Why Plagiarism is Good 2: The Return

If you squint, you can almost see the public domain rights.

November 16, 2011

As I work on the next Charcoal Streets story and edit the manuscript, I can’t help but wonder at the morality of borrowing characters, ideas, even entire storylines. Every writer’s done it. House? It’s Sherlock Holmes in a hospital. Lion King? It’s pretty much Hamlet with animals. Even my beloved Batman is a copy of Zorro, another childhood hero of mine.

Speaking of which, where did the Spanish and Mexican superheroes go?

Anyway, back to the subject at hand…

Borrowing ideas is not a necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re just starting out. They can be the launch pad for another, better idea. When I first started writing fiction, it was mostly science fiction and I shamelessly borrowed ideas and plots from Star Trek, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and anything and everything I could find in the genre. Looking back on those old stories will no doubt show shameless plagiarism, but it was a way to learn the ropes, how to structure a story, characters, etc.

Plagiarism by ~FatesDarkHand on deviantART

One assignment I received in college was to try and imitate a poet’s style. I can’t for the life of me remember who I picked, but I remember thinking that imitation was the last thing you wanted to do at that level. I wanted to find my own voice. However, we found that trying to imitate the style made us aware of our own style, for better or worse. We saw the words we used over and over again and even the type of diction we were more comfortable with.

Such an exercise is good for any writer, or any artist for that matter. If you’re a photographer, try to imitate a style or even a photograph you really like. You may find a new angle or even location filled with opportunity. Painters and other visual artists can do the same thing with famous works of art.

There is, however, a flipside to this exercise. You can easily become enamored with someone else’s style and forget to develop your own. For example, a lot of young artists start by drawing anime-style. It’s a simple, well-known set of designs that people can use to learn things like proportion and movement. Fine. I get that.

Anime by ~AmaraKaiba on deviantART

I don’t, however, get why many people continue to use that same style for everything they draw. I can’t tell the difference between one person’s chibi and another’s manga. This is also the problem with action and horror movies. It’s one thing to try and imitate John Woo or Alfred Hitchcock, but some people never get past the imitation. Musicians can also easily fall into this as they religiously hold on to certain styles. It takes skill to get past that initial exercise and make something unique.

Take the Ravenloft campaign for Dungeons and Dragons, for example. The original setting and adventure are shameless copies of everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Strahd stands in for the Count just like Adam stands in the Frankenstein’s creature. Over the last several years, though, the setting has been fleshed out. The Vistani, who originally stood in for the gypsies in Stoker’s novel, are now a full-fledged culture in the game with their own rituals, history, and the like. The land of Barovia is superficially Transylvania and any other European country that can’t pronounce its w’s, but now it is part of an elaborate prison for dark forces and offers a lot more than just Gothic locales.

Barovia by ~coyotemax on deviantART

Indiana Jones was a throwback of old pulp stories and tropes. Now, it’s a standard in action-adventure. Battlestar Galactica was a blatant rip-off of Star Wars, but it evolved into one of the most acclaimed SF series in a long time.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It was can also be a wonderful exercise into your own limitations or an experiment to try new techniques. It should not, however, become the end.

Now go out there and do some plagiarism.

Uhm, I mean research.

And if you need a short break, here are a group of guys who took eighteen different genres and turned them into something new and awesome.

Learning How to Spell 6: Music Soothes the Beast

February 14, 2010

You are about to enter another dimension... of SOUND!

Writer’s block is the kick of the junk that keeps pressing down harder after the initial hit.

Many writers have different cures for it. Mario Martinez, a collegue, suggests a stiff drink and some James Brown. Other authors take walks or exercise or just do anything else to get their minds off writing.

Personally, I think these are all great options. Who couldn’t use a little James Brown to funk up their mojo?

However, there’s something I believe works better than all of these if you’re determined to keep writing no matter how much your eyes bleed.


