I want to touch on two things that really stood out to me. There’s really a lot to glean from that book, and I honestly recommend it, especially for those working on improving their outlining skills.
Write first. Explain later: I’m a fan of long fiction, and, to be honest, I don’t know how many people abide by this rule AFTER they’re established. But it’s still a valid point. Writers feel like they have to really get their readers to connect with those characters, so they tend to want to draw out a moment or give back story. What that usually ends up becoming is a bunch of exposition that just bogs the story down. I saw this in practice with my Beta Readers for Sojourn in Captivity. Most of them liked the story (I may even go so far as to say loved it), but to an email they all said the beginning was too much. I wanted to establish Elele’s relationship with her family, her spoiled upbringing, and her skill with math. I also wanted to do some world building. This only served to give my readers a large terminology lesson before the book started moving. I tell my students this many times: The delete key is almost always the answer to your problems. What’s now the first segment, dives right in. I take the time to explain a few things here or there, but I start the story with the tension and let it build to her confrontation with the recognized god of her alien race. My editor liked it much better.
That brings me to the second point of discussion I appreciated in Bell’s book.
Happy people in Happy land: That’s what he calls an overdone part of a book. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about that segment. What it gave me was food for thought. The entire book is essentially about keeping the tension and conflict going. With no tension or conflict in the beginning (i.e. happy people in happy land), what concern should the reader have for the characters? Why should they keep reading.
Here’s my example: Do you go for walks? I do. Do you stop randomly and stare at the window of a quite home? I don’t. But what do you tend to do if you hear screaming and shouting? See where I’m going?
I thought about that segment of the book and felt the desire to argue. What I ended up doing was changing my inference. I wouldn’t say Bell goes so far as to tell you to start off with miserable people in miserable land. Instead, show the scene that’s true to the arc of the character, but make sure you give the readers that insight as to the conflict that represents the burning embers of the inciting incident. If there is tension in the characters’ minds or hearts, make sure the reader can see it.
Let’s go back to those houses. Maybe they aren’t screaming. But maybe you hear a door slam? Maybe, through the window, you catch a glimpse of a woman and a man sitting apart. (I promise I don’t just randomly walk by house windows and peek in. This really is just a hypothetical example.) The point is you need some sort of disturbance to draw the reader in.
This book has a ton of helpful hints, a few case studies and even an example outline. It’s a great tool to help readers identify how to bring each scene to it’s highest intensity. I recommend this book to new writers looking to understand what keeps readers turning pages. It’s also good for people trying to figure out outlines.
The first thing I’m a fan of is the case studies. Each arc description is summarized and supported with examples to help illustrate how such a plot plays out in different movies. I should explain that this book is a bit different from what I’d call plotting.
In plotting, you’re marking the key plot points and events in a story. This is so readers see progression in the overall narrative. I’d wanted to improve my development of characters as they progress through the plot points. This novel did that. Weiland breaks down three types of arcs: The positive change arc, the neutral change arc, and the negative change arc. She breaks negative change into three more I can’t recall off the top of my head. The case studies and benchmarks she provides are things I plan to pull out while outlining my next main project and editing whatever I’m working on. I think understanding these types of character arcs is a must for writers. How you feel about them and how you apply those thoughts is as unique as the storyteller in my opinion, but understanding them matters.
Another thing I’d like to highlight is the idea of “The Lie Your Character Believes.” That resonated with me. I won’t go into it here because 1) I fear copyright and 2) I think authors, especially those who feel they struggle with outlining, should give this book a read. I actually listened to the audio edition, and that was super helpful for a guy like me.
I’m less inclined to be entirely beholden to some of the more rigid benchmarks. Weiland gives specific percentage marks for each point of the story. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I completely disagree, I just don’t know that I’d be that militant about where certain shifts in the story happen. What I will say is those benchmarks are great guides, but stories need a bit of leeway.
What I intend to do with this book and information is weave some of the elements of this book’s character plot points with my plotting. This should keep the sense of progression my stories have (which I feel are solid) and give me a way to plan the emotional journey of my characters a little more carefully.
Creating Character Arcs is a great outlining tool that provides informative case studies for each type of arc. Authors or aspiring authors should pic this up and add it to their toolbox of story building tools. I’m a fan of “how-to” books that are this simple to understand and through in presentation. I can’t say enough about those case studies!
