A holiday Q & A with Heather Hughes & Kate Wharton

Heather Hughes and Kate Wharton have been writing together for over 12 years and worked with Disney, Hallmark, and Lifetime, as well as a plethora of indie filmmakers.

They are both graduates of the TheFilmSchool in Seattle and studied with the late, great Blake Snyder.

They are represented by The Nethercott Agency in Los Angeles.

What was the last thing you read or watched you thought was incredibly well-
written?

Heather: I thought The Queen’s Gambit was extremely well-written. The characters were very real and they avoided all tropes. I really enjoyed the mother and that character defied all my expectations. We also just rewatched Breaking Bad, which is about as far away from Hallmark movies as you can get, but genius
writing.

Follow-up: a Christmas movie, TV or feature, you think is well-written.

Heather: We detail the seven sub-genres of Hallmark movies in our book and we’re huge fans of the “fake boyfriend” sub-genre, which we call “The Christmas Fake Out” or “Rent-a-Boyfriend” and thought The Mistletoe Promise (2016) was quite well done.

We also like Mary Christmas, which has one of the most satisfying and unexpected endings of any Hallmark movie ever. It’s not The Usual Suspects, but for these movies it was a shocker!

Kate: Hallmark’s The Angel Tree is very nicely done. The plot setup involves good Hallmark-appropriate conflict and there are a couple nice plot twists. I think it’s the best of this year’s 40 new Hallmark movies.

How did you get your starts in the industry, and how did you get into writing Christmas TV movies?  

A producer requested our screenplay, which had done well in a contest.  He routinely asks the directors of the contest to send him the winning scripts.  When we started writing together, we were advised that some screenwriting contests were a way to get noticed. That proved to be true for us. We consider Austin, the Nicholl Fellowship, PAGE, Big Break and Kairos to be some of the best contests.

You refer to these films as Cozy Christmas Romances, or CCRs. Is romance a necessary component of the story template? 

Romance is a requirement for this genre. When we first started writing these movies we assumed that any wholesome content would appeal to these networks. We spent a lot of time pitching heartwarming stories that routinely got turned down. It wasn’t until we’d been at it awhile that we realized that these scripts had to be about—to steal from the late great Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat—two people who are better together than apart AND they needed to celebrate Christmas not just take place at Christmas. Or, as one producer told us, “It needs to be about Christmas, not just set at Christmas.”

There is an abundance of CCRs on several channels and streaming services, with new ones coming out each year. To what do you attribute the popularity of the CCR? 

There are several reasons they are so popular. These movies are predictable, safe, and uncontroversial. It’s a great escape! We like to call them the mac-and-cheese of movies. They’re familiar, warm and comforting. You won’t have nightmares after watching them and you can watch them with your 92-year-old grandma and your six-year-old niece. 

No one will be offended by them and they won’t trigger anyone. When we were researching the book, we actually found that a lot of military vets enjoy watching them because they can relax knowing that they won’t encounter any disturbing content.

What was your inspiration behind your book IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE HALLMARK! WRITING A MADE-FOR-TV CHRISTMAS MOVIE?

We learned these rules in dribs and drabs while we were working with and pitching to companies that make films for Hallmark. It would have been helpful to us if someone had written down these guidelines. For instance: we wrote a whole spec script featuring a couple in their 50s thinking it would be perfect for them. After we submitted it, we learned the protagonists needed to be 28 – yes, they actually said 28. We wish the production company had told us that at the start!

How much research went into putting the book together? How many Christmas TV movies did you end up watching?

If you ask our husbands they would say thousands, but it was really more like several dozen. We also did extensive research with a ton of screenwriters, agents and producers. Some were eager to share, but wanted anonymity, especially when talking about money. After doing more and more interviews we began to see specific rules emerging. There are always exceptions to these rules, and we aren’t out to stifle creativity. But when we compiled our findings, we began to see them as a roadmap for writers who would like to write in this genre.