Think about it. We associate music with almost every part of our lives. A friend of mine quoted “Name” by the Goo Goo Dolls and I was instantly reminded of middle school computer class where I would put my headphones on and listen to the Dizzy Up the Girl album while I worked. Whenever I hear songs from Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero, I’m instantly taken back to my time in Washington DC as I walked around the Capitol on my lunch break and thought of all the hypocrisy I saw on a daily basis. Joy Division brings to mind the first time I read James O’Barr’s The Crow back in college.

I have entire playlists for different projects. I have one for Charcoal Streets and various other ones for different projects. One playlist is even for planning Dungeons and Dragons games.

And it’s not just about finding music that references whatever you’re trying to do. And it’s not about looking for lyrics to match. Let’s go over a few examples, shall we?

Don’t let the music escape by *JacobRM on deviantART

Charcoal Streets

It would be easy to just put a bunch of music specifically from the border. I could get country and cumbias and call it a day. After all, that’s the music commonly heard around here, but it wouldn’t be music that matches the tone of the piece. For example, in “Call the Baptist,” I used Joy Division’s “Disorder.”

The lyrics, I felt, match Father Flores’ moral dilemma, but I also wanted a song that harkened back to 80’s punk and rebellion, highlighting Flores’ unorthodox style.

For Carmen, I figure she’s more of a traditional girl, a real native, so I play a cover of “O Death” whenever I try to picture her mannerisms. The song is a little country, but it’s also a modern take on an old Western classic. The lyrics fit her beautifully, I think, since she really is the embodiment of Death in Via Rosa: uncaring, callous, and cold. That being said, the people she targets may be drug dealers, pimps, and killers, and she is still murdering people, and sometimes that comes back to haunt her.

Dungeons and Dragons

Amateur Dungeon Masters might instantly go for movie soundtracks from films like Gladiator, Lord of the Rings, or similar movies.

In truth, doing so really misses the opportunity to play with expectations.

Aside from music by Nox Arcana, Midnight Syndicate, X-Ray Dog, and Immediate Music, I like to play some modern pieces for battle sequences. Bands like Demon Hunter, Otep, and Disturbed have the heavy rock to compliment a fast-paced fight while bands such as Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Lacuna Coil have combinations of rock and strings that not only sound epic, but very fantasy-oriented.

For example, there is a recurring villain, a renegade elven paladin named Keyleth Greymoon, who always presents a challenge to the players. I have one particular piece of music I play whenever they fight her. It’s “I60 BPM,” By Hans Zimmer. The combination of chorus and bells invokes the mystery and grace this enemy uses to her advantage whenever my players fight her. The song goes between extremes, one moment ethereal and the next moment hard and fast, just like her movements through the battlefield.


I have a series of science fiction short stories that I’d like to start writing again once I finish Charcoal Streets in a few months. The series is called Endeavors and covers humanity’s future history over the next thousand years. Some stories are set in the very near future while the longer pieces are set in the 32nd century.

My first impulse was to make a playlist with electronic and classical music to show the contrasts in society.

That lasted about ten minutes.

Right now, the playlist has everything from Chevelle to Credence Clearwater Revival. The stories focus on people who will leave Earth and explore space. They’re not the crew of the Enterprise, but neither are they brigands and space pirates. They’re scientists, pilots, real people who have real problems. A few classical pieces remain, but for the most part, the soundtrack has few electronic pieces and instead spreads out over a very wide range of music.

The one piece that I always listen to when I want to get inspired, though, is Pink Floyd’s “High Hopes.” The main point in the stories is that you can’t run away from what you’ve done. No matter where you go, you’ll find yourself. The song’s got the kind of build up and mood I want to create with this SF collection.

Remember that writing is not just about the words on the page. Inspiration comes from everywhere. That’s why I wrote that you need a notebook at all times. Write a song you hear that evokes unique images. Make a note to look up a word you heard that seems alien but could benefit you.

