The Loser’s Guide to Writing: Plagiarism – Do Great Writers Steal?

Plagiarism is on my mind.

I’ve been going through my ideas list for my next attempt at writing a novel.

Those that haven’t made it onto the short list include;

  • The story of Franky, a lonely firefly who dreams of becoming a concert pianist but lacks the digits and the time to practice
  • A small Scottish village is visited by aliens disguised as post boxes. Hilarity ensues.
  • A stranger comes to town with a wide brimmed hat and a sparkly horse named Fifteen Hans. Hearts are broken. Revenge is plotted. Woman blush uncontrollably. Livestock is worried.
  • A mass migration of fish occurs. Their destination is Heathrow Airport. Chaos ensues as the fish use up all available modes of transport while trying to reach Terminal 5 before the departure gates close. Title ideas: A Fish Too Far, The Haddock Maid’s Tail.

I’m most concerned about ending up in prison.

Not because of my reject short list.

And not because my, as yet unwritten, masterpiece will insight a global revolt of the downtrodden by exposing, in easy to understand language, the injustices at the heart of capitalist system.

No. I just don’t want to be accused of and subsequently incarcerated for, stealing.

What is stealing?




take (another person’s property) without permission or legal right and without intending to return it

“thieves stole her bicycle”

In the context of writing fiction, stealing could also be called;



Here is the heart of my worry:

What if my idea has been used before?

How would I know?

I’m a really slow reader.

For all I know there could be a bestseller in Denmark that uses my brilliant idea already.

My fingerprints have been smudged all over the crime scene.

I’m guilty.

I wasn’t even there.

Will I end up in a Danish prison?

That doesn’t sound too bad.

Lots of time to work on my next novel, about a wrongly imprisoned undiscovered genius who sweats the small stuff but manages to smile through it all.

What if that has been done before?

Double sentence.

Serial plagiarist.

I won’t be allowed within a mile of a pen again.

Placed on the text offenders register.

Hurrah! They shout.

Perhaps I shouldn’t worry about this.

T. S. Eliot, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, “for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry” once said that “good writers borrow, great writers steal.

There have been a number of famous people, writers included, accused of plagiarism

The Da Vinci Code, written by Dan Brown, had plagiarism allegations brought by Michael Baigent and Richard Lee, who claimed that Brown plagiarized their book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

This claim stated that Dan Brown had copied certain themes from their book.

However, they eventually lost the case when a court decided no plagiarism had taken place.

There have been cases of people did actually plagiarise and were then caught.

They weren’t deported to Denmark, were they?

Where is the line between plagiarism, influence, copying of structure, themes or other story element?

For instance. Let’s say I’d like to write a story for children and young adults with the following elements;

  • A boy wizard
  • He attends a school for wizards
  • He has adventures with his fellow students
  • He battles against a formless evil shadow
  • He receives a scar from the shadow
  • The scar hurts whenever the shadow is near him

I loved A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin but if I lift those elements and use them for my writing, is that plagiarism?

Am I heading for Fortress Denmark?

A wizard of earthsea
And for my next trick!

Perhaps I’d like to write a present day crime novel with the following elements;

  • set in a major British city
  • main character is a private investigator
  • he has a military background
  • he has a feisty female assistant
  • he has complex personal problems

I loved Case Histories by Kate Atkinson but if I lift those elements and use them for my writing, is that plagiarism?

kate atkinson case histories cover

Perhaps I shouldn’t worry too much about this.

As long as I acknowledge my inspirations then I’m doing the right thing.

Apparently there are only seven basic plotsseven basic plots underpinning every story.

Those seven plots are;

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Rebirth
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy

I’ll need to look into this further on my next post, working title –

The Losers Guide to Plots: Where does Franky the Firefly fit in?

 See also: The Losers Guide to Writing: Where to begin

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Do you worry about Plagiarism?

Are your ideas recycled?

Would that stop you from writing?

Let me know what you think!