Done in Fifteen Years:
The Long Road to Collaboration
Whenever a substantial creative endeavor (novel writing, film directing, music composition, etc.,) is accomplished by two or more people working together to achieve a single voice, the first things people want to know is: How did you come together to write the novel? And how did you do it?
In this Special to THE BIG THRILL, Grant Jerkins and Jan Thomas—co-authors of the police-sniper thriller, DONE IN ONE—take a look back at the unlikely circumstances that brought them together to write this “high-powered, bone-rattler of a novel.”
* * *
Grant Jerkins: In the late 90s, I was working primarily as a screenwriter. I’d written five spec scripts and managed to get a few of them optioned—one to a well-regarded director/producer/writer who had a critically-praised hit under his belt. He was the real deal, a Hollywood player, so naturally, I was excited at the opportunity.
I received no money for the option, and there were a lot of ups and downs with funding, casting, and rewriting my original script. During this process, the director told me about another screenplay he’d optioned—he loved it, but wanted to do a complete rewrite. He didn’t have the time, so he asked me to take a swing at it.
I was excited and proud that he wanted me to take this on, even though I was paid in promises and glitter. I was desperate for a break, a chance to make my mark, so I rewrote the script, putting everything I had into it. I thought it turned out quite well, preserving the best aspects of the original while injecting my own brand of storytelling.
The director—who shall remain nameless—responded with mild enthusiasm, then told me he was going to take my rewrite and do his own. About six weeks later, he sent me one-hundred-twenty pages of the most God-awful crap I’d ever read in my life. He’d taken what I thought was a sharp, insightful, exciting story, and ruined it. I was heartbroken.
That screenplay was DONE IN ONE (then called Greenlight), written by Jan Thomas. Unsurprisingly, the project never got off the ground, and the director and I went our separate ways.
But the story haunted me. I couldn’t turn my back on it like the director had. So, a couple years later, I decided to track Jan down. The director had never told her about the rewrites on her script. When I contacted her, I explained who I was and how I had come to know her work, and asked if she would be interested in seeing what I (a total stranger with no writing credits) had done to her story?
For the first of several times, Jan shocked me. She said, “yes, send it.” So I did. Her response floored me—she loved the changes. Jan felt that the new version should have both our names on it—equal credit—so she re-registered it with the WGA, and began sending it out.
While she was doing that, I got lucky and had a novel published by Penguin/Berkley. I followed that up with two more novels, making a small name for myself as a crime fiction writer. One day I called Jan and said, “why don’t we write DONE IN ONE as a novel?” She said, “yes, definitely.” I told her I’d need to write it by myself, because I didn’t think I was capable of collaboration. She said, “no way, Jose.” Smart girl. And— lucky boy! Jan brought so much to the table as a collaborator.
But how would we collaborate? Passing it back and forth didn’t work for either of us. It ended up that I wrote the first half in a big gulp. But I was in constant communication with Jan. In the meantime, she was writing out these long passages of memories and observations and insights and plot ideas and character studies. Thousands and thousands of words. I used our script as the starting point, but also wove in (often word-for-word) these amazing things Jan was coming up with. It was overwhelming at times, like juggling flaming batons. But I knew what she was giving me was the heart and soul of our book. So I worked hard to get it all in there, to move our story forward, and make it worthwhile.
I passed the manuscript to Jan, and she wrote a big chunk that dealt with our sniper and his wife, before handing it back to me. I wove this into the novel, finished the book, and sort of brought everything together into a cohesive whole—again, with Jan’s constant input.
There were times we disagreed, miscommunicated, didn’t see eye-to-eye, and generally wanted to tear each other’s throats out, but that’s what happens when two people are passionate about something. Still, disagreement was rare, and we are both delighted with the novel.
So, how did we collaborate? There was no one method. I did much of the construction, the heavy lifting, but I was using Jan’s raw materials. Yet, at the same time, I brought some of my own raw materials to the table, and Jan did some construction. The story doesn’t exist without her. The whole thing originated with her, and to a large degree, that’s her life on those pages. I’m proud to have been a part of it.
Jan Thomas: “There I was, minding my own business…” (Which is the way all great stories should start.)
Like Grant, I’d had several spec scripts in different genres with different levels of success. I had been a weekly humor columnist but my heart was always in screenwriting.
DONE IN ONE was a deeply personal story, and when it made its way to the significant (nameless) player Grant mentioned, it was very exciting to think that this story might actually go somewhere. So often in Hollywood things can look set, and then they fall apart at the last moment for the strangest of reasons.
