I’m an Idiot or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Novella

Im a fucking idiot.”

Thats what I would always say whenever anyone suggested I try to write prose instead of a screenplay. For as long as I can remember, Ive wanted to be a writer, and I wrote my first full-length feature when I was 12. That one was garbage, but in the past 24 years Ive written about 30 more.

As a teen, I became infatuated with Chuck Palahniuk and wrote him a few letters. He would eventually respond and even beaded me a necklace that said To Warren Wagner From Chucky P.” I wasnt the only person to get such a necklace from him, but I convinced myself this was the sign I needed to write a novel — my friend Chucky P. believed in me! For the record, Chucky P.” was not my friend, and I never wrote more than a single chapter of any novel. My ideas always seemed to translate better into screenplays, and this grew into a sort of complex, that novels were for real” writers and screenplays were for jackasses like me.

In the summer of 2020, at the height of the lockdown, I was in a pretty dark place. Five people I cared about had passed away — mostly from suicide or drug overdoses, not to mention that whole pandemic thing bringing everyones mood down a few pegs. While I always wrote comedies, I was ready to try something really outside my wheelhouse. There was this idea that I couldnt get out of my head; I kept thinking about zombie stories, and how they parallel the experiences of gay men in the 80s and 90s. I once met a man who had lost literally every single person he knew to HIV/AIDS. I kept thinking about how, if a zombie apocalypse happened, these gay men wouldnt really flinch. Been there, done that. They had been trained for the end of the world because, for a lot of them, their world had already ended.

This idea turned into my screenplay: The Only Safe Place Left is the Dark. I wrote the first draft in less than a month and it felt like I was on autopilot because the story really wrote itself. Im 36, and wasnt alive or putting my penis in people during the 80s, but had always felt a genuine connection to the gay culture of that period. Pretty much all my potential role models had died during that time, leaving my gay ass to grow up in the Chicago suburbs in the 90s with no real queer culture to influence me.

If a zombie apocalypse happened, these gay men wouldn’t really flinch. Been there, done that. They had been trained for the end of the world because, for a lot of them, their world had already ended.

The script went on to be a finalist in the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition, and while it didnt win, I became good friends with one of the judges, Álvaro Rodríguez; or, as he insists I call him, "Hollywood Daddy." He suggested I turn the script into a novella because the industry is currently obsessed with purchasing established IP. A producer would show more interest in a screenplay based on published work than they might in an original spec script. Alvaro sent me the submission call from Ghoulish Books looking for novellas for their 2023 line up.

I remember having a lot of anxiety; the whole real writers” vs fucking idiots” debate started coming alive in my head again. I got out my Chucky P. necklace, and it sat on my desk as I tried to figure out what the hell I was doing. What surprised me was it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. I had already done most of the heavy lifting, working through all the characters and plot points, getting notes from readers and doing more drafts. I had a detailed outline from which to start and I think that made the process easier for me. If I had to start a novella from scratch—and focus on all those aspects as well—I probably wouldve never finished the damn thing.

I had already been living with these characters for about two years by this point, and I cared about them more than I ever had for any of my other characters. Going page by page, screenplay to prose, I began to actually have fun adding little details or backstory that didnt fit into a screenplay, but made perfect sense in a novella.

Theres a moment early in the screenplay, where the hero Quinton has had his cabin in the woods overcome by marauders and things are looking really grim. While most of the men are outside by the fire, Quinton is tied up in the cabin with the youngest member guarding him, he will certainly be killed soon, but the men are trying to figure out where Quinton is hiding the food.

In the screenplay, Quinton fake cries to such an extreme that the kid lets him go because hes so uncomfortable with Quintons tears. In the novella, Quinton thinks back to a story his now deceased partner Frankie told him when they were 18. Frankie was carrying a large amount of cash to give to a landlord and some men were following him on the dirty streets of 1980s New York City. Knowing he couldnt fight this group or even a single one, Frankie instead pissed his pants and started crying. Quinton fell in love with Frankie over his comfort in who he was and how he used his femininity and perceived weakness as a gay man as a weapon. So Quinton pisses his pants and lets the tears flow. As the urine pools toward his captor, this kid sees Quinton as pathetic and pities him, eventually letting him go, only to be killed by Quinton shortly after.

Its little moments like this that really made it a rewarding process for me to translate my own unproduced work into a new medium. I really didnt change much of anything in this example, but I could add more flavour and backstory to this character early on in the novella to paint a picture of Quintons loss. After rethinking and reworking aspects of the screenplay into a new medium, I feel if the script ever lands on a producers desk, it will be stronger thanks to this process I went through.

If I were to write another novella down the road, I’d probably write it into a screenplay first and then translate it to prose after. My ideas probably still translate better to screenplays, but trying something new and honestly frightening has opened a lot of doors for me both creatively and professionally. Im still a jackass and a fucking idiot, but will soon be able to change my business cards to published jackass and fucking idiot.”

Get The Only Safe Place Left is the Dark directly from Ghoulish Books

Warren Wagner

Column by Warren Wagner

At 16, Warren Wagner realized he was gay at a memorial service for Ronald Reagan and it was all downhill from there. Wagner’s screenwriting has placed in multiple contests, most notably as a finalist in the Austin Film Festival screenplay competition. Whether it’s comedy, drama, or horror, Wagner’s queer perspective makes the material feel fresh and unique. He currently lives in Toronto, Ontario with his dog Kaufman.

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