Have a Hallmark Train Wreck Christmas!

Returning to writing screenplays is a significant adjustment after writing nothing but prose for the past four years. Reading quality screenplays and watching good movies with an eye toward dialog, character, and plot has helped me get back on track. On the other hand, there’s value in coming at it from the other direction.

It’s a truism that we should learn from our mistakes. To disagree with that adage would be foolhardy, but there’s a better way: Learn from others’ mistakes. That way, you can avoid some of those mistakes in the first place and still come out fully informed. That’s the rationale behind watching bad movies. And when you talk about bad movies, this is the best time of year for them.

No, I’m not talking about wonderful holiday films such as “Miracle on 34th Street” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”. I’m talking about a relatively recently created genre: The Hallmark Christmas romance movie.* There is a long list of immutable truths about these denizens of the holiday airwaves:

  1. Though there are dozens of them, all are minor variants of about three distinct plots. (Lest we sit too high on our horse, the same can be said of most superhero movies.)
  2. There is an ensemble of (usually) Canadian actors who take turns playing the leads.
  3. There’s a cute kid… who can’t act.
  4. Each features at least one washed-up sitcom star in a minor role.
  5. Although there is lots of talk about faith, belief, and fate, there is exactly zero reference to any of the spiritual aspects of the season. None. Nada. Zilch. Ever.
  6. If any of the protagonists spent any time being honest with each other, the movie would end after 15 minutes because all the misunderstandings would be resolved.
  7. The Kiss, which is always delayed until the final two minutes of the movie and is preceded by multiple near misses, is 100% antiseptic, and is performed with less passion than your average oil change.
  8. As with a train wreck, however, I can’t keep my eyes off them.

Re that last item, I confess it’s true. I watch a dozen or more every year. My expectations, which couldn’t be any lower, are rarely met, never mind exceeded.

Why do I put myself through this? They have all the suspense of a game of tic-tac-toe, the ending of which, like the Hallmark movies, is set in stone from the first move. There is almost never a new plot.

(Example template: Successful woman comes from the “Big City” in an attempt to convert a beloved local establishment into an impersonal commercial development, until some colorful local characters resist her, causing her to give up not only the project, but her home and career to marry her childhood sweetheart, an amiable fellow in a flannel shirt with a permanent three day growth of facial hair with whom she’d had a misunderstanding after the Big Game in high school, but not before a last minute appearance by the woman’s fiancé, who arrives from said “Big City” wearing a Brooks Brothers suit worth more than the other guy’s pickup truck and almost puts the kibosh on the burgeoning romance.)

Three reasons I watch these things almost against my will:

  1. Most of them are graphic lessons in how not to write a screenplay.
  2. I’m an incurable romantic and hope springs eternal (some of the time) that one of them will actually be… well, romantic.
  3. Occasionally, very rarely, one will rise above the dreck and actually be pretty good. In those few cases, I don’t have to waste another half hour of my life bemoaning the fact that I just wasted an hour and a half of my life.

The truly embarrassing reason I watch them, one I hesitate to admit, is that I want to write one.

Yes, it’s true! I would love to write the movie that rises above the miasma of the typical holiday romance porn. In fact, I’m doing it now. In truth, I’m rewriting one of my general romantic comedies to align it with the genre.

Yes, I’m a Christmas mercenary. So be it. At least I’m a romantic mercenary. ❤


* Other networks have noticed the popularity of these movies and have joined Hallmark in this orgy of quasi-romantic, quasi-Christmas tales. Ion and Lifetime are cranking them out almost as plentifully, often with better quality.

Our Christmas Letter

[This is a virtual repeat of a post I made to LITL (my other blog) a couple years ago. Time constraints force me to steal from myself. I hope I don’t get caught by me.]

afp2Well, it’s been a whole year since our last Christmas letter.  It seems like no more than twelve months.  How time flies!  We hope your holiday season is filled with great memories, lots of fruitcakes, and few incidents with law enforcement.

