Friday, November 20, 2015

Stealing Another Writer's Work vs Being Inspired by it

"But I can't write about that. That idea's been taken."

If I had a dollar for every time I've heard a creative writer utter that phrase (or something similar to it), I'd have enough money to buy that bookshelf I'm going to need pretty soon.

It always makes me cringe because it's just so darn wrong. There is a huge difference between stealing another writer's work and being inspired by it. Unfortunately, it seems that people can't distinguish between the two or, perhaps, are too afraid of plagiarism to try.

It is, however, a very legitimate fear because it can be hard to discern when you're stealing from other writers or just being guided by them. Here are 10 things to keep in mind to help you differentiate between the two:
1. Remember that no idea is unique. Ever. It's impossible to have a completely original idea. Sometimes you may write something and realize that it's similar to something by another author. That's OK. Not to go all hippie on you, but all ideas and stories are connected in one giant circle, swirling round and round. You pick out one thread of an idea and you tug on them all. For example, C.S. Lewis, who is said to be a very original author, actually echoes the style of George MacDonald, who happened to be influenced by Novalis. This connection phenomenon is found in every writer because every writer has "stolen" concepts/characters/voices from those before them. Don't stress if your ideas are similar to others. People don't own ideas. They just shine a light on them.

2. It's normal, even healthy, to shape yourself after writers that you admire. When you first start writing, you're going to need somebody to look up to and guide you. For me, I look to C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, Lloyd Alexander, Douglas Adams, Lois Lowry, and many, many others. I study their style, their voice, and their ideas to help me find a way to better shape my own. That's not stealing. That's just a smart, respectful way of finding your own writing voice.

3. But don't go out of your way to copy other writers. You are trying to make your own style as a writer, not just copy the voices of the authors you admire. Nobody likes a copycat, and you can get in serious trouble for plagiarism.

4. Remember the writer's rule: Take what ye can. Give nothing back. Oh. Wait. That's a pirate guideline. But it works for writers, too. The world is made up of connecting ideas and inspiration. Take everything you can and run with it. As I mentioned above, because no idea is unique, original, or owned by others, it is not stealing to take an idea and rework it into your own. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, and do NOT give up an idea because somebody tells you it's similar to another author's. However:

5. Don't try to lift insanely specific ideas or names from other writers. For instance, you can't have four kinds of wizards in your book: White, gray, brown, and blue. J.R.R. Tolkien crafted that and it's so specific to him that it's best to stay away. You can, however, use his idea of having different "orders" of wizards that can be told apart by specific characteristics or clothing. Naming your character Hermoine is a bad move because it's so unusual and so clearly connected to Rowling. But nobody will shoot you if you name one of your characters Fred.

6. Read widely. The more you read, the more comfortable you will be with drawing inspiration from other pieces of writing. Why? Because, as you read, you'll see such a wide variety of ideas that, once mashed together with your own, will form a completely unique story that is purely yours. It will also help you see that no story in the world has been written that is not reminiscent of another.

7. Give credit where credit is due. Don't try pretending like you don't owe some of your genius to other authors. Saying that you're inspired by other writers isn't admitting that you've stolen. It's also not saying that you're a cheap imitation. It's just showing people how you've learned your craft.

8. Don't use the same ideas that everyone else is. Want to know why there are so many cliche ideas and characters in books? Because writers don't follow point #6, or they latch onto one specific author. That's why we had a slew of dystopian, "teens pushed into combat" stories after the Hunger Games. Or why high fantasy has looked mostly the same since Tolkien took that genre by storm. If you're going to look to authors for inspiration, look to many different authors of many different genres and try not to follow a trend for the sake of the trend itself. OR you can try this one:

9. Use the same ideas that everyone else is, but do it better. Take an old, overdone idea and rework it. Get out there and show people how it's done. People don't tend to take this route very often because, honestly, you need a good amount of inspiration, talent, self-confidence, and probably a smidgen of arrogance to pull it off. But, when people do take this route and succeed, it can be pretty darn amazing.

10. Be you. Be inspired by others. Pay attention to what's happening around you and inside of you. Watch movies, read books, learn new things, talk to different people. Glean ideas from the world. But always, always add yourself to the mix. For example, my blog isn't particularly original. It's just writing tips. But it's also me: sarcasm and nerd references and to the point. I gather tips from what I see around me, but I also insert "essence of Hannah" into my posts because that's what makes them mine. Do the same for your writing. Find things that you feel strongly about, find a writing style you enjoy, a voice that is you and you'll be okay.

