A Little Help From My Friends

This is a post I hope sparks discussion more than it offers any real advice.

I have this character trait that drove my parents crazy. I didn’t like asking for help. Asking for aid meant failure. My parents would watch me struggle to learn something and offer help. I would get indignant. No way! I can do this! I’m not stupid!!

As I grew up, I became more graceful about accepting help. It gradually occurred to me that other people like feeling useful. Accepting a hand up doesn’t mean you’re dumb, just that you realize you can’t know everything. It’s sad it took so long but at least I mostly managed to learn the lesson.

I have another character trait that I have no intention of changing. I have a deep disdain for plagiarism and cheating.

I spent a long time in the world of professional editing and academia, both of which emphasize research skills and not taking credit for other people’s work. Then I moved into writing fiction and discovered that writers like to toss ideas around to spark plot ideas. Writing groups are hotbeds of advice. I’ve watched/heard/participated in discussions about a story. Hey, I’m stuck at x. Why don’t you do y? Great idea! I’ve listened to professional authors discuss tossing plot points around with their friends when they were stuck in a pretzel twist of their own devising.

At first I instinctively shied away from these discussions because I still have trouble accepting help, although I really know better, and HOW do you keep your work completely your own if you owe a plot twist to someone else? I think we all know that a story where a hobbit needs to throw a ring in a volcano in order to save the world is plagiarism, but wise elves who love nature are still fair game.  Writing is derivative and in a certain sense there are no new plots only different renditions with each author’s particular spin, but where is the line between plagiarism and homage? Between accepting advice and stealing ideas? Critiquing is a vital part of the writing process and ideas for improvement are valuable but how much can an author accept and it still be their own work?

When does your story become someone else’s? When do you owe someone else an acknowledgement? Are you taking advantage of someone if you use their idea? When are you not using your writer friend network enough?  Does it depend on your level of trust, friendship, and history with the person you’ve discussed your story with?

I’d like to hear your thoughts.


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