Thursday, February 16, 2017

How to Write a Killer Fairy Tale Retelling

Hi, Fairy Folk! This is Tahlia, editor of Timeless Tales Magazine. One of the most common questions I get from writers is what I look for in a retelling. So I thought I’d provide my top tips for how to nail your short story or poem, whether it’s a fairy tale, myth, or legend. Hopefully this will spark some ideas for our upcoming issue (Arthurian Legend theme, in case you hadn’t heard yet)...

Unsurprisingly, even before I created Timeless Tales, I read a lot of retellings. Not just fairy tales and myths either—Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Jane name it, I’ve devoured it. I’ve even had a few of my own published, back when I was writing more short stories than reading.*

So I thought I’d share some of the wisdom I’ve picked up along the way about how to produce a killer twist on a familiar tale.
1. Re-read the source material:

Never assume you already know the tale. Do a little research to dig up lesser-known facets that might inspire you. Better yet, read multiple versions of the story because, especially with the older tales, you'll find different details and even endings.

I admit I failed to do this with the first retelling I ever wrote, Two Knights in One Day. It was a take on Sleeping Beauty, but I only discovered after it was published, that the original contains a rather horrific plotline involving rape. Would reading this have changed my story? Hmmm...hard to be sure, but I probably would have put more of a conscious emphasis on consent in romantic relationships.

Another example is a TT submission I read a while back. It used the names “Anastasia” and “Drusilla” for Cinderella’s stepsisters. As an editor, my eyebrows immediately raised because those are the names the Disney movie gives them. It made the author appear a little amateurish because it felt like that was probably the only version they’d ever encountered! Even if the original doesn’t change your own story, you owe it to yourself to know what your version will be compared against.

2. Question the Original. Especially ask "how" and "why":
Exactly how does Rumpelstiltskin spin straw into gold? Why didn’t Puss start helping the Miller’s son until after the Miller died? What makes the wolf's disguise so convincing to Red Riding Hood? Let’s be honest: most fairy tales don't waste time on explanations. Part of the fun is all the nonsensical happenings and illogical behavior, but you can add complexity and depth by tackling these issues head on. Don't’ feel like you need to address every oddity or answer every question, either. Pick one or two and stay focused on those.

Surprisingly, your biggest handicap in writing a retelling might be your love of the original. Being a huge fan of the original can actually blind you to its flaws and prevent you from taking risks.

I made this mistake with a Little Mermaid retelling I wrote. I absolutely adore Andersen’s lyrical prose. His descriptions of pain are just unbelievably exquisite. So my first three drafts spent waaaaaay too much time meandering through descriptive paragraphs in an attempt to emulate his style. It completely got in the way of the plot. Thank goodness the magazine’s rules forced me to cut my word count down. I realized that 3-4 pages could be deleted because they had just rehashed scenes from the original tale. Once they were gone, the pacing was dramatically improved.

On the other side, don’t be afraid to ask yourself what bothers you most about this tale? My Sleeping Beauty retelling I mentioned earlier emerged because I didn't like the idea of a guy kissing a girl without ever knowing her. So I wrote a version where the two could communicate while she's asleep.

3. Ask "what-if":

This is your classic elevator-pitch twist. It’s taking a key
building block in the original and replacing it with something new. This is a great time to play with setting, swap genders, and question innocence or guilt. What if Cinderella happened in Ancient Greece? What if the Little Mermaid was male? What if the witch wasn't evil?

In my experience, the strongest What-If retellings are the ones that fully develop the concept they’re presenting.  Don’t get lazy and treat your Ancient Greek setting like it’s a themed party. Slapping on some descriptions of marble columns and renaming Cinderella to Penelope isn’t going to make your story stand out. You’ve gotta dig deep, maybe do some (gasp!) research even. Ask yourself how your new setting changes the motivations of your characters and the outcome of the plot.  
4. Consider the Minor Characters:

I told my Sleeping Beauty story from the prince's perspective, but you can think even more outside the box than that! Give a voice to someone who is usually glossed over. What are Hansel and Gretel's parents' motivations? Don't stop at people, examine animals and objects too! What does the spindle think about for a hundred years? Don’t be afraid to even invent a character!
5. Do NOT Keep the Plot the Same:

