Cleolinda Jones (cleolinda) wrote,
Cleolinda Jones

Behold my wondrous teal deer!

Cassie Edwards: Remarkable Similarities to Pulitzer-Winning Novel Laughing Boy. Ohhhhhh shit, now we're really in it. Because this isn't "I didn't know you couldn't copy research sources" anymore.

Meanwhile, someone gets into it with Nora Roberts, whose wonderful patience finally snaps at being told "Shame on you," in the comments at the Smart Bitches site. I'm not saying that Roberts will look back at "Bite me" as one of her finest moments, but OMG ILU NORA!

You know what? Actually, I'd like to stop here and talk about something--something that's a little bit moot now that we have some Pulitzer Prize plagiarism going on here--but something that I see come up so often in fandom. I do think that when people plagiarize and turn around and say, "I didn't know!," a lot of them are being disingenuous. I used to get plagiarized a lot--it probably still happens, actually, but I've written enough "Fifteen Minutes" now that I feel like there's a strong likelihood that anyone who reads a stolen parody is going to eventually realize someone else writes those things, because the internet's just like that. I'm not saying I don't care at all, but it's not the four-alarm fire it used to be. And that's the thing: people would almost always just take the thing and post it, in its entirety, in their journal or on a message board, often with no other commentary at all. They'd just throw it out there. Naturally, when you post something in full, people tend to assume you wrote it yourself. But by not saying so, you have the wiggle room to go, "Oh no! I never said I wrote it! I just wanted to show it to other people!" Yeah, and when people compliment you on it, to accept that praise without correcting them. Uh-huh. I've come to not even think of that as plagiarism so much as just outright theft, although I've also seen people take a parody I wrote and just change some of the lines, maybe add a few more in. That I would definitely call plagiarism, although if they change so much of it that the words aren't really mine--but the scene divisions are still the same, the number of lines in a scene and who they're parceled out to is the same--well, it's a shitty kind of thing to do, but I don't really press at that point. If you have nothing better to do than use someone else's work as your personal scaffold, well then. And you know, it's really not that bad of a thing to do if you want to learn or practice; I've heard people advise young writers to type out passages from great novels just to get the feel of the words in their fingers. Not to use them; just to practice them, like practicing scales on a piano. And if someone said, "Cleolinda wrote this originally, and I found it over here [link], and I wanted to try my own jokes with it"--well, again, I don't know that I would think very highly of the outcome, but if you call it what it is--practicing scales (although, good God, who would want to practice on movie parodies? )--the outcome isn't really the point, is it?

Okay, wow, that wasn't even the point I was intending to make. Digression ahoy! What I was really trying to get around to was Edwards' copying of research sources. As Candy at Smart Bitches pointed out, copying books out of copyright is plagiarism, an issue of what's right, but not an issue of what's legal. Copying that 2005 article about ferrets? That's an issue of what's right and what's legal. And people are arguing on one hand that, as English teachers (some of them actually are, it seems), they would have failed Cassie Edwards had she been a student. On the other hand, people are arguing that either Edwards just didn't know (she does seem to be an older lady) or that people in general don't know. I'm not here to call bullshit on any of that. I don't know what people are taught; I can't speak for them. But I thought it would be interesting to lay down what I was taught and see how it sounds to y'all:

When using someone else's words verbatim, you put them in quotation marks. Period. In a lot of nonfiction--a lot--I see writers just dropping in unattributed sentences--in quotation marks--and using footnotes or endnotes to actually cite the sources. This must be a stylistic issue, because I was always taught to actually attribute sources in the same sentence--to never let a quote go drifting on its own, but to anchor the first time with a "notes Jane Smith in her book" or "writes John Brown in his ground-breaking study" or whatever, and then to refer to them as Smith and Brown thereafter. (Actually, I was taught by an AP teacher to question my sources, if appropriate: "What Smith seems to ignore, however, is the issue of..." Citing sources by name in text can give a paper the feel of a discussion, rather than just dropping opinions in like facts.) I personally find floating quotations to be a bit weird--if you find someone's work interesting enough to use, why not discuss it in the text?--but a lot of scholarly biographies just use the footnotes, so I have to assume that it's considered kosher in the industry.

Obviously, using someone else's words verbatim, in quotation marks, cited whichever way, looks 1) bizarre and 2) lame in fiction. That's why you don't use someone else's words in fiction at all. *

When using someone else's information, non-verbatim, you cite parenthetically or with notes when writing nonfiction. When I was in high school, the teachers used to insist that every single sentence have some kind of citation (unless several sentences in a row came from the same source, at which point all those sentences were under the umbrella of the parenthetical/footnote at the end. Also, that you would do some substantial paraphrasing ought to go without saying). I think they were trying to train us to research instead of spout off opinions--the time would come for that later, and "later" was generally senior year or college. Opinions on this or that book often took the form of a separate essay assignment, so when they wanted to make us research facts or criticism, generally as preparation for college, we got the "everything must have a citation, except maybe your first and last sentences." Yeah, we sweated over those, frequently coming up with our own ideas and then trying to find sources who agreed with us. I'm not saying this was an ideal way to write papers, but we were trained--on pain of failing grades and possibly suspension or expulsion--to be safer than sorry. "Even if it feels ridiculous, cite everything," we were told. Again, I think they were really training us to not get kicked out of college classes (a renowned teacher I had twice actually had been a professor); I was stunned when I got to college and we got put in composition classes freshman year that tried to teach us this all over again, after years of being told that college professors would hit the ground running, assume you knew how to write a damn paper, and fail you summarily when necessary.

