Learning Writing From Reading “Bad” Books

Recently a young writer posted on Reddit about the advice from Stephen King to augment your writing journey by learning what not to do via reading bad books. Alan Moore also mentions this in his Masterclass videos. While I don’t disagree with this advice, I think it is, perhaps paradoxically, one of the more challenging bits of writing homework one can give.

The Reddit thread gives a great example. A user posted about how their entire literature class hated the Gertrude Stein writing assignment and the resulting class was cancelled due to this. The poster’s implication within the context of the post was that Gertrude Stein was clearly a bad writer you could learn from.

I don’t disagree with this but probably not for the reasons the commenter intended. Stein is a great example of why the guidance to read bad books is really challenging to do right. People’s tastes are so broad and the world of literature is so complex that what you might consider “bad” might actually be just something presented in a different way or with a different cultural context or for a different audience.

When the 1Pulitzer jury selected “No Award” about ten years ago, one of the judges outlined a section of David Foster Wallace prose as clearly indicative of the novel being worthy of the award. I read it and thought it was a purple prose self-indulgent slog. Of course, that was just my opinion and wasn’t really relevant. There are countless people who felt it was poetic, and the flowing river of description being a languid and wonderful immersion in the scene.

So neither of us were actually right. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good. It was bad for some people and good for some people. And that is why writing is so challenging.

Henry James wrote a wonderful story called 2“The Figure in the Carpet,” which among other things is a metaphor for the writer’s pursuit of the perfect reader. In the story, there is a secret to the writer’s novel that it turns out only one person has discovered. It was, in short, a work of such genius that only one person could appreciate it. But is a work that the entire world can’t understand and only one person can unlock the highest form of art? Or is it the worst of novels?

So while I don’t dismiss the concept of “bad novels,” and I don’t dismiss the idea of “learning from bad novels,” I do think that the exercise should be approached with caution and serious attention.

1 https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/letter-from-the-pulitzer-fiction-jury-what-really-happened-this-year

2 https://gutenberg.org/ebooks/645

Cover Reveal!

I’ll write more about exciting publishing news in the near future, but let me start with the first news… the release of a newly revised and brand new edition of my swashbuckling fantasy series The Thieves Guild. I wrote this as a personal project and a labor of love, inspired by my favorite storytellers. Basically I wanted to write a serial type series that had chapter level cliffhangers like Charles Dickens, a totally swashbuckling almost non-stop tension novel like Robert E. Howard, and engaging characters like Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Thieves Guild ebook cover

To the left is the beautiful cover, courtesy my creative brothers and sisters at In Shambles Productions’ design department. It truly captures the heart of the book—a young man thrust into the black-cloaked Thieves Guild, not sure what he got himself into and where he’s going to go.

This is book one, and book two—The Burning City—will be released on December 1. Book three will be released in mid-2024. This will be an ongoing series, and I feel like it may never end, even as the characters change, and the world expands. That said—each novel is a stand-alone story, so readers won’t be left wondering what happened with the current tale.

The Thieves Guild will be available for pre-order on August 18, with a September 1 release date. It will be available in paperback and ebook from Broadsword Books on that date, with an audiobook release later in September.

No Critique This Month

Unfortunately, I won’t be doing a free critique this month due to some exciting stuff that I’ll be announcing in a week or two. I’m going to make up for it by doing two next month. Sorry all!

I’ll be an instructor at this years Cascade Writers Workshop

I’m incredibly thrilled to announce that I’ll be an instructor at this year’s Cascade Writers Workshop in Bremerton, Washington. I was a participant last year, so this is especially exciting for me.

A number of my friends will be attending and instructing, so I’m really looking forward to it. Now I just need to decide on what I’ll be teaching….

I’d love to see you. If you’d like to take part, you can find details here.

Moving From Scrivener to Word

I’m sometimes asked if writing screenplays has helped my novel or prose writing, and the answer is it has. It has improved my dialogue, but even more than that it has improved my ability to structure the narrative of a novel. As a result, I do a lot more moving of chapters in the writing process these days.

This creates an interesting challenge when you are taking a work where you move the chapters around and need to package it for a submission to an agent or publisher. In a lot of writing platforms, dynamically updating chapter numbers after these changes can’t be done.

The good news is that Scrivener allows you do to that, but I absolutely hate the Scrivener user experience and export functionality. Without fail, the document I export will have some issue with it or other. It’s not that Scrivener is bad software, it’s that it requires detailed understanding of the tool to make it work right, and I simply didn’t have the patience to figure all that out.

I tried Ulysses, which allows you to move chapters around easily via drag and drop, but Ulysses doesn’t provide any easy way to dynamically re-number chapters, making it unhelpful when putting together a submittable document.

