On occasion, I’ll stand in front of my students and discuss the problems I’ve faced in writing or in the Navy.  I’ll tell them about challenges with how I approach a story or how I deal with something when I struggle.

I look at these young men and women, hold my head up high, and say, “I cheat.”

If one looks around enough, they tend to see the same things happen over and again.  I don’t get as angry when people say, “there are no original stories,” anymore.  Oh, those who say that have poor english skills, but that’s because that’s not what they necessarily mean.  Usually, they’re talking about plots.  The originality should be the voice and vision of the author.

When I tell my students that I cheat, I wasn’t talking about violating the UCMJ or even academic standards.  I was simply expressing that I make every effort to learn from others so I don’t make the same mistakes.  That’s one of the reasons so many of my blogs focus on my mistakes.  There are a lot of people trying to make their mark in the world, and I don’t want them falling for the same tricks I’ve fallen for.  I don’t want them making the same mistakes I make.

hobo-826057_960_720I also like to take inspiration.  One of my favorite things is to put stories in an imaginary blender and see what original concepts come out.  I’m currently doing a read-through of an upcoming book, 1,200.  The glimmer moment (idea) came from a story I was covering for the Navy.  You see, there were (at that time) 1,200 homeless veterans in the city of San Diego.  So I took that actual issue and ran with it.  Remember that blender I told you about?  One thing that always seems too convenient to me (though I do it, too) is the arrival of the Mentor or Impact Character.  (Sometimes one man fills the same role.)

A little boy makes some glass disappear, and here comes a giant to explain the boy’s a wizard.

A farm boy buys some droids, and they just happen to belong to the man who can teach him about the Force.

There’s a million of them.

For the most part in my life, I’ve been blessed.  I’ve had some amazing mentors in my life, but I’ve also had to figure a few things out on my own.  So when I was brainstorming for 1,200, thinking about how to make this more interesting, I took away the mentor.  What an original idea!

blender-297110_960_720No it isn’t.  I TOTALLY stole that from The Great American Hero.  It’s about a guy who finds a super suit, but it doesn’t have any instructions.  I’m not even going to lie.  I applied an interesting concept in a different way.  So when my main character (whose name is probably going to change) discovered his powers, he was on his own.  This book is less dark than Caught, but still much darker than Journals.  So I took a concept, and made it my own.  I do it all the time.  And even if the plot police shine a light in my face, I’ll tell them, “Yeah, I did it! And I’d do it again!”

Heck, I think about what I can steal all the time.  I even steal from my day job.  We teach our Sailors about host nation sensitivities and cultural concerns.  The Navy takes great care to make sure its Sailors understand we’re representatives of our country and how to be good guests in all of the countries we visit.  This is true even in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other nations we’ve operated in.  The Navy knows it’s Sailors must be better people than those we’re there to protect others from.  That means we have to train our Sailors in what to think about.  I was about half-way through preparing that lesson plan a few years back when I realized it’s no different than what an author has to think about when worldbuilding.  Academic concerns lead me to hold back the majority of the list, but a few include cultural values and religion.  I’ve even mentored a few Sailors who want to be authors on this concept.

I steal from other authors.  I do not plagiarize.  If a magic system does something interesting, I file it away in my mental file cabinet.   The concept to New Utopia was heavily inspired by Valley of the Wind.  The trick is more about how you apply it.

Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Matthew Leistikow, assigned to Fleet Combat Camera Group Pacific, leads Sailors in a wedge patrol formation during patrol familiarization as part of the Fleet Combat Camera Group Pacific Summer Quick Shot 2011. Quick Shot is a semi-annual field training exercise intended to train combat camera personnel to operate in a combat environment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class David A. Brandenburg/Released)

As I sit and look at 1,200, there’s a LOT of work I have to do.  I’m glad the Brown Pipers are enjoying it, but I still think there are some genuine issues to work out.  (If you remember my blog on discover writing, 1,200 is one of the last two books I wrote by discovery writing. Sure, I had some idea where I was going, but I didn’t outline at all.)   But the concept is working pretty well.

There are video blogs out there who explain a lot of your all-time favorite movies and songs are, in fact, not the original tales you thought they were.

What do I steal?

Parts of a concept:  I may not take the entire premise, but I do look for an element that fascinates me.

Fantasy elements:  I was going to say I steal magic systems, and I steal those, but then I realized I steal pretty much any ONE aspect of fantasy element if the mood suits me.

Elements of characters:  I wrote about this in my blog about character development.

What don’t I steal?

Entire plot lines:  Valley of the Wind inspired New Utopia, but New Utopia is built around a few separate issues.    Though others do this (and it’s not illegal or unethical), I don’t.  I don’t because I’d be too tempted to draw more and more from the source of said inspiration.  For instance, I borrowed the concept of the magic system in New Utopia from Mistborn.  It’s different enough, but I keep a very stern hold of myself.  I only take small parts.

lego-516559_960_720Let’s talk about blending again.  I mentioned it above, and this is something I do in pretty much every stage of life and writing.  I steal all of these great things, and then I take them all apart and put them back together like a Lego hodgepodge creation of my very own.  I don’t actually know where I got the technique from, but I haven’t seen anyone who approaches it quite that way.  So maybe that’s the one original thing I bring.  I’m not saying I’m the only one who steals, I’m just saying that’s my particular twist on burglary.  If you do it the same way, let me know.

