I ran a fundraiser with the Portland General Defense Committee to support protestors arrested in 2020 and 2021. The fundraiser ended December 31st and raised over $300 after payment processing fees. Providing legal, financial, and other support to protestors facing legal repression is important to me; I’ve volunteered with the GDC for years because I believe that protesting is key to holding police and other state actors accountable and that carceral systems only do further harm.
But I also have a sense of humor, even if it’s a bit dark at times. So, a few months ago, I started writing a parody of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, because I thought the idea of a wealthy leader needing spiritual guidance to change his ways was both hilarious and apt in Portland in 2021. When I finished my novella-length project, I wanted to share it. Using the parody to fundraise for folks facing harm at the hands of wealthy leaders just felt right.
Below you’ll find some notes on the process of writing and sharing A Portland Christmas Carol. I figured some folks may be interested in a look behind the scenes, but also that this is an approach that could be used to raise funds in other cities.
Picking a classic tale
There are several important factors to choosing a book or other media to parody. While the inspiration to update A Christmas Carol reached out and grabbed me, I’ve worked on other projects that required a little more consideration.
- Choosing a well-known story: Parodies work best when based on stories familiar to the audience. Given that I’m in Portland, Oregon in the 2020s, I can depend on my audience to be aware of a lot of European canon, including a little Dickens. Different audiences have different needs. Stories that have been translated into multiple languages, made into multiple movies and other media formats, and that are often taught in school are good bets. As an added benefit, you can often find a digital copy of well-known works that you can use as a starting point.
- Avoiding trouble: I try to pick my fights carefully. When writing a parody that references current events, there’s always a chance that people involved in those current events will have a problem with even the most obvious parodies of their actions. As a result, I like to use works that have passed out of copyright as my starting point — if the original author is long dead, I don’t have to figure out if I need to fight a fair use case to prove my parody doesn’t violate the author’s copyright. That makes works already in the public domain easier to work with.
- Understanding the underlying story: Effective parodies build on the themes of the works they reference. We know that wealth corresponds to control of local governments, so the works of an author who critiques wealth are a logical choice when critique local governments. I also like to write parodies of works I already know fairly well. I don’t have to invest as much time in learning the work itself, so I can work faster.
- Looking at length: Very few people make a full-time living writing parodies. So choosing a shorter work or a section of a longer work as your starting point is a practical decision. If, for instance, you want to write a parody of the entire story of Crime and Punishment, you’re going to have to deal with over 700 pages of material.
A Christmas Carol hits these marks fairly well: The story is arguably Dicken’s best known work. It has been adapted many times and hasn’t ever gone out of print in its 175+ year history. Personally, I’d say that The Muppet Christmas Carol is the best version. And if the Muppets adapt a story, that story is definitely well known — their other adaptations include Muppet Treasure Island, The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, and The Muppets: Bohemian Rhapsody. And despite Dickens’ status as a hardcore copyright enthusiast, A Christmas Carol entered the United Kingdom public domain in 1877 (later than it entered the public domain in many other countries).
I read a lot of Dickens in school and even wrote a play parodying A Christmas Carol in high school. It was terrible and there are no existing copies as far as I know, but I can tell you details about the storyline from memory.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s only two drawbacks to writing a parody of A Christmas Carol. First, Dickens’ works tend to be lengthy. He was paid by installment and needed the money, which frankly shows in how he managed to draw out individual scenes. I may have cursed this stylistic choice several times during my editing process, because A Christmas Carol is a novella, not a short story. Second, I’m Jewish. I don’t feel that I’m appropriating Christian culture, because cultural appropriation definitively requires a dominant group drawing on the culture of a marginalized group. Christianity is definitely the dominant religious culture in the US and is therefore fair game. But the holiday of Christmas is important to many Portlanders, including many of my friends (and even a few of my family members). I wanted to do the holiday justice, so I did have to do some extra research into Christmas customs that a Christian might need to do. Of course, I’m not the first Jew to make media about Christmas and I’m sure I won’t the be the last.
Setting yourself up for successful parodying
Every writer’s process is different. There are several steps that can make writing a parody easier, however:
- Find a digital copy of the work you’re adapting and dump it into your word processor of choice. Project Gutenberg is an excellent resource for finding free copies of well-known books in the public domain. The site even has multiple versions of some books.
- Read the work you’re adapting. Even if you’ve read it before — even if you’ve adapted it before — reread the work and make sure you’re familiar with all the plot twists and turns.
- Note anything that doesn’t work for your parody. Since you’ve got the original work in a word processor file, you can make your notes as comments tied to specific sections of the work. Don’t worry about making changes yet, unless doing so works better for your process. Things I noted include:
- Phrases your readers might struggle with: Dickens made some great jokes about Bob Cratchit earning 15 bob a week, but I can’t assume the average Portlander today knows what currency a ‘bob’ corresponds to and or how inflation has changed the value of a ‘bob’ since 1843. A best guess at the value of Cratchit’s income in 2021 numbers is around $375 per week for 60ish hours of work, on which he supported a family of eight.
