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Writing Excuses Season Four Episode 18: How to Steal for Fun and Profit

Writing Excuses Season Four Episode 18: How to Steal for Fun and Profit


Key Points: All artists incorporate their experiences. History and mythology provide a mine of experiences and relationships that you can use. Avoid plagiarism, make it yours. Or hang a lantern on it, make it an homage. But don't use borrowing as a shortcut -- use it as a buttress for your originality. Try combinations!

[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] And I'm running like I stole something.
[Brandon] I pitched this episode to the guys as a how to use history and mythology in your writing podcast. Howard immediately said, "So you mean stealing?" I said, "Well, yes." He's like, "Yeah, stealing. So we could talk about pop culture, too, right? Stealing stuff and how to not get caught?"
[Howard] I don't think those were my exact words, but...
[Brandon] That's how I remember it.
[Dan] That's more or less how I remember it as well.
[Howard] As I said not very long ago, good artists borrow, great artists steal.
[Brandon] Yes. We actually looked that quote up, and no one knows who it came from, although they claim problem Picasso, so we'll just pretend he said it.
[Howard] I'm going to claim that I said it, right now. Documented evidence.
[Dan] Well, it's well within the spirit of the quote for you to claim it.
[Howard] Yup. John Cage said, "Well stolen is half composed."

[Brandon] Digging at the root of this... what we're talking about is, artists are influenced. We did a podcast on not being overly influenced, but we didn't talk about how to... we talked a little bit about managing your influences, but we didn't talk about actively searching for things to use. I think we may have downplayed the amount that good artists... writers... visual artists... all types of artists incorporate the things they've experienced. Dan, do you do this?
[Dan] I do this all the time.
[Brandon] Okay, tell us about it.
[Dan] Specifically, in the Serial Killer series, I need plausible ways for my characters to track down a serial killer. So I would extensively study not only serial killer cases, but the criminal profilers who study them and how did they catch them. Then I will take those and say, "Oh, the criminal profiler can look at this evidence and determine this." I'm going to use that. I will cut it and paste it into my thing. Use it in a different context altogether. But at least I know that that clue is plausible and will work.
[Brandon] We did a podcast... oh, it's probably been a couple of years ago now. Man, have we been doing this for a couple of years?
[Dan] Season four, episode 18.
[Howard] We've been doing this since February of 2008.
[Brandon] Wow. That's a lot of 15 minutes where we don't know very much. We did one where we talked about kind of transposing genres. Where I talked about how Mistborn was me taking heist stories and doing it in a fantasy story. This is what we're talking about, but we're looking at kind of the broader scope of it. I find that... people come to me, they actually say this, they say I don't have enough ideas. Which is rare, we've talked about how ideas are cheap. Most people come and say I've got this great idea... in fact, I got one last week. I'd like to sell you my idea. People send me e-mails about that. But that's just a tangent.
[Dan] Never do that, listeners.

[Brandon] Don't ever do that. But I've had people come to me and say, "I just don't have enough ideas. I want to be a writer, I don't have enough ideas." That's weird to me because every experience I've had is that the more you write, the more ideas you have. Not having ideas is troubling. But I think you could come up with lots of great ideas by simply looking at history. Looking for experiences people have, looking for character interactions, relationships, these sorts of things. Howard, do you steal?
[Howard] Yup.
[Brandon] Okay. Give us an example.
[Howard] One of my favorite examples, and this is more of a visual stealing... watching a James Bond movie where I first saw parkour as a... as something that was being used in context of spies.
[Brandon] That was Casino Royale, right?
[Howard] It was Casino Royale.
[Brandon] Casino Royale, and parkour is...
[Howard] From there, I started looking at parkour on YouTube. I realized we've got this whole parkour culture. The urban running culture. I thought, "You know what? It got used in a James Bond movie as if it were a martial art. So I am going to turn it into a martial art." I called it parkata urbatsu. What's funny is that everybody who looked at the name immediately recognized, "Oh, my gosh, it's parkour the martial art." Yeah, I'm stealing from YouTube and a dozen other things. When I draw some of the pictures of the people doing these parkour jumps, I looked at fun poses on YouTube in order to come up with it.

