Monday, April 27, 2015

Query question: my novel isn't a ripoff, I swear

I've just had a terrible shock.  I have been taking my time meandering through all your author's websites.  There is so much to read on the blog AND also to keep up with the daily writing you do, fun commenters, other blogs, my own work and then, of course my full time gig, mothering/homeschooling.

I just read this in the works of Phillip DePoy: "2013 December's Thorn... Fever's wife? The mythology of Tristan and Isolde combines with Fever's dim past". And this: "To his family home in Blue Mountain, a small town in Georgia's Appalachian Mountains."

I know my story and this one cannot be the same at all from the little blurb I have read. My ms was written last summer before I had even heard of your blog. My point is, my story takes place in Appalachia in the Georgia Mountains and the mythology of Tristan and Isolde combine with my character's lives as well.  It wouldn't/couldn't happen again, such an odd coincidence? But what if I did query you and there were these bizarre similarities? What if I hadn't gone through all your authors books and queried?! I might not comb through other agent's websites as I do yours. This is so strange, would an agent see something like this as a joke? Or worse somehow, along the lines of plagiarism???

Yikes my heart skipped a beat.  To have two such strange coincidences...if this book also has to do with the Foxfire Magazine...errg. It's not like being queried for another vampire novel.  It just seems so strange. I know I am overreacting. Would you notice something like this? And if so what would your reaction be?

I most likely will not notice if you too use a long established literary trope like Tristan and Isolde as the narrative blueprint for your novel.  Well, I'll notice the Tristan and Isolde part, I just won't assume you're lifting it wholesale from one of my client's books.

Tristan and Isolde is everyone's to use. As is Romeo and Juliet. As is "a monkey and horse walked in to a bar."

On the other hand, we're going to have some problems if you query me for an ex-military policeman, doing the vagabond shuffle, carrying only a toothbrush, and getting into trouble in cafes where he drinks too much coffee.

That's NOT a trope, that's a fully fleshed out character and Lee Child isn't a guy you'd want to steal from. 

Do you see the difference?

And even if you lifted every single element of Phillip DePoy's amazing Fever story, unless you write as well as he does, you're out of luck that I'd want to read it.

As long as you really are doing your own work you'll be ok. 



Ellipsis Flood said...

I'd love to see a novel using the "a monkey and horse walked into a bar" narrative.

I do wonder, however, where that line lies. Reacher himself is a very specific and unique character, but he too is based on a thing that has been done before. It probably depends on the reader and the thing in question.

DeadSpiderEye said...

A monkey and horse walk into a bar, the barman says, 'You two looked a bit fatigued, are you by chance weary from an arduous day on the road?'.

The monkey replies 'Too right, we've just come all the way from Tucumcari'.

'I'm talking to the organ grinder not the monkey,'the barman says.

'That's a horse you fool' says the monkey.

'Tuh, you can't hear that howling? he's just trod on the cat's testicles'.

Anonymous said...

Heh, DeadSpiderEye.

FAR RIDER was rejected by a top agent because he said it might be too similar to something he already repped. He and his assistant debated it and liked the writing, but in the end they just felt it was too close. It happens.

I've read the other books and they aren't that similar, but based on a query and five pages, an agent has to make a judgment.

And so it goes, another thing for woodland creatures to worry about.

I, like Angie, am still curious to know more about the car fire with Sue Grafton. Cliff hangers are only fun if they are eventually resolved. *taps foot*

Susan Bonifant said...

Two things come to mind. One, that an oft-used story line can still be fresh with your treatment of it. And two, that we writers can be so wary of wrongdoing we become spooked by just the THOUGHT of it. Then we forget ourselves.

I remember struggling and struggling to come up with a perfect name for my lovable-yet-beleaguered MC and I'm not kidding when I say it was easier to name my writer-cat, Gus. (Okay, truth: I put kitten Gus on FB and asked for suggestions and a cellist said, "He looks like a Gustav Mahler to me.")

My MC became Aggie.

Long after,John Grisham wrote a short with an MC called Aggie.

I was CRESTFALLEN. I could FEEL the color drain from my face. I fretted and fretted until my husband said, "Stop. I think John will be okay with it."

