Write on Wednesday: Hiring a Script Consultant

When Laura Ambler and I finished our movie script for The Santa Diaries, we knew we wanted to hire Dara Marks to help us polish it. Laura had used her in the past on a couple of screen plays. We consulted our checkbooks, took a deep breath and called Dara. We booked an appointment and sent her a copy of the script which was ultimately called Santa, Flawed.

Santa Flawed

Laura and I have used writing consultants in the past. We hired two different editors to look at Big Skye Ranch. It was a better book because of the money we spent and went on to be a quarter finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest. It won international awards at the London and Paris Book Festivals and an IPPY award.

A week ago we had our four hour telephone conference call with Dara. We were nervous. What would her reaction to the script be?  It was a somewhat fitful start because the email outline she sent us got hijacked by some virus scrubber on her computer which decided to scrub at precisely the moment she was emailing us. And her dogs went bananas when the UPS man came calling, but after a few minutes of sorting things out, we got to work.

By the end we were exhausted, but exhilarated. Dara told us our script was “highly marketable, it’s got everything, a really good piece, the writing is terrific, there is a strong structure in the script.”  She really said all those things. I took notes! …and then she told us the plot needed strengthening and we could be clearer about the theme. She said the first 25 pages needed to be totally rewritten. Well, that’s what we were paying her for – brutal honesty.

The theme thing is tricky. It’s the universal denominator and the theme drives the characters, the dialog, the setting. Theme should underscore everything in the script. It’s a little hard to wrap your head around because in the past our writing has been more character or plot driven. That’s not to say there wasn’t an underlying theme, but we didn’t spend time really trying to get that down to the bones.

In this telephone consultation we spent at least half an hour sorting out the theme. Turns out the theme is more elemental than Christmas, finding your inner Santa, nostalgia for small town life, or reconnecting with a lost love. The theme of The Santa Diaries script is “we’re all in this together.” We had not known that! Of course, the flip side of that theme is “we are alone” and that is Will’s fatal flaw. If he doesn’t change, he will be alone.

Will is isolated because he has sold out to Hollywood. He has lots of people around him, but they all want a piece of him. His business manager, Josh, whom Will calls his best friend, is a suck-up. Even his girlfriend has her own career agenda. If Will doesn’t find his authentic self (as opposed to his inner Santa) he will never be happy or fulfilled.

There were a couple of times when Dara pointed out that we were still thinking play, not movie. She was right. In the play we couldn’t have Sandy in the hospital with a broken leg. Heck, we couldn’t even get him staged in a bed in traction which is the way we wrote the original script. Sandy in a wheel chair with his leg propped up on a stool had to do. In the movie script he gets to be in a hospital.

Dara suggested that we start with a clean slate for the rewrite and we did. We are now 22 pages into the first 25 (Act 1 up to the First Turning Point). After that it will be more tweaking than a total rewrite as we make sure any changes in the beginning are reflected in rest of the script. All the characters are slightly different than they were in the original play and the script we sent Dara. We hope that gives them more depth.

Will Hawes is a little softer, more redeemable. His father, Sandy, is no longer the paragon of virtue. We’ve roughed up his edges a bit. Brandeee is smarter and shrewder. We haven’t decided if Brandeee and Will are engaged anymore. It always bothered me that Will broke up with Brandeee and moved on to Jessica so quickly.

The point is, do these changes drive the theme to its logical conclusion? We hope to have that figured out in the next month. Then the script will go back to Dara for notes. After that it should be ready to pitch. We think/hope the investment in using a script consultant will be well worth the cost.

Note: This blog was first published June 14, 2013. Gosh, almost five years ago. The script was eventually titled Santa, Flawed. No one bought it, but you can buy it on Amazon formatted for Kindle for $3.99. Using a script consultant was a great learning experience. In reading this post again, I am struck by the importance of theme. Whatever kind of fiction you are writing, figuring out your theme is paramount.

At Christmas We Believe

I have a Santa decoration that lives in my kitchen year round.

At Christmas I Believe

The wine cork ornament was a gift from the mother of the little boy who played Timmy in The Santa Diaries premier in Easton, Maryland in 2012. For Christmas last year Laura gave me the Believe ornament which I immediately hung on Santa’s hand. We believed that our movie script would get bought in 2014. Didn’t happen, but we continue to believe that it will happen at some point. Einstein told us time is fluid… in Hollywood.