This situation seemed quite promising, since the director was inspired by the work. But somewhere along the way, he ended up doing a rewrite of the script. What he sent back to me must have been the same version Grant saw, because it was awful. Not just bad story-telling—he didn’t grasp the subject matter at all. My agent tried to tell me the screen credit would get me more work, but I kept reminding her that I couldn’t let this story go out the way he’d re-written it. She persisted until I finally said, “Okay, I’ll tell you what. I’ll take all of my personal feelings out of it. Let me just address the technical and tactical mistakes he’s made in this version.” And then I said, “But if this version goes to the screen, I don’t want my name on it.” This was a story, after all, based on my life with my husband, a S.W.A.T. sniper.
It was astounding how much the director got wrong, considering all of the technical and tactical stuff was written correctly in the script he originally fell in love with. Apparently, when he saw my notes, he became so disillusioned that he backed out.
Shortly after, I received a call from my agent saying that another writer wanted permission to take a shot at the script. I didn’t know Grant or about his previous rewrites. I told her to have him give me a call. By this time, I had come to believe that I was perhaps too close to the story and was letting my need for every detail to be correct hold me back.
Grant called me a short time later. I think my actual words were, “Knock yourself out.” And he did. And then he knocked me out. When I got the script back, two things were apparent: He “got” the material, and, he infused it with that little extra “oomph” it needed to be a more commercial success. He got me out of the minutia, and back into storytelling. And he added a plot twist so dynamic I called him the second I read it. I hadn’t even finished reading the whole script, and I still had to call, because I tend to get excited like a kid at Christmas when I read great writing.
I recognized that he took it where I alone could not. I declared the work to be a 50/50 collaboration, put his name on the script, and re-registered it in both of our names. He had done some great work and I wasn’t about to let that go unrewarded.
Our paths split for a little while (okay, more than a decade) with him gaining great success as a novelist, while I continued plugging away at screenwriting. But we never really lost touch. No matter how much time went by, we could talk on the phone or e-mail and it would be as though we’d never been apart. Whenever we got fresh nibbles on DONE ON ONE, I’d give him a head’s up.
Then, my Hollywood agent retired, leaving me without representation. It was a big setback for gaining access to most of the bigger players. It was about this time that Grant asked if I’d consider trying to write DONE IN ONE as a novel. The fact that I didn’t know how to write a novel didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. He said we’d use the screenplay as a template and pass it back and forth. While he was doing some initial writing, I was trying to learn all I could about the rules of novel writing, which are vastly different from screenplay writing.
I studied and then I wrote. Abstract notes to start. Then, I started having some decent paragraphs take shape. Then, free-flowing ideas that morphed into whole pages. It was electrifying. Grant and I fell into our own system of writing, editing, and fine-tuning together.
It has been an amazing meshing of two minds. We pushed each other (in the best possible way), but when that push came to shove, we were united in our passion to tell this story the same way. We thrived on each other. Perhaps more importantly, we respected each other, and we both fought for what we thought was right. If we couldn’t agree, then it wasn’t right for the story. When we were stumped or debating and talked on the phone, somehow, we’d always hit upon the answer. And we both always knew the right thing the second we heard it.
It has been an honor to work with Grant. He or I alone could not have produced this novel. But Grant and I together couldn’t fail to produce this novel. The road to collaboration was a long one, but I am so glad the story brought us together. In many ways we were meant to do this.
Grant Jerkins is the author of THE NINTH STEP and AT THE END OF THE ROAD. Winner of the Writers Network Screenplay and Fiction Competition (the Fade In Awards), his first novel, A VERY SIMPLE CRIME, was selected from well over two-thousand entries to take the top honors, and has since been optioned for film.
Grant lives with his wife and son in the Atlanta area.
Jan Thomas was a firefighter/medic for 14 years until an injury cut short her career. Having loved creative writing for most of her life, she became an award winning weekly humor columnist for The Mountain Democrat in California from 1990 to 2005. She has also spent the last 15 years working as a role-player at a Police Academy and as a “professional bad guy” for numerous other law enforcement agencies in training exercises. She has written several screenplays and “Done In One” is her first novel. Jan lives in Northern California with her husband, a retired S.W.A.T. Sniper and their two Saint Bernards.
Interested in becoming a member of the International Thriller Writers? ITW offers Active and Associate memberships.
Latest posts by ITW (see all)
- September 24 – 30: “How do writers invite readers into the conspiracy?” - September 23, 2018
- September 17 – 23: “Is the theater standard of a three-act play valid for thriller novels?” - September 16, 2018
- September 3 – 9: “What can thriller writers learn from the comics industry?” - September 2, 2018