Thoughts on Writing
#21: Magpie Moments
by Seanan McGuire
Look around the room you're in. If you're at work, look around your
desk. If you're reading this on the road, look in your purse or
backpack. First thing you're going to see is 'my stuff.' That's often
what we see when we look around us. 'Well, yes; that's my stuff.' But
where did that stuff come from? Where did you
acquire the fondness for this, that, and the other thing? We magpie our
way through the world -- and yes, I'm aware that verbing weirds
language, but I think this is legitimate -- and that leads us to
today's expanded topic:
We are all magpies. We are all going to pick up bits of
flotsam and jetsam from the cultural void around us. Part of the value
of having people edit you is the outside perspective they provide. If I
tried to write a book that was a climactic clash of good versus evil
following a slatewiper pandemic, there are people who would point out
its similarity to The Stand before I managed to
hurt myself, and that's gooooooooooood.
The human race -- the portion that I know, anyway; I can't speak for
the entire human race, and that's actually a good thing -- is made up
entirely of magpies. Some fascinating psychological studies have been
done on the matter, but most of them don't apply today. We're going to
be looking at influences vs. homage vs. plagiarism, and we're going to
start from the position of 'everyone's a magpie.' Because that's what's
Ready? Excellent. Now let's begin.
I think it's important that we start today's essay with a few quick
definitions, just to make sure that the way I'm using certain words
matches up to the way that you understand them. Misunderstanding is a
sticky thing, which I would be happier to avoid. So:
Influence (noun): the capacity or power of persons or things
to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions,
behavior, opinions, etc., of others.
Homage (noun): something done or given in acknowledgment or
consideration of the worth of another.
Pastiche (noun): a literary, musical, or artistic piece
consisting wholly or chiefly of motifs or techniques borrowed from one
or more sources.
Plagiarism (noun): the unauthorized use or close imitation of
the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of
them as one's own original work.
So we have four words here, all of which can be easily applied to the
magpie nature of man. They sort of slide from 'positive/neutral' -- we
are all influenced by everything that we encounter -- to the rather
decidedly negative -- plagiarism is basically never a good thing, no
matter what sort of pretty words you happen to paint it with. They
still all share a single common root: the instinct to pick up the shiny
and carry it off to your nest for later examination. Because that's
what magpies do.
Part of the problem with being a magpie is figuring out which of those
words is defining any given thing that you do. How do you know, for
certain, that the brilliant idea you've just had isn't
actually the plot of a horror movie you saw when you were nine but have
since forgotten seeing? Musicians often steal musical lines from one
another, entirely by accident -- the hook gets stuck in your head, the
words fade away, and you're just left with this catchy little sting
that you may or may not have written. Awkward.
Pause a moment, and ask yourself 'who are my influences?' I'd bet you a
quarter you can name five of them in as many minutes, if not
substantially more than that. I can come up with a dozen influences in
five minutes, and that's assuming I'm not given time to prepare myself.
Given an hour, I could probably give you a list of a hundred. Some of
them will be major influences. Others will be more subtle, things that
no one outside of my head would ever realize have had this much impact
on my work. That's the way the brain works.
If we're being entirely literal, none of us is ever free from
influence, because we're all influenced, all the time, by everything
around us. My use of the Oxford comma is influenced by Matt's obsession
with the thing. My fondness of the words 'kitsune' and 'magpie' is
influenced by my love of Vixy. Hell, my crazy insistence on writing
mostly in the English language is influenced by the fact that I
attended the United States public school system. Anyone who claims to
be free from influences is either lying to you or lying to themselves.
Because no one is ever free from influence, it's important to
acknowledge that there isn't anything wrong with
being influenced. If you're influenced by the great writers of the
past, by the great writers of the present, or by the cast of Sesame
Street, that's entirely okay. The trick is keeping 'influence' from
turning into 'imitation.'
Imitation is the dangerous flip side of influence: the two can edge up
on each other without you quite realizing it, and then you're fifty
pages into something and suddenly you realize that you're actually
writing To Kill A Mockingbird. Not good. Watch your
influences carefully. The more practice you get, the more easy it'll be
to avoid imitation...but the risk will never fully go away. It's just
another of those authorial pit-traps with which we all must live.
