Stay tuned for more during the summer!
Just a super quick update (because graduation and finals- yikes) to let everyone know that this summer, I will be representing the #ShoreIndie Contest as a Featured Author! I will be on Twitter between June 12-July 30 (a pinned-down date to come) to discuss writing, my blogs, and my experience with everyone, so have your questions ready and feel free to share to interested folk! The contest they are running is fantastic and very supportive of the indie community- so if you are interested, you can read more about them here! Please also check out the other featured authors; I am honored to be up there with so many talented writers!
Stay tuned for more during the summer!
I’ll be honest and say that I’m supposed to be writing. Touching up the ending of a novel and setting the blocks for its sequels, in fact. But we’re having a plot disagreement at present, so I chose to devote my evening to a blog post instead. I’m returning to editing tomorrow; I always end up going back.
Books are like children in some ways, and so, creating them should be handled responsibly, and with the knowledge that you will be tending to its needs at all odd hours for quite a few more years. My last four years have been solely dedicated to the same two or three books, chipping away at drafts and tightening details with each new pass.
“Why push through for that long?”, you might ask. Knowing when to complete a draft is tricky, after all. Some projects aren’t worth the effort. I’ve even often wondered if my persistence borders on wasteful and tactless.
There will be some stories that haunt you though, no matter what you’re writing. They tug at your hair and disturb you in the night. Ideas that crop up as scribbles on napkins, in the margins of homework. Those books? They are the ones that need telling.
But some stories haven’t been so fortunate. There are few truths in the lives of authors, other than death, taxes, lost data, and lots of abandoned writing. Every career is littered with unfinished ideas and unrealized plots. I spent much of my teen years composing stories via a notebook or my school laptop, all abandoned as I hopped from one story to the next. In fact, my current troublesome draft is the culmination of a few unfinished story ideas that I realized, quite amazingly, finished each other. The story I kept trying to tell was easier after I aged a few years. Even if it wasn’t the same general thing, it was still full of the same tropes, archetypes, and themes. I stopped throwing things away after I noticed.
Finishing a book came in waves; completing the first draft is huge, but completing the first revision is bigger. And just like writing styles, revision styles are wholly unique to the author. I know writers who work through second and third drafts with the complete guidance of beta readers. I know writers who guard their works jealously until they feel it worthy of sharing (whatever draft that might be). I suspect, from my own experience, that revision style is harder to pin down than anything else. Writing is such a natural creative expression, whereas revision means taking that methodical knife to your expression and knowing where to cut. Being a good editor and a good author aren’t always synonymous skills, and neither are easy-going.
So, can you lose a draft in these waves of completion? Absolutely. People have edited books to death, or lost the voice of a story in the noise of too many early readers. Or, honestly- in the disparagement of the author. Editing is harsh, messy, and full of obstacles; writing would be easier if plotlines just worked themselves out. Why write at all?
This all sounds very dreary, doesn’t it? I was originally heartbroken at the idea that a story could go sour, even after so much work and time. “Then,” I thought, “what’s the point of finishing at all? Why am I even doing this?”
Because of those stories that haunt you.
Effort has merit, and so does knowing when to release a story- whether that means focusing our efforts on the projects that matter or finally ending our persistent edits. We all reach a day when our book baby is all grown up and we can no longer predict what it will say to others, or where it will go, and who might read it. That’s okay.
This still makes most authors very anxious, and that’s okay too. You will have other stories to create, visit, and shape, and yes, more edits to weep over.
I’m still supposed to be writing, and have made a sport of actively avoiding it at this point. But I do always manage go back and finish something, which counts in my book. There are scores of abandoned things that I leave in my creative wake, but I am happier knowing we never fully abandon our stories; we just recreate and revisit when the time is right.
