Writing Excuses 4.18: How to Steal for Fun and Profit

We here at Writing Excuses have talked about the Anxiety of Influence before, we’ve discussed genre-blending, and we’ve talked about where ideas come from. Now we’re going to blend all of those in one ‘cast as we talk about stealing stuff without plagiarizing.

You can call it “borrowing” if you want to, but as Howard Tayler once said, “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” (Note: It’s possible that Pablo Picasso also said this.) We offer examples from books, film, music, and the visual arts — done right, done wrong, and done award-winningly well. If you’re coming up short on ideas, this is the ‘cast for you. It’s probably a good ‘cast even if you’re NOT coming up short on ideas.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, narrated by Neil Himself, which is a great example of stealing (from Kipling in this case) and getting away with it (and getting a Hugo Award in this case.)

Writing Prompt: Hit the button labeled “click here to be randomly teraported into the archives” at Schlock Mercenary (it’s under the calendar navigation to the right of the comic), read three or four strips, and steal from them to create something new.

Funny Song That Would Have Been Funnier If We’d Mentioned Baloo The Zombear: “Brain Necessities.”

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47 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.18: How to Steal for Fun and Profit”

  1. Curse you Howard! I went off on a trip in the archives, getting lost in the fun, and forgot to download the podcast!
    Now the download is getting slammed and it is coming at a crawl. FIE!

  2. FYI the rock star’s kid thing you mentioned was Gene Simmons son knocking off Bleach, from what I’ve heard.

  3. I think, on the idea thing, when they say they don’t have any ideas, it’s not exactly that they don’t have any, it’s that they can’t get them out. It’s kind of a psychological thing – “I can’t get my ideas out, therefore, I have no ideas.” And so they’ll say to people “I like to write, but I have no ideas” because they believe they don’t just because they haven’t taken that step from being a writer to a serious writer who can actually take those ideas from their mind and get them onto paper the way they like it and the way others can like it and understand it, too.

  4. Great podcast!

    I was just waiting for that mention of Avatar, and I want to thank you guys for putting it into words for me because I loved the movie yet the writer’s side of me was complaining the whole time I was watching it.

    Thanks for all your awesome podcasts. I hope there are years, and years, and years yet to come.

    P.S. Yes, I waste a ton of time on Schlock Mercenary and I enjoy every moment of it.

  5. Ok, having listened to the cast now, I am officially freaked out.

    Just earlier this evening I random surfed around the net till I got tweaked and looked up Gun Kata which led me to many references to “Equilibrium” (the movie Howard was referencing[many clips on YouTube, go and check them out]) and was wondering as well, how much the comic’s Parkata Urbatsu might have been influenced by the Parkour in Casino Royale.
    I know you are not reading my mind as this was recorded a while ago, so all I can say is, “STOP BROADCASTING YOUR THOUGHTS SO LOUD!”

  6. Great show guys – I’ve been loving the Parkata Urbatsu stuff in Schlock and I was definitely reminded of the Casino Royale version of parkour.

    I was lucky enough to get some the Schlock Mercenary archives that I’d already read…so I only lost an hour or so. When I first found Schlock I lost a day.

  7. Interesting podcast time, thanks. It made me think about some of the things that I already do to get ideas for stories. Every story has already been told at least once and I believe the hardest task for a writer to do is to pick through the pieces of what has been done and find a fresh way to use them. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not.

    When I watched Avatar I was wowed by the overall beauty of the scenery and effects, but about two thirds through the movie I started thinking that this is just Dances with Wolves in outer space. It did not make the movie any less enjoyable because it was so different, yet the thought remained in the back of my mind for the rest of the movie. It made me think, how can I take some of my favorite stories from movies or books, mix them up and retell them in a new light without looking plagiaristic. It is not the easiest thing to do… but fun to try.

    One thing I will never understand is that there is usually six to eight thousand copies of this podcast downloaded every week by what I would assume to be people that are interested in writing on some level, so why is it that only a small handful takes the time to write something in this wonderful comments section? Come on people, participate!!!

  8. @Brenna: The vast majority of content consumers on the web are content to just read and/or listen, and then get on with their day. I see the same sort of thing over at Schlock Mercenary — 120,000 monthly readers, with maybe 100 regulars posting comments.

    The ratio here actually seems high. Probably because you’re all writers.

  9. Awesome show guys, I’m in the process of writing my first book, and am semi-worried that may be borrowing small bits of story from several different places, and I’m wondering if that is a bad thing? To be honest it could be from upwards of 20-25 stories, movies, plot ideas, character ideas, etc.

