If you follow my work, you probably know I have a completed manuscript (that is currently with my excellent agent Ben Grange) retelling the classic fairy tale The Little Mermaid. Originally by Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid is a beloved story that ends in a fulfilling, but not-so-happy ending. Disney came along in the 1989 and re-formed it into a more palatable American version, complete with a Happily Ever After.
Retelling fairy tale classics is a favorite past time of modern authors, especially YA writers like myself, and I think it begs the question of why.
Why, in an age so obsessed with originality, do writers like myself continue to be drawn back to retelling old classics? Is it sheer lack of original ideas? Why bother messing with these classic stories at all? I mean, not a single one of us is really going to supersede the original, are we? Or reinvent the wheel, for that matter.
Whether it's fairy tales, fables, myths, historical legends, or great tomes of Western Civilization (and beyond!) . . . Why bother retelling the classics?
The first reason I'll offer is one personal to me: classic literature influences everything I write. Not only did I teach at a classical school for ten years, but I've always loved the classics. A friend gifted me a copy of Pride and Prejudice when I was 12 or 13, and I read that book at least once a year every year from that point forward. I read my dad's old college copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology until the cover fell off, and I can quote passages from Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Petrarch verbatim. Classic stories and literature run through my blood, so it's impossible for it not to bleed over into my writing.
In one sense, directly retelling a classic story is like entering into the oral tradition of history, where stories used to be passed down parent to child, teacher to student, and undoubtedly often changed and influenced, at least slightly, by the storytellers and the times in which they lived. One thing that makes classic stories classic stories is in how they deal with big themes. To tell a classic story with a timeless big theme in a new era is to show your readers how certain things, certain truths, transcend time. Changing the particulars of the story doesn't mean you don't or can't still hold true to the essentials. Ergo, I think retelling a classic tale is following in the footsteps of the oral tradition.
Another reason to retell the classics is because, through retellings, we can see them with fresh eyes, introducing them to a new generation of readers in a new way. How many kids in the last ten years have become familiarized with Greek mythology through Percy Jackson? It doesn't mean people won't go on to pick up and read the original texts themselves (hopefully they will!), but a retelling can be a revitalized way to look at an old classic and ease new readers into familiarity with it.
Along those lines, the classics aren't as commonly read or studied now as they were long ago. Retellings, especially those done by YA writers, can introduce readers to classic stories they might not even know exist, or that they might not have ever considered reading due to intimidation or lack of interest. Some people, especially young readers, only read commercial fiction these days, and anything that looks too "scholarly" feels intimidating. Retellings take the edge off that intimidation factor, they exist in the commercial fiction market, and they can be a gateway into reading the actual original classic texts.
So is it valuable to retell classic stories and texts? I think the answer is a resounding YES. I'm looking forward to introducing the world to my retelling of The Little Mermaid once we find it a publishing home, but in the meantime, you can know that all my works are influenced, and influenced heavily, by the classics.
Last night, in the wee hours of the morning (as is usually the case with me), I completed my 9th novel. I would love to say I feel accomplished, but right now I'm simply too tired. Too many long sleepless nights have gone into this one for that sense of accomplishment and completion to have hit me just yet, but I'm sure it will come after I get a solid night's sleep in me. I don't even really feel ready to blog about the experience, but I think, looking back, I will be sorry if I don't, so I'm pushing through the exhaustion to take down a few thoughts.
This novel was a unique experience for me. In the midst of writing my dystopian trilogy (The Breeder Cycle) this winter, the idea for a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid came to me as if down from above. I think it was largely because I had recently watched Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella, and because I'm acting as advisor to a thesis student who is writing his thesis on fairy tales, and a bunch of other scattered reasons, but when the idea struck, the entire story came together so fast, I knew I could forego my usual 2-3-year planning period and put together a working outline in just a few weeks. I wrote the most complete ring composition outline I've ever put together in about three weeks flat, put together an entire cast of characters, and started writing The Girl in the Sea on February 29th.
It's amazing what a good outline will do for you, because here I am, on May 11th, with a 101,000-word novel that, back in February only existed in my head and is now completed on paper. And not only that, but I've begun the process of outlining the next novel in this series, which will go on to be my Fairy Tale Collection - each book of which will stand alone, but exist in the same universe.
I will tell you more about the story in the months to come, but for now let me just say that it will be both familiar and unfamiliar. The beauty of a retelling of a classic tale is that the reader can come to it with expectations - and hopefully have those expectations fulfilled - but also come to it to find something new. The Hans Christian Andersen story on which my novel is based is very, very short, so that gave me a lot of room to add my own take and create my own mythology surrounding the various creatures populating the world of The Little Mermaid. I also had so much fun telling a story for once that is unabashedly romantic, rather than romance playing second-fiddle, and I enjoyed the complexity that writing romance - and forbidden romance, at that! - allowed me to explore in the nuances between the characters. It was a fun, fun book to write!
