Dear Miss Snark,
the Kaavya Viswanathan saga has got me wondering about absorbing the details of novels. Certainly, she did not ‘absorb’ what she did, opting instead to regurgitate the work of others (after some foolproof slight tweaking, of course).
I recently read an article by Katherine Paterson, author of a popular children’s novel Bridge to Terabithia. In the article, she talked about having unintentionally borrowed the word ‘Terabithia’, as well as a few character traits and fantasy elements, from the Chronicles of Narnia.
In Phillip Pullman’s The Northern Lights (The Golden Compass) he actually said he’d borrowed from many authors, crediting the wondering ideas of others for enriching his works.
I imagine it happens more often than we think: writers having great ideas, a great character, a terrific word… only to find out that they’ve pinched it, years down the track, while reading an old childhood favourite. But where is the line? I’ve heard plagiarism is near impossible to prove, as you can’t copyright ideas, but as an agent, do you notice this kind of thing while reading manuscripts? Have you ever read a great, original novel, but noticed things that you could actually pinpoint as borrowed? If so, would it turn you off?
Thanks. Phenomenal blog.
Here is where the dreaded but useful "fresh and new" can be quite handy.
If you send me material that lifts phrases/motifis, let alone sentences and paragraphs, from Barry Eisler, you bet I'm going to notice. If you send me material lifted from Charles Willeford, maybe not so much. But if you send me stuff that sounds too much like either one of these guys, we won't have to worry about giving back the advance money cause I'm not going to take you on. I love Barry Eisler and if he wants to ditch his agent and lope over here to Snark Central he's lost his mind, but he's welcome.
I don't want a clone though...I want someone who is as fresh and exciting in their own right as John Rain was (and remains). Or as compelling as PJ Tracy's Monkeewrench group, or Lisa Scottoline's law firm girls.
Now, as to avoiding plagiarism. It's pretty damn easy not to steal stuff if you don't hold the book open and copy. I challenge ANY of you to remember more than six lines of The Ride of Paul Revere, or any three lines of Shakespeare sonnet word for word...or even close. You'd recognize them if I spoke them to you, of course; they're familiar. It's an entirely different kettle of fishies to recreate those lines word for word. Try it.
In this day and age it's not only morally wrong to steal it's STUPID. Eagle eyed librarians can summon up comparisons with the flick of a rhinestone crusted digit. Bloggers can sound the alarum far and wide.
But, being influenced by, or using a name is NOT plagiarism. Saying "yanno (tm/patent pending)" is a JOKE. You can use Snarkling, and Rabbitania and even serial scrubber and not be plagiarizing. If, however, you lift this entire post, create MissSnockered.com and post this as your own...well, after the house falls on you and the little dog eats your shoes for lunch, well then, Miss Snark will have a little chat with you about the joys of intellectual property rights. She will enjoy this chat more than you.
Paying homage to another writer is half the fun of writing..well, ok, maybe not half. But it's still fun. Recently I received a manuscript that had the name of a film character I loved. I asked the author if it was a silent tip of the chapeau. "No!" she said, she hadn't thought of that till I mentioned it.
Another time, I was waxing eloquent about the "King Lear motif" in a novel. The author looked at me like I'd lost my mind. She'd not only NOT done that on purpose..she thought I was seeing things that weren't there in the book. (She was kind enough not to say so but you could tell..).
So, one person's influences, another person's tip of the chapeau is someone else's first sign of a diminished grip on reality. We can argue about interpretation and influence all day...and they do over at the NYU graduate program in literature --NONE of that has anything to do with plagiarism.
So, obsess about something else. That poor girl who made a bad bad choice is not what could happen to you if you don't pay attention. It's what happens when you foolishly think no one is watching.
And yanno (tm/patentpending) you're free to use Miss Snark as a character in all your novels and true crime narratives. In fact, Miss Snark thinks it will improve the state of the written word dramatically.