When copying isn't a problem

I recently joined an online writing group geared toward novice writers, and have noticed a number of stories are much too similar to published works to be coincidental. They follow the same tone, the same plot, the same scenes, the same characters, often down to the letter, but no actual copying is being done.

I'm not an idiot. I know "sampling" happens a lot, in all types of media. Knock-off handbags, dresses, and jewelry happen in the fashion industry. Bands often play covers, or sample a melody from another artist. Television shows on competing networks sometimes follow the same high-concept idea. Even in publishing, you don't have to look far to find books that are loosely based on another book, movie, or TV show.

So why can't I get rid of this sour taste in my mouth?

Technically, it isn't plagiarism, because not enough is being copied verbatim, and copyright protection doesn't extend to ideas. But if someone approached you with a project that followed the outline of JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone with the same precision a high-priced plastic surgeon would use on a boob job, would it matter that the protagonist's name was Henry Porter, or that it took place in Saskatchewan? Wouldn't it be the same—albeit lesser quality—book, just under a new name?

Being Satan's literary agent and all, I'm hoping you have some insight as to the ethical and moral aspects of this, since the legal holds little water. Is it just me? Am I being a nitwit for expecting people to, I don't know, come up with their own schtick? Or is the secret to writing well not to write well at all, but instead to copy those who do?

The key piece of info here is that this is a beginner online writing group. We ALL start out creating works that look and sound like our teachers: writers, composers, artists. This is the equivalent of plopping your tailfeathers on a campstool at the Loover in Paris France and doing the Mona Lisa. I myself shamelessly ripped off one of Mary Stewart's novels for an undergrad comp class at Satan's School for Literary Agents.

It's a learning device.

The problem is if you don't understand it's a learning device and you send it off to me. I'm not going to hang your Mona Lisa knock off on my wall and I'm not going to take your JK Rowling novel out of my slush pile.

For the purposes of learning though, there's a whole lot to be said for close study of masters of craft. I've often told aspiring novelists to pick a novel they truly love and analyze it very very closely as a writer, not a reader.

Much like the earlier post about Joshua Bell in the WDC metro: the people who paused were the ones who really KNEW music and violins. Studying something to learn it well is part of that process.


Anonymous said...

Ooooh...Mary Stewart! Was it The Ivy Tree? One of my favorites. I wrote to her a few years ago (she's quite old and living in Scotland) and she wrote me back! What a nice lady.

Miss Snark said...

Gabriel Hounds.
I loved that book a LOT.

Bill Peschel said...

Now, there's one slight variation. Lawrence Block, in one of his "how to write" collections, wrote a column in which he says that, sometimes, he'll read a short story, and use that as an inspiration for his own work. He's not using it as a template, but he's taking the mainspring of the plot, and twisting it into a different direction.

What's also important to note is that the finished short story is written in Block's voice, and the result might end up completely divorced from its source material.

Kimber Li said...

Good advice, Miss Snark. I wrote dozens of Bionic Woman episodes when I was kid. Nowadays, my heroines find their own ways to whoop bad guy butkis.

Anonymous said...

"Writing is a difficult trade which must be learned slowly by reading great authors; by try at the outset to imitate them; by daring to be original; by destroying one's first productions"
Andre Maurois (French Novelist)

I'm a trainee teacher and recently had a big argument with one of my lecturers over this. She was complaining that one of her otherwise very gifted primary-school students just couldn't get the hang of originality in narrative. She'd been completely ignoring that this is what ALL her students were doing, she just expected too much from someone otherwise very smart and talented. I had to tell her that ALMOST EVERYONE goes through this derivative stage and there's only so much you can expect from a 12 year old. I don't think she agreed even at the end. I hope she hasn't destroyed the confidence of a future author.

A Paperback Writer said...

To Anon and Miss Snark -- OOH! Love Mary Stewart! I fell in love with her Arthur books when I was in high school.
To S. F:
Nicely tell this teacher that gifted kids have to learn just like everybody else. I've been teaching gifted kids (ages 12-15) for 20 years. I FREQUENTLY encourage pastiche writing, having them PURPOSELY try out the style of another author to explore. What better way to learn?
I had an English teacher when I was 17 who made us try this. I had all kinds of fun trying to write like Kahlil Gibran, Edgar Lee Masters, and Robert Burns. Sometimes I still do it for a writing/creativity exercise.
As long as the writer (kid or adult) knows it's just an exercise to stretch one's abilities, there's no harm. I think it can be good for anyone who's still experimenting.
It's only a problem when the adult writer can't/won't admit they're using pastiche.

Anonymous said...

I can see how someone writing ripoffs like that would put a bad taste in the poster's mouth. Hell, even fanfic (usually) tries to follow its own semi-original plotline.

What's got me is this, though: Technically, it isn't plagiarism, because not enough is being copied verbatim,

If it's the same plot, same characters, any verbatim chunks, and no one's calling them out on it/encouraging them to move past this, then I'd abandon ship ASAP. If there's no push to grow in this environment, then what are your chances of making notable progression?

I suppose that if they're calling exactly what they're doing, it wouldn't be quite as bad as what I'm used to seeing--n00b/crap writers blatantly ripping off full plots of other works and demanding praise for their efforts. But still: pastiche is a replication of style, not copying lines and scenes and plot twists. I'd expect better.