Although we haven’t seen many of you in the past year or even the past decade, we just knew you’d want to hear all about our family.  It’s been a busy year, which is why we haven’t visited or written or called any of you.

Once you read what we’ve been up to, you’ll understand.  We sure do!

Billy is our big boy, having just turned 46.  We love having him back at home after his dishonorable discharge from the Merchant Marines last May.  His telemarketing job selling pharmaceuticals has been going fine.  He works so hard, making calls into the wee hours.  Don’t be surprised if you hear from him some night!

Bobby, now 45, is doing great!  His parole officer has nothing but good things to say about him.  The ankle bracelet – which he wears around his neck just for fun (what a hoot!) – is due to come off any month now, depending on the next hearing.  Another good sign: He’s thinking of starting his own religion!  He’s always been the most spiritual member of the clan.

Bonny (our surprise!) is 8 already.  Hard to believe it’s been eight years since she came into this world in the middle of a monster truck rally. (In one of life’s fun coincidences, that’s where she was conceived!) She’s really sprouted since last year.  At 5’10”, she’s able to play youth hockey with the older kids.  All those “vitamins” (supplied by Billy) have really paid off.  She’s also taking belly dancing lessons and is active in local politics.  As you can tell, she keeps us on our toes!

Dad is still unemployed after the fish and bait shop went belly-up six years ago, but he keeps himself plenty busy in the garage with his little projects.  We still aren’t sure what he’s up to out there but as long as he’s occupied, we’re all happy.  Also, as long as the wind is blowing in the right direction, we don’t get the smells or smoke in the house as much.  The great thing is that the most interesting people are always coming by to visit him.  One gentleman with an eye patch and kerchief (Bonny calls him our pirate friend!) drops in daily, carrying the same worn valise.  He must be a very good friend.

Mom passes her time keeping house, playing cards with her friends, and adding to her collection of vodka bottles.  It’s amazing the variety and quantity of bottles out there and she’s always looking for more!

Have a great Holiday Season.  Never forget the reason we celebrate: so we can fill our homes with junk that will break down by this time next year.  Then we can start it all over again!  Woohoo!

All our love…

To tell or not tell

snoopyTo become a Writer is arguably the most common hidden dream of the average person (or beagle) on the street or in the cubicle. So when someone actually takes the plunge and decides to try to fulfill that long held dream, there are a number of critical questions to ask, among them…

  • What should I write about?
  • How do I get an agent?
  • Do I have what it takes?
  • Should I quit my day job?

And one that can be very perplexing for the neophyte scribe:

  • When people ask what I do, should I say I’m a writer?

True, anyone who puts figurative pen to paper can claim the title.  By definition, a writer is one who writes. End of story, right?

Not so fast. Something about calling myself a writer feels arrogant. Faulkner, Austen, Dickens, Seuss – now, those are writers. How can I possibly claim membership in such an elite club?

Okay, let’s reason this out, weigh the pros and cons, mull over the upside and downside. (I’ve just said the same thing three times. Would Faulkner have done that? I submit to you that he would not. Seuss, maybe.)

Consider the advantages. Everyone you inform becomes part of your network and a potential advocate. You never know who’s a friend of a guy who once dated a literary agent’s cousin. Boom! You’ve got an in with no more effort than telling the truth. Less concrete but maybe even more significant is the way claiming to be a writer builds your resolve, your commitment, your sense of being a writer. What we call others – including ourselves – goes a long way in determining how they view themselves. I’ve given this concept some thought and even wrote about it in a post on my other blog. (Interest piqued? Check it out here.)

As you might expect, given the structure of this article, we also need to examine the drawbacks of so bold a declaration. First of all, it might not feel like a fit unless you’re somehow getting recognized for your efforts, either in the form of remuneration or publishing. There’s nothing like a little legal tender to make one feel worthy of one’s title. That’s a lie of course, but it’s how the world works and how we too often feel.