People have the idea that writers are creators. That's not true. We're discoverers. We uncover and tell the stories of age-old concepts. We're pushed to do so by the explorers that went before us. As such, there is nothing wrong or shameful in looking to past (or even present) writers for ideas and guidance.

So next time you have a good idea but then realize that it's already been done, don't freak out. Think back over these 10 points and then ask yourself: Can I run with this concept? The answer will probably be yes.

What about you? Have you ever discarded an idea because you thought it was stealing? What authors or books have shaped you as a writer?

Related articles:
6 Easy Ways to Gain Writing Inspiration
Challenging Creative Writers To Be More Creative
Challenging Writers to Create Stories With Meaning

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13 comments:

  1. I love the "Pirates of the Caribbean" reference. I run a writing workshop for teens on weekends, and I am always telling them that the Rules of Writing are a lot like the Pirates' Code. They're more like guidelines. It's expanded into a kind of private joke, and we sneak in Pirates quotes wherever we can. "Why is the coffee always gone?" Or when the romance arc in someone's story is dragging out a little too much, "Just kiss!"
    I'm definitely going to share this with them. Young writers have a particularly difficult time maintaining the balance between inspiration and plagiarism because they really don't know themselves yet. Their voices change as rapidly as their bodies.

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    1. Lol! That workshop sounds fun. =) It makes me happy to hear about a writer working to build up the next generation of artists. Keep up the awesome work!

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  2. I once wrote what I considered to be a wonderful short story and was ready to start sending it out to various publishers (in the days before self-publishing ebooks) when I received a copy of a Sci-Fi magazine I was subscribed to. The feature story, by a well known author, was virtually identical to the story I wrote. At that point I felt I could not submit my story anywhere for fear of being accused of plagerism even though I'd written and finished my story before I read his. Very frustrating.

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    1. Ah. That happened to me a few years ago. It's annoying because we know that we didn't steal, but it will look that way to others. That's why I'm hoping people can learn to recognize that no concept will ever be completely original. Just because a story looks similar to another doesn't mean that the writer stole it.

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  3. Thank you! I've been wrestling with this sense I got the story idea for my book from a tv show. There are similarities but also several major differences and I drew inspiration from several sources and, of course, added plenty of original ideas. This helped calm my spirt about it so thanks.

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    1. So happy to hear that, Katherine! I definitely think you should go for it. =) Happy writing!

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  4. I absolutely agree with you, Hannah. It's perfectly normal to be inspired by other authors - just look at Neil Gaiman and G.K. Chesterton. The trick is to make the idea your own. Great post!

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  5. One of the stories I have (it's currently on hold) is inspired by the masked hero trope.

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    1. Sounds fun! I've always wanted to try something like that. =)

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  6. Sounds a lot like the issues I've been wrestling with. I have this adventure story idea that I can't help feeling is too close to something I read and really like, even though I'm putting my spin on it. I like the way you say it's okay to use things others have written to spring board your ideas. That has been my biggest stumbling block, that they wrote something I felt I never could and so I shouldn't use it cause it wasn't my idea, you are helping me start to see that differently.

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    1. I'm so happy that this post helped you, Peter! I say go for it. It may be similar to another idea, but it won't be exact. It will have the "Peter James spin" that nobody but yourself can accomplish. I'm sure it will be awesome. Happy writing!

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  7. Oh you really have. I'm trying to stay in that mindset and to think along those lines. But it's hard. This doubt has been in my head so long it's hard to fight against. I sometimes can't help thinking that I can't write it without reading the piece that inspired me again and that if I do that I'll just take the ideas that inspired me and not create any ideas of my own, or at least not create them without seeing what someone else did first.

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    1. I read the other day that a famous author (Maggie Stiefvater) reads books that have a similar plot/feel to her current WIP because it helps her think. I thought this was a really cool idea, and I liked how she clearly didn't see it as stealing (nor did anybody else). So I wouldn't be at all afraid to read the piece that inspires you. Writers do that all of the time. If it helps, go for it. =D

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