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When I work on a book, I’ll also work on something else simultaneously.

It won’t be another new book – it’s hard enough keeping track of all the characters, threads, and ideas for one prospective novel, let alone two. I’m always surprised when people say they’re working on two (or more) novels simultaneously. (I don’t count swapping back and forth between projects but never finishing anything.)

The closest I’ll get to working on more than one novel is if I also revise another, but only as long as it’s more so a copyedit revision, rather than a structural edit revision that might require some rewriting. As far as the copyedit goes, I might read a chapter or two (depending on their length) as warm-up for my brain. Then I feel I can flow into my work-in-progress.

Or I could revise a short story, or even write a new short story – the only qualifier here is that I have to be able to finish a draft (either writing something new, or revising an existing draft) in a single sitting, so it’s doesn’t become too much of a distraction. I want to be able to get in, get out, with it having no ongoing impact on my work-in-progress.

Poetry is something else that’s a good sideline – although, sometimes, my ruminations take me deep into the night, because I struggle to find the exact way I want to depict what I’m feeling. But it’s always cathartic, and I’ve written enough poetry now that I’m thinking of either subbing around a collection, or self-publishing it.

Lately, I’ve also been working on screenplays. I wrote screenplays prolifically through the early 2000s and had a couple optioned. I thought they were great. I had this infallible self-belief. Of course, I was an idiot. (There’s a good chance I still am.) Neither option went anywhere. In retrospect, I’m glad they didn’t.

When I look back at all those old screenplays, they’re grossly overwritten, and the narrative in a few of them is (to put it kindly) contrived. However, some are structurally sound – at least as far as the framework goes. I’ve picked the best of them out and tried to revise. At times this has meant almost rewriting from scratch, and/or fleshing out the story.

Over the last year, I’ve also written a handful of new screenplays. Compared to the 2000s vintage, they work better on every level – the way they’re written, the causality of the narrative, and the solidity of the suspension of disbelief. I’ve discovered I have more confidence writing a screenplay than I do any form of prose.

Screenwriting also provides an interesting contrast to prose. With prose, you get inside a character’s head. You relate what you see and how they feel. You can have an internal monologue driving the narrative. Screenwriting is different. An internal monologue is not going to work – you can translate it as voiceover, but you’re always having to think about what the audience is seeing. It has to be engaging. A character sitting on a couch coming to some slow realisation is not engaging. That has to be represented other ways that is going to hook the audience.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve refocused some of my energy on screenplays and subbed to a variety of international comps (because there’s so many of them), and met with some minor success in placing in a few of them. Some of those places have only been getting through to the next round, where perhaps another two hundred other writers have also gotten through. But I look at that in the context that possibly six or seven hundred people have been culled, so just to survive that is gratifying. As a writer, you hang onto little victories.

One screenplay, a 30-minute satire/pilot entitled ‘Producers’ – about a former shady tax lawyer, now heading a four-person production team trying to raise money for a feature – was a semi-finalist in the Showtime’s Tony Cox Episodic Screenplay (30 Min) Competition, which was flattering. ‘Producers’ was written originally over ten years ago, but has undergone repeated heavy revision and restructuring. To get any recognition is encouragement that I might be doing something – no matter how small – right. Or maybe I’m doing something right in a small way.

It’s been a lot of writing of various forms to juggle throughout the last year, while also working on a new book. Just when I get one of those peripheral commitments out of the way, something else pops up – another competition I want to enter, or a short story submission opportunity where I want to revise. My mind feels spread in different directions, which is not my preferred way of operating – but, at the moment, it feels like I can stay on top of it because at least when I am working on a couple of things, they’re different forms.

Well, that’s what I keep telling myself.

And this is what you do as a writer.

You write.

Submit.

And do it over and over.

 
Last Week’s Lie: My editor, Lucy Bell, and I did not go on a tyre-mauling rampage.

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Films, television series, and books ultimately come down to the same thing: the written story.

Something that is beginning to annoy me in storytelling – particularly in film and television – is the use of flashbacks.

To the best of my knowledge, JJ Abrams’ television series Lost popularised the use of flashbacks to introduce backstory. Lost has an ensemble cast of characters. In the two seasons I watched (before the constant baiting and switching turned me off), each episode would focus on somebody different. Throughout that episode, we’d get flashbacks about the character’s life before they got on the island.

A younger, much-less cynical version of me enjoyed this – especially the backstory of John Locke (played by the always-excellent Terry O’Quinn), which revealed that (spoilers) prior to life on the island, he’d been confined to a wheelchair. The island rejuvenated him. That reveal was cool, and contributed to the mystery of what was happening in Lost.

Another more-recent show that relies on the flashback as a driver is Orange is the New Black. The first season (based on a memoir) is excellent, the flashbacks used to show the lives of the principle characters before they were prisoners. Season two (no longer based on a memoir) started to taper. Season three was terrible, and season four made me wish I was in prison with no access to television. Throughout these latter two seasons, we’d exhausted the main characters, and were now seeing flashbacks of peripheral characters.

In this case, the flashback is existing for the sake of existing, and if it is going to exist, then they need to find a reason to use it, which meant exploring the pasts of characters who have as much importance as the prison’s walls, floors, and doors. How about flashbacking those? We could see their construction. Give each stone a different voice. Have the concrete speak with a slur. Well, maybe not.

Unfortunately, flashbacks are running amok. I recently finished the first season of the Lost in Space reboot, which also relied on a variety of flashbacks. Most of it would’ve been much more interesting to see happen as it was happening. But, no, building anything chronologically is apparently too straightforward.

I watched the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, which also employed flashbacks – some of them were interesting, although I’m unsure if we really needed to see them. Do we desperately need to know why the US has become what it has in that universe? Doesn’t it work just as well – or even better – by simply being absolute? Other flashbacks throughout the series fell into convenient deliverers of backstory, or arming us with information we don’t really need.

Flashbacks are happening everywhere.

And it feels lazy.

Introduce a character in the present, and instead of having to set up anything, instead of using any form of clever foreshadowing, instead of building a formidable linear narrative structure, just revert to a flashback to explain what’s required – to justify why the circumstances in the present exist. And, as a viewer or a reader, we’re just meant to accept that this all fits together like jigsaw pieces to give us a fuller picture when, in truth, a lot of it is redundant.

As formerly an editor, I would always look for things I could cut. (In school, I was nicknamed ‘The Slasher’. My editor, Lucy Bell, is actually nicknamed ‘The Butcher’. During a drunken escapade in Sydney trying to live up to our names, we mauled the tyres of every parked car in a parking garage.) If I could cut something, and nobody noticed it was missing, then it didn’t belong there.

Used well, flashbacks can not only complement a story, but provide an entirely new context. But now, they often seem either like convenience or gimmicks. If they were removed, would anybody notice?

Having written all that, I’m using flashbacks in TFSoLY.

So there.

 
Last Week’s Lie: There definitely wasn’t news that Chris Hemsworth could star in an adaptation of Just Another Week in Suburbia. Casper Gray is ordinary, bordering on bland, so Chris Hemsworth is probably not the right fit. Of course, if they did a behind-the-scenes adaptation of the book being written, they could probably get Chris Hemsworth to play me.