Monday, March 19, 2018

retelling a classic

"My novel is a modern day Catcher in the Rye"

"My novel is War and Peace, in space!"

"My novel is Charlotte's Web, with vampires!"

In other words "my novel" is the retelling of a now-classic work.  I get a lot of these, and while Charlotte's Web with vampires is a total non-starter for me, the others are not. I'd keep reading.

All too often however, the query doesn't tell me what I really want to know: what have YOU added to the story? How have you built on the work that's come before? How is your book better, faster, stronger, smarter, newer, zippier, than the classic upon which it is based.

Think about Romeo and Juliet. The musical West Side Story is R&J, but set on the west side of New York, during the influx of immigrants from Puerto Rico. The story isn't about family rivals in this case; it's ethnic rivalry. It says something about the melting pot we like to think America is. It says something about the American Dream for people coming from distant places. On top of the R&J love story, there's a cultural commentary.

That's what I'd need to know if you're querying West Side Story.

If you're having a hard time figuring out what you added to the story, you're not ready to query. "Catcher in the Rye set in the present day" isn't enough to hold my interest. Holden Caulfield as a transgendered** teen, yup.

**see Laina's comment at 11:49 for for strikeout revision. 
Thanks Laina!


Sam Hawke said...

I guess Wilbur gets his revenge after the long months of trying to persuade the humans not to kill and eat him by draining their blood in the big finale. Sounds like an excellent children's book. (Actually couldn't be any more traumatic than reading the actual ending, which caused utter hysterics in my son, poor darling).

Unknown said...

Slightly different take on retelling classics: I love novels that give minor characters from classics their own story. A favorite is Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Ah, my synapses are tripping all over themselves after this post.

My trunk novel, buried under my grandmother’s afghans, so deep they are where the cedar meets the pine box, my novel which Janet said she'd love to read once done, my novel, a retelling of a news story so familiar it might as well be a retelling of a classic work, maybe I should take it out, air the cedar smell and “Nike” the damn thing.

Oh the “maybes” and “what-ifs” of what a shark says.
Damn you Janet for fanning a flame I thought once dead.

Amy Johnson said...

I've been playing around with the idea of trying a retelling at some point. Thanks for the useful information, Janet. And then there's the downside of today's post. Oh, it's not a downside for me, my Queen. It's a very good side for me. But now that I have West Side Story on the mind, I'll no doubt be singing WSS songs all day. And I've gotten the sense that the family isn't as enthusiastic about my belting out show tunes as I am. I don't know why.

Sam: That would be some finale!

CarolyNN: Go for it!

Kitty said...

Amy ... The one song I remember most is Officer Krupke:
Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset;
We never had the love that every
Child oughta get
We ain’t no delinquents
We’re misunderstood
Deep down inside us there is good!

Question: Do modern day stories have to include today's technology, specifically cell phones? Someone noticed that my current WIP does not mention cell phones.

Steve Stubbs said...

It should be added that there could be a legal challenge if someone steals someone else's ideas. When Alice Randall published a politically correct version of GONE WITH THR WIND as THE WIND DONE GONE, she was challenged by Margaret Mitchell's estate. Parody is protected copying, although the rules are EXTREMELY subjective, and Randall et al were able to settle the case. The book is still in print and a bestseller.

So are you game for IT SURE WAS BORING GROWING UP IN EAST PODUNK if I set it to funeral music?

julieweathers said...

I detest remakes of classics. Sherlock Holmes Vampire Hunter. No, just no. Go create your own characters and screw them up. The remakes of the Gone With the Wind characters. No. Leave it alone. The story's been told. Leave it there.

That being said, there is nothing new under the sun. If you say my story is Romeo and Juliet in the old west with.... then it's a different story. It's not Shakespeare's characters told your way because you can do it better than the bard. Why didn't he think of telling it this way to begin with? Sheesh.

Sorry, rant off. I know a lot of people love these retellings of classics, but I don't. It smacks of thievery.

Casey Karp said...

I've been known to commit retellings, specifically of fairy tales. But they're skeletons, something to hang the flesh of the real story on, not the actual story themselves. 'Cause, yeah, nobody wants to read "Sleeping Beauty" again (well, except maybe Disney's IP lawyers) unless there's something really different about it. More than just changing that pumpkin into a watermelon.

Kitty, I don't think you have to mention everything just because it exists. That way lies madness. My WiP is present-day, but I never mention airplanes, basketball, or chocolate-covered bacon. But if you, say, describe the passengers on a bus, and nobody's got their nose buried in a phone, your readers are going to have a hard time suspending their disbelief.

DeadSpiderEye said...

'For the record, I am no huge fan of The Catcher in the Rye. In fact, to me, it's nothing more than a great opening line spoiled by 200-odd pages of sebum squeezing'

Thanks to Stuart Evers for that evocative précis of Catcher in the Rye. For my own record, I'd be nothing short of stunned if some sort of transgendering didn't feature in Holden's future and--I'm pretty sure Stuart's compliment about the opening line, is just licence to provide a suitable juxtaposition.

By the way if you want to read Catcher in the Rye without all the self obsession try Billy Liar, ...think Catcher in the Rye--only readable.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how you define the "now-classic work." Also, parodies differ from adaptations and I agree with Steve regarding the legal challenge.

Dmitry Yemets wrote a book called Tanya Grotter and the Magical Double Bass. It's a parody of the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In 2003 the lower Amsterdam court issued a cease and desist order on translation of this book in Netherlands. However, Gregory Maguire was not prosecuted for borrowing Baum’s characters to write Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

Is Maguire’s deed legitimate because more than 70 years have passed since the death of the original author? Can a contemporary book such as Harry Potter be treated like a "now-classic work"?