It doesn't matter if you set it on the moon, from the perspective of the glass slipper, and make Cinderella annoying rather than sweet, if you keep the basic plot the same (orphan girl abused by stepmother, girl defies odds to go to party, girl wins prince), it will be predictable and probably boring. Take risks! Surprise your reader!
6. Mesh Two Tales Together:

This is probably my favorite technique to use. Find parallels between two stories and weave them into something new. I've done King Midas/Rumpelstiltskin and Hamlet/The Little Mermaid. Don't ask me why, but I get such satisfaction from bringing two very different worlds into harmony with one another. It turns the story into a puzzle for the writer and I get a big kick out of that element.

You can even mesh pop culture and folklore. Wouldn't Ocean's 11 and 12 Dancing Princesses make a fantastic combo??? You bet they would!

*”Two Knights in One Day”, my Sleeping Beauty retelling and “M’Lady”, my Dracula-inspired Cinderella retelling

This post was updated from a post on Diamonds and Toads from 9/28/2011

Monday, February 6, 2017

Timeless Tales Arthurian Legend Submissions Opening Soon

From Tahlia, Editor at Timeless Tales Magazine...

Writers! Dust off your Monmouth, your Malory, and maybe even your Monty Python, because Timeless Tales will soon be accepting retellings of Arthurian Legends!

The submission window will run from March 27 - May 5. Please see our SUBMISSIONS page for full details.

Special Note: Since this theme encompasses many stories, if you submit a retelling that heavily references a specific tale (ie, "Gawain & the Green Knight"), please include the name of the tale in your cover letter. We have a solid familiarity with this genre, but it is vast. So do us a favor and don't assume we're Medieval scholars.  

Also, just for our blog readers, here's a list of hopes and fears I have for this issue:

Fear: Pieces written in Old English. Maybe this is a long shot, but I know how passionate some professors are about the original text of these stories. I'm already having flashbacks to the Chaucer unit in my Sophomore English Lit class with all the crazy spelling...and I'm not just talking "Ye Olde Taverne" like you see at the Renaissance festival. True old English is like another language! I really want to retellings that are accessible to a non-academic audience.

Hope: Smart humor that isn't a total ripoff of Monty Python. One of my favorite takes on Arthurian Legend is Gerald Morris' Squire's Tale series. It mercilessly mocks the irrational plots and outlandish characters of the original tales, but you can tell the author researched his butt off for these books. There's a genuine affection behind the jests, too. I'd love to read some short stories or poems like that.

Fear: Too many love triangles. So many filmmakers and playwrights have reduced Arthurian legend to the Lancelot/Guinevere affair. Simply changing the setting to the wild west or modern day won't save this trope from being overdone. There's more to King Arthur than a tragic romance. 

Hope: Fairy tale crossovers. I especially hope someone sends me a tasty 12 Dancing Princesses/Knights of the Round Table mashup, but this genre is ripe for other combinations. 

So what are you waiting for? Get writing!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

New Year's Greetings 2017, from Once Upon A Blog & Timeless Tales Magazine

by Marina Volodko
Are you ready? Us neither.

Let's make the best of it and keep believing, mining and sharing the magic.

Let's face 2017 together - up that glass mountain folks!

ox  Happy New Year fairy tale friends and readers.  xo
Russian vintage New Year's postcard. Artist Konstantin Bokarev.
Ded Moroz (Old Man Frost; a kind of Santa) gifts a box with treasures to the good girl named Nastenka.
With wishes for joy, health, hope and creativity, 
from all here at 

Once Upon A Blog
Fairy Tale News Headquarters
Timeless Tales Magazine

PS If you're looking for some wonderful seasonal reads, check out Timeless Tales Magazine's new Snow Queen issue HEREand our friends at Enchanted Conversation have just released their New Year's issue HERE as well. 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Want a Fantasy Winter Movie for the Season? Try 'The Huntsman: Winter's War'

No doubt you've heard that the prequel/sequel of Snow White & the Huntsman, Huntsman: Winter's War was... not great. The first Huntsman was on fairly shaky ground to begin with (apparently box office takings don't agree with that assessment but it's generally not considered a truly good movie by critics and fairy tale folk, insert many reasons here) and this was supposed to expand the 'mythology'/story, focusing on Ravenna and the Huntsman. How was this supposed to be any good?