I was about 14 when I realized I enjoyed writing historical fiction. Then gawky, modestly full of angst, and just getting my sea legs with writing, I was fangirl of three things: comics, Fall Out Boy, and Pirates of The Caribbean. The last one was where I first found my voice in fanfic writing, curious to explore other characters and alternate universes after watching the movies and reading the spin-off novels so many times. The PoTC craze was bigger then, since the original trilogy had just finished, so pirate books were everywhere. Busy writing, I opted to snap up whatever I could to read more about the Golden Age of Piracy, and discovered how much more I liked that instead.
Clumsily, I started stitching up my Pirates stories with more historical accuracy and peppering them with historical figures like Blackbeard and Calico Jack. I dragged my family all the way to Galveston to visit the Elissa, one of the few functioning tall ships in the United States. I went find Jean Lafitte’s house by the harbor, then took all the details back to my writing. It actually paid off; I won my first writing award for the fanfic I composed with that research.
I really haven’t changed much as an adult, though my stories got more original and my adventures got bigger. Most importantly though, I’ve become a much better researcher. When I first started writing my current series around late 2012, I vanished back down the research rabbit hole, into the world of Gothic fiction, Victorian history, zombies, and Irish mythology. It was kind of a handful, but I was eager about that. I wrote a few very top-heavy rough drafts and spilled all my information into this book, the author equivalent of taking several buckets of paint and dumping their contents straight to the canvas. The result was potentially pretty, but needed… organizing, lest it turn into a mushy shade of gray. This is a big sin in historical fantasy, where the author has so much to share with the audience that the story can get lost in the details, and Dickens call-backs, and angles of possible historical accuracy (I’m looking at you, Cassandra Clare).
The good thing about being a writer is my paint isn’t permanent, so I can separate and remove colors as I need. This also meant narrowing down what kind of research I needed for the story in the first place. So, I spent a few more years on the book, removing layers and adding small flourishes of detail. Travelling to locations and buying new books whenever I could. I reminded myself that there were always new books to write, so- yes, even though it’s super interesting that they were still opening up the Jack the Ripper case in 1901, maybe I don’t need that detail so much right now.
Characters were cut and plotlines were tightened. I mourned over my darlings, but also celebrated that I made the book better. With the novel in its final stages and its novella out to the public, I am happier that I took the time to make sense of my strange Gothic, Irish zombie book and find what mattered in its history.
One thing about becoming a better researcher that I enjoy is how human it makes the past feel. Writers sometimes get so wound around their research, we lose sight of pirates or Victorians in a morass of quirky facts, morals, and behavioral guides. We forget that they were still people, and people don’t really change throughout history; we simply find new ways to do old things.
Keeping this in mind grounds the characters in their present day, which they don’t view under a glass of important authors, historical figures, and tourist-style visits to certain locations. It’s as alive to them as this day is for me, and even a modicum of this really saves the story from becoming an antiqued tribute to some forgotten era.
I so think that should be the final goal of historical fiction, whether fantasy or more realistic. Researching means you get the blow the dust off of history; writing it requires you bring it to life for someone else. There is skill in becoming well-read historically, but there is magic in making that history real for the reader.
[trigger warning: CSA and PTSD]
"Out it comes,
Hands shake, pulses race
Dread takes its course,
wringing over and over.
There is no water,
And on we wring.
Becomes and fades,
The ever-present pit,
the ever-present wreck."
The above section is from a poem I penned in 2014, according to my computer. It was three in the morning, in the middle of summer, and I was having a panic attack. No particular reason, if I remember right. Sometimes they don’t have good reasons, which is probably why I started writing about panic attacks. Writing it out makes far more sense than the strange wash of emotion that overwhelms your head when you deal with anxiety.
I've chipped away at this piece for awhile, waiting for the right time to share. And this is one of those times where most writers can relate to having a bit more anxiety, I think. I also wanted to open up this post with some honesty, because anxiety, creativity, and I have a funny relationship. I'm not alone there, as most artists, writers, and creative types report dealing with anxiety disorders and/or depression in some form. The world is messy, dark thing lately, and can be hard on those of us that feel 'too deeply'. The empathetic, gentle, and first to notice every detail in our world. It can be distracting, de-motivating, and tremendously difficult to overcome. Creating anything might be the last thing on your mind right now, but there is merit to giving the stress and inner darkness a little more voice. I speak from personal experience.