Here's where the Cassie Edwards situation gets sticky. I don't know that even I would tell people to use footnotes in fiction; it's distracting from the, you know, fictional aspect of a novel. I think it's good to research settings and situations for your fiction--what can that do except make your work better? But having done so, I would sit there and think, "I can't use footnotes, because that's lame. Therefore I've got to be extra careful with how I use this information," not, "Oh, well, then, I guess without footnotes it's plagiarism but because it's fiction it's okay." Remember, from Lexicongate, the idea that you can't copyright nonfiction facts (as opposed to JK Rowling's fictional "facts")? Inside the Victorian Home doesn't have copyright a Victorian dinner menu that Judith Flanders found. But--I don't know, am I just crazy? Am I just some crazy diamond who thinks, "Well, let's look at the menu. Soup and fish, then some poultry and salad, then a joint and vegetables, then fruit, ices and cheese. Okay, let's choose different dishes but use that general pattern, because it's a nonfictional fact that that's how menus were generally set up"? Because otherwise, I'm just copying someone else, and someone, someday, will stumble across that book after reading mine and go, "Hey..."? But if I also read that menu, and I notice "ginger ice" on there and think, "Huh, I've never heard of that before, that's interesting," and later have ginger ice in a different context it's okay, because ginger ice really did exist, and I'm not copying the actual context in which someone else mentioned it? Am I just totally anal about this?

I admit, I start to split hairs at this level. To bring it back to Cassie Edwards, what I'm saying is that--well, this is what she did (bolding and examples are from Smart Bitches):
[Character speaking:] “There are small cakes made from berries of all kinds that are gathered by my people’s women, then dried in the sun. The dried foods are used in soups, to, and for mixing with the pounded jerked meat and fat to form a much prized delicacy.” He saw her eyes move to the vegetables. “You can eat a strip of teepsinna. It is starchy but solid, with a sweetish taste.” He smiled as his eyes dropped to her waist, and then he gazed into her eyes again. “It is also fattening.”

[Original source, Charles Alexander Eastman:] Berries of all kinds were industriously gathered, and dried in the sun. Even the wild cherries were pounded up, stones and all, made into small cakes and dried for use in soups and for mixing with the pounded jerked meat and fat to form a much-prized Indian delicacy. Out on the prairie in July and August the women were wont to dig teepsinna with sharpened sticks, and many a bag full was dried and put away. This teepsinna is the root of a certain plant growing mostly upon high sandy soil. It is starchy but solid, with a sweetish taste, and is very fattening.

Here's what I would have done, including a sentence that was original to Edwards:
"The women make cakes from all kinds of dried berries--blueberries, chokeberries, even wild cherries--and jerked meat. Sometimes they make soup as well. The cakes are a delicacy, actually." He saw her eyes move to the vegetables. "You wouldn't want to eat too much of the teepsinna, though--it sits heavily in the stomach. Fattening, too."
Flirtatious looks are optional. But how hard was that, honestly? You would adjust this for the speaking patterns of your particular character and also write it better, obviously; I'm writing completely out of context here. Actually, I might not have even dropped all that information into the same section, but for the sake of argument, there you are. And then, at the end of the book, I would have listed sources I used, both as credit and as for further reading for anyone interested. If I borrowed a lot from a specific book, I might mention that as well ("And many thanks to Charles Alexander Eastman, whose book Indian Boyhood provided so much information about the eating habits of the Whoever tribe").

Here's something else worth noting: in order to figure out what other "kinds of berries" you might use, I took a quick jaunt over to Wikipedia. Which is not to say that Wikipedia should be a major source of research, but that you might actually have to, you know, combine information from more than one source in order not to plagiarize. Oh, the horror.

* There is an exception to all this. Writers, even the best of them, steal. Great writers will even tell you to steal. Plagiarism is not the kind of stealing they're talking about. I was reading those Bradbury stories the other day and saw the word "candleshine" and was deeply envious. Of course, now that I've told you this, I can't ever use it. But a lot of us--probably most of us--will see, in the course of our reading, things we'd like to use, individual words we'd like to use more often, styles we'd like to try on. The script format I've used? I'm not the first person ever to use it, obviously, and you using it might be "stealing" in this benign sense, in the sense that you saw me do it and liked it, but it's not "stealing" in the sense of plagiarism, I don't feel. Now, the precise phrase "Movies in Fifteen Minutes," I would consider that stealing, in no small part because it's misleading (confusing people as to who writes what, or perhaps causing them to assume that the same person wrote everything under that title). "Films in Five Minutes"? I'd consider that benign, off-brand "stealing." You're welcome to it, because it doesn't mislead anyone, which is the crux of real plagiarism, I think: misleading people into thinking you wrote something that you didn't.

So here's my question: growing up, what were you taught was plagiarism?

P.S. "A fire has devastated 9 hectares of forest. [The Cleoville] police search for the arsonist." Oh dear.

P.P.S. We'll discuss the Golden Globes winners in another entry after all the winners are in.

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Tags: books, plagiarism, wank, writing
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