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About Writing Right: The Blog

BOOK REVIEWERS' RESPONSIBILITIES

I was perusing some online writing forums the other day when I came across an interesting question. The writer wanted to know what responsibilities a book reviewer has while reviewing a particular work. Not many people had answered the question (in fact, only two), and one of them was way off base. So, of course, I had to chime in. Here's my take on the subject.

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Well, while one of your respondents may know Hindi (his self-description, not mine), he certainly doesn't understand English. You asked about the responsibilities a writer has while writing a book review; he responded by explaining how to critique another writer's work. Two different animals.

 

Fortunately, another respondent to your question, Rodney, hit the nail on the head. His response is on-point and accurate. To that I would add a few things.

 

First, a book reviewer must be inscrutably honest at all times and not let a book's subject matter influence or taint his or her review. That may sound simple, but it could be unnervingly difficult. I've reviewed some books in which I didn't care for the author's literary style, but the books themselves were quite good—informative and entertaining. So, I overlooked my personal biases in stylistic preference and gave those books positive reviews. Read More 

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ARE DERIVATIVE WORKS LEGAL?

Someone asked the other dayif he could legally write a sequel to an existing work. Of course, he received a predictably muddled and incorrect response from one resondent in particular, who went out of her way to define what a derivative work is and what writing one entails--incorrectly, of course. Here's how I broached the subject.

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Well, the Queen of Wrong missed the boat yet again. Funny how often it sails away without her!

 

The truth is that copyright laws pertaining to derivative works and whether or not an author can create a sequel based upon an original, copyrighted work are complex and can't be answered with a glib, and inaccurate, "No!" Giving such an answer is irresponsible and harmful to the world of truth and reality, not to mention the derivative work's author and his or her potential for success. Who would have guessed?

 

So, with Queenie's misinformation out of the way, here's what the U.S. copyright office has to say about the subject. Read More 

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IS THIS PUBLISHER A SCAM?

I came across an all-too-frequent question the other day from a novice writer who wanted to know if his publisher was scamming him by publishing his story in an anthology along with other writers in exchange for $500 each. He mentioned that the publisher's name will appear on the book's cover as the author. Here's what I advised.

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If you ask a question like this one, you already suspect the answer, and you're right. The publisher, if promoting itself as a publisher, is scamming you. It's not a legitimate, conventional publisher, as other respondents have pointed out. It's a company that preys upon the dreams, hopes, and aspirations of the uninformed. Since you can't land a contract with a legitimate publisher, you turn to anyone who seems genuinely interested in your work. In fact, your "publisher" is genuinely interested only in your money. And that's a scam. A legal scam ("Let the buyer beware") but a scam nonetheless.

 

My suggestion to you: If you want to see your name "in lights" (and you do) but you don't have the skills to make it as an author with a conventional publisher (and you don't), ask yourself if having a book with your name on the cover (oops, it sounds as if the publisher is taking claim as the author, so scratch that) is worth paying $500. If so, go for it. On the other hand, if you're being led to believe that getting your first piece "published" will make getting other work published easier or that it will make you any money in the end, forget about this "deal." Believe me, it's no bargain, so I suggest you hit the bricks running. A little sadder but a whole lot wiser. Read More 

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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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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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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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COPYRIGHT ... OR COPYWRONG?

Someone I never met asked someone he never met if he could legally change the book cover and rewrite the copy for a book originally published in 1937. It has no copyright notice anywhere inside. Interestingly enough, several people responded. Here was my buck-and-a-half reply.

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I see you have received several answers to your question. Congratulations. Unfortunately, none of them adequately advises you on the legalities of what you're asking. One respondent's advice to wait another decade before proceeding is woefully inadequate. Another one's suggestion to check the title with the Library of Congress likewise may tell you when the book was published but not whether or not it's still under copyright or ever has been. And a third respondent's suggestion that you Google it is absurd. All that will tell you is whether or not the book has been mapped by Google's spiders.

 

To know for sure what the law is, why not go directly to the horse's mouth? Here's what the U.S. Copyright Office has to say about it: Read More 

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REVIEWING A FRIEND'S NEW BOOK

When someone you know asks you to review a copy of her new book, and it's awful, what do you do?

 

Here's what I did when a writer/friend of some years asked me to review a copy of her new book, which was scheduled for POD release a couple months later. Despite the fact that this author had already written and published several psychic romances, including one with a conventional publisher, I soon realized the new book was in trouble. So, I picked out the strong points, built them into a review, and then, in an aside to the author, pointed out some serious typos, grammatical errors, and punctuation problems so that she might review and consider revising them before releasing the book to the public.

 

I never heard from her again.

 

Obviously, some people can take creative criticism, and some can't. I assumed I was giving her the best of two worlds—a review she could publish to her benefit and tips on preparing the book for release if she chose to consider them. She apparently didn't see things that way. Read More 

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"PAY-TO-PLAY" OR NO BIG DEAL?

Let's begin with an assumption: You contact a restaurant owner about writing a review about his restaurant for publication. And, let's also say that you're on a, umm, "tight" budget. When you get to the restaurant, the owner volunteers to "comp" you a meal featuring some of their signature entrees. You're delighted.

 

Question: Is that ethical?

 

Here's my take on the subject after more than half a century of writing reviews on everything from restaurants to luxury resorts. If a restaurant owner (or anyone) pays you in the form of a free meal to write a review about them and you accept the gratuity, you can't in good conscience write a review for publication without revealing that fact to a publisher. To do otherwise would constitute at least the appearance of pay-to-play. And, you simply can't do that in the world of "journalistic integrity."

 

Now, if you want to run your review past the New York Times or The Washington Post, I wouldn't worry too much about journalistic integrity. The editors there haven't heeded that concept for decades. And I speak from experience as a former columnist for The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, and many others for years. But that was eons ago when a publication's integrity and impartiality were paramount. Today, they're little more than tantamount—to sales. Everything else, it seems, takes a back seat. Read More 

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