This story by Paula Morris is the third of four exclusive extracts for the Weekend Herald from Lost in Translation (Vintage, $34.99), a collection of New Zealand short stories edited by Marco Sonzogni, which goes on sale on February 5.
They call you from New York and Los Angeles: it is a conference call. They have an idea they want to run by you. How would you like to make a million dollars?
You would like to make a million dollars. What do you have to do?
They've come up with a premise for a novel, which could be made into a movie. This way, everyone wins. Everyone in New York and everyone in Los Angeles. And you, of course. It's your lucky day.
Here's the premise. A beautiful girl, a grand old house, a love triangle. It's simple, but it's perfect. They've come up with this killer premise, and you have been selected to spin it into gold. At first, they want a short synopsis, and then, if they like it, you'll be paid to write the whole thing. Upfront. Before it even sells! That's how generous they are.
Of course, they will own the copyright, because it is their original idea. But you will get your upfront payment, as discussed, plus a cut when it sells. And even a small cut of a million dollars is a lot of money. A lot more money than most writers earn.
Make it historical, they say, because historical is hot right now.
With the right synopsis, they really believe they could get a million dollars. You could get a part of that million dollars. Everyone wins! Mainly them, because it is their idea. All you have to do is pad the premise out. But get it done within the next two days, because the market keeps moving.
You decide to get it done.
A beautiful young girl, who lives in a small, crowded house in the country, is taken on a visit to a strange city. There she is torn between two lovers. One is an enigmatic, handsome young man: the son of a retired military man, a general. But her brother and his new fiancée want her to marry another young man - the fiancée's pushy brother - and everyone conspires to keep the girl and the general's son apart.
Luckily for the girl and the suitor she prefers, the crusty old general invites her to their vast country estate, where the family lives in a grand old house that used to be an abbey. Our heroine suspects the house holds a very dark secret: the secret imprisonment, or maybe even murder, of the general's wife.
Her young lover refuses to believe this. Our young heroine befriends his sister, and tries to forget her suspicions. But one night the general returns abruptly from a trip to the capital, and sends her packing. She's no longer welcome at the abbey. What has she done?
Back at home in the country, everything goes wrong. Her brother has dumped his fiancée, because he discovered she was trying to seduce a richer man - the eldest son of the general, a playboy who will one day inherit the abbey. And the fiancée's brother, jealous that our heroine has rejected him for the general's son, is doing all he can to sabotage that relationship. He has led the general to believe she's a rich heiress, and now whispers to him that she's a fraud - nothing but a social-climbing destitute country mouse.
That's why the general threw her out.
Despite everything, the general's son still loves her. He doesn't care if she's rich or poor, or if she once suspected his father of murdering/secretly imprisoning his mother. He is prepared to renounce his family to be with her. But his sister has secured a rich husband, so the general calms down. The heroine and the general's son marry and live happily ever after.
You email this synopsis, and wait three days. There is another conference call. The murder thing is too much. Too much darkness.
This is supposed to be a rom-com, not Bluebeard. Nobody knows what an abbey is. They like the sister thing, and the going-to-the-strange-city thing. They want you to return to their original premise, which was brilliant in its purity, its focus, its ability to make a million dollars. They want you to try again, and to do it in a hurry: there is no time to waste. If you can't do it, they'll do it themselves.
No, you tell them: you can do it. Of course you can. You want to be paid upfront. You want your share of the million dollars. You know what you have to do.
Two sisters, young and beautiful, live in a grand old house. But when their father dies, they and their mother and a third sister - a child, too young to go to balls - are thrown out by an unfeeling older half-brother and his social-climbing wife. They must live like destitute country mice in a cottage on someone else's vast estate.
The older girl falls in love with the brother of her social-climbing sister-in-law, but she's informed that the brother can only marry a rich girl. If he doesn't, his rich mother will cut him out of her will.
The younger girl is torn between two lovers - someone older and wiser, who dotes on her, and a handsome young playboy, who she really prefers. He rescues her when she has an accident while out walking in the rain.
