Sunday, February 14, 2010

How to Steal Ideas and Still Keep Your Dignity

Good poets borrow, great poets steal.
--mistakenly attributed to T.S. Eliot

It's pretty easy to get away with ripping off other authors.

Let's say you just read a blog post on how to wake up early. Hypothetically, you could steal the central idea of the article, and you could even steal specific tips in the article--if you can make a case that each tip is common knowledge. As long as you wrote your own version of it in your own words, you could get away with it. It might be incredibly undignified, but, technically, it's not plagiarism.

Under this definition of theft, you can rip off phrases, blog posts, novels, even entire genres. You can even rip off the worst cliches of a bad genre.

Would your writing be original? No. And by putting material like this out into the world you'd be wasting the world's time, your time and your reputation all at once.

There are better ways to borrow ideas and yet retain your dignity.

Consider using other people's ideas and reacting to them in an original way. Polemical books on issues like politics or religion can be an excellent inspiration for dystopian fiction (see Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New Worldor The Handmaid's Tale). Bad books can give you great ideas for satire (see Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary). Historical books that come from one point of view can inspire repudiations from another point of view (see Alice Randall's controversial novel The Wind Done Gone).

You can create characters that are composites of memorable characters in other works. You can use plot points you've read in one or more books and apply them to different characters and different settings in your book.

You can further dignify your "theft" by including aspects of modern culture or events from real life, making the finished product something truly original. The era of political correctness gave us the hilarious Politically Correct Bedtime Storiesby James Finn Garner. Affected behavior from television news anchors gave us movies like Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy and TV shows like The Colbert Report.

Just another reason why it's so important to read outside your comfort zone, and then let everything cross-fertilize.

By the way, here's the actual quote from T.S. Eliot:

"One of the surest tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different."