Friday, June 28, 2013

Imitations & Copying Are NOT The Same Thing

It's probably not any surprise that I took a lot of art classes through high school. In fact, during my teen years I would say I was more into art than writing. I drew everyday. Sometimes all day. I took every art class my schedule would allow. I passed the AP art exam twice. I am telling you this so you know where I'm coming from.

Because the most common questions I hear from newer writers is "Are you afraid someone's going to steal your ideas?" or "How do I read without imitating the stories subconsciously?" or "Do you read in your genre—aren't you afraid you'll accidentally copy someone?"

Quite frankly, these questions baffle me. There seems to be this idea that writers are not influenced by each other—and if you are, you are a plagiarist.

This is not the case. I'd like to clear this up today.

So back to my art training. I don't know if you've ever been in an art class, but there's A LOT of "copying" going on. When you are learning to draw, a teacher often demonstrates on paper the principles of foreground/background or foreshortening or proper human proportions and you copy. In a beginning painting class, the instructor will likely have students attempt to mimic his or her painting while teaching proper techniques. In figure study, you are literally "copying" a person's body as accurately as you can.

The "copying" doesn't stop there. When you learn about different art eras and styles, teachers pull out examples from the greats of that era—Monet, Picasso, Van Gough, Michaelangelo, Caravaggio. You are encouraged to absorb their styles and learn from their methods and then attempt to interpret that in your own way. Many times students will even attempt to replicate a famous piece of art in order to gain greater insight into how that artist accomplished what he or she did.

I took these same concepts to my anime education. Though I didn't have an official class in it, I watched as much as I could. When I saw a new style of eye that I liked, I tried to copy it. When I saw a unique take on body proportions, I tried to imitate it. Because in trying to imitate I not only learned from the greats in the field, I figured out what my own style was, too.

Imitation, in fact, is used in most every art form. Musicians aren't expected to compose their own music before they even know how to play their instrument. Dancers don't choreograph their own performances before they learn the basic moves. Chefs don't create their own recipes before they know the traditional ones. No. Musicians and dancers and chefs learn from their respective greats in the field. They learn the basics from those who knew them so well they were able to innovate. Because true innovation can't happen until you know what's already been done.

So why do so many newer authors think it's a good idea to stop reading in order to keep their imaginations "untainted"? I don't know. As far as art is concerned—and I believe writing is an art—imitation is an expected part of the journey.

Personally, when I read as a newer author it taught me about my genre and what kinds of expectations resided therein. It taught me what was being done and how. It showed me many different styles of writing that I didn't know existed, which educated my own and helped me see where I stood out and where I needed more work.

More than that. Reading sparks my own imagination and love of story. When I feel the creative well going dry, one of the easiest ways to fill it is going on a "story binge." I read books, watch movies, anime, and Kdrama. I take in other's stories, and they inspire me to create my own.

This is not copying or plagiarizing. This is inspiration and, yes, sometimes imitation. Copying and plagiarizing involve stealing huge chunks of a writer's work verbatim and claiming it is your own. Imitation or pulling for inspiration is something all artists do—art informs art.

Was TRANSPARENT largely inspired by X-Men? Yes. Did I steal the story of Wolverine but name him another name and say I wrote it? No. I took my own path on the mutations road. Was I inspired to try writing in first person present because I read THE HUNGER GAMES? Yes! Did I write about a girl name Patniss who goes to a deathmatch for teens? No. I thought, "Wow, that first person present was done really well, I'd like to try it and see how it feels to write in that pov."

I highly encourage all writers to not only learn the craft, but to read the books in their genre that are successful. Even those that aren't. It's very educational, and as a writer you should be always seeking to learn more about writing in any way you can. Because once you know the standards, that is when you will truly be able to find your voice and style and genre. You will be a better writer for it. I promise.


  1. I've been reading a lot of chick lit books because that's the genre that I want to write in, and it helps me because I've learned what works and what doesn't. I do know what it's like to be plagiarized, though; on more than one occasion other bloggers (fortunately none of my followers, but still) stole lines from my blog and claimed them as their own. It really bothered me that they would stoop that low.

  2. I'm glad you wrote this, I've been thinking about this topic every since all the drama-rama with Amazingly Broken came out this week. My sister read my MS this week and said it reminded her a lot of a writer I really enjoy. Instead of feeling flattered, I immediately panicked.

