Filing the Serial Numbers Off

by Raymond M. Coulombe

Everybody steals, every writer that is. So when you steal, steal from the best. (I think I stole that saying from somebody.)

I’m not saying that you should actual copy word for word someone else’s work. That’s plagiarism, a horrible crime of intellectual thievery. What I’m saying is that it’s perfectly fine to appropriate some good ideas from other people’s work. If we didn’t there wouldn’t even be genres of literature. There would be only one S/F novel, one Fantasy, one Mystery, etc..

If you are going to write, you have to be a reader. There are archetypes that are common to human existence. Types of people and the vast majority of experiences are universal. Shakespeare did a pretty good job of mixing and matching them. You could do worse than to steal ideas from him, a master of stealing ideas of those who went before.

Some things in life are so basic that one can’t but help sound like someone who’s been down that road before. That’s not a terrible thing. People find comfort in the familiar.

As a writer, you have to bring something new to the story. Your retelling might be something as simple as telling an old story with new language. Neil Gaiman made a pretty good career out of retelling old tales in a new way.

Growing up I read so many S/F and Fantasy stories that stole from the ancient Greek myths that by the time I took Mythology in college, it was familiar ground to me. That’s a backwards way to go about it, but neither the old nor the new lost anything in the telling.

There’s a saying that if you steal from one person it’s plagiarism. If you steal from many; it’s research. Do your research. Steal from many. Then combine it with something new, a different view point, a new twist, or anything else. Draw from your own life to give it a new coat of paint.

That’s no to say it’s impossible to create something totally new and different. Just realize that it’s harder to do than you think and there is no shame in stealing from the best.

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