Life of the Mind

Through the Waterfall

I grew up a fantasy nerd. I read The Hobbit when I was 11. Then I moved onto The Lord of the Rings. I read historical fantasy, such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, Ivanhoe, and various incarnations of Robin Hood. Then it was high fantasy, such as The Belgariad and The Malloread by David Eddings, as well as books (and series) by Raymond Feist, David Gemmell, Terry Brooks, and others.

Fantasy appealed to my imagination. Real life didn’t – especially during those early years in high school when I was just learning to fit in. Compounding the issues surrounding my integration was that I was dealing with growing neuroses, such as anxiety, depression, and OCD – stuff I only recognised much later in life when I’d learned more about those conditions. Fantasy offered me worlds of adventure and magic and heroism, where even the most seemingly insignificant people could grow up to mean something.

When I was fifteen, I decided to write my own fantasy epic. I handwrote it through two A5 exercise books, developing the mythology as I went. Then I bought a typewriter and typed it out. Then did that again. Then I moved onto a PC – this is before computers became as common as toasters in households. My brother had bought one to use in conjunction with work.

I just wrote and wrote. I read books on writing, and I read constantly for recreation, so I must’ve absorbed lots through osmosis. (Much later in life when I was editing, I was complimented for my ability as a structural editor. There’s a school of thought that you can’t teach structural editing – it’s something you can do or your can’t. Anyway, perhaps even then, I knew some stuff instinctively.) What I really learned, though, was endurance. Once I sat down, I wrote until I finished.

I really had no idea what to do with my book once it was done. This was pre-internet. I couldn’t just Google ‘publishers’. And while I was cluey enough to check who published certain fantasy books, I wasn’t cluey enough to work out how to submit to them.

Topping it off was insecurity that my work wasn’t very good. Family and friends told me they liked it, but that’s what they do. A friend of a cousin – somebody I didn’t know at all, and who read lots of fantasy – said it was the best fantasy book he’d read, which was flattering. You want to be flattered as a writer. You want to be told you’re not just wasting your time.

Unfortunately, those neuroses that had been teasing for years exploded and the book was shelved. One of the terrible things about anxiety is a development of hyper-awareness. When it pointed at my book, it highlighted I was a nobody who wanted to write a four-book series, and I had one book. Who was going to invest in it?

I decided to write a standalone book, but it was going to be an epic. This might’ve been influenced by reading Stephen King’s IT and The Stand – both huge books with ensemble casts and, in the case of IT, a story that spanned generations. (I know these books aren’t fantasy – I’m just referencing them as super-big epics.)

While I think the premise of my original fantasy novel is a little bit immature, I still enjoy the premise behind this second novel, which amounted to about 250,000 words. The story is sound. I don’t know if the writing is any good. I take a glance at it every now and again and it doesn’t seem entirely hopeless – if I ever get the time, I’d love to go back through this novel, revise, and submit it around. (The way it’s structured, it could be broken down into three books.)

After it was finished, though, I segued into screenwriting, and other things started occupying my time (including those mental health issues again). I stopped reading fantasy – not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I’d broadened my interests. Fantasy still appeals to me. Unfortunately, I just don’t get much time to read it.

About eighteen years ago – when I was writing lots of screenplays – I decided to write a fantasy screenplay, encompassing my feelings from when I was younger: a story about a kid in today’s world who gets to be a hero in a fantasy world. He and his brother unwittingly slip into a fantasy land and become tangled up in a quest with a party of dwarves. (Despite behind about thirty or so at the time, I actually didn’t know anything about The Chronicles of Narnia.) The screenplay is called ‘Chimerica’ – named after the land the kids go to.

I don’t know how the screenplay played out – like many of my screenplays back then, I’m sure it was structurally sound, the writing was overwritten, and a lot of the ideas weren’t fully-developed.

Ten years ago, I wanted to write a children’s novel and decided to adapt this screenplay. Writing a screenplay and writing a novel share some commonalities (structure, arcs, story, pacing), but there are also some stark differences. Often, novels are cerebral experiences – we sit inside the character’s heads and share their thoughts and feelings. Unless you’re using a voiceover narrative, you can’t do that in a screenplay. So it was an interesting experience to adapt a screenplay to a novel, and be able to explore the character’s head more.

The early drafts, which were around 75,000 words, were tonally uneven, as I originally conceptualised it as being a middle-grade story, but it quickly evolved into a young adult novel. The screenplay provided the structure, although a lot of the action changed. There was also the issue of how to introduce the antagonist scheming. In a screenplay, it’s no problem: I just jumped across to him and wrote his scenes. Screenplays can work like that you: you’ll often get a snippet of somebody else’s POV to fill in some aspect of the story. In a novel filtered through the POV of a 12-year-old boy, I couldn’t introduce a handful of asides. Ultimately, I did find a way, which also added a new facet to the plot.

‘Chimerica’ is one of those novels I haven’t entirely given up on. I have a soft spot for it because it reflects how I wished I could go on a magnificent adventure when I was just a kid – an adventure that involved wars and dwarves and elves and dragons and evil wizards and magic.

Every now and again, I’ll go back to it. My most recent drafts wrote in a new opening, changed the protagonist’s familial circumstances and backstory, and shaved ten thousand words. The title’s also gone from ‘Chimerica’ to ‘Through the Waterfall’ (as a waterfall is loosely involved in the way they cross over).

I do have another radical idea in terms of revisioning the story, although I’m unsure how to make it work, so I’m just letting it gestate in my head. At some point, my imagination will provide an answer. (Well, I hope.)

Most recently, I submitted ‘Through the Waterfall’ – and two other novels – to the Screencraft Cinematic Book Contest. I submit often to comps. Of those three, I thought one of the other novels might be a chance. The second I thought might be too Australian (for an American comp) and I actually forgot I’d even subbed ‘Through the Waterfall’ until the results came out because I had my hopes pinned on the other two.

So far ‘Through the Waterfall’ sits as a quarter-finalist in the comp. It’s a nice bit of gratification. Even if that’s as far as it gets, it’s nice to know some dreams connect with others.