Hey, buddy, want to buy a plot? I got it cheap down at the corner, but it’s really good. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy recovers girl again.
When I was a beginner writer knee high to a pot of ink, I was obsessed with plots. The reason was much the same that teen boys are obsessed with girls: They’ve never been close enough to one to grab her properly and aren’t even sure which bits they’re supposed to grab. Besides everyone says they’re supposed to have one, but no one says how.
In my case, it was worse than that – everyone kept saying that I needed to learn to plot or that my stories needed more plot. They were wrong. My stories had plenty of plot – what they lacked was even a hint of foreshadowing and occasionally more than a hand waved at explaining motive. Being a child of the seventies I thought everything was supposed to be SURPRISE! And also so deeply buried, psychologically that no one fully got it, so it was “deep.”
Of course, I also had no clue of the foreshadowing, or that I was supposed to do it, until Dave Freer rubbed my nose in it, after I’d published my first three books. So the editors stand excused(ish.)
But because I had no more notion than they did what plot actually was, I obsessively bought books on stuff like “the twenty plots” and “ten basic plots” and…
Ignore that – this is not about plots or how to plot per-se, but something totally different – how to steal the spark of the gods, if you wish. It’s as close to rational explanation as I can come.
The problem (or the joy) of stealing plots as such is that no one will ever know. If it’s not obvious both from the opening and from the titles of the books on plotting, plots can variously be boiled down to twenty essential ones, or ten essential ones, or three essential ones, or whatever. The key is in the “boiled down.” You boil humans down enough, and we’re all skeletons that rather resemble each other. (Note, this blog is neither endorsing nor condoning such activity. It is, at the very least, improper disposal of human remains. In Other Words, Children, don’t try this at home!) In ultimate instance all plots are one “creature with problem solves it/not.”
So go ahead steal that plot. If you’re going that route steal good and old and be aware tons of people have done it before you. Shakespeare has been ripped off more ways than Uncle Scrooge’s money bin in the Disney comics. So have the Iliad and the Odyssey and pretty much every fairytale known to man. However, these port within genre (except Shakespeare) by and large, to Science Fiction and fantasy.
What I’m talking about is something quite different. I was recently converted – as you know – to Regency Romances. Some of them are even on the “good book” category. Most are in the “popcorn” category… ie. I can’t get enough of them because I half-read half-skim and don’t remember them afterwards.
I swear half the regency romances I read are ripoffs of Heyer. And not at the level that I appear to have ripped off Heinlein, to an extent, for space opera. Not at the level of “I grew up reading this and read it so many times there will be a similarity of words, of phrases, of ways things are justified. I internalized that stuff, and it’s now in fact part of me. No, these ripoffs of Heyer are, if not conscious, then ripped off from someone who CONSCIOUSLY ripped her off.
The problem with doing this is that while it’s not plagiarism – you can write a story about a young girl kept in the country in ignorance of her circumstances, and the rake who wakes up her womanhood without really stealing anything. You can even add an indifferent older brother or a lame younger brother without problems. – the story is still close enough that you know where they got it, at least if you’ve read Heyer. The further problem is that NONE OF THEM – not one of the idiots – writes anything even approaching Heyer.
I like Heyer well enough that given the paucity of her books (she wasn’t immortal and couldn’t write forever) I’d welcome something I’d call “good fanfic” – stories that are close enough in spirit to hers, but twisted another way or spun differently. The stories she would write if she were this person. And there’s a lot of variety to that sort of thing. The Austen fanboard I belong to (though these days time rarely allows me to go there) has at least 90% of its content be variations on Pride and Prejudice. But they’re still interesting enough or different enough you read them.
Most of the Heyer imitations aren’t. Some are okay. While it still has most of the same bones of the original story, it spins differently so fast that you don’t mind it. Some are honest fanfic and have the “If this crucial point had been different change” and that’s okay.
They still all fail when the book they’re ripping off is one of my favorites. It is a mistake to invoke Sylvester or Frederica or Venetia “Now with explicit sex” – You’re not Heyer, you’re not close to Heyer, and to imitate her close enough for me to recognize the book only sets the standard I now expect. And you’ll fail.
However, since I read everything, I’ve come to realize that you can do this between genres with great success. Say you read both science fiction and mystery, and you start reading something and feel that “spark” there somewhere, like a sudden excitement. And you decide to steal the fire of the gods.
This works because you HAVE to change it. Yes, sometimes you can do it minimally. Say, the Maltese Falcon with aliens – and in that case, you’d best own up, because everyone will know. But say you want to do science fiction Nero Wolfe. Well, first you move them from New York City. Then you make Nero a super intelligent something – robot? Bio-improved? Alien? – and Archie a different species. No orchids, so what does he grow? And then there Fritz – what is he? Mechanic? A bio-engineer?
By the time you’re done, you could steal Fer de Lance and no one will ever know. No, I don’t intend on doing this. I love the book as a reader, but it doesn’t feed the WRITER spark.
And that’s part of it – that tingle, that spark is not even often fed by a GOOD novel. At least in my case, half the time, it’s likely to be pushed forward by something someone botched badly. They start with an interesting character, then it goes down hill fast. And as far as I steal the spark, these days, it’s usually a scene which gives me another and sets me up for a whole book. I swear A Few Good Men attacked me when I opened a – turned out so so, but nothing to write home about – book that starts with someone unjustly accused of murder being transported to Australia. I never read past page 5 – not for a while – because that situation sparked the voice in my head, with Lucius in jail, the break happening and well… what follows.
All this to say, if you’re a writer, you should be aware what’s plagiarism, and what isn’t, and also that no matter how careful you are people will find things in your stories you never put in there. There was this editor of a now defunct magazine who routinely told me “you ripped this off from a tv plot.” This was baffling, as when I was sending him stories, I didn’t own a TV, hadn’t even watched any in ten years, and frankly never watched much beyond cartoons and science programs when I was little, and the occasional mystery series since then.
The thing is Pratchett is right in that ideas rain from the sky and into your head, anyway. (In bed, pull the covers on your head, and pretend that you are dead – the zeitgeist is gonna get you.) For instance I had this story, written before the series, which not only reads like something out of Stargate, but I call the device to travel between worlds Stargate. Fortunately I had done with getting it rejected (at that time more than likely unread) when the series came out. In fact, they were probably written/conceived of at about the same time. (It has been proven tinfoil hats make the condition worse!)
So stuff is going to fall into your head. There’s no avoiding it. It’s best to know what you’re doing and where you stand. And it’s best, of course, to let your sparks come cross-genre.
Stuck? Don’t be. Pick up a novel in a genre you normally don’t read. Or ten novels. Read them. Something might ignite the spark of the gods. Then al you have to do is make it yours. (And watch out for liver-loving eagles)