Monday, August 30, 2010

So just where did that come from?

"Am I a plagiarist?"
It's a question which I think every honest author thinks somewhere down the line (the dishonest ones I assume know they are, and lie about it). I recall an unlikely Indian name in a 1970 sf novel. It stuck in my head. Years later I came across it another sf book (which bore no relation to the first book in content) I asked an Indian friend of mine - he said it was so implausible it had to be a made-up name. One British, one American Author - both people I respect, both people who would be shocked at the idea of idea-theft, let alone plagiarism. I think it was a name that stuck in your head, whereas the book was non-memorable to be honest, and was purely accidental (in both cases the character was a minor redshirt). But I think if we had to be truthful withour selves all our work (and I mean ALL of us) builds on the foundations of past sf/fantasy. The genre has its own conventions and shaping influences - it's why the work of some the 'literati' who pour scorn on sf and then write it, claiming that 'it's not science fiction' often read rather like 1930's fan-fic with literary pretentions. (Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood spring to mind - actually, Margaret, Squids in Space represent less than 0.0001% of the sf books I've read. Precisely 2 books, one of which, Mother of Demons, where the squids are not in space, is a better philosophical / sociological piece of sf than just about anything else written in the last 40 years) And - with the exception of sf-writers who have developed that terrible ailment Literaripretentitus themselves - only read and enjoyed by the sort of reader who would never lower themselves to sf. In other words, unsophisticated sf-readers without a background in the conventions of the genre, so they think these works good and original. I suppose this might imply that someone who came at this afresh from a non-sf background might produce something new and exciting. I've seen a few non-readers attempts over the years. (I used to be a fairly active member of Critters.) In most cases it is very easy to ID the movie/TV series that they were drawn from - or the youthful brush with HG Wells or Verne or a cheap pulp story. (You can't escape some form of sf. It is pervasive, often in the worst form.) Where I think there really are some exciting possibilities is where writers learn the conventions and foundation of the genre, but also cross-fertilise from others (yes, unlike Ms. Winterson and Atwood, I think one can learn and adapt a great deal from other genres, and one should read a fair selection from them, rather than sneer from ignorance. Each of them has value. Romance, Mystery, Horror, even modern literary novels. To believe otherwise is akin to xenophobia, which is fine for stupid bigots, but not really something to aspire to). Or where they draw a different cultural background into the mixture. We've seen a little Japanese and Chinese creeping into fantasy particularly, but I think the sleeping giant is probably India, where English is widely read and understood, and is often a first language, but the culture is as unique as European or Chinese or African - without the language wall.

Anyway - I've strayed from what got me onto this topic - I was working on a proposal for a fantasy story... and getting the cald grue. It all worked. It actually seemed to be fitting into a pre-ordained path. I knew precisely where the story was going.
It's an unusual aspect of a very well-known mythology- but we know it from its derivative or its medieval derivative of that derivative version, and the authors that went there went down one layer, not two (at least as far as I know). But I felt I was borrowing a narrative from something else I'd read. When Kate gets here, her even more extensive knowledge of fantasy than mine is in for a grilling. I've had this before - where I thought I had a great idea and story line and several people told me 'that's Stargate' - which I had not at that stage come across. What I had come across and been influenced by is what I suspect was at least one of the original seeds for that - ONE STEP FROM EARTH.

So: how do you stop yourself from doing this? I'm a mass of the imprints of several hundred thousand books inside that gurgling splurting grey goo I call my brain. They muddle and mix and churn. And, duh, sometimes I swear because of the influences you find yourself 'channeling' other writers (I wrote something - far less well - than Sir Terry Pratchett, that he published 10 years after I'd written it. No. He DID NOT STEAL MY IDEA. We just obviously had some of the same influences. I was pleased.) And do others of you channel yourselves deliberately down a style and voice by immersing in that author or authors? (ie for the WIZARD of KARRES - I read (surprise) nothing but James H Schmitz, for several weeks before and for the duration. For DRAGON'S RING, I 'coloured' myself with Scott Rohan, Zelazny, Beagle, Nix and DWJ, for SLOW TRAIN, Heinlein (duh, surprise) Clarke, Niven, Simak and Harry Harrison's CAPTIVE UNIVERSE)

13 comments:

MataPam said...

I picked up enough bad habits from reading slush, that I can fully believe it is possible to pick up lots of good writing habits from reading good writers.

And the number of times I said "If I'd had this idea/this starting point, I would have..." I never wrote those ideas down, even though they veered away from the writer's story quite quickly. It's just too close to the "She stole my idea" which is a different species of fish from plagiarism, but still, I prefer my borrowings to be subconscious, rather than deliberate.

I think it's a combination of the "Every story is one of six basic plots" and the way a narrative flow fits our brain patterns that gives a feeling of familiarity to many stories. This may be a sign that we've got the flow right, not the sign of a problem.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

It has occurred to me, in the dark of the night, in the honesty of my own heart, that I write nothing but fan-fiction. It's sad that. I thought DST was mine, mine, all mine. You see, I hadn't re-read Heinlein in about eight years. But now I'm listening to his books while walking, including some of the juveniles which I read only once, twenty years ago, and I find myself going -- oh, no. So that's where I got that?