Charlize Theron signed on for this second film, which at least promised an excellent rendition of a baddie, (and a baddie dressed again by the Queen of fantasy couture Colleen Atwood). If nothing else there was going to be some lovely things to look at. Box office success of the first film ensured a decent budget for Winter's War and the cast and crew are filled with seasoned pros.

So we were on board to watch it on DVD - for Charlize and the costumes.

Then Emily Blunt signed on.

What the..?

How could an actress of such great repute sign on for such a sequel? With a first time director? We were confused. Perhaps, we thought, she needed a distraction between real projects? Later we saw trailers and thought "well, at least they're making a good go of it". And then the movie faded from view...

Cut to the impending Winter season, and we were looking for new and fresh Winter fantasy and fairy tale images and imagery. Someone mentioned: "Have you seen Winter's War? They put a bit of effort into the Snow Queen/Ice Queen portrayal - it'd be worth a viewing for you at least."

By then it was cheaper to buy it than rent it so it was added to the Once Upon A Blog movie library. We looked up reviews, steeling ourselves for where to fast forward and where to hit the play button again, and found something surprising: while the film still wasn't considered good, people were raving - RAVING - about Theron and Blunt's performances! Colleen Atwood's costume artistry got more than a passing mention too but people were loving the two queens.


While we didn't exactly settle in with popcorn (we kept the remote fairly handy), we did dedicate time to review it in one viewing. Before we get into our review, here's the trailer:
If you doubted it was big budget, the trailer should assure you it most certainly is. You're in for a big movie with beautiful photography, amazing costumes, lush sets, lots of 'magic' and big names, but as we all know, that doesn't guarantee anything. Here's our take:

Firstly, all these posters below, emphasize different aspects of the film. The one at the head of the post best reflects our impression of the movie overall. Then there are a few more that focus on:
The sibling rivalry (this is what the movie is best at and shines in)

The lovers versus the powers (this was supposed to be the emphasis but unfortunately it's the least interesting)

The split alliances between the two humans and the two sisters
(this borders on spoilers but it's also an interesting way to watch the film, being aware of this)
This shows the dominance of the Winter story in the movie
 This one shows the influence of the original evil queen on everyone
Yes - overall it is not 'great' but there is much about this that we wish we'd paid the price of admission for, just to see on the big screen.

To get the cons out of the way we'll just list them:
  • The Snow White story and character references were clunky, awkward, mostly ridiculous and largely unnecessary. This should have just been a stand alone story set in the same world.
  • In fact the Snow White connection was obviously awkward and embarrassing. Mentioning her was a key weakness. Not having Kristen Stewart, while understandable, meant not having the iconic character - however transformed - of Snow White being in her own tale. Being reminded of her mythic significance, and absence thereof, put the film at a disadvantage that all the brilliant acting, writing and wonderful direction had no way of avoiding. We're not sure why they didn't just wipe that part of it clean and ignore it - it would have been neater and made more sense.
  • It's a prequel and sequel, with that awkward Snow White mention in the middle and as such, feels shackled by it's association with the first movie, rather than inspired by it.
  • We didn't really care too much about the Huntsman - or the Huntswoman's - story (although we should have - this was largely a writing and filmmaking fault but the chemistry between the couple was erratic at best as well - sometimes it almost worked but mostly we just wished it did)
  • The Huntsman, Eric, and woman, Sara (husband and wife, referred to in the first film) were clearly supposed to be the main protagonists but they felt like the B-story, with too much time wasted on them.
  • The lines and dialogue for Sara and Eric in particular, often felt manipulated, too considered
  • In fact a lot of the writing, particularly that not focused on the queens, wasn't exactly great
  • Chastain only had one truly memorable acting moment (her shooting at Freya's command) but even that wasn't enough to make her character truly sympathetic to the audience at that point
  • We could have done without the dwarves, though we understand why they were included. Some sort of levity was very important. This part just wasn't done well and was more embarrassing than funny due to how it was done, exacerbated by not using real little people, except as stunt doubles.
  • The owl - let's just say we would have urged choosing another direction for this creature as it pulled us out every time
  • The narrator at the beginning. We will never understand why 'fairy tale films' feel compelled to use them so often - it's a different medium from oral storytelling and doesn't work half so well on screen - and this one doesn't either
  • The key women - Freya and Ravenna /Mirror, were underutilized, and clearly meant to be the B story. They were, however, far more compelling than the love story that was supposed to be the driving force of the movie. It was very different love that drove the film and the romance felt almost shallow in comparison.
So, some pretty big cons, right?