The first attacks started cropping up after I turned 18, but that anxiousness took different, intrusive forms over the years. My childhood was dotted with dark spaces; I grew up poor, and am a sexual assault survivor. My attacker never saw justice, or the therapist he was assigned, so I had to dodge him for years afterward. Bullying followed when I turned reclusive, and silence reigned as my experience turned to fear when I started dating. You never really outrun trauma, so I learned; you can only put more space between you and the harm it's done. There are bruises in my bones, but they fade with every year.
I hated talking about all of it- I hate talking about it to this day, but my fight had to go somewhere. My wars turned into something more creative and internal, if only to address the sheer, raw ball of anguish that often settled in the pit of my stomach.
Everyone has a story about why they started writing, or their default answer becomes “I was born to write.” I often discount the idea of being born to do something, but my connection with writing has always been my strongest response, after the therapists had gone and the noise remained too much. The place where my emotions made the most sense. I wrote as a direct response to hardship, and turned to the aforementioned poetry to vent. Sometimes I just open a Word document and spill out over the paper in honesty- I always ended up deleting those. I have used words, writing and reading alike, as a reflection for most of my life. A mirror from which I can better understand myself.
“Creative people don’t come from happiness,” a fellow writer once told me, in response to a conversation about rough childhoods. I think that is very true, in a certain light. Writers can be happy people by nature (like myself), but we have our axes to grind- some more than others. Some more than me. Everything I create feels like a step; I am lighter when I finish something, like I’ve untangled my insides a little. Heaven knows they won’t untangle themselves. When I started writing seriously in college, it was a response to reoccurring ideas: the moment where I said, "I'm gonna start doing this for real and write a novel!". But it also became a vehicle for energy and stress. Rather than struggling to balance writing and college, I have thrived in both. I made peace with myself and with my world, just a little.
The beautiful part about writing fiction is it eventually becomes your mirror anyway, showcasing honest sides of the author in a character trait, a sentence, and description just human enough that it couldn't be faked. Translating yourself under the guise of another world is any artist's ultimate goal; we love fanart, and fans, and entertaining the idea of fame on occasion, but truthfully, I think we all just desire to voice something in these struggles of silence. When your head fills with too much noise, clutter, and inky blackness, there is life behind the page.
There is freedom in knowing that you can relinquish it back into the world.
There is bravery in shedding light on the underbelly of a troubled world.
There is healing in the quiet spaces between you and your words.
“I think I hated my novel a little,” I said this week.
I used “hate” in past tense since I have recently picked back up on the same batch of editing I dropped around this time last year. I gave a parting bow to my former host, Inkitt.com, and started writing the way I loved again. I was brought back from the dead, at last!
But I really hated writing for awhile. Last year, I got stuck exactly five chapters before my ending. The reasons started stacking onto each other: my grandfather had just passed away, my class life was plagued by an unstable professor who didn’t like me much, and generally (truthfully) discouragement had taken over. I had climbed very high in a few contests, only to lose a shot at a publishing deal twice over. My WIP novel, Chimehour, had done very well with early audiences and shown prowess. My odd little love letter to Irish folklore, history, and all the beautiful Victorian poetry I had grown up with. The one I had written with the intention of shoving it into a drawer. I couldn’t shake the feeling I needed to share it though; I could never get away from the idea that the book needed more eyes. So, one reader turned into twenty: one marketing idea turned into a thousand. The ball started rolling and I was gaining a small following before I really knew what to do.
Now, if I could just finish that book.
