Steal this...I dare you

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.


Elektra said...

I can recite his Sonnet 130...does that count for anything?

Anonymous said...

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.

I feel bad for Kaavya - she got a 500k book deal at age 17 or some such, and I'm pretty sure it was signed before having actually written a novel. While there's absolutely no excusing what she did, I can help but think why, why, why? What can she have been thinking? Was she under enormous pressure to deliver a great MS? Had she panicked, after spending her advance, worried she couldn't come up with the goods?
I didn't feel one iota of sympathy for James Frey, but in his situation he really came out on top. Think what he must have been paid to appear on Oprah, to be called a liar on national television. While his success will probably vanish, and he'll surely no longer have a career, he's made his millions.... Kaavya Viswanathan on the other hand it's all over. I wouldn't be surprised if she has to give back her advance and pay damages of some sort. I don't really know how it works, but she can't possibly come out on top after this - and it's such a pity. She's so young, and I understand she was very talented (not just at lifting passages from other people's novels). What a waste...

Miss Snark said...

And yet, by heaven, I think my Elektra as rare
As any she recite with false compare.

Anonymous said...

Wow - what a timely post. I have a story about a young boy called Wyatt, who loses his parents in Chapter 1 and is sent to live with his aunt Helga and cousin Alvin, who are really horrible to him. He visits a strange magical world and is eventually adopted by a nutty magician called Phineas Finkle... I can really see the parallels with Harry Potter, even though I haven't actually even read Harry Potter - but yeah, orphaned boy, mean relatives, friendly man who becomes his friend - do you think that these parallels are too much? Theres no magic or wizards or dragons anything in the book.

Inez said...

I think Picasso said,
"Amateurs borrow, geniuses steal."

Anonymous said...

..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..).

That's actually pretty honest and upright of her. Others (not me; no, no, of course not me) might have been inclined to smile knowingly, nod sagely, and congratulate Miss Snark on her eye for metaphor and knowledge of the classics...

Anonymous said...

'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate
Rough winds doth shake the darling buds of May
And summer's run hath all to short a course'

I'm not too sure about the last line but then it's the fourth line and you only asked for three!

Yanno, I do get your point but I couldn't resist trying and I'm pretty sure I've succeeded. LOL.

I'm going to be an Anonymouse though, don't want to become fodder for the snark.

Anatidaeling said...

Rhinestone? RHINESTONE?

Ahem. Our digits are encrusted with diamonds, not rhinestones. Some of our digits, lobes, wrists and bosoms may be encrusted with sapphires, rubies, opals and emeralds as well, but rarely rhinestones.

Anonymous said...

I want a MissSnockered.com! or should that be Ms.? ROTFLMAO.

none said...

Heh, when someone pointed out to me similarities in details between my novel and a book I loved as a teen but hadn't read in twenty years, I panicked. Still, homage sounds so much better than plagiarism...

Thanks for this post Miss Snark--I feel much better! Now, where's that Shakespeare...

Anonymous said...

Thanks to 7th grade English teacher (love you, Miss Cook!) I can still recite a lot more than the first lines of Paul Revere's ride, and because she was more diverse than Miss Barrett (whose classes had to memorize and recite the entire work, to the exclusion of all other poetry), I also brought a look of shock to my son's face when he grumbled about reading Evangline and I recited the first stanza for him. Some things never leave you. "O Captain! My Captain!" anyone?

Anonymous said...

What I wanna know is how a 17 year old gets a $500K deal for a book she hasn't written yet, whereas Yours Ever So Truly can't get a modest advance for the 3 books I've finished and sold, or the 12 others which lie hopefully in the Termagant Files.

Hey! I know! Maybe because I haven't run into a book packager at any of the conferences?


Anonymous said...

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
On the 18th of April in '75
Hardly a man is now alive
who remembers that famous day and year

He said to his friends, "IF the British something
By land or sea from the something tonight
Hang a lantern aloft in the something something
of the Old North Church as a signal light.
one of by land, two of by sea
And I on the opposite shore will be
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every middlesex village and town
for the country folk to be up and to arm

Hmm, i suspect some of this is wrong. I could do much better if you'd asked for The Walrus and the Carpenter, or Jabberwocky.

Bernita said...

Atwood said something like 'writers are like jackdaws, we only steal the shiny bits."

s.w. vaughn said...

Oh -- gasp -- you mean Quentin Tarrantino's brilliantly epic celluloid masterpiece "Kill Bill" may not, in fact, have been "a nod to master kung fu practitioner Bruce Lee", as Roger Ebert so bribed-ly -- er, that is, loquaciously pointed out? Does this mean I have to reconsider my position on this regurgitative tripe... I mean, brillance? Even considering it was set "in an alternate universe where there are no cops" *gag*?

Miss Snark said...

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,—
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."

Fionnix said...

Oh, thank Goddess. I was starting to feel like a fraud. My name was stolen from a Stevie Nicks song who took it from a novel who ripped it off a Welsh Goddess. Whew. Redemption.

My hope is all this hoopla will encourage folks to stop zipping around and start paying attention. This whole hooha could have been avoided, that's part of why it's sensational and embarrassing.

I'm sure Kaavya has a successful political career in her future. All's not lost.


Rei said...

Apple: "Wow - what a timely post. I have a story about a young boy called Wyatt, who loses his parents in Chapter 1 and is sent to live with his aunt Helga and cousin Alvin, who are really horrible to him. He visits a strange magical world and is eventually adopted by a nutty magician called Phineas Finkle."

