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.
I've felt a little bit like the Karate Kid this summer. I didn't know what it would be like to work with an agent, but I certainly didn't anticipate how much my writing and storytelling would be refined, sharpened, and improved just over the course of a few months.
In the movie The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi trains young Daniel in the art of karate first by having him perform a number of chores--usually accompanied by the action, "Wax on, wax off." Daniel chafes against the tasks. He doesn't see the point of the chores--doesn't see that he's building muscle memory and discipline that will serve him to master karate in the future.
Now, that's not what my agent, Ben, has had me doing this summer, so this blog post isn't a perfect metaphor. And I'm a generally chill person (and also pretty chill to work with as a writer), so I didn't chafe at the revisions he asked me to make. But there are parallels to the "Wax on, wax off" experience, which is why I bring it up. My point is, when I submitted my manuscript--The Girl in the Sea--for agent representation, I thought it was, well, done. At least as done as a book can be prior to the professional editing process. I had carefully plotted it, and I can produce the ring composition and literary alchemy charts to prove it (I Instagrammed a picture of them over a year ago). I have published eight novels already, won ten awards, and I have never been a careless, "pantser" writer. I have taught creative writing for ten years, and people pay me good money to teach novel writing seminars. In other words, it's not that I don't know what I'm doing.
But it's when you are tempted to think you've "arrived" that you probably need someone to step in and force you to do a little, "Wax on, wax off." Ben could see things in my manuscript I couldn't, and he knows the market far better than I do. It's his job. I've always known I need to keep improving my craft (in theory, at least), but for a long time, I haven't had anyone who really pushed me to do so. But working through revisions on The Girl in the Sea this summer with Ben has felt like, "Wax on, wax off." Good. Again. Good--do it again. And as we near the end of this process of revisions and draw close to submission time, I'm amazed not only at how much better The Girl in the Sea is than it was when I signed with Ben, but how much stronger I feel as a writer.
If you, like me, find yourself in a position where you are privileged enough to be working with an agent or editor who sees the potential for your work to be better--even if you are a seasoned writer--Don't chafe. Wax on, wax off.
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