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.

I’ll be picking one lucky person every month (at least) over on Twitter, so follow me over there. I’m actually not active on Twitter, but my social media/Mastodon account is linked there. So if you want to follow my real social media feed hit me at @jake@kerr.social. That said, I’m doing the critique drawing on Twitter due to all the writers over there.

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.

Charles Brackett on Forgotten Screenwriter Muriel Bolton

charles-brackett-diaries.jpg

I’m reading legendary screenwriter Charles Brackett’s diaries, and it’s a bit of a slog. Lots of repetitive entries about meetings in LA restaurants. But it’s worth it, because every so often you find a gem about some forgotten icon or a story that never made it into the public consciousness. One such story is his experience hearing about screenwriter Muriel Bolton. Brackett clearly respected her, and he was very difficult to impress. Here’s an excerpt:

She loved writing and just sat in her Chicago home turning out plays and novels, not knowing what to do with them, not bothering to inquire. One day she saw in the paper that the University of Chicago was offering a prize for a play so she went to her well-stocked shelf. She had ten by then and sent the first one she had written to the contest.

Some weeks later she learned it had won. Somebody at the university told her of other contests. She sent off three of her other plays, and they all won.

One was being performed in Santa Barbara, so she decided to run out for two days to catch two performances. Standing the lobby she heard two men speaking about the play so flatteringly that she thanked them. One of them, Sam Marx (father of the Marx brothers), asked her if she had an idea for a certain kind of picture. She said she’d think about it, and the next day appeared at his office with a 52-page treatment.

Sam thanked her, said he’d let her know in a few days. She said no, she had to go back to Chicago that night. He said he’d write. She said no, she’d read it to him. Against all his protests she did. Metro (MGM) pictures bought the treatment and put her on the screenplay.

One day Dick Holiday got word that she’d heard he was an agent and she’d been told she should have an agent. When he was at Metro, could he drop in?

He found her distressed. Kenneth MacKenna (director) had told her she was through with her assignment, he hadn’t another right now but she must regard Metro as “her home” and there was no need to discuss it with anyone else.

She was puzzled by that. No need to discuss what with whom? She’d asked a fellow writer she met in the hall who told her she should get an agent and mentioned Dick’s name.

Dick brought her to Paramount, where she awed everyone. Bill Dozier asked her if she had an idea for a Henry Aldrich story. Instantly, she gave him one beginning, middle, and end, all complete. Bill asked if she had another. Instantly she came out with a second.

She was hired and and has been there ever since…

Always Hustling

Final Greenlights Challenge Banner (273 x 273 px) (Banner (Landscape)) (1200 x 400 px)

The members of my writers group like to joke that I’m always hustling. They mean it in the way that I’m always looking for ways to move forward, and while that’s true, I always consider it just plain hard work combined with taking advantage of every opportunity. One recent example was the feature screenplay I just completed.

In a previous post I wrote about the Greenlights Challenge. Here is the story behind my taking part, which involves a fair amount of hustle–risk, hard work, and taking advantage of every opportunity.

A large company that provides opportunities for screenwriters partnered with a management company and production company for a screenwriting challenge: Write a low budget feature film that is limited to five characters and five locations. The upshot is that there was not just a cash prize but an intent to produce the film into an actual movie.

Now two things about this really resonated with me: One was that I just like challenging myself, and someone putting limits on what I can write makes me want to do it just to show that I can. The other is that the initial judging was based on the first ten pages of the screenplay.

I happened to have an 8 page short film that has been very well-received and was also very contained in terms of location and characters. It seemed like a great opportunity for me to turn into an entry for this challenge. So I structured the pages with an additional scene, and at ten pages I submitted it to the challenge.

There was only one problem: If they chose your screenplay as a top fifty semifinalist, you then had to send in a full screenplay for them to judge to find the winner. I obviously didn’t have a full screenplay. I submitted to the contest with only ten pages. To make matters worse, the announcements were a two months away, and I was already busy finishing a novel.

Sometimes you need to have confidence in yourself and take risks, and that’s what I did here. I sent in the ten pages knowing that I’d have to write 80 more in about six weeks. Thankfully, I both finished the novel and was able to finish the screenplay before the deadline.

I wasn’t selected as a semi-finalist for the contest, but that really doesn’t matter too much. I really like this screenplay, and now I can take it to other producers and companies. Which brings me back to my writers group and my reputation for always hustling. I submitted to a contest with a tight deadline with an unwritten screenplay. Is that hustle? Foolishness? Hard work? Taking advantage of opportunities?

I’m not really sure how to describe it, but it sure was a fun and thrilling experience.

Feature Screenplay Completed

Final Greenlights Challenge Banner (273 x 273 px) (Banner (Landscape)) (1200 x 400 px)

I put the finishing touches on my most recent feature screenplay. Entitled Not Hurt, it is what in the industry is called a contained movie. Contained means that it is limited in terms of characters and setting, leading to a much lower budget for the final film. In this case I wrote the screenplay specifically for the Roadmap Writers Greenlights Challenge. The rules for the challenge are no more than five characters, and no more than five locations.

As you can imagine, writing a feature screenplay with only five settings and five characters is not easy, but I found the challenge interesting and enjoyable. We’ll see how it does. Next up is writing my fictionalized account of Juan Carlos Garcia’s life, which will be based on the screenplay I have already written.

Well, Final Draft, you got me

Working on the Final Draft beat board to go over a series pilot, and I kept getting annoyed over things that you can find on Arcstudio Pro that are missing. So I went and looked, and a bunch of them are now available in the latest upgrade of Final Draft.

Now I actually like rewarding creative people who constantly work to improve, and I consider software development a creative exercise, so I don’t mind paying the upgrade fee, but I just wish that they’d roll out upgrades and features with a bit more regularity and embrace more robust support of story creation. By the way, Final Draft is not alone. It took Scrivener ages to upgrade their platform to do things that required using things like Onenote or corkboard apps to fill in the gaps.

Ultimately, it’s amusing in that everyone just wants the tool that works the way they work. That’s often an impossible challenge, so I’m thankful that my software is actually very close to that today.