Go, Thief! Writing as Collaborative Piracy

 

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“A thief who steals from a thief is pardoned for one hundred years”—Eli Wallach as Calvera (Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai remake soon in theaters near you)

As a grad student taking creative writing classes, I did a lot of workshopping, but received little practical advice.  Most everything learned is earned, not given.  However, the best counsel I got was as an undergraduate toiling away in my Intro to Fiction course: “If you see something you like, steal it” (the professor/novelist who uttered these words will obviously not mind my failing to attribute to him here.)

There’s not much stealing of money by novelists, short-fictioneers, playwrights, and poets going on (we leave that to the publishing houses).  On the other hand, the best and worst of us do steal material pretty liberally from each other.   Some of this is unconscionable laziness, but I think those who take their craft seriously do hold themselves to a few self-imposed rules, which I’d like to codify here by supplementing my old professor’s advice with what I call the “Rule of Three O’s”: “By all means, steal: but try not to steal too often; nor too obnoxiously; nor too obviously.  Penalties exist for each.

  • Too often. No one likes to be labeled an unoriginal hack.  I mean, if you do this daily, you might as well become a television journalist and get paid well.  None of them seems to have recognized that Donald Trump has lifted most of his campaign platform from Adolf Hitler (“Make _______ Great Again,”) but you know that if one did, they’d all be parroting it.  Because there is no honor among thieves: they turn on each other.   Genre writers are in greatest danger of returning to the well too often, killing the golden goose, choose your cliché (a word-level version of this crime).
  • Too obnoxiously. You wouldn’t carjack a Corvette and then drive it around the same county without at least a re-paint, would you?  That’s just not right.  A plot, for example, needs to be sufficiently re-dressed to make it palatable.  Some recognize that the story of Jason Bourne is a retelling of Frankenstein, just as Blade Runner was (and to some extent the Wolverine and Deadpool tales): Scientist manipulates human limitations; scientist gets re-visited over and over by the subject of his experiment (“Why would he come back now?”)  It’s a good story with much psychological depth and breadth, as well as moral/ethical implications, which is why it gets told every five years.  Another version of obnoxious theft is a too-clever playing with familiar phrases.  Some writers get so good at this, they’re dangerous:  “Code of Dishonor,” “Twice Bitten,” “Can’t Stand In Heat.”  Seriously, why would you even crack the cover of a book entitled “For a Few Zombies More?”  Do you expect the writing to improve after that?
  • Too obviously. If last week’s marquee title is The Terminator, and you rush-premiere a B-movie called The Decimator, The De-resonator, or The Decaffeinater, even the trolls on the forums will crucify you (now there’s a story worth retelling,) without even watching it. And you deserve it.

Which leaves us with the question of how to do stealing right.  There are perhaps a hundred ways, so let’s “borrow” a few from the greats:

Allusions. Usually at the word level, these nuggets are on full display for those in your audience who may have read more than three or four books.  When John Steinbeck cribbed his novel’s title, In Dubious Battle, from the proem of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, it was more than a pretty phrase he admired.  He wanted to signal, perhaps, that workers in contemporary America (the many and weak) were being warred upon by Satanic forces (the few and powerful).  Steinbeck, in fact, grifted several of his titles from Biblical or semi-biblical sources: The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and other writers (Of Mice and Men).

Homages/parodies. In Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks wasn’t trying to get away with piracy, but instead to rely on the audience’s familiarity with both the story and previous remakes from Hollywood.  The result is wonderful: How I did It is the title of the Baron’s journal. The great danger I see, today, is that in a semi-literate culture, exposure to 2nd, 3rd, and farther-removed parodies takes the place of reading the originals, rather than supplementing it.  Children, of course, will claim they can survive on candy; and so it’s no surprise to hear twenty-somethings argue they can distill the important news from The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live.

Shakespeare, yes even he of the cranium enormous, raided the Plot and trappings of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and probably Othello and Romeo and Juliet from earlier sources. Now, given what he accomplished with them, and the relative scarcity of masterplots, this is forgivable.  How many people recognize that The Terminator is a thematic retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (by attempting to avoid predestined events, one can actually bring them to pass)?  Cameron simply converted prophecy to time-travel (two sides of the same coin).

Update/Remake for a modern audience. Emerson said that every generation had to reinvent its stories (here I’m paraphrasing—at least I’m giving the guy credit!)  Especially the out-of-copyright ones (wink to the publishers and movie studios there.)     I suspect 2016’s Birth of a Nation will not much resemble the original.  You did know that was first made by D.W. Griffiths in 1915, adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansmen (1905,) didn’t you?  Film and literary critics fascinate themselves with analyzing how remakes tell us much about the culture that produced them, by emphasizing and deemphasizing certain elements of the ur-story.