And then I remembered myself. Not one agent has responded to my queries with "I'd say yes, but John will not be okay with your MC's name."

There's stealing, and there's coincidence.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I missed the WIR comment chain. My spaceflight to Carkoon has had the WORST wifi... you wouldn't believe it! And here I was in the midst of a fantastic game of bocci ball when Janet's Grammar Police arrived to cart me off.

To the topic at hand - I want to say it was either Tolkien or Lewis who were once quoted as saying "great writers don't rip one person off... they rip EVERYONE off"

Their point was just that you can't write in a vacuum. It's just not possible. So no matter what you do, you're borrowing from somewhere or someone or something. The line between taking a usual device, name, location or trope versus copying entire segments of a story or a blueprint of a character of course are different things.

To the rest - See you soon Carkoon! Should arrive at the one-way wormhole to oblivion in a week or two.

Colin Smith said...

I think we've been around this barn before from a different angle. There are only so many basic plots in the world (did someone say there were five?), so everyone at some point is drawing from the same pool. What matters, at least as I understand it, is the way YOU deal with that story. Take for example the Percy Jackson novels. Doesn't the premise sound a lot like Harry Potter? Percy's about the same age, he discovers something magical about himself, he goes off to "school" to learn more and becomes embroiled in an adventure. His best friends are even a girl and a boy! But when you get down to the details of the story, the characters, the setting, the plot, etc., they are very different stories.

This is how classic novel and fairy tale re-tellings work. Something about the plot resonates with familiarity, but the way the author treats that plot is fresh and original enough to keep us engaged.

As Julie said, the only reason I can think of why an agent would have second thoughts about your novel's plot (at least in this regard) is if it's too close to something s/he already reps. But that could be as general as "it's a vampire story, and I just signed Frank N. Stein and his brilliant blood-sucking thriller." Agents don't like competing with themselves.

All the best to you, OP (that's Ossum Pen-wielder, btw).

InkStainedWench said...

I write mysteries, so I think in terms of motives, rather than plots. Plot and characterization hinge on motive. And yet, there really are very few reasons for someone to commit a crime: money, lust, revenge, self-defense. I'm always amazed at how many stories can be generated by so few basic motives.

Donnaeve said...

Oh the worry. It's like that commercial with the dog and his bone he carries from place to place.

Several years ago I worried over the name of a minor character in someone else's book that was the name of my main character in my book. On top of that, there was a family dynamic with a northern/southern element albeit in the reverse. More worry.

In this case, what is more glaring to the questioner is the setting along with the Tristan/Isolde connection. None of this matters, but I can imagine the jolt felt here. I

Flowers McGrath said...

Great answer! Thanks, Janet.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

While I've never held a Foxfire magazine in my hands, I was able to (with a little luck and patience) get a full set of the Foxfire books. They feature in my werewolf novels, which have nothing to do with Tristan and Isolde. To my knowledge.

But I can understand how that chill must've felt, boy howdy.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

These things happen. You think you've written the most unique story in the world and it turns out it's not. Trust me, it's not the end of the world.

I sent a sample of a story to my first agent. It was about a young man who keeps trying to kill himself over and over, but he can't quite seem to die. I called it "Thirty-three." My agent said it was too dark and no one would want to read a book about a boy who kills himself 33 times. I quit the novel. About a year or so later I ran across a book called The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand, a book about a boy who kill himself 39 times, but never seems to die.

In The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley, there's a subplot about two teens with cancer. I keep getting emails telling me how much like The Fault in Our Stars that subplot is. And they're right. Except, I wrote that story 2 years before John Green published his cancer book.

My first book, The Deathday Letter, was about a world where everyone receives a letter 24 hours before they die telling them they have 24 hours to live. The story follows a boy named Ollie through his last day of life. I recently became aware of a book called Denton Little's Deathdate, a book about a world where everyone knows they day they're going to die. The story follows the main character through his last day of life. Even weirder is that the love interests in both our books are named Veronica, and his main character's name is Denton—an uncommon name—which is also my brother's middle name.

