Get Over It

Monday, May 25, 2015

I’m tired of hearing writers complain that somebody else stole their story. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, it simply isn’t true. These complaints tend to be based, at least in part, “upon that obsessive conviction, so frequent among authors and composers, that all similarities between their works and any others which appear later must inevitably be ascribed to plagiarism.”*

As I mentioned in my January 26, 2015  post, there is nothing new under the sun. Two people can independently have the same idea for a plot, and they are both likely to use the elements that flow naturally from it (called scènes à faire). Take the idea of putting Judas on trial for betraying Jesus. Wouldn’t you expect courtroom scenes with Caiaphas and Peter as witnesses? Of course you would.**

I don’t care how creative you are: you aren’t the only person who has had that idea and written a similar story. Nobody stole it from you any more than you stole it from them. So get over it.

Then turn that obsessive energy to good use and get back to writing.


* The statement originated with the 2nd Circuit in Dellar v. Samuel Goldwyn, Inc., 150 F.2d 612, 613 (2d Cir. 1945) and was quoted by the 9th Circuit in Litchfield v. Spielberg, 736 F.2d 1352, 1358 (9th Cir. 1984).

** Porto v. Guirgis, 659 F.Supp.2d 597 (S.D.N.Y. 2009)


The picture at the top of this post is a painting by Italian artist Gaetano Lodi, who was born in 1830 and died in 1886.

Thinking outside the Stage

Monday, May 18, 2015

I spent three hours on Saturday at a playwriting workshop. No, I’m not thinking about writing plays, but learning about one genre can provide insights into another. And venturing out of my comfort zone stretches my creative muscles for what I do write.
Besides, Saturday’s workshop was excellent. Hosted by the Indiana Writers’ Consortium, it featured playwright Evan Guilford-Blake and focused on adapting prose for the stage and adapting plays to prose form.
One thing I learned, or at least was reminded of, is that writers shouldn’t assume a story has to be told a certain way. After describing some initial principles, Evan had us do two exercises. In the first, we were given either the play or the prose version of a short piece he wrote and had already adapted. Then he asked us to rewrite it as the other type. I had the play version and turned it into a prose story, mostly by adding descriptions of the setting and changing the first character’s onstage monologue into thoughts. But some of the other participants were much more creative.
Before I continue, you need a little of the plot. The two-character play opens with a man nervously waiting for a woman he “met” through a dating service, but this is their first in-person meeting. When our working time was up, Evan started with those of us who turned the play into prose and asked which character’s point of view we had used. My first thought was, “his, of course, because she wasn’t in the scene at the beginning.” But one of the other participants did use the woman’s. He got around the POV problem by placing her in the scene from the beginning, but with a twist. She was hiding where she could check out the man before deciding whether she wanted to meet him. It was an inspired approach that had never entered my mind.
One of the people who turned the story into a play had backed up and added a new scene at the beginning. It still showed how nervous the man was but started at his apartment as he was getting ready for the date. This participant had also thought outside the box (or the stage) rather than just making the most obvious changes.
The main lesson I learned from Saturday’s workshop was to try something new. Experiment. If it doesn’t work, I don’t have to keep it. But if it does, it can take a good story and make it a great one.
And that should be every writer’s goal.
The picture shows my high school senior play, many years ago. I am the spinster on the left.

Writing to the Sound of Silence

Monday, May 11, 2015

Some people like writing to music. When I was at an ACFW Indiana luncheon several weeks ago, one of the panelists mentioned that she plays 1940s music when writing World War II historicals and contemporary music when writing contemporary novels.

I prefer silence.

It isn’t that I don’t like music. Quite the contrary. Music distracts me because I want to listen or sing along when I should be writing.

Songs with words are the worst. Even when they are played as instrumentals, the words still run through my head. Sometimes they even bleed onto the paper by mistake.

But what about music without words? Some writers play classical music that matches the intensity of the scene they are working on: maybe the second movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony for a peaceful scene or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for a chaotic one.

I enjoy classical music. But novels—and even chapters—don’t maintain the same intensity throughout. For example, Desert Jewels has a chapter where my protagonist and her friend are running an errand when a dust storm blows up. In the fury of the wind, the girls can’t see or hear each other and only manage to stay together because Emi has the good sense to grab Toyo’s hand and hold on. When they stumble upon a laundry barrack, they go inside to relative calm and stay there until the wind dies down enough for them to find their way home. The action rises again as they leave their shelter to brave the less ferocious but still gusty wind.

Of course, these intensity changes are also true of symphonies and concertos and violin solos. But I can just imagine how much of my precious writing time would be used up finding the perfect piece of music to match the changing rhythms of the chapter I’m working on at the time. I’ll leave that to the professionals when the book becomes a movie.

In the Simon and Garfunkel song, the sound of silence is a negative that translates into loneliness. When I’m writing, the sound of silence is a positive that translates into creativity.

Every writer is different. If you are more productive when writing to music, then do it.

But I prefer the sound of silence.

Of Summaries and Wonderland

Monday, May 4, 2015

Writing a book is easy compared to crafting a summary that attracts publishers and agents. How do you describe an 80,000-word novel in three pages or a 40,000-word story in one?

I just submitted an 80,000 word adult novel to an agent and had to boil the action down to three pages. Now I am working on a one-page summary for my 40,000-word middle-grade novel. This is the point in the submission process where I always feel like Alice in Wonderland facing an impossible task. Where do I start? How much do I include? Where do I end?

In spite of the delusional nature of Alice in Wonderland, it does occasionally surprise with a nugget of good advice. Near the end of Louis Carroll’s book, the Knave is on trial before the King and Queen of Hearts. When it comes time to read an important (or is it an unimportant?) piece of evidence, this exchange occurs:

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please, your Majesty?” he asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end; then stop.”

Good advice, yes, but it doesn’t go far enough. The beginning and the end of the summary are the easiest parts to write. The problem is the middle.


Earlier in Alice in Wonderland, Alice attends a mad tea party. The Dormouse tells a story, and Alice interrupts with so many questions that he never does finish. In writing a summary, my job is to provide just enough of the plot to intrigue agents and publishers without raising unanswered questions that frustrate them. The last thing I want is for them to react to my submissions the way Alice reacted to the Mad Hatter’s tea party:
“At any rate, I’ll never go there again! said Alice, as she picked her way through the wood. “It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!”
Now I’m off to write a summary that begins at the beginning and goes on to the end.


The pictures at the top are illustrations by John Tenniel for the original edition of Alice in Wonderland, first published in 1863. They are in the public domain because of their age.