the release schedule than actually advance the plot. There’s also a lot of onomatopoeia and dated pop culture references, although there’s an argument to be made that those are part of the charm.
Maybe the most frustrating part is the very thing that allowed my kid self to get completely enraptured despite reading them all out of order – the fact that the same information is relayed in almost the same way at the start of every book, the exposition becoming heavier after each new major plot development. Obviously this was done to ensure that the series would be accessible to those who might not have read every instalment, but speaking as somebody who is reading every instalment, it’s annoying.
But those issues haven’t really hindered my enjoyment. The books are full-on right out of the gate. The first few pages of the first book see a benevolent alien gruesomely torn apart and eaten in front of our teenage protagonists. The following pages throw them into a guerrilla war, forced to fight and kill and eventually see one of their own trapped forever in the body of a hawk due to spending too long in morph. All in one slim book. The stakes are established from the start and fleshed out nicely in the second and third books, which delve into the human cost of the Yeerk invasion and the complicated nightmare of being trapped in an animal’s body. Four and five both introduce major players and keep the plot moving. Six and seven are great examples of science fiction and psychological horror. The canonical eighth book, the first of the Megamorphs specials, is inessential but a lot of fun, a blockbuster romp after three successive heavy instalments and a great way to close out the saga’s first act.
After that, things get a little shaky. The alien perspective and mythology-building of book eight is a high point but by nine the repetition started to really annoy me, and while the story ended up playing with some interesting ethical dilemmas, it was maybe the first book that on balance I’d recommend a new reader skipping. Ten is all interesting sci-fi ideas and worldbuilding, eleven is a pointless time travel story that’s events are erased at the end, twelve is at best some goofy fun – at worst, irritating filler. Thirteen packs in essential plot progression, fourteen is all about a McGuffin that turns out to be an Andalite toilet, then fifteen deepens one of the best moral dilemmas of the series. I guess this will be the nature of the series going forward; a mix of powerful and pointless.
Well, the mainline series anyway.
My plan was (and mostly remains) to read them all in release order, but due to a mix up with which books I’d actually bought I didn’t have a copy of The Andalite Chronicles, the first of the Chronicles prequels which was originally released between thirteen and fourteen. I figured I’d just read it when it eventually arrived, but after finishing fifteen I decided to skip ahead and read The Hork Bajir Chronicles instead. Partly to make up for the lack of the other Chronicle, partly because as a kid this was easily my favourite book in the series.
Taking place decades before the main instalments, The Hork Bajir Chronicles tells the story of how the peaceful yet fearsome-looking alien race the Hork-Bajir were taken over by the Yeerks. I always remembered it for its downbeat ending and all-pervading sense of epic tragedy. Of all the books it was simultaneously the one I looked forward to and dreaded revisiting the most, not wanting my warm memories to be punctured.
That was… not the case.
The Hork Bajir Chronicles is Animorphs at its best; a science fiction parable loaded with big ideas and intricate worldbuilding, but always rooted in moral complexity and characters we care about. Without ever descending to histrionics or hyperbole it is a devastating, haunting book. There is one moment that I think I maybe subconsciously buried – I remembered it was coming about a page before it did and man, it slammed me in the gut. After finishing it I spent the rest of the day unsure of what to do with myself. I went to bed thinking about it. Predictably, dreamed about it. And woke up feeling really glad that I decided to embark on this re-read.
I keep thinking about whether Animorphs can be introduced to a new generation. Fundamentally, it deserves to be. I could see the books re-released in omnibus editions that eliminate the need to track down all sixty-two separate instalments, but even then you’d have to deal with the dated references and the repeated context and the rest. About ten years back Scholastic started re-releasing the original books with new covers and updated references. They flopped. Maybe the new graphic novel versions will catch on and do better. Or maybe Animorphs is so of its time that it’s fated to stay in that time.
But for those willing and interested, I do recommend revisiting – at least on the basis of the seventeen books I’ve read so far. I can’t speak to whether they would land if you don’t already have a nostalgic connection to the series (which almost certainly helps me forgive some of the issues), but I think the cleverness and clear eyed, uncompromising examination of the complexities of war will speak for themselves.
