EPISODE 21: Using Other People’s Words
Sharon and Christy discuss the creative possibilities and potential pitfalls of using other people’s words in your book through epigraphs and quotes.
Topics Covered Include:
- Navigating permissions for quoting lyrics, poems, and book passages
- When short quotes may fall under fair use
- Crafting fictional quotes and sources to fit your story
- Using epigraphs artfully to set tone and expectations
- Studying how mentor authors incorporate quotes
- Deciding if quotes are right for your book and audience
*This episode explores how quotes, epigraphs, and excerpts can legally and effectively enhance your work. Sharon and Christy provide tips and food for thought, but always recommend consulting official legal resources.
- Blood from a Rose by Sharon Skinner
- The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany
- Mirabella and the Faded Phantom by Sharon Skinner
- Lostuns Found by Sharon Skinner
- A Fault in Our Stars by John Green
- Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling
- Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
- Attack of the Black Rectangles by A.S. King
- The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen
- A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle
- The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
Coaching KidLit Transcript – EPISODE 21: Using Other People’s Words
[00:00:41] Sharon Skinner: Hey Christy!
[00:00:42] Christy Yaros: Hey Sharon what do you want to talk about today?
[00:00:45] Sharon Skinner: So I’ve had a lot of clients who are using epigraphs in their books or quotes in their books, that sort of thing. And I want to talk about that today. I want to talk about using other people’s words in your books.
[00:01:03] Sharon Skinner: And we are not lawyers by the way. We’re not giving anybody any legal advice here. That is not who we are. We’re just a couple of people who write and coach writing and so this is not legal advice.
[00:01:17] Christy Yaros: Do you want to explain first what an epigraph is?
[00:01:21] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, so an epigraph is that little quote that you see maybe at the beginning of a chapter or at the beginning of a that the author puts into the book to sort of set the stage for the mood, the tone, or the philosophy of what’s going to happen
[00:01:38] Sharon Skinner: So you’ll see quotes used as that, you’ll see sometimes a line of poetry, that sort of thing, used as an epigraph. In my book, the Blood from a Rose, which is not a kid’s book, by the way, but I used lines from The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany as epigraphs for each section of the book to set the stage, and I got away with that because that’s all public domain.
[00:02:09] Sharon Skinner: First of all, you don’t want to use someone else’s words if they’re not in public domain, unless you have permissions to do that. I used something that was in public domain, and I used a public domain source, because actually there are publishers who have published that particular work more recently.
[00:02:30] Sharon Skinner: And those, I couldn’t quote directly from, even if they’re identical words, because they’re considered copyrighted.
[00:02:41] Christy Yaros: So wasn’t that a lot of work? What made you decide to go with that versus just making something up on your own?
[00:02:50] Sharon Skinner: In the case of that, because it was public domain and because it just resonated so perfectly with what I was doing, and it was part of the journey of the way that I wanted the reader to Go through the book, because the book is short fiction, it’s poetry, flash fiction, and short stories that are rather dark.
[00:03:10] Sharon Skinner: It’s a little bit off my normal beaten path, because of that I wanted to organize them in a way that took the reader on a journey. I didn’t just want to slap them in there like my own anthology. And those epigraphs were perfect. They fit perfect for the setting the stage at each part of that journey. And honestly, the whole book has an epigraph in the beginning that’s a poem. that I wrote. So I did do that. I actually didn’t find anything for the whole book that I liked well enough that I thought fit well enough that was in public domain. So I actually wrote a poem being a poet and having some roots there at the very beginning of the book that starts the whole journey off.
[00:03:57] Sharon Skinner: So I did a little bit of both.
[00:03:59] Christy Yaros: Let’s talk about the difference between having epigraphs that are from real works and making up your own fictional ones to go in there. Because, obviously making up your own is not going to require permission, and you’re not stepping on anybody’s toes, but at the same time I think you have to make sure that it goes, perhaps with the lore of the story there’s some way that it fits in.
[00:04:32] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, I have a number of fantasy writers that I work with and the ones that do it well are the ones who really imagine and really build the world out very deeply and they know their world really well. And I have one author who is actually pulling quotes out of a variety of quote unquote books that are books from that world.