I’m taking the chance to work on Images of Truth since I’m waiting for the editor to get back to me with Sojourn and Bob. This project is so much bigger than either of those. How much bigger? Well, I’m at 107,000 words, and I’m not even halfway done (though I’m at 47 percent based on my math). Using POV writing as opposed to first person narrative is much easier to do though now that I’ve written a complete story with both techniques.
That gave me an idea on what I could share with people in today’s blog. Last week, I talked to you about Adverbs. Today, I’d like to go over something I saw a lot of in my fourth set of revisions of Sojourn.
When I first wrote about first person narrative, I spoke about the pros and cons. What it let me do was limit the scope of the story and focus on the character I wanted everyone to connect with most (in this case, Elele). I stand behind the idea that it was the right call. Now, this may backfire on me for a few reasons I won’t get into in this blog, but I made a decision based on what I felt was best for the story, which is all any writer can do. That said, one consequence I didn’t think about what how many times a writer would be tempted to write “I.”
The first was easy to fix because of my experience as a journalist. I teach my students that observation is the most powerful tool they have, but a lot of my students feel the need to tell me they saw something. “I watched,” “I heard,” and “I felt” are attributive clauses that aren’t necessary. Want to see what I mean?
Here’s a paragraph from the third draft of Sojourn:
I watch as they fuss over their pod mother. She touches them and embraces them.
Dozens of Seferam each check on the oldest member of their family as I observe, breathing in moist air.
So here’s a question to ask yourself. Isn’t this story in first person? So of course she’s watching and listening. I don’t need to tell the reader that because the narrator is the character doing the watching and listening. Now, I’ll be honest. Even though I looked out for it in my last draft, I still have those types of clauses in there. I’ll have to do a search and get rid of it. It’s wordy and unnecessary.
Here’s what that segment looks like in the fourth draft:
They fuss over their pod mother, and she touches and embraces them.
Dozens of Seferam each check on the oldest member of their family as I observe, breathing in moist air.
Yeah, I still have her “observing,” but I felt I needed that to show her position in relation to the other group, not to prove she saw it. One could argue I don’t even need that bit in there, but it’s a step up from the last draft.
So when I sit down to do my final draft, you can bet I’m going to search for the clauses “I watch,” “I see,” “I hear,” and “I feel.” I’ll delete that, and watch my story’s word count shrink. This will make my prose cleaner, more readable, and more active.
But that’s not the only thing to watch out for with that pesky pronoun. Naturally your character is going to do things, and, since you’re using first person, there will be the temptation to start pretty much every sentence with the pronoun in question. Quintessential Editor (who was so kind to Alpha Read) for me, pointed out how often I did that. What that actually does is dehumanize your character. It buts the character in the way of her own story. So let’s go all the way back to that first draft of Sojourn and see what Corey wanted me to see.
Here’s the Alpha Draft:
I close my eyes an instant before I approach the threshold. I feel something brush over the tip of my nose. The heel of my left leather shoe scrapes along something too. I open my wings, and use the force of the air to turn just before I glide into a red-painted wall. My wings strain at the effort, feeling as if they might yank off no matter that my mind knows that’s physically impossible on a mathematical level.
Notice that three out of four sentences begin with “I.” Notice the word “I” is in that sentence five times. We want to get rid of some of that redundancy and make this a bit more active? How do you do that though without a subject? Well, I choose a different subject. Let’s look at this latest draft.
My eyes clench shut an instant before I approach the threshold. I feel something brush over the tip of my nose. The heel of my left leather shoe scrapes along something, too. I use my wings and the force of the air to turn just before I glide into a red-painted wall. My wings strain at the effort, feeling as if they might yank off no matter that my mind knows that’s physically impossible on a mathematical level.
Now, two out of five sentences begin with “I,” and I only see that pronoun four times. Just look at it though. See that “I feel” there? That’s right. This needs a nice, final once-over for just that problem. Like I said, I know it’s there, but now that I edit for it, I’ll think about it more as I draft. So let’s look at how this paragraph should probably end up:
My eyes clench shut an instant before I approach the threshold. Something brushes the tip of my nose, and the heel of my left leather shoe scrapes along something else. My wings open, and the force of the air causes me to turn just before I glide into a red-painted wall. My wings strain at the effort, feeling as if they might yank off no matter that my mind knows that’s physically impossible on a mathematical level.
