Yes, this is filled with whisky

Yes, this is filled with whisky

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Tuesday afternoon at the Question Emporium

After attending a conference, I made some great connections with aspiring authors. We created a critique group and it just happened that my manuscript was the first to be disseminated. A couple of the other authors in our critique group decided to do complete rewrites of their manuscripts while reading my final draft. Three weeks later, I received one person's newest draft. Much to my surprise, fifty pages into the manuscript, I discovered three of my most carefully crafted metaphors (and I'm not talking about some cliche like "the place was crawling with cops") in her book. I noted it in the margin of her document, but I really feel that more should be said. I feel violated as an author and a person.

My manuscript has been requested by several literary agents and so it does stand a chance to be published. I worry about someone else querying a novel in the same genre with my words and ideas written as her own.

How should I deal with this situation? I have no problem confronting the writer, but I would like to do so in a professional manner.

So, now I have to actually write all my own metaphors?  I steal from people all the time.  You think I made up "slithery Barbara Poelle" and  "posse of Fabulosity?" Hell no. I stole them from Twitter and use them without shame. The first use of "Herpet-American assistant" for my stuffed 14-foot boa was by Abby Zidle. You'll notice you never see her name mentioned again when I use it.

A carefully crafted metaphor is what: five words? Six?  No matter how you slice and dice it** that's fair use.

And let's stand at the other side of this and remember that if she read it in your manuscript first, it was a metaphor that felt so true and so real that it sank into her mind and became exactly how something is described.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery** and all that.

I recognize plagiarism is a very VERY serious problem, but this is hitting an ant with an anvil.**  Just note in the margins something breezy like "I'm so glad you liked my metaphor!" No need to call the police quite yet.

I assure you that there isn't going to be a problem with an agent reading your work or hers and wondering who came up with the metaphor first.

And you can't protect ideas. Don't even think about worrying about that. Even if every writer in your group started with your EXACT idea, the execution would be totally different. Don't believe me? Look at any of the writing contests on this blog and others. Everyone starts with the same word prompts or hints and no one comes close to writing the same story as anyone else.

You need to get used to the idea that people will use your words either intentionally or un.  What are you going to do when you're published? Pursue everyone who uses your phrase on their blog?

Simmer down. Write. Quit obsessing.  If you feel the need to obsess about things, the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin is still up for debate.**

You're at the top of a slippery slope** that leads to people sending me password protected manuscripts; asking about how we watermark manuscripts; or being unwilling to even query me until I've answered 15 questions verifying I won't steal their work. This is not the slope you want to sled down.

**also stolen


alwayscoffee said...

Wise words. I'm passing a link to this around. :)

Rick Daley said...

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery**

**also also stolen

WORD VERIFICATION: coguel. A duel guel.

L.G.Smith said...

I've had that happen with critique partners too. I don't think it was intentional, rising to the level of plagiarism, but rather an unconscious regurgitation of something they consumed, processed, and spit back out in their own way. I guess it just happens.

Patty Blount said...

Wow, so happy to see you address this, as it's been a deep, dark fear of mine for years now.

I read A LOT and I read fast. During a weekend without kids, I may get lucky and finish 4 or 5 novels. The downside to all this reading is I forget much of what I've read. I've read Sean's book three times now (it gets better every time I do.)

You know how your writing tends to take on the voice of whatever author you're reading at the moment? I think that could be what's happening here.

I've been so worried about accidentally plagiarizing someone's work, there are times it all but paralyzes me.

Joelle said...

I have two comments. First...some of my most finely crafted metaphors are lying on the cutting room floor after my editor got hold of my manuscript...or I cut the whole passage they were in, or whatever. A manuscript is a work in progress, so I wouldn't get too attached to anything in it until you're holding the finished book in your hands.

The other comment is this...and I speak from experience. I think a mistake that many writers make is meeting other writers and clicking instantly so they think a critique group is a great idea. Or they sign up through SCBWI or other organizations to get matched up or whatever. I've tried both of these and they have not worked because I do not KNOW the writers and they do not KNOW me and therefore, there is no basis for trust. For the first time in my life, I have a wonderful critique group (for about 2 years now). I have only met one of the three in person, but I've known them online/emails for years. We had exchanged emails, secrets, trials, bits of writing, doubts and frustrations for several years before we ever decided forming a critique group was a good idea. I trust them without reservation. I can speak frankly, they tell me the truth, if they lift something from my book or vice versa, we know it's just what Janet says, and they are truly my dear friends. I highly suggest you take the time to find people like this to form a critique group with instead of just someone you met briefly. While exactly what you've done has worked out very well for many, many writers, it doesn't actually sound like it's worked out that well for you. Just a thought.

