It’s been done

Because I haven’t learned my lesson about having to many things on the fire at once, joining my third novel The Copper Witch coming out next year is my fourth, Between the Lines, with REUTS Publications.

Written for the most part in 2009, I remember rather jealously guarding the idea for this novel, which seemed entirely unique at the time. While the world, I still think, is unique–mostly because it’s one I created, and no one shares my exact thoughts (yet)–having more experience with writing, publishing, and books altogether, I have now learned that ideas are relatively cheap. Some are more unique than others, but the idea is not what makes a story. 

And that leads me to today’s post. The question I saw while browsing in the NaNoWriMo forums:

How do you get over the fact that everything’s been done before?” 

As I said above, ideas are cheap. There are a million different ideas out there floating around at given moment and another couple million people ready to write them. Perhaps there’s a brilliant idea out there that the rest of humanity has someone missed, but as of today, I fully believe that if you haven’t found anything out in the world that shares the slightest similarity to your new idea, you probably haven’t yet looked enough.

And so, how do you get over the fact that everything has already been done?

Know that your writing and your characters are what are going to make or break the idea. 

Yes, it is important to have an interesting idea in that you have to be interested in it enough to write it. If you don’t find your story intriguing enough to write, you are never going to actually sit down and get anywhere with it. The fact is, though, even if two writers were fed the same idea, even if they were told to write the same basic plots, their books would not be identical. The characters would be different in how they thought, acted, how they related to one another. All the little things that make a story interesting would reflect the author writing it, not end up as an exact carbon copy.

So write what you like. Write what interests you. Write something brilliant or stupid or derivative. It is who you are as a writer that will make your story unique. If you hold on to that, the fact that everything has already been done but trust in your writing, you’ll always be in good shape.

Toe Tappin’ Copyrights

While bumming around the internet, recently, looking for mentions of my work, I came across review of my book, The Bleeding Crowdon “Books? Yes Please!” (link here). While it’s always nice to find good reviews for your work (good always feels better than bad, after all) what really struck me reading it was the reviewer’s comment that two main characters’ relationship in the story reminding her of song lyrics. Besides getting the song stuck in my head after looking it up (say what you will about Taylor Swift, but some of her songs are darn catchy) the comment got me thinking about the inspiration songs can have on writing.

I’ve mentioned before how song lyrics can make for good writing prompts, and I fully admit I have taken inspiration from songs before for my writing (perhaps I wasn’t thinking of Taylor Swift when I wrote The Bleeding Crowd, but the title was not-so-subtly inspired from a song). If a song or its lyrics inspires someone to write, I fully support writers running with it.

As long as they don’t run afoul of copyright law.

Copyrights, as most things buried in legalese are, are not the easiest things to understand at first glance. What’s public domain, what’s allowed under “fair use”…as writers we have to both love them for protecting our work and curse them for keeping us from using a line of another work that explains a scene perfectly.

While all modern creative works tend to fall under some sort of copyright (which means using anybody else’s words from a work after the early 1920s can get you in legal hot water) song lyrics can be a special sort of mine field. While sometimes you can get away with using a small percentage of something as “fair use” songs tend to be so short even a line or two might put you into enforceable copyright territory–and record labels are notorious for litigating anything they think is close to infringement.

For this reason, the most common advice you’ll get about using song lyrics in your writing is simply don’t.

Now, anyone who has read fan fiction sites might be familiar with “song fics” (stories that are built around/interspersed with transcribed song lyrics the author feels inspired/captures the scene they are writing). While these might be a staple of the fan fiction community, publishing any of these scenes with the intent to sell them would be a legal nightmare (and not just because fan fiction tends to use other writer’s characters which is also a copyright no-no). Since most fan fiction is written for the enjoyment of other fans/are posted with no intent for the writer to make money of their story, fan fiction as a whole tends to fly under the radar of people who might otherwise start suing. Once that story you wrote about Percy Jackson dancing with Sailor Moon to Taylor Swift’s “22” starts hitting the presses for you to sell, the legal departments of those publishers/studios/labels start whirring to life. And that is a fight no writer really wants to get into.

So what are your choices if you want to have your characters listen to a popular song in your story?

1. Mention it by title and move on.

While the lyrics of a song can be (and most often are) copyrighted, titles cannot (otherwise how could you have multiple books/songs sharing the same title?) You are more than free to write a scene which includes, “Joe turned on the radio and Tool’s ‘Lateralus’ came blasting over the speakers.” Or, “Sam groaned, this had to be the third time the club had played ‘Blurred Lines’ already tonight.” Mentioning the song titles and moving on allows you to attach a song you want to your writing while staying on the non-sue-able side of publishing.