As 2016 rolled in, two things happened: first, I lost my last big contest and decided to fully remove Chimehour from the website. Second: I was approached by the site’s CEO to take on the role as Authors Community Manager, and I stopped removing Chimehour altogether. A long year has unraveled after that, which you can find in my previous blogs- here, here, and here. It was and remains one of the most unusual, crazy, and unique jobs I’ve ever had. I also didn’t write a whole lot while I worked for the Berlin-based company, but I learned some things about myself as a writer in its stead: I crept out of my bookish cave and saw the world with a little more clearly. Inkitt, I suspect, is the best thing that happened to me as a novice, and subsequently, leaving the company was also the best thing I’ve ever done as a novice. It all let me love my novel again, and there are a few reasons.
Letting in The Right Voices:
There’s a famous quote from Stephen King that I’ve always liked: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” Everyone has an opinion when they read your work, and chances are, if you are writing, you book will end up being read. Some voices will not be the most positive. In Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook, there is a section in which he discusses the wrong kind of early readers. The over-editors, nitpickers, and analyzers that wish more of their voice in a story than yours. When dealing with beta readers and early supporters, it’s important to surround yourself with the right voices. People who can support and critique equally without making you lose the heart of your story. People who you can message at 2am when scenes aren’t working, just to distract yourself. People who you can message at 2am who will promptly spam you with Shia Labeouf memes to get you started again. Other authors in particular are good for this, but I have my share of friends who just act as supportive ears. Honesty, compassion, and awareness of your usual authorly slacking can go a long way.
Accepting Endings Is Hard:
Endings are actually, in my personal opinion, the hardest part of any project. I am one to rush through them in every single first draft, and every time, I regret it because I end up rewriting 80%-90% of said ending by the third draft. Wrapping up a story of any kind is tricky, since you have to draw every curtain to a close and wrapping up every loose plot thread. It has taken upwards of eight drafts to accept that my ending just takes time to get right, and that is okay. This also means accepting the ending in the most literal sense: ending the story and moving on to something else. This part tends to give me trouble- I get attached to my projects easily and turn into one neurotic editor if I’m not careful. Both can become their own vice where you never finish anything. There is a sense of sadness that comes with closing a project out and letting go, but it’s important to know there will always be new novels, bigger dreams, and great stories to pursue.
Don’t Lose Heart, Just Make Space:
The most important lesson I gathered from this year about writing was about keeping heart and staying focused. The toughest part of long-term projects is the relationship you garner with them, and the ups and downs that come with such things. For writers, those downs can sometimes outweigh the ups, and slow spots in your work can feel like mountains of discouragement, too impossible to climb. Your work can suddenly feel like an enemy, rather than a close companion. This is often why I consider the year and a half I’ve taken away from editing/writing the healthiest thing I accidentally did for my novel. It gave me time away from the project, to think, feel, refuel, and recharge. It also gave the novel time away from me, where my words could settle without my tinkering and constant judgment. When we reunited, it was a much, much happier time, as the space I had created had re-allowed me to fall in love with my novel.
Chimehour currently stands with four chapters to re-edit, and a check from some very eager beta readers! I hope to have the novel out in the next year (for real), and hope to share the other books in the series soon after. It’s been a great, wild journey reconnecting with my work, and my only hope now is to share it back to the world in the way it deserves.
So, guess who's a published author now, officially?
This week, I finished the editing, formatting, and final polish for my novella, "The Spectre and The Governess", a prequel to my much larger novel and the introduction to some of its major characters! A big thank you to all the people who helped edit and reviewed early; this book wouldn't have been finished without you! You can currently buy the e-book copy on Amazon (and I may do a giveaway at some point; keep you eyes peeled!) It's already reaching the Top 100 in Gothic fiction on Amazon, so whoop!
Chimehour is next on the chopping block, and rest assured that it's close. I have the ending to complete and then the book goes off to my last round of beta readers for one more screening. I'm so eager to share the whole book with people, and cannot wait to start new projects! Thank you to everyone for being patient with me while I slowly but surely finish these books; it means so much. Here's hoping they don't disappoint!