  10. @Adam, and in general.

    I probably fit the “I like to write but don’t have any ideas” camp. To explain: I have a head full of sentence fragments, character traits I’d like to explore, specific narrative-less images I want to describe and moods/emotions I want express. I don’t have any idea how to string one of more of these together into a piece of prose more than a 200 words long. I have scenes but no plot basically.

    I can world build with the best of them but I’m not terrible enough at writing to think I can make a faceless view point wandering through that world and call it a story.

    So I muddle along with a document full of unconnected sentences and paragraphs, my Common Place Book, occasionally popping out a short story here or there.

  11. Great podcast! I’m a big fan of the “fairy tales retold” genre as well as other types of adaptations / retellings.

    One thing that was hinted at but not really explored is the difference between stealing from a work and adapting a work.

    A good rule of thumb is that adaptations openly acknowledge their source material and are often based on material which is in the public domain to avoid copyright issues.

    Adaptations are by no means mere derivations of the original work—Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (a retelling of Hamlet) won a Tony Award, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (a retelling of King Lear) won a Pullizer Prize, and there’s an entire Academy Award category for adapted screenplays.

    Although the word has more negative connotations, stealing from a work actually involves appropriating something much smaller or something that’s so general that it can’t really be tied down to just one work. (Maybe it’s called “stealing” because the original source generally isn’t acknowledged, except in confessional podcasts!)

    There’s probably some middle ground I’m ignoring, as well—something that involves a direct reference to another work, but in a larger context. (Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books are full of references to classic literature, but they’re not adaptations of those works.)

    Anyway, sorry for the novel-length comment—this is a topic that greatly interests me, both as a reader and a researcher, so I have a lot to say on the subject.

  12. My favorite example of this in the 21st century was the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?” They didn’t even try to hide that it was riffing off Homer. They quoted the Odyssey on the opening frame. Putting it in the context of the Great Depression was genius, IMO.

    Anyway, just another great example of what you guys are talking about.

  13. Avatar was ripped off from Dances with Wolves? I thought it was ripped off from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Maybe the reason it got away with stealing ideas was because it stole so many, instead of just stealing one.

    The best kind of artistic theft, I think, is the theft that is unintentional. I started writing my books thinking they were more or less original. It was only later that I noticed I was being influenced by other works. But because I was not intentionally trying to make my books like anything else, they still feel like they are my own, and don’t resemble anything else too much.

  14. I think the Avatar movie didn’t really steal, they just used a very Cliche story line. (It made me think of Atlantis.) I mean… Guy goes on journey, Guy meets chief’s daughter…. You can buy books with the whole formula in it.
    I appreciate what ….Was it Dan or Howard who said it?…Anyways, they basicly said, “It’s a story we’ve heard a million times, but it’s also one of the best version’s of that story.” Listening to professionals who admitted to liking the movie finely let my ‘watch for enjoyment’ side tell my writer’s side to lay off.

  15. In the spirit of fair use, if you’re going to use the phrase “The Anxiety of Influence” you should give credit to the critic Harold Bloom who coined that phrase in a book of the same name.

    Also, Avatar is the best version of that story? Visually perhaps, but even then, is it better than “Lawrence of Arabia”, which is the same story? Or “Dances with Wolves”?

    There’s an episode of “The West Wing” where the Rob Lowe characters says “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal outright.” And that was written by Aaron Sorkin who is definately a great writer.

  16. Josh Billings said, “About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgement.”

  17. Isn’t it interesting that no one will pay for ideas but everyone will pay for techniques? No writer would pay for a story idea, no chef would pay for a recipe. Brandon gets paid more than once for teaching creative writing (how many students do you have, you mercenary proffesor?). The Cullinary Institute of America will teach you how to make a soufle’. The authors of WordPress sold you there software, which is a tool entirely devoted to transmitting ideas.

    I have just thought of an exception. Could marketing firms in a way be considered “Idea Mercenaries?”

  18. “I have no ideas.”

    I’ve said that many times. What I was really saying was this — “I don’t have any ideas I think are good enough to sell.”

    What I didn’t realize is that you don’t sell ideas, you sell stories, and you have to work with an idea and cox a story out of it.

    Once I realized that, I understood that I needed to grab on to the ideas that gave me a physical response, because those are the ideas that I love, and spend my energy growing that idea into a story.

    Easier said than done.

