Being Derivative and Writing

When I wrote my first kid’s movie I was told: write it like a it’s a Harry Potter knock off. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to make something the same as what had already been done and ride off of someone else’s popularity. I didn’t write it like a Harry Potter knock off. Instead I wrote a kids movie about Nordic magic based off of a short story I had already worked on.

The script was handed over to Hollywood Producers who promptly sent me around 300 pages of notes on what to change; most of them were ways to make it more like a sexy (but still geared for children) Harry Potter movie. I wasn’t happy with the changes and backed away from the film industry but not away from writing.

This is a clear cut case of something that is derivative in design. The thing that I found sad about the order to make a clone was that the Executive Producer had wanted to make a kids movie since long before Harry Potter came out and he had idea of his own that he also stipulated be put in place in the script (I didn’t mind writing those in since it was a made to order piece of writing). Instead of pursuing his own vision or allowing me to pursue mine the result was a series of mangled half measures.

poe-boy

Is it parody or is it fan fiction? Know what you’re doing and you can be as creative as you want… but make sure you know what your own punchline is. 

This had been a conscious choice on behalf of the Producers and it was there to service the bottom line. I get it, making a movie is expensive and certain things have to be taken into account, but I believe that ideas must be strong enough to stand on their own in order to truly be successful. Consciously deciding to model a work and be the next, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, or the next,’Harry Potter’, or the next ‘Hunger Games’, isn’t going to get you very far. It might result in making a few bucks as you ride on the coattails of those that go before you, but is that really the only reason you want to be a writer? Really?

If it is, and I happen to pick up your book, chances are that I’ll probably toss it to the side and never pick it up again. Derivative is boring. Making a conscious, mercenary decision to be derivative is boring and sad.

A more insidious form of being derivative comes in the form of subconscious plagiarism. This is a sneaky one and I’ve learned from reading through slush piles that even if I’m not familiar with a movie/book or most often of all a video game that a plot and characters are hacked from, that these sorts of insertions follow a pattern. I like to believe the best of people and I’m not sure if I’m right or not, but I think that these really are accidental inclusions instead of actual plagiarism. Certainly the writers when asked about it seem shocked and dismayed. The more cynical part of myself wonders how much of that is an act and how much they damn well knew that they didn’t have an original idea and hoped that no one would notice the similarities.

I am generally of the belief that they are subconscious transgressions. Sometimes people even come up with an idea that they haven’t been exposed to before that exists already because there are limited permutations to the human experience and they are bound to overlap.

This is where the matter of being derivative becomes a dicey one. The first two examples, deliberately being derivative and subconsciously or consciously stealing another person’s world/ideas/characters are clearly wrong. I put subconscious theft into the wrong category because I believe that people should be aware enough of what they are doing to realize where their inspirations and influences come from. I also believe that we should respect the boundaries of those inspirations. It’s okay to be inspired, it’s not okay to steal.

But where is the line between inspiration and theft?

Inspiration can come from anywhere. An overheard conversation in a coffee shop can become the basis for an entire novel. Is this theft? No, because the author has taken something out of context and made it their own. A character in a movie can inspire someone to base their own life after virtues or even vices that they admire in that character. In the same way, an author can create a new character that contains elements of what they admire in another’s creation.

The common factor here is that they are making it their own. An example of how not to do this: I was reading a story. It was an interesting premise, I liked it. The style was awkward, the characters were stilted and the whole thing felt surreal and incomplete.

Awkward and stilted didn’t raise any red flags for me but surreal and incomplete did. I put in a few key terms from the story into Google and voila! I got the complete plot outline for the video game ‘Halo’. I also knew that this particular author was an avid video game player and she had mentioned playing Halo to me on several occasions. I myself have never played it. I didn’t know the plot, the premise or the characters but I did know the smell of someone writing in an incomplete world that was not their own.

The story was rejected, of course. I didn’t give the author detailed reasons for why their story was rejected, they got a standard form letter: Thank you very much, blah, blah, blah… Because I didn’t know if they knew how derivative their story was. This person had played Halo for untold hours, had it become so much a part of their internal landscape that they thought it was something of their own design? Is it part of my job to send snarky letters to writers telling them how their idea has already been done?

No. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that is my job for anyone but myself. I have to be aware of my own influences and how closely they border on other people’s creations. That isn’t my own editor’s job to tell me because we are supposed to be adults. Professionals who can see these boundaries for themselves.

Another example of this sort of derivative writing comes from people who watch or read historical fiction and confuse it for reality. A good example of this comes from the sequel to the movie ‘300’. I recently received a query from someone who wanted to write about the life of Artemisia 1 of Caria. The disturbing thing about their query was that their idea of her life was based off of the movie version of her rather than of the actual history of the real life historical figure. History had already drifted with the movie, which often happens. History is a subjective thing to begin with and it’s okay to take a bit of creative license. I find it an affront however, when an author doesn’t do their own research and relies on the research of secondary sources that have already taken liberties. At this point it goes from creative license to deriving a false reality.

If an altered fictional character inspires you I strongly suggest that you create a new character and don’t make aspirations to the idea that what you are doing is historical fiction. People who write historical fiction look at primary sources, they do a great deal of research before they start mucking about in history. Don’t steal that.

Someone or perhaps someones, said that at some point, everything is derivative. It’s true, there are parallels to be found in nearly any ‘original’ idea to other stories or events. The job an author of fiction has is of making those ideas their own. Endless, fading carbon copies, each more smudged and hard to read than the last does not make for good reading.

This is a way to track how derivative you are: sit down and make a list of all the media that you enjoy. Video games, movies, cartoons, songs, books- everything. Write down what inspired you as a child. Write down what frightened you as a child. Write down the same for you now.

Now comes the hard part. Identify what aspects of your inspirations are what truly inspired you. Now look at your own work, how close are the two? What are the essential difference between your creation and your sources of inspiration?

If you can’t find more differences than similarities then you have a derivative piece of writing and you might as well throw it out. Or hide it and rewrite it from scratch. Only save the original to compare how your rewrite changed from your derivative writing. Is it enough?

carry-on-being-stupid

Or don’t ask yourself these questions. Just know, you will be mocked. 

Ask yourself the hard questions about why you took it in the first place. What do you covet about the work you have taken? To my experience it is often because people are too big of fans of what they are writing about. It goes back to that inner landscape and how you ‘grew’ it from the time you were a little child until the time you sat down to write your first pages. This grows deeply psychological. Most people who write from an plagiarized inner landscape feel that those people and worlds are more real than anything else they could come up with. Sometimes they find them more real than the places and people in their real life.

Deep psychoanalysis of your own writing shows you where the gaps are in your logic. It shows you what you don’t want to face and what you obsess with. If you don’t take off the blinders and face your world anyone who reads your writing is going to notice it for you. They are going to point out failures in logic, similarities to other worlds/characters. Sometimes readers can be cruel and find connections to characters or worlds that you might not have even been exposed to. Sometimes it’s okay to have these similarities.

The important thing to take away from it is your own awareness of where your work is derivative and become conscious of when you choose to combine elements of your sources of inspiration. It’s a wonderful thing to be inspired and a dastardly thing to plagiarize and a very thin line that rides between the two.

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