Recasting from a different perspective. Euripides is perhaps the most prolific of western writers here.  He recast much of Greek mythology from the point-of-view of “the other,” the marginalized characters: Medea, The Trojan Women, The Bacchae.  A very neat and risky trick.  How many Americans do you know that would enjoy a film about how the Russians sacrificed twenty million souls to defeat the Nazis in World War II?  And yeah, that did happen.

Which brings us to pseudo-history. Spielberg’s Amistad, Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, Stone’s JFK, anything by Michael Moore in a more documentary mode, are all masterful narratives.  They are not history, by any serious definition.  BUT, they weren’t meant to be: they ARE meant to raise the spirit of inquiry in the audience, to challenge them to learn more and seek the truth themselves.  Poe did this with his unreliable narrators, but the solutions lay within his stories themselves.  Here, the facts lie outside the story, in other accounts one would have to research.  Sadly, this is all too infrequently done, and the pseudo-history stands as the somewhat-removed Truth.

So writers, don’t worry so much about books getting stolen, in either analog or digital form.  One way or another, it’s all in the public domain, there for the taking–isn’t it?  Put it this way–no one ever promised to pay you, anyway.  Given the choice, you’d rather give it away than keep it to yourself.

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Issues for Indie Authors: Revising The Script, one Strong Verb at a Time

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By Shawn Stjean

Ever catch yourself substituting a wrong word for the right one, on purpose?  Dumbing your language down?  No?

Liar.  (As Emerson once opined, sometimes only one word works.  Like “Damn.”)

The collapse and convergence or shrinking of our language should be apparent to anyone who’s listening and reading: just observe how the word “way” (original meaning: path) has begun to permanently replace at least three other words in modern English: much, far, very.

“It’s way too easy” / “Mine’s way better”

“We go way back”/ “This happens way too often”

“That skirt’s way cool”

These in addition to its now-standard colloquial uses: “There’s no way I’m going there.” [slang for “possibility”]

We, as a literate culture, have somehow managed to lose our way [ahem.]

No, it isn’t just kids.  Watch your own language.  Authors and editors of published books and even what’s left of our newspapers have accepted such sentences as correct for twenty years.  But there’s something not so obvious here, like a complicating infection from an original illness.  And what we do once on purpose–to fit in, to seem up-to-date, for verisimilitude in dialogue, and so on, we repeat out of habit.

It’s all about verbs–weak ones–like the one in this sentence.  Go ahead–I’ll wait while you seek it.

You unearthed the problem, apprehended it, discovered it.   You found it.  Got it.  Yeah, my bad.

The verb IS (infinitive “to be” conjugated further as “was,” “were,” “are,” “being,”) lurking underneath those apostrophes and contractions, stands low as the base of a problematic pyramid, but the issue goes very deep, to the base foundations of illiteracy.  “To be,” as the weakest verb in our language, gets the most use.  It serves slave-duty.  Other third-tier infinitives: “To go” “To do.” “To say.” “To see.”

Next come hundreds of second-tier verbs, and even people who read frequently can get mired at this level, for their entire lives.   “I see what you mean.”  “I get it.” “I said so.”  “I went there.”

Crucial point: I remind my students, ad nauseum, that we don’t just desire better sounding verbs–we require more efficient verbs–ones that do more work.  “Attempt” may work no better than “try,” depending on context.  This advice runs counter to everything they assume–because everybody knows, the longer your essay, and the fancier the vocabulary, the higher the grade, right? (or the more pages in the book, the more money you can charge.)

One-dimensionality needs vigilant guarding against.

Now, among young folks I often like to point to pop culture for my examples, along with occasional pedantic references to Shakespeare and Milton.  Pop music functions well–great, thoughtful artists struggle right alongside horribly mediocre ones. Take:

Rush–the band’s name itself is a multi-signifying verb–though it’s also a noun.  Like the members themselves, the name works hard.  Check them out–and pay attention to the lyrics.

But let’s examine a more current example.  As I attended high school sporting events and practices this summer, I heard much motivational music blaring from loudspeakers:  here’s a YouTube link for the uninitiated, to the The Script’s excellent video for “Hall of Fame”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mk48xRzuNvA

The music video reaches a potential that the song itself does not.  As good and catchy and emotionally stirring as this tune featuring will.i.am is, and as genuinely great as it aspires to be, it ironically relies on some of the weakest language available in English.  And remember, student-athletes hearing it are absorbed in the act, at that very moment, of pushing themselves to become better.

Be students
Be teachers
Be politicians
Be preachers

There’s a certain limited value in the repetition, or parallelism here.   And there’s the musical issue–the stanza requires one-syllable verbs.  HOWEVER, take a look at what just a little more thought can accomplish:

VS.

