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There Is Nothing New Under the Sun

My writing buddy Annie asked the question for this round of the blog chain:

Do you ever get inspired by a real-life event or news story and fear you're ripping off the story too much? Do you ever get inspired by a song or poem or line from a book and worry you're stealing that original person's idea? What if your research is overtaking your originality?

What popped into my head immediately upon reading this were those old Ecclesiastes verses: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.

Like most people, I have been inspired by other people's works, and from time to time I've even used those works as a springboard for my own. For me, the nice thing is that as I find the story's voice and work with the characters, it all becomes uniquely mine.

I just started reading Jessica Verday's upcoming novel The Hollow, and it's set in the town of Sleepy Hollow, and quoted at the beginning of each chapter is a bit of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Jess took a story most of us know and found her own spin on it. That's not plagiarism, that's creativity.

Your question makes me think a bit about fanfiction. Fanfiction is the use of someone else's copyrighted characters and universe in a story. Fanfiction ranges from atrocious to amazing; it also runs the gamut from poorly-retold episodes or stories with an obvious Mary Sue inserted to wildly new and inventive tales that expand the "canonical" story in exciting ways.

Early on, i.e. when the internet was just starting to boom, companies like FOX went after fanfic writers to try to make them stop using copyrighted characters (e.g. The X-Files' Mulder and Scully). Soon, though, even FOX realized that fanfiction was just a way to expand the buzz about a show. These days, writers of shows like Supernatural work inside jokes acknowledging fanfic--and therefore fandom--into their episodes.

None of that is to say that fanfiction can't cross some boundaries that writers need to be wary of. And because the characters are copyrighted, it's rare for fanfiction to find an outlet in the traditional publishing world.

And it's good to be aware that plagiarism is a problem. Certainly Kaavya Viswanathan learned that lesson the hard way. And even Cassie Edwards has been called to the table. But as long as you aren't mimicking entire passages, characters, situations, etc. from someone else's work...that is, as long as you are putting your unique spin on things, really telling the story through a new character's long as you're using your inspiring source as nothing more than a're on the right track.

What do you think, dear Reader? How do we stay original when we're inspired by someone else's work? And where is the line we must be careful not to cross?

Sandra came before me and Kate is up next!


  1. Anonymous said...
    There are two limits every writer must be aware of--the legal distinction, and the feel of the readers.

    If a judge finds you guilty of plagiarism, then you've gone to far, obviously. But unless you achieve high acclaim, it's probably not worth it for anyone to sue you except for the most blatant of cases.

    The true limit that we must be aware of is when the readers feel that your work is similar to another piece of work. For those people will feel cheated by reading your work.
    Anonymous said...
    Excellent post Carolyn. I hadn't thought of fanfic, but you are right. Hmm, must think about how I am oing to answer this question...
    Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...
    Across Two Universes actually started out as Beatles fanfic. Good post!

    (BTW, I think you forgot to link to me.)
    Cole Gibsen said...
    Great post! I agree that fan fiction is a great way to help with promotion but those stories should never be available for purchase because they are borrowed characters in a borrowed world. I think the most important thing of all is to weave your own world.
    Michelle McLean said...
    I totally agree. Most writers are inspired by the world around, and by everything that is in that world, whether it be a song, painting, or interesting person. Using that inspiration for your own work can be a wonderful thing....flat out copying is another thing entirely. Springboards = good; copy and paste = bad ;-D Great post :)
    Unknown said...
    It really is next to impossibly to write something totally new, however writing always needs to feel fresh and different. And this isn't a new problem. Even Shakespeare was inspired by earlier poems and the like in the creation of his works. Thanks for a great post.
    Kathryn Hupp-Harris said...
    How is it possible that I've never heard the term "Mary Sue" before?

    Wow, I've learned something new...sadly, I'm probably the last to learn it, too.

    Great post! :-)
    Kate Karyus Quinn said...
    I think that anyone familiar with the two plagiarism examples you cited would agree that the line is when you incorporate someone else's words into your own story and try to pass someone else's words off as your own.

    I'm not terribly familiar with fanfic, but it doesn't seem all that different from writing a script for an existing TV show, which is an accepted and established way to enter screenplay writing contests and to even get your foot in the door for TV writing.

    Anyway, love all the wonderful examples you have here - lots of food for thought and just a great post overall!
    Elana Johnson said...
    I agree that there's not much that's "new" out there. I too, have read other's work and used it for a springboard. That's not plagiarism--as long as I don't take their words, their ideas, or anything they've done creatively and try to say it was mine. Great post, C!
    Alyssa Kirk said...
    Sure you can be inspired! I know I was and sometimes I felt like I was stealing ideas, but then realized that there's nothing that hasn't been done by someone somewhere. It's how you do it and who you do it with that makes it original.
    TerriRainer said...
    Oh, the whole Cassie Edwards deal was a mess. Claiming she didn't know she was doing anything wrong? WOW...using someone's words, verbatim, is definitely plagiarism.

    Great post!

    :) Terri
    Annie Louden said...
    I loved this post. These are thoughts I didn't even consider, esp. about fanfic.

    And, yeah, I'm not worried about lifting words verbatim from another author (wouldn't even dream of it), but I like the springboard idea, and that as I keep going with my novels, they'll be uniquely mine.
    Unknown said...
    I use phrases from songs to get me started sometimes. But then I rock my own stuff.

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