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How often do you overhear an awesome one-liner or witty comeback, and tell yourself you need to write that down to use for one of your characters?
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A great quote does not come out of thin air. Intertexts and life experience often frame excellent expression. People who are word artists know how to cleverly express ideas. That doesn’t mean that they always know the words to say for everything. Sometimes, quoting someone else is much better.
Writers, for instance, take a lot of time to rework their words so they have the right–well, everything. Part of learning to write creatively is learning to pay attention and listen up. Not only is some form of research necessary in every project, but the skill to turn a clever phrase is imperative. So, writers can definitely appreciate a great line!
Our ears are always open to soak up information, including excellent turns of phrases. I find a great line inspiring. However, I avoid reusing it. Why? Because of plagiarism and copyright issues.
As an author, I hang out with a lot of other writers. I absorb a lot of media. Yet, I find myself, at this stage of writing, only seeking to write my own stories, not reworking those of other writers. If hired to adapt a novel to the screen, that would be different. My own publications, though, will remain as original as possible. I write in my own voice. This is not only satisfying, but will keep you from being sued for infringement.
Although I might hear a great line, I feel that is the property of the speaker (or writer). That said, I feel inspired by great lines. This feeds my creative muse. Thus, I often get new ideas that branch from the original, and not always in obvious ways.
A writer should always use their own words. This is writing all those research papers in college is actually useful. You learn your voice and how to use it effectively while getting critiqued by an expert. This is actually a pretty priceless opportunity.
So what do you do if you do hear a great line that would work great for your book? Make sure you get permission to use it. First and foremost, you have to protect yourself and your integrity as a writer. It may sound like foolishness, but if you’ve been around as long as I have been, you’ll know that people come back at you with some very strange accusations from time to time. If they can prove that line was theirs, and you don’t have it in writing that you could use it, you could owe them restitution. That’s the long and short of it.
To avoid uncomfortable situations, make sure that you have proper permission to use a line. If a line is common, you obviously do not need to do this. If you know the person very well, you’ll know if having permission in writing is necessary or not, but I err on the side of caution.
This is the same reason that I don’t read and critique anyone’s work. Friends have asked, and I have gently turned them down. Unless the work is published, I am not reading it. This isn’t about not wanting to read the work. Supporting friends is important to me. However, as a published author, it’s not ethical for me to do so. Many lawsuits have been levied on thin accusations of infringement and plagiarism. This is can quickly ruin a writer’s reputation, even if they’re found not guilty. As someone with plenty of bills already, restitution payments would financially ruin me. Thus, I protect myself.
If you think a friend would never turn around and sue, then you’ve not been in the business long enough. Sadly, this happens too frequently. Many managers and agents would advise you the same as I did above. Always protect yourself. A true friend will understand, and this protects them, too.
Most certainly, writers will be inspired by real people in their lives. Thus, they will often write things the way this person would say them. Sometimes, they’ll use direct quotes. Does this fall into plagiarism or infringement? This question is likely why you’d think what I previously said is over the top.
You need to understand the nuance here. If you quote from other artists, you run a risk of getting called on infringement. Quoting your great uncle Doug, it’s not likely a problem at all. When you over hear a conversation at a restaurant, no one will remember you were there, and they will likely not remember the things they even said in your presence. It’s not covered by copyright, unless they’re quoting someone’s work (which might be the case, so be certain). If you If you’re quoting a peer or friend, be mindful. Some may be flattered, others upset, and some may cause you problems.
Using common sense (even though its not that common) is a decent guideline. Just stop and think. You know your situation best. Ask yourself: can I say it better? Can I say something similar that hits better for my work? Will this person ever read my work? Does use of this line pose a risk to my reputation?
In the end, I credit the mentorship I’ve had the luxury of experiencing with teaching me to seek my own words. There is no one who can say what you need to be said better than you. Have confidence in your skill. If you don’t, gain the confidence. Be the wordsmith. That’s what writing is all about. Make yourself proud!
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Stevie Turner says
How do we know where a witty line has come from? If we read somebody’s work, how do we know whether they’ve taken lines from somewhere else? One witty line could have been shared in thousands of conversations before it was written down by somebody who overheard it. I always write witty lines down from what I overhear, not what I read. I think it’s better that way.
phil huston says
He realized the square, tweedy woman with hair like a white Centurion’s helmet was indeed Mrs. Brumholz, his childhood piano teacher. Where had the mountainous freckled breasts and wild red hair gone? How had she become so…matronly? Had it been that long?
I just ran that through half a dozen plagiarism checkers, including safe assign inside blackboard. Clean. They popped my grammar and clarity, but I knew that going in.
The first description is from a 1952 paperback, modified with the addition of the Centurion’s helmet hair. The second bit is riffing off a comedic bit by Rick Wakeman discussing his childhood piano teacher. Is it plagiarism? Ethically, yes. Because I know. Functionally? No. So your argument about making it your own, with your own words and take on it stands correct. We all, often inadvertently, quote our inspirational sources. Musicians do it regularly, There’s only so much you can do with the blues. Unless you’re Jeff Beck.
I was in the music biz for 40 years. Did Zeppelin steal Stairway to Heaven from Spirit or a 400-year-old Italian? Does it really matter? The only time a lick is the whole song is in cake icing.
P.J. MacLayne says
I’ll read and critique someone else’s work as long as it isn’t in the same genre I’m writing in. That way I don’t have to worry about it bleeding over into my story, but the editing process helps me become a stronger writer as I learn to avoid the same mistakes.