Whatever the case, I’m sticking with them and will continue to report. See you at the halfway point.
Walking through a bookstore in Sydney the other day I spotted Boone Shepard and realised that it’s been almost five years since it was released. Naturally this prompted some reflection. Personally and professionally a lot has happened in that time and my life now looks vastly different from how it did when Boone came out. But that book’s release, comparatively small scale though it was, was a crucial step in the journey that brought me here.
I sometimes feel like, in all the hubbub around The Hunted and the impending release of The True Colour of a Little White Lie, Boone gets forgotten. By myself as much as anyone. Those three books seem so far removed from the stories I’m telling now, and indeed a lot of the publicity for The Hunted referred to it as my ‘debut’, implicitly erasing Boone.
But Boone Shepard will always be my first published novel. And what’s more, I’m proud that it is. It’s by no means a perfect book. I don’t know that I’d entirely found my voice yet (although writing that trilogy was integral to me doing so). The structure is… odd, to say the least. There are some narrative choices that simply would not fly today. But I still love it.
Boone Shepard was a strange, idiosyncratic little book followed by two strange, idiosyncratic little sequels. It was almost certainly never going to find a home with a bigger publisher and I’m forever grateful to April Newton for loving it enough to put considerable time and resources into getting it out into the world.
We probably thought Boone would make a bigger splash than he did. In retrospect that was misguided, but it also meant that we maybe didn’t pay enough attention to the splash he did make. There were podcast dissections of the novels, fan art, kids dressing up as Boone for Book Week and the Readings YA Prize shortlisting. I still get approached by kids at school workshops telling me how much they love Boone.
Then there’s the fact that the books remain on shelves all over the country, still quietly selling copies even though the trilogy has been consigned by many outlets to a footnote in my bio.
But Boone Shepard, American Adventure and The Silhouette and the Sacrifice together comprise a story that I adored telling, a story I was so privileged to be able to finish despite many limitations and setbacks. A bookseller recently told me that, as much as she loved The Hunted, she preferred Boone Shepard for its whimsical quirkiness and distinct individuality. And while I’m never going to pick favourites, I will say that getting to write three books packed with time travel, famous 1800s authors, 60s counterculture figures, silly banter, nonsensical quasi sci-fi technology, manatees and a fairly philosophical exploration of what it takes to move on from the past, will always be among my favourite things I’ve ever done.
Last Friday I uploaded a blog post talking about my bad teenage web series Phoenix and how that weekend, for no good reason anyone could articulate, the original cast were getting together to film an eleven-year-too-late finale that nobody outside of ourselves would ever see.
Well, we did it.
It’s hard to quantify the experience so I’m going to just write about it and hope that some kind of clarity emerges. On paper the very idea of reuniting to (in a single day) conclude a project long since designated a punchline is more than weird; it’s nonsensical. In practice, the day we spent rehearsing, filming, editing, reminiscing and finally watching was a combination of fun and deeply melancholic.
I arrived in the Yarra Valley on Friday night. Sarah, who spearheaded the original series with me, and I spent the evening digging up old scripts, notes and even MSN conversations about the series. Then, on Saturday morning the rest of our cast – Gemma, Garth and Sam – arrived. Despite the five of us not having been in a room together in probably a decade, we fell quickly into old rhythms. Caught up, had a laugh, then got to reading through the script and discussing the subtext. Which might sound overly dedicated given what the project was, but I maintain that we had to treat it as seriously as we treated the 2010 material, even if we knew that it was a ridiculous notion.
It was around five in the afternoon that we filmed the final shot of the series, out at Sarah’s old house. We wrapped with a cheer and a big laugh, then we walked down under the old bridge to where we shot some beautifully angsty “promo shots” in 2010, recreating our most self-serious poses for a new cast photo. Once that was done it was back to the house for food and my ongoing efforts to get the cut together. Naturally I was using Windows Movie Maker, just as I did in 2010, and naturally this experience was not a pleasing one. But finally, at around 11pm, I finished it and we sat down to watch the whole series through. We’d all had a few beers already by this point, so it was with a collective sense of rowdy anticipation that we hit play on episode one.