  19. In the spirit of fair use, if you’re going to use the phrase “The Anxiety of Influence” you should give credit to the critic Harold Bloom who coined that phrase in a book of the same name.

    Bah, I’m calling two monkeys on a typewriter on that. Anthing that could be composed with less than ten monkeys on a typewriter is entitled to a healthy amount of skepticism when someone claims it’s “stolen” or requires attribution in incidental usage. ;)

  20. Wow. At around 7:12 Dan’s mic sounds like it’s been placed in some sort of static filled echo chamber. Everyone else sounds fine but his audio channel sounds terribad. I’m listening to it via stream so I’m wondering if it’s just me or not.

  21. @Cornan. I listened to the downloaded version with a pair of $100 headphones and the podcast sounded fine to me. The area of the recording you spoke of sounded like maybe for a few seconds Dan was a bit too close to the mic or his gain was up a touch but it never sounded bad to me. Must have been your stream.

    @Writing Excuses guys, what happened to your photos and web links that was on the right side column?

  22. @Brenna: We’re not sure. One day it just disappeared. Silly plug-in.

    @Olin: The term has entered colloquial use, and that’s where I got it. This is the first I’ve heard of a book. I expect Mr. Bloom appreciates the irony.

    @Cornan: We had some audio issues with mic placement. Jordo had us move our mics around mid-‘cast, and you’re probably hearing that.

  23. Stealing? It isn’t stealing! It’s, uuuh, INFLUENCE! Yeah, as in, I didn’t steal it, but it was a tremendous influence. *whistles innocently*

    Howard, of course, just makes fun of things. How can you parody something without a source? ^_^

  24. Can you do a podcast for hiring and editor. You know, before you choose to send the query letter to literary agents? Would a editor from a self publishing company not be a good idea?

  25. I hear the “I have no ideas” complaint and myself wonder how people can think that. Best I can figure is, most people have lots of ideas, but they dismiss them and forget all about it because it doesn’t reach out and grab them with a spittle-rant-inducing feeling of “ZOMG this is the best new thing EVAR!”

    The thing is, ideas are generally in kind of rough shape when you first get them, unless they’ve been bouncing around in your head for awhile like those rock polishing machines (is there a name for those?); stuff some ideas in and work on them for a while and eventually they come out as something more developed and shiny.

    My advice: make a note of your ideas somewhere, and once in awhile go back through them and try to combine them. If you’re desperate, start a dream journal and pick crazy ideas from there.

  26. I use my dreams all the time for stories. One of my biggest problems is that I have one or two ideas but not really anything to help the plot get there. Most of my ideas start out very character driven so I get three chapters into my story then freeze.

    I think you mean a rock tumbler.

  27. I listened to this again (because once is not enough!) and was struck by the idea that if you’re stealing the “right” way, readers can appreciate both the original work and your new work.

    E.g., does having seen Casino Royale take away from enjoyment of Schlock Mercenary? Of course not! On the other hand, people who have seen Star Wars found Eragon‘s plot too predictable. And Avatar seems to be in the middle, with a lot of people recognizing plot elements from other stories, but still appreciating the new elements in that film.

  28. I believe when people claim they can not think of an idea for a story, what they may mean is that they are having a difficult time thinking of an idea that seems original enough. I use to get an idea and before I did anything with them, I would say to myself, “No, this has been done before, think of something else.” Now I look for a way to combine it with other ideas in a cool way and slap a fresh coat of paint them. You also have to allow yourself to let go of reality and think “What if…” especially if you’re a fantasy writer. Nothing is to weird or to far out there if it is told in a believable fashion with rules and consequences.

  29. Ashamed to say this is the first time I listened to Writing Excuses outside of the live one you did at LTUE. Really nice stuff– and no surprise.

    I usually get a kick out of detecting influences and archetypes in the books I read. I think Brandon used archetypes really really well in the Mistborn set. And Dan– you use archetypes in IANASK, but you turn them on their head really nicely. Howard, I’m still getting into Schlock Mercenary so I can’t weigh in yet.

    More shame, sorry.

    But all that being said, I really disliked Eragon. The stealing was so overt and so poorly reworked that I just got bored with knowing exactly what was going to happen.

  30. I’m reluctant to accuse Paolini of stealing, since he was a kid who saw patterns he liked, and decided to use them to tell his own story. But yes, as a literate adult I find it beyond difficult to read Eragon for precisely the reason’s you’ve described.