When we went to Faribault, MN to see the third production of The Santa Diaries I came home with several additions to hang on my Santa.

Santa I Believe for blog

The red ball was a handmade ornament by Stephanie Weiss who played Martha in the Merlin Players production. The Santa riding a reindeer hanging below the red ball was a gift from the local thrift shop. Laura and I were perusing their wares and the gal at the counter was so thrilled to meet us she asked us each to choose an ornament to take home as a remembrance. The big Santa hanging on the right was in the large basket of Minnesota goodies that the Merlin Players Board of Directors had put in our room at The Loft.

The only problem now is that it is getting difficult to open the cupboard to the right of the Santa. It’s where the plates and bowls are stored so I am in it several times a day.

Any inconvenience is worth it, however, as I see these reminders every day and remember the joy of each production of our play. It’s a way of celebrating every day of the year.

As Josh Shankman says in our play, “Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Feliz Navidad, Happy Kwanza or whatever politically correct holiday you people celebrate. It’s all good!”

Laura and I send our wishes for joy, peace and love in this very special season of the year. Re: selling a movie script…there’s always next year. At Christmas we believe.

Sometimes Life Wins

I know you are supposed to write everyday, but life gets in the way and sometimes life wins.

My garden was on a St. Michaels Woman’s Club garden tour on Friday and I was spending a lot of time weeding, edging, mulching – generally being more obsessive than usual. The day before the tour we had torrential rains which beat up a lot of flowers. But Friday was gorgeous and people loved my garden. This spring gardening has sometimes trumped writing.

backyard garden tour day

Laura runs a business (East Coast Flight Services) and she’s been busy with DOD contracts. A friend of hers has a very ill husband and Laura has been spending time at the hospital in Baltimore. Sometimes friendship should trump writing. It also trumped Laura’s fear of driving over the Bay Bridge.

bay bridge

So Laura and I have been writing in bits and snatches. An hour here and there. Despite everything we are 75 pages into the new Christmas TV movie script. That’s in the last three weeks. This one seems to be writing itself. We’ll write until the end and then go back and fix what needs fixing.

Work on Multiple Projects

Laura and I always have multiple projects going. Some are writing related, some business, and some personal.

We continue to work on the movie script for The Santa Diaries. It will be retitled at some point because Santa’s diary has been eliminated. The play was more about the play the community theater was producing. The movie is more about the characters. It’s a positive shift.

When we finished the most recent draft Laura said we would have been better off starting the movie script from scratch rather than trying to adapt the play. I think she’s right. We are taking a few days off before reading the entire script again to see if scenes are in the right place and what minor tweaks need to be made. It helps to have a little distance and read fresh. I think we are almost there.

Yesterday I met with the group of people who pull together the speakers for the next Bay to Ocean Writers Conference on February 28, 2015. Save the date!

We started by deciding which presenters we’d like to invite back next year. Some of our faculty come back year after year with new topics and we invite them back because they get such good reviews on our evaluations. (This year we had an 80% return on our evaluations.) One of the questions is, “what topics and/or speakers would you like to see next year?”

We had a list of all the presenters and their topics for the last six years and that and the evaluations guided our decisions.  By the end of an hour and a half we had a list of 30 speakers to be invited and topics we want them to present. My task now, as Speaker Liaison. is to invite them.

I came home from that meeting and spent the rest of the afternoon in my garden. Spring has finally arrived and gardening is one of the things I do for my soul. My psychologist husband says I like gardening because it is low conflict. He’s probably right. The  only conflict I had yesterday afternoon was with weeds.

Running to Keep Up

Laura had the brilliant idea of putting an ad for The Santa Diaries in Spotlight, the newsletter published by the American Association of Community Theatre. She designed the color ad and got it in just under the deadline. Darlene DeLorenzo who coordinates AACT Vendor/Festival Services got us a great location in the newsletter.

The newsletter hit people’s mailboxes by the end of February, a few days earlier than we expected. We were barely ready with the tweaks we’d been making to the script when the first emails came in requesting a perusal script. If any of these requests are interested in purchasing the script package we have to be ready; we’re still running, but almost there.