We laughed. A lot. I don’t think any of us had watched Phoenix since we made it, and the awkward shots, terrible acting, bizarre character motivations and absurd plot twists were a particular kind of hilarious. But as we went, something else emerged. A sense that certain moments or developments were almost sort of good. Not genuinely – this was still a slapped together attempt at serious drama shot on a camcorder by inexperienced teenagers – but there were times where you could see the merit of what we were going for, if not of what we achieved. The episodes certainly got better as they went, but then given the quality we started at there really was no way to go but up.
The strangest moment, I think, came when we hit episode sixteen – the last one we shot in 2010. It was at that point where we all realised that we’d been having such a good time watching the thing that we didn’t want it to end. And, beyond that, that it was very obvious that the us of a decade ago were only just getting started with this story. That there were clearly supposed to be many episodes to come. In a way, I think that sparked a strange sadness that we never finished it the way we intended back then. Which made the finale we had just shot feel… odd.
For context, the script I wrote to conclude Phoenix was designed as a kind of epilogue, but sitting where it does, right after what was supposed to be the midpoint of the series, it feels misplaced, like all the big climactic events the series was building towards had been skipped. Which, to be fair, they had. On top of that, despite its rushed and roughshod production, it was maybe a little too… good. The acting was better. The writing was better. A 2021 phone produces far sharper sound and footage than a 2010 video camera. There’s an inherent restraint and maturity compared to the go-for-broke spirit of the original, which was all unchecked ambition and spectacular failures. We intended to replicate the ethos of our 2010 selves, but for all my talk of taking it seriously, there was no real way to genuinely make an episode the way we would have a decade ago.
And I think that is why, as the series ended, we all felt a little down. Because on screen we saw the jump between the kids we were and the adults we are now. The fact that ten years ago we thought nothing of giving up every weekend to make this dumb series. That we were so passionate about this thing we ultimately made for nobody but ourselves. That we were all willingly together in the same leaky boat. And now we had come back together to finish it, but in finishing it we’d closed a book on not just a project, but a period of our lives.
There’s always a sense of melancholy to completing something. In this case it's not something that will ultimately serve a greater purpose, but something that had always lingered as a kind of creative ellipsis. A story that I’d occasionally considered reworking and even previously tried to as a YA novel series, but had never fully realised.
Until now. Not in the way that was intended, but then, somehow an awkward compromise feels entirely appropriate for Phoenix.
When talking about The Pact a while ago I alluded to the fact that it wasn’t my first foray into the world of web series. And for those five people who remember Bogan Book Club, it wasn’t even my second. The first is nowadays more a punchline than anything else.
I don’t exactly remember where the idea for Phoenix came from, but at some point towards the end of high school I decided to make a no-budget web series shot in ‘artistic’ black and white to show off how serious it was, a web series that would follow a group of teenagers trapped in a house after a nuclear war.
The concept was neither original nor terrible. The planned execution was the inverse. My initial idea was to shoot it with a group of friends from my hometown, none of whom had the slightest interest in acting. Or, for that matter, being part of it. The idea ended up in a drawer.
Then, while involved in a play out in Warburton towards the end of year twelve, I floated the idea to the director, Sarah Ward; now known as the founder of the ever-expanding Misfit Theatre. Sarah and I became totally enamoured with Phoenix, taking my original scripts and building an epic mythology out of them along with a planned thirty episode arc that, when it inevitably went viral and made us all world famous, would be the springboard to a hit movie.
Obviously none of that happened. We cast people who had been in the play and launched into filming without much of a plan. Which went about as well as you’d expect. This was a series shot on an old camera from which all uploaded footage was stretched and pixelated, edited on Windows Movie Maker in stolen minutes between work and uni. I vividly remember uploading the first episode to YouTube only to very quickly learn that strangers on the internet are not kind. I actually became that guy who made a fake account to rebut all the criticisms, as if anybody would go to such effort to defend a series ostensibly set after a nuclear war in which sunlight and trees were clearly visible out the window.