But here's the good stuff:
  • Overall beautiful! The vision for this film was solid, tight and artistically stunning - truly. You could pause almost anywhere in the movie and be treated to a lovely still frame. It was hard to believe this was from a first time director.
  • Some of the imagery was truly unforgettable, particularly with regard to the Ice Queen
  • The film showcases the power of the feminine, both for good and for ill, and in a variety of forms. As far as the Bechdel test goes, this one passes with flying colors!
  • Colleen Atwood's costumes for the two queens in particular were just as stunning as the first film's; very fresh takes on ice and mirror imagery and details (if the leads hadn't been so incredibly strong the gowns would have overwhelmed the actresses and stolen each and every scene but they didn't - they worked as perfect props for the characters and actresses).
  • The Ice Queen's palace and details were lovely
  • The Ice Queen's powers were unique yet felt very natural (we would have liked to have seen more 'natural force' expansion of them though - it's sort of odd that she used no ice beings/creatures as the next evolution of her power. The bear-creature could have been used for this purpose but we only saw her riding it - powerful imagery, yes, but a lost opportunity)
  • The concept of Freya becoming who she was, how she built her army and how she ran her kingdom was wonderful storywise
  • Charlize Theron as Ravenna - she's formidable, even when pushing her performance into camp - and commands the screen (and she wears those dresses without being overshadowed by them in the least! That's quite a feat.)
  • Emily Blunt as Freya the Ice Queen - she was heartbreaking and completely believable - both in her pain and in her power. Not your average evil, her story was devastating, relate-able, piercing and Blunt was her. And she looked like she made every ice magic effect actually happen, as if there was no CG.
  • Blunt and Theron together were absolute magic (at least until the 'Mirror Queen' turned on the Ice Queen - the extreme effects unfortunately pulled us out of the scene).
As one reviewer put it:

I don’t know why this movie got trashed the way that it did because... this was much more engaging and satisfying than I initially thought it would be. ... I can actually appreciate this movie more than the first because guaranteed action, awesome female representation, and a visually stunning two hours aside, it’s such a fascinating exploration of self love, hatred, love and sacrifice, power and control, trust and loyalty, beauty, selflessness, and the threat of others being greater than we are. We explore these themes and more in various ways through the sibling relationship between Freya and Ravenna and the romantic relationship between The Huntsman aka Eric and Sara. Could all of this have been executed better? Yeah, sure. But to say that it didn’t accomplish at least emotionally engaging the viewer and striking a chord in them is to ignore all of the good parts of the movie.
We found out afterward that much of the film was shot on location too - and that includes that 'Elsa-esque' castle too. Almost every set was an actual place, sometimes enhanced in the background (eg bigger mountains) but the director used the locations extremely well. It explained why we didn't feel as disconcerted in the fantasy scenes as you might expect, as is often the case with CG sets. Most of it was real. (And Iceland clearly has to be seen to be believed!)
If they could just have edited out all the Snow White references and re-edited the Huntsman/woman roles to shift the focus back onto Mirror Versus Ice, it would have been even more powerful. As it was, we kept getting distracted from truly great scenes to follow along on what felt unimportant business, before being allowed back to the main story. While this was continually frustrating, the 'great scenes' quickly drew us in and helped us forget we'd been irritated. The effect was feeling like the movie was really just "off-kilter".

