Thursday, September 15, 2016
I have a friend who has a preternatural talent for clever turns of phrase and pithy remarks. Spend any amount of time in his company and bon mots go off like cluster bombs. I'm constantly telling him, "I'm going to steal that one." And he just brushes it off – yeah, sure, feel free.
I have stolen a few of his best and included them in fictional dialogue of my own, but not before Googling the phrase, just in case he picked it up from someone else.
I think we all pick up on clever remarks, and those of us who write are likely to recycle them in the mouths of our characters. But a quick Google check might reveal a phrase's origin, or more importantly, whether it as fresh and original as you thought. You don't want to use it after it has become a meme or cliché. What's clever today has a briefer shelf life due to social media.
It might also keep you ought of trouble; what if it's a quote from a copyrighted work? There's fair use, and then there's being fair and giving credit.
I think, though, stealing lines is fairly common among writers. It may even be the sincerest form of flattery, or homage. I think it's the same as, for instance, using a locale that figures prominently in the work of an author you admire. Or even borrowing a minor character who inhabits that locale. Of course, you might want to do the courtesy of giving the other author a heads up. The few times other writers have asked me if they could borrow a character my response was always, "Wow, sure." It was fascinating reading my own characters as interpreted by someone else. Truly, it can open your eyes to another facet of a character you thought you knew inside-out ... I mean, you created them.
Outright plagiarism has surfaced in the news recently. Taking someone's unique creation and passing it off as one's own is the ultimate mortal sin among artists. The majority of such claims seem to arise out of the music industry. The latest, Led Zeppelin's exoneration of charges it plagiarized it's iconic "Stairway to Heaven."
You have to wonder, though, with only so many notes at one's disposal, and with all the music already created by our species over thousands of years, how anyone comes up with a distinct melody. Haven't you ever begun humming a tune and seamlessly segue into another tune with a similar melody? And yet, we recognize each as a distinct song.
It's a bit more difficult, I think, to plagiarize a known written work, or a speech, for that matter. Changing a few words just doesn't do the trick. If the current political season has taught us anything, it's just plain stupid to try that.
Unless it's a blatant rip-off, like lifting Michelle Obama's words wholesale, I tend to cut the accused offender a bit of slack because of something that happened to me.
While writing a story that came to be called "What Was Lost" – featured within "Cream" an amazing anthology of stories written by members of the Erotica Readers and Writers Association and edited by Lisabet Sarai – I took a break to watch a war drama, "The Lost Battalion."
Well, the movie ended in the wee hours, so I hit the sack. The next day I finished my story in time to post it to the ERWA critique list.
Among the responses I got was from a friend and an extraordinary writer of erotica, Helena Settimana: "I bet you watched 'Lost Battalion' last night."
Huh? How'd she know that? Then she quoted a line I used in the story. Think of what happened next as an epiphany delivered with a kick in the ass. I had had the line in my head and it fit perfectly into the mouth of my main character. The fact that I had, quite without intention, stolen a line from the movie frankly scared me.
Nothing of the sort has happened since, but it does give one pause, and perhaps a bit of empathy for the random artist who used a string of notes, or a series of words in a particular order that turned out to be part of someone's else's work.
They used to say, put a keyboard in front of a chimpanzee and give him enough time, he'll eventually bang out "War and Peace." I doubt either the chimp or its observers would live that long. But the human brain insists on putting things in order as it recycles information it receives all day.
Maybe whenever you come up with a great line, you should try saying, "Gee, I wish I'd written that." You know, just to reboot your brain's quality control.