Write on Wednesday: #Santa

Originally posted on September 22, 2014
#Santa tableread

Yesterday afternoon writers from our critique group, local actors, and friends joined us at Laura’s house for a table read of our #Santa screenplay. Laura’s terrace was decorated with a crab pot Christmas tree, and a small tree graced the table. The weather was perfect with a light breeze off the Miles River.

Our Working Writers Forum members had read some of the screenplay over the last few months, but for others at the table, it was their first exposure. It was wonderful to see the expressions on their faces as the story unfolded. We were interested in which lines got laughs, and which got sighs. After the reading was finished, we had more critiques about the pacing, the characters, and the unexpected ending for a Christmas movie.

I was particularly pleased by the comments of Mike, a local actor (one of the fabulous leads in the recent Easton production of Kiss of the Spider Woman), who thought the lead character in our script, Scarlett Cross, was strong, independent and feisty. Would Laura and I write any other kind?

After the reading, we feasted on burgers and dogs on the grill, drank some wine and had good conversation. Then we cut the cake!

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If you are interested in a quick laugh-out-loud read, you can get the #Santa: The Naughty List script on Amazon, formatted for easy reading on your Kindle. If you like it, we’d appreciate a great revue.

#Santa- The Naughty List

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.

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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.

Write on Wednesday: Damn Those Adverbs

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

― Mark Twain

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I suspect Twain was talking about adverbs – those pesky words that usually often end in ‘ly’.  It’s not that you can’t ever use adverbs, but it can be a mark of a lazy writer. Adverbs, which describe verbs, adjectives or other adverbs are easier to use than showing our readers what we want them to see.

I have been using an editing program called SmartEdit. I saw it reviewed on a writing blog and bought a single user license for around $70. I purchased it last year when I was reviewing my first two novels before sending them for proofing in anticipation of republishing. That project is still in the works, but on track.

SmartEdit was worth the investment. It ranked the adverbs in my writing by the number of times I used them. It allowed me to make corrections/changes on the spot. The program has eleven functions including repetitions, how many times a word or phrase is used, points out cliches and how often a sentence is started the same way. It helped me tighten my writing.

 

This came in today’s mail.

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I opened the envelope and let out a whoop. My new Dramatist Guild member card had arrived. It used to be flimsy cardboard but is now substantial black plastic. The photo makes it look brown, but it’s matt black.  Sophisticated, elegant, understated, almost a clone of a Visa Black Card.

Guild membership is a very big deal. You can only apply to become a member if you have had a play produced for a paying audience. I am exceedingly proud of my membership.

Sorry, Mark, sometimes you just have to use adverbs!

 

 

Write on Wednesday – How My Blog Began

This was my first blog post from April 25, 2012. Hard to believe I have been posting for six years. I’ve gotten more focused recently with a gardening focused post on Saturday and a writing post on Wednesday. Next up — Food on Friday. That may or may not happen. This is the season when writing and gardening vie for attention.

Laura Ambler & Mala Burt 9-19-12

April 25, 2012

Laura Ambler, my writing partner, and I were sitting in a Blogging workshop given by Mindie Burgoyne. Mindie said setting up a blog was super easy. Laura leaned over and whispered, “We should start a blog about our writing insecurities.”

“Oh, you mean like how I see life through a distorted body image lens?” I whispered back. (I used to be a clinical social worker so sometimes I talk like that.)

“You’re just neurotic about your body,” Laura said. “It has nothing to do with your writing.”

“It has everything to do with my writing. What if we sell one of our scripts and it gets made into a movie and we have to attend the Hollywood premier? I’d have to lose forty pounds before I could even look for a gown, ” I said.

“You’re just nuts,” Laura said. “But I bet there are other writers out there who are just as insecure as we are. Let’s start a blog called Does This Font Make Me Look Fat? It would be hilarious!”

Actually creating the blog has not been so hilarious. Mindie lied about the easy part. I spent an hour trying to figure out how to change the tag line. I’m still looking for a new headline font. Something puffy and fat. This font is way too skinny.

So, let’s hear from the neurotic, but talented writing community. Your fears, foibles and how you deal.

Write on Wednesday – March 28, 2018

Building Characters Using “Rooting Interests”

This interesting suggestion also came from Jeanne Adams workshop at the recent Bay to Ocean Writers Conference. She credited writer Donna MacMeans with the idea which is explained in a longer form on Donna’s website. By the way, Donna MacMeans writes “seductively, witty historical romance.”

On her website, Donna has a section for writers. On the page referenced by Jeanne Adams, Donna talks about Rooting Interests. (Since I’m a gardener I had to shift my perspective from propagation to writing.) I think by rooting Donna means that readers needs to “root for” a character. She describes the three rooting interests as empathy, humanistic traits, and admiration traits and says readers like characters with a mix from all three categories. The webpage referenced above gives lists of these characteristics.

The lists are a way to think about how to make your characters more interesting. Donna says you should have at least three “rooting interests” to make a character relatable. When readers relate, they turn the page. Check out Donna’s website for more information about this helpful writing technique.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Rearview Mirror

We had a postponed Christmas dinner last night with Laura and her family.

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It was lovely. We toasted with blue champagne, had oysters and shrimp from the grill, country ham on country biscuits and my excellent curried cheese ball while we stood and chatted in Laura’s kitchen.

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I don’t know where Laura was in this photo. On the far right hand side, I think, behind her husband in the Santa hat. Then we made room for tenderloin, potatoes and fresh asparagus sitting at the beautiful dining room table. Laura loves to make a festive table.

I made the desserts. Two Key lime pies at Laura’s request and an apple pie. And because I had eight egg whites left from making the Key lime pies, I made chocolate espresso meringues. I don’t have a pastry bag so dropped the whipped mixture from spoons. They were beautiful and delicious.