- Racism, ableism, and other offensive content: While the original writers of much of literary canon included prejudices in their works, I see no reason to perpetuate harm against any group of people. Editing out problematic content can take some planning, especially if a stereotype is core to a character (the way that Tiny Tim’s disability defines his portrayal). Just note problems on your preliminary read through and then come back later to make repairs.
- Opportunities to localize the story: If you’re updating the date or location of the story you’re parodying, you can change little details to make the setting feel more true to the rest of your parody. Keep an eye out for the names of the neighborhoods characters visit, the institutions they rely on, and even the books they read. As I read, I kept a list of details I could update, including technology (i.e. candles became electric lights) and types of businesses (since there aren’t a lot of ironmongers in Portland today).
- Figure out which characters and organizations you’re changing. If, for instance, you’re going to change the names of specific characters, you’ll have to decide exactly which characters you’re changing. For A Portland Christmas Carol, I made a list of the named characters and who they might correspond to in terms of Portland’s current events. I had to talk through some Portland history with friends and even look up the names of some buildings that were torn down before I moved to town.
- Use your word processor’s ‘find and replace’ function to update names throughout the file you’re working in. Rather than looking for every mention of ‘London’ in A Christmas Carol and changing it to ‘Portland’ by hand, I updated my whole document in a matter of seconds.
At this point in the parody process, you’ll likely have a file with a lot of comments. You’ll probably also have some sections that don’t make sense because automated ‘find and replace’ tools only change sentences — they don’t rework those sentences to ensure they make sense.
Congratulations! You’re now ready to actually write your parody! Personally, I just go through my heavily annotated document section by section. I rework each chunk to make sense, using what’s already in the file as a base. Of course, if you know you write better following a different process, do what works for you. Unfortunately, there’s not really a step-by-step process for actually writing a story, parody or not. It’s kind of a ‘draw the rest of the fucking owl’ situation. Do what works for you and power through.
Do as much self-editing as you can, especially if you’re not in a position to pay anyone to help you. Don’t worry — I’ll cover getting help on these sorts of projects below, but you want to minimize the work you’re asking people to do for free. Trust me on this one: finding friends to give feedback on the full 70+ pages of a classic novella is hard at the best of times.
Making something people want enough to pay for
Once you have a solid draft that other people have read (and hopefully enjoyed), you need to think about how to present your parody to potential supporters or buyers. With A Portland Christmas Carol, I was torn between offering an ebook and printing physical copies. I’ve done both in the past and I came to the conclusion that I just didn’t have the energy for all the details of both printing a book and distributing copies this year with everything else I’m up to — especially since I would still want to offer a digital version alongside dead tree format.
Laying out an ebook is different from designing files for a print run. In some ways, ebooks are a little more forgiving, though they have their own quirks. I use Adobe InDesign for laying out my projects, mostly because I’ve been using InDesign for almost 20 years and I can write an Adobe subscription off on my taxes. I don’t recommend using InDesign unless you already have the software and you’re comfortable using it. Instead, use what you’re already comfortable with. I’ve seen plenty of readable ebooks laid out in Microsoft Word, Google Presentation, and all sorts of other tools. Your options include:
- Word processing and slide design tools that allow you to add images and export to PDF (like Google Docs)
- Design platforms that offer templates for ebooks (like Canva)
- Open source publishing tools (like Scribus)
- Bribing designer friends who already have the software and skills to layout ebooks
Getting a friend or two to help with design can lighten your workload tremendously. I consider myself more of a writer than anything else, so when I need to make some visually appealing, I try to at least get feedback from a design-minded friend.
For this project, I was lucky enough to have a friend volunteer to illustrate the story. The incomparable Mel Rainsberger listened to me yammering about this parody I was working on and next thing I knew, Mel sent me a folder full of illustrations to add to A Portland Christmas Carol. I did send Mel a copy of the story to review, along with some reference pictures, but I mostly just stayed out of her way. Because this project was intended as a fundraiser from the start, I hadn’t entirely expected to be able to find an illustrator — I don’t like asking people to work for free, so if I don’t have a budget, I’ll do without. But Mel’s illustrations definitely made this project much more appealing.
I dropped the illustrations into my working file, added image descriptions, and then exported the whole thing as a PDF. I got a few more folks to look over things for typos and the like. After a couple of reviews, I declared the editing process complete. I’ve since noticed two small errors, but with a project like this, you do have to declare the design process done and move on. Christmas is a firm deadline, after all: convincing everyone to stay in the holiday spirit a little longer so you can finish tweaking files is not an option.
With a finished design file in hand, I exported ebook files as both PDF and EPUB. InDesign can do both formats, as can most software. Because a lot of folks like to read ebooks on tablets or ereaders, having the choice between PDF and EPUB ensures that most people will be able to read a book on their device of choice. I tested my files on different devices I had access to to make sure they worked and everything showed up correctly — I always recommend testing your ebooks on as many different devices as you can manage, because weird errors do pop up.
