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09:19 am: Wright’s Writing Corner: Filing Off The Serial Numbers

Boy, it's been a long time…almost six months. Sorry, folks.

Mephisto Prospero  in all his glory

The other day, the kids asked me what “filing off the serial numbers” meant. They were not familiar with the concept the phrase was borrowed from, so I had to stop to explain how thieves remove serial numbers from electrical devices that they steal in order that the stolen goods not be recognize.

They were a bit surprised. They had no idea where the term had come from…but, of course, that was not the use of the term that they wanted to hear about. They wanted to know about what their father and I meant when we use the term.
What we meant was the process by which you take a work that is based on other people’s copyrighted works—such as a roleplaying game or fan fiction–and add your own creative effort, so that what results keeps the charm of your original game or story without the elements that make it unpublishable.

And, Man, let me tell you…filing serial numbers off is HARD!

But, it is worth it, too.

Now, before I say that it is worth it, let me first say—if you are so lucky as to avoid making up games or stories based on other people’s creative work to begin with, by all means, GO FOR IT! Do your creative work right at the beginning! It saves so much pain, so much aggravation!

If you have a choice between writing something in someone else’s background and doing the mental labor necessary to put the story in your own background right from the beginning, it is so worth it to do it yourself.

Take it from me. I know.

So, the more skeptical among you are asking, if you know, how come you feel that you are qualified to speak on this subject. How did you find out? Is this something you learned recently?

No. I figured this out as a very young child. By the time I was twelve, when I started my first novel, I already understood this principle—that I could not borrow the cool stuff made up by my favorite authors, but had to make it up new on my own.
So…how did I come to be a person whose own twenty year personal Hell involved the slow and ponderous process of filing serial numbers again and again and again?

Roleplaying games.

I did the work. I made up new stuff. But, my husband, bless him, did not.

John wanted to run a game that was really easy to run. Back in 1986, he decided to run a roleplaying game based on his favorite stuff. He took all his favorite books, turned them upside down, poured them into the same bowl and mixed.

What resulted is a game that is still running, 25 years later.

Twenty-five years is a long time to tell a story. Especially if you are a good story teller. What you get after twenty-five years of excellent storytelling is a lot of stories worth sharing with other people, stories that have very little to do with the copyrighted material they were originally built upon.
Only, in order to share them, all that copyrighted stuff has to be removed.

Now, theoretically, that doesn’t sound so bad. Change some names, change a few situations. No big, right?


Because, you see, clever moderators and clever players use ever detail. They take advantage of subtle things, people’s names, the particulars of their situations. So, every time you change anything, any little tiny thread you pull, the whole crazy house of cards comes crashing down.

Filing off the serial numbers…changing names and situations to make fan-fiction sellable…is really, really hard.

Every little thing you change doesn’t seem to fit. Worse, if there happens to be more than one person involved, you have to find names and situations that remind all of them of the characters in the story you want to tell. And people’s esthetic tastes so seldom agree. And this leads to hours and hours of tears.

So, instead of a small amount of creativity at the beginning, one suddenly finds oneselves needing to pour in a huge amount of creativity in the middle, without unraveling the mood that supports the story.
But, if you keep at it, hammering away, slowly, it begins to work. Slowly, you find a word here, a name there, that works, that makes the new background come alive, so that it can support the story that you want to tell—the story that is, in and of itself, entirely original, but which needs this new revamped background in order to flourish.

Why do we do it? Why pour in this terrible effort rather than just start anew or declare it fan fiction and be done with it? Because…it is worth it.

Because we have fallen in love with a story, a story that is worth being told.  And because the creative effort—the things we do to make something new and fresh—is what readers pay us writers for.

Does it work?

It worked really well with the Prospero Books. I borrowed ideas, characters, and background from the Corruption Campaign, but I changed it so significantly, that there wasn’t a whole lot of filing of serial numbers needed.

Will it work for the Corruption Campaign books I am writing at the moment? Will the mix of original characters and characters with changed names/situations be smooth enough to allow the story to come alive in its own right?

God only knows, but I hope so!

Now, you think I would learn. You think I would recall the suffering and the pain and the tears and the agony and the hair pulling, and I would NEVER DO THIS TO MYSELF AGAIN!!!
But…did I mention I am in this new game? A game staring all sorts of copyrighted characters all set in the background of a Diceless Amber Game?

The story is so neat, the background so cool, the metaphysics so fascinating, and the romance so heartbreaking, that the story just has to be told…if I can make up new names, a new background, and a new magic system.


Someone please pass me a fresh file.


Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)


[User Picture]
Date:June 29th, 2011 01:46 pm (UTC)
I think Amber gamers are particularly prone to this sort of file-off-the-serial-numbers, due to the nature of shadow. I certainly do it...
[User Picture]
Date:June 29th, 2011 01:56 pm (UTC)
I actually haven't filed anything since I'm just running the game she is speaking of. I never thought it would be anything but a game but I guess that the Muse is speaking to me quite loudly because I've gotten some rather nice praise for scenes which occured.

Sadly, I can't ever imagine writing a book at all. I've been really good about coming up with characters, or using other characters already made, and starting the action but I am really bad at figuring out endings. Games aren't that bad, I just know what the goals for the characters and NPCs are. Mix them together and they create their own situations trying to accomplish them. In a story, though, I have to make it all up myself and I never think what I make up sounds interesting.

