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Why I *can't* read your script
msauvage purple
Okay, since I think I was waxing a bit verbose about this on a site meant for 140-character messages:

What happened was, A History of Violence screenwriter Josh Olson informed the internets that He Will Not Read Your Fucking Script.

Cole Abaius thought this made him a bit of an asshole, although more for the tone than the sentiment.

John Scalzi weighed in (more calmly) and agreed, although he mostly focused on the "Writers have no obligations to strangers" and "I do not owe you my time" and "I do not need to piss off people I know by asking for favors for every single stranger who approaches me" aspects.

And then David Gerrold brought up my own worst fear. See, I don't think people realize the legal jeopardy other people's unpublished work puts a working writer in. Three words for you: Marion Zimmer Bradley (fifth paragraph under "Literary Career"). If you read someone's unpublished work and you then write anything that's the least bit similar, that person could sue you for copyright infringement (i.e., plagiarism). The problem is, there are certain things, certain similarities, that are going to occur in any two works on the same subject, and the established writer may have no way of proving they did not copy. They might be able to defend themselves in court and win, if they can argue that there are more differences than similarities, or that the similarities are not strong enough, but they still have to go to court and pay those legal fees and waste that time.

Here's both sides of that, from my own experience:

When I was an eager X-Files fan in my late teens, I wrote an episode script and scraped up the courage to send it to the production office. It was immediately returned, unopened, in a second envelope with a lawyer's form letter on top, explaining the legal problems with the producers even accepting it. A few years later, there was an episode that bore two substantial, remarkable similarities to my script--but I knew they hadn't even opened the envelope; there was no way they could have stolen my ideas. If they had accepted my script--so much as opened the envelope, or just never acknowledged it, leaving no way to prove that they hadn't read it--I could have plausibly taken them to court and wasted everyone's time and money, whether I ended up losing or not--sincerely believing they had ripped me off, or at least ripped off a few key elements. As it is, I know for a fact that they couldn't have. Coincidences like that, no matter how strong, are entirely possible and no one's fault. And that's why they had to protect themselves. As John August once pointed out, if you know a show well enough to write about it, you are probably in tune with the writers enough to anticipate their own ideas. His example was a Grey's Anatomy episode a reader emailed him about--the reader was all upset because she had sent them a script called "My Favorite Mistake," and then they had an episode called "My Favorite Mistake," and did he think they might have ripped her off? And August pointed out--rather heatedly, and completely rightly--that she knew the show well enough to know that they used song titles for their episode titles, and Sheryl Crow was very much to their musical taste/demographic: "You copied them, not vice-versa. Got it?" It was a coincidence, and perhaps an inevitable one.

On the flip side of that problem, someone once emailed me her own "X-Men in Fifteen Minutes" and cheerfully informed me that I could totally put my name on it and post it as my own, I didn't have to acknowledge her at all. Unfortunately, while this might give her the illogical pleasure of seeing other people compliment it just because it had my name on it, she did not stop to consider what benefit this could possibly have for me. In fact, it not only had no benefits, it presented a bit of a problem. I was trying to get a second Fifteen Minutes book off the ground, and I had considered doing one of the two (or were there three by then?) X-Men movies. I didn't even open her attachment, but as Gerrold says of his friend, the damage was already done. If any of the jokes I thought of looked like hers--in a book I intended to publish. For money. Obviously--she could have sued me. And I would have no way of proving I did not open that attachment. I'm not saying she would. I'm saying she could. And you have no way of knowing who will or will not go after you. As Scalzi points out, a few crazy, bad, ligitious apples have ruined it for everyone else. I have no idea what your intentions are or might later be, and I have to protect myself. And so now, I would not feel comfortable writing anything about the three main X-Men movies. Honestly, I could probably put it out for free with no legal problems, but I feel a childish bit of pique that I was even put in that position. And so much time has gone by... that's probably the real reason I wouldn't write about them now, but there you are.

So what I'm saying is--bottom line--is that a writer refusing to read an unpublished work is an attempt to protect himself from possible legal consequences. Moreover, a writer refusing to read an unpublished work that you have already sent him unsolicited is not an unkindness. It is a response to an unkindness you have already done to him.

ETA: From annlarimerWhat happened to Chelsea Quinn Yarbro; from dwg , Laurell K. Hamilton's take on the Olson piece.

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Agreed. This is why there are so many problems with authors reading fanfiction. They just can't do it.

The MZB story still gives me the shivering fits, as it should any writer.

Well, and it should REALLY piss off her fans, who then never got to read that novel.

As a budding freelancer, I have to say that the only thing that scares me more than someone stealing one of my stories is someone claiming that I have stolen one of theirs. So all writers can DO is take the Mad-Eye Moody route and practice CONSTANT VIGILIANCE ... even if it means not being able to be as helpful and polite as some people think they should be.

So, y'know, well-spoke.

If you want to add it to your links, Laurell K Hamilton also thought Josh Olson was a bastard. Mostly for the language he used, but not so much for the principle of the matter.

I have never been a fan of her novels, but I agree entirely with her article there.

My mind boggles over the person who wrote X-Men in 15 minutes and then sent it to you. What were they thinking? I can't imagine why a. someone would give away their work like that and b. would think that another writer would want to put their name on something that wasn't theirs.

