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Category Archives: Craft: Short Story Writing

Tips For Writing A Spin-Off Based On Someone Else’s Story

In the world of publishing, books that are based on other books are especially hot right now—and have been for a while! The following list of books that are based on classic fairy tales or classic literature is just the tip of the iceberg.

New Books That Are Based On Classic Stories

Books that present Alice in Wonderland reimagined:

Alice by Christina Henry

Alice in Zombieland by Gena Showalter

Queen of Hearts by Colleen Oakes

The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor


Retellings of classic tales like Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, etc.:

Cloaked by Alex Flinn

Sweetly by Jackson Pearce

Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce

Belle by Cameron Dokey

Midnight Pearls (Little Mermaid retelling) by Debbie Viguié

Beauty by Robin McKinley


Classic books that have been wildly rethought—courtesy of the zombie book trend that just will not die:

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, Jane Austen, Philip Smiley (Illustrator)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim by W. Bill Czolgosz

Robin Hood & Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers by Paul A. Freeman

The Undead World of Oz: L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Complete with Zombies and Monsters by Ryan C. Thomas

I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas by Adam Roberts


If you’re thinking about writing a book based on a familiar story, here are a few FAQs about how to write (and publish) a spin-off:

How do I know if it’s legal to write a spin-off using someone else’s characters and story ideas?

Fairy tales and other stories that have come down through the centuries are generally not considered to be “owned” by any given person. So if you’re writing a story based on the classic story of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” you should be in the clear—as long as your version doesn’t look too much like anyone else’s version based on the same tale.

As for riffing on an existing literary text (like Madame Bovary or the Harry Potter books), it’s important to know a little bit about copyright law. Normally, writers can’t legally put their spin on a book until it has become part of the public domain, which means that the original author’s intellectual property rights have expired. Books that were published before 1922 are automatically considered part of the public domain, unless there are specific circumstances that have kept copyright protections in place.

Books published after 1922 are protected by modern copyright law. That means stealing characters and storylines is a no-no. That said, at some point, most texts do revert to the public domain (usually seventy years after the author dies, unless the copyright is renewed by the author’s estate). Here’s a detailed description of how to determine if a book is in the public domain.

If you’re writing a book based on the well-known story of a real person, tread carefully. Generally, the law states that it’s impossible to libel the dead. If your character is based on a person who lived three hundred years ago and was a well-known public figure, you’re probably in the green zone and can forge ahead. If your character is still alive, you could risk a lawsuit. And if that person died a few decades ago, but is survived by heirs, the heirs could be entitled to sue for defamation if you’re not careful. Learn more about libel and defamation.

What mistakes do authors make when writing a book based on another story?

The most common mistakes writers make when writing a story based on another story are:

  • The derivative book too closely mirrors the original, and so it doesn’t feel fresh and new.
  • The derivative book doesn’t stick closely enough to the original, and so fails to meet reader expectations.
  • The derivative book doesn’t consider the key elements of the original book to be sacred (unless, of course, the new story is trying to be cheeky).

What’s the best angle for retelling a familiar book?

The angle you take when retelling an old story depends on your goals and interests. Here are a few ideas:

  • The POV of a secondary character from the original
  • The viewpoint of a famous villain
  • Turning the “world” of the original story upside down
  • The story that takes place before or after the well-known story
  • Totally new characters who are in the same world as the original story
  • A modern character discovering/rediscovering some kind of new relationship with the original story (example: while rereading a favorite story, the character falls into the pages)
  • A modern retelling of a classic tale set in contemporary times (or even in the future)
  • The real-life story behind the writing/publishing of a fictional book

What are your best tips for finding a literary agent and publisher for a book that’s based on a previous book or tale?

Literary agents, publishers, and readers love a story that’s both familiar and new at the same time, so books that are based on other stories can be big sellers. In your query letter, offer a passing nod to the source material, then be sure to focus on your version of the story. If the original work is familiar to audiences, you don’t have to spell out every point of comparison.

Do you have another question about this topic? Post it for us in our comments section, and we’ll reply!


9 Tips For Writing Believable Horror And Suspense

The creaking door. The night fog rolling in. The book that jumps off the shelf all by itself. Smart writers of horror and suspense know all the tricks for preying on the fears of their readers. If the story you’re writing calls for the tingling of spines and the raising of hair, consider using these… Continue Reading

Go Long! 9 Tips For Publishing A Long Story, Poem, Or Essay In A Literary Magazine

In the last twenty years or so, we’ve noticed a trend: literary journal editors are leaning toward shorter submissions of poems, stories, and essays. And we would know—at Writer’s Relief, we’ve been closely monitoring the lit mag market since 1994 to ensure that our clients have the best opportunities for getting published. But just because lit mag trends… Continue Reading

5 Elements That Will Muck Up The Chances Of Publishing Your Short Story

Editors at literary journals spend countless (and often thankless!) hours reading through hundreds of short story submissions from writers who hope to get published. Many of the stories are tossed into the “thanks, but no thanks” pile relatively quickly. Why? Certain short story deal-breakers pop up again and again in submissions—here are a few to… Continue Reading

Trendy Short Story Topics That Editors Are Loving

Great writing plays a starring role in garnering acceptance letters from literary magazines. But there’s another element that will give your submissions a competitive edge: trendiness. The idea of “trendiness” often has a bad reputation because of passing fads, but being trendy is actually about being plugged in, aware of, and engaged with modern culture—not about writing in a… Continue Reading

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