Creative writing: Adaptations can update, critique, distill fiction  

Vintage postcard: Curry’s Lebec Lodge on the Ridge Route between Los Angeles and Bakersfield, California.

The best adaptations add to the literature & expand the conversation

Adaptation is a long-standing aspect of creative writing. The first adaptations I remember were cinematic — a couple 200-year-old novels re-imagined for the present day:

  • The movie Clueless adapts Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma for 1990s Beverly Hills where matchmaking perils become a story of surviving high school and finding love.
  • The movie/novel Bridget Jones’s Diary adapts Austen’s 1813 Pride and Prejudice for London in the early 2000s. The crux is Bridget/Elizabeth discerning the character and motives of potential suitors. Does the name Mr. Darcy ring a bell?

The number and array of adaptations of Shakespeare are legion. For example, Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres adapts King Lear and his three daughters for Iowa farm struggles. David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle adapts Hamlet’s tragic brother-killing uncle for a family of dog breeders in rural Wisconsin.

Shakespeare himself was an adapter and borrower. For example, All’s Well That Ends Well traces back to Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron in a more troubling manner than most. Some have said this Shakespeare play is “a direct lift.” In today’s world, would Shakespeare be accused of plagiarizing or passing off a translated work as his own?

Beyond the word adaptation is a range of approaches — including homage, hauntings, satire, critique, retelling (slantwise or not), and re-imagining — that Margot Livesey explores within her book The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing. In the chapter, “Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be: Paying Homage,” she explores the gradations of borrowing from predecessors in literature, as well as art.   

The adaptation process can approach writing as a series of conversations, instead of a solitary act of creation. “That is, we write in response to what we have read, and expect others to read what we have written and to write in response to us.” This quote, which came from a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee first-year writing program common syllabus, applies to a range of writing from adaptation to refutation. The notion of critical conversations is especially important given today’s changing reading patterns, namely more skimming and less deep reading.  

The idea of a conversation acknowledges that novels, plays, and other creative works, no matter how highly esteemed, have weaknesses and strengths. Adaptations may update (for example, by revising uninformed mental health portrayals from past centuries), critique (for example, by addressing the lack of gender or racial diversity), or otherwise distill elements of the original.

Adaptations may:

  • Update (for example, by revising uninformed mental health portrayals from past centuries)
  • Critique (for example, by addressing the lack of gender or racial diversity)
  • Distill elements of the original

However, adaptations/responses/critiques should go beyond copying, plagiarizing, or copyright infringement. A worthy adaptation is “very much its own work of art, one that can be appreciated by readers with no inkling of its ancestor,” writes Livesey. The adaptation needs to add to the conversation, not just repeat it.

Writing prompt

Think about the books, plays, poems, or other works that have stuck with you. Maybe you’ve found yourself re-reading one or two of them. If so, ask yourself why. Why was this work so significant to you? Do you have something to say in response to the plot, main character, voice, subject, or a mix of those and other elements? Maybe you want to explore what made the original so compelling – how did it work? Or, consider the adaptations that you’ve admired. Is there something you want to add to the conversation through your own writing? 

Reading recommendation

Outside of my classes or reading/writing groups, I try to include books on the craft of writing in my daily reading. Books such as Margot Livesey’s The Hidden Machinery offer reminders and ideas that enrich my works in progress. Even by reading ten pages a day, a craft book a month is useful in terms of continuous improvement as a writer.

Bookshelf: 3 how-to books on novel writing to keep your project moving

Vintage postcard: Moonlight on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, “America’s Super Highway.”

Working in tandem with a how-to book on the craft of novel writing can keep you connected to the big picture of your project. Writing creatively and critically at the same time can inch your novel project closer and closer to a satisfactory conclusion. Yay, a book!

Companion craft books (how-to books) can be lifesavers. They can keep you from drowning in detail or drifting wildly off course.

For example, sometimes you’re driven to figure “it” out. “It” may be big or small—from fixing the whole plot (big) to researching a telling character or setting detail (small). Depending on your tolerance for uncertainty, skipping a day (or more) of writing could become easy. Too easy. Weeks or months may pass since you’ve worked on your so-called passion project because you can’t figure “it” out.

Another example is that you may approach a novel project by writing and writing and writing. You think (hope) that one day your hefty word count will make great-American sense. However, you can end up with a hundred-thousand sprawling words that don’t fit well into current publishing models, unless you’re Diana Gabaldon or Thomas Pynchon.

Whether you’re just getting started or you’ve encountered one of those days when you don’t know what to do, how-to books on the craft of novel writing can keep your project moving forward. Nonetheless, while the following books, workbooks, and videos are great resources, the key is you. You need to keep working, keep trying.

Here are three how-to books on novel writing I recommend:

Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Story Genius by Lisa Cron. This 2016 book’s subtitle and sub-subtitle explain Cron’s approach, “How to use brain science to go beyond outlining and write a riveting novel* [*Before you waste three years writing 327 pages that go nowhere].”

