Monday, July 20, 2009

Stealing Originality

The always awesome Annie asked the question for the blog chain this time around.

Do you ever get inspired by a real-life event or news story and fear you're ripping off the story too much? Do you ever get inspired by a song or poem or line from a book and worry you're stealing that original person's idea? What if your research is overtaking your originality?

Wow. Big questions. Let me break these down a little bit.

Do you ever get inspired by a real-life event or news story and fear you're ripping off the story too much?

Yes, I have been inspired by real-life events or news story, although I've never made them the central focus of a story. I think if they were at the center of the story I would be worried about making sure I put my own original spin on them. Then again look at Law & Order (and all of its spin-offs too, of course). Ripped from the headline plots are their specialty, sometimes they'll even toss a couple of them together. Some of these I find eye-rollingly bad, (Especially when they get all political and preachy. Um, could you just shut-up and catch, then convict the bad guy already?) but I never find them lacking in creativity.

Do you ever get inspired by a song or poem or line from a book and worry you're stealing that original person's idea?

I don't think you can steal someone else's idea. An idea is elusive, intangible, and impossible to capture. Even if you tried to steal someone's idea, I think it would inevitably become tangled up with your own ideas and emerge on paper completely different than the idea that was taken.

Now words are another matter. Those can and have been stolen. However, if you are only using someone else's words as a jumping off point, and not trying to pass them of as your own, then I don't believe you have stolen anything.

What if your research is overtaking your originality?

Of all the questions this one resonated with me the most. As you may remember a few chains back our question was about research, and I confessed that I was not such a big fan of it. And I think one of the reasons I feel this way is that I do fear my originality and own vision could be easily squashed beneath a pile of hard-edged and weighty facts.

Perhaps this is a confidence issue (that was also a chain topic btw), and I might be able, with practice, to find my voice alongside facts. And I know it's possible, especially when I read books by writers like Jon Krakauer and Michael Pollan. They write non-fiction books that should be terribly dry, and instead make them not only interesting, but personal as well.

That's it for the questions, but I have one more thing to add to this topic. Just yesterday I happened to read a blog post over at Help! I NEED a Publisher... and Maybe an Agent? that just coincidentally enough is on this same subject of copying.

The blog is written by Scottish author, Nicola Morgan, and towards the end of this post she relates a story about a coincidence that occurred during the release of her first novel. Basically, her novel had a main character with the same name, age, and rare health condition as another more well known author's book that was being released around the same time.

However, she goes on to add that ever other bit of their stories had absolutely nothing in common at all, which kind of goes back to what I said before about not being able to steal an idea.

In the end your own originality - whether that means your own peculiar way of arranging words within a sentence, your skewed view of the universe, or whatever else it is that marks a work as being uniquely your own little snowflake - is going to come through.

Or that's what I think at least. But what do you think? Are we sometimes not as original as we could be in our writing? And how much can we borrow from other writers before it becomes stealing?

And don't forget to check out Kat's blog, she'll have the next chain post on this topic!


  1. I hope that you're right! I'd love to think that no matter the topic, if we work hard at infusing our writing with our voice, that we'll have something fresh to share.

  2. Your example of John Krakauer was right on. His books are very exciting despite all of the information that goes into them. I also appreciated the Nicola Morgan example since I sometimes feel like a copycat, too (unintentionally, of course!!)

    Thanks : )

  3. Nice job Kate...I like the story at the end. I think those weird serendipitous moments happen - at least they do to me!

  4. Oh, I love these blog chain posts! Very interesting and thought-provoking. Is there a post somewhere on how you guys got your blog chain started?

  5. I totally are going to end up with your own spin on things whether you want to or not. Great post!

  6. I love the picture at the beginning!

    That's interesting you feel research may hinder your creativity. I don't think facts have to oppose fiction; what I try to do is weave my fiction into the spaces between the facts. For instance, my current project was originally about John Lennon's murder. The murderer took a trip to NYC in November 1980 to kill John then, but he didn't get the opportunity. At one point, the murderer visited Liberty Island, intending to kill himself instead. I inserted my fictional hero into that scene to talk to the killer. I'm going to change the murderer's name and the setting in this draft, but the principle remains the same. Hope this helps!

  7. "Some of these I find eye-rollingly bad,"

    Yep, you're right about that.

    Have you ever seen the episodes that were written after the death of Kurt Cobain or the death of Anna Nicole Smith?

    I was actually going to bring up the Law & Order thing, too, but since you said it first, I don't have to.

    Thanks for the link to Nicola Morgan. I'll check it out!

  8. I keep an idea folder - an 3 ring binder with empty sheet protectors - with me when I read the paper. If I run across something interesting, I tear it out and slide it in.

  9. I agree, coincidences are going to happen. I think that could be one of the reason you always see the disclaimer in novels about characters not being based on REAL live people...just a tad of legal protection, I'm sure insisted on by the publisher.

    Great post, and congrats on your latest WIP (girls are sooo fun till they become teens)

    :) Terri

  10. That's a very good point that you can't really steal someone else's idea. Even if I feel like I am, from this song, there's no way, really, the songwriter was thinking the same things when he wrote it as I'm thinking as I listen to it.

    I need more confidence, too! Then these worries won't stop me.

  11. I fully agree that you can be inspired by something without stealing the idea. The idea might not be original, but your execution of it will be.