How not to write a parody

Egads, what an absolutely terrible book! Little wonder Ms. Randall was sued for copyright infringement. As a result of that settled lawsuit, all copies now have to bear a label marking it as unauthorised parody. Publishing house Houghton Mifflin also had to make a contribution to Morehouse College, a historically Black college supported by Margaret Mitchell’s estate.

I love the idea of GWTW from the slaves’ POV. In fact, Ms. Mitchell’s estate did too, seeing as they gave Donald McCaig permission to write Ruth’s Journey about Mammy. But Ms. Randall’s book falls flat for so many reasons, not just because she wrote it without permission.

And why might that be?

1. Way too short! While GWTW is over 1,000 pages, TWDG is all of 208 pages, slightly under 6×9, and with rather wide margins on all sides. Unless a story is set over a very short timeframe, hist-fic is not a genre that lends itself well to brevity. That leads to underdeveloped, shallow, rushed stories.

2. Too much rambling on the way to getting to an actual plot.

3. Diary format is a really bad gimmick that doesn’t work here. While I love epistolary novels, this wasn’t a story crying out for such a style. It doesn’t even read like a real diary!

4. Impossible to make heads or tails of anything unless you’ve read GWTW. Characters are dumped on the page with the presumption the reader knows who they are. There’s a huge happy medium between the infamous Chapter Two of The Babysitters’ Club and dumping characters on the page with no context!

5. Speaking of, everyone but Mammy has a stupid alternative name. E.g., Scarlett is Other, Ashley is Dreamy Gentleman, Pork is Garlic, Mr. O’Hara is Planter, Belle is Beauty, Melanie is Mealy Mouth, Rhett is R, Mrs. O’Hara is Lady. Even the plantations have new names. Tara is Cotton Farm and Tata; Twelve Oaks is Twelve Slaves Strong as Trees.

6. Radically changing established characters. Ashley is gay and had an affair with Prissy’s brother (whom Melanie had whipped to death); Mammy and Prissy are murderers; Belle is a lesbian; the O’Haras had a loveless marriage; Pork is a criminal mastermind and murderer; Rhett is absolutely nothing like his alpha male self and has a breastfeeding fetish.

7. Killing off both Mammy and Scarlett. Yeah, those are convenient plot developments! As awful as when Mammy was killed off very early in Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett.

8. Awful, juvenile, embarrassing prose. The sex scenes were also very cringey.

9. A lot of inconsistency in language. Either your narrator speaks vernacular or proper English. She can’t do both at once.

10. Inconsistency in tense. I feel very strongly writers need a LOT of practice writing the classic default of past tense before trying present. It’s very hard to pull off well if you don’t know what you’re doing and haven’t a feel for whether it’s a natural fit for a particular story.

11. Cynara has no personality. She blandly recounts events in a very stream-of-consciousness, nonlinear style. Third-person is the default POV for a reason, particularly with a large ensemble cast. Not nearly as many stories need to be in first-person as their authors believe.

12. Way too much telling! I can’t be emotionally pulled into a story that’s little more than “This happened. Then that happened. Name said this. Name did that. This happened twenty years ago.” Give us active scenes, not dull summaries of events!

13. Chapters are so short and underdeveloped! This ain’t the kind of story where fragments work well.

14. Cynara is a total Mary Sue. Enough said.

Again, I love the idea of a GWTW spinoff told from the slaves’ POV, esp. with the twist of the protagonist being Scarlett’s secret halfsister. However, this story would’ve been so much better if it were told concurrently to GWTW, not after the fact. I also would’ve preferred Cynara to have her own character arc, not just be a Black version of Scarlett, right down to having an affair with Rhett since age fifteen.

A good retelling, parody, fanfiction, or spinoff should put the author’s unique spin on that world, not radically alter established characters. TWDG does absolutely none of that. This is pure garbage, little more than a poorly-written, huge middle finger to fans of the original novel. All the characters come across as terrible people, and the paper-thin plot is unrealistic soap opera-esque garbage.

I recommend avoiding this steaming pile of disjointed garbage.

When to spin off

Sometimes a character or storyline is so compelling, or becomes so prominent, that a spinoff book or series begs to be created. And other times, a spinoff is pointless or overkill.

In my early days with my Atlantic City characters (1991-3), I had so many spinoffs going, and many more planned. At my height of planning spinoffs, I had at least 14 spinoff books or series planned or in progress. Today, I only have three—the four introductory books (1938-41); the series focused on Max and his family, with a fair bit of focus on Kit’s family as well (1941-70); and my 12-volume handwritten magnum opus about Cinnimin and her descendants (1941-2050).

The original series (1941-50) is now permanently shelved, and I no longer want to write a mini-series about their college years (1950-4) and a longer novel about their lives in 1955. I also cut my losses and stopped the spin-offs in progress, and abandoned my plans to create all those other spin-offs.

This was a case of way too much material about the same people, in the same timeline, with way too much overlap between series and books. There are only so many ways one can write about the same events with a different focus, and original material for each book so it doesn’t become essentially the same story ad infinitum. If you love your secondary characters or members of an ensemble cast so much, pick just a few to focus on, and spin them off. Not every single character. And make the arc and storylines of each distinct, not just the same events with different people at the forefront.

I decided to spin off the stories of my Shoah characters (during and after the War) from my Atlantic City books because they were just getting too long and detailed. I had a folder full of files of stories and wraparound narrative segments about eleven different characters or sets of characters, several of them comprising three to five files. My original intent was to periodically insert this material into my Atlantic City books set at the same time, as a sort of alternate trajectory and sobering counterpoint to my American characters’ adolescence.

That originally worked fine, but once I began writing separate files of stories for future insertion, they were no longer just a few paragraphs here and there. They took on the character of potential novels. And my 12th Max’s House book, the most recent one I’ve worked on, has several chapters or long sections of chapters just about the European characters. That really pulls the focus off the original spotlight characters, and splits the narrative up too many ways. My Atlantic City books tend to be under 70,000 words. They’re not meant as grand, sprawling, epic novels with all these disparate story threads ultimately tied together.

It’s time for a spinoff when a secondary character or storyline suddenly starts assuming so much time and prominence that you’re spending less time with the intended main characters and storylines. If you easily have enough material to flesh these former side stories out into full-length novels, that’s an excellent sign that it’s time for the books to converge.

I grew up when series books for young people were really popular, like The Babysitters’ Club and Sweet Valley High. Those series had inordinate amounts of spinoffs, and clearly it was more about quantity over quality. Was it really necessary to write a series about a main character’s bratty little stepsister, a mystery series, a super-specials series (about summer vacations, trips abroad, etc.), books about popular secondary characters, a super-mysteries series, autobiographies, a series about a character who moved away, a series about the classmates of the obnoxious stepsister, and a finale series?

Your fictional world shouldn’t be treated like a cash cow, either before or after publication. Spinoffs should only be undertaken when there’s something really compelling about secondary or peripheral characters and storylines, not because you want every single character to get a turn in the spotlight. Too many spinoffs can ruin the series.