Now, I have four sentences, and not a one of them starts with the pronoun “I.” In fact, that pronoun only appears twice. The structure of the sentence is still active, I’ve only changed the subject and the predicate. I noticed it more on this draft, but in the final draft, I’ll look for things like this to tighten up that prose and make life easier on the reader.
I thought you’d all like a glimpse into the editing process and note things to look out for. I’ll be better at it the next time I write in first person, but, at the very least, I know to look out for that before I through one word at a reader a hyperbolic number of times. If you’re writing in first person, try this out. Do a search for the word “I.” If your program is like mine, (I use Pages, but that’s more because it came with my Mac than an endorsement.) the program will highlight all the instances. I did it with my first draft, and suddenly it looked like someone overlaid my document with sheet music. I mean yellow highlights everywhere!
Like adverbs, you can’t eliminate a part of speech entirely, nor can you simply never use that pronoun. The trick is to use it when you need it, and not to let it get out of control. Trust me, I’ve read each of these four drafts about seven times each, and I still see instances where I can revise and tighten the structure of my sentences (sorry Sara!). Like any tool or trick, you want to do everything you do with intent and awareness. I hope this gives you something to work with in your drafts.
I’m almost finished with my edits to Sojourn in Captivity, and I came upon something during my revisions that I thought I’d share with you.
General writing advice states that “Adverbs are bad.” This was most recently (Yes…that’s an adverb, but I needed it) reiterated to me in Elements of Fiction Writing-Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell (I’ll review that soon, I promise). Bell says, “Always see if you can find a strong enough verb to stand on it’s own.”
So let’s talk about those pesky modifiers.
What are adverbs: Adverbs are one of the eight parts of speech. They most commonly (see that?) modify verbs, but they can also modify adjectives and other adverbs. They usually (yep..there’s another one) end in “ly.”
So why are they bad?
I offer two reasons why adverbs are almost never helpful:
1) They’re vague. People tend to want to throw an adverb in there because they have a clear picture in their mind about what they see, but they’re not looking for the best word. So they do something bad writers do: they fall under the illusion that more words makes bad writing better. This is false. More words don’t make a sentence more clear or a book better. Here are some examples:
He quickly ran – So…you mean he sprinted.
He said softly – So….you mean he whispered.
He shouted loudly – Okay, now you’re just being ridiculous. Have you ever heard someone shout quietly?
2) They cause more problems then they solve. The second problem isn’t about the adverb one uses (though you’re better off if you replace it with a stronger verb). It’s about where people put adverbs. Adverbs are modifiers, and when you put a modifier in the wrong place, you alter the wrong verb, adjective, or adverb. My students recognize this as a misplaced modifier. Here are some examples:
He fought until he tirelessly finished his work for the day. – No. I don’t think he finished tirelessly. In fact, I’d wager he was exhausted by the time he finished. I think that because I’m pretty sure he fought tirelessly
He typed until he quickly finished his writing for the day. – Well, maybe he did finish quickly, but the way he finished quickly was by typing fast. Here, there’s less confusion about what the writer meant, but I’m telling you it still makes the writer look bad.
What I hope I’ve done is help you see why adverbs cause problems. Can you eliminate them completely? (Obviously (Yes….I’m aware of what I did twice in a row.) not.) What you want to do is make sure each adverb is justified. Every time you write an adverb, justify its existence as if you are justifying your right to be a writer.
What did I do?
First: I did a search for ly.
My trusty writing program told me I had 406 adverbs in my story. I went adverb to adverb, just as I recommend you do. When it was all said and done, 363 adverbs remain. That’s not entirely true. (Wait…I mean there’ s more to it than that). My word program said there were 363 words that end in the letters ly. That means the word family would appear in the search. I’m not sure how many actual adverbs I have left, but I’m happy I switched out about 40 for stronger verbs. The story moves better. Each sentence is stronger for it.
Following this plan, or one like it, will do the same for you.
I’ve been starting the habit of reading more books on writing. It’s something I’ve always believed in, but didn’t really practice as much as I should. I read plenty, and I listen to video blogs and podcasts when I’m not furiously doing the other things that life has me doing. The thing is, we have to take the time to hone our craft, and it’s not enough to simply write. Writing without learning about the craft or trying new things won’t lead to growth.
I’d mentioned a few times how Caught was a bit delayed because my editor didn’t think Sal’s arc was clear enough. As is always the case when I hear feedback, even if I disagree with it, I started doing some research, and the book I’m currently listening to, Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland, has at least got me thinking. See, my struggle is some characters don’t change. I like some of those characters. So I had to figure out a way of thinking that allowed me to distinguish between one arc and another.
