"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: March 2011

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Importance of Copyright

Today we have a new video - mainly a promo to introduce The Easy Way to Write to visitors unfamiliar with the website.

Have a look - you may be surprised just how diverse we've become in the last nine years!

Of course, all of the images, material and even the music in the video is copyright to us. Copyright is hugely important to all artists and in today's article, I explain why...

Keep writing.


Magellan Books

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The Importance of Copyright

Rob Parnell

In most modern arenas it's easy to identify products - they exist as objects. You can slap a patent on objects - and often on the processes that make those objects.

But ideas are more nebulous. Artistic expression is perhaps harder to quantify - or so it would seem. Which is why copyright and the concept of 'intellectual property' is so important.

Contrary to what many people think, artists, writers and musicians have the law on their side.

Their intellectual property - their ideas and the expression of those ideas - are protected by law in most countries around the world. It is only those few countries - and individuals - that do not respect intellectual property that cause problems for the rest of us.

The Copyright Act was enshrined in 1968 to protect artists, writers and musicians from having their work stolen, copied and exploited by unscrupulous individuals and corporations.

The Copyright Act gives automatic ownership of an idea's expression to the expresser. Much confusion, though, still exists as to what that actually means...

Books and movies and CDs often flaunt the copyright symbol as though it's some kind of corporate badge that has little or no meaning.

But this is not the case.

Let's be clear. When a writer gets a publishing deal, she does not lose the copyright to the publisher. No, the copyright still belongs to the artist. The writer still owns the rights to her ideas and the expression of those idea in words.

The publisher only owns the rights to the book - the product.

It's exactly the same for musicians - who own copyright to the songs when the recording company merely owns the recording of those songs. Same with movies. A movie company's copyright only extends to the expression of a writer's screenplay, not to the screenplay itself.

I wish more people in the industry understood the subtleties implied in this arrangement.

Even artists - especially writers - rarely understand that you don't need to officially register copyright to own the expression of an idea.

Your copyright is innate - in law, automatically - the moment you commit your ideas to paper or to a computer file.

That doesn't mean you own the idea. No, you can't copyright an idea - only the expression of the idea in your own words.

Writers often ask me 'what happens if someone steals my idea?'

The bad news is there's not much you can do about that. Ideas are so commonplace - like the air that we breathe - it would be impossible to police who thought of what and when.

The real question is 'when does your idea become a copyrightable one?'

Simple, when it combines elements that are identifiably your own - and are expressed in such a way that it becomes clear that to copy that expression would be to mimic the personality of the expresser.

Sorry if that sounds like legalese! But if you can get your head around it, you'll understand some of the subtleties.

Let's think of an example.

Bram Stoker invented Dracula back in 1897, but that doesn't mean he owns the rights to all vampire stories ever written. The vampire is not a copyrightable idea. Which is why Stephenie Meyer - and a myriad other writers - are not infringing Bram Stoker's copyright by inventing their own vampires.

But if you tried to write another story about Count Dracula, now that would be different. You'd then have to deal with Bram Stoker's estate to ask their permission - which they have every right to refuse.

Ideas are one thing.

The problems start when publishers believe they own those ideas because they publish them. They don't.

Yes, they often own the rights to exploit those ideas - but that doesn't give them the right to misplace the author's name, sell books without paying the author or even sometimes assign the copyright to a third party. That's illegal, unethical and, let's face it, highly immoral.

Thankfully there aren't too many people around like that left, at least in the civilized world. And if there are, let's hope they'll be punished severely for their wrongdoings!

To an artist, copyright is a sacred commodity.

It is not merely a symbol tagged onto the start of an author's name.

It is a birthright. And respect for that birthright should be implicit in any relationship that the artist enters into.

If you ever feel that your own copyright is not being respected, then seek legal advice - or drop me a line. - or speak with one of the many writers and artists' associations that now, thankfully, are all around the world. There will be one close to you.

The law is on your side.

Of course there will always be those in business who will try to con artists - and abuse their power - in the same way as there will no doubt always be thieves, fraudsters and murderers.

