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About Writing Right: The Blog

PLAGIARISM ... OR BUST?

I ran across someone who wanted to know if he'd be commiting plagiarism by copying and pasting someone else's work into an online paraphrasing tool. Now, whenever I come across forum questions about plagiarism, I'll bet the farm that some horrendous answers follow. This day was no exception. Here's how I replied.

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Wow! I can't remember when I've seen so many absolutely ridiculous—and thoroughly wrong—responses! Did you draft your question by the light of a full moon? If so, I think you'd better send out the hounds because the vampires are flooding the countryside!

 

Seriously, to all those geniuses who haven't yet learned how to read and assumed that you, the questioner, are talking about writing research or academic papers, you're acting out of ignorance and slothfulness. It's like assuming the questioner is using a Xerox machine to make paper copies of a work and gluing them to his computer screen with wallpaper paste. Is it possible? Sure. Is it a given? Of course not. Wake up, you other "respondents." School is out. You get no points just for showing up! Or for shooting from the lip! Read More 

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FINDING AGENT FOR OFFBEAT FANTASY

So, you've written a book that's a bit offbeat, let's say a fantasy based upon Celtic and Irish folklore. That means it just about but not quite fits into a specific genre, and now you wonder how to find an agent willing to 1.) read it, and 2.) represent it. Is that your problem, Bunky? If so, it's not necessarily as large a problem as you may think.

 

Okay, I assume you've researched literary agents and what they're looking for in submissions until your eyes turned to glass and fell out of your skull. Lo and behold, not one of them appears to be searching for your exact book. Well, that's actually the good news. Agents (and publishers, by the way) are always looking for good genre fiction that appeals to their existing readers or marketplace and yet that has an exciting new wrinkle to get them salivating. A detective book about the search for a serial killer is pretty generic (spelled "ho-hum"). A detective book about the search for a serial killer who just happens to be the detective, himself, is a stunner. See my point? Both are genre detective stories. Because one is more offbeat than the other isn't a bad thing; it's just the opposite.

 

So, how do you go about finding just the right agent? Here's how I suggest you proceed. Read More 

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CREATING SOUNDS WITH WORDS

Describing sounds in a book or short story is one of the more daunting challenges a writer can face. How do you describe a train whistle? I mean, come on: Whoo-whoo just won't cut the mustard. Similarly, the lilting call of a cardinal or a red-wing blackbird could be described as Tweet-tweet, but that's not going to win you many new readers—or retain the ones you already have.

 

The plain truth of the matter is that sounds can't be reduced effectively to the written word. So, how do you create them in your writing? Simple. You don't.

 

Instead, you write about them, using descriptive adjectives and, yes, adverbs when necessary to plant the audible image in the reader's mind. Remember that word, image. It's crucial to good, effective writing. The train whistle might then be summed up as "The shrillness of its call sliced through the thick night like a knife through a freshly baked loaf." The bird calls could be summed up as "The chattering melodies rang out like the bells of a distant church—up and down in tone, softer and louder, always comforting." Read More 

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FILMS FROM BOOKS

Someone asked the other day why it is that Hollywood only makes films based upon books. I can see where he might reach that conclusion. Still, it ain't necessarily so. here's what I told him.

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For starters, your assumption is wrong because your premise is incorrect. Hollywood doesn't necessarily want to make films based upon books. It wants ideas that are financially lucrative. Correction: It needs ideas that are financially lucrative. Creating a film today starts out in the lower millions of dollars and spirals upward from there; so, you can understand a producer's motivation. Whether or not the next brilliant idea comes from a book or an original screenplay (or even a magazine article, short story, or popular video game for that matter) is subjugated by potential sales.

 

With that said, many producers/directors understand that a well-selling book, particularly one by a big-name author (take your pick here), has already generated a lot of buzz in the story-loving world. Major publishers have invested big bucks to see that their star authors and their novels hit it big. And, every dollar Penguin invests in marketing and promoting a book is one dollar less than Pixar will have to spend on pitching the corresponding film. Read More 

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SWITCHING POVS

When a newbie writer asked online the other day about changing points of view from third person omniscient, he received several reasonably accurate responses and one horrendous resply from our good friend, Queenie. Knowing that even a notoriously incorrect responder such as she can due severe damage to a writer's development, I set about correcting the misinformation.

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Wow. I know the Queen of Wrong mucks up nearly everything to which she responds, but this one is a Lulu. Instead of buying into the fallacy that third person omniscient is like a camera viewing a scene objectively without any possibility of understanding what your characters are thinking, realize that just the opposite is true. In third person omniscient, the narrator has access to every piece of information in the book, including what's going on in all of his or her characters' minds. This is what sets third person POV apart from first and second or limited POV. Not only that, but also, if you like multiple choices when you visit your favorite ice-cream shop, you'll love third person POV because it comes in two flavors. Voila:

 

In third person omniscient POV, the narrator knows all the thoughts and feelings of every character—the exact opposite of what Queenie advised. Knowing the narrator (that is, you) can reveal everything about the story and the characters at any given time he (again, you) chooses gives the narrator unlimited power. How you use it is up to you. This is where the flexibility of an author writing in omniscient POV comes into play. How much will you reveal, and when? How much will you hold back, and why? Read More 

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UNATHORIZED FILM SEQUEL

I was trolling the Internet the other day when I came across a question from someone who wanted to know whether or not he could write a sequel to an existing film if he changed all the names and places used in the film. Interesting question. Here's my response:

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Could you? Sure. If you change the names and places and don't use any dialogue or other material from the film word-for-word, you're creating a new work of art. It may be derivative, but then again, all new creations are derivative of one thing or another. Remember the phrase, There's nothing new under the sun? It's a memorable euphemism because it's true. Story ideas can't be copyrighted; names can't be copyrighted; descriptions and settings can't be copyrighted; other elements within common usage can't be copyrighted, all for obvious reasons. Just because you pick up a story at a point in time where the film leaves off, you can't be found legally guilty of plagiarism or copying something (a story) that doesn't actually exist yet (the sequel you're writing). Remember: Stories can't be copyrighted. Plots can't be copyrighted. Only the word-for-word representations of them (the verbatim manner in which the writer chooses to express them) can be copyrighted.

 

Now, with that said, "could you" write a sequel novel to a film is a lot different from "should you" write a sequel novel to a film, if you know what I mean. As another respondent pointed out, film companies, particularly major ones, have deep pockets. They can enjoy increased profitability from the publicity of a copyright-infringement action against you, even if they fail to prevail in a court of law. In other words, even if they lose, they win. Read More 

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HOW LONG TO WAIT

Newbie writers often ask me how long it takes to hear back once a book editor requests a complete manuscript for review. Someone online asked that very question the other day, wondering what he could expect after sending his baby off to do battle. Here's how I replied.

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I can tell you from experience in dealing with hundreds and even thousands of publishers of books, magazines, and newspapers over the years that the Queen of Wrong has missed the boat again. Sure, you can expect to wait "as much as a year," but you'd be an idiot to do so when no conventional publisher takes that long to reply to a requested manuscript. None. Nada. If it did, it wouldn't be a conventional publisher for long.

 

Here's the reality. A book editor with a conventional, legitimate publisher takes a few weeks to a couple months to review a query. If he or she finds the query interesting, he may ask to see sample chapters. Once he receives them, he may need another two-to-four weeks to read them. If he likes what he sees, he'll request a "full read," or the complete manuscript. At that point in the editorial process, most responsible, professional editors will prioritize the manuscript. After all, he asked to see it! Read More 

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HOW SHORT IS TOO SHORT?

That's what someone asked online the other day when inquiring about the viability of a four-page chapter. I gave him my most tempered response.

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You know, enough people have given you enough good responses so that I don't feel I can add much to their replies. But, with that said, I do feel I need to remind you of something you seem to have forgotten, and the best way I can do that is to ask you a question:

 

Whose book is it, anyway? Yours or someone else's? Seriously. It makes a difference.

 

You say your longest chapter is four pages, but is it really your chapter, or did your English Lit professor write it for you and ask you to find out if short chapters are acceptable in literature today. Perhaps your teacher isn't comfortable portraying such ignorance; so, he chose, instead, to make you the foil.

 

Or, perhaps your mother is really the author, and you're asking on her behalf. Or possibly J. K. Rowling. Or Clyde Crashcup. Or, who knows? Maybe even the ghost of Elvis! Anyone other than you! Would you still want to ask the question as if you were actually the author of the book you claim you are if you weren't? Well, would you? Read More 

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PROBLEMS WITH ENDINGS

Here's the scenario. You work your butt off, creating an outline for your novel. Then, as you sit down to begin writing, everything goes smoothly. Until you get to the ending. Then you freeze up. Nothing you write seems to work. You're at a standstill. Now, you want to know why. Here's the answer:

 

You're not trying hard enough. Seriously. Oh, I know you think you are, but you're leaving too many "holes" in your outline so that, once you get to writing that part of your story (the ending), you find yourself wallowing in doubt. And despair. And anger. Have you tried taking an Oreo-cookie break?

 

Better yet, if you want a drop-dead gorgeous ending that works, think it through. And I don't mean at the writing stage. By that time, you've missed the bus. I mean at the outlining stage. Keep going over the outline's beginning, middle, and end, and keep refining the ending. Dig deeper. Ask yourself questions such as, "If this, then what?" And if the answers you receive don't appeal to you, ask different questions such as, "What if this happens instead?" or "What happens if someone shows up and throws a monkey wrench into the works?" or "What's the least logical thing my main character can do that later turns out to make sense?" Read More 

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WHY AVOID PLAGIARISM?

Someone asked this question on-line the other day, and you wouldn't believe the ridiculous answers people sent in. Here's how I responded.

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There are lots of problems with several of the answers you received, beginning, of course, with the Queen of Wrong, who said incorrectly that "the very best outcome you can expect is a cease and desist letter, being banned from every possible platform you published on, and having your name known in the publishing industry as poison." Dead wrong. The very best outcome you can expect is to have no one notice your plagiarized material; so, you walk away thinking you outsmarted the world. All of the things Queenie mentioned as the "best" are actually varying degrees of the worst you can expect—just the opposite of what she said.

 

Now, add to the list of worst things a plagiarizer may experience are a criminal complaint, a court injunction against the plagiarizing author, and—yes, let's dig deeper into the well—a legal finding for the plaintiff in a court of law. That could indeed leave the plagiarizer paying a hefty fine, all court costs for both sides of the action, and punitive damages. How likely is that to break the financial back of the plagiarizer? That depends upon the severity of the infraction, but in the case of an entire book, for example, the total could run into the millions of dollars. Read More 

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