But as someone who -- perhaps -- knows a few things about Shakespeare, I think it's fair to say, he stole a lot too. And Heinlein stole from everyone. In fact, as he said "if you're going to steal, steal from the best." And also "we all steal from each other."

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - those 'veer ideas' from different writers can be a lot of fun - especially seeing how different writers take the same idea forward. (Note to Amanda - possible NR project)

I like to think I pick cadence and voice by immersion. (I'm sure I could ID author of an unread piece of Pratchett, Flint, Lackey, Niven, Zelazny, Simak, Bujold, Eric Frank Russell to name some -- simply because they sound like themselves - not always through good writing habits either. But they sound like themselves. I am fairly sure I read like me too, but shaded in different ways.

I hope you are right, that means I have got the plot right. It felt incredibly strong.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, that is what I fear - that I read this somewhere a long time ago. And yes, 'steal' from the best - but I like to know what I am doing so that I can avoid doing it.

Kate said...

Dave,

No, no, you need to know what you've got so that when you steal from the best you do it properly :)

Stephen Simmons said...

Dave, I just this week got around to opening the copy of "The Golden Compass" that we bought a few years ago. There is a minor character in the book -- a Scholar, no less -- named Trelawney. "Prisoner of Azkaban" might conceivably have hit the shelves while Pullman was still writing the book, since they were published two years apart, but I seriously doubt he swiped that name from Rowling.

I like the idea of comparing how different writers carried the same ideas forward, like comparing Starship Troopers armor to Ringo's suits in the Aldenata series, for example. Or the differences in how Heinlein and Gerrold handled the "spoiled rich kid grows up in the Army" theme in SST and "A Matter for Men", respectively.

Synova said...

I suppose the thing to do is ask about the things one thinks to ask about, and have beta readers who are likely to catch inadvertent borrowings, and hopefully editors who will as well.

This is timely, actually, because I had a question about Monster vs. Monster movies, which I've never actually watched through... My idea is that the giant robot and the giant octopus think humans are the best thing ever and are happily exploring while causing their mayhem and when they battle, it's each of them to save the people being hurt by the other. They destroy each other and each die happy that they saved the people when what they actually did was trash absolutely everything. (The damage done by super-heroes was done in Power Puff girls, so I know that's not original.) And then the people rebuild using robot parts and have a BBQ of tentacle steaks.

That's pretty much the whole of it, and I think it's cute, but part of me is really worried that it's not original and not general enough to be a comfortable stereotype.

Francis Turner said...

When 'Omer smote 'is bloomin' lyre,
He'd 'eard men sing by land an' sea;
An' what he thought 'e might require,
'E went an' took -- the same as me!

The market-girls an' fishermen,
The shepherds an' the sailors, too,
They 'eard old songs turn up again,
But kep' it quiet -- same as you!

They knew 'e stole; 'e knew they knowed.
They didn't tell, nor make a fuss,
But winked at 'Omer down the road,
An' 'e winked back -- the same as us!


Morally it seems to me the key is what you do with the stuff you stole. If you just 'file off the serial numbers' and otherwise present it as yours then it is understandable that people get upset. But if, like Homer or Shakespeare, you drastically improve it os spread it to an audience that would never have met it before then it seems to me that there's no harm done.

Oh and isn't there somewhere a quote about the difference between plagiarism and research being the number of books you copy from?

Taking ideas and concepts and munging them together to make new stuff is the key to good writing and it is no different to how people take this old exppired patent and that one and mix together with something else and produce a new one that we all want to buy.

The one problem is that right now with books copyright is so long that you run into potential legal issues if you mention things that another author thinks were his. But it seems to me that in the main the courts do not look kindly on those who claim X's bestseller was nicked from Y's book that sold all over 100 copies including 20 to his nearest and dearest so in general I'd say you are OK as long as you don't copy phrases verbatim.

Dave Freer said...

Kate -I would only steal from the best... :-)

Dave Freer said...

Stephen - I'd love to see a repeat of the '10 different authors handed the same first line' concept.

Dave Freer said...

Synova - depending on execution it could be good - the idea of two vast powers battling supposedly for the people they're protecting has been done before (I did a short with the same concept, and so have a fair number of others) But that doesn't mean you can't do it and better.

Dave Freer said...

Francis -I am pretty sure you've got Pyramid Scheme - have a look at the quote in the beginning. It's a moral issue with me, not a legal one, I am sure.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, great post. I've "borrowed" to write fanfic. Yes, I admit it. I've written my fair share of fanfic. But it is well hidden and will never see the light of day. I've never consciously set out to channel any author's style. However, I've discovered if I'm reading a lot of an author while trying to write, I will pick up that author's style -- at least to a degree. So I have to be careful and watch how I write, if not exactly what I write.

A crit group I belonged to years ago made me acutely aware of the potential for plagiarism -- and outright theft of ideas. It wasn't that any of the members stole from others, it's that we had one person who felt that if he was writing a story that had spaceships and interplanetary exploration in it, no one else could. He didn't understand that it is how you deal with the idea, how you develop it that makes the story.