It's up to we artists to remain vigilant and remind 'copyright exploiters', sometimes forcefully, that without ideas and their expression, there would be nothing for those businesses or individuals to exploit in the first place.

And then where would they be?

Keep writing!

Rob at Home
Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Easy Way to Write


"How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."
Anne Frank

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Write for the Next Generation

On the last St Pat's Day, we went out to celebrate. Great lunch at an Irish pub with a band playing. Green hats, Irish flags and Guinness signs everywhere. Terrific fun.

It occurred to me how amazing it was that the logistics behind this essentially unofficial world holiday are enormous - and a great testament to the tenacity of humans to find an excuse to celebrate!

What's clear is that we do need time out sometimes, just to get a better perspective on our lives and rejuvenate our spirit.

Writing can be a solitary profession. We tend to spend a lot of our time alone, typing words into a computer, allowing our subconscious to spill forth words onto the page. Just as it should be.

It's funny. Every now and then I allow myself to get involved in other people's affairs. I've noticed that other people like to be sociable and have lots of get-togethers where they just enjoy each other's company.

As a writer I tend to observe rather than participate. I find the way people interact rather fascinating - and educational. Watching the process can give me lots of ideas for stories and novels, which, sadly, I'll probably never write - because there's not enough time!

Somerset Maugham mentioned something along the same lines. As much as he hated human interaction himself, he couldn't help but be drawn to study the human condition - and marvel at the way we get sucked in to each other's lives, though not always in a good way.

Most of Maugham's stories deal with this in one way or another. On Human Bondage is the prime example. A young man is drawn into a couple's relationship and finds himself falling in love with them, with dire consequences.

There are no real profound observations made in the book - or indeed any satisfactory conclusions made. But it is a fascinating exploration of the way we tend to bond with each other, just by allowing ourselves to get close.

For a writer, these interactions can be good fodder for stories because we see the subtleties that other, more involved people, can miss - or don't see as necessarily interesting enough to document.

It's a writer's separateness that defines him/her. The idea that writers can distance themselves from the life around them enough to be able to observe and comment in an objective way is interesting to me.

Sometimes I envy people who can get so involved in life they can't see the wood for the trees. Me, I'm always analyzing, evaluating, reconstructing the world in my mind, in pursuit of some kind of wisdom. But am I missing out on the fun?


I guess my fun comes from writing it all down.

Because, to me, there's no point to insight unless it's shared.

As a kid, I feverishly wrote down many insights, thinking that, of course, I was the first person in the world to notice them, telling myself that one day I would be a great novelist and astound people with my powers of observation...

But reading soon put a stop to the idea that I was the first...

Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh is depressing for me in this regard. It contains an amazing insight or two about the human condition pretty much on every page. Strange then, that Butler didn't want the book published until after his death - for fear of offending anyone he knew.

The book itself may have disappeared into obscurity were it not for James Joyce - much later - singing its worthy praises.

To me, there's a huge difference between novels that describe life - like most modern books - and novels that understand the human condition. And as much as I love thrillers and horror stories, I do like it when authors show they have more insight...

Michael Chrichton - now sadly no longer with us - was one of those rare authors that had the ability to write compelling stories AND reveal character in a way that transcended mere storytelling.

It's a subtle difference in style.

Most writers can tell a story - usually based on things that seem important to them.

The real talent is to be able to tell stories that are important to all of us. Like Conrad, Maugham, Samuel Butler or Herman Melville.

Curiously these authors weren't always revered during their lifetimes - probably because they weren't writing the bestsellers of the time.

And perhaps the same is true of today. We get so wrapped up in the bestsellers - as though the only important works are those that sell the most. Whereas in reality, the most profound observations are probably being made by authors that, although they currently seem only on the sidelines, will stand the test of time.

It's hard to tell which writers will last - and who will be forgotten by the next generation.

It's so hard to get around the idea that we have to make money to survive. It corrupts our thinking.

Tolstoy went through the angst associated with this.

He was a popular novelist while he was alive - but became convinced he couldn't do his best work based on that. In a fit of existential angst, he gave away all his money, property and assets when he was around 60 years old. He sought out the garret, where he felt he might be able to give his work the honesty he deemed it required.