Thanks for reading,


18 thoughts on “Ripping off the Best to be the Best

  1. I think this is a very valid distinction to make. Art is frequently a conjunction of the familiar and the innovative. The familiar is often what speaks to our unconscious minds, the rhythm and order that appeals to us, while the innovative disguises this familiar pattern so that we can perceive it as something new.

    There are plenty of stories where another artist or author becomes indignant because they created something similar years ago, and it didn’t enjoy anywhere near the same level of success. But in many cases the ones who are so widely hailed and praised are not the first, rather they’re the ones who really execute it well.

    Often times I find that the stories I really like are the stories that feel like something I always knew, but could never put into words, a missing piece in my library, outlined by the edges of other pieces already on the shelf.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a good point to make. I’m constantly amazed at the number of songs or movies I thought were great that only turned out to be remakes or reimaginings of stories that were told years before. (Note…I’m not referring to ANY of the 1980s remake movies we’ve been beat to death with.)

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Valid point, though I do question the use of “only”. By your own admission the fact that we can trace their roots back to earlier works should not mar them. There is skill in recognizing and preserving what makes a story strong, while still making it your own by changing other aspects. As you said, all stories borrow, and that doesn’t diminish their merit, or the intellectual and emotional impact they have on us.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It literally isn’t possible for anyone to imagine something totally unrelated to things they already know. (Even an exact opposite must be an opposite OF something else.) Ever notice how we describe unfamiliar things by how they relate to familiar things? So there’s no way anyone can write a work of fiction that isn’t influenced in some way by the stories they read/watch/listen to. (For the record, I am VERY much against fan fiction written without permission from the creator of the original — please don’t think I’m using ‘We all get ideas from others’ stories’ to mean ‘It’s okay to steal and tell lies about others’ imaginary friends.’)

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Now I’m going to write a horror novel about a dude who writes fan fic. The original creator finds out and goes on a killings spree, slaughtering any who’ve read it on his way to the offending fan author.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. First, I should clarify: There’s a difference between fan fiction and a derivative work. No one’s accusing you of wrongdoing, JR, for having written novels in a setting created by someone else. You have the full approval of the original author, after all.

        Anyway, the reason I’m against fan fiction in general:

        If the author of the original says they don’t want anyone writing fan fiction of their stuff, and someone does it anyway, they’re not really a fan, are they? I mean, what kind of fan says, “I’m a huge fan of you and your stories, so I’m going to steal from you to show how much I respect you”?

        Whether it is for sale or not, if it is against the original author’s wishes, it’s both illegal (yes, really) and morally wrong (because it’s stealing). Saying, “I’m not making money off it, so the person who wrote the stuff I’m writing fanfic of can’t tell me to stop” is also incorrect. By definition, fan fiction is a kind of derivative work, and whoever owns the original also owns all derivative works UNLESS some sort of contract states otherwise.

        (That’s the long answer. If I’m being honest, the short answer is, “John Gregory Betancourt is a liar and a thief.”)

        Liked by 2 people

      3. First, I’ll have to Google John Gregory Betancourt later. I don’t know who he is, so that last comment was lost on me. As for my work, I realize it was a work for hire. I’m aware of that difference, though I wasn’t at first so hopefully others reading this comment thread get something out of this too.

        Specifically to fan fiction, I don’t know the letter of the law but it was my belief that it was only illegal if it was for profit. I don’t know the specific law, and I confess my bias that these stories don’t bother me. To me it is a sign of a thriving fan base. I also don’t understand why an author would be against it, if they’re clearly listed as fan fiction. However, I concede that a true fan would likely respect the authors wishes regardless of the law, which I shall look into later because I’m curious.

        Either way, this was a fun discussion, so thank you for raising this point!! Let’s see where it goes when others chime in! And maybe Matt can write a blog post on fan fiction to get a conversation going! (hint, hint)

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I’m not a fan of fan fiction. I mean, it’s fine as a project to grow, but if I ever wrote fan fic, I’d read it, smile, and then write my own story.


    1. Don’t be sorry Thomas. I know what you mean. I don’t like it when people take something I love and try to make it their own. I’ll confess, I had a Star Wars series planned when I was in junior high. I thought, “so many other authors were doing it, why not me?” But I’ve read some fan fiction (part of a writer’s group), and truly got frustrated when I saw worlds others created turned to someone else’s use. So you make whatever comments your want. The “horror novel” joke was just a bit of fun. I when you come read my posts, and I love it even more when you comment. I’m neither offended nor angry at any of your points.


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