A few years back, I started a blog on Tumblr. Again. This was more or less my third try at consistent blogging; I had abandoned WordPress and a previous Tumblr URL because of sheer boredom. Because, for a writer, I’m a terrible blogger. I wanted a better place to talk about the process than a few vague blurbs on Facebook, even if it was to myself. My current Tumblr, “Faire Lady Penumbra,” has been my home since. The day I created the blog, I tag-lined myself “The Oddly Extroverted Novelist,” and hoped to change it later. To this day, this tag-line is what I get the most questions about.
“I’m an extroverted writer too! Do you have any tips for writing?”
“My friend doesn’t think there are extroverted writers out there…”
“How do you stay so organized? I’m outgoing and have such a hard time…”
I never did end up changing the line. Instead, I turned my platform into an open space to discuss personality and art. It's a somewhat overlooked realm of extroverted creative work, especially where writers are concerned. Novelists are considered solemn quiet creatures, locked away in offices with notebooks, coffee-stained clothes and typewriters that we will someday throw against walls in a fit of writer's block. The extroverted writer is treated as The Last Unicorn, an oddity to the outside world.
To be fair, I stick my notes to anything I can stick them to, but extroverted writers don't always align with stereotypes. We dwell in sunlit Starbucks corners and wander the streets in search of more stories. We haunt Twitter and Facebook, posting to our friends in lieu of creative dry spells. We are the verbal species of storyteller, forever ecstatic to share in some way. We bring our processes in a bag, unpacking it anywhere, forming habits and creating space in the middle of crowds. I personally love the sensation of writing at a cafe with headphones in. “I am alone, but not truly,” I tell people. “I have the power to create space. I can observe the world from my own window.” But I can write pretty much anywhere it strikes my fancy, from the comfort of my sofa to a bumpy bus ride through European mountains.
I suppose I don’t think myself fully extroverted—more of an introvert who plays an extrovert well. I have more novel ideas than close friends and have limits to how much socialization I can manage before I need to vanish back into my own worlds. I bounce back and forth between the world’s greatest socialite and ignoring my Facebook messages for days on end (apologies for that, friends). It’s a difficult process to explain, since I don’t necessarily need the company of others but I draw a lot of creative energy from it. There is a beautiful marriage between life and art. People are made of stories, and stories made by people. My characters are fueled by fires that I have seen in the eyes of others and by the wonderful quirks that make us so human.
Likewise, I am as much a night owl as I am a cafe dweller. There is solace in returning home with a day's worth of inspiration and spinning its magic through the night. I enjoy silence, in small doses at least, and make use of it as I organize my thoughts to better effect. Furthermore, some of my closest friendships have come from 3:00 a.m. conversations when I'm not writing. Other extroverted writers I know have their own habits and rituals. Some of us keep more presence while we write, sharing process through the window of social media. Some of us shut away our work until the time is right. All of us are usually up at 3:00 a.m., chatting away before we settle back into our scenes and return to work.
So, here's to the extroverted writers. We're not so different from our introverted counterparts in what we do. To the wandering, expressive and outgoing among us. A little different in our energy and style, but drawing from the same world and interpreting it with the same gusto. Really, we are, all of us, writers first and foremost.
An interesting phenomenon turned up during the recent release of Rogue One, the darker, more tragic addition to the Star Wars films. Despite having a completely new cast to market and work from, many of the ads focused on a single appearance: Darth Vader.
Now, Vader isn’t in this movie very long and his presence only affects the plot in marginal ways, yet all anyone could talk about was the incredible last scene where Vader completely massacres a group of rebels just to get the Death Star plans.
Will I complain as a Star Wars fan? Never. I got to see Darth friggin’ Vader on the big screen for the first time.
Not Anakin, not the underwhelming cameo in Revenge of The Sith. Actual, awesome, terrifying Darth Vader that struck fear into hearts back in the 70’s.
Behind every great hero is an even better villain. Something fun and dark lurks in a well-written antagonist, and while we aren’t rooting for them, we relish having them to act as a moral counterpoint. Their popularity has since led to a growing trend of villain-lead stories; comics and stories centered around Darth Vader, or Loki from The Avengers, or The Joker from Batman. Anime and manga haven’t shied from this either, giving the world Kira of Death Note and Lelouch v Britanna of Code Geass. Villains suddenly act as their own protagonist, and deal with their own antagonists.