Here’s one choice that’s important: The events your characters experience should change them, or the situation or people should change as a result of your characters.
That, to me, is the distinction that matters. I’ll post a “review” of the above book once I finish it, but I’m far enough along in that book to know I’ve pinpointed that choice as one every writer should make.
Case study: Tyrion from Betrayer’s Bane: This was the December Book Cover of the Month. I finished this book last week, and I’ll post a review on it in a few weeks, but Tyrion is a good figure to study. You have a character who’s come to believe a simple truth: Nothing is more important that the elimination of the enemy.
Without giving you too many spoilers, I will tell you what matters is he has a fundamental belief. Each plot point serves to in one way or another test that belief. As the story progresses, he’s even tempted by other things. Then his moment of decision comes when he has to choose to let go of that belief completely or hold to it. That moment of choice must feel realistic. The temptation to change coarse must feel tempting to the reader, and the moment of decision must come at the character’s most delicate frame of mind. Michael G. Manning does an amazing job of following those threads to a satisfying conclusion.
This story I feel less likely to have spoilers, so I feel a bit more ready to point out some of the specifics. Tony Stark has a fundamental belief in the beginning of the movie. Nothing matters as long as you have wit and money. There may be other (and even better) ways to say it, but this is him in a nutshell. Sure, when he’s captured he learns the pain of irresponsibility, but he still counters this with his mind and financial power, but he’s fighting the symptoms of the problem. He’s still pretty caviler about things until the his newest weapon nearly falls into the wrong hands. Here he has the chance to let let the responsibility go, or accept it and do something. That moment of choice is when we see Stark’s growth.
But what about those other arcs I like so much? I’ve been open that I like a character who doesn’t change. When a character doesn’t change, the world around him has to. This is the nature of a story. Something must change.
Captain America: From beginning to end, our hero is who he is. Yes, he gains power. Yes, his looks change. But those are superficial. He starts the movie a young man believing that truth and justice are worth fighting for, and ends his battle paying (or seeming to pay) the ultimate sacrifice for his belief. He doesn’t change. But every other character around him does. His belief becomes a beacon of light for others to look upon. Characters look to him and decide to follow his example, or reject him and become his opposition.
A great plot is an equally great place to start, but events (especially those as traumatic as the ones we see in literature) test people. If those people hold tight to their beliefs (regardless of their truth or falsehoods), the characters around him should be inspired by those actions (or they should try to kill him). If the people don’t change, the characters should. People crave companionship. If the world around us doesn’t change we’ll eventually change ourselves to fit in. Peer Pressure and Social Norming are examples of this truth.
How do you do that? Well, part of it is to consider how your character will react to the events you’re about to put him through? Who is your character at the beginning of the story? Who will he be at the end? Who were the other characters when they meet your main character? Who will they be at the end?
Plot shows a progression of events, but that’s just part of it. Characters should grow or help those around them grow. I thought I’d spend a bit of time offering my thoughts and seeing what everyone else thinks.
I’ve mentioned this a few times, and I share this story with my students quite often. I joined the Navy in 2005.
I took a friend to the recruiting office. She did NOT join the Navy. I did.
I was complaining to her that I was angry I couldn’t get published. Back then, self-publishing wasn’t what it is today. A Navy recruiter stuck his head out of the door and told me he’d publish me. That’s the short version. Eleven wonderful years later, (nearly 12 actually), I’m a proud veteran.
I joined because I wanted to be a writer. I went through boot camp, meeting a dear friend of mine who was also going to be a Journalist, and talking about which of us would finish at the top of our class (it was absolutely going to be one of us).
I arrived at the Defense Information School, where I currently teach as a civilian. I sat in class and felt my sky fall when I was informed that after I complete the writing course, I’d have to then take a broadcasting course.
What many of you don’t know is I was born with what’s called an internal cleft pallet. I have a speech impediment. I had to learn how to speak when I was a child because the surgery required to fix the issue. I’m still blessed. Mine was internal, and didn’t affect me on a cosmetic scale. This isn’t about my speech issue; it’s about opportunity.
I’ve been a writer my whole life. I’ve already shared that story. Imagine my horror when I found out if I didn’t pass this broadcasting course, I’d still go to the Navy undesignated. I promise you all, I overreacted. But, being the dedicated young man I was (and am), I took the challenge.