2. Get permission from the artist/studio.

If you really want to use the actual lyrics for a song, rather than just mentioning it by name, you can also write to whoever owns the copyright for a song and respectfully request permission to use the lyrics in a book you are writing. Sometimes you may get lucky and they’ll say “sure, go for it” but even to get a ‘yes’ it’s recommended you give yourself 4 to 6 months advance time to get everything sorted away before trying to publish. You also have to accept you might also get a ‘sure, but pay us $X for using it’ (see this article on how much $X can be) or just a straight ‘no’ when you contact them–meaning you’ll need to write that part out before you publish all the same.

Note: Just attributing the lyrics to someone as you would a quote in a school essay does not mean you don’t also need permission to use the lyrics in the first place. Citing=/=permission.

3. Tempt fate.

So you want to use the lyrics, but don’t want to waste the time asking for permission. You can always go ahead and tempt fate and see if you get away with it (but really DON’T, it’s not worth it).

4. Just don’t.

Does your story really, really, really need those lyrics in it to be perfect? 99 times out of 100, probably not. In fact, naming a certain song/using a specific song in a scene will tend to only date your story. Unless you want your story to specifically be “[State] in 2007”, don’t have your characters listening to “Fergalicious” at a club. Songs rise and fall so quickly that what is extremely hot one year will drop off and become “oh yeah, that song” soon enough. If you’re going for a generic “present day” time period for your story, naming specific songs is a bad idea. If you are writing a certain year, but don’t have a character really in to pop culture, naming a song is generally unnecessary. Leave your characters at listening to “[genre] music” and use the specific song that inspired you as just that–inspiration.


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“Accidental Plagiarism”

Yesterday I talked about how great the NaNoWriMo Forums have been to me. And today’s post has once again been inspired there.

As I’ve said, I’m on the NaNoWriMo forums nearly every day. It’s a great community. And in the couple of years I’ve been hanging around there, I’ve seem more than one post like this one (posted this morning in the All Ages Coffee House):

“I’m watching a wonderful, wonderful BBC show called Being Human.  The story they’re telling is different from mine, but the bones of it … it’s like they read my mind and stuck it on the screen.  It’s so beautiful and amazing and I love it, but it’s also heartbreaking because now I’m not sure if there’s a point in telling my story.  They already said it.”

Or this:

“So all of November I was writing in speed racer mode, getting as many words down as possible. Come December first I had a week of major writer’s block. Finally I went back and began writing. I started with rewriting my first chapter. I was so proud of my work that I had to show my friend. My friend read it, and immediately accused me of plagiarizing L.J. Smith’s Vampire Diaries. She lent me her copy of the novel, and she was right. My first chapter looks as if I changed a few key details of L.J’s first chapter.”

While it is never fun to find out that our ideas aren’t quite as unique as we might think they are, truthfully the anguish man writers feel when they find these similarities seems to come from the thought that ideas are what make novels great. This thought is also what leads many new writers to ask how to copyright an idea (which you can’t do) just so someone won’t come across somewhere they’ve mentioned their story and all of a sudden swoop in and take it, as is summed up in this post:

“I’d be gut wrenched to wake up one day and see my plot silently taken and on top of the NY Times Best Seller list – for instance written and published off my synopsis – by another person without my ever knowing. As such I’ve never given a synopsis of it on any kind of forum before. It’s just too risky to me.“

I admit, I fully understand this fear. I was definitely someone who was scared of being scooped, so to speak, back when I first began writing. Scared that someone would tell my story first and all of a sudden I wouldn’t be able to do anything with my baby since it was already out there. And that is the reason finding out something you’ve written seems dangerously close to something already published is devastating. It isn’t so much the idea that people are going to sue you for plagiarism (which they couldn’t do, since it is not possible “accidentally” plagiarize someone) it’s that the idea that has been so precious to you, that you’ve been working with, tweaking, rewriting, and polishing isn’t as unique and special as you thought it was.

In a recent interview I did, I was asked for the top five things I’d tell aspiring novelists. For Number Five, I said, “Trust People.” The longer you write, spend time with writers, or deal with anything in publishing, the more you realize that nothing is truly original. Something can be an interesting idea that hasn’t been overdone, but if you can’t find one part of your book that is like any one of the millions of books out there, you more than likely just haven’t looked around enough. Furthermore, even if two people came up with the same idea right now, the actual writing would be nothing alike. It’s why you don’t get thirty of the same story in a creative writing class when everyone is given the same prompt.

It’s no fun when you have someone accusing you of taking someone else’s ideas. It’s no fun when you find out that your amazing idea isn’t quite as original as you thought it was. But ideas are only one very small part of what makes a good novel good. The writing, the characters, the actual plot…they are all more important than the premise.

So keep writing, trust others, and trust yourself. Your novel is going to be good or bad based on what you do. There are always going to be other people who come up with something that seems eerily similar to your book, but that doesn’t mean yours is any less (or any more) worth reading. Just keep writing, and see what you end up with.


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