How To Steal Like A Writer (And Get Away With It) part 2

How To Steal Like A Writer (And Get Away With It) Part 2

No writer is an island. Sooner or later, authors must pinch from books they have read themselves. This is a blog in two parts. In our last post, we told you what you can steal. Today, we’ll tell you how to get away with it!

Part Two: The Great Getaway

How To Steal Like A Writer (And Get Away With It)

Writers don’t exist in a vacuum. We are all immersed in cultural experiences. Books by other writers are part of that. If you, as a writer, are actively taking part in your culture, then sooner or later, you will draw inspiration from that. You will steal from other books (you might not even notice). But only if you steal like a writer, will you be able to get away with it!

This is a blog post in two parts that tells you where to find inspiration and how to make other people’s ideas into something uniquely your own.

In my last post, I showed you some of the things you can snatch from other writers. You can read all about it here (PART ONE).

Today you will learn what you must do to get away with it!

What To Do With A Pinched Idea

You work with it. It’s that simple and that hard. Writers are not petty thieves. We don’t just snatch passages of text, paste them together, and pretend they’re our own. That’s what a computer could do. No, writers take ideas, and all the other things I’ve shown you in part 1 of this blog, and then they roll up their sleeves. They open their toolbox and set to work. 

The Toolbox

Let me introduce you to some of the techniques. You can use each of these tools alone or in combination. I have placed them in the order of how much work you’ll have to put in.

  1. Assimilation: This is the first step when artists soak up any kind of influence they’re exposed to. Writers read, digest, and let these ideas work inside themselves. Very often this process takes quite a long time because it requires the ideas to sink deep into your subconsciousness. You’ll know when you’re done. Please enjoy this process of assimilating: the world is a cornucopia of ideas, all there for you to snatch!
  2. Fermentation: This is the stage when ideas resurface, and writers need to decide how to deal with them. How much of the original should be recognizable in their texts? None at all? Then proceed to ‘Transfer.’ Should the influences be recognizable? Then writers need to decide how much reverence they want to pay to the original. Depending on this decision, you may want to write an homage, a satire, a parody, or a pastiche.
  3. Quotation: This is the only direct ‘steal’ that writers should allow themselves. Remember, quotations always acknowledge the source. A quotation is a direct reference to another writer and immediately places your own text into a context. This heavily influences the readers’ expectations.
  4. Transposition: Compare this to music where transposition means that you take a song in C-major and put it in another key. The song stays the same, but it will sound very different in that other key. Writers can do that, too. Just take someone else’s story and place it in another historical period or culture. Akira Kurosawa did this, for example, when he placed Shakespeare’s Macbeth into a Japanese Samurai context. The easiest form of transposition is a change in genre. For example, take an autobiographical novel by Christopher Isherwood, write a novel yourself, and then change that into a musical. Voilà, you have the Broadway hit Cabaret. All pinched and transposed from Isherwood.
  5. Shift in Perspective: Again, this technique stays close to the original. The basic story remains but the perspective changes. This makes the focus shift from the main character to the minor character, for example. Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern is a good example. Carole Douglas Nelson did the same with Conan Doyle’s character of Irene Adler (the only woman ever loved by Sherlock Holmes). Douglas turned Irene into a sleuthing heroine in her own right.
  6. Transfer: The more you assimilate and the longer the stage of fermentation lasts, the more likely you’ll end up with this technique. Transfer means you inflict major changes on the original idea. Usually, it’s also more than one change. Your text might just show traces of the various sources; some more, some less recognisable. James Joyce’s Ulysses is a good example. The author’s protagonist is Leopold Bloom who roams the city of Dublin, mirroring the events in the classical story.

If the degree of transfer is very high, the reader should be able to enjoy your story without ever knowing it was modelled on someone else’s idea!

Why Writers Should Steal In The First Place

This is the point you need to clarify for yourself. Do you consciously look out for ideas from others? Or you do steal ideas inadvertently, without knowing that you’re doing it. Let’s start with that.

Writers (and artists of other disciplines alike) don’t live in a vacuum. You’re constantly surrounded by ideas from others, whether you notice them as such, or not. You cannot escape this. So how can you be sure that that one idea you have is truly your own? You might have heard it somewhere, and never remember where.

That’s the fundamental problem: we continually tap into a reservoir of knowledge that belongs to all of us. Our culture is made up of common cultural experiences, a rich history of ideas, and an intricate tapestry of stories. You have soaked all of this up ever since you were a baby. Chances are, that one perfect idea you just discovered might actually belong to someone else.

But what if you’re aware that you’re using someone else’s idea? Why should you want to use it? Because that’s how you establish a connection between your mind and that of the other writer. It’s a way to pay homage to another great mind. It’s a way to keep our forefathers and foremothers alive. It’s one of the great reasons to write.

So, when you do take someone else’s ideas, be respectful, give credit where it’s due, and enjoy that this communication is a special form of time travel. It’s how we writers conquer mortality.

The Last Word

I hope you have enjoyed this little excursion. I hope you’ll find lots of ideas to steal and lots of stamina to put in all the work to make these ideas truly your very own. It’s the only way to get away with stealing. You have to do it like a writer.

Further Reading

  1. ‘How To Steal Like An Artist’ – Writing Advice From Austin Kleon
  2. Why Writers Make Great Spies
  3. 10 Reasons Why Writers Must Be Expert Liars

Susanne Bennett

By Susanne Bennett. Susanne  is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.

More Posts From Susanne

  1. How To Steal Like A Writer (And Get Away With It) Part 1
  2. Why Writers Make Great Spies
  3. Digital Dialogue
  4. What’s A Beach Read & How Do I Write One?
  5. Kill Your Darlings
  6. How Travel Can Boost Your Creativity
  7. ‘How To Steal Like An Artist’ – Writing Advice From Austin Kleon
  8. Romancing The Book On World Book Day
  9. What To Do With Abandoned Manuscripts
  10. How Word Games Make You A Better Writer

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Posted on: 18th September 2023