How Writing a Screenplay with My Best Friend Led to Our First Story Publication

Wooden camping table on fire at night; photo by Claus Grünstäudl on Unsplash

What makes a boy grow up to become an arsonist? My first co-written short story, “sparkbirth,” is now published in Down & Out: The Magazine. Here are the opening lines:


When I turned eleven, Mom forgot to buy more birthday candles. So instead of eleven little sticks, I got two. She pretended 1 + 1 made 11, but I knew when I was getting the finger. Funny, she never forgot to buy scented candles that littered our apartment. And I never forgot what a lit candle does to a dark room when I should’ve been asleep.

Read more in Down & Out: The Magazine, Vol. 2, Issue 2

My efforts for “sparkbirth”:

  • ~1,800 words
  • 3 drafts
  • 1 co-author
  • 1 submission
  • no rejections or withdrawals before publication

I had an excellent time working with Rick Ollerman on my 2018 story “A Damn Fine Town.” After Rick published my story in Down & Out, it went on to be included in The Best American Mystery Stories 2019. He encouraged me to submit another story for Down & Out. This was the first piece I’ve written that fit the bill—it wasn’t purely literary or science fiction.

Read on about my process.

Draft 1 — Story Prequel to a Screenplay

In 2015, my middle school best friend Kyle Stout and I decided that it had been too long since we did a creative project together. We dove into the first draft of a screenplay we called Eyes on Fire, inspired by the Blue Foundation song. We had the most fun writing our antagonist, Roy Campina. (Bonus points if you recognize what palindrome inspired Roy’s name.)

In 2018, Kyle did a pass of draft 2 on his own while I was committed to other projects. I missed writing Roy. So in 2019, I started noodling on a childhood story about what made him into the arsonist in our film. As I helped Kyle on the story direction for future drafts of our screenplay, we brainstormed the story of Roy’s childhood. A minor camping scene cut from the screenplay bloomed again in Roy’s childhood in “sparkbirth.”

Draft 2 — Revising & Initial Critiques

I let draft 1 incubate a few months before returning to “sparkbirth.” The second draft shed about 200 words while retaining the same core plot of the first. Thanks to Mona Furca, from my One Story Hit Submit class, and Allison Landa and Sean Marciniak, from my old San Francisco critique group, for reviewing this draft.

Draft 3 — Reading at The Racket in San Francisco

On my last visit to San Francisco, Noah Sanders invited me to read at his reading series The Racket. The February theme was REVENGE with an awesome poster to boot:

My only story that fit the theme was “sparkbirth.” After a thorough round of polish—and another 100 words lighter—thanks to input from Kyle and Natalie Sage, draft 3 felt ready.

Good friends came out to The Racket to support me, but my favorite moments were watching the reactions of strangers in the crowd. Not only was the reading one of my strongest, it segued to another publication in The Racket’s new zine.

I was excited to have another story for Rick Ollerman and Down & Out: The Magazine. Two days after my reading, I submitted the story at my favorite local writing meetup, Shut Up & Write(!) in Berkeley.

Acceptance from Down & Out, May 2020

81-day response

Hey, Art,

I like the story. Take a look at what I sent back and let me know what you think. I would like to buy the story….

See ya,
Rick Ollerman
Editor, Down & Out: The Magazine

I promptly forward the email to my co-author Kyle and made a video call to watch his elated reaction to the news. Kyle’s done some excellent work in film, but “sparkbirth” would be his first publication. We reviewed Rick’s suggested edits together and promptly sent back our approval with only one counterpoint.

The Down & Out contract and payment hadn’t changed from the one I signed in 2018. I’m still cracking jokes about crime not paying.

Invigorated by the acceptance, Kyle and I spent the summer and September on a thoroughly reworked draft of our screenplay, Eyes on Fire. Roy was still a blast to write. And now we feel like we know him far better.

Read “sparkbirth” in Down & Out in print & ebook formats.

Your thoughtful reply...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.