Pub Rants


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STATUS: TGIF. I’m in the middle of negotiating several different deals this week, which has made life particularly hectic on top of all the “normal” stuff.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? NEVER LET ME DOWN AGAIN by Depeche Mode

You probably have to be living under a rock not to have heard all of the hullaballoo happening over at the Smart Bitches Blog and the possible allegations of plagiarism and romance writer Cassie Edwards.

If you are living there and haven’t heard, you might want to pop over there to check it out. (Stories are also running on the AP and hence in a lot of major newspapers.)

I’m not really going to jump into the discussion per se because I think most of the pertinent things have been said.

If you remember there was another recent brouhaha with the OPAL MEHTA novel scandal and the plagiarism of established author Megan McCafferty. In both cases, I must say I felt a small pang for the editors involved. Why? Because I’d be silly not to live in fear of the possibility happening with one of my clients, and I missed it.

When pointed out so clearly, it seems like the misuse should have been clear as day but egads, what if you had never read Megan’s SLOPPY FIRSTS (so didn’t catch the obvious echo) or, because you are so used to the author’s style, you just missed the change in tone for the passages in question? Makes me sick to my stomach just thinking about that.

So for all my clients, a message. Don’t plagiarize and if you remotely have a question on whether content could be “paraphrased,” for heavens sake ask me!

I know the rules. I was an English College Professor for years and had to teach this stuff and how to cite and attribute correctly (based on several different styles: MLA, Chicago AP etc.) I’ll be happy to guide you.

And for all those non-clients reading this, use this incident as a learning moment to be warned, to be careful, and to be knowledgeable about what plagiarism is.

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20 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    Things get missed. You can see how an editor can miss it when there’s so much out there to read. Especially ones who specialize.

    I’ll never believe for a minute that what Doris Kearns Goodwin had in her book was anything other than research that got included by accident. She’s too good a writer to plagiarize.

  2. joanr16 said:

    I actually heard of the Cassie Edwards matter on CNN, it’s become that big a deal.

    Writing term papers is how most of us learn to research, quote and cite. It’s been eons since I was in college, but I hope the skills to avoid plagiarism are still being taught.

    Historical fiction, which is what Ms. Edwards writes, is a duckbilled platypus of a genre– novels that must be researched and constructed like term papers, but without the formal protocols of citation. (Pulling Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl down from the shelf, I flip to the back and see she used an “Author’s Note” to explain her sources, and them listed them in a bibliography, term-paper fashion.)

    I’d like to think that plagiarism is usually a careless mistake, and not intentional theft. But it’s a deadly mistake, and as Kristin reminds us it’s up to the author, first and foremost, to avoid it.

  3. Anonymous said:

    I’m not a client, but I have a few questions about what is and isn’t plagiarism. Will you still answer them?

  4. Kris_W said:

    As an agent, do you ask for bibliographical information?

    When I read fiction that has obvious non-fiction portions of text I usually look for a bibliography. Alas, it is rarely included. I would like to let authors, agents, editors and publishers know that at least one reader out here really is interested in the sources fiction writers use for inspiration.


  5. Wayne said:

    It all sounds a bit like a hang glider crash into the white house to me. How do you walk out of Macy’s without paying and not know that you’ve stolen?

  6. wplasvegas said:

    “To the scholar it is research, to the hack it is plagiarism, but the artist steals it and makes it his own.” Sorry, I can’t give you a citation on this quote.

    Personally I’ve found that if you just file off the serial numbers it’s a dead giveaway that the engine is hot. Naturally I always give the body a new paint job, and I find it’s very effective if you just simply change the rims and tires.

    If you’re a good wordsmith, odds are that you will improve the language of your source. The better a writer your source is, the more difficult it is to use the material. Only twice have I found lines so good I couldn’t improve on them. One was a line from a poem and the second was a bit of philosophy from a Cambridge University text, but both were so much better than my writing, it was easy to work in the attribution as part of the dialogue. If you lay something out of your league on people they are not surprised if you give credit, indeed they expect it.

