We’ve all heard this term, whether we’re writers or no. The earliest experience most of us have with this word is second or third grade, when we first started having to “research” when we wrote our papers. Even if we were still dictating them.
You had to come up with a step-outline and one of those stupid bubble outlines and a sentence-outline and you had to start learning the how-to of the APA style bibliography.
If you have a bibliography, however, you also have to have sources. And with the lecture on using more than one source (because, of course, you need at least three to make your point in a five paragraph essay? Somehow?), came the lecture on plagiarism.
“DON’T DO IT” your English teacher would scream “DO IT AND I FAIL YOU FOR LIFE.”
Or something like that. I’m sure I’m totally accurate in that quote.
Because we’ve all been taught not to plagiarize, I’m not going to spend time talking about why it’s bad. Just… don’t do it.
At the same time, however, I want you to do it.
Powerful Pieces of Prose
“Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back.”
If I were to put those two little sentences into a novel, you’d think I was being deep and thought-provoking. Or else a little melodramatic.
But, it turns out, I would also be plagiarizing – vaguely. You see, I found that quote in the movie Gladiator, when one of the characters is being rather melodramatic. If I stick that exact quote into my story without saying where I got it, I’d be plagiarizing.
Thing is… that’s a really interesting little quote, and maybe it fits just perfectly into my story. Maybe I’m writing about the personification of Death, who smiles at everyone he’s about to kill. And so that sort of phrase is not only common, but a sort of proverb/blessing/anecdote that is said by people as they bid each other farewell or say it in greeting or say it as a loved one passes away, or as a blessing at ceremonies (like graduations, weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs and the like).
That’s… actually a cool concept. At the same time, however, that phrase has already been used by someone else. When I take it and use it, I plagiarize.
How do I expect you to plagiarize?
Collect cool pieces of prose.
It doesn’t even have to be from a novel or story, it can be a quote from something completely different, such as this one from Mark Twain:
“I wasn’t able to attend the funeral, but I sent a letter saying I approved it.”
This clever little Twain-ism is worth quoting, and worth remembering. It can also set a tone for a character’s voice in a novel, or even the tone of a world, where people send letters instead of attending a funeral, because to actually see the dead body of someone you’re not related to is considered improper. So only the family is present for the actual burial and funeral, along with a pile of letters “approving” of the deceased one’s final resting place.
Or perhaps this quote (which I forgot I had collected), that I could have used when I talked about building a language for your story:
"Indeed, you never actually have to use the foreign language itself to convey the same effect. After all, presumably you're translating all the dialogue and narration of your stories that aren't set in contemporary English-speaking society--so why arbitrarily choose a few words to leave untranslated, especially if the word isn't important to the story?"
If I were to never attribute this quote to anyone save myself, you’d think I was being super insightful and rather clever in my way of explaining things. You might even use a few internet slang terms like “bless ur cow” and so forth. But I did not, in fact, say this. I can still use it, and it’s a powerful quote in favor of my general thoughts on the subject, but I need to mention that Orson Scott Card said this first, not me.
How do you collect quotes?
I keep a document in my laptop (thank you, OneNote) specifically for quotes that I run across on the internet, and I randomly scribble other bits from other places onto pieces of paper. For instance, when I talked about Character Masks in my last Prose Blip, I’d been planning for about three months to talk about them. In those three months, however, I managed to read two blog posts and attend a writer’s workshop in which one of the speakers (Daniel Schwabauer, if you must know) talked about characters and about character Masks.
In each of these instances, I took a lot of notes. I already had a lot of thoughts on the subjects, these blog posts and the speaker’s own thoughts helped me hone what I wanted to say. I never used a direct quote from any of them, and I was careful not to steal any of their phrases directly.
But I still used them for inspiration and focus.
That’s a good reason to collect phrases, in and of itself. Focus and outside ideas are what helps a story fall into place. If you can’t focus, you’ll never finish your story, and if you never get ideas, you won’t get the story to begin with.
Words, Words, wonderful Words
Another great thing about writers: they use a lot of words. Words that are interesting, unique, and useful. Your vocabulary is not the sum total of the words in your language (whatever it may be). It’s simply the beginning of your language use. There are hundreds and thousands of long-dead, esoteric words with clever and eccentric meanings that can be a great benefit to the soliloquy of your novel.
I enjoy collecting words. Especially ones that have fascinating and special meanings, like the word “petrichor”. The earthy smell that comes after rain. Man I love that word, because of what it captures and represents. Much like “esoteric” and “eccentric” and “soliloquy” and “catharsis”, it’s a word that isn’t often used anymore: especially not in everyday conversation. I once used catharsis in a sentence and got weird looks from people. Then I had to explain what it meant and for the next two hours or so, the people I was with went on about my extensive vocabulary.
It’s just a word; a word I learned in psychology, it’s not that big of a word anyway. Nor is it as cool as petrichor anyway (another word I like to use and then be forced to explain).
Thing is… your novel needs those special words. If you want your prose to shine, you can’t just rely on the common words, the boring ones. Precise details require precise and delicate wording. I’m not saying you need purple prose. I’m saying you need to “particularize” your prose (which is the topic of yet another session I attended while at the aforementioned workshop). You need to use specific words and sensory details (like petrichor… okay fine, I basically want you to use this word all the time) to create the vivid imagery your reader is looking for.
Where do you find words?
In other books. Again, these don’t have to be novels and fiction, they can be non-fiction. They don’t even have to be books, you can gain words from non-book forms of writing… such as blog posts that talk about petrichor and catharsis.
When I find a word I don’t know, I look it up. It’s okay to admit and research a word you don’t know. You’ll be smarter for it. Then you can gather this word into the flock of innocent vocabulary words that prance around in your head. Now it’s ready for use in your novel.
Using Plagiarism like a Pro
Direct and offensive plagiarism is wrong. And illegal. Don’t do it.
But you can use what I like to term “implicit” plagiarism all you want. You can borrow words from people all you want – there is no copyright on the word “petrichor”. Heck, you can even borrow sentences, if you’re careful.
For instance, I’ve used the single-word sentence “No” in my writing before. I’d bet a blog post that some other author has used that sentence before. You know what? I didn’t credit them for coming up with it before me.
Because it’s just the word “no”.
You can get away with all sorts of borrowing like that in your novel. You might not even realize what you’re doing (as with “no”).
Turns out, you can borrow ideas, too.
“There is nothing new under the sun.” – Solomon. Every idea you can come up with has been done before, in some sense or another. Every sentence you write has been written, in some sense or another, long before you wrote it.
And that’s okay.
Your job isn’t to write totally unique sentences (this sentence is, in and of itself, a reproduction of a thousand other sentences about not caring about being a little cliché), but to write a good story.
Like I did earlier with the funeral and the letters, you can extrapolate from other’s ideas to create your own, to create new themes and new concepts that can be totally unrelated to the first idea.
That’s what prose is all about, isn’t it?
Go forth, now, and collect phrases. Ponder them, twist them about, transform them, expand on them.
And use the word petrichor.