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.


  1. Hey Now!

    Tolkien would have admitted that he “took” plenty of stuff from Folklore.

    Even his Hobbits were taken from stories about “Little People” who lived in the “Hollow Hills”. 😀

    1. Ripping off from public domain sources can go either way. You can be as thorough as reworking them as Shakespeare — or you can be as open as an avowed Shakespeare tribute.

      The later you still need to do something with, of course. They can read Shakespeare if they want Shakespeare.

    2. I liken writing to cooking. Everyone starts with the same ingredients, pretty much across the board (and those who don’t tend to not be very popular – mealy worms just haven’t caught on as a worldwide fad, for some reason).

      The competent cook can make several different things with those ingredients. The somewhat more competent can experiment some with the proportions, or what goes into it (I’m going to experiment some time this month with a bit of bourbon in my cinnamon roll filling, for instance). The truly great will create a work of art – and the ones who only think they are great will create an inedible pile of you-know-what.

      Knowledge of your ingredients is critical, however. You can make perfectly satisfying dishes from the very common things in your kitchen (J. K. Rowling, as an example – British boarding school with class differences, hidden hero / heroine, wise but inscrutable mentor / protector, etc.)

      Deep knowledge of your ingredients makes a difference – knowledge such as J. R. R. Tolkien had.

      Then, of course, there is technique – but this comment is already long, and that is a bit OT to the post.

      1. You can apparently make good use of crickets if you grind them finely enough.

    3. …and that folklore would have been as familiar to his peers as Star Wars or Harry Potter is to modern Americans.

      Like when I’m reading some old British novel, and the author drops phrases in French or Latin into the text. Even if the reader didn’t go to a proper decent school that taught French, Latin, and often Greek, those phrases were likely part of common culture, known to almost everyone… then.

      “Just because someone never heard of it, doesn’t mean nobody ever heard of it.”

  2. Well if anyone is looking for a plot to steal I nominate the story told by Gary Kinder in Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea. No, not the part about finding the sunken treasure ship in the 80s. The part about the captain and passengers fighting the hurricane for days, bailing a steamship(!), the newly weds being separated in a rescue attempt, the second captain who is signaled by an albatross to change course and sails right through the wreckage, picking up people left and right… Retold in a starship blown off course by a sun storm… I wish I could.

  3. I like the metaphor of machining.

    You have information about a wide range of machines, ranging from blurry pictures taken from a distance to working assembly, with CAD files, parts list, measured drawings and assembly instructions. These machines are everything from the best of their kind, to complete junk, that was never finished and would not have worked.

    You have a fully stocked machine shop.

    So you can rebuild a design with tweaks, you can crib parts from a dozen unrelated things to build some unholy monstrosity. Make a miniature of a large thing, blow something tiny to immense size. Cut down various parts and weld them all together.

  4. “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.”

    If that.

    I ripped off part of the plot of “Eyes of the Sorceress” — about the first third — but in A Diabolical Bargain and “Witch-Prince Ways” I grabbed a bit of backstory to drag into the foreground.

  5. Creativity is combining existing things in original ways.

    Connecting Philby’s treason with his father’s arabophilia and tales of the djinn is obvious story fodder… after Tim Powers did it.

    The Rachel Griffin series shamelessly steals from all sorts of sources, highlights–not hides–the serial numbers, and is one of the more original creations in recent years.

    1. You can really go bonkers on that on public domain stuff. I stuck an appendix on The Princess Seeks Her Fortune in hopes of averting some readers who will think it’s original.

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