Perhaps inevitably, he never wrote a decent novel again. He lived from day to day, struggling to survive, putting on a brave face but inwardly kicking himself for removing the comforts that had allowed him to write with ease.

Here lies the writer's most recurrent dilemma.

When we want to express ourselves most, it's often because we need to rage against the discomfort or frustrations in our lives. But we can't find the time to write...

But when we're comfortable enough to say what we want, and have all the tools we need, we often don't feel inspired enough to say them anymore!

The trick is balance I think.

We must strive to stay pure. Use the hard times to inspire you - focus on the reasons why you wanted to express yourself in the first place - and, even when you're comfortably off, never forget that there will always be others out there who need to experience the profound wisdom you might be able to offer them.

Keep writing!

Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Writing Academy


"What is art but a way of seeing?" Saul Bellow

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Writing Voice and Your Unique Style

Haven't got long this morning. We're off to give a talk on Screen Writing at midday to some esteemed writing students in Adelaide, SA. Should be fun!

I have to thank everyone on Facebook for remembering my birthday this week. It was awesome to see so many happy returns. There were far too many to answer! I feel very humbled by your kindness.

Robyn and I had a lovely day down by the beach, then we pottered in the garden in the sunshine - and then off we went to another writer's group in the evening.

No rest for the wicked.

Have a great week.

A writer asked me a question this week about writing style.

He thanked me for a couple of the courses he'd taken but thought he needed extra instruction on prose style and finding his unique voice.

To be honest I was a little flummoxed as to how to respond.

My belief is that style is one of those things you can't really teach.

Yes, you can correct stylistic errors. Yes, you can make suggestions as to how to structure writing for best effect. But ultimately your own writing style is entirely dictated by a set of (sometimes unconscious) decisions you, the individual writer, make throughout your career.

It's like playing an instrument. You learn the basics - where all the notes are and how to play them in the right order. You practice daily until your technique is fluid. But as some point, your style dictates your interpretation of a musical piece.

And if you kept asking, say, Eric Clapton or Slash how to play something better, you're only ever going to end up sounding like them.

Being a musician is not about copying other people's technique - not forever anyway. It's about gaining enough confidence to step out and play like yourself.

The same is true of writing.

You may want to copy other writers for a while - because you're impressed by the way they create atmosphere or by the way they can effect their readers. But there comes a point when you need to focus on your own unique talents - and hone your own style into something that is recognizably YOU.

This is something you can't really teach - because it requires work on the part of the writer.

The best way to acquire - if that's the right word - a writing style and unique voice is simply to write more. Your mind will show you the way. Once you know all the tricks and tips and techniques that other writers can offer you, then you need to stop relying on those other writers to inspire you.

Luckily this happens naturally to writers. The act of writing every day eventually takes over - and sets off an inevitable chain of events whereby you 'find' your own writing style - not by consciously creating it, but by allowing the way your mind works to shape the way in which you relate ideas, concepts and information through words.

It's about trust.

You need to trust your subconscious mind - the source of all your potential creativity.

You have a unique voice already just because you're you.

That's your advantage over every other writer.

The only person who can get inside your mind is you - and only you can truly express yourself in your own way.

Constantly hoping that you'll be able to learn a style is to misunderstand what writing style is. Style is your personal means of expression.

It's the reason why Eric and Slash sound like different guitarists.

I mean, why would you buy one guitarist's music over another if they all tried to sound the same?

Isn't the same true of writers? Why would you buy a book by a certain author over another if everyone aspired to write the same way?

There's no such thing as the perfect style. Only a myriad of individual voices - some good, some bad, some great - that populate the universe. Just as it should be.

It's like the very old joke about getting to Carnegie Hall. There's only one way. Practice, practice, practice.

Without constant practice, the musician can only ever aspire to being an audience member. With constant practice, the musician can hope for more - the chance to perform and give pleasure.

The same is true of writing.

Without practice, you remain derivative - and can only hope to be the best reader in the world.

But with constant, daily, practice, your writing begins to take on a life of its own. Your confidence begins to shine through. Your technique improves immeasurably and your own unique voice gets stronger and more apparent.