[Brandon] Wow. I've read all those comics and never realized that you'd done that. That's pretty cool. Let's take a step toward that then and say how do you do it without... I mean, when we say steal, that has obvious negative connotations...
[Howard] Obvious.
[Brandon] What is the difference between what we are talking about and plagiarism?
[Howard] Plagiarism would be if I took the opening scene of the James Bond movie and... took stills from that, traced the stills, turned them into comic panels, drew in my own backgrounds, drew in my own character faces, and said, "Now this is my own chase scene." There have been comics where that exact thing has happened. People have taken stills from movies that they thought were epic and iconic, they traced them.
[Brandon] Really? Wow.
[Howard] Yup. I can't think of an example right now because when it comes up, they usually get slapped down. Sin City is not an example of this, because even though the Sin City Comic book looks like it's been traced from the movie...
[Brandon] They did it intentionally?
[Howard] The influence moved in the other direction.
[Brandon] There is an example of something like this. I believe it was the son of a rock star... was it Nicky Simmons or somebody like that? Doing his manga. You can look that up. I can't remember whose son it was... rock star...
[Howard] And there were piles of traced panels that just came from other stuff, and that's...
[Brandon] See, that's crossing a line. He said, "Look, I guess I've been influenced or something like that..."
[Howard] That's not influence.

[Brandon] That's not influence, that's copying. It happens in fiction, too. What you're wanting to do is see something that excites you and interests you, and then make it your own. That's what we're looking at doing. If you're worried about the plagiarism, that's why I suggest going to history and mythology instead of going to pop culture. Now you can go to pop culture. I talked about Mistborn... Mistborn came from me melding two pop-culture experiences of mine. The heroic cycle with the story of a heist novel. But with that, I broke it down to its base components and said, "Why is this working? What makes a heist story work?" And then rebuilt it as my own story. Dan, have you ever done this? How do you keep people... how do you keep it from just looking like you're copying?
[Dan] Well, I think... you said you have to make it your own. You really have to really make it your own. There's a lot of area in between outright plagiarism and a fine original work where there's this whole gray mass of you didn't quite do enough to make it your own. When the Eragon movie came out, my favorite review of that said, "I liked this movie better when it was called Star Wars." Because it was just... it was not plagiarism, but it was still too close. It didn't feel original enough.
[Brandon] See, but Eragon worked for a lot of people.
[Dan] it did.
[Brandon] And it was not plagiarism, because there was...
[Dan] It wasn't plagiarism. It was an original thing. But for a large portion of the audience, it just... he didn't do enough to make it feel fresh.
[Howard] That's a case where Christopher Paolini, bless his heart, was a little bit too young to actually worry about the anxiety of influence.
[Brandon] Right.
[Dan] That's true.
[Howard] He just plowed ahead. And more power to him. I think that's awesome.

[Brandon] Another example of this is the film Avatar. Avatar... let's just get a show of hands from the pod casters. Well, I guess you guys...
[Howard] You can't see... for those of you not benefiting from the video.
[Brandon] Do you think that he was too close to other films, yes or no?
[Howard] I think that they took stories that they knew were safe, they took story elements that they knew were safe, because everything else they were doing with that film was so bleeding edge that they wanted to not take a risk on the story. I reviewed it as the best Fern Gulley remake ever.
[Dan] Avatar is a case where I think I may be more forgiving than a lot of the reviews and comments that I've read. Yes, it was a story we'd seen before, but it was the best version of that story that I think I've ever seen. So that's a case where for me, he did enough to make it his own.
[Brandon] I saw the film and I really deeply enjoyed the film. And still walked out of it saying, "Gee, I wish there had been a really great different story, too." It was a great film that felt... that left a little tiny hole in me that kept me from saying that was a fantastic film. But it's hard to fault someone for making a really good film that works on so many levels and has made so much money.

[Brandon] Let's stop for an ad. Because we are talking about stories that are influenced by other stories, we decided that we would do the Graveyard Book, which I can't remember if we've promoed before or not, but it's a fantastic novel by Neil Gaiman.
[Howard] Was that the one that won the Hugo last year?
[Dan] It did, indeed.
[Brandon] It did indeed win the Hugo and it also won the Newberry award. They do on have an audio book version of it. Which I believe... yes, it's narrated by Neil himself. So if you didn't pick it up... I do think we've promoed it once before, but if you didn't pick it up before...
[Howard] Isn't Neil himself Neil's twitter ID?
[Brandon] It is his twitter. It's a fantastic book. It's a retelling of the Jungle Book. If you know the Jungle Book... the Jungle Book is about a boy who is raised by animals out in the jungle. Well, this is a book about a boy who was raised by undead in a graveyard. It is a kind of a perfect concept for this sort of podcast where you can be influenced by something. He's quite upfront with it in this case. So if you want to give the book a listen, go to, sign-up for your 15 day free trial, support Writing Excuses, and enjoy a great book.
[Howard -- singing] Look for the brain necessities, the simple... I'll stop.
[Dan] Thank you.