Adele said...

Kitty: "Someone noticed that my current WIP does not mention cell phones."

A few years ago a prominent and respected author trashed Jane Austen's novels because she doesn't mention the Napoleonic Wars. I would say - well, her novels are not about the Napoleonic Wars. Probably your book is not about cellphones. If you've got your characters running around looking for a pay phone and they don't live in an area that is free of cellphone signals, it's a fair criticism. But just to mention cellphones for the sake of mentioning them? That doesn't sound right.

However, I have read novels written by older people, who, when writing about much younger people, have described the world the author grew up in, rather than the world today's kids are living in. The author thinks the novel is contemporary and you think it's set in the 1970s. The cellphone comment could have been the critic's way of saying that.

Gayle said...

Alina, I think "now-classic work" has to do with when the work's copyright runs out and it enters into public domain. I'm not a lawyer though. I'm not sure why someone who uses Gone with the Wind got into trouble. Seems like it would be old enough, but perhaps not?

Harry Potter might be available to parody right now, but I would think any kind of serious re-telling would be years away without the author's permission. And I'm not sure how with all the trademarking and amusement parks and movies factor into that work now.

I remember reading something about a case (possibly here!) about Sherlock Holmes and some of the stories being in public domain and some of them not being and that causing some trouble for someone who was adapting some of the stories in some way. Sorry, that's pretty vague.

nightsmusic said...

If you read anything about Titanic by James Cameron, whether you liked or loathed the movie, his pitch line to the studios was "Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic." The studio bought it without a script. But the script still had to pan out. So instead of two prominent families, Cameron used the class distinctions. I don't think it would be nearly the blockbuster it turned into if he had.

For the record, I had to read Catcher in the Rye in school. I still hate that book.

Anonymous said...

Gayle, I think the problem is that under the modern copyright law, individual countries treat the issue of parodies and copyright infringement differently. If I remember it correctly, under the principles of American copyright law, it is legal to use similar themes and the same attributes of characters. Only the use of similar details and sequences of events would result in a copyright infringement.

Amy Johnson said...

Kitty: Ha! Officer Krupke is the first song that came to mind as I was reading today's post! :)

And I'm off... "Geeeeee, Officer Krupke..."

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Asaaarg. So much to say. Not enough time to say it. I lurk, I miss being in the thick of it. But I must resign myself to the lurking as I finish my book- which is a Paradise Lost in reverse. Although I have no intention of mentioning that in my query. Should I? Great post. More fuel for the rodent wheel.

Laina said...

FYI, "transgendered" is considered somewhat offensive. It's an adjective, not a verb. Other teens are not "talled" teens, or "funnied" teens. "Trans" or "transgender" is appropriate. :)

Kitty said...

Thanks Casey and Adele.

Fifty-seven years later and this still rings true: Geeee Officer Krupke!

Craig F said...

I always figured that every story is built on the bones of some other story. There are only so many types of emotional responses to social interaction.

The bells, whistles and low hanging fruit are what make your story seem different but somewhere back there, there is a skeleton in the closet.

A while ago, in the twelfth century, Jean Bodel postulated that there were three Matters, tropes, that are the basis of all stories. Those were the Matters of Rome, France and Briton.

Unrequited love goes back to Lancelot and Guinevere.

Magic to Merlin or Virgil.

Any company of companions has bones in Charlemagne and his Papillons,

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I have a deep love for retellings, sometimes a pernicious one. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, for example, is not a perfect retelling of Hamlet, and there are bits in there that made me cock my head and go "really? That's what....well. Okay. Fine. Sure." But like, Season 1 (at least) of Sons of Anarchy has these Macbeth under/overtones that I am just THERE FOR.

I enjoy playing with retellings as well, but as you say, Ms. Reid, not just a retreading but (I hope) with details and elements that combine to form something only I could bring to the table. Should any of them become published, I'll try to remember this conversation, to let my fellow Reiders decide!

Lennon Faris said...

I would read Charlotte's web with vampires!

R&J, Titantic, and West Side Story all have the same mechanic at the end that I cannot take. Come ON, guys, think for a moment, THINK before you just sadly watch the other one die and melodramatically let yourself (or them) go, is what I am yelling at the page or screen at the end. Maybe Tony should have checked out Maria's dead body for himself before he strolled into that square shouting? Or perhaps R&J should have gotten someone to double-check those pulses. Or MAYBE Rose could have at least OFFERED Jack the floating door?

Sorry that was a bit off topic. Pent up rage there.

Kitty I agree with what the others said. I'd also add that if a cell phone would realistically be part of your plot and you don't use it, that would pull readers out of the story. Like, Antagonist traps group of people inside a building, and no one calls the cops. Or a teen wonders where they are in the woods and no one checks Google maps.

Kregger said...

*Light bulb turns on*

"Note to self. Consider making the Charlton Heston character, Frank Thorn in my Soylent Green retelling a transgender protagonist that hates guns."

Man, all that wood and cardboard is going to cause a huge bonfire.

Unknown said...

I'm in Julie Weather's camp regarding retelling of Classics. Plus, they're usually a let down because...well, they're not the classic!

John Davis Frain said...

My comment is Jeff Somers, but with pants on. So:

To the bar!

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Lennon, I watched TITANIC eleven times in the movie theater. Each time Jack died. I cried eleven times.
Then I took the same trip myself (without the sinking).

I guess I was fond of Leo, and 21 years old - hope that explains...