In literary terms, an homage is often an intentional reference to or
nod towards the works of an author whom you respect, done within the
context of a larger, original work. Stephen King has done several
Lovecraft homages, and his most recent collection of short stories
contains a story that's an acknowledged homage to The Great
God Pan. My song, 'Dorothy,' was done in homage to the comic
book by Illusive Arts. Young Frankenstein is an
homage to the original films -- a very, very strange homage -- and Scream
is an intentionally ironic homage to the horror genre. The original Buffy
the Vampire Slayer was an homage to the Final Girl, that
iconic survivor of the slasher flick; so is the comic book Hack/Slash.
What makes something an homage instead of, well, a rip-off? A lot of
factors. Acknowledgment of the fact that at least one of your core
concepts came from somewhere else; a new approach to those core
concepts; the percentage of your text that is your own, rather than
based on the work of somebody else. 'In the style of' is also
considered a form of homage. People who intentionally write stories
that read like pulps from the 1930s, or that are structured like
Shakespearean tragedies, well, they're paying homage. It's even
possible to get rather decidedly modern with your homages -- what is Galaxy
Quest, after all, if not an homage to Star Trek
and the tropes of science fiction fandom?
The main trouble with homage is that most of those factors are somewhat
nebulous in nature, and can be easily blurred or overlooked, making it
entirely possible for your intentionally ironic homage to the works of
L. Frank Baum to come off like an attempt at sneaking a stolen idea
past your audience. Most modern homage is based either around older,
out-of-copyright works, or painted very broadly, for just that reason.
The pastiche is difficult to explain, partially because it's
intentional magpie behavior. Rather than carefully picking out all the
bits of somebody else's supper from the stew, the pastiche adds more
and more of them, eventually creating something that's so intermixed
that it can become impossible to sort out all the references,
intentional allusions, and bits of 'borrowed' plot. Pastiche requires a
careful eye, and a very weird combination of giggling crazy and
artistic restraint. I am not particularly good at pastiche, because my
giggling crazy tends to take over and start driving the bus when I
allow it out of the box for more than a few seconds at a time.
Be careful, don't run with the scissors as you're making your collage,
and play nicely with the other children's toys. And footnote, footnote,
footnote. Do not make the amusing yet awful mistake
of thinking that saying 'oh, this is a pastiche' means you don't need
to acknowledge the original sources of your work. Think of it as being
something like all those musical sampling lawsuits...except when a
famous musician does it, it's five minutes of gossip and an
out-of-court settlement, and when just about any writer does it, it's
the end of days. So just step carefully.
Ah, the big P. The monster at the end of the tunnel. The one sin that
most of us learned to avoid while we were still in school, under pain
of detention. Well, guys, beyond the fact that a) plagiarism is wrong,
b) plagiarism is wrong, and c) plagiarism is just plain
wrong, okay?!, the fact is that the stakes are higher once
you're writing for something more than a passing grade, and you risk
more than detention if you decide to rip off another writer.
There are two major kinds of plagiarism to be considered in this
context (although I'm sure there are others out there; it's a big
world): quotation without acknowledgment, and theft of ideas. If
someone decides to take this essay series and quote any major portion
without saying 'Seanan says...,' they're basically committing
plagiarism. If someone decides to write their own series of books about
a dark-haired wizard with a scarred forehead, named Barry Lotter, who
has adventures at the Pigboils School for Wizards, well, you're running
close to theft of ideas.
Please note that it's very, very difficult for someone to plagiarize
non-fiction ideas in a non-fiction setting, or to be considered to be a
plagiarist over small quotations. I did not originate the phrase 'kill
your darlings,' but I say it all the time. ('Kill your darlings' is a
modification of 'murder your darlings,' originally said by Sir Arthur
Quiller-Couch.) I am not committing plagiarism in giving this advice. I
am also not committing plagiarism by dolefully announcing that the
Turtle couldn't help us, even though this is a direct quotation from
Stephen King's IT. (Now, if the phrase were said in
one of my stories, in a context that was not either 'quoting from
Stephen King's IT' or 'objecting to a lack of
logical terrapin rescue,' I might be in a bit more trouble.) I am not
the first writer to ever write about writing; that doesn't make me a
plagiarist for doing it, nor will it make anyone who looks at this
essay and goes 'wow, I need to write five thousand words on how wrong
she is' guilty of plagiarism. There's a lot of flexibility in the
non-fiction world, and a comparable amount of flexibility for small
(All the flexibility in the world won't make it okay to steal someone
else's research. Always cite your references.)
