Spotlight: An interview with LAFA winner Dan Burle
Dan, congratulations on winning Best First Time Screenwriter (Feature), Best Western Screenplay, and Best Action Screenplay for your excellent work on Three for Hire: The Shadow Assassins. Before we chat about the screenplay, we'd like to get to know you a bit better.
You originally earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration with an emphasis on economic studies from UMSL, attended the University of Virginia Darden School of Business for special studies in Critical Resources (Manufacturing, Retailing, Finance, and Business Ethics), and worked as an executive for the Kroger Food Company for years. These days, you’re a prolific author, who published 16 books. What made you passionate about writing, and how did you first get into it? Did you take any writing courses?
Thanks so much! Everyone is blessed with a talent. I have been blessed with the gift of creativity. Because of this, I have always loved writing. During my tenure with the Kroger Food Company, I had to compose marketing letters to stores on a daily basis, and twenty page sales plans on a weekly basis. In addition, I had to create ads that would entice customers to shop our stores versus the competition. When you are responsible for sales and profits, you must find imaginative ways to meet your goals. I was also responsible for formulating training manuals and have written many Project Management Best Practices and seminars for my company. As a result of my creativity, I was tasked to write a sixteen hour seminar that was used in all the Kroger divisions throughout the country.
When I retired to my ranch, I launched a website. The original purpose was to use it as a vehicle to sell horses that I raised and trained. Eventually I began blogging humorous stories on the website. I had many people tell me that I should publish these stories in a book. So I did. My very first book was L.O.L. Ranch Stories Part I: Goofs on Hoofs. It was so successful that I created a L.O.L. Part II: Spoofs and Goofs on Hoofs. Then a friend of mine from South Texas asked me to write a Western novel. To make a long story short, I wrote eight Western novels along with other genres.
I did take literature classes in college; however, I have always found self-help books beneficial. The two books that helped me in my writing were Stephen King: On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, and William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style.
Your body of work is so impressive: Western novels, Mystery novels, Children’s books, light-hearted humorous Ranch books, and even a Ranch cookbook you co-authored with your wife, Bernice. Is there a genre you feel more comfortable with?
Great question! I, like many folks my age, grew up watching Western shows on TV every Saturday morning. When my wife and I married 52 years ago, we bought land before we even purchased our first home. It was 180 acres of woods. We had a dream – to turn those woods into a working ranch with horses and cattle, and over the years, that’s exactly what we did.
Living the life of a cowboy obviously took me in the direction of the Western genre. All of my Western novels are historical fictions, but I also made them into great mysteries. It seemed natural for me then to move into the mystery/suspense genre.
I am an Old West historian, but also love doing research on secret societies. Not only have I incorporated real secret societies into my Western novels, but I have also created two mystery novels with secret societies, Fatal Deceit: an Illuminati Story, and Fatal Deceit: Operation Phoenix. Both have done exceptionally well.
In your opinion, what are the ingredients for a great story?
I believe there are many elements that create a great story, and many are interchangeable between writing books and writing screenplays. These are some that come to mind:
1. It’s all about the story. It must be unique, creative, and interesting. My goal is to write a story that engages the reader so much, that he/she cannot put the book down. If it’s a movie, I don’t want a viewer to leave for popcorn.
2. The story has to grab the reader from the very beginning. The first ten pages of a screenplay must be enticing enough to keep the reader flipping the pages - like potato chips – you just can’t eat one.
3. There has to be conflict, a crisis, and an “all is lost” situation.
4. The protagonists must arc, and I want the reader or the viewer to truly root for the good guy. In some cases, you might even set up a situation where you root for the bad guy.
5. I want the readers to get lost in the scene – to feel like they are right there with the characters/action. I accomplish this by putting myself into the situation as I write each scene.
6. Extraneous words bog down the story. Get rid of them.
7. Every part of the story must be relevant to the plot.
8. I like the story/action to crescendo as it moves to the climax, making it a real page turner or an edge of the seat situation – get that heart pumping like a race horse in the Belmont Stakes on the last turn to the finish line.