In the book, you list the 7 main types of CCRs. Obviously, that’s not all they’re limited to, but a majority tend to fall into one of those categories. If a writer comes up with something totally different from any of these but could still be considered a CCR, does that hurt their chances of getting it noticed?

We came up with the seven after watching many movies and reading all of the loglines. We’re sure there are more subgenres or ways to put these movies into buckets. We’d love to hear from your readers who identify others!

If a writer comes up with a new and original subgenre it could be great! But the companies seem to be buying similar content. If the idea strays too far from the conventions of the world (a Christmas town full of zombies, for example), it might hurt your chances of selling to Hallmark. Other networks might love it, though! 

Hallmark has honed its brand to the point where they know the 85 million viewers who tune in during November and December and what those viewers expect.

A few chapters involve the CCR beat sheet, along with filling in the blanks about the story. Some might say that there’s a certain predictability to these stories, so what advice would you give to writers striving to come up with something original?

We’ve noticed that many writers struggle with plot. They start writing with a lot of momentum, and then get stuck around page 50 because they don’t know what’s going to happen. The beat sheet is a fill-in-the-blank exercise to teach the writer a structure that is common to all these movies. If you’re great at plot without a beat sheet, then you probably won’t need this roadmap. 

These movies are intentionally predictable, but within that framework there is a lot of room for originality. If you want to write CCR movies, your original ideas will probably center on an unusual hero, and a unique romantic combination. For example: you could find a new reason the female character needs to leave the big city, an unusual job for the male character, or a unique Christmas activity to include in your montage.

You also go into “what to do after the script’s done”, i.e. queries, meetings, etc., and reference several non-professional writers who sold their scripts. While not every script is guaranteed to sell, is this something you would recommend for aspiring writers?

When you write a script, the goal is to get someone to buy it and make it into a movie—unless you want to film it yourself, which is a great option for aspiring filmmakers. After writing your script, the second hardest thing to do is to get people to read it. Our process of research and queries is a good system for getting people to read your script, regardless of your genre.

We think this is a good place for new writers who like these movies to break in simply because of the sheer number of CCRs made each year. This year Hallmark made 40 new movies, Lifetime made 30 and UPtv made 5. There is never a guarantee that a script will be optioned, but there are many companies looking for content.

The two of you are about more than just writing Christmas TV movies. How can people find out more, as well as order the book?

We love teaching and writing together. Readers can contact us through our website writingtherom.com or on our Facebook page We Heart Rom Coms.  You can buy our book on Amazon, and we’d love to hear any thoughts your readers might have about it. Feel free to reach out!

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

We both adore pecan pie with a ton of lightly sweetened whipped cream! No wonder we’re such great writing partners!

If your pie preferences run a bit more savory, we also recommend Costco chicken pot pies. They’re amazing—flaky crust, delicious chunks of chicken, and a light creamy sauce. Find them in the back, by the rotisserie chickens—It’s a cost effective, delicious meal.

Q & A with Bob Saenz

BobNHS

TNIWIT cover1a

Bob Saenz is a screenwriter, actor and author. His produced works include Hallmark’s Help for the Holidays, Rescuing Madison, Sweet Surrender, On the Twelfth Day of Christmas, Sound of Christmas, The Right Girl, Christmas in Love,  the theatrical Church People, and the black comedy thriller Extracurricular Activities. He does rewrites and polishes on film and TV projects for Producers and Production Companies. His screenwriting book THAT’S NOT THE WAY IT WORKS was released in 2019.

His acting roles include a 6-year run recurring character run on the TV show Nash Bridges, Hallmark’s Valley of Light, Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack, David Fincher’s Zodiac, Finn Taylor’s Unleashed, Church People, and The Village Barbershop, among dozens of others. He was a radio DJ on KYCY-FM in San Francisco, played the last 10 years in the 60’s rock band The BSides, and has done voicework on video games, documentaries, and commercials.

Editor’s Note – I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Bob personally for a few years. His insight and advice has proven invaluable to helping me become a better writer, both in terms of craft and career.