[00:04:59] Sharon Skinner: And this is meaningful to the story that first of all, that there are even these books. That’s meaningful. And that, and then she is putting the quote at the top and then a footer at the bottom that specifies which book it came from and when it was published and all of that. it’s beautifully done because she. gone deep, and she’s gone really into it. And you see people in fantasy do that quite a bit. Sometimes, and sometimes in science fiction, they’ll quote Captain’s Log, right? Captain Log, Stardate, blah, blah, blah. Well, that’s basically an epigraph. It’s used in the same way and it sets the stage for what’s going on and what’s going to happen next.
[00:05:42] Sharon Skinner: So those are people who have really built out their worlds. But I like it. a lot of times better than an epigraph that you’re pulling from somewhere else, because in fantasy it just deepens the experience in the world.
[00:05:59] Christy Yaros: Absolutely, because it’s like world building details without you info dumping world building details, right? Like, this is what the culture of this world is like, as shown through these quotes that probably show you how, you know, effed up the world is.
[00:06:17] Sharon Skinner: Well, I think that a lot of times the reason that you’ll see it too is that publishers will not only want to push on that for the deepening of the story, but also because getting permissions can be a challenge. And we’re going to go back to what I said earlier, if it’s not something that’s in public domain that you can find easily and know there’s no copyright on, then you’re looking at needing some kind of permissions and getting permission might cost you. That especially is true when it comes to shorter works.
[00:06:55] Sharon Skinner: The fair use that people a lot of times go, oh, but it’s only a single line and I can use it because it’s fair use. Well, if it’s a single line from a 250 page book, then a single line, if it’s not a chapter long, could be fair use. But if it’s a single line from a poem or from song lyrics, it is not going to be fair use.
[00:07:23] Sharon Skinner: There’s no, no way that it’ll be fair use if that’s still under copyright, and you will have to get permission to use that and it will cost you, especially lyrics. Song lyrics are well protected and not cheap, in my experience, and from what everything I’ve heard and read.
[00:07:44] Christy Yaros: And also I would think you would want to take into consideration your audience. And since our audience is children, a song lyric that might mean something to us as a grown up. If the child has no connection and isn’t aware of that music, does it have any meaning to them? And then Is there another way that you can get at that by making up something of your own that gets across that same kind of whatever that intention behind it that you’re trying to convey to the reader?
[00:08:14] Christy Yaros: Is that going to mean anything to a third grader or to a sixth grader?
[00:08:19] Sharon Skinner: Nowadays, yeah, and also dates your material, right? So if you’re doing a historical, it might fit. So if you’re doing something that was, that’s set in the 60s, something like that might fit. But if you’re something more contemporary, and you’re quoting current lyrics, or you want to quote Current lyrics. You have to understand that’s going to date the material.
[00:08:44] Sharon Skinner: Especially music right now, it just, it goes so fast. Five, 10 years from now, kids who are reading your book aren’t going to have a clue, or they’re going to be like, Oh, this is old.
[00:08:54] Sharon Skinner: And, again, back to the idea that it can cost you money to do lyrics and things like that.
[00:09:00] Sharon Skinner: it might not be a one time charge.
[00:09:03] Christy Yaros: Yeah, that’s true, for the years that I was in educational publishing part of my job as an editor was to seek permission, we would have excerpts from novels as reading comprehension passages, and we would have to get permission from the publisher to use that and sometimes because it was educational use, it wouldn’t cost us anything but other times it would and it would depend on how much the print run of the book was and where else we were using it and this was pre internet days.
[00:09:32] Christy Yaros: It probably is even different. Now, if it was going to be also an ebook, and an audio book. And if there was going to be multiple print runs of it, that’s that person’s copyrighted material that you’re repeatedly using. So might, just might not be worth it. It might end up being an unnecessary hurdle for you to get your book out there,
[00:09:58] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, and there are really great examples of books that are doing it, like you said, um, they use epigraphs, but there are really good examples of books out there that are doing it, even in contemporary, who are making up their own stories or their own quotes, like A Fault in Our Stars by John Green, right?
