Plagiarism Is A Wonderful Teacher (And Also Illegal)
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
— Charles Caleb Colton
Way back when I was but a mere boy (about seven or eight), my Year 3 teacher, Mr. Buzzard — a man equally feared and respected — assigned the class a task: to write a short story that would later be turned into a stop-animation film. Only the top five would be chosen and then we’d work together in groups to create the characters and scenery — cutting out the shapes, colouring them in, sizing them, gluing them in place, etc. Basically, our film would be a regular Blue Peter production. And once we’d completed all the hard work, a couple of directors were to come in and film our stories. The movies would end up looking like crude, cheap versions of a standard South Park episode. At the time, we were all desperate to win. This was before parents’ groups began lobbying schools to be more protective of children and their self-esteem. There was no It’s the taking part that counts. You won, or you didn’t.
And back then, even though I didn’t realise I wanted to be a writer, I did know I wanted to be a winner. Competition was in my bones, ingrained in me from birth. I was adamant I’d win this goddamn story competition, no matter what. Even if I had to cheat and steal to do it.
And that’s exactly what I did . . .
(Me, aged 8)
Mr. Buzzard told us to structure our story in comic form, which would make it easier to transfer to the film format. I sat at my desk, pen in hand, clueless about what to write. Every idea I thought of seemed lame. After all, I was just a kid. What did I know about creating stories? This was too damn hard. In truth, I was talking myself out of it; making excuses out of a fear I’d fail or embarrass myself. It was the same limiting behaviour many writers still continue deep into adulthood. Convincing ourselves we’re worthless or rubbish. Telling ourselves we can’t write anything worth reading.
Then I remembered a film I’d seen recently and enjoyed: an animated short of Wallace and Gromit called The Wrong Trousers. From what I can remember the film is about a penguin orchestrating a robbery — and he plans to use Wallace as some kind of scapegoat/accomplice to the crime by using a mechanical pair of trousers to manipulate Wallace’s actions. And at one point in the movie, the penguin is mistaken for a chicken due to a red glove on his head. I can’t recall whether the robbery involved stealing a diamond, but I suspect it did. Either way, it seemed like the perfect story to plagiarise (not that I knew what plagiarism was at that age), and I began writing my story, hoping nobody would recognise the similarities.
I named my story The Great Chicken Crime. It was about a chicken (I wasn’t so bold as to choose a penguin) who robs a museum for a diamond, then feels guilty (for whatever reason) and sends the diamond back to the police. He ends up in jail. That’s it. The plot was as simplistic as possible, but every idea was ripped and manipulated from the Wallace and Gromit cartoon. The two were dissimilar enough to consider my story “original”, but it was definitely a derivation of a superior work.
Even so, Mr. Buzzard picked The Great Chicken Crime as one of the top five pieces. I felt amazing. To think, out of thirty students, my story was being adapted for the screen. Albeit, an adaptation of a stolen idea.
It still counts. I was an eight-year-old screenwriter.
My point is this: in our earliest stages as writers, before we’ve fully honed our voice, when we’re still trying to discover the kind of author we want to be, copying our favourite writers can be a useful apprenticeship. I’m not suggesting ripping off their work and selling it — but it doesn’t hurt to toy around with plots by using those that you already know. Maybe you could write Stephen King’s Misery from the perspective of a female author. Maybe you could try writing Oliver Twist in a modern setting. Or possibly you could update Romeo and Juliet with contemporary dialogue. Whatever you choose, it doesn’t need to be written as a means to publication. Sometimes it’s good to experiment. Push aside your hopes and aspirations for now — put them on hold. Instead, draw from the writers you admire; copy their style, their dialogue, play around with it, fuse your own voice in with theirs and see what happens. It can only help you grow in the long run.
Too many aspiring authors want to do backflips before they can walk. They’re so precious about everything they write; they analyse every sentence and seek perfection, which, a lot of the time is merely an excuse to procrastinate. Take your critical hat off and just have fun with it. Don’t sit down at the piano for the first time and expect to play Beethoven straight off the bat. Mozart learned by copying the greats, learning the keys, and hearing the music in his head. A lot has been written about his precocious talents — Mozart could reportedly play the piano to a high-standard and structure symphonies at the ridiculously young age of five — but it wasn’t until his teens that he began composing truly original work. Up until that point, he was merely a master of imitation.
I have plenty of half-finished old novels in various styles; whichever author I was into at the time of writing, I’d be influenced by. Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, Stephen King. I went through stages where I picked the stuff I liked from their writing and merged it with my own, typing out stories in their tone, in their towns, with characters that seemed like copies of their creations — after all, I figured a terrible Stephen King story is better than a good story from a shitbag nobody. In the end, I realised how wrong I’d been, and my natural style came through anyway. I suspect it’s merely a mass amalgamation of my favourite writers and every book I’ve ever read, but that’s okay. It’s still distinctively my voice.
So copy, learn, experiment, and eventually you’ll weed it all out and develop your own style . . . filtered through the thousands who came before you.
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