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.”