I usually say originality is overestimated. I even write a series of articles in an Italian webzine that use that bit as a catchphrase. Being original is important, but you can’t copyright ideas – in the end what counts is not what ideas you rub together to spark a story, but how you use those sparks. What you do with the ideas, where you go with them, where you drag the reader and how. That’s what’s got to be original – the execution.
I just posted an article – in the Nuts & Bolts series – on my Patreon about ideas and themes – where to find them, how to use them. I’ll have to expand that piece, but it’s a start.
And what happens when you don’t have original ideas?
You use what’s at hand.
You steal, borrow, recycle.
It’s allowed – there’s a book in the best-seller list, quite good, called Steal Like an Artist. It’s quite good.
Now the ethical thing to do, of course, is to give credit where credit’s due.
In my Sons of the Crow story (the sequel’s coming, hopefully, in six weeks) I lifted a few hooks and a few choruses from the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, P.J. Farmer and Lin Carter.
I tried to get an original mix and an original twist, but it would be unethical – and extremely stupid – to claim I was not inspired by the books I loved as a teenager.
But here two problems arise – for some, at least.
First, there is this silly idea that we must be supremely original – and therefore a lot of amateurs steal and then believe they can get away with claiming sole ownership of the ideas they used.
Secondly, especially in a small market, there’s this idea that, like in that old movie, “there can be only one”, so they really can’t mention anyone that did the same before, for fear of looking like plagiarists… and therefore, like all true plagiarists, they claim sole paternity for the whole package.
I don’t care anymore.
Through the years I’ve seen blog posts, stories, course materials and articles stolen, copied, or abused. It happened when I was in academia, it happened later with less serious stuff. Certainly a lot of people have shown a better understanding of the market, building careers and acquiring expert status by selling watered-down versions of my works.
But tonight it was a first: somebody copied the format of my biography. The funny one, the one in which I say I’m sort of a superhero, like Bruce Wayne but without the billions, the cool car and the money.
It was pilfered and adapted to someone else’s life.
I spent about half an hour laughing like silly.
The problem with these people is not just a lack of ethics, nor is it a fundamental misunderstanding of how this writing business works.
What I find really appalling is their resignation at being so devoid of originality they can’t even think about something different than stealing.
And when they steal, they can’t put a new twist on what they stole.
They are dead inside.