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.

Revision: Use the Read Aloud tool in Word to hear (and fix) glitches in your writing

Vintage postcard: Highway from Torrey Pines, on the Coast Route between Los Angeles and San Diego.

One of the following sentences includes a misused word:

A. “I defiantly think that word should be changed.” 
B. “I definitely think that word should be changed.”

Although B is preferred here, my students often type “defiantly” when they mean definitely. Neither spellcheck nor the grammar checker flags “defiantly” in this context. Nonetheless, imprecise and awkward word choices can be an issue in college essays, and in business and professional writing the stakes are higher.

Checking dictionary definitions can help pinpoint misused words, but another tactic is hearing your text read aloud.

Microsoft Word has tools for that

The “Read Aloud” tool in Microsoft Word helps you listen to your drafts. Hearing your words can help you identify (and fix) word-choice glitches, subject-verb agreement errors, misspellings, and more. Hearing the word “defiantly” when you meant “definitely” can spotlight a needed revision.

You’ll find “Read Aloud” on the Review screen’s toolbar in Word 2019, Word 2021, and Microsoft 365. You can customize this tool to read faster or slower, pause, skip forward or back a paragraph, and more. For more information, see the Microsoft support page, “Listen to your Word documents.”

If you’re using an older version of Word, you can still get the program to read your text to you. Add the Speak feature to your Word screen by following the five steps detailed by Microsoft at “Use the Speak text-to-speech feature to read text aloud.”

Pro tip: Find a fresh approach

Reading aloud, whether you read to yourself or use tech tools to read to you, is a strategy that professional writers use. I’ve seen reporters in newsrooms whispering their stories to themselves just before deadline. I’ve experienced the deep revision that comes from preparing to record a story for a website.

With text on screens, it can be easy to insert words and adjust sentences as you read. You keep adding the missing words or fixing the awkward sentences in your mind. However, the actual words in your file may say something different. Approaching your text fresh, so that you don’t rely on what should be there versus what is actually there, can help you avoid embarrassing mistakes.

Time can be a great resource for approaching a text fresh. In other words, put away your project for a week or more and then come back to it minus your assumptions. However, time can be a luxury that isn’t available when a due date or deadline is looming.

Whether you’re on deadline or not, hearing your words aloud can give you a fresh perspective that reading on screen over and over can’t.

Multilingual writers

Hearing a text can also be helpful for writers who are working in a second language. In my college writing classes, I’ve had students who are working in English when it’s their second or third language. I can point to a paragraph containing, for example, subject-verb agreement problems. When I ask them to read the paragraph aloud, they often fix the verb tense issues as they speak. They are often surprised when I point out the error in the text—the error they fixed when they read aloud.

For English speakers who are working in other languages, the Read Aloud tool can also be useful. The tool can be set to read in an array of languages.

Why literary magazines? They could be an important part of your book’s journey

Vintage postcard: General Motors Building, Chicago World’s Fair, 1933.

Start with the acknowledgment pages

If you read the acknowledgment pages of many novels, nonfiction books, short story collections, and poetry books, you’ll often see where earlier excerpts were published. This can tell you several things, including that the publications listed:

  • May be something you would like to read
  • May be markets for your own work

Often, first publications or excerpts appear in literary magazines. If you’re working on your own book or collection, literary magazines may be an important step in your reading, researching, and publishing journey.

For example, in World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s 2020 book, the acknowledgments include literary magazines such as Brevity, Diagram, Ecotone, and Georgia Review.

Bully Love, Patricia Colleen Murphy’s 2019 poetry collection, lists acknowledgments for Hawaii Review, Heliotrope, Indiana Review, and many other publications. 

Finding literary magazines

Finding information about the literary magazines listed on an acknowledgments page is an online search away. However, reading the stories, poems, and essays they publish can get tricky. The spectrum of literary magazines ranges from fully online to print-only magazines that publish zero content online.

Reading content

Reading online literary magazines can be as easy as signing up on their websites, but reading print-based magazines may involve ordering print or electronic copies of individual issues. Some magazines offer pdf versions of recent back issues that may be available for reduced prices and quick access.

Don’t skimp on reading. An important part of the submission process is familiarizing yourself with individual literary magazines. Research what they’ve published. A friend of mine from grad school didn’t do this, and he ended up with a publication that he finds embarrassing to this day.

Submitting work

Submission windows for literary magazines may vary from one week to year-round. A few don’t accept any unsolicited work. Tactics to find these submission windows and writers’ guidelines start with a magazine’s website. If the magazine offers a newsletter, sign up to receive alerts about content, contests, submissions, blog posts, and (yes) fundraising.

Another tactic to find submission windows and guidelines is to “follow” publications in Submittable, an online submission management platform. Once you follow a publication, you’ll build a dashboard-like “Following” screen within Submittable that you can skim for “opportunities.” Some of these opportunities are solicitations to buy copies of magazines, but the majority are submission portals for fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, comics, plays, contests, and more.

Setting your intentions

Many writers set quotas for themselves when drafting or sending out work. However, fewer writers seem to set reading quotas, such as to explore one new literary magazine each week. Or push your weekly reading to include at least one short story, essay, or set of poems from a literary magazine.

This intentional exploring and reading of literary magazines can yield inspiration, which contributes to your writing, revising, and submissions process. You’ll also gather valuable information about the literary marketplace, including where to find copacetic writers and editors.

For help, check out “Resolve to read a literary magazine,” a recent effort by the Community of Literary Magazines and Publishers. Click through the CLMP membership directory for reading and submission options as well as discount subscription bundles.