Sunday, November 29, 2009

Plotting: May I please borrow a cup of plot, Mr. Shakespeare?

    It's been said that there are no new plots, that fiction writers can only tread the same ground that's been tread by others. On the other hand, editors frequently state at writers' conferences that they want to see fresh ideas. So what are writers to do? We know that plagiarism is a no-no. Yet, every few years someone is desperate enough (or stupid enough) to copy a published author's work, in whole or part, and put their own name on it, hoping no one will notice.

    Well, of course, someone notices! And then the copier isn't only in legal hot water, they've branded themselves as a cheat, as a writer who isn't clever enough to come up with his/her own words. Where then do we draw the line? When is it okay to borrow and when does borrowing become plagiarism and a career destroyer?

    First, copyright law is meant to protect the original writer's words—his art. But some elements of art are not copyrightable. Titles can't be owned. Neither can a plot (boy meets girl), an idea (Earth is visited by aliens), or a character type (the bimbo cheerleader) be protected from use by another author. It's the actual words, the writing itself that shouldn't be stolen, borrowed, or used without the author's permission. And, of course, no author is going to say that you can take their book and put your name on it. No, wait! I take that back. Some writers do just that. They are called ghostwriters. And they are paid well for delivering a book then keeping quiet about having written it for another person to claim, or for sharing the billing with a celebrity.

    But we're not talking about ghostwriting. We're talking about your original novel or short story, and what may or may not be permitted legally and ethically. What if you love a title you've come up with and someone says, "Hey, you can't call your story Gone with the Wind, that's been used already." Well, legally you can call your book that. Titles are duplicated all the time, either intentionally or by accident. Your book may be a story about a modern-day balloonist who is lost on his round-the-world race. It's perfect! Plus you get the added kick from people recognizing the famous title, used in this different way. But if you want your Civil War saga to be taken seriously, you probably shouldn't reuse that particular book's title.

    What about characters? Can I create a story about a clever amateur detective who uses clues that no one else even notices to solve puzzling crimes? Sure. Hundreds of writers have done so, each adding an original twist and interesting traits to their sleuth. Can I make my detective a sleuth who lives on Baker Street in London in an earlier century? Why not? Maybe I could create a new competitor for Sherlock Holmes. How many vampires roam the night-time pages of novels today? How many soldiers, cowboys, mountain climbers, or deep sea divers risk their lives for their comrades? But common sense says that borrowing the exact character as portrayed by an author who is alive and writing today isn't a nice thing to do. That author might reasonably object to your using his paper people to populate your story, that is if you actually use the same names, descriptions, and so forth. If you want to write a story using the classic Star Wars characters, for instance, and you're hoping to get it published, then you need the permission of the copyright holder to do so.

    However, most of us who write find that we can come up with a title that we're reasonably happy with, and characters who will work well in our stories. What I hear most often as a complaint from new writers who come to me as students or mentoring clients is that they have trouble plotting. "I'm not smart enough to think up interesting plots." "My mind just doesn't work that way." "I want to write something really exciting that's never been done before, but I can't come up with anything really fresh!"

    Well, here's a secret. Of all the writers who are publishing fiction today, most are not coming up with their own plots. Seriously. You say you can't come up with a good idea for a story? Fine. Look up one of your favorite authors, recent or deep in the past, and pick a story you particularly liked. Break it down. What happened to keep you turning pages? What was the central conflict? List the hurdles the hero/heroine had to overcome to resolve that conflict. Where was the story set? How did the setting—time, place, weather, other characters—make the protagonist's job easier or harder? What you're doing is creating a map of a plot that you can then use for your story.

    Shakespeare and virtually every playwright in his time stole plots. They looked to the Bible, to Greek mythology, to historical accounts and folktales, to the works of other poets and playwrights, and modeled stories that were different in slant, setting, style…but virtually lifted from other sources. If you are convinced you can't plot, borrow a cup of plot from another author as you might a cup of sugar from a neighbor when baking a cake. Write a Romeo and Juliet story set in the 31st century. Or a version of Shane, the classic Western, but make it a contemporary story aimed at teenage readers. Develop a story based on a folktale handed down through your Polish ancestors then set it in modern-day Manhattan. Use your cup of plot borrowed from a bestselling author of today to inspire an original tale that you construct and set during the time of the cave dwellers. The possibilities are without limit.

    Is this playing fair? Absolutely. And it's not just because the precedent has been set by famous writers for centuries. The fact is, when you borrow a plot then develop your own characters and setting, applying your voice, wording, and interpretation to the story—it becomes something new and fresh. As you write, you begin to imagine new directions in which to take the novel, additional scenes, sources of conflict, and characters who never appeared in the earlier story. You naturally make the tale your own.