Coincidences happen. Even really weird ones. You think you've written a wholly unique book that no one could have possibly ever come up with, but you're probably wrong. What sets books apart is how you write them. Your ideas may not be unique, but your execution is. That's how you set yourself apart from similar plots.

S.D.King said...

I just picked up a new critique partner and upon receiving her first two chapters and synopsis, I realize that her MG novel has many plot points similar to mine. I didn't panic, but I began to wonder if agents keep seeing the same thing day after day. Maybe 90% of all MG writers keep cranking out the same stuff.
So - right now - in the presence of these witnesses - I call dibs on "kid finds relic that belonged to Rasputin." By chance is anybody out there a notary?

Stephen Parks said...

There’s coincidence and there’s inevitability.

My current WiP is about the early days of interstellar exploration. Well, the closest Sun-like star is Tau Ceti, and is the setting for much of my story. Inevitably, a lot of writers in this genre have used Tau Ceti as a location.

Initially it freaked me out, back in December, when I saw that someone had self-published a story whose one-line summary sounded like my WiP, in essence “First human deep space mission goes to Tau Ceti and things go wrong.” But my story is so much more than that, and I suspect so is the other author’s (I haven’t and won’t read it).

The one thing that I am glad about is that once I had my story’s title set, I bought the domain name. It currently just directs to a landing page on my site, but I have it for future use, and possibly more importantly, no one else has it.

Craig said...

A genre is a genre because of its relationship with others works of a similar order. Parallels happen. There is nothing you can do except pay homage to those who went before by doing the best you can.

If you get all the way to the bottom of it most works carry genes from the Bard. Romeo and Juliet run through the bloodstream of every writer. Even Le Morte de Arthur is based there.

If you do epic, urban or high fantasy be sure to tip you hat to Tolkien. There is no way you can avoid using some of his symbolism.

If you have ever read the Sword of Shannara by Brooks it looks, at times, like he rewrote Tolkien page by page. The big question is if Brooks should be credited with the Lucas effect, starting you story in the middle? I think he did it first but Star Wars has a bigger market.

Megan V said...

That's the thing about writing

The ideas are inevitably the same, the expression of those ideas are a different ballgame.

There are plenty of coincidences in this life. If you let yourself get caught up in coincidences, you'll miss the adventures.

Like when a monkey and horse walked into a bar and...

Pharosian said...

I remember reading a couple of years ago about speculation in some quarters that Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games ripped off a Japanese movie called Battle Royale.

It made me mad, because I could see that as an author, the chances that I would be familiar with any Japanese movie would be slim at best. It seemed extremely unlikely to me that she had ripped it off, yet these people were so rabid in their condemnation. Sheesh.

Same with the folks who claimed JK Rowling had ripped off "their" ideas re: Harry Potter.

When plagiarism actually occurs, it's on a much more granular level than using the same setup as Romeo & Juliet or Cinderella or Tristan & Isolde. . . Plagiarists take whole chunks of the writing (if not the whole thing) and just change a few names and words around here and there.

Elissa M said...

My sister is a middle school librarian. She can rattle off at least a dozen "Boy in Wizard School" titles that were published way before Rowling even finished writing Harry Potter.

There are no new stories on this earth. Only new ways to tell them.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I'm in a writers group where most write memoir. Seven Letters From Paris by Samantha Verant is a true love story so close to mine that now I'll never be able to publish my memoir.

When I recounted her book to my friends they were scandalized that she'd stolen my story. Samantha and I had a good laugh over that. She says most people can't believe her memoir is a true story.

NotaWarriorPrincess said...

Sorry, Craig, but Le Morte dArtur would have a very VERY hard time being based in Shakespeare, who was born about a century after Malory wrote it. In fact one of the curious things about Shakespeare is that he didn't write anything about Arthur or "the Matter of Brittain" except for some stories incidental to it by virtue of being included in Holinshead's use of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

This is why no one willingly sits next to medievalists....

Craig said...

Okay, sorry. I am somewhat time warped at the moment and also need to request amnesty for the strange sentence structure I used.



It is that time of year and the poor thing is in need. That is not the real reason not to kiss it.

It has been rather gassy since cleaning the sewers at the prison. That gas brought the pool up to 87degrees F but she sometimes burps and it does odd things to peoples eyebrows.

