Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Accidental Borrowing

Cases of plagiarism make big news in literature land, not least because copyright still equals money plus reputation. Where someone has blatantly lifted whole passages out of another work and inserted it into their own, claiming authorship, the line is pretty clear. I remember a case a while ago where a historical romance writer used lumps of her research material. We've had cases in Australia of university academics plagiarising for theses. But the line gets fuzzier when what is "borrowed" is not parts of a text, but the story ideas.

There are plenty of books around that cite 20 basic plots, or 37 basic plots, or 3 (if you want to be minimalist!). I tend to think these are based more on themes such as betrayal, star-crossed lovers, jealousy, family feuds, etc. These are useful to look at and ponder, as are texts that discuss different story structures such as the hero's journey. With any of these, what makes your story different is the characters you create, the voice you use, the twists you come up with. But what happens when you accidentally use someone else's central story idea?

We are told that if we want to become better writers, we should read widely and critically. I've been telling my students this for years, and doing it myself. I couldn't estimate how many books I've read in my lifetime. 20,000? Probably more. Some obviously stay with me more than others. The ones that linger longest are no doubt those that I relate to strongly in some way, and who knows why? Personal history? Heroes I identify with? Fantastic writing that I'd love to emulate? All of those and more.

But I had the unsettling experience this week of discovering that a new story I'd been working on for several weeks wasn't really mine. Right from the beginning, I'd struggled with the idea. It seemed interesting, I had done some research, there was potential. I started writing. The first niggle was that the character name I'd decided on still felt wrong. I kept writing, thinking it would all come right if I kept at it (because often it does, and then I scrub the first part altogether). I wrote and wrote, and the story just kind of lay on the page and went "bleh".

Finally, I thought I'd go and look at some other books about a similar topic and see what that author had done with her character names. I searched the bookcases, found one of the books in that series, opened it and thought Oh dear. The character names weren't the problem at all. The problem was that somehow I'd accidentally written something that was so like this other book that there was no way I could continue with it. So I chucked out the 4000 words immediately.

Was I upset? Sad? Panicking? No way. Suddenly I knew why the story was dead on the page for me. I'd already read it before. I'm one of those people who, once I know the ending, more than 50% of the story's enjoyment is gone for me. Somehow, even though I didn't realise what I'd done, a little bunch of my brain cells did, and they were politely trying to tell me (I imagine them standing around with a few beers in their little hands, muttering to each other, "When is this silly woman going to wake up, for goodness' sake?").

I'm now working on a new story, one I'm pretty sure hasn't been borrowed. But how do you know? I think there have been genuine cases of writers who've thought they were coming up with something original, only to discover (sometimes after publication, unfortunately) that it's a story from their long-distant reading past. We have so many variables to play with - characters, plot, settings, voice - that you can create something new. (Although having watched the first episode of Make It or Break It the other day, those writers didn't try hard enough to get past the cliches!). But I often listen to new songs on the radio and think the same thing - there are really only so many notes on the music scale. Aren't we really just borrowing all the time? What do you think? Have you accidentally found yourself writing something you've read before?

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