[Brandon] So Graveyard Book is an example of one other way to steal and not look like you are plagiarizing, which is to hang a lantern. This is where you do something, and you say, "I am doing this as an homage." This is tricky. Because by being very upfront with it, sometimes to me it feels like you're cutting corners. That you were able to make it enough your own, and so therefore you have to say, "Well, this is just an homage." Yet when it works, it works beautifully well, like the Graveyard Book did. What's the difference?
[Dan] Well, there is an entire subgenre, like a recognizable genre, of fairytale retellings. I mean, that is a section of the bookstore to itself. So in some cases, that is just par for the course. It's standard practice.
[Brandon] Well, and for some reason, as people, we like to know what influences are. If we look at Ice Ice Baby... okay, this is a strange example, but Ice Ice Baby got into serious trouble for sampling Queen and David Bowie without giving credit.
[Howard] [vocal reproduction]
[Brandon] If that song had given credit, I think it actually would have increased the popularity of the song. If he would have said, "I love these guys" and if he would have paid for the sample... that was a real problem. But if he would have paid on the sample and done it as a sample, I think it would have increased the popularity of the piece. Do you agree with me? Maybe?
[Dan] Yeah, I think so.
[Brandon] Certainly, I don't think it would have hurt. Nope, Howard's going to disagree .
 [Howard] No, I'm scratching my head because... in the music business, lifting chords, chord progressions, bass lines, and the occasional riff happens all the time. Lifting it via sample is something that technologically  has only been possible for the last 20 or 30 years. But we've been doing that for a long time. All of Bach's organ chorales, all of his organ preludes are based on hymns of the time. He takes those hymns and he does amazing things with them. So there's this long musical tradition of that happening. Technology, I think, has twisted it. I'm torn because I love it. I like seeing people do it, I like listening to people do it. But I agree, if you're going to take something that I recorded and use the sample, my audio engineer needs to get paid again. And so do I.
[Brandon] There's a long history of this in literature too. If we look at Wagner's... I'm not going to try and pronounce it. The Ring...
[Howard] Das RIng ding bell a bellum? [more or less]
[Brandon] Yes, that. Which is an epic opera which was heavily used by Tolkien when he was writing Lord of the Rings. Then Lord of the Rings heavily influenced the Wheel of Time. You can kind of see this Norse mythology...
[Howard] Lord of the Rings heavily influenced everything.
[Brandon] Yes, it did. But you can look at these influence progressions. I mean that might be one way to look at it, at these different stories, and see how different they are from one another, and yet how also they are grown from one another.

[Howard] I think the take away for the new writer is to look at these examples that we've cited and to say, "Hey, you know what? It happens." The very best writers, the very best musicians, painters, sculptors... we all do this. That's why we opened with those quotes from maybe Picasso and definitely John Cage, is that we're all doing this. The thing that a new writer needs to look at next is it's not a shortcut. It's not something you use in order to save you from not having to think of a plot or think of a character. It's something you use in order to make your work more accessible and to in some cases lay down a framework that you're more confident is going to work. Because... like the Campbellian monomyth, which we still need to talk about, and this is the podcast for it...
[Dan] We will, Dear listeners.
[Brandon] Thanks for pointing out that we're lame.
[Dan] One of the things we say on this podcast all the time when coming up with ideas is that it works really well to combine two different ones together. I think that's a case where you can take something that exists previously. You find a myth you really like. You find Anasazi, you find Nordic, whatever... and then you combine it with something that it's never been combined with before.
[Howard] Well, coming back to parkata urbatsu... I took parkour, and I took the martial arts training I'd received, and I looked at ... I've forgotten the name of the movie with Christian Bale, with the gun katas in it. The whole concept that you can take martial arts katas, practiced forms, and apply them to movements that are new. I thought, "Well, okay, I'll create something new out of that." It's been a lot of fun. I'm going to use parkata urbatsu a lot.

[Brandon] I think that it's a great idea. In fact, I'm going to give our writing prompt this week as being... I want you to go... I want you to go to Howard Tayler's website, I want you to click the button that says "click here to instantly teraport to some place inside the archives."
[Howard] [whistle]
[Brandon] I want you to take whatever strip shows up, read the next three or four, and have it... use it mailed in with some other concept to create a new story.
[Dan] Something wholly original.
[Howard] If you can stop reading after just three or four, that's probably best for you. You don't want it to cost you hours and hours of your life.
[Dan] Otherwise, you won't get any writing done.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: borrowing, history, homage, influence, john cage, mythology, parkata urbatsu, parkour, picasso, plagiarism, pop culture, stealing, theft, writing excuses
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