The villain lead has taken on a new importance, whether it be in origin stories as with Fairest and Heartless by Marissa Meyer (books that focus on The Queen of Hearts and Levena, Meyer’s science fiction reincarnation of Snow White’s Evil Queen). Or with outright antagonistic protagonists, as with the popular Six of Crows books by Leigh Bardugo. Characters who aren’t always saved, nor do they want to be. Leads capable of crime and debauchery all the way to end.
Of course, we can point fingers at the Hot Topic-esque marketing monstrosity that is Suicide Squad for leading the recent march, but villainous protagonists have existed for much longer. Macbeth is an outright murderer, driven by his own ache of power and paranoia. Dorian Gray uses, abuses, and kills to protect his cursed secret. Humbert Humbert justifies lust and control to satisfy his own meek existence. All the main voices of their story, opening their minds to the audience and sharing in their worlds.
Now, not all leads are created equal. While a Harley Quinn can be charmingly chaotic, main characters for novels like Lolita and A Clockwork Orange are unquestionably perverse and wicked. Monsters that edge passed a moral horizon and beyond what much of the audience is comfortable with. Are these, the truly diabolical, meant for antagonistic roles alone?
When putting the more controversial leads into perspective, it’s important to remember that we are all the protagonist in our own mind. We are all heroes, even when our choices are not so heroic and not so brave. The truly evil, in real life, are not those aware they are committing wrongdoing, but those who justify their own wrongdoing as something right or morally just (this is a sound tip for writing villains, by the way. I stand by this rule for my antagonists).
Does that make these characters purely irredeemable? Not always. Even true villains like Darth Vader technically earn a chance to do the right thing, and many other more villainous leads get a chance at the same redemption. But all the same, does every not-so-good protagonist need redemption to be likable? Can a villain not simply do what villains do best?
The best example lies in a widely popular story, that almost wasn’t the same story. In the original final chapter of A Clockwork Orange, Alex realizes the error of his violent ways and changes himself, which sounds pleasant enough. Yet when the novel was released in the US and adapted, editors and filmmakers saw fit to remove the last chapter, effectively voiding Alex’s recovery and leaving him as a vicious psychopath. While the author himself never cared for this new ending, many readers and viewers agreed that Alex’s change would have defeated the point of the story. The very real, raw idea that sometimes, no matter what happens, people are purely content to be monsters.
So, perhaps some villains are just villains, and they are best written that way. And perhaps we, as readers, enjoy exploring the more complex layers of these characters. Often darkness makes for the best stories.
I was seven when I first knew I wanted to tell stories. Seven, small, and a very eager Girl Scout on a trip to the Children’s World Fair in New Orleans. This is a large cultural festival hosted by the local children’s museum, and it features several countries every year, complete with food and elaborate décor. I held up my entire troop in the India room one year, when they hosted a storyteller (this was the coolest job in the world to me; why I do this now).
I found out she exclusively told Indian fairytales, which surprised my seven-year-old self, since they too had a Cinderella and Rapunzel; never quite the same as the English (or Disney) versions, but similar enough to recognize. I went home to search Google, and found out that there were a lot of Cinderella and Rapunzel stories in the world. Little me suddenly understood something that has remained as cornerstone of fiction: shared ideas.
Storytellers are a little like The Borrowers, of the famous Mary Norton novels. “Borrowers borrow,” and writers are much the same. Small and busy, we gather pieces in the shadows of our legendary forbearers and cobble together something of our own. A touch of folklore here, a dash of an archetype there. Never the bits that people will miss; iconic characters, threads of plot, or paragraphs of writing. That would be stealing, wouldn’t it?
Or would it?