[00:10:17] Christy Yaros: Right? I mean, there’s a fictional author and a fictional book that they’re obsessed with and that’s what they’re going to do. and the book doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t matter, right? If it’s written well, it doesn’t matter whether we’re familiar with the source, material being fictional or real or not.
[00:10:35] Christy Yaros: Because it gets across what it’s trying to get across. But then there’s also other, places where that fictional book came into its own thing. Look at Harry Potter their textbooks, like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them became its own separate published book and movies from it. So it’s something that was created and perhaps not while writing it. Do you necessarily sidetrack yourself and go write that whole fictional book so that you could grab a quote or two from it, and Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, is about friends who are obsessed with fanfiction of this fictional book, which then she published those books as their own series. Which was so fascinating.
[00:11:26] Sharon Skinner: But yeah, so things to be aware of if you’re thinking about using quotes or, lines from other people’s work is, that you want to be cognizant that permissions will probably be required. It should be required.
[00:11:44] Sharon Skinner: I honestly, as a respectful author, believe that if it’s not public domain, you should be asking permission, even if it’s fair use. I think that’s respectful, but that’s how I roll in the world. There is a book that can help you with some of this. It’s called Law and Authors, a Legal Handbook for Writers by Jacqueline D. Lipton.
[00:12:05] Sharon Skinner: It’s a book that talks about a lot of how to get permissions, why to get permissions, when to get permissions, how to steer clear of dark infested waters, if you will, when you are using other people’s words or even products in a book. And that’s another thing that if you’re talking about, oh, we went down to the local Starbucks, you can get away with that.
[00:12:30] Sharon Skinner: But why would you, why wouldn’t you make up your own? Why wouldn’t you make up Your own little cute coffee shop, a little indie coffee shop for your characters to go to. and that way, if anything bad happens at the coffee shop, you never have to worry about Starbucks coming after you, give you grief.
[00:12:50] Sharon Skinner: Because, if you put a product in your book, not only does it date you, it dates you, but you’re also mentioning somebody’s trademarked name. or product and you have to be careful that you not show it ever in a bad light because they can come after you for that. And we’re all hoping that we’ll be so famous that everyone will be quoting all of our books and talking about all the things in there so that they would be aware.
[00:13:17] Christy Yaros: Well, not only you saying something bad, but what if that product in our company in the future ends up with a bad reputation and now you’ve put that in your book.
[00:13:27] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, that’s a good point. That’s a great point.
[00:13:29] Christy Yaros: We never know, what’s gonna happen, but you’ll see, at this point, if we were mentioning, say, Facebook as something, kids aren’t using Facebook. We’re the ones using Facebook, the old people, not the young people. So, make up your own. social media is social media, and kids understand the concept of social media.
[00:13:50] Christy Yaros: Make up your own social network.
[00:13:52] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, I think I was reading one where somebody used Face Me, or, I Am Book, you can make up all sorts of great social media. there are a lot better things out there than some of the current names of social media, in my opinion, and I’m not going to make, name names,
[00:14:06] Christy Yaros: X…
[00:14:08] Sharon Skinner: The social media that formerly known as, anyway…
[00:14:11] Christy Yaros: And then you have a book like A.S. King’s Attack of the Black Rectangle, which does a combination of kind of all of these things that we’ve been talking about. it is about kids who are reading Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic in class, and there’s passages that are crossed out.
[00:14:27] Christy Yaros: So, not only do you have that huge high level of Jane Yolen’s book being used like that throughout the entire book, but there is an epigraph with three quotes: one from Lily Tomlin, one from Theodore Roosevelt and one from Prince. And then the prologue has a quote from someone named Laura Samuel Sett, who’s actually the teacher in their class. who is, censoring the book in the first place. So she really played around with all of the different ways to combine different stuff in there.
[00:15:09] Sharon Skinner: And as we know, based on the acknowledgements in this book, Jane Yolen was fully on board with this representation of her book and how it was used in this work. And the publisher would have had to have signed off as well. So there are examples of where people are doing that.
