What is plagiarism, anyway?

Plagiarism has, as you might have noticed, been mentioned several times recently here, with links to, for example, Courtney Milan and Nora Roberts. Previously, the people at Smart Bitches with Trashy Books have done a lot of work on one plagiarism scandal or another, as for example here. But we all know basically what we mean by plagiarism: someone stealing sentences, or paragraphs, or unique elements of some kind, from an author’s work and passing that material off as their own.

However, there’s not much doubt that some people do get confused and start to feel like everything in creation is plagiarism. There was a recent-ish Twitter post about the failure to distinguish between plagiarism, the use of well-known tropes, and so on. Then you get a huge scandal like this #Copypastecris thing, and I do worry a bit that this can lead to pointing fingers at perfectly honest, reasonable work and saying, Look, there! Plagiarism!

Therefore, here’s a post on Stuff That Is Not Plagiarism.

1) A retelling.

This can be a fairy tale retelling that sticks closely to a Brother’s Grimm story, or any story that pulls elements from a fairy tale or any well-known story, such as The Girls at the Kingfisher Club or, for that matter, West-Side Story. This category grades smoothly into —

2) Inspiration.

It’s not necessary for a story to be inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in order for inspiration to be legitimate. If you take an idea or image from a story you read and grow your own story out from there, that is not plagiarism. In fact, I can’t offhand see how else any author is supposed to come up with the bones of any story. There’s no creative vacuum out there, into which Brand New Ideas pop by spontaneous generation.

In some cases, I’m very aware of which images or ideas inspired one or another of my books.

I know that Roger Dean’s art directly inspired the setting for The Floating Islands, and Gillian Bradshaw’s historical novels directly inspired the Romanesque aspects of Toulonn and the Greek-ish culture of the Islands. I don’t know about the rest of it. A lifetime of reading, I guess.

I am completely aware that Robin McKinley’s Chalice was an important influence on The Keeper of the Mist. That’s where the idea of a small, bounded country came from. Of course everything else is completely different — the type of boundary, what the boundary is for, the metaphysics, the surrounding world, how the boundary is created and maintained, everything. All the characters are totally different, the situation is totally different, the antagonist is totally different . . . the only other thing that might have come through was the warm feel of the story, and actually I don’t think I got that either. Chalice feels warm and hums comfortingly and Mist isn’t like that, or not much.

I know that one of my most recently completely mss was inspired by CJ Brightley’s Honor’s Heir. Practically everything changed dramatically — characters, societies, broader world, surrounding mythology, type of problem, everything. But even though virtually everything is very different, that novel was still the direct inspiration. Then my own manuscript served as a jumping-off point for my current WIP, where I’m keeping the same kind of relationship, sort of, and some of the beats in the plot, and changing everything else.

Okay, moving on. Inspiration is the one I feel like I have the easiest time talking about from my own experience, but both re-telling and inspiration bend into —

3) Being in conversation with another well-known work or multiple works.

For example, Walton’s Among Others, which drew on the history of SFF during the course of the story. Or, for that matter, Scalzi’s Redshirts, which was practically as meta as you can get. Or Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe. Or, not quite the same as any of the above, Sarah Prineas’ deconstruction of fairy tales in Ash and Bramble

These are all really up-front, obvious examples of SFF works that are deliberately in conversation with a whole genre. It’s not necessary for a work to be this meta for it to do that, though. Almost any coming-of-age military SF is probably going to develop from the author’s response to Starship Troopers, for example. Or a single work can be a response to another single work, like Wicked by Gregory Maguire, telling the Oz story from the Wicked Witch of the West’s point of view.

Or for a real conversation, look at Sir Walter Raleigh’s poem “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” which is so obviously a reply to Christopher Marlowe’s poem of the previous year “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.”

4) Homage

All these categories blur together. Is it retelling or homage when Sharon Shinn re-writes Jane Eyre as Jenna Starborn? Knowing that the author did this because she especially loves Jane Eyre makes me feel like her retelling ought to be classified as homage, rather than strictly as a retelling, even though it’s that as well.

Here’s a long post about homage by an author who also chose to write a novel in homage of Jane Eyre — Gemma Hardy, by Margo Livesy. It’s well worth reading just to example one author’s approach toward the task of retelling a classic novel, and for her thoughts about homage in general:

We are not diminished or dulled by borrowing and lending. In the best homages the contemporary artist is able to plumb some aspect of her or his own deepest interests, to reach what really matters, while simultaneously agreeing with or repudiating, delighting in or detonating, the original work. … On my journey I have paid homage to several writers — they had no say in the way I borrowed their landscapes and their insights, their nightingales and their bad behavior. I hope in doing so to have brought attention to their work and, at the same time, I hope to have made something new.

5) Pastiche

Writing in someone else’s style — hard to pull off, but fun. Temeraire leaps to mind. I remember thinking, WAY too many semicolons, this cannot be Jane Austen’s actual style. But when I pulled Pride and Prejudice off the shelf to look, I found nope, Austen also used that many semicolons. Novik actually did do a really good job writing in this much older style as she threw dragons all over the landscape.

Here’s a post about Mary Robinette Kowel’s Glamourist Histories, arguing that these fantasy novels are a perfect pastiche of an Austen novel and a fantasy novel. I don’t know that I think anyone’s really captured Austen’s style, but tons of people have certainly tried.

6) Parody, such as Bored of the Rings.

In fact, you could certainly make a case for Scalzi’s Redshirts to be a parody. What do you think? Parody? Or inspired by? Or in conversation with? Regardless, this books is not meant to be read in isolation. It’s aimed at Star Trek fans (and critics), not at people whose reading choices lean more toward the soaps and less toward space opera.

Here’s a post that places Redshirts squarely in the parody camp. And Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, too, which I’m not sure I agree with. I would have said perhaps humorous fantasy, not parody. Though certainly by the end of his career, I would say that Pratchett was writing actual satire, not parody and not humorous fantasy either — though his work always did have a lot of humor in it, even then, of course.

One more: An author might, from time to time …

7) Just straight-up rewriting someone else’s book, with permission, for fun, such as Scalzi did with H Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy when he wrote Fuzzy Nation.

Scalzi has this to say about that:

Yes, Fuzzy Nation is a book that is a reimagining of story and events of Little Fuzzy, written by H. Beam Piper (and nominated for the Best Hugo Novel in 1962).

Yes, it is authorized — after I wrote the novel I sent it to the rights-holders of the Piper estate and asked permission to try to get it published. They agreed. Little Fuzzy itself is in the public domain; however, both morally and practically speaking I thought it essential to seek permission, because I didn’t want anyone to think I was doing this without the full awareness and participation of the Piper estate and its rights holders.

This is kind of interesting, because sitting right here on my laptop, I do have the first little bit of a rewritten version of Philip High’s Invader on my Back.

This was a novella I liked a lot when I first encountered it. Wow, is it dated in a lot of ways. Yet I still like it. And then I thought, okay, re-envision it this way, here’s the new version of the protagonist, here’s the new situation — very similar but not the same — a robot fox companion instead of three falcons . . . not that there’s anything wrong with falcons, but I like foxes and I wanted to do something different.

I just played around with this for 25 pages or so. Then I made myself stop, because going to the fairly extreme amount of trouble of contacting the High estate and asking for permission, well, I have other things on my plate and plenty of other things to write. If I ever finished it, though, that’s exactly what I would do.

Unless it morphed into something completely different, with mere remnant echoes of the original. And if it did, I would just send my own manuscript to my agent and add a dedication to Philip High in honor of the inspiration.

Please Feel Free to Share:


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top