But we kept filming. We got maybe a little better but it was hard to come back from those awful first episodes. And there were other struggles. Cast availability issues meaning that we would either have to sub in new actors and hope nobody noticed, or else come up with sudden ‘plot twists’ that revealed an extra person had been living in the house all along, conveniently revealed right as another character vanished.
A combination of growing disillusionment with the project and the fact that, you know, nobody was watching meant that we stopped shooting with our sixteenth episode. That wasn’t the plan; I’m pretty sure at the time we had every intention of keeping going, but we never did. Over the following weeks there were half hearted attempts to pick up where we left off but time passed and lives moved on and before long Phoenix was squarely in the rear-view mirror – eventually even removed from YouTube to try and mitigate the inevitable humiliation should it be rediscovered.
Over the years I attempted to reverse that. I still thought the idea had merit and that, executed correctly, it could be something really cool. The year after shooting the original episodes we got fairly far along developing a rebooted version with a new cast that would in theory make up for the failings of the original. Never shot, naturally. The year after that, I actually wrote the first in what I hoped to be a Phoenix novel series, which remixed characters and events from the original web version with the seeming benefit of no budget constraints. It didn’t work. The pace was lurching and I wasn’t able to inject the material with any more originality than it had had to begin with.
Then, a few weeks ago, one of the old cast members got back in touch with the rest of us to point out that we never finished Phoenix. And between the jokes and reminiscing a vague idea emerged. What if a final episode was written that could wrap the series up? A final episode that could be shot and edited in a day, just like the old ones, after which we could all watch the whole series through, naturally with plenty of beers and laughs at our 2010 ‘acting’. Obviously this finale would never be released publicly, but rather exist as an excuse for the cast to get back together, have some nostalgic fun then a few chuckles at our own self-important expense.
Recently I was having drinks with some friends and the topic of Phoenix came up. I immediately slipped into my automatic response of disparaging everything about it, only to be quickly shut down by the point that when you’re an eighteen-year-old creative you’re supposed to make bad things. That’s how you learn. And besides, healthy giggles at the badness of said bad things aside, there’s nothing to be ashamed of about trying to make something when you’re a dumb teenager.
Hearing that really stuck with me. I’d never thought about Phoenix or even my shambolic early theatre writing that way before. I’ve always acted kind of apologetic when it comes to talking about old work but it’s only now I realise that I’ve got nothing to be sorry about. If I hadn’t made those crappy old projects, I wouldn’t have learned how to make the better new ones.
So anyway; call it sheer stupidity, call it a belated tribute to an early learning curve or a chance to do something fun with old friends again, but whatever the case we’re finally finishing Phoenix.
This week the last issue of Empire Magazine came out. For anyone not obsessed with film during the 2000s, Empire was the best movie magazine going around, packed with insightful reviews, features on upcoming films and fascinating retrospectives on classics both revered and obscure.
I got my first issue of Empire when I was eleven and haven’t missed one since. That’s eighteen years I’ve been buying it.
As a kid fixated on film, the discovery of Empire was seminal for me. Through the magazine I discovered so much about not only the history of the medium, but what went into creating a film, the signature styles of different directors and of course, what made a good movie.
It also, almost certainly, introduced me to a few favourites that I was way, way too young for. I doubt I would have secretly watched The Silence of the Lambs, The Godfather, The Exorcist and so many more if Empire hadn’t regularly made the case that to have not seen them was to be missing out on some of the fundamental pillars of what made modern cinema.
For most of my early teenage years Empire was my bible. I would bore my friends with facts about the original King Kong or else announcements about what that Tarantino guy was doing next. I would devour every new issue and come out of it feeling a combination of informed and woefully uneducated – there was always some essential new classic that I would have to get my hands on and watch just so I could consider myself a real film buff.
Empire also taught me a lot about criticism. For the first couple of years I read the magazine, I took its reviews as gospel. I was shaken when Troy, a film I adored, got a withering review – was I wrong or was Empire? After a couple more similar cases the seeds were planted for my eventual realisation that there isn’t really such thing as right or wrong when it comes to your feelings on a movie, that different works appeal to different people for different reasons and that’s okay. That even the opinion of the most insightful, well-reasoned critic is still just an opinion.
