Writers and pirates have a lot in common.
And no, I’m not talking about the proverbial internet pirates, I’m talking about daring and dangerous scavengers with eye patches who sail the tumultuous seas in search of treasure or another bottle of rum (or both… both is good).
As writers, we sail the great muse sea in search of elusive ideas and… well, probably rum.
I had a writer friend come to me this week, confessing that she hasn’t been able to pin down any of her stories lately because she feels like every time she writes something down, she’s copying someone else’s story.
Concerned, I started questioning exactly what she meant. What it really dwindled down to was little concepts – someone finds a magical talking artifact, or the world has been overtaken by zombie-like creatures, or dystopian overlords are forcing the youth of their nation to do terrible things and stand for something they oppose.
My friend isn’t alone. I, too, have had those exact same thoughts.
Oh my god. They’re going to say that I stole this concept.
This is way too much like that video game that just came out.
I can’t have a magic school. There are already too many magic schools.
But, here’s the thing. Most concepts, just like names, are not exclusive.
No one looks at The Walking Dead and shouts, “THEY STOLE THE CONCEPT OF ZOMBIES! THEY AREN’T ORIGINAL! BURN THEM! BURN THEM ALL!”
I mean, as long as you’re not dropping a character named Catnuss into an arena for the Hangry Games, you’re pretty safe these days.
Sure, I personally think there are some concepts that are overused, tropes that I try to steer away from, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t successfully use them. That doesn’t mean that you can’t successfully use them. It all depends on your approach and how you present an idea.
To drive my point home, I looked at my friend and asked, “Did J.K. Rowling create magic?”
“Well, no..” she replied.
“Did J.K. Rowling create Latin, the language from which she pulls most of her spells?”
“No, she didn’t.”
Point being, there are so many elements to a story that could be looked at initially as a “copy” of something else. I ended up telling my friend that she needed to try and erase the word “copy” from her vocabulary when it comes to writing, and replace it with the words “borrowing concepts.”
So what do writers and pirates have in common, you ask?
We’re all scavengers.
As long as you’re not plagiarizing someone else’s work (sorry, Catnuss, no Hangry Games for you), there is nothing wrong with borrowing concepts.
We are creatures of habit and so are our readers. We like certain repeated ideas. The magic quest to save a far-off land, a forbidden romance, an innocent thrown into an impossible situation, a youth forced to train and learn something that will mean the rise or fall of his or her people, war, an impossible heist, etc.
Look at how successful GRRM has been with Game of Thrones. His books include common fantasy tones – war, terror, dragons, crazy religions, and so many concepts borrowed from history. It ALL came down to how he presented his story, characters, and ideas.
I’m preaching to the choir on this one, but I truly believe that we, as writers, should not be afraid to use concepts and ideas that may already be in circulation. Make the idea your own. Present it in a way that no one else has. Put a spin on it. Maybe you have a vampire, but he’s a kleptomaniac and he’s afraid of children. Maybe you have a “crazed dystopian government” and reveal halfway through the book that the government is actually right.
Seriously. There are so many pieces of ripe fruit for the picking, and it’s your privilege to decide just how those pieces fit together.
Don’t. Be. Afraid.
You’re a fierce writing pirate, for god’s sake.
If you decide to add pillaging and burning to the menu (you know, to enhance the whole pirate persona), don’t blame me when the FBI shows up at your door.