The Big Idea: Leah Cypess
Reuse and recycle: If it’s a good idea for physical things, can it also be a good idea for story concepts? Leah Cypess suggests that it might be — and explains how this has direct bearing on her novel Glass Slippers.
Let me start with a confession: I used the same Big Idea twice.
I’m sure I’m not the only writer who’s done that. But I was pretty blatant about it. I wrote two Cinderella retellings, both from the point of view of a sibling I invented, and both circling the same theme: how deeply we believe the stories we are told as children, and what happens when we start to question them.
Like many American kids of my generation, the Disney version of Cinderella was one of the first movies I ever saw. Cinderella, in the movie, is the embodiment of sweetness and innocence. She triumphs over her more powerful enemies through pure goodness and coincidental magic, and then sort-of-accidentally becomes queen.
I mean, come on.
I’m a cynical person with a dim view of human nature, so when I take a serious stab at a Cinderella retelling, there’s only one way I can do it: with Cinderella planning her own ascent. There was no fairy godmother, though the royal family threw all its weight behind that story. There was magic, obviously, but Cinderella went after that magic and used it deliberately.
And magic always comes with a price.
When this idea first came to me, I had a different fairy tale retelling on submission, and I was thinking a lot about the way fairy tales — like other stories we hear in childhood — become embedded in our minds and are never examined critically until they’re challenged. I’d also recently had an experience in my own life in which a conversation with an old acquaintance turned my perception of a childhood narrative completely upside down – and made me realize that my original narrative had never made that much sense to begin with.
All this was ricocheting around my mind when I got to work on a story about a man investigating the murder of Cinderella’s stepsister. Needless to say, this story was pretty dark, and somewhat to my delighted surprise, it got nominated for both a Nebula and a World Fantasy Award.
By the time that happened, my Sleeping Beauty retelling had not only sold, but turned into a 3-book deal for a series of fairy tale retellings. I didn’t have to think twice before deciding that the next book would be about Cinderella’s third and youngest stepsister, who has grown up believing that her family was evil and that Cinderella had adopted her out of the goodness of her heart. But (you will not surprised to hear) that version of events gets called into question.
So far, this spin might strike many of you as not all that original. There are hundreds of coming-of-age narratives in which the main character finds out that the story they’ve always been told is the opposite of what really happened. They’ve been on the wrong side all along!
But that was not the story I chose to tell, in either version of my retelling. To me, that complete about-face is often every bit as naïve as the original belief. For the most part, my characters do not discover that in the fight between good and evil, they have unwittingly been on the side of evil. Instead, they discover that the world is far more complicated than they had been led to believe.
Writing this realization into a dark story about an adult was relatively straightforward. My adult character could recognize the complexity of the world, the mix of good and evil, and then choose what he, as a lone individual, wants to do about it. An adult can decide to fight, or to escape, or to leave his options open. But a child, for the most part, doesn’t have that option. My main character in Glass Slippers is an 11-year-old girl, and she doesn’t have the ability to turn her back on all the adults around her and make her own way in the world. She’s going to have to do something that an adult protagonist could have avoided.
She’s going to have to pick a side.
That, in the end, that was the harder story to write. It’s part of what makes middle grade harder to write in general: your characters’ choices are limited by the decisions of the adults around them. But you still have to find a way to give them agency (occasionally, without killing off their parents), and you have to find a path forward that can lead to an earned and satisfying ending.
(Sometimes, in order to make that happen, you have to go back and rewrite half the book a month before it’s due. Ask me how I know.)
In the end the same Big Idea, written for different audiences, resulted in two very different stories. Since I want everyone to buy Glass Slippers, I should probably tell you that it is the better story. But the truth is, they’re simply different. I love them both, and I’m just glad that this Big Idea seized me so fiercely that I had to use it more than once.
(Possibly more than twice. But that’s an essay for another day.)