I would appreciate that you accept my word on this. The other reason is that I don't fully understand the bacteria here and it might do other strange things to you.

The brown ale sold by the street venders is also something to watch out for. It is bootleg.

Anonymous said...

It's so, so important to understand the difference between ideas and tropes. I don't think anyone here would have that problem, but a writing group I used to belong to fell apart because a beginning writer claimed her 'ideas' were being stolen, because another writer just happened to be using the same old fantasy tropes that Terry Brooks used long before then. And some of his tropes were taken from Tolkein. And even Tolkein wasn't the originator of all the tropes - his dwarves came from Norse mythology, and the ring seems to have come from finding a ring near an ancient Roman temple (if anyone else wants to read it, it's from History Today) Rings were very important culturally to ancient peoples, not only as ornaments, but as a symbol for eternity - rings have no beginnings or ends; they just go on forever.

Yesterday, at the author panel I attended at the local Fan Expo, the moderator - in lieu of questions from the audience - decided to ask that over-asked over-simplified question normally asked of authors: Where do you get your ideas?

One author got his idea for a thriller from a visit to Wales. Another got her idea for a historical fantasy from... a visit to Wales. Yet their novels were not only worlds apart, they were centuries apart.

Another author got an idea for a contemporary Arthur retelling just from seeing a haze over a local mid-city lake and thinking how it seemed so possible that the Lady of the Lake could be in that haze. Arthur and his mythology are also tropes. Mythology is full of tropes. That's where tropes are born.

So, just having similar ideas (and ideas are not copyrightable, no matter what that one beginning writer thought before the group fell apart), is not plagiarism. Parallel invention is a real thing: people discovered the wheel at two different times on two different continents independently of each other. It happens, and it's a part of human development.

I had a whole paragraph here about how a novel doesn't have to be *that* similar for an agent to pass on it, just a certain amount of similar... but then Colin said the same thing much more succinctly. I'd curse him, but he's already on Carkoon. Although I still say Carkoon has got to be more hospitable than the temperature in my house right now.

I started writing my series a couple decades ago (I did set it - and all writing - aside for a number of years, but I did come back to these again, obviously), and in that time, there have been two glaring coincidences that have appeared. Both of them made me question my stories (one more than the other), but in the end, I stuck by them both. One is an entirely different genre, and the other is handled somewhat differently. I'm not saying mine is completely original, but as someone here said, nothing really is.

Anonymous said...

Continuing on, because Blogger told me in no uncertain words that I don't know how to keep a post short, clipped, and precise:

Pharosian: As soon as something becomes really famous, all the people who had similar ideas (published or not) come to the forefront and scream "That's my idea!" If someone were to read my stories and say, "That's exactly like Buttonweezer's 'Kiss of the Kisser'", my only defence would be that I had never heard of Buttonweezer's novel, let alone read it. I don't think any famous author who hasn't committed out-and-out plagiarism (as in, word-for-word) has ever been convicted of it, although the more famous an author is, the more charges there will be.

I'm reminded of two similar but completely different occurrences. The first is those funnies (whether true or not) of students complaining that Shakespeare and/or the Bible are so full of cliches.

The second is the fellow some years ago, who went onto Ebay to sell these 'great ideas for Hollywood blockbusters'. "They'll make millions for you, and I'll give you full rights for only $1 million". All I remember is that he was ridiculed throughout the internetverse. I'm pretty sure no one bought his ideas. I don't know if he ever realized that ideas are not worth millions of dollars - they're a dime a dozen. It's the execution that makes them valuable.

Christina Seine said...

I too apologize for not commenting on the WIR yesterday and also for not getting around to everyone's blogs yet! I always forget how busy this time of year is. I think my brain does that on purpose.

It's funny that this subject came up today. I pondered this very subject yesterday because I was listening to a 70s rock station on Pandora and a couple songs came up that sounded so much like other songs that I wondered if lawsuits were ever filed over them. I spend a lot of time worrying that someone will pitch my story before I do (how silly is that, really?) and that's one of the main reasons I check the Publisher's Marketplace deals email every day. I try to read across my genre as much as possible too, but there's no way one can read everything (unless you count Junie B Jones and the Minecraft novels, which my kids love having read to them). It is possible, however, to read “I’ll Love You Forever” ever night to your kids and tear up at the end Every Time.