9. I believe twists are important to keep the reader or viewer from figuring out how the story will end. A+B SHOULD NOT = C. Mix in an unsuspecting “G”, and then throw in a surprising “L”. I want the reader or viewer to say, “Whoa, I didn’t see that coming.”
10. Lastly, I want to create a resolution that satisfies the reader or viewer, i.e. the bad guy gets his due – BIG TIME!
Please take us through your creative process. How do you start a new project? Where does your inspiration come from? (I bet some of your ranch experiences made their way into your work!)
One of the things I tell people who want to write a book is you don’t have to know the whole story in your head before you begin. Many times I don’t know the exact ending until I get there. Sometimes I see the ending in a dream. Other times it comes to me while riding a horse on the trail.
The first thing I do in preparation of writing a novel is I go to Office Max and purchase a flip chart. By this time, a basic story is already swirling around in my head. If the idea is strong enough, I will brainstorm and write down six to eight different possible titles for the story on the first page of the flip chart. On the second page I begin writing an outline that could become my chapter titles, if I in fact use chapter titles – I used numerical titles in my last three books. Then I write each one of those chapter titles on top of separate pages. The next step is to list bullet points under each of those potential chapter titles. Once I have those basics down, I am ready to rock and roll, turn on the faucet, and let the creative juices flow.
I believe living on a ranch with horses and cattle gives me good Old West insight: the smell of a horse, the feel of the saddle, grabbing mane when mounting, direct reining when turning, squeezing to go, spurring to gallop, the lather buildup from a long run, and sitting heavy to whoa.
From walking to trotting to loping to galloping, these are the things I experience myself, and can accurately describe in my books and screenplays.
Recently, you decided to adapt your book series, Three for Hire, into a screenplay series. Clearly, you did a great job because Three for Hire: The Shadow Assassins just won Best First Time Screenwriter (Feature), Best Western Screenplay, and Best Action Screenplay at LAFA. What an incredible achievement! The story and the characters feel very authentic, I assume you have done some historical research about the assassination of President Lincoln as well as the conspiracy theory behind it?
I feel blessed that my first screenplay, Three for Hire: The Shadow Assassins, has won thirteen awards in five film festivals, and has been nominated as best screenplay in four film festivals.
I actually have five novels in my Three for Hire Western series, and plan on writing four screenplays based upon those episodes. As was stated, the first screenplay is Three for Hire: The Shadow Assassins. This is actually the second book in the series.
I began this screenplay with the climax of the first book, and then moved into the story of the second. This introduces the three protagonists right from the start.
The logline for the Shadow Assassins is “Fourteen years after the assassination of President Lincoln, the conspiracy behind it is back, stronger than ever. The future of the country hangs in the balance and only three strangers have a chance to save it, if they can just stay alive long enough…”
You are right; I did extensive research on Lincoln and the Knights of the Golden Circle, the secret society which is speculated to have had a hand in President Lincoln’s assassination. John Wilkes Booth belonged to the KGC. This screenplay turns into a great Western story full of action, mystery, and twists.
I am now close to completing the second screenplay in the series, entitled, Three for Hire: Revenge of the Mescalero Apache. The next two screenplays will be, Three for Hire: Tombstone, the Lethal Connection, and Three for Hire: Soldiers for Justice. Obviously, I carry the same three main characters in each story. They are my heroes who are fast, fast on the draw.
It must be a bit tricky to take a book and adapt it to a screenplay. How did you approach the material? How do you decide which elements or storylines from the original book should be omitted in the screenplay version?
I must admit, it was a challenge, but I met it head on. I studied screenwriting by reading four books: Story by Robert McKee, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier, and the Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley. Incidentally, my editor, my wife Bernice, read those books as well. I then ordered the Final Draft program.
I started the process by taking the Word file of the book, removing the historical information, and getting down to the basic story. The next step was to develop a storyboard as described in the book, Save the Cat. Then it was nothing more than copying and pasting the Word file into Final Draft and adjusting accordingly. As you might suspect, the first draft was about thirty pages too long. Now it was time to cut – but what? Initially, for me, this was the hardest thing to do since I thought every paragraph, every line, and every word was important to the story. Guess what, they were not.