I always tell new writers not to worry about their voice and their individual style. It's not something you can force.

It's something that solidifies the more you write.

It's often not apparent to you - and perhaps is all the more powerful when it's not!

Because when you become self conscious about your style, then that will become apparent to your reader.

You best writing style is unique, recognizable, but essentially invisible.

Till next week,

Keep writing!

Rob at Home
Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Easy Way to Write


"Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree."
Martin Luther King

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Can You Be Too Old To Write?

You may be surprised to learn that one of the frequent questions I'm asked is, "Am I too old to write?"

And the funny thing is that it's not just 'older' people that ask me this question.

Sometimes, new writers as young as eighteen and nineteen seek my advice on this issue - apparently wondering whether they've missed the boat if they're not studying journalism or creative writing or some other 'writerly' qualification by the time they're twenty.

Of course it depends what you want out of your life - and where you think writing stands in the myriad of possibilities available to you - however old you are.

The good news is that there are no barriers to writing success based on qualifications.

A good writer is a good writer - as far as anyone is concerned, including readers, publishers, editors and agents. You're neither too old nor too young to write. If your writing is effective at conveying ideas, emotions and information, you're in!

Frank McCourt, famously, was sixty before he got his first book, Tis, published to critical acclaim. Many popular writers start relatively late in their careers when they realize that the many day jobs they've had just aren't satisfying them.

It's become almost a cliche that writers' own resumes have a jumbled mess of a career - and life - before they begin writing full time. As I say, it depends on what you want, what is right for you, at any particular point in your life.

You can't teach the urge to write. You also can't teach someone to improve they're writing. This may sound odd coming from someone like me - but I know it's true.

Here's why:

Writing is like a personality trait or a bad habit in people. You can't change it or stop it or get any better unless you want to change.

And just like all those despairing spouses who desperately wish their partners would change - it ain't gonna happen unless that partner makes a conscious effort to alter themselves - and doesn't just do it because they're being hassled, cajoled, advised or forced to change.

You're never too old to write. But, "Am I too old to write?" is not actually the right question.

The correct question is, "Am I too old to improve my writing?"

And here we see the interesting part. Because my experience of teaching writing is that older people are often more receptive to instruction - and can improve quickly, because they want to.

Younger writers on the other hand may be much more obstinate about their failings - and cling to bad habits when they're being screamed at (like all those frustrated spouses!) to change them.

And by younger I don't necessarily mean 'young' - I mean newer writers - as in people who've really only started to take themselves seriously as writers, whether they're nineteen or ninety.

It's a mindset issue. A professionally minded writer is always open to criticism - however much it hurts.

When criticized for a bad writing habit, you may think that the reader is being pedantic - that they're missing the point and not looking at the writing as a whole. But this is the point.

Unless you clear up the bad grammar, the typos you consistently make and the little stylistic elements that grate on the reader, then you will always fail to keep the reader focused on your writing - and whatever it is you're trying to say.

Little things like 'point of view' switches in fiction, consistently using the wrong punctuation and insisting on inappropriate formatting of your manuscripts are all things that 'get in the way' of your writing when trying to impress someone with your words.

Your age is irrelevant when it comes to these issues. Writers of any age can - and do - make these mistakes. But also, writers of any age can improve their writing - if they want to.

It's about being open - and willing to change for the better.

To me, this is one of the reasons why writing keeps people's minds agile. Because writing requires this mindset of 'Can I?" - an acronym meaning, Constant And Neverending Improvement.

Writers of any age can be good enough to get published, even self publish, and impress the world.

There is no age barrier to writers, only a mindset barrier.

Because if you ever feel you're too old to improve or learn more, then yes, you're too old.

But if you keep wanting to get better, even if people tell you that you're the best (or worst) writer in the world, then you really do have all the qualifications, life experience, empathy and talent you'll ever need.
Keep writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy


"A professional is a man who respects his trade, tries as hard as he can to perfect his work, and realizes that one failure isn’t the end of the world. Or two…or three."
Nathaniel Benchley

The Writing Academy

Welcome to the official blog of Rob Parnell's Writing Academy, updated weekly - sometimes more often!