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August 2022
 
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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 important here.

Ready? Excellent. Now let's begin.

Dictionary Definitions.

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.

Influence.

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.

Homage.

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.

Pastiche.

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.

Plagiarism.

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 quotations.

(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? Nope.

(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.)

Outside Perspective.

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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