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Bad Influence

January 29th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments
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So this post isn’t going to apply to all writers. If you write poetry, or short fiction, then you’re probably safe from what I’ll be talking about. If however, you’re someone who writes big, possibly multi-book fiction, then you may understand a little what I’m talking about here.

Yes, that influence thing.


The big C word

Now both Matt and myself have said on several occasions (not that this is some unique revelation, its just simple fact) that to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. Read read read. Not just in terms of research (for the more technically minded out there) but in terms of the genre you’re writing in. If you write crime fiction, then logic dictates that you should read a lot of crime fiction, just to see what’s out there, and how to make yourself unique.

Yup, all well and good, right?

Insidious Tentacles

The one thing you must be absolutely aware of, at all times, is to not become so influenced that you essentially copy another writer’s work. Yes, okay, to a certain extent, this is unavoidable. If you take the point of view that there are no new stories, just new versions of stories then, yes, to a certain extent you are going to copy.

You may even have one or two favoured writers whose prose really clicks with you, and you may attempt to emulate their style. I have done this with my writing in the past. Some of my earlier attempts at writing funny stuff was greatly influenced by Robert Rankin, but that was more just his style as opposed to ideas. Another big influence for me has been Michael Marshall (a.k.a. Michael Marshall Smith), who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting on more than one occasion.

However, my latest project, which I have lamented about in previous posts, has driven me to a most disturbing (and slightly depressing) revelation.


Yes. This is what I’m talking about. There is a huge difference I’d like to make here between copying (emulating) and plagiarism (uh, copying). Obviously if you write a story about a young farm boy named Lucas Airrunner wanting to avenge the death of his family by learning the ways of ‘The Power’ and taking on an evil galactic Imperium with the help of a pirate named Han Duo and his furry associate Munchbacca, then you’re clearly just ripping off some franchise I shall not name here. It’s perfectly obvious that you’re plagiarising. But where is the line? At what point does simply emulating a preferred writer’s style cross over into plagiarism?

I feel I should point out here that no matter who you are, unless you are a truly terrible writer, then you will have your own writers’ voice. I’m not questioning that. I have been told in the past that my own writers’ voice is particularly prominent in my work. I may post about that later.

But getting back to my most recent project, I’ve been having trouble nailing down how act two works. So I went back to the drawing board. There was a major subplot (why a group of people are doing what they’re doing) which remained murky. This is what I get for just improvising. So I went back to explore the reasons, and come up with some back story to explain. And I had one of those monumental realisations. One of those truly magic moments when massive chunks fall into place and it is as if all obstacles have been removed.

OK, so it may not have cleared up everything, but the revelation was enough that I felt I could write that as a self contained story, which would probably be novella length.

Yes, so far, so good. But there was something niggling at me, at the back of my mind, and it wasn’t just the usual self-doubt.

Then I had me another revelation, only this one wasn’t as welcome.

Over the past few years I have read a lot of Neal Asher. All of his major novels in fact. And yes, I do admit, I do love the world of the Polity he has created, in all of it’s epic, violent, monstrously huge glory. I will even go so far as to admit that it was reading his work, being influenced by it that led me back to this long dormant project, and paved the way for me to get enthused about it again. But this week I have seriously begun to wonder whether I have been too influenced.

Am I Plagiarising?

Well, am I? This is the question. Yes, as with all niche genre’s, there are only limited options for you in terms of your writing. How do you make Vampire fiction fresh for example (answer: Leave it ten years for this latest phase to die down, then write the opposite of what this phase has been about)? But how do you write new, fresh big scale space operas?

How can you tell if you’re plagiarising? Well, one obvious way is if you get a lawsuit from your favourite author. That would be a big clue. But perhaps the only clue you need is if you actually ask yourself that question. Am I Plagiarising? It can be a depressing thought, and if it only dawns on you in the midst of writing something, then short of scrapping it, you can only really exercise damage control. Or leave the project alone for six months, start work on something else, then come back to it with fresh eyes.

As long as you don’t just use this as an excuse to not get something finished…