Sometimes I see other book titles I want to read and think, DARN! Why didn’t I think of that? There is a writer, for example, who has re-told several well-known fairy tales from an Alaskan perspective that my kids and I adore. Cinderella doesn’t lose her slipper at the ball, she loses her ExtraTough (boot) at the salmon festival. Snow White doesn’t live with seven dwarves but with seven dog from her dogsled. Brilliant!

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, Craig. If I'd read your post before I posted mine, I would have titled Felix's novel "Kiss of the Carkoon Dragon". Which I think is a much better title than "Kiss of the Kisser"... though who knows how imaginative Felix is?

LynnRodz said...

In my query (that I'm still working on) I use both Jamie Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Alyson Richman's The Lost Wife as comp titles for my novel. I wrote the first draft before reading either book, but in all three stories one of the MCs is an artist, letters written from one MC is never received by the other which changes their lives completely, and it isn't until decades later that the two main characters meet again. Still, all three stories are completely different.

As the Good Book says, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."

Anonymous said...

I did not know there would be dragons on Carkoon... I am biting my nails. I guess if I would have done the research on my space-heist book, I would know how to turn a ship around... but alas...

Question for Janet - How do intellectual rights work in writing? What is being copyrighted? The main themes? Character names and generic profiles? Is the court the ultimate decider?

I mean, if fan-fic isn't considered a copyright infringement than I think the questioner is probably quite safe. But where is the line?

Peggy Rothschild said...

This conversation brings to mind art classes where everyone is tasked with drawing or painting the same object/still life/figure. No two finished pieces ever look identical. It's our perspective and our execution that brings the final drawing or painting to life.

Thanks so much for hosting this blog. I'm learning so many things that I didn't even know I needed to know :D

REJourneys said...

Pharosian: Battle Royale was (also) a graphic novel (manga) in the 90s. Only in 2009 was it published in English as a novel. I understand what you mean though. It's possible for people to have the same ideas, and live across the globe, not knowing the other exists. It's cool if people have the thought "Hey, I've heard this before," but there is no need to get very angry over it. Like people always say, the truth comes out in the end. (I'm full of clichés today).

My friend, a Hunger Games fan, gave me the Battle Royale book as a gift one year. It's on my to read list that is far longer than it really should be.

Anyway, I always tell myself two things (both related): "If you can think it, someone has probably already done it," and "If you're thinking it, chances are someone had that thought, has that thought, and will have that thought long after you."

That's why for patents or copyright or what have you, it's "first to the market" kind of deal. It's impossible to pinpoint who actually had an idea first. (Note, I'm no lawyer so I probably got one of those wrong. It's just what I remember from my Business Law class).

Edit: I was asked to select all the cakes (with a given reference) for reCaptcha. I was afraid I missed one when I hit verify. Multiple choice is bad for me.

Kate Larkindale said...

Almost every time I go to the library and bring home a new batch of books I find something in one of them that throws me into a panic about how original my stories actually are. Here's one about a black ballerina struggling with body issues. Ack! I've written a black ballerina with body issues. Here's one about a classical musician hooking up with a rock star. Hang on, I wrote that story too!

You just have to accept that your ideas are not unique. How you tell them is.

Julia said...

What I really need is a way to download everything the QOKTU has posted directly into my brain in a rapid fashion. And then to index it. Or maybe to be able to mainline it or something, I haven't decided.

If any of you know of such a system, I can be reached at @mainlinetheshark or


Christina Seine said...

Like the Intersect!

Julia said...

Dear Janet and Blog Chums,

I have a terrible problem.

There's this incredible blog. And I seem to be stuck reading this blog at the cost of writing, in the hopes that the blog will teach me What I Need To Know - and in fear that, should I stop reading, I will Not Know What I Need To Know.

I'm wondering...

Is there a Bloganon out there? A Sharkanon? Something? Some way to know when to stop? Just say no?

To wit..


