Plagiarism and theft, and why I don’t worry about either

After my last post on critique partners, I received a great email, with a great question. With her permission, I wanted to respond on the blog:

I’ve been considering publishing since last year, and I think I’m going to quit [my critique site] soon. It was pretty fun and helped me learn a lot, but it’s gotten to the point where posting online is no longer a good idea. I’m not really afraid of the little girls plagiarizing my stuff (which often is the case) as I am of the James Freys of this world.

For that matter, while I read your post about finding good CPs (which was a godsend, btw. I’ve been mulling over the need for CPs for a while), I saw you mention two writer forums where you used to hang out and swap critiques in. I don’t know if it’s because of the close encounters of the 3rd type with online plagiarism, but joining those forums is something that gives me the heebiejeebies. I know you persisted in the forums until you scored gold, and it’s not like I’m cutting corners. I’m merely and simply put: a coward. 

 I’m still hovering over that cliff between not starting the publishing process (revise, research, network) and starting it, so that’s also an obstacle I’m putting on myself. If I hauled my ass to finally get started and begun networking with people, the possibility of finding a CP that way would also open up.

 I edited the hell out of her email to lose any identifying details, so if there are any grammatical inconsistencies, they’re all mine. Bear with me, it’s 5am while I’m writing this post.

My boss said something to me the other day that popped into my head when reading this email: Other people rarely think of you as much as you think other people think of you.

In other words, I think there’s more of a tendency to worry about online plagiarism than there is actually evidence of it.

First of all, what’s the point? If you look at plagiarism cases that have hit the press, like James Frey, Cassie Edwards, and Kaavya Viswanatha, they all have one thing in common: they stole from published authors.

Seriously, this is a big distinction. They stole something that had already made it through the rounds of publication. They stole proven words. They didn’t go scouring the message boards looking for unpublished manuscripts. That’s like being an amateur designer and having someone break into your house to steal the half finished clothes you were sewing. Why bother? They’re not done, they can’t really be replicated, and who even knows if they’ll be a success?

Now, I know there are people on message boards who steal story ideas all the time, and then post them as their own. I remember a few years ago when I’d posted parts of my vampire story, and two days later, this other guy posted his vampire story, and said, “This was inspired by another story I read here on the forums.” And then he basically rewrote my scene his own way. I was pissed. I was furious. Seriously, I was ready to spit nails.

But you know what? His story was completely different from mine, despite having the same idea. He couldn’t write in my voice any more than I could write in his. My story didn’t sell. His story didn’t sell. Any harm done? No. As my husband likes to say, you make your own stress.

It’s just too much work to steal an untested manuscript, make it your own, and then submit it for publication. What happens when you’re going to have to write a sequel? What happens when you have to go through and revise, and the revisions aren’t in the right voice? And not just that, there are so many other creative steps along the way. The query letter. Brainstorming with your agent. Writing a synopsis. Writing an outline for the sequel. Chances are, even if someone steals your stuff, it’s not going to look very much like your stuff when they’re done with it.

The natural inclination is to think that our stuff is kinda, maybe, possibly amazing. Yeah, there are self doubts, but you’ve gotta have some confidence, too. I’ve said before, writers have to be a little bit arrogant to make it through this publishing game. You do. There are so many opportunities to get knocked down, if you don’t have a little arrogance to push you through, you’re never going to make it.

So let that confidence start now. Put some stuff out there. See what you get. Don’t be stupid about it: I never sent anyone my entire manuscript without knowing them first. I’m a chapter-at-a-time kinda gal. Even then, I wasn’t worried about plagiarism; I didn’t want an unpolished version of my MS floating around somewhere, so if I did sell it, there wouldn’t be evidence of crappier writing sitting on the internet.

And if you’re worried about your ideas being stolen? Well…isn’t there some saying about there only being seven stories in the world? I’ll admit, when I started writing Elemental, I was a little worried. There aren’t a lot of books out there about controlling the elements. I mean, there are, but they’re not exactly breaking the shelves at your local Barnes & Noble. I was worried about someone picking up my idea and writing their own. I felt fresh and original and new, and I didn’t want someone else snatching up my opportunity.

But then I realized that controlling the elements wasn’t that original. Anyone could write about that. Just like vampires aren’t all that original, or kids in a wizarding school, or writing about the south in the sixties. It’s the execution that makes a good story. It’s the characters, the passion, the moments that drag you along and won’t let you put a book down. People might pick a book up because of the idea, but they’re going to keep reading because of the writing. Just like that guy who was “inspired” by me on that message board years ago: he took my idea, but he didn’t write the same thing.

I’ll finish with Bobbie’s comment from the critique partner post the other day, because as always, she’s chock full of wisdom:

I’d just add to your list here that you have to BE a good critique partner to get a good one. It kind of goes along with your “Don’t be lazy” advice. But if you expect someone to take your writing seriously, you have to take theirs seriously. You have to decide their writing matters as much as yours, that their goals are as important as yours. (This attitude also helps you to be thrilled–rather than envious–as your partner progresses in the business.) When you step it up a notch, so will your more serious beta readers. I likely never would have come to care or think so much about scenes like the one with Gabriel and Michael if you hadn’t cared and thought so much about my characters’ scenes. You have to give at least as much as you want to get.

On a side note, Online Writers Workshop is another great site for finding critique partners. I’ve gotten some great help there as well as some hardcore, ego-crushing feedback, so you have to be prepared for that honesty you’re talking about.

So there you have it. Go out and be confident. (And careful.) And if you see someone steal your stuff and post their own version? Don’t be mad.

Be flattered.


3 thoughts on “Plagiarism and theft, and why I don’t worry about either

  1. I don’t post my stuff online (except for queries), but that’s because I’m more concerned with, as you said, editors seeing something unpolished and unrepresentative of my best work. I agree with all you’ve said here, Brigid. It just doesn’t pay to stress over stuff like this. I mean, you should be smart, but the risk overall seems pretty low.

  2. I’ve mostly taken to posting stuff online that I won’t try and get published…but I do try to polish up whatever I put online as much as I can. Don’t want a bunch of crap to appear under my name after all. hehe

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