I graduated the broadcasting course (with honor I might add). Then, I went to my first command to be the writer I always wanted to be. I met my first LPO (which was a story in and of itself). He asked what I do. I frankly must have lost my mind because I looked him in the eye and said, “Well, as long as you don’t hand me a camera, we’ll be fine.”
You see…he was a photographer’s mate who loved his occupation very much. So my first assignment in the Navy? You got it, I was handed a camera (and a rather obvious hint that I have no business telling my LPO what I am going to be doing for him). (NOTE: If you’re going to join the military, and your first LPO/NCOIC asks, “What do you do?” make like Gump and reply with, “Whatever you tell me to.” Your life will be far easier.)
Again, my work ethic comes to the rescue. I could have been even more childish than I was (and I assure you I was), but instead, I did the best I could. Until recently, anyone I worked with would have been shocked to hear 1) I am also red-green color blind and 2) I joined the Navy to be a writer.
I had a successful career as a mass communication specialist, where I learned to be proficient in pretty much every communication field they have a title for. I’ve laid out magazines, run a TV studio, documented combat, captured portraits, and I even got to write more stories and features than most everyone else I know. (That guy I went to boot camp with. He’s the best MC I’ve ever known…ever.)
Something clicked for me along the way. I realized that storytelling is storytelling regardless of the medium you use. I promise my students are very tired of hearing me say this, but it’s still true.
I’ve recently started re-designing The Journals of Bob Drifter. I needed to do another proofread, and it turns out, all those skills I learned can help me save money. I can use my design skills to lay out and re-release my book for free.
Imagine how I feel knowing I paid $2,000 for a process I could have done in half the time for free? That’s not including editing or the $16,000 I spent on marketing (which got me zero sales). Now, please understand. I am actually a trained designer. I’m not self taught. I went to school for this and then went to Syracuse University for advanced training. If you want to save money on design, call a designer, or become one.
That brings me to my point.
Being an author these days simply requires more of you than writing a book. I was blessed to receive the training I have. I’m an award-winning photographer. I’m a competent designer. Now, I’m using these skills to save me money so I have more money to spend on professional editors and artists for my covers. I can spend money on marketing.
If you’re a writer, and all you’re doing is writing, you’re still amazing to me. I want you to know that, but this world demands more (he repeated). I want to encourage you to take classes. Train. Hone your skills. Find a mentor and grow. I’m reading books on marketing. I’m studying social media. Every trick I learn is one more thing I can use to be better.
What I want to encourage you all to do is think about what you’re already good at. Increase your skill set to ultimately increase your ability to be a successful author. Do you have to? That depends. If all you want to do is write books, then this post was a waste of your time (sorry). BUT, if you want to sell those books and earn a profit, now you’re talking about a business. I’m clueless in that arena except for one simple concept. You want to limit expenses and increase sales. As I study more on how to market and work to create more books, I’m starting to do other things to lower my up front costs. This epiphany is something I’d like to share with you all before you do what I did and spend all kinds of money you don’t have to.
I didn’t design Caught. The design team at Create Space did a great job, and it was already far less expensive than Bob Drifter was. ($1,500 less). By doing all the design work for Bob, I’m basically re-releasing it for free. Meaning every single sale I have is 100% profit. I don’t like the time I’m spending, but in a world where I count every penny (not being metaphorical here), it all matters. That money can go to things I can’t do. I need editors. We all do. I think I could (if I wanted) edit someone else’s work, but no one can see their own flaws, they’re too close to it. Marketing is a individual effort, but some of it requires money.
I hope this gives you all ideas. I have one friend who’s very gifted with art and videos. She makes book trailers. Some authors have become very successful podcasters. Youtube videos. Whatever skill you can use is one more skill you don’t have to pay someone else to. Yeah, it sucks not writing. Whenever I’m not writing, I’m thinking about how quickly I can do whatever it is I’m doing, so I can get to writing. But this is a long game we play in this business. If you want it to be a business, you’ll have to start doing more than just writing.
I’d like to leave you with skills I think an independent author should consider training for:
Layout and design
Broadcasting (podcasts, audiobook narration, radio dramas, video blogs)
Marketing (Oh how I hate it and wish I could be better)
Proofreading (I stand by what I said, but if you improve your skill, your editors (who you should hire) will thank you.)
There’s a ton, but those are all skills that can make you a more successful business person.
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.
I 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!
No 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.
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.
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.
Let’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.