What’s the last thing you read or watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

A spec script by a writer named Rene Gutteridge called Where the Wind Comes. Maybe the best spec I’ve ever read. Just spectacular. Was emotionally affected by it. Stunning.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book That’s Not The Way It Works?

Two things. One, I’ve been teaching and speaking at writers’ conferences all over the country the last few years and everyone who was there speaking had a book, except me. I complained to my wife about it and she said, “What’s stopping you from writing one?” So I did.

Two, there’s not a single one I could find out there that spoke plainly about the business of being a screenwriter.

With so many screenwriting books out there, what is it about yours that makes it unique?

The tone. It’s conversational. My experience. It’s filled with what I have learned actually succeeding at it. With more than a dozen films produced, I used all that experience to write about what I know. And, I talk first hand about the business of screenwriting. What the writer needs to know about that part of it, which is just as important as writing a script, and how to approach that.

While the first half of the book is about the actual writing of a script, the second half covers the not-as-discussed “what happens AFTER the script is written (i.e. the business aspects)”. What advice would you give to writers who want to learn more about this?

As I say in the book – find out that it’s not easy, it’s not instant gratification, and you have to work at it. Hard. You can succeed; it just takes time and a business plan. I think the book helps with that. Realizing that writing a script is only the beginning of your journey is a BIG eye-opener for most writers who dream of doing this.

Yes, the script needs to be something people would want to choose to see and has to be good, but that’s not the end of it.

The book has a great chapter about dealing with rejection. What are some key takeaways and advice you’d offer to writers?

The main takeaway is that rejection isn’t personal. Producers and reps don’t care enough about you to make it personal. It’s ALL about the content. Whether they love your script and not or can use it at that time or not. There are hundreds of reasons to reject a script… you have zero control and it’s not personal. Even the most famous screenwriters get rejected on a regular basis. It’s an everyday occurrence. You have to learn to live with it or it’ll destroy you.

Another important issue writers tend to overlook is the need to effectively market themselves in addition to their script. While the chapter about what NOT to do is entertaining (and a bit eye-opening), what are your suggestions about what writers SHOULD DO?

Use the avenues that producers and reps have opened to the writer. Querying. Something that is an art unto itself and something I delve into pretty deeply in the book with a whole section on query letters.

Networking. There’s a huge section in the book about this.  The dos and don’ts. One thing to always remember about networking: It’s about building relationships, not using people. People who can help you absolutely know the difference and will run away from you if you try and use them.

Contests. The Nicholl and Austin are the ones who will pretty much always get you reads in LA if you final or win them. I’ve had friends get their films made doing well in both of these. Neither are easy to do well in because of the sheer number of entries, but they can pay off.

The last way is through referrals, especially to get a rep. If you know a producer or director or star who will refer you… but again, this goes back to networking and having the great scripts to back it up.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The most important thing is a great story. It also has to be lean and mean. Brevity and white space are your friend. You aren’t writing a novel. You want just enough in there to have the reader see the film in their head and to be able to fill in what they want to as they read, engaging them in the story that way. Again, a big section in the book about this.

I will say this: Producers are ONLY looking for STORY. Screenwriters can never forget this. Don’t over-complicate the read. You can write a complex story without making it hard to read. Oh… spelling and grammar are important, too.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

The main one? Choosing the wrong story to tell. Telling a story no one wants to see. Whether it’s not sustainable, not interesting, ridiculous, something that’s been done a thousand times before, something you can see every day in TV reruns… there are a million reasons NOT to write this kind of story. You need to go through a pretty thorough checklist (in the book) and make sure it’s a viable story before you do the time consuming hard work it takes to write a good script. Why do all that hard work on a story that’ll be Dead On Arrival?

Another big mistake I see all the time is writers not doing their research about the topics they choose to write about. Writing things that would never ever happen. You have to ground your script in the reality of the subject matter before you take liberties with it.

What are some key writing guidelines every writer should know?