The greater negative from my perspective as a person who shamelessly wears the scribe’s moniker, is that anyone and everyone then feels they have the right, indeed the responsibility, to feed you their brilliant ideas for stories. This is an excellent and surprisingly easy way to lose friends and alienate relatives.

You’re a writer? You should write about my grandmother.

I’ve always thought the lives of trash collectors would make a great story.

The most dangerous unwanted sources, unfortunately, have been my Christian friends. They tend to give me not their ideas, but God’s. “God told me you should write this story!” This immediately conjures up several questions: How do you say no to God? Why didn’t I hear God tell me to write that story? Why didn’t he tell you to write it?

Example: Someone once approached me and told me God had given her an idea for a Christmas play. Of course, He wanted me to write it. I won’t divulge the entire plot, though I can tell you that the story wouldn’t have taken more than ten minutes of stage time. Suffice it to say that the denouement of the play was nearly everyone in the cast frying in Hell. Wouldn’t that enliven your Christmas spirit?

While I managed to restrain myself from jumping all over that killer idea, I did go so far as to come up with a couple of potential titles:

It’s a Wonderful Death

Have a Helluva Christmas!

writerI get my revenge, however. Anyone and everyone I encounter are story fodder. It just happened here. The person did in fact give me a helluva basis for a blog post. It might not have been her intention but, last I heard, turnabout is still fair play.

It’s not all bad. Some people have given me excellent prompts for stories. Even then, though, if my heart isn’t in it, there’s little chance I’m going to spend much time thinking about it. Most often, I jot it down as a note for future reference.

I never know when I’ll want to write about the trash collection lifestyle.

Dickens and Christmas

ChristmasCarolBookThere are plenty of folks out there crediting Charles Dickens with “inventing” Christmas. That’s a pretty drastic overstatement, but there’s a grain of truth to it. At least one author posits that, with the publication of “A Christmas Carol”, Dickens rescued his own career and shaped the celebration of Christmas as we know it today. For those who wish to pursue the matter, an intelligent refutation of that premise can be found here.

For the record, as much as a lot of people would prefer otherwise, Christmas is in fact the celebration of the birth of Christ. In our pluralistic society, people are free to ignore that fact, just as they ignore the “true meaning” of Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. You don’t have to celebrate it as such, but that’s the way it is.

The mode of that celebration, however, is quite a different matter. For example, the December date is well known to have been a later invention. Reindeer, Christmas trees, gift giving, and wassailing – not to mention Santa himself – are all among the pieces of extraneous baggage that have been heaped mercilessly on what is a simple observance of a historical and spiritual event of significance to a huge percentage of the world’s population.

Neither Dickens nor his masterpiece needs the superfluous acclaim. “A Christmas Carol” is as brilliant as it is timeless. It honors what people call the “spirit of Christmas” with only a slight nod to the religious aspect of the holiday. As such, it tends to be tolerable to all stripes. Yet the theme of repentance and transformation conforms perfectly with Christian orthodoxy. In the grand tradition of great art, it works equally well as edification and entertainment.

XmasCarolI just watched my favorite filmed rendition of the story, the 1984 version starring George C. Scott. It edges out the surprisingly high quality animated Mr. Magoo musical version.

(One reason I prefer that version to any other is the supporting cast, which includes several performers from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Dickens’s “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby”. In a previous post, I made no bones about my tremendous admiration for that production.)

Some of the scenes and lines of dialog in the book are as fresh and meaningful today as they’ve ever been. The poor still struggle, barely noticed, at the feet of the rich. Dickens’s bleak portrayal of that situation is neglected in many dramatic presentations of the story.

I reproduce the exchange between Scrooge and The Spirit of Christmas Present below. Now as it was then, the prose is rich and evocative, the message relevant and convicting.

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.

It makes me wonder what the bell strikes today.


NB: As I’ve noted elsewhere, the lesson of Scrooge and other Yuletide scoundrels has been lost on us today, to our shame.