The sisters are taken on a visit to a strange city. Everything goes wrong. The older sister's dreams are dashed: the man she loves is secretly engaged to an idiot. The younger sister's dreams are dashed: the man she loves is newly engaged to a rich girl. The idiot blabs to the social-climbing sister-in-law about her secret engagement, and there is an uproar. The brother is disinherited, which is almost a relief, but his dreams are dashed, too: because he is a young man of honour, he can't break his engagement to the idiot, and marry the older of our two beautiful heroines, who he really prefers.
Meanwhile, the younger sister goes mad with grief. On a visit to someone else's country estate, she goes out walking in the rain again, even though she knows this brings nothing but trouble. She falls dangerously ill. In the middle of the night, during a dramatic thunderstorm, the playboy turns up and explains to the older sister that he can only marry a rich girl. If he doesn't, his rich aunt will cut him out of her will.
The playboy suitor is a cad: he's already seduced and abandoned another country-mouse girl, who happens to be the ward of the younger sister's older suitor. The older sister discovers this villainy, and tells her younger sister, who recovers from her illness, sees the error of her ways, and marries the older, wiser man. The idiot dumps the older sister's beau, because his brother now has all the money. So he's free, at last, to marry the older sister. They move into the parsonage on the grand estate of the younger sister and her new husband. They all marry and live happily ever after.
This time they take more than a week to get back to you. They're in meetings. Important meetings. This time there's no conference call, just one person passing on notes. They still like the sister thing, apart from the sister who's a child. All the sisters should be old enough to go to balls. They like the cad thing too, especially the seduction of a young girl. They're not so sure about the older, wiser suitor. How old is old? And a parsonage is almost as bad as an abbey. Nothing exciting can happen in a parsonage. They need more scenes in a grand old house. The grand old house was an essential part of the original premise. You are straying from the million-dollar idea. You only have the weekend to fix it, because they need the synopsis first thing Monday morning.
You're not sure if this is first thing in New York or Los Angeles, but you don't ask. There is no time to lose.
Five sisters live in a small, crowded house in the country. The girls are worried, because when their father dies, they and their mother will be thrown out by an unfeeling cousin, and they will have to live like destitute country mice. If they don't find husbands, they face lives of quiet desperation as spinsters. The oldest sister, who is the most beautiful, is in love with a rich young man who's renting a grand old house in the neighbourhood. He lives there with his social-climbing sisters and his richer, older, proud friend.
The second sister, who is the most clever, is not in love with anyone - especially not with the young man's richer, older, proud friend, who snubs her, nor with the unfeeling cousin, who wants to marry her and make her live in a country parsonage. He will inherit the house where our heroine grew up, so long as her father does not remarry and have sons. He proposes to her, and she says no. He storms off in a rage and marries someone plain.
When the older sister goes walking in the rain, she falls dangerously ill at the rented grand old house. She recovers, and her engagement to the rich young man seems imminent, despite the interference of his social-climbing sisters.
Military men come to the village, and - at various balls attended by all of the sisters - two of the heroine's youngest sisters flirt with them. One is a handsome playboy, and the second sister, our heroine, falls for him. He hates the richer, older, proud man, and so does she.
The older sister is taken on a visit to a strange city. Everything goes wrong. The older sister's dreams are dashed: she hears that the man she loves is engaged to the rich, older, proud man's sweet younger sister. The second sister is taken on a visit to the unfeeling cousin, who is a social-climber, and his plain wife. Nearby is a grand old house, owned by the richer, older, proud man's rich aunt. He doesn't snub the second sister any more. He proposes to her, and she says no. He storms off in a rage.
The second sister is taken on a visit to a strange county. She sees the very, very grand old house owned by the richer, older, proud man. He turns up and is charming. He introduces her to his sweet younger sister. But everything goes wrong. She receives a fateful letter. The playboy military man is a cad: he's already seduced and abandoned another girl, who happens to be the sweet younger sister of the rich, older, proud man. The second sister has already discovered this villainy, and told her older sister, but they did nothing. And now her youngest sister elopes with the playboy military man. Everyone has to go home. Everyone is ruined.
