Write It Like It’s Hot

There comes a time in the affairs of men – and women too.  PARTICULARLY women – when you find an object so wonderful, so resplendent, so … perfect, that even the most honest of us can’t help but say “oh, I want to steal that.”

If the object in question is an emerald at the local museum’s exhibit on jewelry, we do not advise you to attempt it.  No, not even if to the age of ten your #1 son was convinced you were an international jewel thief.  (No, he’s never been able to explain why.)

However, if the object in question is a setting, plot or another bit of narrative “oooh, shiny” go right ahead.  I’m going to give you a quick course in not getting caught.  (And will be open to specific questions for a follow up post.)

In my own writing life – and this will be shocking for the woman who has stolen from Shakespeare, Dumas and Jane Austen – this whole idea of copying/stealing someone else didn’t occur to me until I’d been writing for about ten years.

What happened is that our entire group decided – for an exercise and to have a deadline – to enter the Strange New Worlds contest.

Now, one of the group stories (Rebecca Lickiss’ and my If I Lose Thee) won the contest, and I think one other place in the book, but that was it.  That left us, over four years or so with about twenty short stories that were set in the Star Trek universe, and which we couldn’t therefore submit anywhere else.

We were whining about this to Kris Rusch and Dean Smith and they looked confused and said “but why don’t you file off serial numbers?”

Which was the first time I heard of the concept.

Say you have your standard Star Trek setup, with a Starfleet crew, and a violation of the prime directive.  Star Trek did not come up with that idea, and really, all you need to do is change the character names/descriptions, throw in a bit of history that shows your Star-Troop is NOT AT ALL like the Starfleet.  Either change it to all-human or make the aliens REALLY alien.  And then have some rule about not contaminating indigenous civilizations.  Do not call it The Prime Directive.

It’s not even particularly hard.  It is however tricky, and you want to have one of your betas be someone who knows the world and the references and who reads with a gimlet eye for things you forgot to change.

It can be done at several levels, and it depends on what you’re aiming for.  If you want to stay on the windy side of the law, but want people to still know what you’re referencing, then your filing of the serial numbers will still let people see there were serial numbers to file.  On the other hand, if you want to make it sound whole new and shiny you’d build in a lot more of the individual history of your world, etc.

It also all depends on the length of the work, and whether you feel you can sell it elsewhere.  If I had written, say, a star trek or star wars novel, I’d engage in A LOT MORE filing of serial numbers, than if it was a short-short and I was never going to make more than $50 on it.  But that’s because I’m a professional, which is known as “someone who likes to get paid for her efforts” and also “someone who doesn’t like to work for nothing.”  (Okay, it also means “someone who likes to be able to pay her mortgage.” It’s just a thing.)

Those are fairly obvious instances of filing serial numbers.  But what about the more serious ones.  First of all, you cannot read any Regency Romance without finding that half of them are Stolen-From-Heyer, with sex added in.  Sometimes the level to which they are stolen from Heyer would seem to me to be actionable, except no one is actioning, and I think it’s because it’s become so common, you can’t take the whole genre to court.

However, to stay on the safe side: if you’re stealing location or setting from a writer, don’t steal the plot from the same writer.  Also, for the love of BOB (Heinlein, who said “If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.”) unless it is an HOMAGE do not steal names or physical descriptions.

At any rate, the plot is something cumbersome to steal at least if you change the characters, because that will change what drives the character.  (Which is why so many Regencies sound odd, like no human being would ever do that.)

Yes, I know “there are only three plots” or two.  Or a dozen.  Or twenty.  You can’t help but run into that when you are in a writers’ group, particularly when someone is in the bloody habit of stealing your plot.  It’s always the people who don’t so much feel the temptation in the face of something perfect, but who think creativity is kind of leaning on someone else’s work and changing a thing or two, who bring out that chestnut.

Yeah, if you abstract enough elements, you can say there is only x number of plots – or even one.  Character has problem, character struggle, character solves problem.

