Saturday 5 February 2011

Inspiration vs. Plagiarism

So, I didn't get anywhere in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly short story competition. Click here for the judge's report.

A habit (which may be good or bad, I haven't quite decided) I've got into is that of looking into the background of writers who win competitions that I entered. I'm not sure what the motive is. Maybe I'm looking to learn from them, perhaps I just want to reassure myself they actually exist and I haven't been the victim of an elaborate scam. Part of me is always pleased when I track down the blog of somebody whose story caught the judge's eye, and find that they're excited and giddy and fired up about the win. There's something very disappointing about somebody mentioning such a thing in passing: "Oh, and I won another competition, can't remember which. Am thinking about buying a new pen." Boo! Hiss!

This habit of checking out the competition has led to me following the blogs of people like Jonathan Pinnock, James Bloomer, and Valerie O'Riordan, and very interesting and pleasant people they seem, too.

Anyway, a chap called Douglas Bruton won the SLQ prize. I'd heard of him a couple of times before this result - I think he's done well at Biscuit Publishing, and a few other places. I decided to try to find out a bit more, and the first thing I stumbled into was a rather drawn-out and increasingly nasty row about plagiarism.

Now, it's not really my place to comment on what's happened in this particular case (or cases), but the whole hoo-hah got me thinking about where my own ideas tend to come from. Inspiration is fickle, and once I started thinking about this subject, I realised that one of the tricks of avoiding "writer's block" must be to keep yourself open and receptive to ideas at all times. My story, "One Street Corner Too Soon", owes a huge debt to The Killers' song "Read My Mind". I don't think I lifted anything directly from it, other than the general mood and the idea of standing on a street corner. Also the bit about reading minds crops up. Hmm...

Lots of my stories have their roots in songs. I listen to music as I write, and I suppose it's inevitable that I'll soak up some of that as I go. I've tried to write things using a photo or painting as a jump-off point, but I find that a bit of a struggle - there's something 'complete' about a visual image that doesn't break down into text easily. Well, not for me, at least. Last year I tried my first story inspired by a poem. I'm quite pleased with how that turned out, so it might well be something I have another crack at.

So, songs, pictures, poems, things I've seen or overheard on the street... these all seem pretty 'safe', considering what set me down this route was thoughts of plagiarism. What, then, about stories inspired by other stories? Two of mine were written very shortly after I had read similar works - I wrote a story about superheroes within a couple of weeks of reading Andrew Kaufman's "All My Friends Are Superheroes", and once I'd read Joe R. Lansdale's "Godzilla's 12-Step Program" (from his Best Of), I had a different interpretation of the key elements of the story stuck in my head. I couldn't shift it, so I wrote it down.

Perhaps tellingly, I haven't managed to place either of these stories yet (the Godzilla one, although scheduled for publication, was pulled from The Battered Suitcase due to concerns over the use of trademarked characters). In my defence, they are relatively new stories and haven't really done the rounds yet. But, nevertheless, there is something at the back of my mind that feels slightly uneasy about these pieces. Are they a good example of my writing skills, or are they like a dodgy remix of a successful song?

The problem is, I really like both pieces, and believe they do stand up to scrutiny on their own merit. I haven't rehashed any parts of the original stories, or stolen any characters (well, not that weren't already stolen anyway) or scenes, or done any of the usual stuff that prompts accusations of plagiarism. I don't think I've taken any more from these two stories than I have done from the songs, but somehow it seems worse that the source material is another piece of fiction. But, let's face it, Andrew Kaufman didn't invent superheroes, and Joe R Lansdale didn't invent Godzilla. Maybe they had similar doubts about their work?

I think the only way to find out for sure is to try to get my stories into print and then see what people think. I'm too close to both sets of writing to be objective about it, I think.


Chloe said...

I think any writer that doesn't ever have these doubts is probably quite arrogant! There are no totally new ideas out there, just new way at looking at and piecing together the age-old themes.

You can't be a writer without being a reader (or not a good one anyway) and of course what you read will inspire you. If my book ever finds a publisher I'm sure the authors of almost every book I've ever read could sue me for some reason!

I've agonised over this a lot recently. A story of mine that did well recently was about Hitler and I got the idea after reading a piece of flash fiction by someone else about Hitler. I worried about it for ages and then realised that that person didn't invent Hitler or even writing about him!

Dan Purdue said...

Thanks, Chloe. I think people are probably right when they talk about there only being seven different plots (or thereabouts). Variations on themes are inevitable, I guess. The only way a story is going to be successful is if it relates to the human condition in some way. People need to be able to relate to stories. And although we're all individuals, there are only a finite number of experiences to go around.

And you're right, writers can't seal themselves in a bubble when they're working. Some of what you read and write will be connected - whether you want it to or not.

In terms of plagiarism, it's more a case of thinking about how much you're taking from the source piece, and how much you're changing it. There are no hard and fast answers - it's all part of a spectrum - but I think most writers have a personal boundary beyond which they feel their story has borrowed too much from something else, and its appeal suffers as a lot.

I really enjoyed your Hitler story, by the way.

Nik Perring said...

Interesting post, Dan.

I think that there's nothing wrong with getting inspiration from others' art and life and that - it's taking the work of others and passing it off as your own that's not on. Writers should, in my opinion, come up with their own ideas - it's their job, after all - and music can help; nothing wrong with that - and nothing wrong with worrying about it; it shows you care and that your conscious of not stealing from others.

Reminded me of this:

Dan Purdue said...

Thanks, Nik. I suppose I see it as a spectrum - with that 'eureka' moment flash of inspiration that seems to come from nowhere at one end and the shady, downright wrong, I think I can get away with tweaking this a bit and putting my own name on it at the other. It's working out where my work falls on this spectrum that's preoccupying me just now.

I like to think of myself as an imaginative kind of guy, and having written two stories reasonably close together that could be accused of piggybacking somebody else's idea has made me question exactly where I was headed.

Still, I'm pleased to report that the story I'm writing now owes nothing to anything I'm conscious of reading, so that's a relief!

Nik Perring said...

I think the important thing, as we've said, is that you're aware of it and you're questioning things - that means, I reckon, that you're all right!

Loads of stories are similar in theme - that's to be expected because we all explore similar things (there aren't that many to choose from) - it's that it's done YOU'RE way that makes them individually interesting, I think...