Nobody will marry the older sister or the second sister now.
In secret, the richer, older, proud man bribes the playboy military man to marry the youngest sister. He allows the rich young man to propose to the older sister, despite the objections of the rich young man's social-climbing sisters. His rich aunt turns up to threaten the second sister, but it's too late. When the richer, older, proud man proposes for a second time, the second sister sees the error of her ways and accepts him. They all marry and live happily ever after in their respective grand old houses.
A week and a half drifts by. Finally you get an email. This isn't bad, they say. They're glad you kept the rich aunt and the sisters. They don't mind the parson, especially when he gets rejected. But nobody seems torn between two lovers. And maybe there are too many sisters and too many houses and too many counties. Too many balls. Maybe someone could stage a play instead? Two sisters and one house and one county are preferable. Everything should happen at this one grand old house, with maybe an excursion to one other house. Try again. You can have the weekend, they say. It's a holiday weekend, so you're getting three whole days.
You're beginning to get irritable. Weeks have passed, and you still haven't been paid a penny. You've already done the two sisters and one house. There was only one grand old house in the very first synopsis. You feel as though you're going in circles. You decide to give them exactly what they ask for, with a twist.
A shy, poor young girl, who lives in a small, crowded house at the seaside, is taken to a grand old house in the country. There she is brought up by her rich uncle and two rich aunts. One, who is the lady of the manor, is kind to her. The other aunt, who is married to the local parson, is not. Our shy heroine has four cousins - two sisters and two brothers. Everyone but the younger boy-cousin treats her like a poor relation.
They all grow up. Our heroine is still shy, and quite plain. The older boy-cousin is a playboy. She falls in love with the younger boy-cousin. The older girl-cousin gets engaged to a rich idiot who owns a grand house nearby.
Two visitors from the capital arrive; they are glamorous and popular. The sexy lady-visitor plays the harp, which everyone loves - except the heroine.
Everyone goes on a day trip to the countryside. Our shy heroine realises that the younger boy-cousin is in love with the sexy lady-visitor, and that both girl-cousins are in love with the sexy man-visitor. Our heroine is facing a life of quiet desperation as a spinster. She is very unhappy about all this.
The rich uncle sets off on a visit to a strange country. In his absence, everyone runs amok. They decide to stage a saucy play at the house. Our shy heroine disapproves, and refuses to take part. She thinks it lowers the tone of the grand old house.
She watches in dismay while the younger boy-cousin courts the sexy lady-visitor, and the older girl-cousin flirts with the sexy man-visitor.
But one night, the rich uncle returns abruptly from his trip, and sends the players packing. The older girl-cousin gets married to the rich idiot. Now the sexy man-visitor starts courting our shy heroine. He wants to marry her, but she says no. The rich uncle and aunts are angry with her, and send her home to her destitute seaside-mouse family. Finally she is allowed to return, but the sexy man-visitor has tired of waiting for her. He has eloped with the older girl-cousin, even though she is married to someone else, and now everyone is ruined. Nobody will marry the younger girlcousin now.
The older boy-cousin, who has been dangerously ill, recovers and sees the error of his ways. The sexy lady-visitor says scandalous things, implying the affair is no big deal, and hoping that the older boy-cousin will die so the younger boy-cousin, who she prefers, can inherit the grand old house. Everyone turns on her and realises that our shy heroine was right all along about everything. The sexy man-visitor dumps the older girl-cousin, and she is forced to face a life of quiet desperation as a fallen woman. The younger boy-cousin, seeing the sexy lady-visitor is morally corrupt and a social climber, proposes to our shy, plain heroine. They marry and live happily ever after in a nearby country parsonage.
They do not like this. They do not like it at all. You wait nine whole days to hear the inevitable: you have gone off the rails. This is supposed to be a rom-com, not a moral tale. You may still have the grand old house, but the heroine is plain. There's no excitement in a love triangle if the one you're supposed to be rooting for is dowdy, passive and prim. And, as discussed, the parsonage is a comic by-way, not a romantic destination. You can't just add in a second rich aunt and hope for the best. They want beauty and secrecy and pro-activity and a rich aunt and a fateful letter.