[00:15:30] Sharon Skinner: They’re doing it very well. But again, you’ve got to have your permissions.
[00:15:37] Christy Yaros: I would imagine that in a case like that, A. S. King would have spoken to Jane Yolen before writing the book, because… so much of it revolves around that actual concept that, I’m sure she figured that out beforehand and was not scrambling after spending all the time writing the book because it’s not something that can probably be changed. maybe don’t do that until you’re sure that you’re allowed to do that. if you mention Facebook or Target or whatever in your book and you have something that can easily be changed, if it’s intrinsically tied to your story, that gets a lot tougher.
[00:16:18] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, it’s always a good idea to plan ahead if you’re planning to use anything that is somebody else’s work and get those permissions before you’ve embedded it so hard that you can’t pry it out or without a major revision. and I think that, it’s important to know that you don’t know until you ask, right? so Jane Yolen gave her permission to do this, but the publisher also has to give permission for that kind of use, and so that must have been granted in some way, shape, or form, but you don’t know if it’s going to cost you. in Mirabella and the Fated Phantom, which is my book, it’s a middle grade paranormal. I used a line from, a book that’s been out since 1960 actually A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle. And it was key to Some of the stuff that I was putting into my book because it was about the dandelions and how ghosts have nothing to do with dandelions. he wrote The Last Unicorn, which was also made into an animated film, and I’m a bit of a fangirl, , and honestly, by the things that I heard and the things that I read, technically, because I quoted the line and specifically cited the source right then and there in the book where I quoted that one line it was technically fair use. I could have probably gotten away with it, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do it right. so when it came time to ask permission He wrote back in less than 24 hours and he gave me not only permission in writing but the front matter to give to my publisher to put in the book, once the book came out, I mailed him a copy with a very nice thank you note and let him know how much I appreciated him letting me use that.
[00:18:12] Sharon Skinner: And normally the story would end there, but, about a year later, they were doing a film tour of the animation of The Last Unicorn. So I went and I stood in line for about two and a half hours to get my copy of A Fine and Private Place signed by Peter Beagle. And I said, I don’t think you remember me but I wanted to thank you for allowing me to use the line from this book in my book. And he said, Oh yes, I remember, I read your book, I really liked it, and my heart almost just burst with happiness because, he said he liked my book, and I admire him, but it goes back to being respectful of other people’s work the way that you would want people to be respectful of yours. That’s what for me it really comes down to.
[00:19:00] Christy Yaros: So let’s talk about why we might want to use an epigraph and the challenges that could come from doing that, because it feels like it could also just kind of be a rabbit hole that you fall into and endlessly procrastinate to try to find something that fits with every chapter.
[00:19:20] Christy Yaros: I would say it’s not something you should do until you’re pretty much done.
[00:19:26] Sharon Skinner: When I was doing, the organization for the Blood from a Rose book, I did not do the epigraphs until I was done, because I didn’t know what the organization of that book was until it was done. And it took me a while to figure out what journey I wanted to take the reader on. So that was something that was done afterwards.
[00:19:42] Sharon Skinner: When I was writing Lostuns Found, I did not do even the chapter titles until the book was basically written. And then I had to revise to make them fit better as I went through and did revisions on the book. So I think that you’re absolutely right. Because what you’re doing is you’re setting an expectation.
[00:20:01] Sharon Skinner: Whether it’s an epigraph or a chapter heading or a quote or whatever it is you’re putting at the front of a chapter, you’re setting up a specific expectation for that chapter. Just like you have a promise of the premise for your whole book, you’re setting an expectation for the mood or tone or action of that chapter by whatever it is you put at the beginning of it.
[00:20:24] Sharon Skinner: And I think that’s really important to keep in mind. And especially as we know, writing is rewriting, you’re going to be revising. And what if that chapter moves? Or what if that chapter changes in tone or you decide to do something different with it? I would not pick these things until the very end, after the whole thing is pretty much shiny and polished.