If you found yourself in a bookstore or movie theatre in the last decade, you probably noticed a boom in the retelling. Not adaptations of an original novel, but sequels, spin-offs, or alternate universes for the novel by other, newer authors. Lewis Carroll’s famous Alice in Wonderland novels have been subject to so many re-imagined variations that it’s become trite. There’s Tim Burton’s movies, American McGee’s Alice horror game series, The Looking Glass Wars, Once Upon a Time, Alice in Zombieland, Alice in The Country of Hearts, Pandora Hearts… (including the full-ish list of Alice-based works here, because jeez- it’s long).
This seems odd, since Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a novel. It’s not some anonymous piece of folklore passed from a culture; it’s Carroll’s words and creations. It could be argued that Carroll borrowed from his culture first (and he does), but now it seems that the storyteller becomes as much a part of the borrowed works as the work he originally borrowed from.
Carroll isn’t alone in these ranks. Jane Austen, Frank L. Baum, Mary Shelley, J.M. Barrie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle- to name a few! Their works not only inspired people to share their works, but retell them in new novels, movies, and TV series. Inventive projects like Showtime’s Penny Dreadful even go far as putting different characters from these books in the same world, often with dangerous, entertaining, and scandalous results.
But the question remains, is this trend a good one? At first glance, these books, movies, and shows appear little more than legal fan fiction for classic works. Literary mincemeat, re-churning of ideas and tropes, slopped onto a plate of familiar characters and popular stories. There’s a huge outcry for “original content” on the internet after all these recent retellings. “Where are all the new stories? Why can’t writers stop being hacks and write something of their own?” The masses are a little tired seeing new reincarnations of Alice and Elizabeth Bennet, it seems.
But let’s wrap back around to fan fiction for a moment, because fanfics are still a hugely popular kind of writing and their entire basis is borrowing. And not just from YA novels and Star Wars, but from sources like fairytales, Greek mythology, and even the Bible. Say what you might about fanfics, but the idea behind good fan fiction is that a story can build upon the source material while respecting canon, or a story that brings something new to the table without losing the heart of the original (being “too OOC” as we say).
Let’s hop further back now, to works like the collected adventures of Robin Hood and the many plays of William Shakespeare. To King Arthur and his legends. To mythology from the Greeks and Celts. These stories did not exist in a bubble, but drew their strength from older stories and myths. They carry in them ancient bones, placed long before we knew to write our stories down. We, in turn, borrow from these works without much thought at all. The authors of classics simply followed in the footsteps of more faceless storytellers.
So, where do these retellings stand in the place of literary history? Is it always disrespectful to draw new life from books like Pride & Prejudice or Phantom of The Opera, or are writers simply carrying on old traditions? Are an author’s works truly sacred, or do we all simply join the ranks of other storytellers by creating a new layer of cultural lore? Are Alice and Elizabeth untouchable, or are they no different from Persephone and Athena? Archetypes for a new age.
Time will tell which of these stories remain important in the long term, but until then, we are free as Borrowers to continue our respectful borrowing. We will continue to cobble, create, and reinvent, paying tribute to stories and characters while passing them into the hands of new readers.
(Can also be read on Academia, my side-blog project with Dr. Joshua Grasso).
This weekend was an exciting one for bookish fanbases with the release of Netflix’s newest series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, a collection of adventures centered around the orphaned Baudelaire siblings and their notorious enemy, Count Olaf. The hype has been quite big for awhile: this is actually the second version of the popular middle grade series. Most readers would be happy enough to forget the first theatrical film by Nickelodeon and everything it brought with it though (I still personally cringe at the thought of the screeching, flailing take Jim Carrey had on the series’ main villain). The movie’s presence left permanent scars on the series.
What is it about the movie-from-novel transition that is so harmful though? As we’ve seen in recent years, with films like Lemony Snicket or Eragon, or more recently- The Giver (see? I just cringed again), these movies can become deterrents from the original novel. If your first experience with a story is a Frankenstein’s Monster-like version of its content, you may never pick up the book or discover the actual story the author intended.