    The thing is, citations have no place in fiction. Nobody cares how thourough your research was, they just want to get to the meat of the story. That is why this controversy is about ethics and not morals. My take on the Opal Mehta situation is that she was a highly intelligent teen with a photographic memory who wrote a book without stopping to think about where her inspiriation came from. What was she? Seventeen? Nineteen? I don’t remember. That doesn’t absolve her, but the adults involved in the mess bear just as much if not more responsibility than she did. She was probablys surprised at how easy it was to write a novel for all we know.

    The only reason for plagarism in fiction is laziness, the sin of sloth. In Opal’s case I believe it was horizontal plagarism, not vertical. Tipsy on a creative high, she didn’t steal direct, she just side-swiped her sources then left the scene of the crime only to wake up in the morning remembering nothing.

  7. Anonymous said:

    With most things I read here, I think “how does this impact my writing?” I have learned a lot; thank you for making the time to blog, Kristin.

    For my current manuscript, I have a three inch, three ring binder full of notes, printed emails, research papers, newspaper articles, etc., that went into the creation of the story’s plot. As I pound out the actual words on each page, I find myself wondering do I need to thank/acknowledge all of these sources, and if so, how?

    Being relatively “young” to writing (only at it a few years), I have the belief that if I keep the binder, when the work one day sells (always the believer), my future agent and editor will help me figure out who and how to thank/acknowledge. Is this an unrealistic expectation for me to have of my yet-to-be, more seasoned business partners?

  8. Anonymous said:

    You know what is really sad? The fact that an author has published “100 books” and yet I’ve never heard of the author until reading this post. 100 books? Are you serious?

    At that rate, why would you need to plagerize some OTHER author, hell, couldn’t you do just as well plagerizing yourself?

  9. joanr16 said:

    The only reason for plagarism in fiction is laziness….

    Laziness and/or haste. Unintentional plagiarism could occur with the transcription of handwritten notes that were made in a hurry, so that the author lost track of what was verbatim from the source, and what came from her own head. (The way to avoid this is to write down only the facts you seek, and stay away completely from another writer’s phraseology.)

    I think this may be what happened to Cassie Edwards. Rather than taking language from a monograph, she could have researched multiple images (engravings, paintings, photos) of the historical period, and then written from her informed imagination.

  10. Rose Dewy Knickers said:

    Good morning Kristen,

    I came across your blog while doing research on agents. I am discovering that the field of writing has finite possibilities when it comes to topics. To me, plagiarizing is copying information and claiming it as your own. Sounds simple, but the line between information gathered during the course of research and the words written during the course of creating a book; it’s blurry.

    Non-fiction would seem to be straightforward, yet tracking down the original source is not always easy. Today, which came first, the printed book or the website, may not always be apparent. With fiction, if a book was written based upon a name or phrase read elsewhere, is that plagiarism or simply a vivid imagination? After all, there are only so many ways that a novel can be written.

    Infinite monkeys can still only type finite romances.


  11. Caitlin said:

    Hi Kristin, I guess London, England must be “under a rock” coz I haven’t heard about this!

    Hi Rose, I think plagiarism is not just about claiming “information” as your own but the execution of ideas in general.

    With non-fiction, my understanding is that you don’t have to track down the original source. You have to give the source that YOU are citing. That may or may not be the original source – it’s better if it is, of course.

    With fiction, you should be creating original work. No two books will be exactly the same. A book inspired by one name or phrase is not plagiarism. Copying plotting and even the wording of certain passages certainly is.

  12. Music Critic said:

    I don’t think Depeche Mode plagerized that song. Vanilla Ice they are not.

    In any case, that song doesn’t score big points. It’s just an okay song with an okay score. #6 on the best seller list.

  13. betty said:

    The last entry comparing Edwards’ work to a Pulitzer winner fromthe 20s is the greatest stunner of all. How did this thief get past everyone?