I will say in this current game I have had a MUCH easier time running the NPCs because I decided early on that I would not 'Play Favorites'. I decided what people were doing and why and why they thought they were doing the right thing. It makes it so much easier to make the bad guys bad and the good guys good but still painful when they fight.
[User Picture]
Date:June 29th, 2011 03:21 pm (UTC)
>I decided what people were doing and why and why they thought they were doing the right thing. It makes it so much easier to make the bad guys bad and the good guys good but still painful when they fight.

This is how the Corruption Campaign is run, too...it is painful sometimes, but I think it makes for much better storytelling.
[User Picture]
Date:June 29th, 2011 01:46 pm (UTC)
Steve is very good at this, too, in RPG. Steal from the best is his motto and I think that people enjoy his unabashed takes on the Lensman Universe, etc.
Hogwarts is in our future as well. We are waiting for a couple to get back from their honeymoon before starting that one. It will be a fairly low-powered game. Sophmore year. Freshman year took about two years to run.
To fill in the time before the newly-weds return, we'll be having something set in the World War II action of Hellboy's world. Hellboy, as you may recall, was the freshly-created toddler demon rescued from occult-loving Nazis by good guy allied forces. The players will include those from the movie, probably, but I know we are also adding a White Russian Werewolf and a Shadow-like character that can turn to smoke. It will be pulp. Most characters created by players do not have serial numbers per se. The world and NPCs have serial numbers.

Speaking of pulp, are you familiar with the Jasper Dash books for kids? Bet yours would like them. Now there's some homage to the old stuff. Example: Jasper Dash and the Flame-pits of Delaware.

Library Journal Review--
Jasper Dash is his school's last hope in the all-important Stare-Eyes Championship against their archrivals. Alas, the Boy Technonaut's concentration is interrupted mid-match when he receives a telepathic cry for help. His team blames their defeat on Jasper's loss of focus, but he is convinced that there is something unnatural about the opposing team. With his fellow sleuths Katie and Lily, he follows the Stare-Eyes squad back to the wild realm of Delaware. Long cut off from civilization by exorbitant toll-road charges, it is a dangerous region of lofty mountains, impenetrable jungles, and exotic cities, ruled by a crazed military dictator. In the hidden monastery where the man once studied, Jasper and his friends find that his old teachers are hostages. The crooks are using the monastery's arcane powers to create an indestructible army. What can our heroes do to stop a horde of thugs-especially when the monks are vowed to nonviolence? Detailed black-and-white illustrations, reminiscent of slightly skewed medieval woodcuts, add to the exotic atmosphere. Like the chums' previous exploits, this off-the-wall parody of Stratemeyer-style series fiction features mock-heroic dialogue, breakneck chases and battles, hairsbreadth escapes, and fiendish (if rather inept) villains. Along the way, there are lots of sly digs at rah-rah sports novels, gangster pulps, and even travel guidebooks. The author frequently "breaks page" to address readers directly with side comments, hints, and suggestions. Beneath all the absurdity, there is also a quiet message about loyalty and self-acceptance.-Elaine E. Knight
[User Picture]
Date:June 29th, 2011 03:22 pm (UTC)
It does sound like something the kids might like.
[User Picture]
Date:June 29th, 2011 06:32 pm (UTC)
My muse, when she's not being a fickle wench, has a suitcase in which she keeps an assortment of files, license plates, and cans of spray paint. I'd say more than half of the stories I write come from watching, playing, or reading something, and thinking, "I would have done it this way."

The other half of the time, I'm typically trying to make something that recaptures the feel of the things I wouldn't have done any other way.
[User Picture]
Date:June 30th, 2011 02:56 am (UTC)
Thinking that the source did something wrong always helps when trying to file them off.
[User Picture]
Date:June 30th, 2011 03:02 pm (UTC)
That is very helpful when you are starting with the source material! I know people who find reading something they thing wasn't quite done right to be very inspiring for writing.

It is a lot less helpful when you are trying to convert a game to a novel...as the game isn't really the original source material...it's only interwoven with it in a way that makes it difficult to extricate.

[User Picture]
Date:June 29th, 2011 11:46 pm (UTC)
Happy Birthday! May your file be sharp!
[User Picture]
Date:June 30th, 2011 12:33 am (UTC)
Hehe, there's a fan fiction writer I enjoy-- Vathara-- who uses the "file the serial numbers off" technique to make "original characters" for her fan fiction. Adds an extra layer of fun to Embers when you're trying to figure out who the new character that was introduced is based on!
[User Picture]
Date:June 30th, 2011 01:24 am (UTC)
I do think that the 'who is it based on' phenomena is a delightful one. ;-)
[User Picture]
Date:June 30th, 2011 02:54 am (UTC)
My muse loves this sort of stuff.

And I note that it was a skill that improves with practice. (And if you want to hear me ramble on about it, check out here)
[User Picture]
Date:June 30th, 2011 12:43 pm (UTC)
I imagine this sort of thing (stories built on existing content) happens subconsciously all the time. A story moves you, becomes part of the background chatter of your brain...years later you craft a story that you think is original and--whammo--there's the original material staring you in the face, be it in the overall story arc or in a name or in a particular phrase.

Do you have to balance filing off the serial numbers with intentionally leaving a few as a homage to the original work?

I do like your explanation of why in the world you would go through this long process semi-intentionally: "Because we have fallen in love with a story, a story that is worth being told." Is there any better reason?!
[User Picture]
Date:June 30th, 2011 03:03 pm (UTC)
>Do you have to balance filing off the serial numbers with intentionally leaving a few as a homage to the original work?

I do. In my Corruption Campaign story, I deliberately left the profession of one character something that came from the book he originally came from as an homage to the original book and author.

>"Because we have fallen in love with a story, a story that is worth being told." Is there any better reason?!

There is not! ;-)
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