Friday, February 04, 2011

A Snow Day Movie

So, we already had a couple of inches of solid ice on the ground that hasn't gone away because temperatures have stayed in the 20s or lower all week. Last night, we were supposed to get one to three inches of snow on top of that. Well, this is what "one to three inches" looked like on my patio this morning:

And it snowed for about an hour more after I took that picture. I'd already figured that it would be worse than they forecast, since the snow was supposed to start around 3 a.m., and I got up at 3:45 when I was coughing and needed some water. I looked out the window, and there was already at least three inches on the ground, and it was snowing pretty heavily. It was very pretty at night and totally undisturbed. But I'm kind of ready for it all to go away. We might get above freezing tomorrow, but not by much, and it will take a while for all this to melt. Meanwhile, that lurking cold hit with a vengeance during the night, so this will be a guilt-free sofa day. A cold plus snow=book/movie and tea day. If not for the cold, I'd be tempted to take a walk because I do like walking in the snow, and it really is beautiful. I'm also getting a little stir-crazy. As much of a homebody as I am, I do usually leave the house at least a few times a week.

The fun thing is that this has been Super Bowl week, and the weather has really hampered all the activities. I had sort of considered maybe heading to downtown Fort Worth to see at least some of the goings on with ESPN broadcasting from there all week, but between the cold and the weather, that's not going to happen. Also, to quote Spike, I'm paralyzed by not caring very much. I'm probably not going to watch the game because the local PBS station is counterprogramming with a Downton Abbey marathon of the whole series. Plus, again, see above about not caring. I am sort of pulling for Green Bay, as I figure that since the team is staying in my town that makes them the hometown team, and I was a Cowboys fan in the late 70s, so I have residual Steelers hate (even though the team I cheered for was the "Steelers" and I have a very cute little black-and-gold cheerleader uniform).

Yesterday afternoon on one of the HBO channels, I caught a movie called Alex and Emma. I vaguely remember when this came out, and I'm not sure why I never saw it, since it's a Rob Reiner movie, but I didn't, so I thought I'd watch it. A nice little romantic comedy was a good way to pass a cold afternoon.

First, a quick summary: Alex (Luke Wilson) is a novelist who had some success with his first book but is now totally blocked on his second, and that's bad because he needs the rest of his advance to pay his gambling debts, but he can't get that money until he turns in the manuscript. If he doesn't get the book done and get the money in 30 days, the Cuban mafia will kill him. In desperation, he hires Emma (Kate Hudson), a court reporter/stenographer, to take dictation as he talks the book. But Emma is pretty outspoken, so she provides a constant critique as he writes. In a story within the story, we see the novel play out, and we can see that art is imitating life as the events in Alex's life influence his novel. But then we also see the book change as the relationship between Alex and Emma develops.

If I completely turned off the author part of my brain that understands the way the publishing world works, I rather enjoyed this movie. Probably not enough to want a keeper DVD, but it was one of the better romantic comedies I've seen in a while. I liked the characters and I liked the way their relationship developed. Although the "author" part of me had to be shut off, I did feel like they got a lot of the writing process right. I'm not sure I could dictate a novel to a stenographer -- it wouldn't come out in the same words I'd use to type it -- but the way the novel took shape was very familiar. What I found really fun was that the central conflict between the two characters boiled down into "pantser" vs. "plotter." Alex was very much a "pantser" writer, the kind who flies off into the mist with no idea what the book is going to be about or how it will end, letting the characters lead him along. Although she wasn't a writer, Emma had very much a "plotter" outlook. Before she bought a book, she read the ending, and if she liked the ending, she'd know that she wanted to read the book. She was frustrated with the way he was setting everything up without having any idea how it would work out and was sure he couldn't finish the book on time without having a plan.

The movie did contain one of my romantic comedy pet peeves -- the first kiss leading directly to sex -- but there was no frantic chase across town and nobody went to the airport so that the other person had to buy a last-minute ticket to get past security. There wasn't even any public humiliation. In the "novel" part of the story, there was what may be the funniest movie sex scene ever -- a depiction of what one of those ten-page sex scenes in a romance novel would look like if it were filmed (though mostly in either silhouette or extreme close-up), complete with superimposed clock to show that it was going on for hours.

But I did have to turn off my author brain because it seems like Hollywood has absolutely no idea how book publishing works. I'm sure almost all the published authors who saw this laughed themselves silly at the idea of taking a manuscript to your publisher's home at night, the publisher reading it right away and then immediately writing a check. Mind you, that was the publisher, not the editor. I suppose this could have been a small press instead of a publishing conglomerate -- and probably was, since the movie was set in Boston and the publisher was in Boston -- so maybe the publisher's star author would get that kind of attention. But with a press small enough that the publisher himself would have the author over to his house, cash flow isn't quite liquid enough for them to write six-figure checks on the spot. The contract states how soon after delivery and acceptance of the manuscript they have to pay the "on delivery" portion of the advance, and they usually hold onto that money as long as they can. I would have said that the advance seemed awfully big for a book that didn't sound all that good, but then I remembered some of the bestselling books and how awful they've been. In general, though, screenwriters seem to think of Writers Guild rates in thinking about how much money novelists make. This was a $200,000 advance, which is really, really unusual, unless the first book had been a mega bestseller, and it's more likely that the second book would have been part of a two-book deal, with the advance negotiated before they knew the first book would be a bestseller.

Then there was the usual movie/TV trope about novels, where the entire novel and all the characters in it were directly based on the author's real life. It makes you wonder if all the screenwriters are out there writing about their own lives or if that's just what they think novelists do. In this case, I suppose it had to be that way so we could have the actors from the real world part of the movie also portraying the characters in the novel world and so the novel could be used to give Alex's backstory and show how he was changing in the way he saw Emma (her character in the novel kept changing as he got to know her). It also seems like the novels in movies and TV shows are really, really bad. The plots all sound so trite, and if you did actually transcribe the novel Alex was talking, it would read like something a fifth grader wrote. Maybe they should hire an actual novelist to write the portions of novels used in screenplays.

Dear Hollywood Screenwriters,
Most of us make it all up. Really. Trust us on this. We may occasionally be inspired by real events or real people, but most of us don't directly write exactly about our own lives.
Love, Novelists

P.S. Most of us don't make as much money as you do, either.

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