Recently, t’s feeling like a book can’t even hit the shelf without first selling film rights; many publishers do reserve those rights ahead of time too, just in case, you know? It’s no surprise. As Harry Potter and Twilight climbed the ranks of popular fiction, their movies became larger-than-life franchises and gateways to the books for movie-goers. So everything gets a movie now, “and quickly! Before the audience loses interest and doesn’t care about this novel anymore. Who cares if some of the more literary themes in this book don’t make sense in a film?”
And here lies the larger problem: books aren’t movies, and movies aren’t books. The strongest film adaptations of novels are the ones that express the heart of the film itself, without being a direct scene-for-scene cut of the story, or you know? Not attempting to be the story at all.
The botched Hollywood adaptation isn’t a new concept. Speaking of Frankenstein, it’s well noted that Mary Shelley’s original novel has almost never been directly adapted to the screen and the film version barely resembles the book or its characters (seriously, who is Igor and why is Victor suddenly a doctor?). This may be because Frankenstein so delicately detailed with literary themes. The overtones of responsibility, inner darkness, and atonement are something the narration and writing evoke, and they almost cannot be shown to the audience in a visual sense. What Shelley conveys in Frankenstein would be meaningless on the big screen.
There is a similar issue with novels like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where both famous versions only resemble their novels by name and concept. Many of the socio-political themes are lost in favor of lighter, less historical fare. Are we right to call Hollywood out for this? Is it fair to a contemporary audience that we include Alice’s Victorian-era political commentary, or Oz’s allusions to 19th century American gold standard debates? These issues were, after all, products of their era. These movies are both very popular, and whether or not we like it, they’re often the first experience people have with these stories. They were the films that introduced me to these novels, in fact, and while I don’t care for them as much as my younger self did, one cannot help but wonder if more movies are capable of this. Can a movie serve as a well-made gateway to the novel without bastardizing the content?
(Source: Classic editions of several novels, noted for their widely differences from their movies. Yes, that includes The Wind in The Willows, but we won’t get into Disney for now).
I found my answer by way of Neil Gaiman. A lover of experiments and a creative force of nature, Gaiman has done a great deal of screenwriting, but only allowed his original works on the big screen/television handful of times. He reserves the right to be picky, but tries to give each adaption a promise of new experience, rather than being a straight retelling. This is incredibly evident with the 2007 film, Stardust. Searching the reviews for the original novel, it isn’t unusual to encounter readers who grabbed the book because the movie, and who are surprised (or shocked perhaps) at the differences between the versions. Indeed the novel of Stardust reads more like classic a Brothers Grimm folktale, complete with all its brutal violence and sexual themes. There are complex ideas about loss, forgiveness, and growing up. There are hints of English folklore and the old implications of respecting the fae. As a result, several rewrites were done on the movie’s script to help the story along, because many of these ideas and concepts simply did not translate to a screen; Gaiman approved the changes happily. This actually allowed the movie to breathe and expand the universe of Stardust, giving the viewer a fuller, different version of the fairytale without taking away from the original. And funny thing… it works! As it worked in the recent radio show version of Stardust, which is actually read from the perspective of one of the characters, rather than 3rd person. All versions of the story are distinct, and all of them are particularly good.
So what is the answer to a strong film adaptation? Do creators need more of a hand in these projects, as with Neil Gaiman, or as Daniel Handler has done with the recent Netflix version of of A Series of Unfortunate Events? Do filmmakers need to be less hasty in churning out new movies for a supposedly impatient audience? Or does a quality of these films lie in something far more complex?
There is an art to adapting a story, just as there is an art to telling a story. What works in the format of a film may not work in the format of a novel, or vice versa. While you can never please everyone with the way a story is retold, it makes a great of sense for certain ideas or scenes to change, or end up cut, if they cannot translate into a film. And actually, that’s not a bad thing as long as the new story retains the heart of the original, or at least tries to be of the same quality. From plays in ancient Greece to oral folklore, we do like revisiting our old stories in new mediums, and we still enjoy seeing that today, whether on the screen or stage or Netflix series. There is merit in expecting something memorable and well-written though, and that can mean the difference between outstanding and more Eragons.
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.