Monday, September 13, 2010

The Creative Process: More on Borrowing

Looking back on my last post, I realized that I gave the impression that ethical authors never “borrow” ideas from other authors, which is not true. They do it all the time. In fact, all artists cop ideas from their fellow artists. In music, J.S. Bach took from Vivaldi, Mozart from C.P.E. Bach, and Stravinsky from anyone he could get his hands on. As Stravinsky put it, “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.”

That’s why we have styles, trends, periods, eras. Bach didn’t suddenly show up out of the blue devising contrapuntal fugues. Nor did Shakespeare write without the influence of Kit Marlow, or Kerouac without Ginsberg and the rest of his Beat cronies. Tolkien had C.S. Lewis, and C.S. Lewis had Tolkien—and Charles Williams.  Everyone of us follow those who went before. Everyone of us have contemporaries that provide grist for our creative mills. Everyone of us are looking over each other’s shoulders saying, “Well, looky there. Huh. I wonder how that would work if I were to take it and. . . hmm. . .”

There was a time when, except for Chelsea Yarbro’s Saint-Germain and possibly Fred Saberhagen’s Dracula, vampires were for the most part considered bad guys. Then P.N. Elrod’s Vampire Files were published and suddenly not only did we get the vampire as a leading romantic interest, but also modern urban fantasy was born. And from that came Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, Christine Feehan’s Carpathians and a host of other paranormal romance and urban fantasy fiction involving mean streets and/or bloodsucking heroes.

Just as when Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander was published, there appeared all sorts of books with time-travel in them, involving all kinds of methods. I remember one where the heroine took a hotel elevator to the ground floor and, boom, there she was, in another century, with a dashing hero waiting to whisk her away.

Now, of course, it’s one thing to take an idea and adapt it for your own, and another to take someone’s work and claim it as yours. Plagiarism is bad. Very bad. It’s worse than faulty research and sloppy writing, worse than spicing up your memoirs with fiction, worse than anything. Nora Roberts called it mind-rape when she discovered that fellow romance author Janet Daily had heavily plagiarized three of her novels. And Megan McCafferty said that she was devastated and felt “like something fundamental was taken” when she found out that fledgling author Kaavya Viswanathan’s first book contained large chunks, some verbatim, of her young adult series.

And there’s the damage done to those who plagiarize. There’s no question that Ms. Daily is a gifted and successful writer, yet she’ll be forever associated with having passed Nora Roberts’ work off as her own, and who knows if Ms. Viswanathan will ever sell another book—or be able to do anything that calls attention to herself because of the notoriety that will follow her throughout her life.

So, borrow yes. Plagiarize, a resounding no. And always know what your cronies are up to.


  1. When you write, and I mean anyone who writes, you are putting a peice of yourself into it. You characters are personal to you and what they go through you go through when you are writing a book, short story, fanfiction, ect. I think that is one of the reasons why people take critisim so hard. I understand what you are saying about borrowing, it is almost impossible to write anything without borrowing something, be it the color of a pen that someone was using and you liked, to the physical description of a character being someone that you saw and apperciated years ago.

  2. That's true, Moofie. As I said, everything is grist for the creative mill. And I mean, everything. The trick is to keep it fresh and make it yours. If you make it yours, then the freshness will automatically follow.

    And Phil- It's all about bookstore shelf space, baby!