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Filing off the serial numbers

Guest post by Ian McHugh

Some of the best advice I ever got as a writer was to “file off the serial numbers” from stories I admired and use what I’d got from them in my own work. This is, as it sounds, an exhortation to steal – shamelessly – but not, as the reader may immediately suspect, to plagiarise, nor even to be derivative.

It doesn’t mean that you should (or can rightfully) populate your stories with Ring Wraiths fighting with red lightsabres on behalf of the Klingon Empire in their war against the phaser-equipped Robocops who defend the nation of sparkly vampires. (Although, how awesome would that be? In a Sharknado kind of way, anyway.) Nor does it mean that, if you admire, say, a particular secondary-world fantasy that revolves around the feuding of great noble houses for control of the throne of the kingdom while winter is coming and also dragons, you should write a secondary-world fantasy that revolves around the feuding of great noble houses for control of the throne of the kingdom while winter is coming and also dragons.

But, if you admire the infusion of grittiness, filth and cynicism that Mr Martin (or Glen Cook, or Joe Abercrombie) brings to epic fantasy, or his willingness to upend readers’ narrative expectations (Red Wedding! Gah! etc.), then adopt that approach in your own work. If you admire the sense of period authenticity in the novels of J.G Farrell or how C.J. Cherryh straddles the line between hard science-fiction (giant spinning spaceships) and science-fantasy (handwavey faster-than-light travel) then find your own way of doing those things. This doesn’t mean stealing other writers’ intellectual property – their worlds or characters or scenes or descriptions or, in any respect, their words. (Although, if you admire the prose style of – say – Ursula Le Guin or Jack Vance, try imitating it. You’ll get it wrong and produce something not-quite similar to your chosen exemplar, but maybe you’ll find something of your own unique voice there, too.)

You can even borrow the whole skeleton for your story, rather than just bits of the flesh and skin it’s dressed in, and hang your world and characters on the cleanly-filed bones of someone else’s story, or a story archetype from another genre. For example: the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou? is Homer’s Odyssey, Bridget Jones’s Diary is Pride and Prejudice, West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet. A lot of my short stories are Westerns in fantasy or science-fiction drag – my story “The Godbreaker of Seggau-li” was written after I read Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” to my kids and realised it was the archetype of a Stranger-Rides-Into-Town Western. Borrowing gets muddier when your reference point is a recent work, rather than a ‘classic’ (see: Fifty Shades of Grey), but the key distinction between plagiarism and filing off the serial numbers is in the examples above: you must still be creating your own stories and characters and worlds.

For my current novel project I’ve tended to apply this idea in bits and pieces of my world building – people’s semi-autonomous shadows come from Peter Pan and function a bit like the daemons in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. I’ve also leaned on this approach in the short stories I’ve written as part of my world-building for the novel. “Bitter Dreams” draws on Michael Crichton’s monsters-in-the-woods novel Eaters of the Dead (and the movie adaptation The 13th Warrior) repopulated with Western character archetypes and relocated to Australia. “Vandiemensland” is a chapter from Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life, with supernatural monsters in addition to the human ones. “Once a Month on a Sunday” is Jan Ormerod’s children’s picture book Lizzie Nonsense, plus bunyip (and published with Ms Ormerod’s blessing. When in doubt: ask). The things I found out about my world in these filed-off stories have made their way into the novel.

Every story we write is built, in some way, on the stories we’ve read and absorbed before. At the very least, being conscious of what your inspirations are helps you to steer clear of plagiarism and derivativeness. I think it can also help you to find the essence of that inspiration, what it is about a particular work – the vital thing – that you really admire and want to emulate or explore in your own work.

2 Thoughts on “Filing off the serial numbers

  1. Joanne McCarron on July 26, 2014 at 8:03 am said:

    Hi Ian.

    Thanks for this. It’s really interesting to hear how some of your stories have eventuated. I think your last paragraph sums things up well – stories we write are generated by stories we’ve absorbed ourselves, being conscious of where inspirations come from and most of all finding the essence of the inspiration from them – the vital thing as you call it (that’s very nice) – that a writer wants to emulate and explore in their own work.

    I think you’re right about the exercise of trying to write like someone you admire and finding your own voice in there somewhere. That can be a useful thing to do. I kind of did that once in primary school, trying to write my own ‘What Katy did next’ stories. I’m not sure it was a great success but I remember enjoying writing them!

    Thanks again,
    Joanne

  2. Pingback: the rising | inconstant light

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