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And any of them who don’t admit it, are liars as well as thieves. Writers steal ideas all the time. We don’t even know sometimes that we are stealing ideas. But even if we do know, we do it shamelessly. Or we should. We also steal structures, characters, names, histories, myths, voice, and anything else that we can imagine taking. Sometimes we think up weasel words for this, such as “unconscious influence” or “retelling.” It all comes to the same result. About the only thing we don’t steal (as a part of the profession, anyway), is actual physical objects. We may look for a good deal at a garage sale for books, but we generally pay for them.

Have you ever looked at a story written by a child before s/he is conscious of the need to write original material? Children have no compunction about stealing whole hog from another writer. When I was a kid, I wrote lots of things in the “style’ of another author. If you look at my web site, you will find pastiches of Perry Mason, Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes that are all stated outright as fan fiction. Other stories I wrote are less obviously borrowed, but I took from C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander plenty, as well. The Bible, Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins, Dr. Seuss, Mercer Mayer, and a lot of other things that were read out loud to me that I don’t remember—they are all hidden in my writing somewhere, I am sure.

I think about my mind as a stewpot, I suppose. My reading is all the ingredients that are thrown into the pot. Actually, it’s not just reading, it’s all the stories that I ingest in any way, movies, television, children’s picture books, as well as cookbooks, the newspaper, and probably traffic signs and those grammatically horrible signs on the freeway that use quotation marks to mean something that they don’t mean, often with hilarious result. At any given time, you can look into the pot and take a taste or smell it—and it will be different. Different flavors will have taken precedence over others, and what is on top may seem to be more prominent, though it isn’t always. Some things rise to the surface twenty years after I wanted them to, for good or bad.

What you put in is what you get out. If you read only horror, what are you going to write? Probably not romance. I’ve always believed that because I studied German Literature instead of either British or American, I have a different set of ingredients in my stewpot than most other people. In some ways, this is good because it means that what I write is going to have a unique flavor. There’s Goethe’s WILHELM MEISTER in there, as well as Sophie von La Roche, Lessing, Brecht, and Thomas Mann. There’s Dada (I wrote my exams on that movement) and Walter Benjamin and Adorno and Peter Handke and on and on. You don’t know any of those names probably, so when I steal from them, you have no idea. You think I am completely original. I am not. I’m just stealing from a different pot than you have access to.

During medieval times, the bards did not have this modern idea of originality as a measure for good writing at all. Quite the contrary, every storyteller of the period told a version of Parsifal. They all told the story of Tristan and Isolde. No one accused them of “stealing” their ideas. The whole point was to show how your version of the story fit the audience you were writing it for in a unique, amusing and surprising way. Imitation was really the sincerest form of flattery. If another storyteller took your whole story and began telling it, it only improved your reputation. After all, you weren’t trying to make money based on the number of books sold in a bookstore. Almost no one had a written transcription of your telling. They had what they heard, and if it was yours, all the more glory was heaped on you and you had an easier time finding a patron who would pay you to live and tell stories to his guests. (I am sure any real medieval scholars would cringe at this terrible simplification and probably horribly inaccurate description—sorry!)

These days, writers have this idea that originality is what matters. But it isn’t true. STAR WARS, for example. Was that original? Ha! It was set in space and it had some fun effects and the dialogue (in the first two) was fun. George Lucas made most of his money on merchandizing rights, which is our modern way of patronage. We are all paying to have a T-shirt or a lunchbox with a Wookie on it to pay homage to the story we love. ENDER’S GAME? Was that original material? I thought it was when I read it the first time because I hadn’t read anything else in the history of science fiction. But then I was surprised to discover other alien bugs that take over Earth written previously. That isn’t the point. It’s not the ideas that matter. It’s the way you use your ideas.

One of the first books I sold was a “retelling” of a fairy tale called MIRA, MIRROR. But it’s not a retelling at all, really. It’s a jumping off point. Some readers are frustrated because they are expecting Snow White to get some screen time, but she is barely mentioned. I tell the story before and after Snow White, about the evil queen and her mirror. I’ve utterly stolen those two characters, and then set them into their own adventures. Of course, you could not do this with any characters written with a modern copyright, unless you are going to admit that it is pure fanfiction so that it can’t be sold as your own. I think MIRA, MIRROR is utterly original, but I began with an idea that was so overdone that I suspect a lot of editors I pitched it to thought that it would never work. And retellings were becoming out of style even then. But only the traditional ones.