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I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I suppose I used to and they always seemed to be about losing weight. But 2017 was a year when I made a concious decision to step away from many volunteer activities. 2018 is going to be a significant birthday for me and I have a third novel to finish. It’s been marinating in my brain for ten years. That’s long enough. I’m getting close to the end of the first draft, but some of my characters seem intent on following roads I didn’t see, and I have to take the time to see what they want to do. They usually turn out to be right.

I suppose part of my decision in 2017 was because of volunteer fatigue. People come to assume that you will keep doing what you’ve always done. But I knew I was putting my own projects on hold and I didn’t want to do that anymore. The other thing is that I am making enjoyment a priority. If I raise my hand to volunteer, is it something I’ll enjoy doing? There are a lot of things in life that just have to be done, but I want to enjoy the things I choose to do.

Writing is one of those things. I find writing to often be an unconcious process. I get centered at my computer, sometimes using a dowsing crystal to help open my brain to the “movie” of my book. Then I write what I see. My friend, Helen, says I’m channeling and I won’t go quite that far. But I do enjoy the process!

In March of 2018 the Bay to Ocean Writing Conference will happen without me being part of the planning. For the past ten years I’ve been on the planning committee doing a variety of year-long tasks. By the time we’d get to conference day I was too tired to attend sessions. In 2018 I will enjoy attending.

Eastern Shore Writers Association is also going on without me. I’ll just be a paid member. Those almost daily hours spent keeping track of membership are now spent writing. I found some membership software to take over for me and the board agreed to the change. It was time that the organization moved in that direction and I gave them a push.

I stepped aside from my role as co-chair of Green Thumb, the St. Michaels Woman’s Club gardening interest group. It was time for new ideas, and there have been some splendid ones.

I did raise my hand to help at the St. Michaels Farmers Market last summer but it was just for an hour or so on Saturdays and an hour to send out a weekly market update. The market is undergoing a restructuring. I don’t know if I’ll raise my hand in 2018. I want to see what’s going to happen to the market before I volunteer.

And last year I was still involved in the organization of the St. Michaels Community Garden. A friend and I have been sharing the responsibilities for about five years. It’s time to pass the torch. We sent out an email asking for volunteers and got radio silence. The next step is to itemize what we do and send that out. Maybe if people see the discrete chunks, some will raise their hands. If people want a community garden it will survive.

I’ll stay connected with my Working Writers Forum. They’ve been reading what I’m working on for eleven years, and they always give me good advice.

Laura and I are hard at work for the Christmas play we’ve been commissioned to write for The Merlin Players in Faribault, Minnesota.  Collaborating with Laura is a priority for me. We both enjoy the process. It’s FUN!

It is now a little after 8 o’clock in the morning on the first day of 2018 and I’ve been up for several hours. I am at my desk and have just pulled up the file of my novel. I can’t wait to see where the story goes this morning.

I’m going to enjoy 2018. #enjoymylife

 

 

 

Christmas Parade Memories

“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!”

–Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

The Christmas’s I really remember are those from my childhood in South Bend, Indiana.  We moved there from Bryan, Texas when I was five. My father had left his teaching post at Texas A & M for a teaching position at Notre Dame. South Bend gave me my first experience of snow and all Christmas seasons ever after have needed snow. Even just the couple of inches we got last night transport me into the spirit of the season.

Young people today don’t realize that the Christmas season didn’t use to start until after Thanksgiving. And on Thanksgiving, in South Bend, it usually snowed. By the time we were finished with turkey and dressing, we were bundled up and took our sleds to the slopes of a nearby area the neighborhood kids called The Trails. It was where we played ball and hide and seek in the summer and built pirate forts year round. When it snowed, several small hills were perfect for our Radio Flyers. At least that’s the way I remember it. I can’t imagine it always snowed on Thanksgiving, but in my childhood recollections, it did. And that’s when the countdown to Christmas began.

It might not be correct that on Thanksgiving weekend there was a Christmas parade in downtown South Bend, but that’s the way I remember it.  Overnight Christmas displays appeared in store windows, and at our Swedish Lutheran church the children’s choir began practicing songs for the Christmas Eve service.  It was an eternal month of anticipation. Would Christmas never come?

Living in a small town brings back those memories. On Saturday we went to St. Michaels main street to watch the annual Christmas parade. Three small children next to us were bundled into blankets as they waited for the parade to begin. It was snowing and I remembered the wonder of being that age.

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What I don’t remember about past Christmas’s in the snow is my hands and feet turning to ice. On Saturday I was trying to take photos for my blog. My gloves got wet and by the time we left, my hands were so cold I couldn’t feel them.  I wasn’t feeling joyful, I was freezing.  That’s me with my own Santa.

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The parade had everything. Marching bands, dogs,  floats, fire trucks and llamas. And because we live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, there were quite a few boats.

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We waited for Tom Campi, St. Michaels perennial Santa Claus, who had a special bay built into his garage for his sleigh. Tom is the inspiration for the Christmas play Laura Ambler and I wrote. The year it premiered at the Avalon Theatre, Laura and I walked in the St. Michaels Christmas Parade with some of the cast. It wasn’t as cold given how people are dressed and it wasn’t snowing.

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Apparently Tom’s Santa Claus was the last float in Saturday’s parade but we were standing much further down the parade route and thought the parade had ended. Everyone left. Someone later told me there was a big gap in the parade before Santa’s float. I was worried that something had happened to Tom, but he was okay and spent the rest of the day with kids whispering Christmas wishes in his ear.

This is a photo from a previous year’s parade. This Santa is the real deal!

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After the parade, my husband and I went home to our own fire-side and thawed out.

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