    So don't let being clueless plot-wise stop you from writing a great short story or novel. Borrow a tried-and-true concept to get you started and show you the way. Once you have established the basic structure, your natural creative instincts will take over and help you make the story your own.

    Happy writing! Kathryn

Friday, November 20, 2009


    Are you having trouble finding time to write every day? I know of no writer who says he/she has plenty of opportunities to devote to their work-in-progress. After all, our lives are so busy, how can we fit an hour or more of writing into an already full day? It's a challenge anyone who dreams of publication. However, finding the time may not be the real issue. For many writers the solution is more a matter of setting the stage properly than it is budgeting the hours.

    Let me give you an example. You get up in the morning, dress and grab something to eat and dash out the door. The day job is hell. You get home feeling exhausted, both physically and mentally. You may or may not have children to care for, but whether you live alone or you have a large family, there is an overwhelming desire to…just chill out as soon as you walk through the front door. The very last thing you feel like doing is diving into a second demanding job, which is what writing seems to have become for you. This is why so many novice writers give up on their novels or short story careers. Pure, soul-draining, defeating fatigue.

    What is needed is a change of mindset. Here's one way to do it. Think of writing as your guilty pleasure. Indulge yourself by setting up your writing area with a favorite snack and beverage. (I love a glass of red wine with cheese and crackers.) Light a scented candle. Play your favorite music. Make your writing station at home as comfortable and relaxing as possible. This is your retreat from the real world, your private oasis to which you will flee at the end of a day you may have had little control over. Here, with your characters, you are the boss. You have a story to tell of your own marvelous invention, and you leave behind the madness of daily life.

    Schedule your personal writing retreats to match your high-energy times of the day, if possible. If you're a night owl and have a day job, you've got a perfect match of available time for your creative powers. If you're a morning person, rise and shine an hour earlier than usual and seize the first part of the day as your own. Have breakfast with your characters, and make it a little special—flavored coffee, an egg sandwich, or pastry. Something you enjoy that won't take long to prepare.

    If you think of your writing time as the highlight of your day, the time when you treat yourself to comfort and luxuriate in the fantasy you're creating on paper or screen, you'll feel differently about spending an hour or more at the keyboard! Happy writing--Kathryn

Sunday, November 15, 2009


It's often said that writing is a lonely profession. It is, only if you let it become so. Moreover, writing solo, sequestered in a windowless room or remote cabin, isn't always effective. You may think you need absolute silence and protection from distractions, but the truth is, you'll have much more to write about and develop a stronger focus if you get out into the world and give yourself frequent breaks.

Let me explain a little further... The thing is, if you limit your experiences in the real world, you also limit the material you can then use in your short stories, articles, and novels. You meet fewer people (characters/subjects), you restrict the possible settings you have available for stories, and you know a lot less about the business of life. That is...the business of other people's lives. You need all of these things to build a story. So shutting yourself away to write isn't always necessary or even the best way to handle a writing project. Even when I'm working on a historical novel set centuries before today, I can benefit from people-watching, noting how they interact or react to a variety of situations. I can observe nature when I take myself outside, which has always been around us, and apply it to my story. You need raw material from which to build characters, settings, plot. Although some writers will tell you, "Hey, that's what fiction is all about, I can just make it up," the truth of the matter is, every writer's muse needs inspiration. And we get inspiration from real life, from our experiences in this world.

The other advantage to getting out of the house, or whatever sealed room you put yourself into when you write, is to provide yourself with fresh surroundings. Many very successful writers will tell you that they need to leave home to write for at least some of the time. One best-selling mystery writer writes in a small but busy restaurant in downtown Baltimore. Others have told me (because I'm nosy and I asked) their favorite writing spots are in Starbucks, the park, at the zoo, in an airport (even when they aren't waiting for a flight), and one loves a certain Disney theme park. You would think that these busy, often noisy places would provide the worst writing atmosphere with an intolerable collection of distractions. But to these writers these spots offer a comfortably anonymous setting in which they can zone out and write, while at the same time not feeling cut off from people or as if they are punishing themselves.

Find a place that you enjoy where you can take a laptop computer or notebook and pen. Make yourself comfortable in a corner, on a park bench, at a table with a cup of coffee, sitting under a tree, or in the food court at the mall. This can be one of several alternate offices for you. Many of my writing students at the Writers' Center in D.C. have experimented with this idea, either on their own or with a writing buddy, and report that it's given them new energy and their writing a fresh edge. Let me know what new favorite writing spots you discover! -- Kathryn