East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Original Ideas


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.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

6 thoughts on “Original Ideas

  1. In one of terrific gags the comedian Lillo and Greg interview am literary author that re-writes famous books, usually the classic ones. When it comes to propose the incipit of his book, the supposed author reads the first words and we discover that his “re-writing” is littealy a transcription of the original works.
    “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation…”
    “Mmm. Sorry…”
    “But… it’s the same. I mean… No difference at all!”
    “Oh, well, thank you. I’m flattered. I re-write, yes.”


  2. I’d hate to tell you how many aspiring writers I’ve known personally and professionally the past 15-20 years who have told me that they will not submit anything for publication unless it is 100% original. They have deprived themselves of years where they could have had a career because they were more obsessed with “being original” than simply having fun writing.

    If Stephen King had thought like that we wouldn’t have two horror classics today to savor; “Salem’s Lot” and “The Shining.” There were hundreds of vampire novels and haunted house written before he did his but he didn’t that stop him. He wrote HIS vampire story and HIS haunted house story and that made all the difference.

    Or how about Quentin Tarantino? His movies are a mishmosh of various movie genres such as Blaxploitation, Grindhouse, Kung Fu, Spaghetti Western and 1970s Crime Thrillers. He freely admits there isn’t a single original thing in his movies but because he’s obviously having so much damn fun making his movies THAT’S the thing that is important when we talk about his films.

    I myself have been accused of being derivative and not especially innovative or original and that’s quite all right. Writing is a lonely business and something I have to spend a considerable amount of time by myself doing. And if I have to spend that much time by myself doing something then I damn sure want it to be entertaining and not a bloody chore I dread.


    • We are on the same page.
      And I have heard too a lot of people that aim at absolute originality and absolute perfection. Noble attitude, but they usually spend more time talking about writing than actually writing.


  3. For the bit about copying your bio style/format; that guy is a jackass, top to bottom.


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