Plagiarism of ideas is a more dangerous thing. It's where our magpie
natures become both friend and foe -- that desire to knock shiny things
together is often what gives us our ideas to begin with, sure, but is
it ever possible to be really sure that we're not
recycling an episode of Transformers from twenty
years ago? (Hint: if the hero of your epic romance suddenly turns into
a giant robot and runs off to fight a dude who transforms into a gun,
it's not an original concept.) Part of why I'm such an advocate of
having at least one or two people you're willing to explain your work
to is avoiding that horrible, stomach-clenching moment where you look
down on ten thousand words of prose and go 'I have just written
accidental Strawberry Shortcake fanfic.'
At the same time, ideas are very big, very flexible things. I know a
lot of people who are writing or have written zombie stories. This
doesn't mean we're all wandering around ripping each other off. Being a
flock of magpies means we're seeing some of the same things at some of
the same times, and that's going to spark waves of similar concepts. As
long as we're not all writing science fiction zombie adventures about a
boy named Claus and his dog Patches, we're probably okay -- and even
then, we could totally do that as a bar bet.
The more an idea is boiled down to its essentials, the more it's going
to start to look like a lot of other ideas. Jessica's Guide
to Dating on the Dark Side isn't Twilight
isn't Dracula, but all three involve a male
vampire, a female human, and a seduction/romance subtext (that maybe
isn't quite as much 'sub' as it is 'text'). Nobody in that little trio
really has grounds to sue anybody else, and there'd be a lot of
pointing and laughing if anybody tried. Lots of people are going to
write about dogs named Spot, girls named Beauty, and boys named Jack.
Lots of people have fairy tales, or zombie stories, or terrible plagues
inside them, just waiting to be written. The danger is in the details;
that's really where it's important to be sure of where you're coming
from, to avoid an unpleasant surprise.
This is, by the way, why most professional authors avoid reading
fanfiction, and don't want to read unsolicited manuscripts. If I'm
working on book four in my steampunk werewolf series, and you show me
your fanfic novella wherein the main characters go to Germany, battle
the zombie squid, and finally sleep together, I may wind up in a
position where publishing my manuscript as-is could provide me with
some exciting legal problems. It's not guaranteed, mind you, and odds
are good that a jury would rule in my favor, but no author needs that,
and most of us can't afford it. Would I be ripping you off? No. I
pretty much always know where I'm going with a series, and if my
steampunk werewolves are going to fight zombie squid, it's been
foreshadowed for a good long time. But is that an easy thing to prove?
(We're not even going to get into after-the-fact plagiarism, where you
write a book and five years later, somebody accuses you of stealing the
ideas from their book...which just came out. That
is a game of snakes and ladders for another day.)
Because we are inside our own works, and inside our own heads, it can
be difficult to see the degree to which something has been influenced
by the things around us. There are more than a few plagiarism cases on
record where the accused party was standing there going 'But it was an
accident!'...and at least some of the time, that was probably the
truth. I spent years thinking I'd dreamed a movie called The
Midnight Hour, to the point that I was giving serious thought
to writing a story based on the pieces I remembered. Well, it turns out
that the movie actually exists -- something I might not have realized
without my helpful video store clerks. That could have been bad.
When one of my readers asks me if something is intentionally a
reference to something else, I take them seriously, if only because it
gives me a chance to start picking things apart again (always a favored
occupation where I'm concerned). Sometimes, they're able to point out
similarities I genuinely hadn't noticed before, giving me the
opportunity to either correct or acknowledge them before I wind up
committed to a central story element that I can't keep. Outside eyes
are very rarely a bad thing, for a lot of reasons; this is one of them.
It's okay to be a magpie. Wear your feathers with pride. Just be
careful what you pick to carry home.
You may not know where it's been.
© 2010 Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue was published by DAW in September of 2009. A sequel, A Local Habitation, was released in March 2010.
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