Learn to embrace all your senses and you’ll become more than just a writer. You’ll become a storyteller.

Music by ~mrsnikkisixx on deviantART

And now for some links to get your week started!

  • Arthur C. Clarke is one of my favorite authors. in fact, he’s the writer that helped me decide I too wanted to write, and now here is perhaps his shortest story, dug up from the archives. It’s quote striking.  Additionally, it’s a great example of flash fiction.
  • And finally, during our weekly D&D game, someone bough ChocoVine, a chocolate-infused red wine mocked during Ellen. Curiosity beat us to it and we tried it out. The music in the background is what I had on as we played D&D. The reactions are real and… just watch.

Why Plagiarism is Good

It's yours if the new version is better...

January 19, 2011

Have you ever read the sequel to Macbeth? No? It’s really cool. The witches resurrect everyone at Hecate’s order in order to have them work out their differences at a lavish, magical banquet.

What about the stunning trilogy set after the events of “The Call of Cthulhu” wherein the narrator tracks down remnants of the Cthulhu cult and tries to close the cosmic seals keeping the Great Old One asleep?

No? Yeah, me neither.

There’s something massively appealing, though, about continuing a classic work. It’s not unheard of. There’s an unofficial sequel to The Catcher in the Rye. The Hitchhiker’s Guide has a volume Adams never wrote. Even the archetypical vampire, Dracula, got a sequel long after Stoker himself was dust. These books enjoy a measure of success, but they do beg the question of how you can go about making an adaptation of a famous work.

The internet is full of fan fiction, sure, but that’s not quite the same. It’s the same fanboy impulse to make things “cool” or appeal to the most superficial aspects of a work that gave us Star Trek Nemesis, a movie so full of itself it’s like a Star Trek matryoshka doll. No. Sequels, or even prequels, based on well-loved works have to do a few things.

First of all, though, they are sequels.

Think of the great sequels in film (Terminator 2, Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Die Hard with a Vengeance, The Dark Knight) and now think of how they compare next to the originals. They build on the premise of the first and do something new with it. They balance the nostalgia for that first hit of McClane with that new rush of Joker.

So why can’t we take old, public-domain works and just make them our own? Why isn’t everyone looking for that new spin on the old classics?

Probably for the same reason horror movies almost always get a sequel.

Sequels can very easily fall into the trap of just rehashing the old story. Sometimes, though, it’s the story itself that’s intriguing. The first and third Die Hard movies have a very similar plot: bad guy fakes one crime to cover up a more profitable one.

Sometimes the characters are what drive the story. No one would want to read a story about Alice where she wasn’t somehow involved in Wonderland, but take Ellen Ripley and put her on a new planet crawling with xenomorphs and a scared little girl and you have one the greatest 80’s films.

Ripley by *ertacaltinoz on deviantART

One of the best ways to learn anything is imitation. We learn to talk by imitating sounds. We learn a sport by watching others play it, then trying to imitate their movements.

And we learn good writing by imitating the greats. It’s not a bad exercise. Fan fiction is, at worst, an attempt at literary wanking. At its best, it’s an homage and a way to develop your own style by seeing how the classics were built.

Try and write that final chapter to your favorite book. Take a short story and ask yourself, “What made it so good? And what happened afterwards?”

Mark Twain once said that stealing from many people is not plagiarism. It’s research. Why not borrow from the best?

Art is nothing if not the synthesis of the world around us into new forms and shapes.

Homage by ~insomalia on deviantART

Well, time for the links and randomness.

  • Some of you may have already heard about this, but a dog belonging to a flood victim in Brazil is so loyal that it remains with its owner… even though the owner is dead.
  • If you think you’ve got mad acrobatic skills like Spiderman… you’re about one bad decision away from a broken neck. Like this guy.
  • And finally, proving that digging into the past is never a bad way to make something great, here’s the Nostalgia Critic with a review of Neverending Story III. See you Friday, and make sure you vote on this week’s poll in the upper right!