Basing Your Book on a Classic

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: May 14 2009

My YA manuscript is loosely based on a classic Charlotte Bronte novel, and although some of the characters and plot lines are similar to the original, the characters’ motivations and relationships have been updated to reflect modern values, choices and issues. I believe my novel and query letter are both good enough to stand on their own, but I was wondering if it would be an advantage or disadvantage to mention that it’s loosely based on a classic. Right now, I mention it in a short sentence at the end of the query, but do I really need to include it?

While I caution writers against relying too heavily on comparing their books to modern literature, I don’t think in this age of “let’s remix Jane Austin just one more time” you can hurt yourself by letting agents and editors know that you are basing your book on a classic. This might be a personal bias because I’m always intrigued by books that either tell the story of a classic secondary fictional character or retell a classic or a fairy tale, but I say go for it, and I say move that line up to the beginning of your letter. Who wouldn’t want to read a really great, modern retelling of Jane Eyre (in fact, I feel inspired to read the original right now) or Wuthering Heights (yes, I know that was written by Emily)?


15 responses to “Basing Your Book on a Classic”

  1. Avatar Hornby Wannabe says:

    I have a related question… let's say that a new author's book is in some ways reminiscent of a great-and-popular book. I'm thinking specifically of Nick Hornby's How To Be Good. There just aren't any lesser novels to my knowledge that do what that book does. Is there any way to say "I think my book has stylistic similarities to this book" WITHOUT implying that I think I'm as good as Nick Hornby? (Someday…)

    I have previously written to agents saying something along the lines of, "I see you represented X, and I think my book has a similar character A with traits B & C, and dealing with themes of D" and so far I have NEVER written in a query letter that I think my book has anything in common with anything written by the great Nick Hornby, but is there any place where it could be appropriate to do so (if done right)? In an "elevator speech" about the book, perhaps?

    I know we shouldn't compare ourselves to the greats, but I think this great book is the only one in its category, and there ARE some similarities to my current work in terms of the balance between lighthearted writing and weighty themes.

  2. Avatar Lois Lane II says:

    Thanks for the advice!

  3. Avatar Rick Daley says:

    I’m halfway through THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE, which is a re-telling of HAMLET. If it’s done right, it can be spellbinding.

  4. Avatar amytalley says:

    I love retellings – they bring wonderful stories back to the forefront especially for YA. And that reminds me, I LOVE Jane Eyre; I think I’ll pick that one back up for another read.

  5. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Gee, what happened to fresh and original? Who wants to compete with a classic?

  6. Avatar spyscribbler says:

    Oh no! Not my Jane Eyre! I couldn’t bear to see Jane Eyre ripped up as much as Jane Austen has been!

    Well, truth be told, I think there’s a bit of Jane Eyre in everything I write.

  7. Avatar Kim Kasch says:

    Oh, I am enjoying Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

    It’s funny and . . . well, a classic.


  8. I agree with Jessica. Why not state up front that your book is loosely based on a classic? I imagine that was the inspiration in the first place, plus that’s going to be intriguing for some agents and possibly a turn-off to others. But, who cares? Those others probably wouldn’t be interested anyway. Tell it like it is!

  9. Avatar Sheila Deeth says:

    There’s an ABNA entry which references Catcher in the Rye that sounds really interesting. I’m hoping that might come out as a book sometime.

  10. I love writing retellings – great post!

  11. Avatar MelissaPEA says:

    I think you do need to include it. Chances are, the agent or editor will recognize the plot line from the classic novel, just based on your query. It’s best to be open about it. Your phrasing of “loosely based” is good; you might also consider saying “inspired by.” There are only what, like 33 plots anyway? So you have no reason to hide.

  12. Avatar hippokrene says:

    My epic fantasy romance based on _Green Eggs and Ham_ is a go!

    Would you, could you with the elves?
    Would you, could you in the Delves?

  13. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Your post reminded me of someone (can’t remember the name) who did an excellent knockoff of Neil Diamond. I heard this character on the radio one time and then he was heard no more (by me, anyway.) It is possible he was sued, but more likely the public just did not accept that. My gut tells me the same thing would be true of (ahem!) great literature. I think I understand Chuck Palahniuk’s style well enough to rip it off (under the distinctive pseudonym Chas. Palahniuk, naturally) but would be embarrassed to send it to an agent. Hell, I am embarrassed enough to send my original stuff to an agent. I am not saying you are wrong, but cannot help wondering if this would be good for more than a learning exercise. If you mean it, I will write a story about an ugly man named Winston who looks a lot like John Hurt and who almost gets his face bitten off by a hungry rat while his head is incarcerated in a bird cage.

  14. Avatar hippokrene says:

    I’d say there’s a difference between ripping off a classic, basing your work on a classic, and re-telling a classic.

  15. What if your book’s inspiration is based on something that’s NOT a classic? Dmitri Gat was so “inspired” by John D. McDonald’s “The Dreadful Lemon Sky” that his own novel “Nevsky’s Demon” was a line-for line paraphrase of McDonald’s novel.

    (Gat said that he didn’t know you couldn’t do that LOL).