One of the best parts of collaboration is that we get things done. This weekend Laura was in her office putting together information to go with the script. She’d added some photos from both productions. She emailed me that she needed a photo of one of the Christmas parades we’d walked in carrying a Santa Diaries banner. I had one, actually knew where to find it, and emailed it to her. I knew where it was because I’d opened a Pinterest account for Santa Diaries and made a board of the photographs that I had for each production. If you have photos, feel free to add them to the boards.

Pinterest page

We’ll have the sales package together in the next two days and then we can go back to working on The Santa Diaries movie script. We had to set that aside to make sure we were ready when somebody wants to buy the play script. We’ve got our running shoes on.

Santa Diaries’ Playbook

We thought you might be interested in seeing what a revision page of the movie script we’re working on looks like. Maybe it somehow made its way into the Denver Bronco’s playbook and resulted in their spectacular defeat.

script notations

Figuring out how to make your work better is the hard part of writing…and football.

Writing and Knitting

These are the twelve children’s sweaters I knit last year. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to get them boxed up and sent off to World Vision’s Knit for Kids program. Last year people knitted and crocheted 53,728 sweaters, hats and blankets which were given to children living in poverty. These will go in the 2014 count.

IMG_2234

When Laura and I are working on a script, she is the one who is typing it into her computer. Several years ago I decided I could knit while we were working.

These sweaters are very simple and require no counting of rows or stitches.  Essentially just a back and a front that have to be sewn together. My problem is that I don’t like the sewing together part so I tend to put the pieces aside and go on to the next sweater. Eventually I had such a pile I had to force myself to stop knitting and start sewing. Then the sweaters lived in my office for months until I finally packed them up a few days after Christmas and trekked to the post office. Only then did I allow myself to cast on a new sweater.

sweater new

Last week we started rewriting The Santa Diaries script. The original script had a male as the primary character because that’s the way the play was written. Not one of those Christmas movies we watched over the holidays had a male as the lead. A couple had a male and a female as dual main characters. If none of the movies that are being sold and made have a male lead, do we really want to try to change that format? So our rewrite started at the very beginning with new scenes and a couple of new characters. And I started knitting again. I predict that there will be several sweaters to be sewn together before we finish this script rewrite.

Christmas Movies as Research

At Christmas We Believe

Laura and I believe that 2014 is the year The Santa Diaries will be made into a Christmas movie.

At Christmas I Believe

Twenty-one Christmas Movies

In the last month I watched twenty-one Christmas movies in the name of research. Ten of the movies were new in 2013, four were from 2012 and seven were from years 2003 – 2009. There are still three movies recorded that I haven’t watched, but I just don’t know if I’m up for it.

Hallmark Channel and LifeTime channel show Christmas movies all December.  I know there were more that I didn’t get recorded and Laura watched a bunch at her house, too. We watched many of them together. She’d bring lunch and assume the position on the love seat in my family room. I loved having them recorded because I could fast forward through the commercials.

Laura watching Christmas movies 2

Movie Watching as Research

This research has a purpose.  We are finally getting back to our screenplay of The Santa Diaries, using the stage script as the story arc. We wanted to know was there anything out there like our story (not really) and we needed to know what was getting made. Three quarters of the way through the line-up I had to watch Bad Santa as a Christmas movie mind-cleanser. (Bad Santa 2 is scheduled for production in 2014.)

We didn’t watch all those movies for life lessons, but from a writing standpoint entertainment blogger Melissa Locker has summarized many of the themes, conflicts, and turning points in many of these movies.

20 Valuable Holiday Lessons Learned from Watching Lifetime Christmas Movies

1. Never EVER fire Santa Claus.

2. If you accept a bottle of champagne from a stranger, be aware that it just might send you back in time to help your younger self make better choices.

3. The Grinch isn’t necessarily a green monster.

4. Sometimes a head injury can lead you to your heart’s true desire.

5. Christmas is the perfect time to re-evaluate all your life.

6. If you ever wanted to rekindle an old flame, Christmas is definitely the time to do it.

7. It never hurts to have straight talking friends/guardian angels/in-laws.

8. If you’ve got an incredible voice and want to work on your acting chops, Lifetime holiday movies are the place to do it.

