Plot Pilfering

Wanting to join a writers’ group I used to be involved with, a nervous newcomer asked: “What if someone steals my idea?” At the time I thought it an arrogant question and on behalf of the group, was offended by the inference. But shortly after, someone posed the same question to a panel discussing the value of writers’ groups at a writers’ festival I attended. And it came up again in discussion recently. It seems to be a concern that is probably more common than one might think.

It’s worth noting that each of the persons preoccupied with the issue of plot theft, was an emerging writer, fairly early in their writing journey. I guess we all think (or at least, hope) that we are going to write the bestseller that will set us up for the rest of our writerly lives. And I suppose it’s only natural to feel protective of our plot ideas.

But really, when we think rationally rather than emotionally about the nature of writing we realise that, as with reading, writing is a very subjective process. So let’s deconstruct this concept a little. We all have different likes and dislikes, opinions and views, and a wealth of experience that is completely our own. No one else can think and feel exactly like us. We are all individuals. And we all make autonomous emotional and intellectual interpretations of that which we observe, whether it be music, art, dance, literature, etc. We have no choice about this. It’s the human condition.

Two people from the same family, same gender, same sociocultural and educational backgrounds, with the same preferences and views about almost everything, can read the same book and give two completely different responses to the story. Because they are different people who bring their own unique complexities to that which they experience. We think and feel differently. Each of us. If those same two people were to write their life stories, they would write two completely different biographies. See where I’m going here?

Writers are individuals. It makes no difference whatsoever what we write about, our stories are our stories. And crucially, they are written with our own unique and distinct writing style. Writing ‘style’ is not something that can be taught or replicated (at least not successfully). As writers, we may study and excel at all the technical aspects of writing, such as grammar, structure, voice, point-of-view, tense, etc, but it’s the way in which each individual uses language to communicate these skills—our expression—that creates an individualistic writing style.

There are a few very public examples of writers who pursue litigious action against other writers for stealing their ideas. Author of the very successful DaVinci Code, Dan Brown, was sued over copyright infringement by the authors of a non-fiction book The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail. Apparently the researchers of this book wrote that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had a child and that this knowledge was concealed by the Catholic Church. Basically, they accused Dan Brown of using their research to write his book. They lost.

Another case was that of JK Rowling being sued by the author of Willy the Wizard Adrian Jacobs, or at least by his estate given that he died sometime in the 90s. Jacobs wrote of a boy wizard who went to a wizarding school, rode on wizard trains where wizard chess was played; and there was a wizard prison and a special wizard hospital. There was even a portal used to move between worlds, wizard and mortal. And in Goblet of Fire, which was the major point of contention, a wizard challenge that required the use of a bathroom. You could almost say that these two books had the same plot, and given that Willy the Wizard was written some 20 years before Harry Potter, that maybe Jacobs had a point. Except for the writing. The book about Willy the Wizard was 16 pages long and Goblet of Fire was 636 pages long. And one need only to look at the expression and writing style of both books (as well as the other six books in the Harry Potter series) to make assertions about the validity of the claim. It was also dismissed.

The point of the matter is that a plot idea is just a plot idea. And ideas, theories, information or facts, can’t be claimed or owned. It’s the interpretation of the ideas, theories, information, facts or concepts, and the expression and writing style used to communicate them that matters. So those of you who may be worried about others ‘stealing your ideas’, don’t be. If you are a good writer, you will develop your own unique writing style, which no one else can replicate. And when you write your story, it will be your story.

Teaching writing: privilege or pain?

Like most writers, I have to work to support my writing. Unlike a lot of writers, I get to do something really awesome. I get to teach. Teaching is a wonderful privilege. And while the responsibility of growing and shaping young minds can sometimes be a little daunting, witnessing that light bulb moment when a student grasps a concept or learns a new skill, is a powerful motivator to become even more effective.  And teaching creative writing is no exception.

Prior to my life as a writer, I taught high school computer studies for years before leaving teaching. I spent about five years doing other things before I started taking my writing seriously enough to write full-time.  These days I teach creative writing to high school students and computer literacy to primary school students to support myself while I write.

I value teaching immensely. Not because it keeps me in contact with the demographic for whom I write, and not because it provides me with plenty of plot and character ideas for my novels, though both of these are absolutely true and have immense value and advantage for an author. I value the experience of teaching because despite the fact that I am the teacher, I have learnt so much from my students. Teaching these kids is making me a better writer.

There’s the seven-year-old who hasn’t yet mastered the art of forming letters or writing words with a pencil but who can write paragraphs of a story she has imagined using a computer keyboard; the fifteen-year-old boy who communicates only through grunting supplemented by various other bodily sounds, but who writes beautiful prose about the world as he sees it. The fourteen-year-old girl who always has a smile on her face but who shared her inner turmoil by writing a heart-breaking suicide letter that required immediate intervention, and the twelve-year-old with extreme anxiety issues who cannot speak but writes science-fiction narratives that wouldn’t be out of place in a sci-fi anthology.

Writing gives kids a release—sometimes their only release. It gives them an opportunity to make a connection, not just with the world around them, but with themselves. And in doing so they learn how to utilise an age-old instrument of power—the pen, or keyboard, as it was. No matter that the process of writing is different these days, the power it conveys is the same.

Not so long ago, a sixteen-year-old boy in one of my writers’ groups wrote a story about a kid who had been taught to use drugs at age six. SIX. The narrative told the story of a child living on the streets and being taken under the wing of group of teenagers. It had an intimate knowledge of scoring, and self-administering drugs. But more disturbingly, it told of the trade-off the young boy had to make for the care of the older boys. He wrote that learning to take drugs was the best thing that could have happened to this little boy. The young author had based his story in a city of Australia. I asked him about it. He shrugged and said nothing. I talked generally to the group about authenticity and believability, about real places and events being consistent with those places. In my mind, I was wondering how realistic this kind of story would be in this place (Australia) at this time (2000s). At the end of my time with that group, as I was finishing up at that school, the author told me that the little boy in the story he wrote was him. It was a true story. His story.

I was gobsmacked. This kid had fallen through the cracks in a system designed to protect children, and had survived on the streets by himself for five years. He’d been living in a comparatively stable environment since he was eleven, but (understandably) not without problems both at home and at school. But this boy was alive. He was not in gaol, he was not drug-addicted, and he was not violent. He was a quiet, introspective, albeit sullen boy, who managed to get himself to school every day, maintain friendships and even work at a part-time job. And he wrote. And I am a better person for having read his story.

They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and there are some stories, true or not, that would not sell because readers could not or would not relate to them. It’s probably true. I used to consider this when I began plotting. I don’t anymore. I don’t care. If these kids can overcome the loss of family, being abused, abandoned, neglected, rejected, and survive to tell their stories, I will read them. And value them. And when I feel inclined to complain about writers’ block or having to work to support my writing, I’ll thank my lucky stars that I have the wonderful opportunity to teach writing to kids who could really use the opportunity to share their stories.