The Fine Art of Literary Theft

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A set of slides from the Emerald City Writers' Conference. Whether it's a twist on the familiar Cinderella story or a new take on vampires and werewolves, romance is a genre that thrives on reinvention. But how does a writer strike the right balance between a fresh new idea and a story with classic appeal? With fan fiction and its links to romance under the microscope, where do we draw the line between inspiration, playful allusion and a flat-out rip-off? Come learn how to fracture your fairy tales, revamp your vamps and reshape your shifters to best showcase your unique voice and catch the attention of agents, editors, and readers.

Text of The Fine Art of Literary Theft

  • 1. The Fine Art of Literary Theft How to use (and not abuse) the tropes and traditions of romance for fun and profit. 1 La Nascita di Venere, Botticelli
  • 2. Our tongue is a thieving tongue. The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary. -- James Nicoll 2
  • 3. Thievery has a long artistic pedigree. (Though we usually refer to this as an allusion, homage, reimagining, or a parallel novel.) Ovid Stole from Homer and other Greek and Latin poets, who stole from him in turn. Shakespeare Stole from Homer, Ovid, and plenty of Italian storytellers. James Joyce Stole from Homer, Shakespeare, and contemporary Irish songs, among many other sources. (When in doubt, steal from Homer. Hell never see it coming.) 3
  • 4. Romance has great booty (pun intended). The romance genre is full of established settings, tropes, and narrative arcs all ripe for plunder. Setting Trope Regency London Wounded hero Small Southern town Opposites attract BDSM club Marriage of convenience Space! Mistaken identity/amnesia Narrative Arc Beauty and the beast Friends to lovers Working together to solve crime Secret baby 4
  • 5. Not All Theft is Created Equal 5 La Naissance de Venus, Selous
  • 6. Plagiarism is wrong: do not do it. Plagiarism is wrong: do not do it. Plagiarism is wrong: do not do it. Plagiarism is wrong: do not do it. 6
  • 7. Fanfiction Anxieties Fifty shades of grey areas Talented Writers Engaged Fans Many authors worry that fan creations will eclipse their own works in popularity/profitability. At the same time, fandom has a sophisticated language for distinguishing between canon works, fan works, and fanon, or fanestablished traditions. ?!?!? Copycats/ Plagiarists Fanfic authors are both consumers and creators, an uneasy mix. In It For The Money So authors of fanfiction are always secondary in status to real authors, irrespective of talent or popularity. 7
  • 8. Cultural Appropriation Because for the most part romance is really, really white. 8
  • 9. So You Want To Diversify Your Fiction: A very very very basic primer that you should consider as a starting point rather than an thorough method. Do: Do Not: Research, and not just for the hard facts. Do not use the word exotic. Ever. Check thoroughly to make sure youre not making basic mistakes. Do not use someone elses culture or identity as a metaphor. Remember that your character should be a person. Do not defend your depiction of a borrowed cultural identity as authentic. Its not. 9
  • 10. Alternatively: Recommend books by other authors! Search out and talk about good books from marginalized voices. Jeannie Lin Writes sweetly spicy historical romance set in Tang-dynasty China. N. K. Jemisin Writes dark, lyrical fantasy set in intricate, unique worlds. Vicki Essex Writes emotionally compelling contemporary romance with AsianAmerican heroes and heroines. 10
  • 11. Transmutation Turning old, dull elements into new valuable ones. Birth of Venus, Fritz Zuber-Buhler 11
  • 12. Know your materials. Many tropes and story elements come with useful built-in themes. Cinderella Disguised identity, class boundaries, dysfunctional families, sexual competition, magic, search for a missing person Vampires Blood, nighttime, no reflection, predation, contagion, sexual charisma, transformation, fear, power, death 12
  • 13. Reverse the polarity! Change something fundamental about a trope to make it refreshing. Traditional Transformed Vampires Vampires do not show up in mirrors. Vampires use mirrors as a means of magical travel. Cinderella Cinderella goes to the ball why, exactly? (Original Cinderella: so passive!) Cinderella goes to the ball in disguise because she is blackmailing the prince. Secret Baby Baby the result of long-ago sex between hero/heroine. Baby a clone of heroine that scientist hero made from her DNA. 13
  • 14. Complementary Elements Explore the common ground of combined tropes. Cinderella Midnight Dysfunctional families Disguise Transformation Magic Vampires 14
  • 15. Contrasting Elements The differences between tropes are often a rich source of conflict. Vampires Werewolves post-death undead generally bloodless superior/snobbish glamorous fastidious pre-death undead animalistic brutal rough combative CONFLICT! Examples: Twilight, Warriors of Poseidon, Parasol Protectorate 15
  • 16. Polish your material. Use your tropes to inform your characters, and vice versa. Primer Background Connect/contrast your tropes, or make your twist. For example: Cinderella is a vampire. 1 Balance the telling details with the big picture. 2 Develop the internal logic of your premise. Cinderella the vampire goes to the ball to stop her vampire stepsisters from turning the prince. 3 Foreground Flesh out your characters and setting. Cinderella didnt choose to be turned and has sworn to prevent it from happening to anyone else. 16
  • 17. Da Vinci, Dali, or Mary Cassatt? Mixing tropes can be delicate and subtle as well as bold and showy. Choose elements that suit your narrative voice. Original Trope Subtle Twist Friends older brother (or older brothers friend) Friends younger brother (or younger brothers friend) Heroine returns to her small-town hometown to run B&B/bakery/etc. Heroine returns to her city hometown to start community garden/food co-op/locavore movement Boss falls in love with his secretary Boss falls in love with his business rivals secretary 17
  • 18. In Summation Quick n dirty recap of all the stuff I just said. The Birth of Venus, Henri-Pierre Picou 11
  • 19. Transmutation Cheat Sheet Successfully stealing in four easy steps. Prep Your Canvas Know Your Materials Choose your elements (tropes, setting, etc.) Identify themes in your tropes to combine or contrast Preliminary research (history, biography, cultural) Identify a color palette (dark and angsty, light and sweet, lush and dramatic) Sketch Out Your Figures Composition Identify problem areas Write Develop interesting tensions (competing agendas, antagonists) Write Secondary research (theres always something) Write some more 19
  • 20. Credits: Magpie image courtesy of the Graphics Fairy ( Various Venus Anadyomenes, Cinderella, the bat, and the image of Lord White Elephant via Wikimedia Commons 20