Are you gonna use that plot?

pickpocket.jpgMiss Snark received an e-mail from a writer concerned with theft. Something similar came up on a writer’s forum a few weeks ago, something to the effect of “Why should I show my work here when someone could take it and publish it as their own.” This statement belies this sort of thinking (which is explicity stated by Miss Snark’s e-mailer): “My work is so unique that I would be ripped off in a heartbeat.”
Umm. No.
This seems to me a little like a passenger on an airplane not wanting to put his carry-on in the overhead compartment because it’s such a nice bag, and filled with such great stuff, that if everyone sees where they put it someone will steal it. That’s not gonna happen. Neither is someone going to be able to steal your whole novel because you post a chapter to get critiques or, even more ridiculous, by posting a synopsis. I’m not suggesting that plagairism doesn’t happen. It does. I’m also not saying that someone might not take your writing and try to pass it off as their own. They might. I’m talking about someone who’s afraid that a synopsis will give away too much of their idea, and someone will steal it. I’m talking about posting an exerpt, and fearing that now the whole novel is a goner.
The reality is that there are only a handful of plots and character types. People who work deeper in genre territory know this better than most. How many monster books, space operas or romantic tales are there? Not to many. It’s subtle shifts that make different books different. Authors find a way to make a tale their tale. That’s both the easy and the hard part. Tell your story, and tell it your way.
Not too many years ago I suffered from what I call the “Collective Unconscious Copy Cat Disease,” or CUCCD (pronounced “cooked”). I would be working on a story and would stumble across a title or article about a forthcoming title that would be using the same elements that my story used. CUCCD hurts. I would swear and stomp and my stomach would churn. “HOW DID THEY KNOW?!?” I would scream at the universe. The elements in my stories aren’t all that common. I don’t write straight-forward fiction, nor is it genre. I’m in a sort of gray area. So how did my “unique” ideas get lifted from the ether by other writers? One of my little gems was taken away by Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison!! Another was a talking gorilla. SOMEONE USED MY TALKING GORILLA!!!
CUCCD got me. And got me. And got me. I would take my “stolen” ideas and put them away. “No one will want this now. My idea is ‘already out there.’” I felt as if I was in some episode of the X-Files (granted, not a good episode, but an episode nonetheless).
Then I realized that it wasn’t what I wrote but how I wrote it. I had to make it mine. If someone used a story element, stole it, I had to steal it back, enrich it with something my own. It can be word choice, or theme, or tone, or character-related. It doesn’t matter. In the end, I had to tell the story I had to tell. Since then I’ve written many stories that have well used elements. Some of them feel as if they are in conversation with the other writers’ works. I wrote a story in response to George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.” It’s one of my favorite works I’ve ever written. It’s very me. It’s mine. And another piece, the novel with the story element stolen by Ms. Morrison, the one I put away because “no one would want this because it’s already out there,” that one is my novel which got me an agent. It’s being submitted right now. So now, it really is already out there. Only it’s mine now.

2 thoughts on “Are you gonna use that plot?

  1. So let’s say I wrote a take off on Mother Goose, but James Patterson beat me to it. Would or would not my goose be CUCCD?
    Groan. Forgive me. I apologize for my gratuitous use of a pun.
    I know you have the right attitude. However, it still does suck when you find out your incredibly clever story premise was so clever someone else already sold it.

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