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.