9. Never plan a Christmas wedding. It’s bound to be a disaster.

10. Love after death is possible if you believe in worm holes

11. Be suspicious of old white men with beards named Nick who play Santa Claus at community functions.

12. It’s never too late to look up an old flame.

13. When in doubt, sing Christmas carols.

14. If you don’t believe in Santa Claus, he will track you down.

15. Always, always go home for Christmas.

16. Love is everywhere.

17. You can’t chase happiness, you have to find it where you are.

18. Christmas dreams can come true.

19. If someone gives you a pep talk, be sure to really listen

20. Finally, there’s always a happy ending at Christmas.

What We Watched

In case you have an inquiring mind and really want to know…here are the movies I watched along with the log lines.

2013 Movies: There were twelve new movies for 2013. Somehow I missed two of them.

Christmas in the City – A woman tries to bring the Christmas spirit back to a department store. (I couldn’t resist using this photo from the movie. There can never be too many gratuitous almost naked Santas. That’s Ashanti in the middle.)

naked santas

Hats Off to Christmas – Mia does not like Nick’s unreliable ways until he helps her disabled son.

Christmas on the Bayou – A man tries to rekindle a romance with an executive who’s spending the holidays with her mother.

Let It Snow – An executive with plans to update a rustic lodge has a change of heart when she falls in love.

The Christmas Spirit – Charlotte’s spirit tries to change a developer’s mind and stop development in her hometown.

Dear Secret Santa  – A woman in mourning receives a surprising Christmas card from a secret admirer.

Finding Christmas – Sean and Owen swap homes and open their hearts to two women.

Window Wonderland – Two store employees compete for the window dressing job and find they have a lot in common.

A Country Christmas Story – A country singer reunites with her father while appearing in a competition hosted by Dolly Parton.

Christmas Belle – The sudden arrival of a longtime suitor complicates a woman’s budding relationship with a client.

2012 Movies

Christmas Song – Romance blossoms between two music teachers who compete for the same job.

A Bride for Christmas  – A man bets his friends that he can convince a woman to marry him by Christmas.

Christmas with Holly – The owner of a toy store falls in love with a man who cared for his orphaned niece.

It’s Christmas, Carol – The ghost of her former boss shows a ruthless CEO her past, present and future.

Previous Years

Fallen Angel – Reluctantly returning to his ohometown, a man reconnects with a young woman he knew as a child.

Bad Santa – A con man/thief masquerades as a department store Santa.

When Angels Come to Town – A mistake places a holiday angel’s job in jeopardy.

A Boyfriend for Christmas –A woman waits 20 years for a holiday wish to come true.

Crazy for Christmas – A limo driver tries to help a wealthy man find his long-lost daughter on Christmas Eve.

A Christmas Wedding – A real estate developer embarks on a wild cross country odyssey to get home in time for her wedding.

12 Men of Christmas – A public relations executive uses her media savy to stir excitement in a small Montana town.

What’s Next for Us?

We pull out The Santa Diaries screenplay and read it again. (We’ve been away from it for a couple of months.) Perhaps that marination time will prove useful. It’s already been through three major rewrites. Script doctor Dara Marks had us remove the magical elements from the script. We’re now thinking we might want to put some of that back. We’ll look again at the arc of the story and the arc of each of the main characters. Sometimes a few tweaks in the dialogue can enhance a backstory.

We’ve discovered that we are never quite satisfied with our scripts, but at some point you have to say it’s the best we can do for now and move forward. When we get there we’ll send it off to be read by some industry colleagues. There is an implicit timeline for buying scripts and getting them into production.

One of the things we noticed about the movies we watched was that some of them seemed to be filmed in spring and summer in California. I could tell from the vegetation. The most egregious production error was the film that was supposed to be set in fall and winter Connecticut and had people driving through California brush. Come on, people! Did you think no one would notice? Set the damn movie in California.

Laura and I will keep working to make our dream come true – 2014 will be the year The Santa Diaries screenplay will be turned into a movie.