I’m working now on a couple of retellings of old German medieval epics, TRISTAN AND ISOLDE as I mentioned above, and also THE NIBELUNGENLIED. How do I do this? I reread the old book, sit down and write a list of events that might happen in the plot, character names, place names, magic, and so on. Then I put the list aside and jump into my own world. The original TRISTAN AND ISOLDE is about a woman who is married and carrying on an adulterous affair. It was not considered particularly scandalous by the upper class noble audience who listened to it. But for a young adult audience, it needs to be changed. So instead of a married couple, ISOLDE and her KING MARK are just boyfriend/girlfriend. And in the original, the death at the end of the book of the two lovers sealed their fate as part of history. We modern Americans don’t like death so much, so there is a happy ending. Did I steal the story? Absolutely? And yet it is also completely mine.

THE NIBELUNGENLIED is about two women, Brunhilde and Kriemhilde, who are in a battle to the death over the murder of Kriemhilde’s first husband ten years ago, Siegfried. It ends with a fiery battle including Attila the Hun and tens of thousands of soldiers. Bloody and with the only sympathetic characters dying in the gore. Not for a modern audience at all, and especially not for YA, Harry Potter’s final book notwithstanding. So in my version, Brunhilde and Kriemhilde are in high school. They have magic, and they use it against each other in a battle to get as many boys to declare love for them as they can. There are high school parties, dances, and a high school swim team, but all with a hint of the original scenes I am stealing from.

Then there is the new series I am working with two princesses from rival kingdoms. Much of it is based on Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth, who were figures from history that fascinated me when I was a child. I simply gave them an interesting set of magic, and let them meet as young teens and become friends instead of enemies. The rest of the series is hung on the skeleton of a friendship plot between two women who have to choose constantly between their friendship and romance, or their friendship and their magic, or their friendship and their kingdoms.

So what am I saying?

Steal all you want. Just steal well.

Make sure that you let the ideas sit in your stewpot for long enough that they’ve become infused with a lot of other things that make them unique. Add a twist. Put two ideas together that haven’t been put together before. Write well.

One of the presentations I give is called “How to Write Your Own Fairy Tale.” I use it a lot in schools because it is a way to get kids to write who are afraid to write. And I believe that fear is the major cause of bad writing skills in everyone, children and adults. Because fear makes people not write. And not writing is the best way to be a bad writer that I have ever heard of.

Ever seen a good runner? They run a lot. In Kenya, where the best marathoners in the world are currently being trained, kids run ten miles to and from school every day.

Good swimmers? Swim a lot. Five hours and more a day. They aren’t afraid of swimming because to them it’s just like breathing. They don’t even have to think hard to do it, most of the time.

That’s the way it should be with writing. Writing is a skill at base, not an art. It is a method of communication. Anyone should be able to learn how to string sentences together so that they make sense.

But there are so many rules to follow. Teachers are eager to correct every tiny grammar mistake in red ink. They insist on using a formula for writing an essay, not a bad plan to begin with, but foolish when it is used too stringently.

Creative writing is almost unheard of in schools today. Teachers don’t know how to teach it, for one thing. But more than that, kids are afraid of it. Everyone is afraid of it. All they can think about it is everything that they might do wrong.

This is where my fairy tale workshop comes in. Everyone knows a bunch of fairy tales. They know the structure of a fairy tale, how it begins, the three steps in between, and then the ending. So I have the class choose a single fairy tale and use it as a rubric. They can change it any way they like, but they have to begin with the fairy tale we’ve agreed on. It isn’t meant to tie hands. It’s meant to give a structure with which you can play and then expand on. Because that’s what writing is. It’s taking something and playing with it until it’s your own thing. Some people play more with it, and I’m probably one of those, who twists a retelling all out of shape until it’s hardly recognizable anymore. But it begins with the admission that you are not going to write something original. It’s not supposed to be original. It’s just supposed to be a version of an old story.

You know the saying that there are only two stories and all the others are a variation on them? Well, it’s true, in a way. But the variations are endless. And readers read because they want both: they want the old story and they want the variation. Some want more of one, and less of another, but they all want both. If they wanted something completely original, it would be utterly incomprehensible. Completely original is the same as alien. If it has nothing in common with what has gone before, it would mean nothing. Believe me, you wouldn’t like it.

Copyright Mette Ivie Harrison 2011 all rights reserved.
Last revised January 24, 2011.