  14. Sam said:

    Very odd. I swear I’ve read other versions of those passages in dozens of different places. This sort of paraphrasing is probably widespread and related to how the brain works. If it hadn’t already been established that she rips off her research material word for word, then I would probably give her the benefit of the doubt.

    And I have a question — is that type of paraphrasing of scenes shown in the evidence table really plagiarism? Basically, if you have a story with a road made of yellow bricks (as an obvious homage to the Wizard of Oz – assuming it was still under copyright) do you need to write a bibliography for your short story or what? And are all the fantasy writers doing Tolkien-clones really committing plagiarism when they have yet another Elven city that melds with trees and has arches and seems surprisingly like Rivendell?

  15. Josephine Damian said:

    I’m reading a book now – literary fiction – that has a bibliography.

    Since the main character is a forensic anthropologist and I worked as an assistant to one, I was familiar with the research books and recognized the content when I read it in the prose.

    From a legal POV, the author gave credit, but from a story-telling POV, this book is bogged down with TOO MUCH forensics research! I see this a lot – a writers buys all these research books, spend a ton of time reading them, and then their book bores me because the writer included too much of it.

  16. Anonymous said:

    As a college English professor myself, I run into my share of plagiarism cases…though not many any more, first because word has gotten out that I track such cases down and punish appropriately (you would be amazed how many professors are just too lazy to follow up on a suspected case) and second because I try to give relatively unique assignments pulled from the work done in our specific class that particular semester (no cookie cutter assignments, in other words). In almost all of these situations, the reason for the plagiarism is a lack of time–the student waited too long to start writing, couldn’t think of what to say, panicked and went to the Internet…despite my pleas for students to contact me if they’re having trouble.

    Ultimately, though, most of the students I catch end up being stronger as a result of the incident–they’ve been punished (a zero for the assignment, no exceptions) but not destroyed for the mistake (they can still pass the course if they work hard), which means both that they feel the pinch but aren’t tempted to give up entirely, and most important they’ve learned a valuable lesson. To me, not following up in a situation like this is worse for the student in the long run, since he/she never has to face the consequences of their actions. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that the Enron scandal might well have had its roots in a little bit of “harmless” plagiarism in the past, where the people learned they could cheat and get away with it…and kept on doing it throughout their lives until the results were far, far worse.

    So amen to everything Kristin has said here. It’s not that difficult to avoid plagiarism, so long as you keep the lines of communication open with your teacher/professor/agent/editor and don’t try to cut corners. And by the way…if you can’t write without plagiarizing something else, that might suggest something problematic about your approach to begin with, and if you’re honest with yourself, such a revelation could lead to a better and more original voice in the future.

  17. Anonymous said:

    Just like another commenter has posted, the newest comparisons between a book by Cassie Edwards and a Pulitzer-Prize winning work of fiction from 1930 is particularly disheartening. There is no doubt in my mind that she plagiarized material. And there is no way she can hide behind the “it was only research” defense.

    It upsets me to see a writer make money off of someone else’s work…lots of money. She’s no college-student-cum-writer like the OPAL MEHTA debacle. She’s been around the block a few times..

  18. Alyce Erie said:

    Wow. I had no idea about the Opal Mehta thing (I didn’t read the Jessica Darling books until a year ago, after all) but after seeing a comparison it’s sad. The whole point of of fiction is to keep ones’ self original and creative.

    On another note, I think it’s very interesting you listen to Depeche Mode. They happen to be my favorite band. 🙂

  19. Smaranda said:

    Would using relatively well-known lines from poems or plays (for example, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) in a novel be considered plagiarism?

    I ask this because I am in the process of writing a novel in which I use certain lines (for example, “for never was there a tale of more woe”) to create a specific effect. (I was inspired to this writing style by the author Umberto Eco.)

    So, for example, if I were to have a paragraph describing a war of some sort, and then a sentence which says, “Civil blood has made civil hands unclean” without citing this line – would it be considered plagiarism?