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.

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.

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.

Read Our Santa Diaries Movie Script and Send Us Your Comments

Laura and I emailed our revised Santa Diaries movie script to Dara Marks. We’ll have our consultation in two weeks.

Over lunch today we wondered if people might want to read the script and comment on it. Why not, we thought. Email Laura at lambler@eastcoastflight.com and say you’d like to read the script. She’ll send you a pdf. We’d love to hear your comments, thoughts and suggestions.

Dancing Santa 300dpi

A heads up for those of you who were in the play, or who saw the play…the movie script is somewhat different. There are shifts in settings that are not possible on stage…establishing shots, cut to’s, fade to black and smash to black. The movie version is less sentimental than the play. The darling elves carrying presents across the stage are gone. But, we put in some zombies just to keep things current.

If you’re intrigued, email Laura and give us your comments.

Writing and Recognition

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing and recognition, and in the process have been reading a lot about author platforms and blogging. Some experts say you need to start blogging at least three years before you publish your book. Boy, did Laura and I get that one backwards. One consistent comment is that you need to make sure you know for whom you are writing the blog. Sounds simple. However, we write a lot of different kinds of things, YA novels, screenplays for movies and TV, and last year our first play which got produced. Who the heck is our audience?

poster with Laura Ambler and Mala Burt

Laura and I chose the name for this blog because we get so neurotic at times about what we’re doing. Since I (Mala) write the blog, I am always looking for things to write about and get confused about what the focus of the blog should be.

Do I blogg only about the Santa Diaries project? The play is over and we have another theater interested for this coming December.  Who knows what will happen with that. If I think about it too much, will that jinx it? If I send positive energy to the theatre, will that accelerate the process? Could I just shut down my brain?

In the meantime we are polishing the movie script we wrote from the play and have our second round consultation coming up mid-August with Dara Marks. And while we are waiting for that, we just finished the spec script we’re doing for Khris Baxter. Interestingly that script is the behind the scenes story of how a famous Broadway show got produced. Researching that was a revelation. I thought our experience with the Avalon Theatre was stressful, but apparently that’s par for the course.

Are we nuts to write scripts on spec? Part of me thinks, why not, I’m learning and becoming a better writer with each project…and the truth is nobody is calling us and offering us money. But another part of me thinks I could be writing that third Caribbean novel that’s been on the shelf for seven years, or Laura and I could go back to the draft of the second novel in the Big Skye Ranch series that we wrote three years ago.

Instead of moving forward with that, we got caught up in a spec script project for another producer. It went through multiple rewrites and when the producer thought it was good enough, she actually shopped it. After two years she reported that nobody seemed to be buying anything. In between we got side-tracked with some Amazon Studio projects. Last May, when the Avalon called about the Christmas play idea, we looked at each other and said, “why not?”

Maybe it’s time to be smarter about how we use our writing time – be more focused and planful. Would that be nearly as much fun? That is the real dilemma. Neither of us has to earn money doing this, so having a good time with our writing is a huge incentive. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be fantastic if we made money, but we write to satisfy other creative urges. Okay, that’s a rationalization. Would we turn down a hit movie, a best seller on Kindle, a bidding war by major publishers? Of course not!

Money is one thing. Recognition is another. I suppose one of the reasons The Santa Diaries was so satisfying was the recognition we got for doing it. We live in a small town and most people knew about the play. In fact, just about everybody in town was in it.

This all leaves me wondering…is there is a way to build in recognition for writing, even if the money remains elusive? Maybe it goes back to knowing who you write for. Frankly, I don’t think we’re going to figure that out any time soon.

Santa Diaries Update

The Play…

Yesterday afternoon I met Laura at her office and we had a Skype session with our manager, Margie Farmer. On Monday night Margie met with fifteen people from the Liberty Showcase Theatre group who are in discussion with us about producing The Santa Diaries this Christmas.

We were supposed to Skype with Margie on Tuesday, but couldn’t get through to her. I was worried. Turns out she was at the chiropractor’s office and today was Skyping from a recliner, her back on ice. When you Skype the video isn’t always synced with the audio, but being able to see the person you are talking to is so much better than a phone conversation.

Margie said she enjoyed meeting the theater team and we are all hoping it will work out. They are community theater all the way – sponsored by the Owings Mills Recreation and Parks Council of the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks.

This summer they performed Godspell.

Liberty showcase

Since our play is about the community created by community theater, Laura and I love the idea that this could be a true community production and collaboration.

For many years our manager, Margie Farmer, was the head of the Music Department at Baltimore’s St. Paul’s School for Girls. In that capacity she worked on and produced many plays. She has a wealth of experience that will help us. For example, she suggested  we prepare a Director’s Book which has the script, cast lists, music, staging suggestions, prop lists, and on and on. In future we can sell this to the people producing the play. She said she always bought the most complete Director’s Book available for any show she was doing and is going to send us examples.

After our Skype session Laura and I spent time on line where we found the same Marley dog costume the Avalon purchased for their production. This information will go in the Director’s Book. We liked the iconic look of the Dalmatian dog costume. It was big and bold on stage and the costume was only $125. Even a small theater can afford that.


The Movie…

Our movie script for The Santa Diaries has been revised using all the terrific suggestions we got from our script consultant Dara Marks during out four hour phone consultation last month. Next week it goes back to Dara again and on August 14th we have our final consultation. Then we spend more time tweaking. In the meantime Laura has been researching where and how to send the script. The Santa Diaries will live on.

The Energy Surge Tells You When You’ve Got It Right

When Laura and I had our phone consultation with Dara Marks about our Santa Diaries script there was a moment when we were discussing how the movie script would end. It had to do with that “it can’t get any worse” moment. We brainstormed briefly and when we said, “Will (the main character) actually goes back to Los Angeles” we felt a surge of energy that was palpable. Dara commented on the difference in our voices and asked us to pay attention to this in the future.

Two days ago when we were working towards the ending of the script we were struggling to figure out WHY Will would go back to LA. It had to be something momentous. More brainstorming. And then the energy surge and we knew his motivation.

Pay attention to your energy when you write. You’ll feel the difference when the story goes where it wants to go, not just where you are trying to push it.

Yesterday, when we were working, Laura remembered a movie she had seen called Doc Hollywood. She thought it had some parallels to the arc of our story. We searched on line for the script but couldn’t find it.

Doc Hollywood

Turns out the we could rent it for 24 hours on Amazon, so we watched it on my computer. We were able to track the places in the story where the first and second turning points happen – when transformation begins. We could tell that the page numbers in our script were right on target, especially at the climax – the last five pages.

It was helpful to see how the movie handled multiple characters who had just a few scenes and minimal dialogue. These characters were memorable because they were very different and their dialogue smart and funny. Doc Hollywood is not the world’s best movie, but we learned from watching it. Our movie script will be better because we took the time.

We then went to lunch at Town Dock in St. Michaels and made an outline of what we needed to change in our script. We came back to my house and slugged in the sequence. Today we’ll begin to flesh out those changes, and in the process we’ll keep ourselves open to creative energy surges, no matter where they come from.