ASK AUNTIE MJ: COPY THAT

erraticartist asked you:

Dear Aunty MJ, I’m having the OPPOSITE problem that you blogged about a few days ago, in which you talked about finding books that have similar themes to the Novel that is being written right now. I find that I am stealing elements from novels that I really enjoyed in the past, even from books I read years ago. I red recently that ‘all art is stolen’. Is this behavior ok, or should I rip those elements out when it comes time to revise? -Little Thief

This is a bit tricky. While it is true that stories are built on the backs of other stories, as bricks are laid upon other bricks so to build a tower to the moon*, actually taking elements from other stories is something you want to avoid. But it all depends on what you mean by STEALING ELEMENTS.

The question here is one of degree. If you are telling me that you want to have a sword fight in your story because you like stories with sword fights, that’s fine! If you are telling me that you want to have a sword fight in a castle, because you read (or saw) The Princess Bride and thought it was awesome, well, that’s okay. Castles and sword fights … that’s general. And castles and sword fights go together like cheese on top of more cheese! But if you are telling me that you want to have a sword fight that is IN EVERY WAY like the sword fight between Inigo Montoya and Humperdink, and then your character says, “Hello. My name is [INSERT THE NAME OF YOUR CHARACTER HERE]. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

… well, that’s problematic.

The idea that all art involves stealing is a very nuanced one. Many books have the same BIG IDEAS or themes. Sometimes people yell “Plagiarism!” when the book is not plagiarized at all. It’s impossible for me to say if what you are doing is okay or if it is plagiarism. I haven’t seen your work. What I can say is that even though art borrows from other art, the new thing that is created should be just that-a new thing. If you think what you’ve made is EXACTLY like another book, then you have a problem. I can also tell you that you should not be using THE SAME WORDS. Or even combinations of words that are EXTREMELY LIKE the combinations from the original sources. That is plagiarism, pure and simple. There should be nothing in your story that is immediately recognizable as being exactly or almost exactly like the passage of another book. There are a number of excellent resources on plagiarism. Check them out. But if you feel the passages are too close … perhaps have a think. Take this as a chance to CHANGE them. To think up NEW TWISTS.

Unless I have gotten this all wrong, and by STEALING ELEMENTS you mean that you have been stealing quantities of actual elements like hydrogen, carbon, molybdenum, magnesium, xenon, sodium, ununquadium, iron, oregano, flannel, and vaseline … Auntie MJ is not the person to ask. She assumes these things are punishable by ten years in an prison, or possibly death, but you should consult the internet on such matters.

Elementally,

Auntie MJ

* Auntie MJ has always assumed this is what bricks are for.