Keep it light. Keep it happy. Keep the house. Maybe add another grand old house: you can never have too many. But why did you get rid of the secret engagement thing they liked so much? And does the heroine need to be a pauper? That was never in the original premise. The original premise that could sell for a million dollars, if only you would get the synopsis done. It's a no-brainer. If you can't do it, they'll do it themselves.
Historical is hot right now, but it may not be hot next week. The market is moving. They need something new ASAP. You have tonight, and that's it. They urge you to use the time wisely.
A beautiful, rich young woman lives in a grand old house with her old, benign father. After she engineers a good marriage between her ex-governess and a local squire, our heroine decides to make a habit of it. She tries to set up her sweet orphaned protégée with the parson, even though the girl already has an understanding with a sweet local farmer. Everything goes wrong. The parson prefers the heroine. He proposes to her, and she says no. He storms off in a rage and marries someone plain and social-climbing.
Two visitors from elsewhere arrive; they are glamorous and popular. One is a cultured girl who must live with her poor aunt and face a life of quiet desperation as a governess. The cultured girl plays the piano, which everyone loves - except the heroine.
The other arrival is a handsome young playboy, the son of the local squire, who cannot do anything without his rich aunt's permission. Soon our beautiful, rich heroine is torn between two lovers - someone older and wiser, who dotes on her, and the handsome young playboy, who she really prefers. He has no money yet, unlike the older, wiser suitor, who has a house almost as grand as hers.
Everyone goes on a day trip to the countryside. Our heroine idly flirts with the young playboy, gets picked on by the mean wife of the social-climbing parson, and humiliates the poor aunt. The older, wiser suitor tells her off. She is very unhappy about all this.
She realises that she's not really in love with the young playboy, and that he would be the ideal husband for her sweet orphaned protégée - not just because he rescues her when she's out walking.
But the protégée's dreams are dashed once again: the young playboy is secretly engaged to the cultured girl.
The protégée decides she's now in love with the older, wiser suitor.
This forces our heroine to see the error of her ways, and realise that she should marry the older, wiser man. The young playboy's rich aunt dies, freeing him to make his engagement public, and the orphaned protégée is reunited with her sweet farmer. They all marry and live happily ever after.
You get a call right away. They are annoyed with you. Where is the conflict? What is the inciting incident? The father is too rich and too benign. The grand old house just sits there, when it could be in some kind of jeopardy. There's no fateful letter of any kind. The heroine isn't really torn between two lovers, because she doesn't seem to care much about either of them. She's too young, perhaps. The age difference between her and the older man is too great. Audiences will think it's sleazy.
Why did you get rid of the seaside thing they liked so much? And the military men? And the sisters - five were too many, but two are not enough. Three is a much better number, as long as they are all old enough to go to balls.
Your job is to find the twist, and to do it overnight, because the market is marching on, and any delay costs. You do want a million dollars, don't you?
Three sisters grow up in a grand old house. Years earlier, the second sister, who is the clever one, was courted by a military man, a dashing captain who is only slightly older than her. Her father does not like him because he is poor, and an interfering aunt-like friend thinks our heroine could do better. He proposes to her, and she says no. He storms off in a rage.
Now she has lost her bloom. Her social-climbing younger sister, who is an idiot, has married. Her social-climbing older sister, who is an idiot, is going on a visit to a strange city, because they have to rent out the grand old house. Their father has spent all the money. Our heroine is worried, because when her father dies, she will be thrown out by an unfeeling cousin, and she will have to live like a destitute country mouse.
She goes on a visit to her younger sister's country cottage. The captain returns to the neighbourhood. He is older and wiser and richer these days. He no longer seems interested in our heroine, preferring the charming-but-frivolous girl-neighbours. The older girl-neighbour is engaged to a sweet local parson, but the younger girl-neighbour is available for marriage.