But now I'm waxing on because I'm so, soooo tired, and if there's one thing I can do when I'm tired, it's write! But one more thing before I go: What next? Well, I'm letting the manuscript rest for at least one more day before I go back to it, and then I am going to start a full revision. There are a lot of rocky patches I know need to be smoothed over, and probably a couple of scenes that need complete overhauls, but the hard work of getting the story down on paper is done, and that's the hardest part. After that, I will send it off for editing and explore my publication options. I will keep you all posted! And as usual, the best way to keep up to date with my publishing news is to subscribe to my newsletter!
Now off to get some sleep...
As I indicated in my previous blog post, my love for fairy tales has carried over into my adult life. And because Cinderella has always been my favorite, I thought I would focus on a few Cinderella retellings (and let's face it - it seems like everyone is retelling Cinderella these days!). Keep in mind, though, I'm NOT comparing any of these to the original Grimm's story, because that story was never part of my childhood canon, although I have, as of late, been delving into some of the original stories as I research and write my own fairy tale, and I love the things I've been finding!
First up, the movie Ever After. Ever After was the Cinderella I needed as a child of the 90s. She was an independent-minded, Utopia-reading, free-spirited, prince-saving wild-child who could only have been done justice by Drew Barrymore. The teenage me needed Ever After. As a story, it spoke right to my angsty, class of 2001 heart, and as a princess, she retained just the right amount of goodness while adding just the right amount of grown-up verve to graduate me from the Disney Cinderella I had loved so much as a child. I loved the additions of Leonardo DaVinci and getting to see what sort of demons the prince was facing. I loved that everyone was not so perfect - I loved everything about it! But ultimately, Ever After is a teenage movie for a teenage audience, and as I grew up into an adult, I longed for a return to the purity of the original story.
That is why I was so overwhelmed by Kenneth Branagh's live-action Cinderella, which hit theaters Christmas 2014. With this movie, Branagh paid such perfect homage to the Disney classic while painting a new masterpiece all at the same time, and I couldn't believe how unabashed he was in portraying good as good and evil as evil. The movie flies directly in the face of the revisionist trend with fairy tales. And how refreshing it is to allow a heroine to find her strength in having courage and being kind, rather than in wielding a sword and saving herself. Cinderella's strength - and arguably the prince's strength, too - in the story comes from her moral character, something that all people watching her story can imitate. Cinderella captures the prince's heart with her goodness in this film, and the viewer's heart with the same, and the movie artfully moves the viewer through her stages of transformation with visuals that transfix and enamor. I have no shame in admitting I sat and wept through the movie in the theater.
Lastly, I finally began reading The Lunar Chronicles this winter, a fun, genre-bending twist on classic fairy tales where author Marissa Meyer intertwines several classic fairy tales in a pseudo-dystopian futuristic world. The first book, Cinder, follows a renowned street mechanic named Linh Cinder who is a cyborg who catches the eye of the imperial prince. I don't want to include any spoilers, so I won't summarize much beyond this, but the story clings loosely to the basic outline of Cinderella up to its culmination in a ball. I have somewhat mixed feelings about Cinder. On the one hand, I thought the book was great fun! I read it in two days. The story was engaging, the characters well drawn, and I genuinely cared about what was happening. On the other hand, because of my long-standing attachment to Cinderella, I wanted things from Cinder that she wasn't giving me as a character. You see, Marissa Meyer did what she had the full right to do: she made the story her own. Cinder is her own person. Like most YA heroines these days, she's sassy and sarcastic and headstrong, and she doesn't need to be saved! But I struggled with that, because her name was Cinder, so she was supposed to be Cinderella! So I came into the story with preconceptions about who she was and who she was supposed to act like. But Cinder doesn't have to act like Cinderella. She is her own hero. and Cinder, the novel, is not really a fairy tale at all. But it is a fun YA romp!
So... there you have it. A few of my scattered thoughts, as usual. I hope they made some sense. And no, I am NOT retelling Cinderella in my current fairy tale novelization. For one, it's been done and redone too much. For another, I don't think I could do it justice. No, I've chosen a fairy tale that hasn't been given as much attention in recent years, and when it was given big-screen attention, it was shaken quite loose from it's moorings. I was so moved by Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella, I'm trying to tell a fairy tale like that. So we'll see how it turns out!
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