Which brought me full circle to Microsoft Word. I never really saw Word as anything more than a word processor but in my frustration at the other options I looked at it more closely, and what do you know—there is an easy way to add chapter headings with one click. There’s an easy way to drag chapters and move them. And—amazingly—the chapter numbers dynamically update. I also have fallen in love with the Word styles palette.

It’s probably worth noting that I took a look at LibreOffice Writer, as well, and I was extremely impressed. That said, it didn’t have the all-in-one simplicity of Word.

So, after abandoning Word years ago, I am back and—in truth—loving it.

Wedding Day Revisions Are Complete

The road from short story to novel has been long and winding for Wedding Day, but we have reached our destination. After wonderful feedback from beta readers, the final revisions are done. Now to send it out to agents and perhaps a publisher or two. We shall see.

Next up for me is to go back and re-start the Thursday feature screenplay. That will be a lot of fun, and my goal is to have it done quickly as a lot of the work has already been completed.

March Critique Giveaway is Over

Congrates to John, who won our March giveaway of notes and a critique. Next months’ giveaway will open in about ten days.

For those who entered this month, your free ebooks will be delivered within the next few days.

Hold The Phone! Change of Plans!

I just received beta reader feedback on my Wedding Day novel, so my new immediate plan is to revise Wedding Day and then go back and work on the Thursday feature. This is a pretty significant degree of context switching, and I do prefer to work on one project at a time, but as I haven’t started directly on Thursday yet, this won’t be too difficult.

Introducing Jake’s Critique Lab

Inspired by Nathan Graham Davis, who gives back to the screenwriting community by providing notes on one screenplay a month, I’ve decided to do the same thing to give back to the writing community that has helped me so much.

You can find all the details by clicking on the Jake’s Critique Lab menu above or clicking here.

The Story Behind the Wedding Day Novel

It’s been an interesting challenge writing the Wedding Day novel, mainly due to how I splintered the short story into different works, all of which had positives and negatives. Putting those pieces together has been a bit frustrating, but—I think—ultimately going to lead to a compelling piece.

First some history. I wrote the short story “Wedding Day” for John Joseph Adams’ End is Nigh anthology. It was set in the world of my story “Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince,” which John had published in Lightspeed Magazine and was reprinted in The Years’ Best Science Fiction anthology. I received a lot of positive feedback about “Wedding Day,” but it kind of just faded into history, as most of my stories do.

A couple years later, Jeremy Elice, the head of television for Blumhouse, wanted to use the story for their Hulu TV series Into The Dark. It didn’t quite fit the vibe of the series, but the story resonated with him, and he wanted to produce it. When I met with Jeremy and Blumhouse producer Bea Sequeira, the enthusiasm was real. In fact, Bea took the story to their head of feature films, and Blumhouse decided to buy the story for a feature film instead. They even had writer/director Clea Duvall lined up.

The movie fell apart due to Clea getting a much bigger opportunity from Sony, but I was able to retain all the rights due to some luck in timing.

So I decided to write the feature screenplay myself.

The First Wedding Day Screenplay

That led to the first variation of “Wedding Day,” a very dense and not-very-good screenplay of the story. In the screenplay I added some characters and some visually focused in-scene elements that didn’t exist in the story, but I also crammed way too much into the screenplay. I sent it off to my friend, novelist and screenwriter Matt Mikalatos, who said he liked it, but it was too dense and plot-heavy for a screenplay—everything moved a bit too fast, and we never got a good sense of the characters. It’s important to note that Matt didn’t give me any guidance on what to change, just that what I wrote didn’t work. He was right.

So I ripped out the marriage equality portion of the story, which lightened the screenplay considerably. There was also the fact that marriage equality had become legal after my story was published, so it made sense to me, even though the core reason I wrote the story was to create a story where conservative white folks would feel bad for not supporting marriage equality.

The Second Wedding Day Screenplay

By the time I was done with the second “Wedding Day” screenplay, I had achieved a lot of what I wanted: It was much more character focused like the short story, and no longer included marriage equality. It was solely focused on the two leads getting married during an apocalypse. At the same time, I had begun a working relationship. with Jeremy Elice, who had left Blumhouse and was working as an independent producer in Hollywood.

I sent Jeremy the Wedding Day screenplay, and he thought it was okay but not great. Hey, I was getting better at writing screenplays, but I still wasn’t quite there yet. Anyway, Jeremy didn’t go into great detail on the flaws of the screenplay because we quickly moved on to a different project of developing a TV series.

When that TV series went nowhere, Jeremy talked about turning the world of Julian Prince and the story of “Wedding Day” into a TV series, rather than a feature film. That made a lot of sense to me, as the original short story has a lot going on, which I realized when the first screenplay failed badly.

