Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Oops. Did I Copy?

I just learned via HelenKay about the latest scandal concerning accusations of plagiarism by young writer Kaavya Viswanathan, whose first novel contains so many nearly-verbatim passages from Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings it's a wonder they didn't just save some cash and simply print up new covers to slap on McCafferty's print sheets. If I sound a bit bitter, it's because I just loved Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, so feel personally affronted on behalf of McCafferty, despite the fact the woman doesn't know me from the grocery store produce stock girl. Or, I suppose maybe McCafferty feels some tinge of pride that another writer thought her work good enough to repeat. Somehow, I doubt it.

However, as much as I don't really buy Viswanathan's statement-cum-apology - that all of the similarities between her book and McCafferty's originals were purely unintentional and subconscious - I kind of see what she's saying. Sort of. In a non-forgiving way.

See, I'm terrified of unintentionally plagiarising someone else's work. I'm scared to death that when I'm humming along at the keyboard and some particularly clever or perfect line or phrase comes to mind, that the reason it is so clever or perfect and, even more, came so easily is because I've read it before somewhere else and my subconscious retained it. Maybe the reason it feels so smooth and right is because it was smooth and right when some other writer wrote it first. And it had made such an impression the first time it now resides in a part of my brain that I don't even have control over, only to pop up and present itself as my own original brilliant idea. Kind of like a memory that you aren't certain is a real memory or maybe something you dreamt.

And it's not only exact wording or phrasing that worries me. It's entire story ideas. I'll come up with what seems to be an amazing story idea, unique and original (or at least as original as any story idea these days, when everything has been done and redone and redone again only in plaids instead of stripes), only to read a blurb on the back cover of some book I'm perusing a concept similar enough to my idea that my blood runs cold. Have I just spent weeks/months working on a story that has already been done exactly the same way, and I didn't even realize I'd already read it myself?

I know writers are supposed to be prolific readers. In order to know what readers want, what sells in the industry and what publishers are looking for, you have to do research in the form of reading what has already succeeded. I'm now dabbling in the paranormal subgenre, so it only makes sense that I should glom as many well-written paranormals as I can get my grubby little hands on, so I can see how to do it right. Get an idea of the ins and outs, the must-dos and taboos. I need to study that which I would create myself.

Except, I'm afraid that my work will be influenced by what I read. Maybe I'll unintentionally skim ideas off the stuff I really liked. Maybe a character or two of mine will take on shades of another character that I loved when I met him or her in another writer's work. Maybe some aspect of worldbuilding in the book I'm currently reading will burrow its way into my own imaginary universe that I'm supposed to be creating completely from scratch, with all of my own ideas.

Maybe readers of my stuff (someday) will furrow their brow in confusion, thinking that they'd read this before...only to discover that they have read it before, elsewhere. In another book. Not mine.

Now, I'm not worried that I'll ever be accused of plagiarism. I would never, ever do such a thing as steal another writer's work. Not only do I believe it a crime right up there with spam and virus production in terms of hateful behaviour, but it completely negates everything I aspire to be. If you don't have the ability to come up with your own words, you aren't a real writer. You are a copier. And you are really, really stupid to think you won't get caught. Did Bill Clinton teach you nothing?

But I do always have that nagging fear in a back corner of my mind that what I read will influence what I write a little too much. So I avoid reading in the genres in which I want to write. Because I can honestly say I've never copied something I haven't read.

Meanwhile, I think I'll head over to the bookstore this afternoon and pick up McCafferty's third book in the Sloppy trilogy, Charmed Thirds. It's in hardback, which will really mess up my matching set since the other two are trades. But I want to give Megan my support.


meljean brook said...

I have this fear too, and if I run across an author whose voice is very, very strong in a similar genre, I'll put it down so that I don't incorporate too much of it in my own language. I know I'm susceptible to it, so I just avoid it as much as possible. (And is also why I haven't read J.R. Ward -- the first couple of pages, I found her voice too I put 'er down, at least until I'm done with the WIP.)

But voice issues and passages like I'm seeing compared between Opal Mehta and Sloppy Firsts...I just don't know that it can be picked up to that degree without it being deliberate. A phrase, a metaphor -- definitely, those I can pick up without even thinking about it, and not even worrying about it all that much. But the dialogue, and character actions? I don't worry too much, and precisely because in the act of writing an original character, they do original, in-character things. They may be similar to other characters in other books I've read--I freaked out when I read DEVIL IN WINTER, and realized the main character had a line almost exactly! like something I'd already written for my hero--and I actually considered rewriting it for fear of "she took this line from Kleypas, oh god!" even though I could actually prove that I wrote it before the book came out...these things definitely go through my head.

But I kept it, because it was original, and it was true to the character. Some similarity and overlap is inevitable. But in the end, I think if there's an active attempt to be original, then it will show -- and even if a phrase comes through that you picked from elsewhere...well, hell, a lot of writing is exactly that. And it's richer for it, those layers of meaning and use -- as long as it's made your own and fits the story.

And anything that doesn't fit, that isn't your voice, will likely stand out upon editing and you'll have a good chance of catching anything that sounds great in the heat of the moment, but isn't really yours/part of the story.

Er, sorry for the incoherent rambling. Sum up: I think you'll notice if something really isn't yours, especially after a little time away from it (re-reading fifty pages later).

MaryF said...

I have the same fear, too, especially because I write what I love to read.

Have you seen this?