Recently, while discussing with a friend the ongoing tortured process that has been grappling with my novel/TV series/play/headache Windmills, I mentioned the fact that I’ve been working on this story in one form or another for almost a decade. It was a throwaway comment, but the fact stuck with me.
It’s staggering to think that it’s been almost ten years since I started Windmills, and even more so to think that it’s still a going concern. Since I wrote the first draft in 2009, the only year in which I wasn’t actively working on a version of it was 2013. Otherwise, Windmills has never gone away.
But maybe the time will soon come when that changes. I wrote a lot last year about the process of writing another version of the novel, and while that version isn’t completely ready, I believe it’s close. There are still hurdles to jump, but it’s starting to dawn on me that I’m probably closer to the end of my time working on Windmills than the beginning.
And it’s not just Windmills. I wrote the first draft of what would become Boone Shepard in 2008, ten years ago, and this year, if all goes to plan, the final published book in the series will come out, bringing that adventure to an end. I don’t think it will be the last time I write about Boone and Promethia; they’re too much fun to spend time with for that, but it’s the end of the main story. Anything past this is just bonus. Additionally, Chris Hawkins, a character I came up with when I was fifteen and wrote about a lot in high school, recently featured in a new play of mine, one that revisits the character as an adult in a standalone drama. It’s possible that Chris will reappear in another story, but currently I don’t have any plans for one.
Basically, Leo Grey, Boone Shepard and Chris Hawkins, all of whom have remained going concerns to varying degrees for the last decade, are close to taking their last bows, at least for me.
It’s a less melancholic idea than you might think. This isn’t a case of familiarity breeds contempt or anything, but ten years is a long time, even for the most beloved characters. And let me stipulate; those character are beloved. You can’t spend so long writing about somebody without starting to see them as a real person, without their voice feeling synonymous with your own and an encyclopaedic knowledge of their foibles developing. But, when writing that new version of Windmills last year, I had to concede that I just didn’t have all that much left to say about the story or characters. That version of the book, largely, had to be definitive because it’s highly questionable that I have another draft in me. Some scenes were chores simply because of how many times I’d written them. And while I don’t think that feeling hurt the book in any way, I don’t think I’d be so lucky in another draft.
I’ve come up with a lot of characters in my time, but largely they serve their purpose and they leave the stage. Will from Regression, Jamie from The Critic, Robert Stone from The Lucas Conundrum – all characters I liked, but not ones I had much interest in revisiting. Their stories and arcs were self-contained, their personalities functional for the story they were designed to tell. That’s not to say they were bad or shallow characters, but they didn’t invite extension.
Boone, Chris and Leo have endured precisely because I always felt like there was more to them. For Boone and Chris, that exploration took the form of ongoing instalments, for Leo, many, many drafts of the same story, each digging a little deeper into him and his supporting cast. But now I’m at the point where the exploration is close to finished. And while removing the crutch of familiarity that has arguably been the backbone to my career thus far might have once terrified me, it doesn’t now because I’m starting to see a new guard of enduring characters moving in to take their place.
When I wrote Sunburnt Country last year it was intended just as a one off horror story, a nightmare thrill ride designed to sicken the nauseous and thrill the gorehounds. But partway through writing I found myself fascinated and fixated by the character of Maggie; a laconic, enigmatic fugitive with a dark past and a ruthless sense of self preservation. And as Maggie, battered, bruised and bloodied, fought her way through a town of murderous psychopaths, I realised that I wanted to see more of her. I revisited her in an even more violent novella, Khancoban, that I wrote over Christmas, and I’ve got plans for several more adventures. I see her as a Mad Max or Man With No Name type figure – driving into town after town in her beat up old ute with her shotgun and proceeding to right wrongs and deal out justice, all the while grappling with her slowly eroding humanity. Like Boone Shepard or Promethia Peters before her, she’s one of those characters who basically writes herself and I can’t wait to revisit her.
A couple of days ago I also finished my new YA novel; a coming of age dramedy called Nelson and the Gallagher, basically a book about being fourteen and not being very good at it. It was semi-autobiographical but largely fictionalised and Nelson, originally a stand in for a teenage me, soon developed into a person in his own right. Awkward and anxious with a sharp sense of humour and a fundamental optimism, I’ve never really written a character like him before, a character who is flawed, petulant, downtrodden and bumbling but largely decent and free of cynicism. I really liked Nelson and, while his book wasn’t designed as a series starter, I’d love to follow his journey further, to see him bumble his way into young adulthood. The book and character were so different to anything I’d done before, that they left me feeling refreshed and excited to write more stories like this.
Nelson and Maggie, then, represent a future for my work beyond the long-held dominance of Leo, Boone and Chris. Obviously I’ll keep writing standalone short stories and plays, but it’s nice to know that I have at my disposal two characters who will not only reward further adventures, but actively invite them. Characters like that, in a weird way, can be like guiding stars; friends to take a journey with. You don’t always travel together, but when you do it always feels a bit like coming home.
Writing words about writing words.