Retellings are fascinating things. On the one hand, someone else has already handed you characters, a plot, a setting… so many things you can choose to work with to make writing your book easier. On the other hand, making the choices of how to incorporate the source material and generally working within the confines of what’s already there can be maddeningly impossible.
I wrote my first retelling – a contemporary YA retelling of the biblical book of Esther (cleverly titled THE BOOK OF ESTHER, aka TBoE, which we pronounce like Tebow in my house for our amusement) – last summer, after years of knowing there must’ve been a way to do it and then finally figuring out how. As far as items on my writerly bucket list went, writing this retelling was #1, and just having done it feels like an achievement in itself, no matter where it ends up.
Especially because, honestly? It was hard. In ways I hadn’t really anticipated it would be.
To start with, if you’re writing for traditional publication, you have to ask yourself: is there room for this story? Fairytale and Greek myth retellings have been especially popular in recent years. Before you embark on your own, look at what’s already been done, taking category (e.g. YA), genre (e.g. Sci-fi), and source material (e.g. Cinderella) into account. If there’s already one that matches all three out there (e.g. CINDER), ask yourself both 1) Is this different *enough* to merit its own shelf space? and 2) Is that something I can successfully convey within the confines of a query letter/short pitch?
Personally, I did and didn’t. Traditional publishing is obviously the path I’ve chosen to pursue, but this was a story I was going to write no matter what. I’d been dreaming of what I could do with this source material for years, and as soon as I figured it out it would’ve taken an actual bulldozer to stop me.
As it happens, there actually *is* another contemporary YA retelling of Esther out there, called QUEEN OF SECRETS by Jenny Meyerhoff. TBoE definitely passes the “is it different enough that there’s room for both” test (QoS is narrated in 1st person by a very, very passive Esther, and largely revolves around her cousin being an observant Jew. TBoE is narrated in 3rd by five characters including a very revenge-bent Esther, and religion plays no part in the story.) but honestly, it wouldn’t have mattered. I was writing that ms whether it was sell-able or not.
The next thing to ask yourself – how true to the original do you want to be? Is it a “loosely based” situation in which you gather inspiration from a source but don’t pay particular attention to the specific events or characters? Or are you going to do a close retelling and work with as many bits of the original as possible?
For my retelling, I went with the latter; I so badly wanted to include as much as humanly possible. I gave roles to all the main characters and tried to keep in many of the tiny ones (though I certainly had to bend some backgrounds). I used the same structure as the original, even though it meant doing a major no-no (leaving the title character out of the entire first chapter). Every single name is a reference to one in the original, and many of the little details refer back to the original too. Though some of the main storyline was definitely wholly invented for the purpose of my story, much of it is actually based on a contemporary interpretation of Midrashic or Talmudic commentary. (Have I mentioned that I attended yeshiva day schools for 14 years followed by a year in a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem? That helped :)) Of course, not all stories will have an equivalent, but many do have varying versions that are worth a look for inspiration. Lord knows Grimm and Disney have very different interpretations of fairy tales!
And then there’s the focus on what you’ll be doing differently. Will you be throwing the story into another genre or time/place, like ASH or OLIVIA TWISTED? Will you be gender flipping your characters, like in ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA (thanks, Rachel!) or EYRE HOUSE? What new thing(s) are you bringing to the table?
Although my change (setting Esther as contemporary YA) seems relatively small in the face of the kinds of massive overhauls some of these stories get, for me, the hardest part was taking the motivations of the characters of the original and trying to apply them to the present day. In the original, Haman, the villain, actually isn’t clear on why he wants to kill all the Jews; it seems rather borne out of insanity. Try applying something like that to a seventeen-year-old villain. In the original, Akhashverosh (Ahasuerus), the king, obviously has royal power and can kill with a word; in modern day, how do you keep up with those kinds of stakes?
Well, whether or not I did it successfully, I certainly enjoyed the challenge, and I love that I took a concept I always wanted to write and made it happen on paper. (And, of course, my next one is in the works, because Ruth needs some love too ;))
What about you? Have you written a retelling, and if so, what’d you struggle with/love the most? Read one you loved? What do you think made it stand out as being awesome?