Let’s not be silly, though.  If one of your group mates just wrote a story in which this man lands in a planet of all women, and has adventures that result in his either escaping by the skin of his… never mind.  Or staying on as a curiosity – NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU THINK HE/SHE BOTCHED THAT STORY IT’S NOT OKAY to bring a story the next week about a woman who landed in an all male planet.  No, not even if the result is different.

You’re probably not violating any laws, but you’re violating a rule about not pissing off people.  You’re also letting yourself be lazy. Also, if you’re all submitting to the same markets (or putting it up electronic) people will notice and it will be talked about.

If you really, really, really, think the person botched the story and you want to redo it, wait six months, okay?  I know that social relations are not the strong point of most writers, but try to put yourself in your colleague’s position.

(Exempt from this are stories explicitly slapping some award winning story, say, by turning it on its head.  That’s known in the field as “dialogue” or, more honestly, as “My dick is bigger than yours and I know what to do with it better too.”  It’s a behavior protected by tradition.)

In fact, unless you really are doing something interesting with part of our traditional culture – say Dumas or Shakespeare – it is better to have all your own ideas and settings.  BUT if you absolutely need to steal something, make it small, inconspicuous, hide it in your own creativity and for the love of BOB (Heinlein) do not call things by the same name.  (Unless you’re me, and just can’t help it, in which case make their function slightly different – I swear to Bob I didn’t realize how much I stole from him in vocabulary.  But hey, I have my own future history, so there.)

At the other extreme, a lot of you seem to think it’s wrong to say, take the story from a song, or an old movie, or even real life, and use it in fiction.  Oh, please.  Again, unless you’re using the same names/settings/phrases, it’s probably okay.  Just treat it like a piece of Star Trek Fic, file off the serial numbers, give it a different history and Write Like It’s Hot.


Next Week “Shared Culture versus New New Stuff.  How much of each is too much.”



  1. When I was writing Pixie Noir I had no idea how much “other” influence was slipping into it. But re-reading, and seeing beta comments, and Amanda’s blurb for it, which made me laugh inordinately, showed me how much unconcious influence was there. And that’s ok, because I was writing something fun that I enjoyed, and those books were fun, enjoyable reads that I internalized. I was trying to steal, it just happened. Honest!

    1. And he always acknowledges his debts, even if it’s only the smallest story element he’s borrowing.

  2. The story I’m writing right *now* (Literally, started it yesterday, continued this morning) “borrows” a wee bit from Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. What can I say? The ideas were too good not to be inspired by. 😉

  3. Thanks, I really needed this. I can tell that I need to do some more filing and to play up something more than I originally had done.

  4. One of my “story ideas” got started from my reaction to the Close Encounters movie. IE I wanted my “evil aliens” to look like the little aliens shown at the end of the movie. Later on, when I was trying to build their society and back-story, I decided to model them on the Draka (created by S. M. Stirling). I think there’s enough differences that he wouldn’t complain. [Smile]

    Oh, as a minor bit in the creation of this universe, I wanted my FTL travel to work so that the faster you traveled, the more difficult it was to detect stars from hyperspace. Had a hard time trying to figure out how to do it until I realized that David Weber’s Hyperspace “Bands” were the answer. IE if my starships were in the “slower” Alpha Band, they could detect stars in normal space but when they were in the “faster” Bands they couldn’t. [Smile]

  5. I know this isn’t the main point of the post, or even close to it, but since it got mentioned…

    How do people write in other people’s universes. I mean, I get stealing bits and pieces (magic in one of my novels is a wee bit of Weis and Hickman Sovereign Stone stuff crossed with Terry Goodkind and a bit of Gary Gygax/D+D although not intentionally.) That just happens. It can’t NOT happen to someone who is writing in a genre they’re familiar with. And if they’re not familiar with their genre they need to find a new one.

    My question is more about this: I’ve tried to write Star Wars, Star Trek, Battletech and yes, even GI Joe (There is some really good Joe fanfic out there believe it or not. On a GI Joe collectors’ forum it’s referred to as creating your own “Joeverse.”) I can’t get more than a page or two into it and I get frustrated. I want things to work the way I want them to work and not the way George Lucas/Gene Rodenberry/Some Hasbro guy came up with.