I also tested my ebook files on screen readers. Testing files with screen readers doesn’t have to be much more complicated than using different devices. There are several free options you can download to try out. On larger projects, I also try to get someone who relies on a screen reader to test the file because a more experienced user will notice different issues than someone using a screen reader just for testing.
Making your parody available for purchase
I know a lot of creatives who will offer a project for purchase and pledge all the proceeds to a particular cause. I’m not the biggest fan of using this approach: First, any money raised this way runs through my bank account, which means I have to hold back enough to pay taxes on those funds. Second, I don’t like even a hint of financial impropriety which means extra transparency work on my end. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t ever handle any funds beyond my own money. Third, people making donations should get any tax deductions available, not the person who is collecting the donations. That last point isn’t an issue for fundraising for a 501(c)4 like the Portland GDC, but it’s what first made me uncomfortable with collecting donations and then handing them off.
When I can partner directly with an organization, that means that I want to use their platforms for sales and fulfillment of anything I sell on their behalf. But I also want to keep the workload to a minimum for everyone involved. If an organization mostly takes contributions via online platforms like CashApp or PayPal, offering a perk like an ebook through those platforms could mean emailing each donor a reward by hand. Sounds exhausting to me. Setting up a new platform (with the group’s permission!) and handing over all passwords as soon as possible is the best option I’ve come up with so far.
For A Portland Christmas Carol, I used Gumroad. I already use Gumroad for my own product sales and know how to set up a new product quickly. Other reasons I currently recommend Gumroad include:
- Gumroad is one of the few reliable sales platforms not owned by big conglomerates like PayPal. In fact, the company is extremely small.
- The platform is fairly intuitive to new users. I’ve introduced a few folks to it and they’ve been able to do everything they needed to without a lot of hand-holding. It’s not as fully-featured as some sales platforms, but honestly, that’s kind of a perk.
- You can set a base price for a product, then invite buyers to pay more if they can. When raising funds, that ‘pay what you want’ option can dramatically increase the amount you bring in.
- Gumroad doesn’t charge users a monthly fee. I’m not the biggest fan of their tiered fee structure (which is relatively new) but significantly cheaper options tend to require hand-coding your own pages or going through long verification processes.
- You can get decent analytics from Gumroad if that’s useful to you. I’m torn on the value of analytics for campaigns like this — I’ll spend most of the time A Portland Christmas Carol is available refreshing that analytics page and debating if there’s anything else I can do to get numbers to increase.
Yes, Gumroad has its own problems, but there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism. I’ll almost certainly find another sales platform I like better and switch at some point, but for now, I feel that Gumroad does less harm than the other options I could use.
One last note on platforms: while I did the heavy lifting on this project, I made sure to get buy-in from the organization I fundraised for on everything, including setting up a new sales platform. It is always inappropriate to set up a platform that accepts money for a specific organization without that organization’s approval.
Telling everyone about your amazing parody
You might be hoping that all the work is done once your parody is available for purchase and download. Unfortunately, if you don’t tell anyone about your parody, all of that work will be for nothing. Marketing its launch is a necessary part of the project.
Exactly how to market a launch depends a lot on what you’re offering, what organization you’re partnered with, and when you’re launching. I’m not going to go through every marketing tactic I’ve used for A Portland Christmas Carol, but I will cover a couple of key points.
Schedule your offering well: Perhaps the biggest problem I faced with A Portland Christmas Carol was that the story is directly tied to December 25. Offering a parody like this any other time of the year just isn’t going to make sense. But potential donors are also offline more around major holidays. I would have preferred to launch earlier in December. But the process of actually preparing files, getting approval, and setting up everything took time. So I launched when everything was ready. Sometimes scheduling just works out that way. But if you can choose a work to parody that allows a little more calendrical freedom, consider doing so.
Make use of the organization’s platforms: When you’re fundraising in partnership with an organization, familiarize yourself with their websites, newsletters, social media accounts, and other methods of reaching out to supporters. In a perfect world, you’ll be offering something that will appeal to at least some of those supporters and inspire them to send donations beyond what they might normally give. Write up templates and messaging that the people handling each of those platforms can copy, paste, and post.
Reach out to your own network (and even beyond): I ask people to share my projects and try to make the process as easy as possible. I provide review copies, social media templates, and images — along with anything else I can think of that will make the sharing process easier — all in a Dropbox folder I can easily control. In a perfect world, all this happens at least a few days before the official launch, but we rarely work in a perfect world. Most of my requests to share A Portland Christmas Carol went out on Launch Day, but I’ll probably be sending out messages asking for help sharing right up through the last day of the sale.
This write up is longer than I initially planned. But I wanted to cover as much of the necessary work involved in offering a parody as a way to fundraise as I could. I hope these notes will come in handy when you’re thinking of creative ways to support causes.
Thank you for reading this far. And if you read this before January 1, 2022 and you haven’t already, please consider getting yourself a copy of A Portland Christmas Carol.