[00:20:50] Christy Yaros: Yeah, you also don’t want to fall into the trap of I’ve picked this, and now I’m going to force my scene or my chapter to fit with this, because it should be reflective of what’s there and what your intention is, but it still needs to move the story forward and still needs to have a reason to be there. And not just, as a gimmicky thing, is it something you can sustain? For the whole novel, is it better to have, as you mentioned earlier, sometimes there’s just one in the beginning of the book that sets the tone for the whole story.
[00:21:21] Christy Yaros: And then other times there’s… There’s ones for multiple chapters, and hey, like, we’re writing KidLit, we might have a lot of chapters because they’re short. So can you do that for every chapter? But then also, can you do that in a fun way? I mean, look at Percy Jackson, those chapter titles are hilarious.
[00:21:39] Christy Yaros: And that sets a tone, and now you’re reading. It’s almost like you’re telling me what I’m going to get in this scene, or in this chapter, and now I’m waiting to see the point where I’m like, oh, that’s why it’s called that.
[00:21:51] Sharon Skinner: I get it. Yeah. It’s
[00:21:52] Christy Yaros: why that quote was there.
[00:21:54] Sharon Skinner: It’s like you’re waiting for the punchline when you’re reading a book like that, when it’s that well done. Yeah. So I, yeah, I think that there needs to be a purpose for it. And I think that you are setting the tone and you definitely, I wouldn’t want to write myself into that.
[00:22:08] Sharon Skinner: I would want something reflective. my profession leading into being a book coach has been very technical. We always write the executive summary after we’ve written the proposal, right? We don’t write an executive summary and then write the proposal around it. We always take the summary and write it last.
[00:22:29] Sharon Skinner: And this is kind of that it’s like you’ve written this chapter. Now, how are you going to encapsulate What the mood or tone or philosophy. A lot of times it’s a philosophical kind of bent in YA or adult books. what are the expectations you’re setting up in there? So I think that’s really important.
[00:22:46] Sharon Skinner: I think that’s a great point, Christy. You definitely, I would not try to write to an epigraph first.
[00:22:53] Christy Yaros: No. And then also, even taking into consideration the complexity of it. And is the reader going to get like, it might be cute and, make you feel clever as an author, but is your intended audience going to be able to even make the connection to something like that, which is probably also a case for making it up rather than using some, obscure line of poetry that maybe we learned in college or as adults, but that the average 10 year old has not yet come across and you don’t want to create a barrier between you and your reader.
[00:23:28] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, well, so what are we really talking about here? We’re talking about know your point, not just for your work, but also for the chapter that you’re writing. Right? What’s your point? And focus on your target reader. Always focus on your target reader. We never want to lose sight of who we’re writing for because that’s a critical element of making that connection when the book is out in the world and in the hands of those readers.
[00:23:54] Sharon Skinner: So those are two of the things we coach. readily and consistently, and that is something that I think a lot of times can fall away from our conscious drive to write, and we need to be reminded that those are some critical elements.
[00:24:14] Christy Yaros: Yeah. I think sometimes like I said, we think we’re clever. We like to be clever, it could be a good exercise for you to see if you could come up with something that shows you that your chapter is concise enough and is organized well that it can be summed up by something like a chapter title or an epigraph.
[00:24:33] Sharon Skinner: And I love that idea because, if nothing’s happening in the chapter, then it’s going to be a lot harder to come up with a chapter title, right? So that might be a red flag for you that that chapter may not be carrying enough water.
[00:24:49] Christy Yaros: And that’s one of the exercises that I have my writers do in your favorite thing, Sharon, spreadsheet, my revision spreadsheet book map. The first column is a three word summary or title for that chapter, or for that scene, because we prefer to revise scene by scene. And if you can’t come up with what to refer to that scene, then yeah, that is a red flag that it’s not actually fully a scene or too much because you can’t summarize it in three words. that’s a whole other topic.
[00:25:22] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, I would agree.
[00:25:25] Christy Yaros: Let’s talk about how epigraphs can affect pacing.
[00:25:30] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, because a longer epigraph is going to slow the reader down, if they even read it, and that’s another thing, too. Some readers don’t read that stuff. Some readers just jump straight into the chapter. They’ll bypass it. Some readers don’t read prologues. Which is why, you’ve got to be careful and make sure the prologue has a reason to be there and that it has value, but you also need to know that some readers may not read it.
