Friday, 3 August 2012

Other people's words

A common question from newbie writers comes up over at absolutewrite which relates to song lyrics - mainly, is it okay for a writer to use/quote them in their own fiction? Variations of this go from having characters directly quote the lyrics to having them in the background to using the lyrics as inspiration. Now as anyone with any idea about copyright could tell you, quoting lyrics is a big no-no unless you've paid a shit load of cash for the rights. Basically, unless you're Stephen King and you're publishing Christine, it's not happening so come up with another plan.

The thing that always strikes me as interesting is how frequently this question appears. It seems to be a common wish for new writers to want to use lyrics. Nothing wrong with that on the surface, you might think. After all, there a million and one famous songs that mean a huge amount to many people. If I throw some lines by The Beatles into my book, then that will connect with more readers because everyone knows The Beatles, right? And because the lyrics are good, it'll make my book better, right?


It doesn't quite work like that. Your book is (and should be) as good as you can make it. If there's any help to be had, it's from a couple of people you trust enough to read it and give you solid, impartial advice, and then from an editor if your book is taken on by a publisher, or from an agent. Another question came up yesterday which, if I followed it correctly, was about taking a retelling of a fairy tale and writing a book inspired by the retelling. This issue isn't far off the lyrics/copyright question. Both involve using other people's words to tell a story. And here's the thing:

Writers use their own words to tell their stories. Plenty of ideas have been reused, but if a writer uses another's words or story in such an obvious way, they're not only asking for trouble, they're not writing. Copying isn't writing, I'm afraid.

In the end, inspiration can and does come from anywhere. An overhead conversation, a memory of a brief event years ago, a legend from a long-dead culture. Stories come from those inspirations. They don't need someone else's words to be told.

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