Friday, December 18, 2015

Ask Unca Mike


Science fiction and fantasy writers are a group are extraordinarily generous with advice to new writers. A moment's thought, however, reveals that this is just encouraging talented young people to occupy the publishing niches and win the awards that would otherwise go to to us Old Hands. Ask Unca Mike is an attempt to rectify this deplorable situation.

Stealing From Our Betters

Dear Unca Mike,

     My stories aren't selling and I think it's because my ideas are old and stale. I have a friend who works at a library where the private papers of a famous dead SF author are stored and and being cataloged and they have seen a fat file labeled "STORY NOTES". They say the contents range from rough outlines of unwritten books and stories to little slips of paper with possible names for cats written on them. They offered to get me into the stacks and get a peek at that file. I am tempted, but worry about the morality of this idea.

     Obviously, I would never steal the idea for, say, a sequel to one of the author's published works about Dick Derringer where his wife's evil twin kidnaps her and changes places with her to kill Dick, but maybe she really wants to seduce him first, or just seduce him, but AAARRGGHH! See, that's the kind of lame story I would write! Okay, but if I saw a note that said, say, "A neutrino flash bomb that converts all the heat energy in a 50-meter sphere into neutrinos and everything in that sphere instantly freezes down to near absolute zero!", that idea I would swipe because it's an anonymous idea. What's your take on this?
                                            Tempted Author    

Seriously? Ideas can't be copyrighted, though the words into which they're incorporated can. If things like characters, plots, and such are enough to make a reader familiar with the writer say, "Huh," you can get in trouble. But ideas? Steal away. Particularly since their source is dead.

There's are two exceptions to this rule of thumb: You can't swipe an idea from a fellow writer who's told you it in confidence (I once told Gregory Frost that if he didn't write Shadowbridge, I would; but only to motivate him to get it down on paper so I could read it), and you can't swipe an idea from a new or unpublished writer, period. Those of us fortunate enough to have taught at one of the Clarions occasionally gossip about a great image or idea one of our students came up with and how easy it would be to turn it into a story. But I have never seen one of them swiped and published.

That would be evil. 

If you have a question for Unca Mike you can post it below. Or write to AskUncaMike ("at" sign) I'll respond to those I have the best answers for.

Ask Unca Mike appears here on selectFridays.

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