If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, E.L. James should be swooning.
Her "Fifty Shades" erotic romance trilogy is not only riding an orgasmic wave of pop culture popularity, it's also spawning rippling waves of parodies: "Fifty Shades of Beige," "Fifty Shades of Garbage," "Fifty Shades of Twilight," "Fifty Shades of Lame," "Fifty Shades of Gay," "Filthy Shades of Gray," "Fifty Shades of Mr. Darcy," "Fifty Shades of Louisa May."
And one by Cedar Rapids native Andrew Shaffer: "Fifty Shames of Earl Grey."
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Shaffer, 33, a full-time writer now based in Lexington, Ky., steeps the trilogy's signature elements in a boiling pot of wacky water, straining it into a brew that slides warmly down your throat, only to bubble back up in spurts of laughter.
Actually, it's a little bitter in the beginning, with prose as unsophisticated as James' first stab at writing. But that's the point.
"I couldn't believe how freeing that was," Shaffer says of the elementary style. "That was one of the reasons I enjoyed (the process) so much. It was like, hey, just write whatever you want, and you're not going to have to worry too much about grammar. I could just write off the top of my head. And that, by itself, was a parody of fan fiction, which is just sort of off the top of the head, not really edited."
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He had to whip it out pretty quickly, starting the process March 1, launching the eBook version July 10 and the 217-page paperback on Aug. 1.
He read the first "Fifty Shades" book, then read the sequels while penning his parody. He didn't need to seek James' permission to write his version.
"In the U.S., parody and satire are protected speech, so you can pretty much parody anything," he says. "At the same time, you still have to walk a fine line and make sure what you're doing is a commentary, not just a rip-off."
He felt his original title, "Fifty-one Shades," might confuse readers, so he went with a title that turns billionaire Christian Grey's 50 shades of personality into billionaire Earl Grey's 50 guilty pleasures, from shopping at big-box stores and listening to Nickelback to wearing Hawaiian shirts and getting his kicks from sexual kinks. Tea-drinking, lip-biting Ana Steele became tea-loving, nose-picking Anna Steal.
Shaffer likens it to the "Scary Movie" franchise that lampoons pop-thriller cinema, trying to "nail down" that tone of parody.
He sought lots of opinions during the revision process, to make sure he'd skewered the salient points. Sure enough, he'd skipped an important character convention. Correcting that sin of omission, Ana's "inner goddess" became Anna's "inner guidette."
"I had a lot of input from people who read my original draft -- a lot of different eyeballs on it," he says. "Then we had a copy editor come in on this book and actually try to make it better."
But not too much better. He had to assert himself to keep the deliberately naive writing style, which yielded such gems as "I gaze into his gazing eyes gazingly like a gazelle gazing into another gazelle's gazing gaze."
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"Some parody novels out there are simply pointing fingers at something and making fun of it," he says. "I don't think that's the best way or the most successful way. A good parody would highlight issues, work things up, maybe point out the flaws in it, but the end result it's rooted in is not 'this is a terrible thing,' but that I wish it was better -- an optimism
"When I was reading 'Fifty Shades,' I was excited that a work of women's romance was blowing up so big. I review fiction and erotic fiction, my girlfriend writes women's fiction, so this could be a really great thing for the industry," he says. He hopes "Fifty Shades" fans will seek out the better books.
In the meantime, he says his book is available wherever books are sold -- "wherever that is these days."
And if you'd like a little music to put you in the mood, "Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album," featuring 15 pieces chosen by E.L. James and mentioned in her trilogy, will be available digitally Aug. 21 and on CD on Sept. 18.