So what about Freya the Ice Queen as compared to the formidable Snow Queen of HCA's tale? She holds up incredibly well. This could largely have been the story of the Snow Queen's rise to power and her iconic fairy tale role, with the Kai and Gerda story happening once she was established. (In fact the Kai and Gerda story could have been easily adapted to the 'hunter children' plot and been a truly interesting and different interpretation.) The only problem with Freya being the Snow Queen of fairy tales is that the time frame of her life was still primarily human and this story didn't allow for any form of her 'force of nature' immortality.

But back to the parallels. The main one, apart from their being a queen of frost, ice and snow, is the juxtaposition of mirror and ice. Again, to our minds, it would have made for a unique and interesting variation on the Snow Queen's mirror, with or without goblins, but from what we can gather the Snow Queen tale wasn't on the radar of the writer/s for Winter's War. Ravenna is actually two characters in this movie: the Ravenna/evil queen we see in the Snow White movie and the Mirror, an inhuman incarnation of herself (not truly alive but all the darkness and magic of the original queen). As Mirror, Ravenna is even more malevolent, if that's possible, and that has its own implications. But even with all that power and presence, it's really Freya's story of love, loss, misguided power and the tragedy of a life of great potential gone wrong, having a damaging ripple effect, that is the heart of the film.

We could explore the relationship and ideas of Eric (the Huntsman) and Sara (the Huntswoman who doesn't need rescuing) but although it should be a compelling and an interesting twist on the Kai and Gerda story it just doesn't inspire interest or investment. This is partly due to the direction of their story but counterbalancing the loss Freya experiences (and the heart wrenching performance Blunt gives in that moment) is nigh impossible with the scenes given to them - not even recognizing true love can compare and failing to recognize that is both a writing and directing failure.

So the outcome is: if you take away half a star or so for every negative point, (all of which are not insignificant) you get an understandably low-star rating. But we'll say it again: even if you have your finger on the fast-forward button to avoid wading through most of the cons, it's still worth watching for the pros. If the scenes and emphasis had been re-worked to acknowledge Freya and Ravenna as the A story, the two performances and their compelling support from costumes to photography and more, could have saved this film from the flop it's generally considered to be. In fact, it may have surpassed the audience popularity (and critic assessment) of the original Snow White and the Huntsman.

Whatever the case, it's great fodder for fairy tale folk - and fantasy film folk - to mull (and perhaps mutter) over during the Winter and holiday season. Chances are good you will find something in there you like.

While you are considering watching, enjoy these motion posters which are just kind of cool. We're amazed they don't make more of these for movies (or to display in newspapers... ;)

Note: Freya is also the name of a Norse goddess, associated with love, magic and death. According to the legend she was married to a god named Odr who vanished one day. Freya searched the entire world to find him, getting a new name in every land she passed by was unable to find him again. The broken hearted goddess cried tears which became gold. This experience made the goddess particularly sympathetic to lovers. (summary by @UselessDaily)
Fairy Tale Bonus of the Day:
The Huntsman Winter's War Costume B-Roll & Colleen Atwood discussing the costumes and how they reflect on the characters and themes of the movie.
As usual, 14 Academy Award winning designer Colleen Atwood put a lot of story into her costumes. It's clear she loves creating fantastic, larger-than-reality costumes for fantasy movies that take place in that nebulous Once Upon a Time Realm. Here, with all the costumes, you can see the details that tell their own tales of mirrors and twisted power, ice and locked/frozen hearts, and order versus potential chaos. Enjoy!(Note: there's no sound or music for the B-roll which just shows the costumes on display with close-ups on the details)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

New "Beauty and the Beast" Images In the Wild (Posters, Images, Costumes, Toys...)

New French Promotional Poster

There are more images of Disney's live action Beauty and the Beast out there in the world (wild), thanks to overseas posters, displays around LA to promote the film over the busy Christmas movie period and, of course, merchandising. Being the holiday period, if you can it's nice to indulge in frivolous things, so here's a image roundup for those looking forward to the film to enjoy.

The costume display will make people who have been less-then-thrilled with Belle's yellow ball dress a little more please, we think, as well as a pic below where she's holding a (different?) candelabra and you can see more costume/period details.