Slowly the relationship changed. The time I was religiously reading Empire coincided with the growth of the internet as the most convenient place to access film news. By the end of high school Empire was no longer my first port of call to learn about upcoming releases, but I still clung to it for the massive behind-the-scenes features and of course, the reviews. Then came my early university discovery of websites like the once-great-now-grim A.V. Club, or Den of Geek; websites that provided reams of daily extensive analysis completely for free.
Soon I was writing my own criticism and analysis. I worked for Den of Geek and hosted a popular movie podcast. Now on the ‘inside’, my perspectives on the job of pop-culture writing changed. I still bought every issue of Empire, but its importance to me as a resource had slipped, as had my perception of its authority. Every now and then it would have a great feature or two, usually retrospectives of some sort, but for the most part the reviews seemed truncated compared to the in-depth essays available online, while the bulk of the pre-release coverage was given over to Marvel films and other blockbusters that already consumed so much oxygen. In a crowded market of film discussion, Empire no longer stood out.
I don’t make this point as a criticism of the magazine. Considering the type of content Empire provided was one of the first things to become popular online, it’s astounding that the magazine lasted as long as it did. But from the perspective of a long-time reader, it was increasingly clear that Empire was struggling to keep up and remain relevant. It felt at times like the magazine was veering wildly between identities; by turns trying to rebrand itself as a more niche exploration of cinematic obscurities or a loud, splashy celebration of all things Marvel, Star Wars and DC. The content became more political, adopting in parts the tiresome online mentality that a film should be judged more on what it had to say about Trump or whatever than whether it was actually any good.
All of this was understandable, given the nature of the magazine’s myriad online competitors. But it didn’t do a lot to make Empire’s case as being essential in a crowded market. Several times over the past few years, I found myself wondering why I still bought the magazine. I always did, but more often than not I’d give it a cursory skim then leave it on my desk, meaning to read it more thoroughly only to find that the next one was already out.
But even with all of that, the news of Empire’s end hit hard.
I think sometimes you need to lose something to realise what it meant to you. My relationship with the magazine might not have been what it once was, but the fact that it was still going and I was still buying it provided a direct link to not only my childhood, but to the time when I first understood that telling stories was what I wanted to do with my life.
Here, ultimately, is the part of this post that would be hyperbolic if it wasn’t true; I don’t think I would be the person I am today without Empire. So much of my identity as not only a film buff but as a writer and, at one point, a critic was shaped by reading that magazine in my formative years. Empire opened my mind and introduced me to countless films I never would have watched otherwise. It fostered in me a deep and abiding love for the history of cinema, a respect for the classics and an excitement for the new. It taught me that there are different kinds of greatness; that a gory zombie film can be just as brilliant as a worthy historical drama, that what a story is matters less than how it’s told.
At its best, Empire was a celebration and conversation about all of cinema, a publication that would give just as much adoring page space to A Nightmare on Elm St as Citizen Kane. And in guiding me towards so many of the stories that would inspire me, it directly helped me find what kind of storyteller I wanted to be.
For eighteen years, every month like clockwork, I would buy the new Empire. This marks the last time I’ll ever be able to.
That, along with everything the magazine meant to me, felt worth writing about.
I haven’t exactly been unproductive during lockdown, but it has sucked for creativity. I’ve been kept in work by a couple of TV projects along with edits on The True Colour of a Little White Lie – then of course there were my twin lockdown projects, the podcast Was It Worth It and web-series The Pact. But those were born out of an almost desperate need to make something during this time, projects that never would have existed if somebody hadn’t eaten a pangolin in Wuhan.
But even before lockdown I was struggling a bit creatively. I got about halfway through writing what would have been book three in the Maggie series, only to realise that it was not working at all. And meanwhile, I was repeatedly trying and failing to make any headway on Madison’s Masterpiece, my planned sequel to True Colour.
