“Nightingale” caught my eye this month with its inventive worldbuilding and Eastern European flavour, and the alienness it brings to its take on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. However—and as the author’s already identified—I feel it’s running into some issues that are unique to how we retell fairytales, and how we make them fresh and new. This month, I’d like to talk about what knowledge we assume readers have when we write fairytale adaptations, and how we balance old and new to give a retelling maximum impact.
There’s a lot of craft already on display in “Nightingale”: a rich, organic-feeling world, a twist of the weird that doesn’t feel at all forced, and a great cadence to the language. It’s a powerful combination, but one that isn’t quite running smoothly yet: it’s easy for lush to slip into baroque sometimes, and there are a few sentences where each image doesn’t lead naturally to the next. For example:
“The Nightingale has returned to the Supari streets she came from, where schools of iridescent fish dart between grim iron effigies of trees (a state-imposed gift of Rumen Tsor’s father) and tender-footed porcupines clamber from window to window, across hacked-up telephone lines used for hanging washing, with messages in lace pinned to their mottled gray spines.”
In that one sentence readers are exposed to multiple visual ideas, each of which can do solid work to set a sense of place, create a contrast between the world of the Supari and that of Rumen Tsor, and establish a sense of wondrous uncanniness. They’re each ideas that are worth including. However, pressed together into one sentence—and run through so quickly—they muddy pretty quickly in my head, and it’s easy to lose my way, both in the sentence and in the portrait of the world it’s building. A bit of breath between each visual, or pruning them down to focus on the few that are most important, might make each image have more individual—and thus more collective—impact.
I’d suggest taking the same approach to the symbolism in the piece. While the internal cultural symbols of the Supari make this world feel very rich—for example, the green and white smoke—the symbolism in “Nightingale” is deployed when it hasn’t quite been set up for readers concretely, and that robs it of the kind of impact it could have. Selecting and strengthening a few choice symbols would give them the potential to stick with readers, and have their meaning—when they’re deployed—make a stronger impression.
Given the density of the new material in “Nightingale”, it’s worth pulling our figurative lens out one layer and discussing the question of balance between new material and the traditional fairytale. There are two attractions, for readers, to a fairytale retelling: the new commentary, flavor, or perspective, and seeing what the author’s done with the original material—the thrill of recognition. Holding those in balance—and making sure they integrate into a single, logical, internally coherent story—is a subtle but important task.
I’m not sure “Nightingale” is, in its present state, quite striking that balance yet. Just as on the sentence level, there is a lot going on in this piece idea-wise, and there isn’t always a clear sense of how each element fits.
My suggestion for the idea level of “Nightingale” is the same as for the sentence level: a sharper emphasis on clarity. There’s a vagueness as to the nature of the Nightingale—one that’s assuming, maybe, a little more familiarity with the fairy tale than many readers have, or just details that haven’t made it onto the page. For example, when the Nightingale’s talked about a person who had a youth and childhood but also someone who was made, it’s a worked-in reference to the original fairytale—but on the plot level, it’s a confusing contradiction. A read-through that focuses just on the plot level, a second that focuses just on the referential, and an revision to bring those two closer in line by making sure each reference works on both might smooth this issue out.
Working a fairytale into a genre story can be a bit of balancing act: The foundation of the original story has to be clear, but not so obvious as to make the new story feel stale. The speculative elements of the original story have to distinguish, just a little, from the speculative elements of the new, genre version. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but with a little polish and structural rethinking, “Nightingale” has the chance to be something lush and unique.
Best of luck with it!
Author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (October 2015)