    My brain knows I didn't steal from this other writer, who I enjoy a lot. My brain knows that a similar topic or theme is not plagiarism, and that I had my own unique take on things. But this week has got me more paranoid than ever about "accidental" plagiarism, even though my brain knows it's not really a thing.

  3. I love to binge-read in my genre as well, but I know a lot of people who don't want to read books with a similar storyline. I don't think they're worried about accidentally plagiarizing, they just don't *want* to be influenced, especially if they're already drafting. Personally, if I saw something similar to my own work, I would try purposely making it different. Others might feel bothered by the similarities between their stories, and therefore they feel that ignorance is the best way to not be affected. I think it's okay--you have to do what works for you.

  4. Great post, Natalie.

    I found as an actress and as a singer that I copied for a while until I found my voice and I have always imitated in other arts as well until I learned the craft. I learn SO much through imitation, I almost can't imagine being able to learn any other way. It's like not having a teacher.

    I loathe plagiarism and unethical borrowing. I don't claim art as my own until it truly is my own. But there is a path and I most certainly start by watching the experts carefully.

  5. I have no problems reading in my genre and outside, whether I have a WIP or not. Like you said, it can be inspirational. The only thing that makes me nervous is the risk of accidentally using an actual line from something.

    Case in point: a few years ago a new idea popped into my head that included a character saying "Who are you, Robert De Niro?" Whenever I thought about that scene, I had this strange feeling I'd heard that line before. It took me a couple weeks to realize that it's from Parent Trap. The story and the characters in that likely never to be written idea were nothing like Parent Trap but somehow that line still managed to get stuck in my head.

  6. I totally got caught up in that! Just a few years ago I stopped worrying about being "fresh" and just read a ton of books in my genre. Cue huge leap in writing skills!

  7. Imitation has a very long and respected pedigree--to add to your list of examples, my background is in rhetoric, and rhetoricians as long ago as Cicero and Aristotle (i.e. over 2000 years ago) were using imitation as a teaching tool. In fact, in classical rhetorical training, students *had* to imitate before they were allowed to create their own compositions.

  8. THIS. one of the things I really dislike in the reviewing world is when someone says, "This book is too much like The Hunger Games" (for example.) So the book is told in first person present tense from a girl and a dystopian. That doesn't make it a copy of The Hunger Games.

  9. LOVE THIS. It's so true and I definitely think it's a misunderstood subject. The more I read and watch movies, the more ideas I get, and usually they're not even related to the movie/book. Just a little something sparked an idea.
    Hehehe...The Hunger Games inspired me to try writing in present took me a while to tweak it so I wasn't jerky and choppy, but after that I utterly looove it. And I'd never ever have thought to try it if I hadn't read THG.

  10. Great points. Author Alane Ferguson says "you are what you read," so if you stop reading, you have a pretty empty tank to draw from.

  11. Natalie, I am feeling giddy because I wonder if this post is an elaboration of your responses from the questions I asked you during your most recent Q & A, and if so, I'm so touched that you took the time to write all this. And if no, this post wasn't triggered by my other post at all, then please excuse my ramblings. =)

    I've always read from a variety of different genres from both adult and kidlit fiction, and thankfully, I have never been tempted to stop reading. But I've worried that my ideas would be considered "unoriginal," even though I know that few story ideas are actually completely "original" nowadays. But nonetheless, sometimes I find myself approaching books with subject matter that mirrors my own WIPs' subject matter with some caution.

    It's encouraging to know that imitation is not as frowned upon as others would think, and I like that you distinguished that from direct copying of someone else's work.

    Thank you for your post!

    1. I stopped fussing about being original eons ago (See? Stole that joke from Lost Skeleton of Cadavera.) People tend to accidentally tap into what I call the "hive mind" and come up with the same ideas at around the same time. (Did you know calculus was invented by two different people at the same time?)

      If you're still worried about being original, try reading Sarah Dessen's Just Listen and Courtney Summer's Some Girls Are. EXACT same premise, two completely different books. The difference is in the writer.

  12. Such a great article on how it's okay to be influenced by others (people, things, styles, etc) you admire. Thanks Natalie.

  13. There is nothing new under the sun. Including that last sentence and the very famous, very old book it comes from. We learn how to tell stories from other stories. If you think you have an original idea, spend a good hour on There have been other books about magic schools, vampire romance, and fights to the death. What makes a book original is the writer's style.