Happy September everyone and welcome back to Claerie’s Tales! Today is Monday, September 3, Labor Day for those in the United States. In honor of that, I’m going to talk about some things I learned while working away on a retelling of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves for a fractured fairytale anthology coming out next year.
Those of you who have stuck around my blog long enough know that this particular story was not my first shot at a short story or fairytale retelling. A while ago, I talked about my WIP fantasy book, The Trinketeer, which is loosely inspired by The Nutcracker. I also used to post flash fiction on this blog every Friday. (I plan to go back to both of those projects as soon as I finish my contemporary romance work in progress, which will be near the end of October.) This attempt was, however, the first time I had to wrote a retelling that happened to be a short story.
Figuring out a creative way to retell a fairytale is hard enough, but doing it with a word limit when you’re an overwriter like me? Let’s just say it was a pretty darn intimidating task. But I’ve always been the type of person who never wants to stop learning. Writing for an anthology seemed like a good way to challenge myself to be able to write more concisely while still evoking emotional reactions. And honestly, even though it was extremely difficult, the feeling when I finally finished everything just under the word count definitely made it worth it. The story is currently undergoing a round of revisions, but I wanted to let you in on everything I’ve learned throughout the process so far.
One: Know Your Source Material: When I started thinking about what kind of short story I could write, I knew I didn’t want to go for the obvious choices. I have read so many amazing retellings of Cinderella, Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and all the other classic tales, and I will continue to devour every one of them (and write a few myself) because no matter how many times I’ve read them, I’m amazed at the different twists and turns every author manages to weave into these supposedly well-known stories. However, because this was an anthology, I knew I would be seated alongside so many that adored those stories as much as I do. I wanted to challenge myself even further by picking a tale I didn’t know like the back of my hand. Doing so though, meant going back to the beginning.
The first and probably most important step of this process for me was to read the original tale and work backward. I found a translation online and scoured the story for every important detail I could pull out, all the while trying to think of the best way to skew it into not only a retelling but a fractured one. (For those who don’t know, a fractured fairytale retelling is when a classic tale is retold by the character other than the protagonist. Often times, it’s the villain but it can also be a sidekick or minor character, like in The Lion King 1 ½). I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but reading the original brought to light a lot of nuances that I hadn’t known. It added another dimension to my story and helped me frame it in a way that wouldn’t of been possible otherwise.
Two: Word Count is Essential: This was a two-part lesson for me. Obviously, I had to stay within the word count allowed, but in order to do so, I had to only focus on the scenes that moved the story along. For me, this meant not only following the word limit for the whole tale but setting one for each scene as well. By going back through old work, and even some of the more recent chapters of my WIP, I figured out that it takes me about 1500 words to write a scene that gets the information across while staying true to my voice and style. That meant I had about six or seven scenes to complete this story and stay within the 8500-word limit. This helped me even further to narrow down what needed to be included because each scene had to hit a certain beat.
For example, in order for something to count as a Cinderella retelling, the main character must start off poor, he or she must live with a wicked relative or character of some sort, there must be a ball or party, the main character must have a friend who helps her reach this party, they must meet the love interest and lose something when they leave the party early, and the love interest must find them thanks to what’s left behind.
Having those beats to hit from the original was extremely helpful because it was easy to tell whether the story was moving in the proper direction or not.
Three: It’s OK to Not Love Everything You Try: the final thing that I learned from this experience was that I’m probably not going to do it again. As much as I enjoy the feeling of finally finishing up a story, I realized I prefer to write short stories that don’t follow specific beats because those without a formula are, in my opinion, are easier to fit into small spaces. I’m still going to write about fairytales of course, because I love them, but the shortest length you’ll see from me will likely be a novella.
Question of the Week: What lesson have you learned about your writing journey recently? Share in the comments!