Story Genius chapters on novel-craft include “What To Do” tasks that prompt you to examine the parameters of your current project. The tasks help writers avoid common glitches, such as neglecting to identify a main character or forgetting why your protagonist wants what s/he wants.  

“The reason that the vast majority of manuscripts are rejected—either by publishers or by readers—is because they do not have a third rail,” writes Cron. “Story is about an internal struggle, not an external one… [T]he internal problem predates the events in the plot, often by decades.”

Also check out: Curious to learn more about the “brain science” aspect of storytelling from the subtitle? Check out Lisa Cron’s 2014 TEDx Talk “Wired for Story” or her previous book by the same name, Wired for Story.


Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody. Brody adapts lessons originally intended for screenwriters to the needs of novelists. To make a story worth telling, Brody says you need “plot, structure, and character transformation. Or what I like to call the ‘Holy Trinity of Story.’”

The book provides exercises, checklists, and examples of how novels (and later movies), such as The Help, The Kite Runner, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, follow the 15-beat structure at the center of Blake Snyder’s 2005 screenplay-writing book Save the Cat! Brody adapts Snyder’s beat sheets, four-act structure, A- and B-stories, and more to the needs of novelists.

Brody includes manuscript percentages to help novelists know “What Goes Where.” For example, the “All Is Lost” beat should occur at about 75 percent of the manuscript with the “Dark Night of the Soul” following at 75-80 percent. Whether you’re writing novels for schoolchildren or adults, genre manuscript lengths can range from 160 manuscript pages to almost 600 pages. That’s why Brody’s percentages are useful across genres.

Also check out: If you have access to LinkedIn Learning, check out Brody’s course, “Write a Bestselling Novel in 15 Steps.” By using the Save the Cat! Writes a Novel book along with the online LinkedIn course you can speed up or slow down, as needed, to run your novel project through the “Save the Cat” method.


Writing the Breakout Novel & Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass

Writing the Breakout Novel’s subtitle, “Insider advice for taking your fiction to the next level,” refers to the author’s background as the president of Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York and the broker of publishing deals with “six- or seven-figure advances.”

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, published three years later in 2004, offers “hands-on help for making your novel stand out and succeed.” By going beyond reading and notetaking with Maass’s “breakout” book, the workbook satisfies the need to dive into planning and drafting. Both the book and the workbook offer eye-opening information that can shake you out of the leisurely sail that you think might be a novel. Following the workbook lessons helps you to write smarter and stronger to create a more marketable novel. 

Flash nonfiction: Good news and a field guide recommendation

Vintage postcard: Bungalow scene in Santa Ana, Calif.

Good news

I’m happy to share that my flash nonfiction piece “Handwashing Dishes” has been published online by The Southeast Review.

The Southeast Review, established in 1979 as Sundog, is a national literary magazine housed in the English Department at Florida State University, Tallahassee, and is edited and managed by its graduate students and a faculty consulting editor.

I especially appreciated working with Nonfiction Editor Liesel Hamilton, a Ph.D. candidate in nonfiction writing. She asked smart questions during the editing process, and her attentions truly made the piece better.

What is flash nonfiction?
“I am including creative nonfiction work up to 2,000 words, though the great majority of what is discussed is briefer: 500 to 1,000 words, and sometimes even fewer…. [L]ike literary fiction and poetry, the nonfiction we discuss is marked by the distinct, often peculiar, voice and sensibilities of the author and these works examine the deeply human—and often unanswerable—questions that concern all serious art…. [T]he work itself is individual, intimate, exploratory, and carefully crafted using metaphor, sensory language, and precise detail.” (xiv)
—Dinty W. Moore, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction  

Flash nonfiction field guide

If you’re interested in writing flash nonfiction, I recommend The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction edited by Dinty W. Moore. As the subtitle says, the book offers “advice and essential exercises from respected writers, editors, and teachers.”

The chapter “Memory Triggers and Tropes” by Rigoberto Gonzalez of Rutgers University was especially helpful in drafting “Handwashing Dishes.” The prompt Gonzalez wrote starts with a useful distinction:

“Recall a memory that has emotional (not sentimental) value for you. To differentiate, an emotional response is attached to reason or thought and makes you ask (and want to answer) who, what, where, why, and how; a sentimental response is attached to feeling and simply asks those same questions without seeking to assess or investigate them.” (35)

Emotional vs. sentimental

The idea of a memory with emotional value immediately made me think about the dishes. They helped me unlock the memory of flying across the country to check on my mother’s welfare after being called by the Phoenix police. I needed to write about the state of my mother’s kitchen and family memories I’d been trying to make sense of for years.    

As I drafted and re-drafted the story, finding the right point of view held me back. A straight reportage third-person version (she/they) seemed too detached and clinical. Meanwhile, a first-person version (I) was too much about me. The second-person point of view (you) offered a balance between emotional distance and experiential immediacy that fit.

Two chapters from The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction focused on writing in second-person. When I read Dinah Lenney’s chapter, “All About You,” I saw similarities in our approaches to second-person narration.

