Ask a Writer #3

I apologize for the delay, but better late than never, right? Welcome back to my Ask a Writer blog segment! Today I’ve got a double question coming at me from a long-time Twitter friend of mine, Bianca, who asks:

@Biancas_always_: Do you ever worry that the tone or plot line in current books you are reading sway or disfigure your WIP? Also I genuinely want to know how is Wattpad? Do you recommend it?

I’m happy to answer both of these questions! I’ll do them in order, starting with the first about how other media I’m consuming might affect a work in progress. The short answer is yes, I worry about it all the time, and sometimes with good reason. If you follow me on Twitter you may have read this story before when I was asked at one point about my most embarrassing writing moment, but if you didn’t, this is for you.

I have a photographic memory. I see words, scenes, and dialogue in my head all the time, sometimes original and sometimes inspired from many different sources, from books to movies to TV shows or even song lines. They stick in my head and I can recall, with scary accuracy, exactly where they came from and the other content surrounding them. There are whole movies I could quote at you line for line, I kid you not, just because my memory of them is that good. I don’t mean to brag: it’s just true. And sometimes, it can be a problem. For example, when I was first beginning to work on Camp Ferguson in college, one of my friends was at the same time producing a comedy web series that I loved to watch. Months later, when I got to a certain chapter in the draft, I ended up drawing on an episode from that series that had a similar plot to the chapter and rewrote, word for word almost, the dialogue and jokes from that episode, without even realizing I was doing it. Later on, said friend was beta-reading my draft when he noticed the similarity and rightly called me out on it. I explained that it wasn’t plagiarism and had just been an innocent mistake, but I was still very upset about what happened and felt like my artistic integrity had been tarnished.

That’s just the most glaring example. I readily admit to using books, TV episodes, and films as “touchstones” for my work (I’ve talked about this before in other blog posts) and I’m often influenced in the direction of some chapter or other or development in a character by what I’ve seen in material elsewhere. I worry that a joke I’m borrowing or reworking for a particular scene in my own book will be recognized and criticized later on down the line. I mean, come on: my current WIP is called Jack Ferguson Strikes Back. I’ll give you three guesses where that inspiration came from, and the first two don’t count. For the Camp Ferguson series, these touchstone works include mostly sitcoms with dysfunctional ensemble casts, like SeinfeldArrested DevelopmentIt’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Crazy Ones, and MASH, just to name a few. I’ve copped a plot point here, a joke there, and maybe a running gag that I want to modify and use so many times I can’t even count.

I hate to use the whole “there’s no such thing as an original idea anymore” defense for what I do, but I really do think it applies here. It’s hard work trying to be funny all the time in writing, especially with original content, and there’s a lot you can do on TV that you can’t do in a book because all the visual humor doesn’t translate well to the written page. But I think this is where my main point comes in: you are not the creator of these other works. The way you look at your writing, at the world, and the creation of a narrative is inherently different, making your product inherently different, even if it’s just by being set in a different context or situation. You also have to remember that we as writers are our own harshest critics, and it’s true of other writers reading your work as well. People like me who have no life and stuff their brains with pop culture knowledge all the time may call you out for using a joke or plot line that’s even remotely similar to something they’ve seen before, but for the vast majority of readers, they’re probably not going to look hard enough at what you wrote to make those kinds of connections, unless you really want them to. They’re going to take your story for what it is: its own world with its own unique spin on things and events and characters, even if it’s similar to something they may have seen before.

Spinning old stories in a new way is what a great deal of writers do, and there’s nothing wrong with that in my opinion. Especially in today’s internet-obsessed society, if you can think of it, chances are someone else has already done it. But they’re not you. They’re not going to think of it, or take a joke, or see a character the same way as you do, and the inspiration that comes out of it will therefore be totally and completely your own. So I would argue that instead of swaying or disfiguring, the other stories I consume can sometimes give me fresh new ideas to adapt into my own writing. And since I’m always encountering new things like this, I find I’m constantly being inspired to push the envelope of what I was comfortable with before even further. There’s a definite line between borrowing inspiration and outright plagiarism, and to me it’s pretty obvious when something is one and not the other, well-intentioned or not. Far from theft, borrowing ideas from other works is in my view a high compliment to those other stories you enjoy. I don’t feel bad about it, and frankly I don’t think you should, either. If you’re reading or watching something, you like what you see, and inspiration strikes, go with it! But always make sure that you can adapt it in such a way that it feels natural to the context of your own story.

On the second subject, I’m not sure I’m a great judge of that so far because I’m very new with Wattpad myself and have a grand total of probably 10 followers so far. But my first observation is that since Wattpad is a free platform, what do you have to lose by putting yourself out there? Why not try it? While I haven’t gotten a ton of comments on my work so far, I have gotten a few that have been quite constructive and flattering that have inspired me to keep going. Plus, Wattpad allows me to keep up more in depth with the current projects that other Twitter writers I follow are working on. It’s like Facebook for writers, and it’s a great concept to offer and receive feedback on work in real time from all over the place for free, assuming you can build up a reliable readership and follow base. In summary, I haven’t made a ton of progress in the first few months yet, but I’m encouraged by what I have gotten so far and I plan to continue. So yes, I would recommend Wattpad to any writer out there who’s willing to try it. Sure it’s a little scary putting something out there you’re not totally confident in and may not be polished to the point that you want it, but isn’t that true of any rough draft of something you’ve written? Go for it! Get a Wattpad page! I’ll be the first one to follow you back and take a look at what you’re writing–there’s nothing I enjoy more.

Talk to you all next time!

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