Eighteen months ago, these struggles wouldn’t have mattered much, at least not to anyone apart from myself. But a couple of months back my publisher called to ask how the sequel to True Colour was going. I made some noises about how I was still discovering it then flippantly said ‘but I’ve got time’. The brief silence I got in response undermined that assumption. I had time, yeah, but not enough to waffle and chase different creative impulses. To know that we had a book in good enough shape to be published a year after True Colour, I would realistically need a draft before we rolled into 2021.
While Madison’s Masterpiece was the frontrunner, I in fact had three different ideas for sequels to True Colour that I’d been playing with. Masterpiece would have taken the Tana French approach of telling a different character’s story. Idea Two would have been a totally different story featuring protagonist Nelson two years later while Idea Three would have been more of a direct sequel to the events of True Colour. So I gave myself permission to, without throwing out any of the work I had done on Masterpiece, toy with working on Idea Two instead. And quickly the story formed; characters and plot points growing around a central theme of how sometimes we obsess far too much over being friends with people who are like us as opposed to people who like us.
Something else that unlocked the story for me was embracing the fact that it was a sequel. In the earliest conception of this idea I’d figured I would include only oblique references to The True Colour of a Little White Lie, but as I plotted I realised how inauthentic that would be. The events of that first book would have been huge for Nelson; where we left him last time would absolutely define where we find him this time.
So I started to write. And at first it was clunky. I felt rusty. Nelson’s voice, self-deprecating, naïve and occasionally petulant, seemed to come only in snatches that made me wonder whether this was the same character. But I pushed through slowly something resembling a book took shape.
At around the halfway point I had to take a week off to focus on a different, more pressing project. At first I worried that this would compromise the flow but in actuality it had the opposite effect; when I came back to Nelson 2 something seemed to click into focus. Of course Nelson’s voice had changed, because Nelson had changed. Two years isn’t a long time for adults, but for teenagers the gulf between fourteen and sixteen is enormous. And because Nelson wasn’t the same person as he was in True Colour, I couldn’t write the story the same way I wrote True Colour.
I started worrying less about articulating or narrating Nelson’s emotional state at every point, like I had in the first book. I picked up the pace, jumping more ruthlessly between key moments. And weirdly, this let me relax into the book a little more, letting the moments where the characters just hung out and talked and enjoyed each other’s company, the moments that underlined my theme, breathe and develop naturally. There’s one passage towards the end of the book that is among my favourite things I’ve ever written, a reflection on friendship and impermanence that is unlike anything I have ever put on the page before. And it was from this passage that I found my title, a title that both reflects The True Colour of a Little White Lie and gives this book its own separate identity – A Different Type of Ordinary.
But the awkward early stage of the writing process bothered me. I might have found my rhythm towards the end, but when the time came to read over it, would the first half work at all?
Honestly, it’s hard to say. I started reading with the understanding that I would probably have to cut a lot. The first draft had come in at 75,000 words – longer than The Hunted (67k), True Colour (53k) and all three Boone Shepards (40-60k). I figured I would conservatively cut about 5000 words, maybe 10,000 if I was really ruthless.
I cut 17,000 words. And that was only after a first read.
Books teach you how to write them. I always struggle how to answer when people ask me about my process because the process is different every single time. Even two books in the same series can’t be written the same way because for them to have any integrity as stories they have to have their own concerns and identities even as they complement each other. True Colour is a highly interior book, the story of a lonely kid coming into adolescence and slowly learning that everyone else around him is just as much a person as he is. Different Type is the logical next step. It’s more rife with drama and incident, and as such there is less room for the reflections and internal hand-wringing that characterised True Colour. I had to write the book to figure that out, but I’m still not sure it works.
For now, as I return to the Maggie-verse to try and make the sequel to The Hunted even better than the first, I’m honestly just happy to have written something new, something messy and heartfelt that is likely a long way from perfect, but at least comes from somewhere real. Time will tell if that’s enough.
This is the final part of an ongoing series about the making of The Pact - links to the previous parts are below.
A few years ago, not long after Boone Shepard was released, I decided to try and read the finished book in its bound final form. I didn’t get very far. I was still too close to all the work that had gone into it to see it as anything more than a chore. In the end it took me over a year after release before I could read Boone Shepard again and conclude that actually, I was proud of it.
