The Story’s Journey or How I Accidentally Wrote a Fantasy Series - Part I

Let me tell you a story about a story. 

A long, long time ago, in a place known as the 1980s, I came up with an idea that I entitled Mythic. He was a gay male super-hero who would headline his own comic.

I don’t know where the name came from precisely, but the premise was that when the very first story was told it created ‘mythic energy’ within that initial storyteller. As more stories were told, that energy grew and eventually manifested as super powers.

Each generation—every 30 years—that energy is shared with someone who has just turned 21 (no guesses as to what I age I was at the time!). They become a Mythic—the living embodiment of heroic mythology – with Superman-level abilities.

I didn’t write a lot of notes, however, I did give him a code-name (Granite) and design him a costume. Because superhero! Then I filed it away got back to what I was supposed to be doing with my time—studying at University.

In 1995 my novel Finding Home was accepted for publication.

I’d written three books before then, two novels (where I was trying hard to be Armistead Maupin, and failing) and a book of humour essays (where I was trying hard to be Bill Bryson and doing okay, but nobody should be Bill Bryson except for him). 

As you may have guessed, none of these found a publisher. My favourite rejection letter was one that came for my first Maupin-esque tale—called Sweet Thunder—where the editor said it was “as nervous as television”. Hey, at least he read it!

Finding Home isn’t autobiographical, but it is a slice-of-life set in a time and a place I know well. For the first time the only writer I was trying to be was me.

While it was awaiting print, I began work on its sequel which was set at a boarding school. I had ideas for a half-dozen other books jostling for space in my head so I sketched out a few of those—some in broad strokes, others in more detail.

By this time, I had also found work writing for television. You see, I’d never set out to be a novelist. My dream growing up was always to write for TV. In my résumé are credits on an infamous New Zealand sitcom called Melody Rules and well-received local drama called The Strip.

Flash forward to 2002.

By then I had amassed 17 credits for TV and created a host of television pilots that made it to various stages of development but never into production.

It was then that I chose to stop writing for television. To supplement my on-again, off-again writing income, I had taken on various part-time office jobs and I had reached a cross-roads—either commit to the uncertain world of writing or take a salaried 9 to 5 job. 

I decided on the latter, partly because I needed the guarantee of income, and partly because I found writing for TV ultimately creatively unsatisfying. I had achieved my dream only to learn that it wasn’t what I really wanted. Or needed.

Now, between paid TV work, looking for paid TV work, and supplementing periods of no-TV-work with part-time jobs, I had continued to work on the sequel to Finding Home and some of the other ideas I had bumping around in my head. 

The Finding Home sequel was called Redwater. It was to be similar to the first book, the domestic drama of a Catholic boy’s boarding school, full of humour with gothic elements and riddled with the bitter and bittersweet. I had an outline I was happy with, and I had drafted some sample scenes. Full of hope and promise I began writing the first draft in 1996 then immediately had to stop because of paid TV work.

I came back to it in 1997 and began again. But two chapters in, I hit a wall. I kept trying to start Chapter Three but it would not come. After many months of rewriting the first pages of that third chapter I hit pause.

No problem, I had all those other ideas!

In 1998 I began a book called Bless-ed. It was a modern-day nativity story but with a worldly yet unwise 16 year old Catholic girl called Lynette (“Nettie”) Munroe who might be the highly-favoured-one or might have just drunkenly hallucinated the Angel Gabriel after having had sex with…well, she couldn’t remember who she’d shagged.

I had sketched out the first half of the tale and decided to jump in. I did write that first half then ground to a halt, disheartened with the premise, having spent the process feeling alternately irreligious and not irreligious enough.

I returned to Redwater and thought it might be a structural issue. I rewrote the treatment four or five times, but could never get happy with it. Bless-ed was still gnawing at my creative conscience so I jumped between the two for half a year, inching both forward by pages, paragraphs, or sentences at a time. But then the will to work on both of them went cold.

Again, no worries, I wasn’t short on concepts! Next up was My Little Corner of the World. Premise: a gay teenage boy from a drab New Zealand city who wants to see the world ends up stuck in a drab New Zealand town. Again, I wrote half the book—right up to where the plot jumps ahead 10 years—and ground to a halt.

I then tried an idea called Good Things About Me. Like Finding Home it was a coming of age novel but less slice-of-life and more slice-of-surreal-life. I cribbed parts of Bless-ed (which featured a cast of colourful, disapproving, small town types) and completed the first quarter of the novel, but couldn’t figure out the rest of the plot so I stopped.

I thought that perhaps it was the medium that was the issue.

I was growing cold on scripting for TV but what about film? I wrote a spec screenplay. Two, actually. These I banged out quickly—one titled The Majestic about a magic movie theatre, one called The Big Picture about a closeted Hollywood A-list action star. But while I had actually finished them, my heart wasn’t in film and I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to rewrite them.