Colin Smith said...

The police break down the door and find Julia lying comotose at her computer. Detective Jones heaves a sigh.

"That's the third writer this week."

"What happened, sir?" says Morris.

"The poor creature was mainlining Shark."


"Like all addictions, it starts small. A comment here, a question there. Then you start reading articles, meeting other users, and before long you're into the Query Shark archives. Before you know it you're hooked. And if you're not careful..."

Jones pats his partner's shoulder.

"Come on Morris. Not much more we can do here."

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Home sick today, I've nothing to add. Oh wait, yes I do, I will comment with a couple of lines from a reply on my blog to AJ.

To write what you love is a joy. To be published, writing what you love, is a privilege. To make money, writing what you love, is the dream.

Okay, I'm back to the couch.

Pharosian said...

@Colin and Detective Jones: You crack me up!

@REJourneys: Yeah, I thought manga entered into the picture, but to be honest, I couldn't remember whether it was anime or manga. I just remember the outraged hissy-fit the commenters were having...

Ginger Mollymarilyn said...

Great question, great answer and great comments! WE all have commonalities, but we also have different experiences and that's what makes our stories unique.

DLM said...

All this talk of kissing - I am completely distracted and have lost my ability to contribute worthwhile statements.

Go kiss someone you love, y'all. I'ma be here nestling with Gossamer the Editor cat (< a href=> who was easy to name, but the fallout over it was hard to take ...< /a>)

Fretting to see whether that link will take ...

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Julia, your mainlining is called A BOOK.
Come on Janet it's time for a book.

Colin Smith said...

Almost, Diane... those pesky spaces between the "<" and the "a href", and between the "<" and the "/a" messed you up!

who was easy to name, but the fallout over it was hard to take ...

DLM said...

Colin, thank you. I KNEW those could not belong there, but I cut and pasted them still in there and I usually cut and paste as things are supposed to be used. Insert further excuses here: fatigue, incipient headache, distracted by the barium-green headlights my cat calls eyes, the cutest yellow puppy EVER - what have you. :)

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

the late, great Sam Rosenberg, in his book "The Come As You Are Masquerade Party," described himself as a literary detective who was often hired by lawyers defending plagiarism suits. His job was to analyze both books – the plaintiff's and the defendant's – and then find the earlier work that they both were based on. It never failed, he said, because ALL stories come from somewhere else.
On the other hand, it is a problem when an agent won't rep your book or an editor won't buy it, not because they didn't like it but because they also already have something kind of like it. To you there's no comparison, of course, but you can't convince 'em.

Julia said...

(CRASH!!!) <--- [Deliberate annoying overuse of exclamation points]

Julie lands on her side in her La-Z-Boy, to be found several hours - or maybe days - later, an expression of idiotic glee on her face and iPhone in hand by DI Ramora Jones and DC Bass King. Ramora looks at the scene, searching for further clues.

"Look, boss, over here," Bass calls.

Ramora looks over his shoulder and shakes his head. "Damn shame, that. If we'd gotten here sooner, we could've fed it... Saved the others."

"What is it?" Bass asks, peering into the fishtank, where the sad remains of fish carnage remain. "Some kind of snake?"

"No, Bass. When the fish in the room bob and float in the gloom... That's a Moray."

Anonymous said...

...that song will be in my head for days now...

In other news, found this on IFLScience: Scientists discover teeny tiny rare species of shark

(Normally I'd link to the original swource for the IFLScience information, but that's a PDF. You can find the link to the PDF in the above article - and it has more pictures.)

Anonymous said...

Here's a link to the actual announcement: Pocket sharks are among the world's rarest finds

Julia said...

bj - My job here is done.

AJ Blythe said...

Cw2Ns - I love the quote you posted in your comments and again here. I think I might have to stick it above my computer.

I've finally caught up with the last week of Janet and comments. I'm sure that altogether a novel is written weekly here. No wonder Colin had to send out Detective Jones!

There's been some awesome posts this week (as per normal) with fabulous insight by both QOTKU and you guys.

What I want to know is, why do you all get cake to prove you aren't a robot? None for me. Even the dancing robot has vanished *sad face*.