NaNo2010 > Plot Scavenging

April 16, 2010

Field Trip

For those of us who suck at plotting, I have a special, bonus field trip planned.

hands out bandit masks

We’re going plot scavenging.

That’s right. We’re going to rummage around in other people’s dustbins and borrow ideas.

On Idea Theft

Do not steal ideas. Do not steal text. Do not plagarize. Do not do any of these should-be-terribly-obvious things.

This is a somewhat gray area, so I am going to shine a bright light on it and show you the difference.

Details are theft.

Broad, general ideas, situations, and conflicts are not theft.

You can be inspired by something without stealing from it.

An Art Example

If I look at a picture someone drew of a walrus and then decide to draw a walrus, it is not theft UNLESS

  • I trace their walrus
  • I draw my walrus while looking closely at their walrus, copying the lines
  • I borrow a lot of “tricks” and “details” from their walrus picture – how they did the flippers, the way the eyes are drawn, the way wrinkles and whiskers are drawn

The IDEA of drawing a walrus is not theft.

The SPECIFIC DETAILS of their walrus would be theft.

If someone familiar with both of our art looks at my walrus and immediately thinks of THEIR walrus, then I have failed.

The goal should be to take this burning desire to draw a walrus and translate it into MY style of drawing walruses. Those of you who know me realize that means my walrus is probably round, adorable, and holding a balloon.

Get it? Got it? Good.

A Writing Example

You read Harry Potter.

You write a story about a young boy, orphaned by his parents with a scar who has to live with odious relatives that barely like him and mistreat him. He finds that he’s actually got magical powers and is invited to a wizard school, where he makes some friends and defeats one of the teachers in a magical duel, saving the school and finding out that he’s part of a prophecy.

This is Bad.

That’s not plagarism by the definition, but it’s ridiculously obvious that you copied the idea, premise, plot, setting, characters, and even the theme from Harry Potter.

Individual ideas you might be INSPIRED BY from reading Harry Potter:

  • Youth (male or female) living in a tough situation with non-parent family that doesn’t care for him. (Honestly, though. The YA fantasy genre could do with some more stable families for protagonists, is all I’m sayin’)
  • Youth finding out they have magic powers
  • Youth going to a magic school
  • Youth with an important birthmark/scar/thing
  • Youth being part of a prophecy
  • Youth confronting the murderer of his parents.

Clearly, even pairing two or more of those ideas is going to get somewhat Potterish. But deciding to write a story about any of those individually is not plagarism, nor is it theft. Believe it or not, Harry Potter was not the first book written about a young protagonist from a broken home life going off to wizard school and learning magic.

Back to the Dustbins

Okay, now that we’ve covered the moral problems with dustbin rummaging, lets get back to the good stuff.

pulls down bandit mask

Remember, what we’re looking for here is INSPIRATION.

You’ve got the seed of your idea – your own world and character and even some scenes. What you’re looking for now are conflicts and general ideas. Things that feel like they fit in with the hazy hint of a book you’re building.


Movies, TV shows, books, cereal boxes, overheard conversations, the sound of the wind through the trees – these are all sources of inspiration and valuable “dustbins” you can find.

Keep your eyes and ears open to the inspirations that come to you from the world itself, as well as inspiration you go out and deliberately seek.

That being said, here are some great websites I’ve found for delivering a solid kick to my muse.

Additionally, I’d like to point out that Holly Lisle has a free How To Create A Professional Plot Outline Mini-Course available on her site. I have taken and completed this course. I learned a lot from it and liked it enough to recommend it here for you. Also, it’s free. Did I mention that it’s free? Because it’s totally free. (Her whole site is amazing. If you haven’t taken time to go through her writing articles, I highly recommend them.)


This is real homework. If you, like me, suffer from plots that start out really well but get all saggy and pathetic by the time you’re done with your opening scenes, then you cannot afford to slack off on plot building exercises.


Go through whatever it is you’d like to seek inspiration from and make a list of the broad, general ideas that you think might fit in with your story. You can narrow it down later. For now, you’re looking for CONFLICT. Things that can go wrong. Things that make it hard on your protagonist.

We’ll be keeping this list active and growing through the next couple of exercises (heck, possibly through the rest of the NaNo2010 prep posts. Not even I’m sure how long this series is going to be).

Seeking juicy conflicts is something you’ll want to cultivate as a life-long habit as a writer. Why not start now?

Taking SO LONG

This series of posts is taking a long time. A LOONONNNNGNGGGNGGG Time. I know that. It’s intentional. I can’t start writing till November, and I want to dissect the process that I’m using to try and develop this book in a stress-free way. I’ve got lots of time between now and November, so I may as well drag it out a bit. Additionally, if something DOESN’T work for me, maybe I can go back and tweak my process until I find a way that does work.

Diving in and starting writing with only the seed of a story does not work for me. I tested it.

It’s entirely possible that I could go through the entire NaNo2010 process thus far and get to this point in less than a day. That’s awesome and also intentional. I won’t have time to spend months on novel planning for every book, nor do I intend to need it.

(Isn’t it fun, being not-yet-published? All this time to experiment and learn!)


  • krizzlybear April 16, 2010 at 8:47 am

    While unconventional, I also highly suggest tvtropes. If one is well-versed in tvt and can control themselves from jumping back and forth between articles, they have a lot of different plot tropes that might reach out to them in some sort of way.
    .-= krizzlybear´s last blog ..Sex Trade, Women, and Steampanku =-.

  • Tami April 16, 2010 at 8:48 am

    An excellent addition, and I’ll add that to the list with your name. =]

  • krizzlybear April 16, 2010 at 8:50 am

    FFFF- I just discovered their story generator. It’s quite hilarious, yet thorough prompt to build off of.
    .-= krizzlybear´s last blog ..Sex Trade, Women, and Steampanku =-.

  • Steve Hall April 16, 2010 at 10:31 am

    I’m looking for the walrus sketch! >.<
    .-= Steve Hall´s last blog ..Weekly Wrap-Up: April 16 =-.

  • Steve Hall April 16, 2010 at 10:38 am

    (Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the accompanying artwork, because I did!)

    .-= Steve Hall´s last blog ..Weekly Wrap-Up: April 16 =-.

  • Tami April 16, 2010 at 11:48 am

    The walrus was clearly a communist trick!

    .-= Tami´s last blog ..NaNo2010 > Plotting Vocabulary =-.

  • Charlie Hills April 16, 2010 at 11:55 pm

    Stealing from one source is plagiarism. Stealing from many sources is research.

    .-= Charlie Hills´s last blog ..Now What? =-.

  • Vicki Tremper April 17, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Thanks for the comment on my blog, Tami. I love the layout of your blog and your content. I had never thought of doing plot-building exercises, for example. And you certainly have a way with words if your blog is any indication!
    .-= Vicki Tremper´s last blog ..Beautiful Blogger Award =-.

  • Tami April 17, 2010 at 8:21 am

    *cackles* Yes! Well said.

    Thank you very much! I’ve added your blog to my feed reader, as well. =]

  • Wilder April 19, 2010 at 12:43 am

    Great list of links – methinks I’ll have to go scavenging sometime soon …