Mostly when I write, I have no worries about plagiarism. My writing is based on my life experiences; when I have worries, they’re not about appropriating others’ material so much as about revealing shared stories when I know other participants might be reluctant to have the stories shared.
Sometimes, though, I read something, or see a movie, and I say to myself, “I wish I had written that”. Often I think this and then forget about it. Other times, I’m compelled to try my hand at emulating the author, or at adapting the source material.
Something funny happened on the way to writing the short story for last week’s class:
I read Craig Thompson’s graphic novel, Good-bye, Chunky Rice, and a subplot affected me in a profound way. (Craig Thompson interview here and here.) Part of the backstory is that two of the characters, brothers, once owned a dog named Stomper. Stomper gave birth to a litter of pups, but the boys’ father made one of the brothers drown them. This event haunts both boys. It haunts me, too. It’s a great little story, and I wish that I had conceived it. I wished it so much that I could think of little else while writing last week’s short story. Instead, I spent my time adapting this comic book to prose.
This raised a lot of complex questions. Quite obviously, Craig Thompson wrote this story in its original form. At what point does it become mine? Simply when I’ve converted it to prose? I don’t think so. When I’ve changed the names of all the characters? I don’t think so. Then when? Can it ever become mine?
How do I make the story mine?
As I’ve only written a first draft, I don’t feel tremendous pressure for complete immediate ownership of the story. For now, I’m content to have adapted the section from the comic book, making what changes occurred to me, fleshing out certain aspects, and adding to the story in one significant respect. I worked to incorporate elements of the myth of Artemis/Diana into the story. By doing this — and adding an “inspired by the work of Craig Thompson” to the byline — I feel that the story is beginning to become mine. But is it really? I mean, I’ve lifted some dialogue and phrasing directly from Armstrong’s comic.
I’m delved deep into a grey area, and I don’t know where the line is.
Ultimately, if I was ever to be truly happy with this story, and wanted to publish it, and still felt it was too similar to the source material, I would actually contact Armstrong to ask his permission to use his idea.
I’ve posted the first draft of Harbinger for you to read. (Remember: this is a first draft. I welcome comments and suggestions. I’m not going to be hurt or offended by anything you say. In fact, any advice you can give at this point is going to make the story stronger and, more importantly, more mine and not Thompson’s.) If I had the time, I’d scan the relevant panels from the comic and post them for you to compare with the story.
While doing yardwork on Saturday morning, several changes occurred to me, all of which help differentiate the story from Thompson’s.
The most important change I could make (but have no plans to do so — yet) is to alter the ending. The ending is a literal adaptation from Thompson. If I were to change the ending (and that would be difficult, because I love the ending), then the only remaining strongly-shared element of the stories would be the drowning of the puppies. At that point, I’d probably feel I owned my story.
For now though, I’m working on more writerly concerns. My classmates noted, once again, that I need to develop the characters more, to explain their motivations, to make them more complex, to show the dynamics of their relationships. They also felt the actual drowning scene was rushed. Great points.
To that end, my second draft will feature more background regarding the father, who becomes “a hard man, though he was not mean”. The father will have a personal relationship with the dog, Diana, so that when he orders the pups drowned, it carries more weight, and has a (more) rational basis. There’ll be more detail regarding the dog’s pregnancy. All three characters will watch the birth. Pa will be happy to have the puppies at first, but when he returns from his logging job, he’ll be dismayed at the manner in which Diana has wasted away. He’ll have Alex drown the puppies because he can’t do it himself. Etc.
The character development in the first draft was constrained by the assignment. Some of these constraints have been lifted for the second draft, and we’re supposed to add five pages to the story. That’s plenty of room to flesh out the characters and their relationships, and to work toward making the story more fully mine.