Be students
Seek teachers
Hear politicians
Heed preachers

The revision emphasizes the process of becoming over the state of being, as every kid jock (not all deaf ballerinas or scrawny boxers) in the grind of rehearsal, workout, or practice knows at a gut level–you have to work hard at it.  And real students–of life–require more than simple classroom attendance, or book learning.  One must venture out and interact with others–listen, try, do, fail, succeed, fail again, try again, work harder.  I’d argue that a great deal of resonance has been added by these revisions: rather than substituting meaning, they multiply it.

Third tier verbs function merely as connectors (“Jack was happy.”)  Second tier [vague and nondescriptive] verbs communicate the basic idea and no more (“I said it,”) and First tier [the best word for the job] verbs ennoble us: make us think, challenge us, inspire us, reward our effort.

Here’s a better verse from the same song:

You can move a mountain
You can break rocks
You can be a master
Don’t wait for luck
Dedicate yourself and you can find yourself

“Way” better.  And it so happens that a one-syllable word like “wait” can be the exact, perfect one.

POST-TEST.  Some might object that pop music makes an easy target.  Fair enough.  For you writers out there, here’s another example of how commercial success does not require anything like the higher standards I’ve described above.  Tune in on that frequency as you read.  Perhaps these opening paragraphs of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo could be improved?

It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday. When, as usual, the flower was delivered, he took off the wrapping paper and then picked up the telephone to call Detective Superintendent Morell who, when he retired, had moved to Lake Siljan in Dalarna. They were not only the same age, they had been born on the same day—which was something of an irony under the circumstances. The old policeman was sitting with his coffee, waiting, expecting the call.

“It arrived.”

“What is it this year?”

“I don’t know what kind it is. I’ll have to get someone to tell me what it is. It’s white.”

“No letter, I suppose.”

“Just the flower. The frame is the same kind as last year. One of those do-it-yourself ones.”

“Postmark?”

“Stockholm.”

“Handwriting?”

“Same as always, all in capitals. Upright, neat lettering.”

With that, the subject was exhausted, and not another word was exchanged for almost a minute. The retired policeman leaned back in his kitchen chair and drew on his pipe. He knew he was no longer expected to come up with a pithy comment or any sharp question which would shed a new light on the case. Those days had long since passed, and the exchange between the two men seemed like a ritual attaching to a mystery which no-one else in the whole world had the least interest in unravelling.

The Latin name was Leptospermum (Myrtaceae) rubinette. It was a plant about four inches high with small, heather-like foliage and a white flower with five petals about one inch across. The plant was native to the Australian bush and uplands, where it was to be found among tussocks of grass. There it was called Desert Snow. . .

Now, in America we all seem to believe that one can’t argue with success.  Yet, if this remains the best we professionals can do, I’m a little concerned about the future of the amateurs.  Because let us not forget: reading and writing remain the best activities for promoting critical thinking and growing the human brain.  Students have been taught to write in the passive voice (sentences have no actor in them, as this one.  Who taught the students to do it?,) which solves a few problems (overuse of “I”) but the cure becomes worse than the disease.  It leads to cliche’d and passive thinking.

I have no opinion on the plotting, characterization, attention-getting ability, expositional effectiveness, or any other aspect of Larssen’s work here.  He may well be a genius beyond my ken.  My example only applies to his use of language, which, by the standards described in this article, scores “mediocre” at best.  His characters certainly should be forgiven for their terseness and inarticulateness, designed in by the author as part of a shorthand between intimates.  In fact, in many ways, they speak better than the narrator (who, in two cases, uses “to be” forms three times in one sentence.)  This may sound pompous of me and hopelessly outmoded, but I would never let one of my own students get away with that.

Now lest anyone object that these can’t be improved–that sometimes one must use a lesser word–you are correct.  It’s true.  But, most of the time, it only takes another pass.  And some sweat of the brow.

REVISION:

The plant, native to the Australian bush and uplands, grew [hid, nestled, waited discovery] among tussocks of grass.

Much more efficient–AND the emphasis shifts to the important element under discussion–the plant itself.  But then again, not the best way to get paid by the word, fill up more pages, consume people’s time, or, much like the rare flower of the book, encourage the growth of readers, among stagnant masses.

Perhaps the world does know Larsson’s name–for the moment–and I’m sure he’s made his money.  Will he, or The Script and will.i.am, ever share company with that other famous William, of the 16th century, master of i.am.bic pentameter?  I wonder: After all, no one ever rode into the Hall of Fame on their third- and second-best.

Most sink to the master standard of our time–“Good enough”–or tread water as the Good many were born with.  Only the few rise to Greatness.  Because they’re willing to earn it.  Learn.  Sweat.  Think.  Work harder, smarter, and better.

But hey, as the Most like to say: it is what it is.

Right?

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