As such, it wasn’t a surprise that my first marathon viewing of the whole of The Pact, edited, mixed, graded and finished, wasn’t a lot of fun. All the way through I fretted about the pace, the picture quality, aspects of the scripts and performances. But I had also only just come out of those long hours in the edit suite, watching every episode over and over to make sure it was as good as it possibly could be, that there was nothing left we wanted to change. After that, there was no way I could view it with anything like objectivity.
So we geared up for release. Pete, Rose and I all did interviews. Reviews began to come in, mostly positive. Farrago called it “confident and bold”. TheatrePeople described it as a “wonderful online twist of the usual neo-noir narrative format”. The Independent Arts Journal rightly raved about Rose’s work, but were critical of the structure of some of the early episodes, suggesting that the conflict was contrived to give each episode a narrative shape. ScreenHub, for their part, felt that we’d missed the mark. Some of the criticisms I found unfair or at least could explain the choices that led to them, but that’s the nature of the beast. You can’t walk an audience through all of your intentions so ultimately the work has to speak for itself, for better or worse.
If I’m honest, I probably expected a bigger response across the board. Maybe the choice to release the episodes daily instead of in one hit was a mistake, but we really did want the individual chapters to get their chance to shine. Still, from the start there just wasn’t all that much engagement. Across Instagram and YouTube the views were okay, but they peaked in episode one and never hit the same heights again. We did what we could to promote it, including regular Instagram Live events where various members of the team (writers, director, editor, producer) chatted to key cast members, and those got pretty decent viewer numbers, but overall the series didn’t blow up the way we ideally would have liked. Which isn’t to say that I was expecting a million views an episode or anything, but I guess one of the realities of putting so much time and work into a project is that you can begin to believe that the ways in which it has consumed your life will translate to it striking a chord with others. That rarely happens, especially when your sole means of promotion is your team posting about it on Facebook.
Of course, there’s an elephant in the figurative room of this blog, one that you likely became aware of around the time I mentioned the first episode getting better numbers than the rest. Some people I’ve spoken to say that the first episode wasn’t strong or involving enough to keep them watching, and that’s probably fair. It was a tough nut to crack, and we had to try and crack it without fully knowing how to tell a story in this way, something we could only learn by doing. Without the budget or time to revisit things again and again, in the end we could only do what we could do. And while that’s not a blanket excuse for any of what might not work in The Pact, it’s the reality. We made this in weird circumstances without any money because we wanted to. Every single person involved went above and beyond what I could have asked of them to bring the show together. And if that wasn’t enough, well, I can’t say what would have been.
I do think, for whatever it’s worth, that the show finds its feet as it goes on. There was unquestionably an element of trial and error in the early stages, as we got a feel for the medium and the story, but once we found that balance the show, for me, hits a stride that I believe really works. If people found the first episode a struggle then I wish I could push them to watch at least a few more, because a lot of the feedback we've had from people who finished the series indicates that as it finds its momentum and voice it becomes a pretty compelling binge.
None of that is to say that an audience should feel obligated to persevere if they simply don't find it engaging, but knowing as I do how great some of the performances and scripts are in the back half of the series, I do hope that more people give it a shot in the weeks and months to come.
There’s so much about the series that I’m proud of without qualification. On a personal level, I think my script for episode seven rocks. I think the performances, especially from our four most important players (Rose, Jimi, Greg and Tatiana), are stunning. Episode twelve is brilliant, and as the climax of the series I couldn’t have expected better work from the team.
I’m also proud that during this weird and, yes, unprecedented time we made something, something ambitious and complicated with a lot of moving parts that everyone committed to a hundred percent. I will always love collaboration and The Pact was a great one. How can I not be grateful for the fact that I got to spend a big chunk of lockdown telling a story with my friends?
It was challenging and it wasn’t perfect, but to briefly borrow the premise of my other lockdown project (which, incidentally, featured a lengthy post-mortem of The Pact), it was entirely worth it.
Writing words about writing words.