Stealing: My Confession

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
It's been said by various fine minds, TS Eliot, Steve Jobs and Alfred Tennyson included, that 'Good Artists copy; great artists steal.'

I don't mean plagiarism, where long sections of a previously published work are lifted and used by an inferior writer; there have been many examples of that through the years.

Nor do I mean the alarming theft of whole ebooks which are hijacked, given a new title and published online under a pen name by ratbags wanting to profit from an author's hard work.

No, I'm referring to when we read a phrase or see a literary technique that we can 'borrow' and turn to our purpose. To a large extent, we writers are magpies picking up anecdotes, interesting snippets of language and overheard conversations to decorate our own nests.


We're always 'on', especially with a WIP, alert to possibilities. Just recently, I came across a couple of choice descriptions in a novel and a poem. One was in Tim Gautreaux's fine novel The Missing where he described some dilapidated store fronts 'faced with cupped pine boards bleeding nail rust'. I loved the idea of old dried-out timber bleeding nail rust, so purloined it to add to a scene where my protagonist detective visits a seemingly abandoned ramshackle farm, only to find the farmer dead inside, sitting mummified at his kitchen table.

A charming poem An Hour by Polish bard Czeslaw Milosz spoke of the 'zealous hum of bees'. Yoink went I, adding it to my opening chapter where a mysterious woman is lying among the heather on a hot summer day, before going to a rendezvous with a man who will murder her.

That's my confession!

Have any of you stolen anything juicy recently?

(Fess up—it's good for the soul)
Nope, at least not consciously. A technique, yes, of course -- but an actual phrase or expression - never. I just wouldn't feel comfortable about that, unless it was as a deliberate reference to someone else's work. But each to his own.
Pfft, I read when I was twelve that an effective writer is like a sponge -- absorbing anything useful. I have not done it when it comes to phrases, but I plagiarise history in every non-litfic story I write. I rarely have to make up anything but plot. I do this because history is far nastier than anything my rather sweet-tempered and naive mind can dream up. As my friend Kelly says about me: "When I think about you, Kate, I imagine unicorns and rainbows and fields of sunflowers."
No, but I get mind-worms sometimes and wonder why and if and how to use them.

For years I've lived with:

Thy wars brought nothing about. Thy lovers were all untrue.

I discovered it after reading a novel by Norah Lofts, Lovers All Untrue, wondering where she'd got the title from.

Terrible story. As in, horrible.
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24 Calls for Submissions in July 2016 - Paying Markets


Old newbie