It occurred to me recently that as a writer who constantly hopes to improve, a great deal of reading is now much less enjoyable than it used to be. You start to see the seams and joints, the structures, the homages, the little ways in which writers get clever (and possibly shouldn’t have.) it becomes much harder to just sink into a book or a movie (films and TV are especially bad about leaving the writing-construction materials lying about where you can see them, like boom shadows sneaking into shot, or that white tennis shoe that hung out in the back of the shot pretending to be an Imperial battle cruiser in the original version of the first Star Wars film) because things pop out and make you go “Hey! I know where that goes. That’s a two-pronged-one-slot-widget! Darn….”
Even when something is done very well and you are enjoying it thoroughly, you still may find yourself looking it over with your inner technician and thinking “Hmm… I wonder how he does that..? Oo, well, that was nicely done; let’s see you do that again, Writer-person, but slower so I can learn the trick of it… and steal it.”
Writers are like stage magicians; we find ourselves cadging other writers’ tricks whenever we can so our show looks slicker. It’s not because we’re all lazy or plagiarists, but because there’s only so much you can learn from your MFA course or Writers Workshop. Like computer programming or cooking, the proof is more often in the doing than the diploma. You not only learn by doing, you learn by copying. And after you copy, you alter and make it your own or reject it completely.
That’s not to say it’s OK to outright plagiarize someone else’s story or book–see: alter and make your own. But it is entirely reasonable and common to take an idea or a basic story concept and run off with it along your own personal Writer’s Garden Path to the Labyrinth of Creation and see what shows up when you get to the end. For instance: at the moment, I’m reading The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan and thinking that perhaps I’ll just borrow a bit of this and that, and wouldn’t it be nifty if so-and-so had only such-and-such….
Is that my garden gate I espy? Come, little book, let us take a walk….