[00:25:54] Sharon Skinner: They just skip over it. And epigraphs are the same way. There are readers who will, go, oh, an epigraph, and their brain will skim it. Or they won’t even read it and then they’ll just jump into the chapter. you want to make sure that you feel that the value is there to put it there for specifically your target reader, again, keeping in mind your target reader, but yeah, I would say it can slow down.
[00:26:17] Sharon Skinner: It stops the forward momentum for that moment to read that epigraph. And if you left the last chapter on a hook. And the reader is like, ah, I’m going to turn the page and then they get to an epigraph, are they going to keep reading or are they just going to, you know,
[00:26:32] Christy Yaros: It’s like putting a commercial in between
[00:26:34] Sharon Skinner: almost,
[00:26:35] Christy Yaros: scenes.
[00:26:37] Sharon Skinner: Yeah, I think epigraphs work better for certain types of books, in my opinion, but this writing thing, there’s no hard and fast rules, there are just current trends and some guidelines and, do your thing, but definitely if you’re trying to make that connection to a reader and you want your book to be that book that they, as I always say, you’re the book that they hug and feel seen after they’ve read it. You want to make sure that whatever you’re doing suits your book, your genre, and your target reader.
[00:27:12] Christy Yaros: And that it moves your story forward. If it’s not relevant, then again, even if we feel clever and that, we’re adorable, it’s great. Pat yourself on the back and delete it and move on.
[00:27:27] Sharon Skinner: And it can be as You said earlier about world building and deepening the world and expanding the world and setting things up for something that may come later as well. As long as it’s still carrying some weight, if it’s doing some work there that’s valid and valuable, then it’s worth having.
[00:27:49] Sharon Skinner: But again, like you said, if it ain’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing, I always tell my authors, when in doubt, chuck it out.
[00:27:57] Christy Yaros: And in this day and age, nothing’s ever really gone. Put it in another document and put it aside. Maybe it’s an exercise to help you write or an exercise to help you revise and maybe it doesn’t end up there in the end, but certainly it could be fun to play with.
[00:28:10] Sharon Skinner: Yeah. I have an idea folder and I have a couple of quotes that are sitting in that folder because they’re tweaked my interest and I want to write something related and I may or may not use the quote at the head of the story or, as an epigraph or anything like that, but. They are useful sometimes to get your writing juices flowing,
[00:28:31] Christy Yaros: So what do you got for us, Sharon? What’s your action item?
[00:28:34] Sharon Skinner: So for my action item, I would recommend that if you’re thinking about using any kind of quotes or epigraphs in your book, that you sit down and think about what you could create as part of your world, as part of your world building for your characters that would suit your work, and then just start writing the things that fit in that work and that would also fit your book because that’s the great thing about doing it yourself. You don’t have to go searching for just the right quote or just the right thing to be your epigraph. You get to write it, to match exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. And so sit down and do that, play with it.
[00:29:22] Sharon Skinner: Build your world. It’s so much fun. I think but that’s me. I’m a fantasy writer and a speculative fiction writer. I like world building, but give it a shot and see how much fun that can be.
[00:29:35] Christy Yaros: All right, so then for my action item, let’s tie this back into mentor text mentality and go check out some books that we’ve listed. or find some other ones that you know that use epigraphs and see what kind of sources they’re getting them from and how that matches with what you’re trying to do.
[00:29:55] Christy Yaros: Is it stuff that’s in public domain? Are they things that they likely got permission for? Is it something that’s made up? And… Go from there.
[00:30:05] Sharon Skinner: Yeah. And see how it fits with the actual text. You might want to be taking a look at how well an epigraph that they’re quoting fits with the text, whereas where someone else is using a made up one. And how well that fits because I think you can make it fit better if you’re making it up.
[00:30:27] Christy Yaros: That could be a challenge right there. Can you make one up better? I can. Okay, well, thank you again, everybody, for joining us this month, and we will see you soon.
[00:30:41] Sharon Skinner: Bye.
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