I began shortening dialogue and making it crisp, cutting out scenes that didn’t move the story along, if you could “see it don’t say it”, eliminated transition scenes, say it shorter and say it quicker, and more. Finally, I got the story down to 120 pages. It took time and guts to cut sections out, but when it was completed, it made for an interesting award winning screenplay.
How many drafts did you go through, and do you normally work with an editor / a story editor (or another person) who provides feedback?
Let me put it this way; there was more than one draft. My wife edits my books and screenplays. However, I was fortunate to meet two terrific people and exceptionally talented professionals in the film industry. Their names are James Bruner and Elizabeth Stevens. They are screen and television writers and authors who have written everything from the iconic hit Chuck Norris films MISSING IN ACTION, INVASION U.S.A. and THE DELTA FORCE, to ICE DREAMS, a Hallmark Channel romantic drama that was nominated by MovieGuide.org for the $100,000 Epiphany Prize for Television.
They are the ones who gave me a master class on screenwriting. There is only so much you can learn from books. Finding qualified tutors, who were willing to share their knowledge, enabled me to take my screenplay to the highest level.
This interview will not be complete before we ask about the challenges you face as a writer. How do you overcome writer’s block? How do you stay focused, how do you keep going?
I learned strong work ethics, discipline, tenacity, and the importance of meeting timetables and deadlines when I was an executive for the Kroger Food Company.
I had to stay focused and keep going. The retail food industry is a very competitive business. It’s fast moving, always changing. It was my job to think fast and act quickly, and that became a part of who I am.
I have always been driven to learn new things and try my best to do them well. One might say that driven with passion is built into my DNA. In regards to writer’s block, I can honestly say I have never experienced it. Like I said before, I have been blessed with the gift of creativity.
However, the way I see it, writer’s block might just mean that it’s not your day to write and create. There are times when I sit down to write, but I find I am not in the mood. So I walk away from it for a few hours, or a day or two until I’m ready to go. When I’m in the mood, there is no stopping me.
My advice is, if you are not in the mood, don’t force it. If you force it, you will not produce your best work. Get in the mood, and then let it gush like a fire hose.
How do you balance your career and other passions in your life? Being a ranch owner, a cowboy, a family man (with 4 grandkids), playing piano, accordion, and violin- it seems you've got quite a lot going on!
Again it’s in my DNA. Keeping busy keeps me young at heart, my mind sharp, and my body healthy. Plus, I enjoy doing all the things I do.
Do you have any piece of advice for up-and-coming screenwriters and filmmakers?
A wise man once told me to learn something new everyday, and spend more time listening than talking. I also agree with Stephen King’s suggestion for success, “Do a lot of reading, and do a lot of writing.”
Lastly, when you think you have completed your project, walk away from it for a few days. You will find when you go back to it, you will improve it even more. James Bruner and Elizabeth Stevens gave me that advice after I finished my first screenplay. I’m glad they did because some of my favorite scenes in Shadow Assassins are the ones I added after I thought it was completed.
What’s next for you and what’s next for the screenplay series? Are you looking to have them optioned, or hoping to produce them yourself?
I plan on completing three more screenplays in my Three for Hire Western series. I have also put down thoughts for a comedy screenplay - Kevin Hart comes to mind for that screenplay.
I am looking to have them optioned.
If a film producer wants to contact you regarding your screenplays, how can that be accomplished?
Thank you for the question. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Where can our readers follow more of your work?
On my website, www.danburlesrbooks.com
Is there anyone you wish to thank or anything you'd like to add?
First, I would like to thank my lovely wife Bernice for everything she does. She has been by my side and my editor during all of my writing journeys. Secondly, I want to thank James Bruner and Elizabeth Stevens for mentoring me on the craft of screenwriting. I owe so much to them. I also want to thank my dear friend Buck Taylor, actor and Western artist, for his encouragement. He is always there with kind words. And of course, I want to thank all of the people who have purchased my books over the years.
Lastly, thank you to LAFA for this special interview. It is very much appreciated.
*Burle’s books are available on Amazon Books and Amazon Kindle, and many of his titles are also available on this website: www.danburlesrbooks.com.