In This, As In Everything, Context Is King

Posted on 27/02/2012 by


Every artist gets asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”
The honest artist answers, “I steal them.” Austin Kleon

Writers are thieves. No, really. We have to be. There are only so many stories out there. Only so many words. Everything we create is a remix in some way. Everything derivative. A reproduction, a blend, an adaptation of every story we’ve ever heard.

This is why I spend an awful lot of time writing down other people’s words. So I can admire them. And steal them for later.

Of course, it’s what you do after you steal the ideas that matters.

I tried to write a story once which was just a series of quotations lined up in a specific order. It didn’t really work because I had to fill in around the edges, so it ended up being dialogue by hundreds of other people, interior monologue by me. Which was funny. But at the same time… dialogue is my favourite part. It’s one of the things I’m best it. It felt weird and kind of wrong to give it up to someone else. Even if it was really a large number of someone else’s who were particularly brilliant.

Nowadays I only deliberately incorporate other people’s lines for the laughs. Mine, mostly. Yes, I admit it, I write books so I can snicker at in-jokes nobody else will ever understand. That’s just the way I roll.

To entertain myself during my final proofreading pass of the first Path book I highlighted every passage that was a reference, a joke or a snatch of words that I’d defiled for my own use. The text lit up like a Christmas tree and I rolled all over the floor laughing while my supervisor gave me funny looks.

It’s not that there’s a great deal you could really point to and say, Oh that line’s from… but I can see all these little lines tracing back. I had that idea because… I wrote that listening to… That used to be…

There’s a sarcastic description near the beginning that is redolent of Max Barry’s Nation States’ outlines. One of the characters is named after DS9‘s Julian Bashir’s teddy bear. There’s a Scooby-Doo joke. And there’s all manner of bastardised song lyrics in there. Mostly on purpose, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find a few snuck in accidentally. I think they creep in when I’m listening to music while writing. Generally when I realise I’ve done it accidentally I’ll cut them out. Unless they’re really obscure. Or they make me laugh.

It’s possible I make too many decisions based on whether or not a particular action will make me laugh.

Also, weirdly there are a couple of lines straight out of the academic side of my studies which work beautifully out of context… Because that’s really the thing. Quite apart from putting jokes nobody will understand in to make me snicker, the biggest reason I steal is because of context.

I don’t hear an idea or a line of dialogue and think, Gosh, that’s a good idea, allow me to run off it with it. I hear something and that peculiar, wonderful part of my brain (the part that spends so much time pondering whether or not turtles have ribs but really doesn’t want to actually look up the answer) thinks to itself, You know, if instead of X that was Y… and wanders off down the garden path. Words that were said as a confession of love used instead in the midst of a violent fight, hyperbole stated in the real world made literal truth in a fantastical world, a turn of phrase that would just mean something completely different said with a curling twitch to the lip rather than a straight face.

gif of Picard and Q from the Star Trek: TNG episode "Tapestry" in which they're in bed together

And that’s the art of it. You lift something — a turn of phrase, a snatch of dialogue — and you twist it. Put it down again in a different context so the same words resonate differently, so they produce meaning which is entirely alien to its original intent.

You read all the notes you’ve made — of beautiful turns of phrase, echoing descriptions, vibrant snatches of dialogue — and then you write something that is all of them and none of them.

It is the very best kind of thievery. You take and you take, all the bright and shining things. But those original objects still exist, and somehow, if you’re lucky, you can turn what you’ve stolen into a work of art all your own.


Posted in: Kandace, Research