Friday, 17 July 2009


Good old Jane Smith has designated today as Anti-Plagiarism day. This means I'm allowed to imitate her and post about plagiarism but not copy her words. Since I haven't yet read her words, this won't be hard. Or will it? What happens if our great minds think so incredibly similarly that we are writing the same thoughts at the same time? If she posts hers before mine, how can I prove I haven't read her words?

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.

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?

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.
There's a funny ending to this story
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.

"It's called Apocalypse," he replied. "It's about ..."
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?


Ebony McKenna. said...

My greatest fear is unintentionally plagiarising someone as well.

See, not even my paranoia is original :-)

Jane Smith said...

A lovely (and almost unbelievable) story, Nicola: and thank you for your support.

The Voice said...

So it really is true, there is nothing new under the sun. We just rearrange the furniture.

Tania Hershman said...

Wow, Niki, what an amazing story! Spooky, actually. Maybe you and Tim have a sort of mindmeld thing going on. Great that you are in touch, though, and it all worked out so well!

SueG said...

A great story and important points to remember. Thanks.

Charlie said...

The title of my first (unpublished) book is The Shores of Utopia. I came up with it about six years ago. Two years ago, a play came out and won a Tony called The Coast of Utopia.

If I had hair to spare, I would've pulled it out.

DanielB said...

Pocket Books, the publishers of the Star Trek books, used to return unsolicited MSS not just unread but unopened, as they were so afraid of Trekkie plagiarism lawsuits. (You know - someone sends them a book in which Dr McCoy is possessed by the ghost of Arthur Conan Doyle and starts a war with the Klingons by solving a murder... and they already have a book in the works in which Mr Spock is possessed by the ghost of Arthur Conan Doyle and starts a war with the Romulans by solving a murder...)

Stroppy Author said...

I've done that! I have a ghost story out this month: two characters, a boy called Harry and a ghost highwayman called Jack. It's story for boy reluctant readers (one of four in the book - I didn't write the others). After it had gone to design I found out that another publisher producing books for the same market had a story about a boy called Harry and a highwayman called Jack coming out within a few weeks of mine. I changed one of the names.