  31. In Christopher Paolini’s defense I might say that while Eragon is not be the most original thing ever to hit the printed page or movie screen, he did manage to write a book, get it published and sold to the masses and got enough attention from Hollywood that they made a movie from it. That’s a heck of a lot more than I have managed to do so far. My hats off to him.

  32. Mostly, I just regret that he self-published Eragon as it is, rather than spent the time it took him to get published on improving the novel. It’s solid, but it’s not really got anything original to it, and I would have liked to see what he would be capable of beyond the fantasy monomyth.

  33. Stephen R. Donaldson has occasionally been accused of “stealing” from Tolkien, but I am glad someone in the podcast pointed out that Tolkien’s influence is so pervasive it’s virtually impossible to find anything that is ‘sword fantasy’ that does not, in some way, borrow from the original Lord of the Rings books.

    I think very often “stealing” is an accusation thrown by readers and fans who fall in love with a world or an author, and then renounce everyone and all else that comes in as being even a little bit like that world or that author.

    The podcast was dead-on in that history is an endless fountain of ideas for story. That’s very often where I turn if I am feeling even a little bit “stuck” for ideas. I either read some history or watch a historical piece on PBS or somewhere else, and that fires off so much mental popcorn, I usually get dozens of ideas and have to parse them for the ones which seem the most ripe for story.

  34. Here was the problem with Avatar–

    It presented American Indian story tropes so blatantly a number of times that it pulled the viewer out of the reality of the story. Every so often splendiferous Pandora was turned into ninteenth century America in the viewer’s mind. Every so often the Na’vi became big blue American Indians. Every so often some of us thought the cast might break out into Pocohantas songs, or at least were reminded of those wonderful ditties.

    There are a lot of great American Indian stories. I personally like Pocohantas and Dances with Wolves a lot. But this was a serious film. Presenting the tropes so blatantly made the viewer see the artifice of the movie instead of feel the tension of the story. There were a number of moments when it reduced the story to an environmental cliche instead of making us worry more about those specific characters.

    So the lesson I see is that they borrowed, but didn’t change their borrowings quite enough so that they only faintly echoed those other stories instead of bringing them up in memory during the production. Think about it. It’s like having Oscar the Grouch walk across the stage in a serious production of Shakespeare. Just too jarring.

    But there were so many other spectacularly wonderful things going on that it didn’t completely ruin the movie. At least, not for me.

  35. Minor correction:

    Tolkien didn’t steal from Wagner, he stole from the same Germanic myths Wagner drew on (legends, sagas, &c.) In fact, he went on record multiple times as hating Wagner, who he viewed as a perversion of the spirit of the original legends.

    On the lack of ideas:
    As someone who often has trouble coming up with ideas, I think what I mean by that term is, quite simply, that I don’t have the right mix of ideas to generate the type of story I want to tell. A lot of times, I’ll come up with one idea (say, to re-write the end of Saint George and the Dragon) which sticks in my mind but isn’t interesting enough to write a story about. Eventually, it often seems that other ideas will wander along (setting it in a faux-Victorian setting, with a ridiculous quixotic policeman as the hero, told in rival first-person for instance) and the mix will be inspiring enough to make me take time out of my life to craft the story to fit the ideas.

    The process of brewing up this mix of ideas can take months; in the meantime, I am “out of ideas,” even if I toy with different story fragments to see if they go anywhere. The slowness of this process is one of the many reasons I want to be a published–but not necessarily full-time professional–author.


    I love your comparison between stealing and adaptation. It makes things much clearer. I think “strongly influenced” may be a name for the middle ground you are looking for, perhaps. As in:

    Robin McKinley’s *adaptation* of Donkeyskin turns a brief, uncomfortable fairy-tale about incest into an engrossing, careening epic of darkness and redemption.

    Howard Taylor added spice to his webcomic by *stealing* the visual impact of the martial arts seen in Casino Royale, throwing it in a blender with various other thefts, and creating a surprisingly tasty (if bracing) smoothie of an action scene.


    Tad Williams Otherworld, despite its cyberpunk surface, is thoroughly a product of Tolkien’s influence; it features a group of humble people thrown together on an epic quest, journeys through magical lands, meditations on friendship and moral corruption, and even a Gandalf-style death-and-resurrection (the last comparison made explicit in a conversation between two Tolkien-reading characters.)

    “Influences,” then, would be the stories and authors who you read long ago and went “yeah, this is what I want to do.” Which is different from both “I can steal that and make good use of it” and “I want to re-work this into my own image.”

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