Today, I want to talk about STEALING. Yes, stealing. Always steal from the best and make sure whatever you are "borrowing" is in the public domain.
In my novel THE FAMILY FORTUNE published by William Morrow, I borrowed from Jane Austen as so many have done before and after. The whole thing started as an exercise to see if, through using Jane Austen’s structure and characters, I could learn from her, much like an art students who copies the masters in a museum.
Today, though, I’m a little miffed, because Alexander McCall Smith, the most prolific man in the universe (who created THE NUMBER ONE LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY series and several more – SERIES) found the need to do an updated version of EMMA. Don’t tell me the man ran out of ideas. He writes so much he must have hypergraphia, (and if you’re sensing a little envy there – you got it). Couldn’t Mr. Smith leave these “remakes” for the people who really need them? And then there’s Joanna Trollope, who claims to have descended from the great Anthony Trollope –oh man of the zillion written words. He balanced a lap desk of his own devising on his knee while he took the train all over the country in his work for the postal service. Talk about prolific. Now, his descendant, not content with tales of ordinary domestic woe, has written SENSE & SENSIBILITY, another modern retelling. In both Smith and Trollope’s novels, neither the name of the story nor the names of the characters have been changed. At least my version was like transposing in another key; theirs is like a disco version of Beethoven’s 9th. Can’t they leave the old masters to those of us who truly need them? Of course not and why should they? Their name recognition alone sells books so they could, as the saying goes, put their names on the telephone directory and sell quite a few copies.
My advice: don’t wait until you’re all written out to steal a plot. Do it early and often. I did it to provide myself with a ready-made outline. I’m tempted to do it again, because as we embark on our new projects – and I have an idea of what I want to do – I still worry that I will reach a day when my boat will go still in the water. No breeze anywhere.
This apprehension leads to this: to outline or not to outline. Everyone has something different to say about it, and I think each writer must maneuver into the system that works best for them. That’s why I’m doing this in the first place. I’m still and always seeking a process that works better than the one I used last time. I am at the end of my current novel, and I am confused. I hate being confused. I don’t want to be confused, I have been writing for a while now and when working on a long piece, I always reach a point where I am thoroughly confused (not as much when I steal). Must I accept it? Maybe. But perhaps I can also ameliorate it. My perennial hope. I wish I had a structure, a road-map to get me through this process. It’s what worked before. This time, I have an idea, and I want to explore it. At the moment, I can only see a few feet in front of me. In the words of E.L. Doctorow, “It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Not sure I have the courage to hit the road at night, but I’m willing to try, yet again. Any suggestions, street signs, etc. would be welcome.