Anonymous said...

Deconstructing is one thing. Passing it off as completely original without declaring it a practice round is completely different, IMHO.

Miss Snark's right in that context plays an important part in this scenario. Consider first what your expectations are from this group and stack them against the intentions of the group members. If they don't mesh, perhaps the best thing for all involved is to bail out.

Sean Lindsay said...

They follow the same tone, the same plot, the same scenes, the same characters, often down to the letter, but no actual copying is being done.

This is copying. It doesn't have to be verbatim text to be plagiarism, it just makes it easier to prove. A preponderance of similarities is enough to convict a writer in the court of media opinion.

It's fair to use this privately as a learning exercise, as Miss Snark points out, and most genre fiction is built on "exploring" ideas/concepts from earlier works. But the moderator of the writing group should be reminding people not to deliberately copy elements of other work. Readers notice.

Twill said...

If it has the same plot, even with different characters it could still be considered plagiarism. You can't own ideas, but a plot is a constructed set of relationships between events and characters. If it isn't original, it isn't yours.

Besides, as Uncle Harlan demonstrated against Terminator, you don't even have to have stolen a plot or any characters to lose in a court of law.

Anonymous said...

LOVE Mary Stewart. And THE GABRIEL HOUNDS is one of my favorites.

Beth said...

I went through an imitative stage...and Mary Stewart was the author I most wanted to imitate.

Anonymous said...

I've seen people online who think that it isn't plagiarism if you take a novel or short story and just change around the words in each individual phrase, as in turning "the dog ate the red slipper" to "the red slipper was eaten by the dog" and so on throught the entire story.

That's still plagiarism. Also, though plot ideas can't be copyrighted, and rough plot outlines can't either, anything that imitates a demonstratably unique set of plot twists is plagiarism.

Therefore, you can have a thousand stories about a guy who gets bitten by a werewolf, becomes a werewolf himself, and then gets killed by the end. That's not plagiarism. The plot outline isn't unique enough.

But if someone publishes a story that is based on the unique plot twists of Jurassic Park, there will be a lawsuit.

Anonymous said...

Wow. You're suggesting I write a book similar to (without copying overmuch) David Copperfield and e- it off to you, Miss Snark? ;)

Anonymous said...

I hope this doesn't sound too off topic, but I was watching a top hits program, and at least half a dozen musicians got in legal trouble following their song's success for using a riff or a sample uncredited. It happens in every mediumm.

I think some of plagiarism is done unconsciously. I'm a lifestyle/humor colunist and at the beginning, my columns were heavily Dave Barry-esque. I see his influence in a lot of syndicated columnists.

My brain lifts scenes from other books I've enjoyed naturally. But it's up to me to go back and recognize this and figure out a way to make them distinctly mine.

I don't plagiarize on purpose, but I'm humble enough to realize that I have a lot more influences than I would like.

Anonymous said...

Imitation may happen subconciously, but plagiarism takes effort.

Kaavya Viswanathan blamed her photographic memory as the reason lines from other books ended up in hers. But if her memory was indeed so top notch, shouldn't she have also remembered which books those lines came from? Her readers certainly did.

I agree that it's normal for people to go through an imitative stage in writing, but as many have already said, writing a novel that reads as if it could have been written by Famous Author is not on the same level as writing a book that reads as if it were Famous Author's First and Most Well Known Novel.

Deconstructing a novel or experimenting with an author's style shows a desire to learn how things work-an admirable quality in its own right. However, using novels as templates because it's easier than putting good old fashioned hard work into the project negates any such justification. It's cheating, pure and simple.

Like Randomsome1 said above, if they're not fessing up in a disclaimer or being called out on this by the group owners or mods, be wary. Could be these writers are more interested in the prestige (*big laugh*) of being a writer than in the craft, itself. And if that is the case, it's probable the only people they wish to help are themselves.

Anonymous said...

Gabby, very well said. It is cheating. And it can be a problem with online groups. There's something about a live group, even if there is no leader, that imparts a sense of morality. You see these are real people, writers who have put in the hard work and they'd like to get their concept published, not give it away to someone who can't come up with their own.

I was at a workshop and one person very clearly took aspects of Potter to construct his manuscript. But he left out all the good parts! He had even taken the odd names of the teachers and twisted them slightly. So you had the humor of these silly names and the seriousness of a boarding school. Someone mentioned this but he truly seemed unaware of what he was doing.

Anonymous said...

"I've seen people online who think that it isn't plagiarism if you take a novel or short story and just change around the words in each individual phrase"

Maybe you have, but they're idiots. Do you listen to idiots, whether they're online or in real life? I don't.

The original poster is either too good or too moral for his/her online writing group (sounds more like a support group, if you're not allowed to criticize the members for plagiarism). Maybe you don't want a beginner's writing group. Or maybe you need a live one, as someone suggested.

As far as the overall issue goes, there's always, in the back of my mind, the famous rejection "what's good isn't original, and what's original isn't good." I live in fear of hearing that, so I reread anything I write (and submit) to make sure I haven't stolen from one of my many literary influences.

Or rather, I did that back when I was writing and submitting.