    Has anyone else had this problem? It would be pretty cool to come up with something in the expanded Star Wars universe and get it published. The business sense in an approach like this is undeniable. Get a Star Trek logo on the front of your book and it’s going to sell. It’s that simple. Star Trek novels/anthologies have been selling for like forty years now and they ALWAYS get shelf space. Did you ever notice how all of the multi-author series are grouped together in the bookstore? Did you ever think about how easy it would be for a fan of to find your book and buy it if you were part of it? I _want_ to do this. I love these types of series. Any help here would be appreciated.

  6. There’s another reason to not make things too different. If you change EVERYTHING, readers are confused and won’t like the book. Change a FEW things, they find they’re in a familiar place and only need think about your characters and plot.
    In one of my series, the locations are absolutely-ordinary go there right now and it’s familiar. Only the characters and the background of what happens there isn’t ordinary. In the other series, the CHARACTERS are ordinary people, but the settings are different and the challenges totally different from any story I know of.
    Still, both series have elements of familiarity that the differences play against. Readers can readily understand and concentrate on the characters, their challenges, and the tension that the plot develops.

  7. OK, so what if my characters are aware of, and my societies are even heavily influenced by, fictional works of today? How much filing off of serial numbrs do I need to do on, say, a spacefaring society that based itself on the Canon of Roddenberry, both to be nice and to avoid setting the Paramount lawyers on my trail? Similarly, how much do I need to file things off for characters have a certain church based on the writings of that Sarah Hoyt person way back in the 21st century stamped in the denomination space on their dogtags?

    1. I have a story where that’s actually part of the backstory. An old library after a “great dark age” was discovered. One of the first things that was translated was a series of historical novels (Dorothy Dunnett, to be specific). The local ruler was captivated. As it happened some technical books were translated as well. Result, the local ruler, with that edge, eventually ended up as king of the Planet, which he renamed “Elizabeth” and himself “William the First” (most people from off planet call him “William the Mad”).

      Several centuries later….

  8. At the other extreme, a lot of you seem to think it’s wrong to say, take the story from a song, or an old movie, or even real life, and use it in fiction.

    Funny you should mention that. There’s a song by Within Temptation that, the first time I heard it a story derived from it just popped into my head. It’s now in that place where stories “simmer” until they’re ready to be written. Turns out that the song itself was derived from a story (which, actually, turns out to be quite different from the story that popped into my head although both fit the song).

    So someday, when it’s ready, I will write it. And we’ll see how it goes from there.

    1. Greeeeeaaattt, now I’m going to have to go through my albums and see if I can guess which song it is. 🙂

      1. Without knowing any more it would be tough, since most of their songs could inspire stories quite easily. For a WAG though I’ll guess ‘Paint it Black’

        I find it interesting so many here listen to Within Temptation when I have never met anyone in meatspace who has even heard of them.

  9. Somebody needs to lend Scalzi a 7″ Angle Grinder, he’s got a LOT of work to do.

    Won’t be much left when he’s done though.

    There’s a point where standing on the shoulders of giants has more in common with head lice.

  10. Last year I used a place name that my late best friend Jeff Wilson had after I made crystal clear that Jeff had never sold anything with that place name. (He was very gifted at setting up scenarios for various role-playing games, and this was one of ’em.) I found nothing but a few references online to this place name of his, called “N’Ferra,” and his N’Ferra was some sort of Dyson sphere.

    Well, _my_ N’Ferra is a planet where a bunch of avians must drink beer every day, or perish (“On the Making of Veffen,” my story in HOW BEER SAVED THE WORLD). I did that as a deliberate homage. The fact that the aliens are avian — well, Jeff loved dragons, and partly that was ’cause of the wings. So I thought it fit. (Jeff never wrote a story with avians to the best of my knowledge, and I have all the stories his brother was able to find after Jeff’s death two years ago.)

    So — original story. Place name as homage, after making sure there were no copyright violations possible. All my own work save that place name.

    I think Jeff would’ve liked it.

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