-AIS – Putting your Ass In the Seat. You have to be disciplined. Producers expect you to be disciplined. Good to start doing that at the beginning.

-Never give up. This is so hard to do, you’ll get discouraged on a regular basis. It’s a lot easier to give up than to stick with it because it takes years to succeed in. Notice I didn’t say it CAN take years, I said it TAKES YEARS, because in every case, it does. You aren’t going to be the exception.

-Don’t cheat on research. Take the time to actually learn about the things you’re writing about. Go out and learn them. A big section in the book about this.

-Again…. for emphasis…. choose a story that is viable for producers and audiences. Don’t just pull something out of the air and write it.

-You’re not writing a novel. Leave everything that isn’t directly hooked to your story or plot points out of your script. One rule of thumb? You know all those people listed in the credits of a film? It’s your job to do everything they don’t. You aren’t a costume designer or a casting agent or set designer…. or… any of them. They don’t ask to write the story, you don’t try and do their job.

You’ve managed to establish and maintain a writing career while living outside of Los Angeles. What are some of the pros and cons about it you’ve experienced?

Pros: I don’t live all that far away (400 miles) and can be at any meeting on a day’s notice, so it’s been fine for me. I am in LA multiple times a year, sometimes for more than a week at a time. It’s expensive… but also my choice. There’s a section is the book about moving to LA and when to pull the trigger and do it if you need to.

Con: I’m not in LA networking all the time. Out of sight, out of mind is a real thing. Not worth moving there for me, though.

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Peach. Nothing else comes close.

peach pie

A slight course correction

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For the most part, my involvement with this year’s big contests is more or less over. Top 15 percent for Nicholl – not too bad. Total whiff for PAGE again, which makes me 0 for 4. Not expecting much out of Austin.

Results from some of the smaller contests are about the same. Semifinalist in one, quarterfinalist in another, and a few not-at-alls.

A bit on the disappointing side, but all is not lost. On the contrary. It’s actually helped force me into making a pretty important decision.

After much self-evaluating, I’ve opted to drastically cut back on contests for next year and ongoing. Most likely, I’ll keep it limited to just the big three mentioned above. And even entering those isn’t a certainty. They’re the ones that hold the most potential for getting the ball rolling on a career – not guaranteed, of course – but the most potential.

No delusions of grandeur. I’ll continue to take my chances and see how things go. If I do well, great. If not, no big deal.

And just for the hell of it, maybe one or two smaller ones every once in a while. Might as well have a little fun.

Moving forward, the focus now shifts to improving my writing skills and making my material better. Reading a lot of professional scripts, especially those in the same genres as the ones I’m writing, shows me my level of expertise isn’t where I need it to be.

If I want to make this work, I need to get better. No other way to put it.

It’ll be tough, but I’ve come this far and the final objective continues to feel a little bit closer with each new draft.

I’m fortunate enough to know a lot of savvy writers, along with more than a few quality consultants, so getting constructive feedback and guidance can only work to my advantage.

As a colleague once told me, “It’s not about contests. It’s about Hollywood.” Sure, contests are fun and all (especially when you win, or at least place highly), but I’d rather focus on writing quality material and getting them in the hands of people who can actually make something happen with them. Representation. Assignments. Rewrites. A sale. I’m not picky.

My long-term goal has always been to become a working writer, and I think I can still do it. It may not happen as soon as I’d like, but hopefully by really buckling down and pushing myself to keep at it, I’ll have a better shot at turning that goal from a dream into a reality.

Wish me luck.

The hazardous journey down Contest Road

Flat tire in formal attire
A savvy driver is prepared, no matter what they encounter

I’ve lost count of how many screenwriting contests there are. A whole lot, I believe. But out of all of them, only a handful actually mean anything in terms of helping build one’s career.

The Nicholl. Austin. PAGE. There are others of high prominence, but these three are the ones that really matter.

