Another Foreign Movie

I like watching movies, not just for entertainment value but to discover new storytelling techniques. Movies are often innovative in presenting character, or in twisting the plot, or simply in terms of presenting information. My husband has been haunting the Foreign Films section lately, and has made some really good discoveries. His most recent find was a French film called MODERN LOVE.

Yup. Subtitles.

What an interesting movie. A bit contrived, but I really liked it. It’s structured as a romantic comedy, which follows several couples on their amorous adventures in present-day Paris. One of the guys is a screenwriter, and it turns out – this isn’t a spoiler if you’ve read the advertising copy – that the third couple whose romance is portrayed in this movie is actually segments of the movie he wrote. (That would be the one with the spontaneous singing, and tap dance numbers.) So, this is clever in terms of structure – and there are fun things like one couple looking for music and pulling out a cd which is the soundtrack for the movie that you’re watching – but it gets even better.

Because the character’s screenplay, which a romantic comedy, uses many tropes of romantic comedy and romance novels. Aha! Not only do those tropes look a bit silly in comparison to real life, but often the same trope gets tried out in the “real life” segments – it works in the movie, just as it always does in movies and romance novels, but fails spectacularly in the real life example(s).


For example, the Cinderella moment, when the guy somehow ensures that the woman he loves has the opportunity to be remade as a beauty, is a familiar element in romance novels and romantic comedies. It usually symbolizes the heroine’s inner beauty being loosed etc etc. Here, in the movie version, the heroine is given the full spa and wardrobe treatment for a fabulous romantic dinner, which launches the couple’s relationship in true fairy tale style. In the real life version, the guy meets his ex in the store where he takes his current lady shopping, only to be surprised by the realization that he still loves his ex-girlfriend. His current girlfriend picks that up, as well, and no spoiler that the interval ends badly.

In a way, the movie is tongue-in-cheek about these tropes and patterns. But in another, it honours their core truth – because both the movie and the real life versions get their HEA. If you’re interested in structure and in writing romance, look for this movie. It’s well worth enduring the subtitles.

A Little Something on the Side

This week I did an exercise from The Artist’s Way and I’ll tell you about that in a minute. First a bit of backstory, in case you aren’t that familiar with the mechanics of the publishing biz. In my zone of the publishing biz – writing fiction – authors are freelance workers who contract with publishers for a certain number of projects, of specified size. So, an author negotiates and signs a contract for – just for example – three linked books, and the deadlines are added into the contract. The author knows she has work for that period of time and knows what it will pay – at least in terms of advances.

A couple of things fall out of this:

1/ Proposals.

Authors “pitch” ideas and proposals to editors. Depending on the author’s track record (in terms of sales) and her relationship with a particular editor, she may have to put more or less of a proposal together. It can range from a synopsis and three chapters – more for a linked trilogy – to a verbal summary over lunch or over the phone. The thing is that editors and publishing houses have a great deal more market information than authors do – they also know what the house has bought recently but which hasn’t been printed yet (remember that the production cycle is roughly a year in duration); what the house is specifically looking for or niches that the house has identified to explore further; and how comparable books have sold in the market. They know what’s hot on a much more immediate basis than authors do. They also may have specific ideas of how an author’s career can be built, or see specific strengths in the author’s work that they’d like to emphasize.

The upshot of all of this is that not every idea an author pitches is sold. I’ve been at this for almost 19 years, and I have a file box – one of those ones the size of a box for 10 reams of paper – full of file folders with proposals that never sold. A lot of these were only ever pitched to one editor, the one I was working with at the time.

2/ End points.

Publishing contracts are finite deals, usually extending over a year or two. Although they have an option clause to leave the door open to the future, the author can always see the end point of the deal, which is when she/he will technically be out of work.

In an ideal universe, at the end of the contract, the publishing house is so excited about the books and has done such a good job of selling the ones that have already been printed, that they immediately offer to buy more similar books from the author, for a higher advance. But this isn’t a gimme. It’s also not a gimme that the author and editor will work well together, or that the market will stay the same, or that everyone at the publishing house will stay put, or that the house’s marketing focus will be the same, or that the author will want to continue to write these kinds of books. The fairly short term contract serves everyone in a rapidly changing business like publishing, even with its built-in uncertainty. Publishing is uncertain by its very nature – these contracts ensure that everyone is nimble.

One of the things I have learned to do is to keep one eye on that Out Of Work date, and plan for the unexpected. If all goes well, the plan is unnecessary, but it makes me feel as if I have a kind of insurance if I have a back-up plan.

And now we get to the exercise in The Artist’s Way. I guess that many businesses in which people earn a living with creative work are similar in terms of this short term commitment. For this exercise, Julia Cameron suggests going through all of one’s rejected projects – because the truth is that if the proposal didn’t sell, it was rejected, even if the rejection was very nicely done – and reconsider their merit. Often an idea has been filed away because one person didn’t find it appealing. That’s not exactly a consensus! Over the past two weeks, I pulled out that file box and went through all of the proposals neatly filed away there. I pulled out a couple that looked particularly promising, and this week I read them again. There was some good stuff in there, and I got quite excited about one partial in particular.

3/ The Spec Book.

This TAW exercise dovetails neatly into my own back-up plan. I always am working on a project that is not contracted to be published. I work on it on days when I’m stuck in terms of the manuscript in process, or when I’m waiting to hear back from my editor on something, or when I just want to play. My spec book is always in a different genre than what I am contracted to write. In a sense, it’s where I can play. This is healthy for writers, as the business of publishing can make you forget why you loved writing in the first place. A spec book helps me to keep connected to the joy. I don’t owe it to anyone. No one has any input on it. It might never be published so I can break whatever rules I want and do whatever I want with it. That’s very liberating.

It’s also provides that kind of insurance, in case the ideal doesn’t happen when my contract is fulfilled. If the market changes, as it can, and – for example – shapeshifter novels aren’t selling anymore, then I have another idea ready to go. Maybe I’ll even have an entire book ready to go if/when that happens. (This is where FALLEN came from, btw. It was an idea I was playing with, my spec book, when the historical market went flat.)

In going through these old proposals this week, I found that one which I liked a lot, and which has moved back into my office. I love the idea and the writing, and reading it again got me all excited about it one more time.

So, I have a new spec book to play with, on those in-between days. Who knows what will come of it? But I’m having fun writing it and I like knowing that it’s there, in the back of my mind and on the corner of my desk.