In a minute, I'll tell you an interesting story (and a less interesting but still relevant one) that happened to me but first let me tell you my take on plagiarism. Entirely in my own words, of course. Unless I was sleepreading and have completely forgotten. In which case, apologies to whoever and please don't sue me. I haven't got any money anyway. But I do have chocolate.
Anyway, to the point.
Being accused of plagiarism is one of my worst fears. Authors can even insure themselves against doing it accidentally. No self-respecting author would ever do it on purpose - goodness knows what the guy Jane talked about was thinking when he did it - but it would be possible to do it accidentally. Or to appear to have done it.
In non-fiction, if you're not careful about how you make notes during research, you may find yourself accidentally copying a small section instead of re-working it, and therefore actually breaching copyright as well as committing plagiarism. Also, some pieces of knowledge could be in the public domain while some would be the preserve of the one person who did the research, and if you weren't careful you might not acknowledge this. You could become so immersed between your own thoughts and the research literature that supports your thoughts, that you could cross the line. Perhaps a combination of these things happened to Raj Persaud last year.
In fiction, while there's no copyright on ideas, it would certainly be possible to come up with the occasional bit of phrasing and to think it was your own when actually it's something you've read and forgotten; or even for you to come up with the same phrase when you haven't read it before; and it would also be possible accidentally to mirror someone else's idea. Let me tell you two stories, both true, and both of which happened to me.
THE TIME I BELIEVE I WAS PLAGIARISED
I discovered (because someone sent it to me) that a writer had written a story which was similar to a published novel of mine in many ways. I believe this was not coincidence because I have reason to believe that the writer had read my book. Why do I think he might have copied so many aspects of it? You may be surprised to hear that I think he did it accidentally: if he'd done it on purpose, he'd have changed some rather obvious and easy things. Only a silly kid would deliberately copy someone's essay and not change enough to fool the teacher. This guy knows you can't/shouldn't copy someone else's work, so, if he was going to do it, why wouldn't he hide the fact?
Am I bothered? Do I look bothered?
THE EXTRAORDINARY COINCIDENCE THAT ABSOLUTELY WAS
In October 2001, my first novel, Mondays are Red, was published. I'd been writing it during 2000/2001. Being unpublished, and not knowing any published author at all, let alone a stellar one like Tim Bowler, I had no way of knowing what any other author was writing in the privacy of his/her own garret.
Mondays are Red is a Young Adult novel about a 14 year-old boy called Luke who has synaesthesia.
Meanwhile, in November 2001, Tim Bowler's umpteenth novel, Starseeker, was published. He had been writing it during 2000/2001. (For those of you who don't know the business, any book published in Nov was certainly already printed in Oct. Unless it's the biog of Michael Jackson.)
Starseeker is a Young Adult novel about a 14-year-old boy called Luke who has synaesthesia.
Because they were published in consecutive months, we had some joint reviews (hooray for me, debut author being reviewed and interviewed alongside TB!) but no one accused the other of plagiarism, because it obviously wasn't, because a) it couldn't have been and b) despite the identical descriptions above, they are two utterly different stories. Couldn't be more different. (Unless mine had been about a fifteen-year-old girl called Lucy with synaesthesia.)
But it's worth considering the following:
- if Tim's novel had come out while I was still writing mine, I'd have changed the name and probably the age of the protagonist because the last thing I'd want is to appear to plagiarise
- next time you hear that two stories have the same motif / theme / premise, don't leap to the conclusion either that one is plagiarising or that they will actually be the same - unless they are
- similarly with the horrible word "derivative" - nothing stands entirely on its own. No author is an island. Thing is, some look more like peninsulars than others.
Tim and I became good friends and discovered we thought in many ways alike. "That's not very funny," I hear you say. No, but when I became friends with him I was writing another book, which had the provisional title of Apocalypse.
Luckily, authory friends tend to tell each other what they're writing.
"What you writing at the moment, Tim?" I asked.And since his Apocalypse was coming out before mine, guess who decided to change her title, even though there's no copyright on titles? It became The Passionflower Massacre. Much better. Who'd want to call a book Apocalypse anyway?
"It's called Apocalypse," he replied. "It's about ..."