This isn’t to slight the smaller or lesser-known contests, but someone who’s a finalist in the Nicholl probably has a better shot at being able to use that to their advantage than, say, the Greater Cedar Rapids Screenplay Contest (not that such a thing actually exists, but you get the idea).

As evidenced on my My Scripts page, I’ve done moderately well in some of the bigs, but have also totally fizzled out. I’ve also been fortunate to have done well in some of the second-tier competitions. Every year yields different results.

Sometimes the first thoughts that race through your head when you read that email from the contest organizer that includes the word “Regretfully” somewhere near the beginning makes you think “Does this mean my writing is lousy?”

No. It means it didn’t click/connect with the reader or readers from that contest. A lot of the contests give you at least two reads. Sometimes I’ll receive praise from the first reader, only to have the second one not like it, thereby stopping it in its tracks. Or both readers like it, but not enough to advance it to the next round. Nothing I can do about it. C’est la vie, and better luck next year.

And even if you win, or at least place highly, in a high-profile contest, that’s no guarantee to getting work. I know a Nicholl finalist who had zero traction with their script, as opposed to the PAGE winner who is now super-busy with assigments.

I know writers who’ve never won a contest, and they got work. I know writers who’ve never entered a contest at all, and they’ve gotten work. How? Because the writing wasn’t just good; it was really, really good. That’s what it comes down to. That and somebody liked it enough to want to do something with it or with the writer.

A few years ago, I was a lot more likely to enter almost any contest. And there weren’t even as many then as there are now. Time and experience has shown me that, yes, it’s a nice validation to get that certificate from that small contest you’d never heard of before you entered, but how much did it actually do to help you get your career going?

A lot of contests offer “industry exposure” to the winners, and you do get that – to a point, and it’s probably a safe bet not to the extent you imagine. Your script might get checked out by maybe a handful of reps and production companies, and even then there’s still no guarantee anybody will be interested. I’m speaking from experience on this one.

Contests are just one of the ways in. As someone who’s in it for the long haul, I’ll continue to try my luck with the big ones while also exploring other avenues. Whatever it takes.

And no matter what contest you may have entered this year, I wish you the best of luck. Except for the ones I did. Then all bets are off and it’s every person for themselves.

Looking back, planning ahead

champagne-toast
Auld Lang Syne and all that

Well, 2016 is pretty much in the books. I hope it was a good year for you, writing-wise.

Mine was okay.

Among the more noteworthy events:

-I completed the first draft for 3 separate scripts. 2 comedies, 1 sci-fi.

-One of those comedies was written, edited and rewritten/revised over 10 days.

-My western made it to the top 15 percent in the Nicholl and was one of the top 100 in the Emerging Screenwriters competition, but did not advance with PAGE or Austin.

-Several read requests from managers and production companies. Unfortunately, everybody passed with the commonly-used “Just not what I’m looking for.”

-Built up my network of talented writers located all over the world, along with numerous getting-to-know-you in-person chats with those in the immediate geographic vicinity.

-Organized and hosted a very successful and enjoyable networking event for screenwriters. In a deli. A block from the Pacific Ocean.

-Took part in script swaps for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 scripts.

Not a bad compilation.

As for 2017, the usual objectives:

-Along with the aforementioned rewrites, complete the first draft for at least 2 or 3 new scripts.

-Continue the quest for representation. Already a few potentials on the horizon.

-Based on how my western did in the Big 3 contests, I’m torn between seeking professional feedback for one more polish, or just leaving it as is and trying again next year.

-Continue providing notes and doing script swaps.

-Look into hosting another networking event, probably at a bigger venue.

-More networking and establishing connections with more talented writers.

-More getting-to-know-you in-person chats.

-Watch more movies.

-Read more scripts

-Stay confident. Be patient. Not lose hope, even on the shittiest of days.

-Keep trying to make this work. Eyes on the prize.

And a final note to all you loyal readers – thanks for coming along on this rollercoaster ride of a journey. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing about it.

All the best from me to you for a very happy and successful 2017. Fingers remain, as always, firmly crossed that this is The Year It Happens.