Take a look:

First up - books! And yes, they're releasing a new version of Villeneuve's tale, with Walter Crane's gorgeous illustrations too - yay!

1. A new edition of the making of Beauty and the Beast will be released including new material from director Bill Condon
2. A new edition of Villeneuve's original tale classic, the current known version is based on.
3. A French edition of Beauty and the Beast. No further info yet (March 8th '17)
4. Beauty and the Beast: Belle's library: quotes, drawings and new material from Linda Woolverton (January 31st '17)
5. Book based on the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast. Unknown release date.
6. Lost in a Book: by Jennifer Donelly. Belle discovers a Book called Nevermore which takes her to a new magical world. (more detail on this and a better close-up of the cover below)

New promo poster 
This next one is interesting - channeling a little Jasper FForde and Thursday Next (wonderful series)... here's the description:

The story is an original addition to the beloved Beauty and the Beast fairytale. It follows lonely, bookish Belle as she finds an enchanted book in the Beast’s library called “Nevermore” that carries her into a glittering new world. There, Belle is befriended by a mysterious countess who offers her the life she’s always dreamed of. But Nevermore is not what it seems, and the more time Belle spends there, the harder it is to leave. Good stories take hold of us and never let us go, and once Belle becomes lost in *this* book, she may never find her way out again. 
 A collection of costumes and props on display in movie theaters around Los Angeles, during the popular holiday theater-going season:
Ball scene costumes
Lumiere and Plumette
Belle's basic outfit and magic atlas ('Magic' atlas!? Apparently yes.)
Enchanted rose and mirror on table
Gaston and LeFou
Lumiere, Plumette and Cogsworth
Accessories and enchanted objects set (I see the Enchanted Objects being coveted by adult fans) 
On the back of a toy box - not sure which one - but it shows nice dress details
Tea set - bringing tea time back for afternoons
The Royal Celebration outfit - note: NOT A WEDDING (people are getting yelled at for saying it is)
Royal Celebration doll pair (to show Beast's/Adam's outfit)
New promo image used a few countries, not just France 
For our costume and fashion readers: here are Belle's costumes seen so far

Ask Baba Yaga: How Can I Stop My Gross Habits?

Baba Yaga by Denis Zilber
With Baba Yaga's forest often considered as "the boundary between the world of the dead and the living", it's no surprise to see her 'sisters' (as mentioned in last Thursday's post with Ms. Claus) active at this darkest time of year, manifesting on the threshold.
Even when Baba Yaga appears in the most unfavorable light and has a ferocity of nature, she still knows the future, has countless treasures, and knows secret knowledge - all typical aspects in the portrayal Shamanic Wise Women and Healers. Often she is said to live in the densest forest, which further scared people and added to the mystery and fear surrounding her because the forest is perceived as the boundary between the world of the dead and the living. No wonder then that her hut is surrounded by a palisade of human bones and skulls and that in many fairy tales, Baba Yaga eats human flesh. (source)
And this is where we sit today too: on the threshold: of a New Year, of a new era, of so many decisions and resolutions. How do we shift our world view, our world affect, our experience, our reality, to make it different - even if only slightly - from what it's been thus far? How do we rewrite bad habits? Turning to Baba Yaga seems quite the sensible thing to do. What might she offer us though?

Here's today's question and answer (via poet and oracle Taisia Kitaiskaia* of The Hairpin):
(Originally posted at The Hairpin HERE)

"... away from the puppet show..." Well that takes the glitter right off - which is probably the most useful New Year's advice the majority of people ever receive. There's no avoiding the hard work is there? But then, if we were honest, we already knew that. 

May you have what it takes - and the support - to do the work to make your 2017 better.

This is the email address where you can send your questions
directly to Baba Yaga herself.
AskBabaYaga AT gmail DOT com
To encourage Baba Yaga to continue imparting her no-bones-about-it wisdom (ok, there may be some gristle in there... bones too), I suggest we not to leave her box empty... 

Thank you Baba Yaga (& Taisia).

Taisia Kitaiskaia is a poet, writer, and Michener Center for Writers fellow. Born in Russia and raised in America, she's had her poems and translations published in Narrative Magazine, Poetry International, and others.