I should mention here that when I stopped writing for TV, I picked up a gig writing a bi-weekly humour column for a local gay newspaper. These were 600 word slice-of-life pieces and, like the spec screenplays, provided at least some creative satisfaction. But they weren’t novels. 

I’ve never understood why that medium in particular draws me, but when I have fiction ideas they’re always for novels. I’m not a short story writer and I’m certainly not a poet. Unless you count limericks, for which I could win a Nobel. Or whatever poets get when they win awards. See, that’s how little I know about poetry.

Anyway, fresh off my success at completing two screenplays, I jumped back into the novel-verse. 

But history repeated.

It repeated like Groundhog Day except it was Groundhog Days because I didn’t repeat the same work, I started and tried a bunch of them. But every single one failed. It went on like this for six years. Six. Years. 

Sometimes I had one novel on the go. Sometimes two. Sometimes three. The concepts were ones that I was truly passionate about when I began them. 

But, for whatever reason, each and every time, at a point in the writing process, I…just…stopped. Often I would return to an abandoned project and pick away at it, even advance it by pages or chapters. But no matter how many times I tried, I was unable to finish any book. Along with the novels I’ve already mentioned here were the others I began between 1996 and 2002:

The Boy In The Moon – A bittersweet coming out/of age story that is Good Things About Me reworked—but far, far darker. Like, too dark to ever get published. Part of it was based on my own life and the content would see it banned.

One Hit Wonderful – In 1985 a teen brother and sister musical duo (the singer is outspokenly gay Tony Munroe and the songwriter/pianist his plus-sized softly-spoken older sister Nettie) from small town New Zealand, with a stage mother from hell, have a huge worldwide hit. But just the one hit. What happens after the applause dies? Life. 

The Girl Who Could See The Future – A suicidal owner of an antique shop is befriended by a girl who believes she can see the future. She leads him on a literal journey that seems insignificant but which saves the lives of everyone they encounter, and ultimately his life too.

1985 – Redwater (which was originally a diary-like tale told over five years) reworked to focus on a love story between boys from rival schools—one a rugby First XV captain, the other a nerd who lives for music—set against the toxic backdrop of the fight for Homosexual Law Reform in New Zealand and set, unsurprisingly, in the titular year.

Living Backwards – A man returns to his hometown to bury his estranged father—except his father comes back to life and starts to age in reverse, leading them on a literal and figurative journey to undo a historic wrong. Getting a second chance to connect with your father is fine, but what if you didn’t want it?

Looking back at these ideas now, I’m still excited by them.

But each time, at some point or points, I was hit with similar thoughts. That the concept was bad, that I should be writing a different story, that I should be writing a different genre, that I should write a “gay” book, that I shouldn’t write a “gay” book, that I wasn’t really a novelist and I should go back to screenwriting, that I wasn’t a screenwriter and I should stick to novels, that I should stick to humour columns—at least they were only 600 words long!

I didn’t have writer’s block per se, because I was writing. I had writer’s…FOMO is the best way I can describe it. That fear of missing out made me constantly worry I’d chosen the wrong idea. But, through my endless switching and swapping, I ultimately chose none. I was lost in a maze, one I had constructed.

At the time I didn’t realise it, but after Finding Home I felt an immense pressure to produce a follow-up. It became worse after 1997 when Finding Home won a national book award. ‘When’s your next novel coming out?’ I was asked over and over. The publication process itself was also deeply disappointing, making me wary of trusting a publisher again. I was contractually bound to present that publisher my next book first but when I contacted them to discuss it I was told they weren’t interested. ‘We’re only working with our favourite authors now,’ the editor told me. No need to read between the lines there! 

As the years rolled on, the pressure to produce another novel for various reasons increased, but at some point I became the one applying the most pressure. I didn’t want to finish another novel. I needed to. To prove…that I wasn’t a one novel wonder? To prove…that I was truly a “writer”? To prove… I didn’t have the answers then, or now. Sometimes hindsight isn’t 20/20 after all.

At times I would leaf through Finding Home and wonder what magical process had allowed me to complete it. But if the formula was in those pages, I couldn’t see it.

Did I not know enough about my craft?

I read a bunch of writer’s self-help books and tried every trick in them designed to overcome hurdles, to stay the course.

Was I self-sabotaging? I started therapy. I ended a long-term relationship that I felt was holding me back. I built a new life for myself. I challenged myself. I made different decisions. I grew.

But through it all, I continued that mad leap from idea to idea. One positive of being a stubborn individual is that it brings with it persistence. But every failed attempt only further eroded my confidence as a novelist. The writer in me spiralled into depression and despair.

In 2003, one day while sitting at the computer, I hit a wall. I literally could not go on. My fingers would not type any more words.

So I gave myself permission to stop. I told myself that I never had to write a novel again. I repeated that until the obstinate ball of energy that sits at my core believed it. I made peace with the fact that it was fine just to have one published book. That it was fine just to be.

So I was.

For a while…