File? What File?
Oh, this file? Well, where did that come from? And this beloved franchise, adored by millions if lately come a bit low? I was, uh, just cleaning it up. Giving it a bit of polish! Yeah, that’s it. Making it look pretty! Well, by pretty, I mean blowing dust into the corners and giving it a creative coat of grime. Making it look even more well-used and loved.
Look, good writers create, while great writers steal, amirite? That’s what I’ve been told, at least. Also, that thing about no new heresies. And while I make no pretensions toward greatness, I’m more or less competent, and the maxim still applies. Scrap Star (yeah, yeah: working on it. Kinda. More or less) came out of “what can I fix about my favorite space fantasy” and quickly went off the rails. (I blame not having space wizards. Yet. Maybe.)
I’m scrambling a bit, this morning. Not because of overindulgence (darnit. We didn’t go out, and in fact, I was asleep before eleven, last night. Small children, whachagonnado?), but because holidays kinda suck. My sense of routine is so far out of phase, I could use it as a MacGuffin for a Star Trek plot-of-the-week. Having the littles home for a couple weeks, Mrs. Dave’s holiday non-routine schedule, long weekends, and my own efforts toward greater organization actually bearing fruit (undone by my own success! Curses!!) has me off-balance enough to have completely forgotten my post. I was going to start the corned beef brisket, shred the kalua pork, and make waffles. And then I got a niggling in the back of my mind…
So I’m scrambling. At least this way, Amanda won’t flay me from afar. By the by, if you haven’t already, go read her post from this morning. It could be a sermon, it’s so convicting. But back to the rasp I’m so diligently applying to my favorite franchise: filing serial numbers is a time-honored tradition of authors. “Oh, you liked X? It’s just Y with the serial numbers filed off,” is a pretty common refrain in genre fiction. And for good reason. Homer stole his best work. So has Martin. Arguably, the last new thing was Tolkein (feel free to argue that in the comments. Should be fun.) and the rest of us have just been rearranging deck chairs at a sufficient speed to constitute a new form of FTL drive.
I ain’t castin’ no aspersions, here. I’m saying you should steal. It’s a load easier than trying to come up with something new. What I am saying is you should steal cleverly, and with aplomb. Okay, to go back to the mechanics of filing off serial numbers, and abusing it as an analogy, when someone files the serial numbers off an … item, they’re attempting to make it untraceable. For most purposes, all that requires is sufficient damage to a section of the sli- ah, item, as to render the serial number unreadable.
With a story, you could manage that. Kinda. You take the plot, and the characters, and the setting, and you change enough to avoid legal entanglements. Depending on the story, that works. (Though if you’re talking about a property to which you can actually apply the term franchise, you’re going to need to be careful, indeed.) But … well, it lacks artistry. And there’s no panache to just rendering it unrecognizable. To stretch the analogy further, you really should be making the item look as though it never had a serial number in the first place. And so to should you do with the story you’re borrowing. Without permission. And no intent to return.
You should be taking the bones of the story, the relative positions of power of the characters, and a few of the significant mechanics, and that’s about all. I’d recommend changing the milieu as much as you can. I’d shift major underlying power structures. I’d even suggest de-emphasizing the most significant fan favorites. You can have FTL drives without reference to warp or certain crystals. You can have significant weapons without plasma or laser blades, but for goodness sake, be careful with it. Honestly, if you’re going to give such a signature item a focus, I’d change the item or mechanic completely. And give it a matte finish, the less likely to attract undue attention.
Basically, if you’re going to steal, I’m advocating you change as much as you possibly can without losing the story. And understand that your version of this archetypal story is going to change as you write it. You can start from the same basic template as any other given story, but your voice is going to change all kinds of things about it. The simple (hah!) act of writing the story is going to change it. Motives will shift, villains will change, sides will alter. I say this having been ambushed by yet another story. “Psst! Hey, Buddy! You got a minute? What if you set it up this way? But change X, Y, and Z so they actually make sense. Oh, and set it in a second world fantasy. Usethese impossible things, instead of those ones. Oh, and set the camera focus on the interesting bits, rather than the grandiose ones. Those are gravy, and will come on their own.”
Ultimately, what you’ll end up with is a story all your own. You’ll know where it came from, and your readers may suspect, but it’ll be your story, not that other one. I wish you well of your ill-gotten gains. In the meantime, I’ve got another series to write. Darnit.