One of the great things about writing is that there are no hard and fast rules.
Except for plagiarism.
This word brings artists of all kinds out in goosebumps, especially writers. I have spoken to many who have the fear that they are copying (or will be copied) ghosting around in the back of their minds like a miasma. I’ve known it even put some people off wanting to share their work.
This is something that has only bothered me in passing as I am secure in the knowledge that no art, especially no fiction, is produced in a vacuum. I’d even go so far as to say it’s next to impossible not to be influenced by what you admire (and what you don’t) and if you’re lucky enough to succeed in achieving any level of accomplishment, you have to understand that your work may do the same for someone else. It’s the nature of the game we play.
I, for one, actually take a lot of positive reinforcement from this. I accept that there will be overtones of what I’ve read in what I write. I indeed hope that my writing might one day resonate with those who also enjoy the writers I most admire. Also, if I’m ever lucky enough to reach this stage, I accept that it may come full circle and some other aspiring writer may take influence from what I produce.
But if you still find the fears hard to shake, just keep a few things in mind:
When coming over cold with the sneaking worry that someone will ‘steal your ideas’, there is the bitter-sweet comfort that chances are you’re not entirely unique. That’s not to say that I don’t think every writer, painter, musician etc has something individual they can bring to their craft, (how can you not? There are as many levels of talent and experience in this world as there are people in it) vast swathes of us are not vastly different in terms of what we find inspiring, what we might have read or seen and even what we might have lived through that makes us lean towards certain frames of mind.
So it is not beyond the realms of possibility that someone else may come up with similar ideas to yours completely independently. After all, if we’re talking about writing, it is said that there are only in fact only three novels in the whole world. We’ve all just found a billion different ways to write them.
But either way, these ideas that a lot of people find daunting or discouraging, I find positive and liberating. Once you accept that your work, particularly early on, may well show similarities to work you admire, you stop worrying about it and just get on with it. And once you let yourself do this, the ideas tend to take on their own momentum and grow. And once this happens, they quite easily take on a life of their own.
Then, ultimately, that holy state of amazingness (or despair) that is the editing stage lets you take everything a stage further. When you edit, you look at your work as a whole. You polish, you streamline, you improve. This is where you can see the work in its own little universe and can make it more true to itself, and, chances are, move it further away from your initial influences. This is where your writing finds its own life and its own voice. Once you’ve done a couple of edits you will probably find it barely recognisable from what it started off as and thus further removed from those ideas you were worried you’d copied.
One of my tutors at university once described the drafting stage as like building a house: you need a lot of raw materiel to give it substance and you also need a lot of scaffolding to support it. This scaffolding is your borrowed ideas, your over-writing, your laboured language or levered-in plot points. It needs to be there at this stage and you shouldn’t worry about it.
However, once it’s finished, you should be able to take this scaffolding back down and the structure should be able to stand on its own. Dismantling of the scaffolding is not always fun or easy. It’s when you strip away everything that’s not needed, no matter how attached to it you are, but what you are left with will ultimately be stronger and more true to itself than it otherwise would have been.
Influence is part of this scaffolding. And you shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Learn from it, use it. Hell, if you’re stuck with a plot point, fricking steal one, I dare you. Just so long as when it gets to the editing stage you take a look at the structure as a whole and refine or change it so that it is true to what you are creating.
So long as you ultimately remain true to your own vision, no other writer will begrudge you the influence that got you to that point. In fact, if they were an inspiration to get you there, they should be honoured.
And likewise, if anyone ever does steal your ideas, just be proud you had ones worth stealing.
Just don’t copy and paste when writing your academic essays. That shit can get ugly…