I don't get B., but I can sure as heck get what they were thinking with A. -- the best shortcut in the world. It comes down to that girl deciding that not getting personal credit for her write-up was a worthy trade for taking advantage of the work and _time_ that Cleolinda has put into building up a fanbase. If Cleo had posted it, the girl wouldn't have gotten credit for her work, but she WOULD have gotten the satisfaction of seeing Cleo's entire audience read and respond to what she's written. I, personally, don't see that as a worthy trade at _all_ -- but it doesn't shock me that there's some people who would. Some people will do almost ANYTHING to reap benefits without putting in any time, effort, or hard work. (I know this because I have the laziness to be one of them -- it's just that my ego outweighs my laziness and so I won't actually try to get away with anything like that. I want the credited glory too much, y'see. XD)

I had never thought about this. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. It's a scary thing for anyone who dabbles in either fanfic or professional writing to have to think about...

Well, and as an enterprising TV screenwriter, it hadn't occurred to me, either. I don't blame people for not realizing the problem, really. I just need them to be understanding when I tell them why I can't read it. And for them to ask (so I can tell them) before they just send it on and completely screw me over.

This is also why (unless they ask for it, which has happened -- after the project was over) you don't inflict your fanfic on TPTB. You can tell yourself, "Oh, he's just an actor, it's not like he has anything to do with the stories." But actors often become writers, directors, or producers on their series.

And it's why, if an author tells you she doesn't want fanfic, you have to respect that. You can try to keep it underground if you want, and most of the time that's good enough, but you still risk a C&D and a smackdown, especially if you post on the web or do a fanzine.

An experienced Trekfic writer, one who really should have known better, once wrote Chesea Quinn Yarbro asking for permission to use one of her series characters in a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Yarbro said no. The writer wrote the story and put out the zine anyway -- and then sent a copy to Yarbro. And, in an especially stupid move, she wrote in her introduction to the story that she'd written Yarbro, Yarbro had said no, but that she was going ahead because she was certain that, once it was in print, Yarbro would change her mind and be totally thrilled with the finished project.

Yarbro called her lawyer. She didn't have a choice.

The fan got off easy. She had to buy ad space in a writing magazine to make a public apology. It cost her more money than a fan writer can probably afford -- but it could have been a lot worse. It cost Yarbro billable hours, time, and a great deal of anger.

Don't be a dick to writers. It's not flattering. They don't owe you anything. It will end badly.

Oh God.

I just read LKH's take on the Olson thing, and I think she does peg one key element of it--that it's the ultimate shortcut to fame and fortune, pushing your work on someone established so you can get "discovered" in an instant without paying any dues. And you know what, the more I think about that, the more it pisses me off. I got "discovered" myself, I guess, but you know, I was sitting here on my journal minding my own business. Which is maybe a lesson in zen for people, I don't know.

Stories like this scare me. :(
*in response to more than one issue* Oh, why do a few jerks have to ruin it for everyone else?!

I thought he came off unkind, but at the same time, being a writer doesn't necessarily mean being thrilled to instruct the noobs.
But more than any writing experience I've had, the original essay sort of reminds me of how I feel when parents want me to instruct their kids about physical disabilities.
In the abstract, I agree that it's important they learn good things, but I still really hate it when they pounce in the mall like "Ha! There's one." and put all the pressure to be polite upon me, lest little Johnny carry Captain Hook issues for the rest of his life.

Yeah--you're a person, not an object lesson or a teaching aid. It's not your job to be someone else's example.

Funny I wrote about the same thing today.

And I too have horror story upon horror story about this sort of thing.

I find it sad that we can't just talk out a story anymore for fear of someone suing us.

Well, as with anything like this, a lot of times it's the volume that gets to me. One person putting me in an awkward position is... well, just that: awkward. Ten people doing it, you get a bit testy.

As for the suing--from my X-Files experience (again, when I was a teenager and didn't know any better), I can see how people genuinely might think they had been ripped off. I don't blame an overly litigious society (although we have that as well) so much as situations that are unfortunate for everyone all around, and it's up to the established writer to prevent them from happening. And if the unpublished writer can be made aware of it, it can save her some sincere heartache as well.

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I know Abaius got pissed off that Olson made the Picasso comparison, but at the same time, no one really knows pithy stories about unfamous people, do they? So I see what he was getting at.

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Oh God have I ever been there. My friends all know I write and have occasionally asked me to look over their work for school purposes. Grammar checking, consistency, etc. But when I became an editor on my schools newspaper, specifically of the creative writing page, suddenly I was bombarded with people's writing. And they never wanted me to actually, you know, EDIT or critique their writing, they just wanted me to praise them. Especially with fanfiction. NO I DO NOT WANT TO READ YOUR TWILIGHT/ANITA BLAKE/BUFFY/HARRY POTTER CROSSOVER! AND NO I WILL NOT PUBLISH IT IN THE NEWSPAPER!!!

Having published writers read your stuff and give feedback is an absolutely invaluable resource as an aspiring writer. And a lot of published authors know that, which is why so many of them RUN CLASSES AND WORKSHOPS. It's not uber difficult to go find one. o.O

I mean, I speak from a place of relative privilege in that my university keeps a writer-in-residence, but... even if it's not easy, it's not impossible. And being a writer isn't easy either.

Scalzi's take on the topic is the best of the bunch I've seen so far, actually. Thanks for that link!

Yeah, and this isn't even the first time he's had to write about it. Of everyone I linked (with the exception of the new LKH link), he has probably had the most experience fending off aspiring writers, if only because screenwriters don't go on book tours where they can be hit up by dozens of people in one sitting.

As an aspiring writer, stories like these scary me to no end. It is scary to think someone could sue you for "an idea" similar to yours. I'm one of those who believes there are no new stories. Romeo and Juliet=Twilight, Star Wars=Harry Potter, The Godfather=Goodfellas, the list can go on and on.

I don't blame writers for telling their fans they cannot read their manuscripts. Hell, even authors sue each other for having similar ideas/themes in their novels. I don't agree with the wording used--but I think Olson was trying to make a point. He is a writer after all.

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