Everyone goes on a day trip to the seaside. Our heroine realises that both girl-neighbours are in love with the dashing captain, and that he is flirting with them. Our heroine is facing a life of quiet desperation as a spinster. She is very unhappy about all this.
Everything goes wrong. The younger girl-neighbour has an accident while out walking. Our heroine nurses her, winning approval from the dashing captain, who is older and wiser these days. But then she is sent to the strange city, which she does not like, and must spend her time with the interfering aunt-like friend and the unfeeling cousin.
Soon our beautiful, rich heroine is torn between two lovers - someone dashing and slightly older and wiser, who she prefers, and the unfeeling cousin, who turns out to be handsome and charming and apparently filled with feeling. He has some money, though not as much as the dashing captain. But he will inherit the grand old house where our heroine grew up, so long as her father does not remarry and have sons.
The younger girl-neighbour, who has been dangerously ill, recovers and sees the error of her ways. She decides to marry another captain. Our heroine receives a fateful letter from a plain friend. The charming cousin is a cad: he's already married for money, and is only courting the heroine to secure the grand old house. When she discovers this villainy, she doesn't tell either of her sisters, because they are idiots.
She receives another fateful letter, this time from the dashing captain himself. Despite everything, the captain still loves her.
She is prepared to renounce her family to be with him. But now he is a rich man, so her father calms down. They marry and live happily ever after.
You're a little worried about this. It's not really finished, you know. And maybe you are overdoing it with the two fateful letters. Maybe one fateful letter is enough.
After you send this off, there's a long, ominous silence. You get no emails. When you call, assistants will not put you through. Everyone you're calling is out of the office, or on another line, or in a meeting.
It's over, you realise. They have lost faith in you. They have lost patience. You will not be getting any part of the million dollars. You will not be getting paid at all.
A week later, you get a call. They call you from New York and Los Angeles: it is a conference call. They have an idea they want to run by you.
Someone else has been working on this very same project. Another writer in another city. This other writer, who you do not know but - instinctively - do not like at all, has come up with a synopsis based on one element of your first synopsis. It is the part about the secret imprisonment of the wife.
There are other things they like about this rival writer's work. There's a sadistic school, the poignant death of a young girl, and a dramatic interrupted wedding. The insane wife burns the grand old house down; the rich older man goes blind. In other words, there's more passion, and fewer sisters. You have too many sisters: that is your problem. This idea gets rid of all the sisters and parents. It keeps the rich aunt and the big house. Something is at stake. Something big and dangerous. Your problem is: you've gone too rom-com when this other writer has revealed the story could be Bluebeard, except with a twist, and a moral dimension, and not too many balls.
But still, there's work to be done on this idea, and they think you are the person to do it. True, there's passion, and something at stake. But after the grand old house burns down, where are the star-crossed lovers supposed to live - in a parsonage? The heroine is plain, when she is supposed to be beautiful. (See: original premise.) And audiences aren't going to want their hero going blind, and being cared for by a plain little nurse-like wife. He could go mad, maybe, because insanity is romantic, but blindness is just a disability, and not a fashionable one like Asperger's syndrome or ADHD. And as for the mad first wife - she needs to be beautiful. All the women need to be beautiful. Movie stars don't want to play ugly women.
Do you think you could do something to fix this? It could be a great novel, and an even greater movie. Everyone will win. Everyone in New York and everyone in Los Angeles. And you, of course. It's your lucky day.
Set it in a grand old house, they suggest, with another grand house nearby, perhaps. Make it about a doomed love affair, and a passion that never dies. Somewhere wild and windswept, maybe? All while staying true to the original premise, which is the genius idea they came up with, the one that is guaranteed to make a million dollars.
You would like to make a million dollars. What do you have to do?
The Weekend Herald and publishers Random House have 10 free copies of the book to give away to readers. Just email your name, address and contact phone number to firstname.lastname@example.org and put 'Lost in Translation' in the subject line. We'll notify the winners after all four stories have appeared.