Actually, it's not Harry Potter that you'd be ripping off, persay, but a long YA literary tradition dating back to before Cinderella. ;) I have little doubt that if you look back at various ancient mythologies, you'll find that story in one form or another all over the place.

It's an appealing plotline, especially to children/teenagers, because it posits a situation in which someone who lived a mundane or bad life can encounter the extraordinary and turn out to be a hero when confronted with it. They identify with the main character and then live out their fantasies through them.

Yes, it's tired and worn... but on the other hand, it still works. Just look at how wealthy Rowling is ;)

Elektra said...

Ode to Killer Yapp
Elektra, Sonnet 130

My poodle's wit is nothing like the sun
Conch shells are far more pink than his tam's pink
If snow be white, why then, his fur is dun
If drink be gin, my dog's no taste in drink
I have seen poodles obey, heel and sit
But no such training see I in my dog
And in some plant-life is there greater wit
Than in the mind that chases mice through fog
I locw to hear him bark, yet well I know
That blenders hath a far more pleasing sound
I grant I never saw a show-dog go
My poodle, when he walks, plows through the pound
And yet, by Heaven, I think my Yapp as rare
As any he un-snarked with false compare

Rei said...

In my case, I was watching the anime "Serial Experiments Lain" after writing my novel, and found that it influenced my thinking more than I had realized. I had already added one "homage" to it (as well as a couple homages to Firefly, which didn't really influence my thinking), but I noticed that it covered a lot of the same philosophical questions on the nature of conscious thought and emergent behavior that I did.

archer said...

All of these "I assimilated" excuses are nonsense. If your memory is good enough to retain a chunk of something that goes in, then it's good enough to flag it as it goes out. That is all.

Even if my opening line, in its entirety, is "New York," I know I've cribbed it from Bleak House.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

Electra - cool!

I was amused when Ray Bradbury's lightning-rod salesman (Something Wicked This Way Comes)wandered through Stephen King's The Dead Zone. About as clear a case of homage as you could ever ask to see.

And Peggy Noonan in What I Saw at the Revolution talks about taking inspiration from poetry and so forth. "O happy steal", she says. When she put "slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God" in Pres. Reagan's speech about the Challenger disaster, the "mice" tried to change the words and she had to fight them. Happily, she succeeded, and Reagan told her that he recognized the poem it came from.

Anonymous said...

I can quote "The Owl and the Pussycat" in its entirety. But that's about it.

What was the original question?

MaNiC MoMMy™ said...

I know Cat in the Hat, and that's about that!

The writer of the question wrote: Certainly, she did not ‘absorb’ what she did, opting instead to regurgitate the work of others (after some foolproof slight tweaking, of course).

It wasn't foolproof, that's for shiggity sure! And yes, I'm waiting for that patent for 'shiggity' ... yanno?

Anonymous said...

Putting a fresh spin on archtypes and ancient plot devices is one thing - slightly rewriting another author's sentence to put in your book is another.

Still, I do feel sorry for Kaavya because she is so young. She's at the age when you're supposed to be making a lot of mistakes and learning from them. Most of us are lucky enough not have to do that in front of the whole world. I still don't know how much to blame her for the plagiarism and how much was the book packager.

I certainly hope I've been influenced by the authors of great books - but I also hope that once those words all get jumbled around in my brain and mixed with ME the result that spews forth on paper is something totally new.

Anonymous said...

Elektra, that sonnet was brilliant! I thought I was the only one who had the original memorized--but then, my eyes are nothing like the sun, either. ;)

Anonymous said...

When you read tons of books, it becomes hard to distinguish between original and "borrowed" ideas. I thought of something to add to my book a few years ago, an "original" idea that really excited me. Then last year, I was re-reading a series in preparation for the new sequel and realized the "original" idea came from there.

Basically, two years after I read the book the first time, a concept from it popped into my head as new and different. The concept then stewed in my head for nearly three years as if it were my own. Now, it's back to the drawing board and tons of revisions... I'm just glad I realized it before submitting the manuscript.

Anonymous because I'm ashamed.

Anonymous said...

Yanno, [so - sue me, Miss Snark] I'm learning something everyday, esp on this blog. Now what's a book packager, pray tell?

Anonymous said...

I've occasionally borrowed rhythms. Cadences. Never words. Rhythms. Ways of using punctuation. I'm talking about something rare, but I notice when I've done it. The rhythm of certain writers' sentences, either overall or some very specific sentences, seems to get into my blood and then into my ink. Does anyone else ever run into this?

Anonymous said...

I had a poetry teacher in college who required students to memorize at least 50 lines of poetry to pass the class. No sweat for me; I memorize poems and passages I love so I'll always have them with me. The teacher insisted that until you've memorized the words, you don't internalize and "grok" their rhythm. And until you've internalized them, you can't transform and make them your own. Although he gave me the worst grade I got in college (a B, I confess), that bit of wisdom has proved true.

Anonymous said...

Wow. How can it come as a surprise to *anyone* that "character traits" and "fantasy elements" in novels were taken from somewhere else? There are similarites in every fictional book (especially fantasy) to just about every other one, whether there's hardly any/noticeable or completely obvious. Imagination is just taking something else and tweaking it; you can't just pull something from nothing.

Of course, there are cases where you start from a completely different point and end up with something similar to someone else's work, but that's not the example that was given. Whether something starts with an idea that is known someone else has had or something you think is completely original, chances are it's been done somewhere out there before. The plot as a whole is where the originality lies, in my opinion, rather than a few char. traits or "fantasy elements".

I can never manage to say anything without it turning into a ramble. Have to make it even longer by saying this, too. Damn.