Hey, you! (second-person narration)

We both started with research. I remembered the second-person point of view in Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City from grad school. Lenney of the University of Southern California offered a longer list. She included “Carlos Fuentes, Marguerite Duras, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Samuel Beckett, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rumer Godden, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Italo Calvino, William Faulkner, etc.” (100).

But what about specifically nonfiction examples? These were more elusive. I added Mary Karr’s Cherry: A Memoir to the list because the book starts with a second-person prologue.

In Lenney’s chapter, she used her flash nonfiction “Little Black Dress” as an example while pointing out what using second-person narration allows a writer to do. She writes, “it slows down the pace of things so that the story happens to you and your reader at about the same time—both of you there, in the middle of whatever it is, however delightful or excruciating” (102).

This slowing down that Lenney refers to helped me see the bigger picture connected to a scene worthy of a squalor documentary. It wasn’t just a weekend of trying to set things to right, there were things that couldn’t be fixed simply with a clean kitchen.

Research (library databases)

The key was further research. I read about the work-related trauma that can impact medical professionals. Mom used to tell me operating room stories—mangled motorcycle riders, disfiguring cancer surgeries, and aneurysms where blood pooled on the floor. She and many career nurses work through physical hazards, such as back injuries from lifting heavy patients, as well as mental trauma. Research into the toll of the health care professions acknowledges the effects of these traumas and helped me see the connection to my mother.  

The combination of research into Mom’s work as a nurse—as well as into the craft of flash nonfiction and second-person narration—helped me make sense of lingering images from her house. To borrow language from Rigoberto Gonzalez, the flash nonfiction form allowed me to highlight a “moment of awareness or awakening that will resonate for a lifetime” (34). The writing helped me get closer to answers that had eluded me.

Bookshelf: 4 reference books to sharpen the details in your writing

Postcard bridge on Pennsylvania Turnpike 20_0810 - Copy

Vintage postcard: Beautiful bridge on Pennsylvania’s Turnpike in the Bedford Narrows.

One of the authors I worked with described his home as “El Rancho Indebto.” That description — from author Daniel Gray’s books, such as Adobe ImageStyler In Depth — has stuck with me even though it has been years since I’ve worked in educational publishing.

Dan had a way of twisting words to make them more interesting amid chapters on how to apply the techniques of web design and develop software expertise. I have to apologize in arrears for probably thwarting some of his descriptions. For example, I remember him writing the lesser-known “stop on a nickel,” and I might have changed it to the tired, old “stopped on a dime.”

In any case, finding the right words, the less tired words, the memorable words, can bring your writing to life. It’s a constant battle I’ve fought by seeking the telling details that deepen scenes.

In my search for the right words, I’ve accumulated a few trusted books that go beyond the thesaurus and Google searches. Books I continue to turn to include:

Random House Word Menu by Stephen Glazier – Struggling to describe the lights and mirrors in a setting? This reference gives you a list, along with short definitions, to help you decide if your setting has a gaslight or a torchiere. A pier glass or a looking glass. See the “Lamps and Mirrors” section.

The Describer’s Dictionary by David Grambs – The subtitle is “A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations for Readers and Writers.” Want to give a character a trademark ring or pendant? Scan the “Common Emblems and Symbols” chapter. Consider the implications of whether your character would wear a peaceful ankh (a “loop-topped cross”) or a human skull, “as a symbol of mortality, death’s head, memento mori.” This book is half word lists and half literary excerpts so you can see how authors have employed these details.

DK Ultimate Visual Dictionary – This book is all about images and labels. Want to know the name for that little chute between your character’s nose and lips? A philtrum. (As an aside, some believe the width of this chute is an indicator of a person’s fertility.) Need your character to encounter a horse and touch its leg or head? You might want to know the difference between a fetlock and a forelock. A fetlock is a joint somewhat similar to a human’s ankle, and a forelock is the hair between a horse’s ears that often falls forward like bangs.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi – This book is part of a series of emotion and setting thesauruses. Want to go beyond saying your character is upset? Look at the “Agitation” chapter and browse through the physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, and other cues to deepen your character’s responses and lead to telling details. If your character was abandoned or neglected as a child, check another book in the series, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma for examples, false beliefs, fears, potential personality traits, triggers, and more.

Why turn to books when there’s Wikipedia, Google, and other online resources? The more curated content found within these reference books (whether paper or ebook) can save you from falling into a rabbit hole (or as Dan Gray might say, a woodchuck hole) of clicks.

And speaking of clicks and tired descriptors, check your writing against the visual essay “The Physical Traits that Define Men & Women in Literature” written by Erin Davis and illustrated by Liana Sposto at The Pudding.

Davis scanned 2,000 books, including bestsellers, prize winners, and books commonly assigned in U.S. high schools and colleges. She used a language processor to see what body parts and adjectives were most commonly used to describe male and female characters. The interactive visual aspects of the Pudding essay allow you to test some of your assumptions about gender and descriptors. (Thank you to Jane Friedman’s “Electric Speed” newsletter for recommending this article.)