She was writing Build Your Own Christmas Movie Romance. If you ever wanted a choose-your-own-adventure-style holiday romance, this book delivers with off-the-wall humor doused in (loving) parody.
Konc, a Cincinnati native, is a humor writer and essayist who has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times and McSweeney’s. The book’s concept came from a publisher approaching a Facebook writers’ group looking for someone to take a seed of an idea to satirize those cheesy (but beloved) made-for-TV Hallmark (Lifetime and now Netflix) specials.
You know the ones: Generally, a businesswoman who lives in the city and inexplicably hates Christmas must — for some reason — travel to a small town where she falls for a flannel-wearing dude and rediscovers the magic of the season. Or maybe one of the characters is actually — gasp — secretly royal. Or perhaps a local shop needs to be saved from evil corporate overlords. You can also expect at least one character to exist only to bake pastries.
Though Konc’s 150-page book has a throughline plot, readers will notice several references to various subgenres scattered throughout. And, depending on which path you choose to take, there are variations to this tale — just don’t expect an intricate behemoth like the popular choose-your-own-adventure sci-fi books of the late 1970s and ’80s.
“(The publishers) knew from the beginning they wanted to do some kind of element of choice in there,” Konc says. “It took a while to figure out how to actually do that...I felt like, ‘I’ve seen enough of these movies to feel like I’ve got a good sense of what I could do with this.’”
There are so many subgenres within the genre that Konc says she felt like she couldn’t just watch a couple of holiday films, hence her trips to the library for research. She watched a few in each of the most-recognizable categories to pin down what elements she wanted to emphasize. This is especially prominent in the book’s ending(s), which offers seven distinct finales.
“In order for (the book) to have any kind of sensible plot, a lot had to get left out,” Konc says, “so the endings-palooza was kind of my attempt of saying, ‘I’m so sorry I couldn’t do this one, but here’s a little taste of what it might have been like.’”
In the midst of writing, Konc likened her office space to that of a conspiracy theorist with red strings leading from picture to picture. Post-its were everywhere; notes were color-coded; arrows pointed from one plot point to another.
For all the levels of organization, Build Your Own Christmas Movie Romance is an effortlessly fun romp. (In fact, I read it cover-to-cover in one sitting.) Originally, Konc had planned to have four primary plots running through the book. But, in keeping the word-count relatively short, it didn’t shake out that way. Instead, the story opens on a Christmas-hating businesswoman named Chrissy living in a city and doing, er, business with her equally workaholic boyfriend. When her mom calls to ask if she’s coming home for the holidays, that’s when the choices start to roll in.
“I was initially doing too much just for what we were able to do in a book like this,” Konc says, “but yeah, it started with the baseline plot and then I added all the branches of that.”
There are a total of eight sections, each one referencing a genre hallmark. Here are a few highlights: everyone’s favorite, “The Meet Cute”; “The Dramatic Mix-Up,” in which Chrissy comes to terms with catching feelings for Nick — a guy from her hometown that could have either been her high school sweetheart or onetime nemesis, depending on your choice — just in time for ex-boyfriend Cole to make a reentrance; and the self-explanatory “The Kiss.”
Konc is able to keep the variations nebulous enough — without being boring — that multiple moments fit into the disparate pathways.
This brand of humor is present from the story’s open. Just look to the first paragraph: “Chrissy slammed her business phone down on her business desk and sighed. She looked around. Her entire desk was covered with business binders, business books (including the classic, How to Business Your Way to the Top of Business), and business supplies. One thing was for sure: She was a business lady. The phone rang again. She picked it up, shouted, ‘Business!’ and slammed it back down. She simply had too much business to do to deal with all of this.”
With humor writing, Konc says using repetition can be helpful as it makes clear what joke one is making.
“I like taking a vagary past the logical amount you’d expect to see a word like business used,” Konc says. “In part, because you’re spelling out the joke, but it also sort of creates dialogue that is fun to write where you’re not writing realistic dialogue because you’re subbing in the actual words people would be saying with like ‘I want my business suit; I want my business money,’ which is not how people talk but it’s a fun way to imagine them talking.”
Some details veer on the absurd, and yet readers can likely imagine them being explained away in an actual holiday flick.
For one, Chrissy comes from a long line of organic candy cane farmers who live in the town of Candy Cane Falls. Seriously, they harvest the red-and-white candies straight from the ground. Weirdly, in Konc’s world-building, the cane has hooks on both ends, which actually serve as a vital — if not odd — plot point when she finds herself needing to be saved from a frigid lake. There’s mention of the love interest’s attractive arm veins and golden-retriever-esque personality. Strange twinkling bells play. A man named Kris with a big white beard makes a mysterious appearance. There’s an Uber driver who at first seems promising until he starts talking about his totally cool podcast that you should definitely listen to.
Woven in between all the funny moments, of which there are many, is a light social commentary on how women are represented in these films.
“So much of the book is a joke vehicle,” Konc says of layering in a commentary. “It’s a silly book; it’s teasing this genre and it’s me fitting in just about every kind of joke that I personally think is funny. But if the book has a point of view, it’s very much also about how Hallmark Christmas movies are not responsible for the two-dimensional woman character. All the media is responsible for that. But it exists there, too. It’s just the holiday version of it.”
But mostly, Build Your Own Christmas Movie Romance is a fun read to curl up with by the fire, with a mug of hot cocoa and a stack of two-hooked candy canes in tow. Even if you’re not a fan of this particular brand of films, Konc’s ability to craft jokes that never fall flat is worth a read.
“I feel like people who genuinely love (these movies) can enjoy this book and not feel like they’re just being made fun of,” she says. “And also, if you like making fun of these movies, there’s a place. And if you’ve never watched a single made-for-TV Christmas movie in your life and you just like jokes, I tried to make it so you could legitimately and honestly be a person in any of those three camps and say, ‘I like this book; this has something for me.’”
But after months of having these flicks on her brain, will Konc settle in and watch any this holiday season? Maybe one, she laughs. After all, she’s basically an expert now.
Riane Konc’s Build Your Own Christmas Movie Romance is now available. For more info, visit rianekonc.com.