"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:
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?
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