Why You Should Steal From Other Authors

Confession time: I pilfer the wealth of other writers’ words on a regular basis. I filch characters. I purloin themes. I steal plots. In other words, I am a big fat thief. And I want you to be one too.

Yeah, okay, so most of that was said tongue in cheek. Obviously, I don’t go around plagiarizing the works of others, not only because of the obvious moral reasons, but also because that would pretty much kill the whole challenge and joy I find in writing. But that doesn’t mean I don’t rifle every book I read and every movie I watch, looking for something shiny to walk off with. Some of the goods I’ve acquired include:

  • A delicious new word. (My latest greatest, gleaned from Christopher Priest’s The Prestige: horripilation.)
  • A fascinating setting. (The WWII-era China of Pearl Buck’s Dragon Seed found its way into a recent story idea.)
  • A brilliant dramatization of character. (I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to imitate the success Orson Scott Card’s intricate scene between his main character and five children in Speaker for the Dead.)
  • A distinctive method of dialogue. (The masterful manipulation of rhythm and phrasing to indicate dialect, without resorting to phonetic spellings, in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein will influence my own foreign-speaking characters.)

The artistic community is an unending circle of inspiration. Just as we light our own torches from the fires of other authors, our own ideas will throw sparks onto the tinder of others’ imaginations. This is one of the reasons it’s so important that we read widely and voraciously. Snag as many ideas as you can, and your own output will be the richer for it—thereby enabling you to then give back to the writing world. Like every good little pickpocket, keep your eyes trained for the next fat purse of inspiration and don’t be afraid to grab it and run!

Tell me your opinion: What have you stolen lately?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’ve always had a fondness for Robin Hood. 😉

  2. Oh, I love this! I do it all the time when watching movies and reading books.

  3. Oh, good. Glad I’m not the only one. Welcome to Thieves Anonymous! 😉

  4. Oh, I love this! And mainly because you can´t do something that hasn´t been done before… but you can always do it your own way 🙂

    Thanks for the great post!

  5. Couldn’t have said it better!

  6. I like to steal words and expressions from the books I’m reading in the period in which I’m writing, sometimes even from books in a different language (I just mentally translate them). While writing my latest ebook (in Italian) I’ve stolen a lot of expressions from “Fallen Dragon” by Peter F. Hamilton (read in English) and from “The Time Traveler’s Wife” (read in Italian). Recently I wrote down words from Andy Weir’s “The Martian” for using them while translating my book into English (NASA technical stuff) and I’ve already decided to read “Limit” by Frank Schätzing while writing my next book.
    Of course I also steal a lot of ideas, too 🙂

  7. Impressive! Most of us are pressing our luck just in stealing in English. 😉

  8. From The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, I learned how to interrupt the story momentarily to describe my non-human Internet king character in one brief paragraph.

  9. Spot on! That’s exactly the sort of thing we should all be stealing.

  10. Glad to learn you’re still in vacation mood, KM. I hope when you’re fully back at work you don’t lose “the first fine careless rapture!” (stolen from Home Thoughts From Abroad by Robert Browning – a contemporary of Charlotte Bronte).
    I have to confess (the Thought Police already know this), I stole HALF of another author’s title for my latest novel. It was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I took the ’84’ for my “Twenty Eighty-Four”.
    As you say in Lorna’s comment (above), there is no copyright on titles, but even so I felt so bad about it that I’ve sprinkled references to “1984” in parts of mine.

  11. Nope, definitely no reason to feel bad about re-using a title, particular one that uses a term as generic as a year, and particularly if you’re purposely referencing the source material.

  12. I always keep a list of new and interesting words to use – mostly action verbs – while reading. I can’t deny that I found a few I really liked in Dreamlander. 😉

  13. Well, that’s pretty cool. 😀

  14. I also like to steal words. And themes.

  15. Morning, I hope you don’t think me the spelling nazi I had to read your first sentence again where you say “I’m still enjoyed the weekend” and red flags went up then I looked at some of my stuff and I do the same thing. Then I read vacation I thought ahhh that’s it, relaxing enjoying self and I continued and had a cup of coffee.

    I love “adopting plots, lines, titles sentences,” etc. It’s a common practice that’s acceptable at nano. The one ( that I know of) that enccourages that sorts thing…

    I often get my best idea’s from them,

    Thanks for this insightful post and enjoy the rest of your vacation.

    Debi

  16. Looks my grammar took a vacation too. /facepalm Thanks for pointing that out!

  17. @Laurie: Themes are big one. If we’re moved by a theme in someone else’s work, why not try to share it in our own?

  18. Great article. I would argue that we all do a little “lifting” from time-to-time. More often than not, really. It’s a rarity to have an absolutely unique idea. What I tend to do is look at various ideas that fascinate me and then pull them all into a hodgepodge that I can call my own.

    My comedic fantasy series, for example, takes a mix of the standard LOTR characters, divides them into two parallel plains, one with medieval technology and one with high technology. Then I snagged some of the character types and mess with them. A vampire, for example, is said to turn into a bat in most folklore. In my world they turn into mosquitoes. It seemed more fitting to me, being that they drink blood an all. 🙂

    The individual idea are not unique, but slapping them all together and tweaking stuff about makes the world mine. Even better, it gives me the ability to develop them out however I want (as long as I stay true to the world, of course).

    Thanks for the article.

  19. Mosquito vampire! Love it. How can we not be influenced by what we read and watch? Books and movies add to our sum total of experiences to create the creative stew that we draw our own ideas from.

  20. I’ve used Victoria Holt’s Gothic Romance books as inspiration for my WIP. Her use of setting as character, family secrets resurrected for conflict, and first person POV are attributes I try to emulate. I don’t want to over-use narrative and foreshadowing as she did though because the modern reader has different expectations.

  21. We can steal in reverse as well – by learning what we *don’t* want to emulate in others’ books.

  22. Run to the keyboard, right? 😉
    Do remember these days I have started reading yours Behold the Dawn ;p
    Kidding aside, it is a great place to learn. Like, these days, my story is finding a plot similar to John Grisham’s The Firm. So I am reading it with way to much precision to find more inspirations A.K.A steal ideas 😉
    And my protag is a bit like Scarlett, money lover and selfish, so I am digging more deeper in GWTW too 😀
    Of course, I won’t write like them or anything, but that would just make my thinking go to new directions which would than enrich my story in a different way.

  23. Poetc Victoria hunter says:

    I have never stolen. Approaches to writing, themes, titles and plot and poem structures can not be copyrighted and is up for grabs and is not considered stealing at all. . I have been published, awarded and complimented, and I have never stolen. What I hear people saying is they are redefining the work of others. I personally dont find that actually writing but imitating which is risky and can result in law suites, although it may not hold up in courts since none of the original words were used.
    If you take lines from another word and substitute words for it, it is called redefining a work. A writer can do this and get away it.

    If you master several writing devices, you won’t need to steal or imitate.
    A writer in the first year of writing should be doing writing drills that involve uses many different poetry devices, and he should learning how to outline, creating a theme, and revision strategies. This will lead you to finding your own writing voice.
    Great poet Amy Lowell says write in natural speech and hard but clear. When she says hard she means using literary devices including symbolism.

    I have completed two mentorship and 4 courses in poetry, and releasing a book. I am only sharing what I have learned

    Redefining the work of others can lead you down the road to lose the natural speech you have that would make your work distinguished.

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