I’ve been immersed in submissions over the past week and it’s revived an old line of thought. . . .
Every editor receives a share of manuscripts from writers who’ve never had a word in print on which a copyright notice looms boldly at the top. This is almost always a bad sign: Most such manuscripts turn out not to be publishable. I’ve come to think that extreme authorial anxiety over the protection of content arises from a failure to notice that creativity mostly takes wing from a relatively small cluster of basic, and shared, ideas.
A decade ago, mystery writers Peter Lovesey, Liza Cody, and Michael Z. Lewin decided to test what would happen if they each wrote a story taking as a common point of departure the same newspaper account of a crime. There’s more than a thematic convergence to the tales they came up with, which were published in EQMM March/April 2007 and later became part of our podcast series, but you can read or listen to all three in the same afternoon and not get a sense of repetitiveness. The creativity there is all in the details: The characters and their social milieus, the different narrative voices, the insights and observations that come from each author, and the subtly different mood of each tale would each suffice alone to give the reader a sense of entering a different fictional world. Even the plots, in their concrete working out, turned out to diverge enough to keep the reader wondering.
Those three authors (all friends, incidentally) were inspired to perform this experiment by the question authors so often get asked: Where do you get your ideas? Most authors find that a hard question to answer: Many will tell you they don’t know, the ideas just come. I once heard a writer say, “Where do I get my ideas? They’re floating in the air.” From my perspective at EQMM that seems, metaphorically at least, a pretty good answer—because authors so frequently catch the same idea at the same time, almost as if an idea were an airborne virus. Stories with amazingly similar themes, plot lines, even character types appear on our desks all at once, then die out as mysteriously as they briefly proliferated. A couple of years ago I was so struck by the similarity of the plots and storylines of two first stories that came to us within a month (both publishable) that I wrote to the authors to ask if they could have shared a writing course; but there was no connection between them at all. Although we’ll sometimes have to choose, in such instances, which story we’ll buy and which we’ll have to send back, authors need not worry, when that happens, that they’ve been suspected of plagiarism. Ideas can’t be copyrighted for the very good reason that they’re so often picked up from no one knows quite where.
That’s not to say there are not cases of deliberate borrowing of ideas, and some such borrowings may be concerning. Writers of classical puzzle mysteries, especially those whose plots hinge on an unusual weapon, a clever contrivance, or an especially complex and clever plot, may have more legitimate proprietary concerns regarding their ideas (including their plots) than most other writers.
But most often, even when a writer consciously borrows an idea from another writer, it’s not a case of stealing. More often it would be better considered a sort of homage. Years ago, I received a wonderfully atmospheric story by a writer who’d never published in our genre before, which we proceeded to buy and publish. No sooner had the issue hit the newsstands, however, than we received an anxious and contrite letter from the author in which she revealed that she’d copied the structure of a story by one of our genre’s grand masters to help shape her own piece. My first thought was that it was a fine time to tell us. But I realized immediately that the story had been so thoroughly filtered through the author’s own viewpoint, characters, setting, and voice that, whatever its structural borrowings, it had become unique. (Besides, structure is a part of craft that nearly every writer learns from those who’ve gone before.)
Don’t get me wrong, we have no tolerance at all for plagiarism. But there’s a big difference between imitation and plagiary, and the things that can be easily imitated or borrowed are often not the things that are key to a story’s originality.
An awful lot has been written about what it is that makes a story original. The source I find most useful on this subject is Edgar Allan Poe. Here are a few lines from his essay “On the Aim and Technique of the Short Story.” He’s speaking of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work. “Mr. Hawthorne’s distinctive trait is invention, creation, imagination, originality—a trait which, in the literature of fiction, is positively worth all the rest. But the nature of originality, so far as regards its manifestation in letters, is but imperfectly understood. The inventive or original mind as frequently displays itself in novelty of tone as in novelty of matter.”
For “matter” in that last line, let’s substitute “ideas” and then we can see that for Poe, novelty of tone—the voice each author brings uniquely to the work, the distinctive atmosphere he or she creates—is as important as original ideas. And it is a quality it would be very much harder for anyone to borrow or steal. —Janet Hutchings