I never got to the Wedding Day pilot beyond some rough outlines, but in hindsight I’m glad I didn’t write it—it was awful. I tried to turn “Wedding Day” into a Walking Dead type “escape the asteroid” thing, and it totally lost the soul of what made the original story special.

The First Wedding Day Novel

I had spent a good three years constantly working on features and television pilots, without writing any prose at all. I wasn’t sure I would ever get back to writing novels when I checked in with John Joseph Adams. At the time things were uncertain at his Houghton-Mifflin imprint (which would soon be closed), and I asked if maybe he’d want to use a Wedding Day novel as a trial run of doing his own publishing company.

Now John and I go back ten years, and I’d really do anything for him, so I wasn’t looking for any kind of big financial windfall. John loved the Julian Prince universe (and the story “Wedding Day”), and he had actually requested I write one of the Julian Prince novels mentioned in the”Biographical Fragments…” story. So this seemed like a fun win-win. I could get back into writing novels, and I’d potentially give him some asset to use however it would make the most sense.

In prepping to write the novel, I now had three pieces of source material: The short story and two feature screenplays. The piece that I felt most fit a novel (and didn’t have to deal with the reality of marriage equality being legal now) was the second screenplay. So I wrote the novel adapted from that. Yes, I wrote a novel adapted from a screenplay adapted from a short story. I think you can see where I’m going here.

I wrote the novel in present tense, which felt right, and it ended up being 48,000 words, way too short for a novel. Now the responsible thing would have been to do a complete rewrite and expansion, but I was lazy and not sure I was actually that enthusiastic about getting back into writing novels, so I sent it off to John with an apologetic, “It’s too short, but check it out, and I’ll revise it if you have notes.”

Because of things swirling around him at the time, John never had the chance to read the novel, thank goodness. Because it’s awful. Like really, really bad. I’m embarrassed he even has it in his possession.

A Short Interlude

So, with my tail between my legs and assuming I’d lost my ability to write prose, I went back to writing scripts. One of the scripts I wrote was a virtual reality thriller that was really tightly paced, and I felt would make a great thriller novel. So, with at least some semblance of excitement, I worked on the novel of that screenplay. I also focused more on the elements of prose that would make it more immersive, and over the span of writing and revising that novel, two things happened: I regained my confidence and love of writing prose, and I wrote a pretty good novel.

After writing that novel I went back and wrote a feature film screenplay, and that’s when I decided I was having too much fun doing both and I would alternate writing screenplays and novels, which is what I’m now doing. But, what would be the next novel to write? Well, part of me was still so annoyed with the original Wedding Day novel being so bad, that I wanted to tackle that. Also, I had a lot of raw material, patching that together would be easy, right? Well…

The Second Wedding Day Novel

So the first thing I decided to do was use the previous novel as my foundation for the new novel. Easy, right? I had nearly 50,000 words written, and all I’d have to do is rewrite and revise from that. So I sat down and with the short story and the second feature film screenplay nearby as a reference, I started working on it. I was about 10,000 words into it when I realized that it wasn’t resonating. Something was missing.

And that’s when I realized that all this time I had missed the soul of the original story. The foundational and emotional core of the story wasn’t that the two main characters wanted to get married and that these various barriers were in the way. The emotional core of the story was that they wanted to get married but can’t. What the asteroid did was allow them to get married, after all. So it was this stark hope/despair combination that was powerful. it turns out that the marriage equality plot that I had pulled from the second feature and first novel was the heart of the story. Oops.

So in my writing program, Scrivener, I added the original screenplay as a reference to use for moving forward with the second novel. This made things frustratingly complex, as I now had the following documents inside Scrivener that I was building from:

  • A short story
  • A feature film
  • A second feature film
  • A novel

And to make matters worse, the one I should have used as the foundational source—the first feature—was the one I now had to layer in because it didn’t exist in the current draft. This has not been a minor effort, as adding it changed practically the entire novel I had in front of me, and that meant hours and hours and hours of revision, which is what I’m doing now.

Re-thinking the First Screenplay

The first screenplay turned out to be the best narrative to use for the novelization of the short story. The pieces I added and the structure of the various plots all work well. But a great story can make a horrible screenplay, and Matt was right—this was a flawed screenplay. It simply was too much for a two hour film.

Yet those pieces are fantastic for a novel, and that was an important lesson I learned in this process—how to better recognize narrative structures that are best for various media like novels and films. It will also help me with adapting them if I so choose. My mistakes led me to recognizing how not to make them again.

So What’s Next

I’ll have the Wedding Day novel draft done by the end of the year, and it will be ready to send out to agents or publishers shortly after that. What will its future be? I don’t know. It may end up never seeing the light of day. It happens. But I do know that I learned more about writing through this process of writing a short story, two feature films, and two novels than I had in a long time.