Another Santa Diaries Production Ends

Goodbye to Liberty Showcase Theatre

Below is the cast and crew of The LIberty Showcase Theatre’s production of The Santa Diaries. It was a wonderful show. Laura and I hope they were as happy with the production as we were.

cast-and-crew-for-web-2

Hiccups

In this production there were a number of hiccups. One was replacing the person who was to play Josh two weeks before the show opened. Although this is a male role, the person who already knew most of the lines was the female music director who heroically stepped in to fill Josh’s size twelves. Josh became JoJo and there was some hurried rewriting of the final scene in which Will calls Brandeee in the middle of the night and Josh answers. Did we want JoJo to be in Brandeee’s bedroom in the middle of the night? This was a family show, after all. Even having Josh in her bedroom was a bit of a stretch, but lines were finessed and everything worked out just fine.

The snow/sleet/rain hiccup on the show’s last weekend was more problematic. The Liberty Theatre website home page was amended with the announcement: 12/14/2013 – It may be snowing outside, but the show must go on!! The Santa diaries will still be performed tonight at Glyndon United Methodist Church! Come out and get in the holiday spirit!!

People got the message and the cast performed to a full house. Last year at the Avalon Theatre the last show was on December 23. That was a burden on the cast and crew as it was so close to Christmas. The Liberty Showcase Theatre’s production ended on December 15 which gave people a little time to breathe before the last reindeer dash to the 25th. Laura was in the audience with her husband for the last performance. I was under the weather and couldn’t make it.

Liberty Showcase Thanks Us

At the last show Lori Chapman, the Assistant Director, gave Laura two wrapped packages. She brought them to me a few days later and we opened them together. They were framed photos of the cast and crew of the this production. We were thrilled. On the first Sunday performance Laura and I were given one of the posters signed by everyone. Mine will go on my Santa Diaries wall! We have felt very thanked and appreciated by Liberty Showcase Theatre. The are such a professional group. We’d love to work with them again.

Post Production

We need to know how the play could be tweaked to make it better. What could be done to make it easier to stage? Liberty had a cast of about 25 as opposed to the Avalon’s cast of 65+. Most of those additional people were children which is its own special challenge, but when writing for community theatre it’s good if the cast number has some flexibility. You want to be able to showcase especially talented people and need to plan for that. Laura and I will have a post production meeting with the Director, the Assistant Director and the Producer after the holidays so that we can make useful changes to the script and notes that would help with direction and staging.

Until then we send thanks and excellent Holiday Wishes to all the cast and crew.

What’s Next?

For now Laura and I are doing research on made-for-TV Christmas movies. We’ve watched eight so far and have twelve more in the line-up. We wanted to do this before we made the final tweaks on The Santa Diaries movie script. Is this a great job, or what?

Dara Marks – the Second Consultation

Yesterday Laura and I had our second three and a half hour phone consultation with script consultant, Dara Marks. The first consultation two months ago dealt with thematic and story arc issues. This time around we were dealing with more concrete issues of dialogue, character development (or lack thereof), where to tighten a scene, story inconsistencies, etc. In other words, the small tweaks that will make the script ready to go out.

We sat in Laura’s office at her company, East Coast Flight Services. Dara had sent us a digital copy of her marked up script and we could see that on Laura’s computer as we talked on speaker phone. Some changes were in the script itself and some were on electronic sticky notes. The notes were not done in track changes and, for that, we were grateful. Track changes has its advantages, but sometimes it’s impossible to get rid of pesky tracking ghosts.

Laura and I had print-outs of the script we had sent Dara and we could both make notes during the session on our copies. Between us we will be able to fill in all the gaps. And Dara sends us a link to the tapes of the sessions so we can go back and listen if we have a question. At one point Dara said, “I’m getting excited all over again about this story.” We’ll hang on to that.

As with all critiquing, we are the final decision makers as to what is changed, but a fresh eye on the script is invaluable. A couple of times Dara commented that some teen dialogue didn’t seem current. We’ll have to pull in some teens to help us with that.

One suggestion from Dara was that every time we work we spend the first half hour or so reading out loud the ten pages we’d worked on the day before. We probably don’t do the out loud thing as much as we should, but will work on that. Our manager, Margie Farmer is going to arrange for a table read, and that will be helpful as well.

These are exhausting sessions. Dara is on the west coast so three hours earlier. We started yesterday at 3:30pm EST and finished at 7pm – wrung out and hungry. Earlier in the day I’d advised my husband to order a pizza because I wasn’t sure when I would be home. When I got home at 7:30 and he wanted to hear all about the session, I told him he’d have to wait until I’d had a glass of wine.