Bill Cameron said...

The first time I saw one of my own "finely crafted metaphors" in someone else's manuscript, I felt like I'd really arrived. Then I realized the other manuscript pre-dated my own work by several years.

And there you go.

BP said...

I totally agree. Although getting the credit is nice (and in most cases legally obligated), true writers write for their work to be read, not for the applause. If you've got minions copying your work 'round the globe, as long as your cliches are getting read internationally, why sweat it? Not every writer gets that opportunity. I would take it as flattery and move on, too.

Shannon Heather said...

Quit jumping the shark. A few borrowed metaphors won't nuke the fridge. If they are pilot fishing your ideas toward their own MS's, find a different group.

All metaphors *borrowed*. :-)

SBJones said...

It's one thing to be attached to your work and to be proud of it. It's another to be so obsessed that you sit in the dark and mumble about how precious your manuscript is.

There is a reason copyright doesn't protect names, ideas and facts. Don't let things like this make you become a 6th grader again and pout that someone has the same shirt as you. Polish up your work and get it out there.

This is my favorite: This is stupid with a budget.

JS said...

Bill Cameron, we are twin souls on that one. Also, I loved Lost Dog with a wild, unholy passion.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I'll take a different approach than the "it's no big deal" response: whether it is or isn't, you already noted it. Unless this writer does it again or worse, hope it was the unconscious sort of copying that sometimes happens when you've read something breathtaking and let it go. If it continues, don't let that person read your work, even if it means finding a different group. She'll have to stand on her own feet at some point to make it as a writer, and if she can't, it will show.

jesse said...

About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment.


alaskaravenclaw said...

Whenever I come up with a particularly clever line, I always find it's already been pre-stolen by Terry Pratchett.

Bill Cameron said...

JS, your wild, unholy passion pleases me. :)

wry wryter said...

Ms. Trite, her first name is Cliché, (she’s French) has stolen particularly clever lines, from every one of the posters today because to stand on her own is quite difficult. She sits in the dark and mumbles a few borrowed metaphors and considers her writing them down the greatest form of flattery. Like the swimmer said, simmer down and quit obsessing because it’s just a thought that to steal with good judgment is an unholy passion for twin souls. I had this happen and I totally agree with these wise words Ms. Trite says because a deep dark fear of hers is that she will have to actually write all of her own metaphors.

Ms. Trite says borrowing words from writers is like borrowing cups of sugar from the neighbor. Their cake and hers may look the same but Ms. Trite’s is sweeter. They don’t call her ‘sweet n low’ for nothing.

Terri Coop said...

"Stupid with a budget" I am so going to steal that. My fav is "That's fancy terrible. That's terrible with raisins in it." And, yes, it is a purloined quote.

Here's one from my days with the prosecutor's office. A real exchange with a judge:

Judge: "And what is he charged with?"

Me: "Felony Stupid, Your Honor."

Judge: "Ah, as opposed to Misdemeanor Dumb."

That was a real conversation in a real courtroom with a real court reporter and it's not even all original!

If you're this tense now, the vibe is going to come through with prospective agents. I am sure no agent has ever signed someone on the basis of a clever metaphor. So, lighten up! Someone wanting to sample you shows that your voice is ringing through.


Marsha Sigman said...

I love metaphors. And borrowing/stealing them.

That chick's slinky is kinked.

Maybe she doesn't have all her dogs on one leash. (I'm not even really sure what that last one means but I like it)

jjdebenedictis said...

I'll go against the crowd and say that--while it's true you can't be precious about your words--there's also no reason to trust that writer with your work again.

Maybe she did it unconsciously, or maybe she really is a skeevy, scummy idea-poacher. You're allowed to feel offended; just don't get obsessed.

And, when you're feeling crabby about it all, here's what you console yourself with:

It really doesn't matter that she stole your metaphor. You will come up with more.

But she won't.

debbi said...

I am actually so happy to read this from another side. The more I read published, wonderful novels in my genre, the more descriptions and details I find in them that I had included in my own work - thinking I was totally original! I have been rewriting bits of description or dialog, worried that someone will link my book with something already published, that it's stopped me from working on the serious revisions it needs! Maybe now I can let small coincidences go...