Monday, October 7, 2013

It's called "research."

Damnedest thing, this topic. "Inspiration Versus Imitation: How Far is Too far?"

Well, that's a slippery slope, indeed, isn't it?

According to several sources, the entire Fifty Shades of Gray (Damn I hate to use the word phenomenon here) was inspired by The Twilight Series. It allegedly started off as fan-fic of the books by Stephanie Meyer. It might be true. It might not. In any event, and I say this with heartfelt sincerity, I simply don't care. I made the horrid mistake of watching one Twilight movie, and I have had many people tell me about the books both in a positive light and a negative. Ultimately, it's not something I'm really interested in. Who knows, I might change my mind some day but not for now.

Whether or not it's true is between the authors at this point.

The fact of the matter is, however, that stranger things have happened.

It wasn't all that long ago (and i'm not going to look up the details. Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines) that a young woman getting ready to graduate from college got a very, very sweet two book deal from one of the major publishing houses. I believe the deal was for two novels and the advance against royalties was, if I recall correctly, $250,000.00 I believe that was for both books. I remember hearing about the deal and shaking my head, because as far as I am concerned any time anyone gets that sort of advance without being a known commodity, I have to consider it more of a publicity stunt than anything else. Personally I'd be willing to be the person getting that advance as a publicity maneuver, but I also think it's asinine. Want to know why? Because of exactly what happened as a result of the advance.

The young lady in question might very well have been an amazing prodigy, and I suppose there's the remotest chance in hell that the novel she would have eventually turned in would have been worth that amount of money (snowflakes have a better chance of surviving hell, but it could happen) but what came down instead was exactly the sort of thing that should surprise no one on the planet. The young lady (I believe they were touting her as a "prodigy" and if I recall properly she was all of nineteen) finished graduating from college, thought about the massive sum of money she now had sitting in her accounts and acted like almost any teenager would have in that scenario and did a little partying. Not too much, but enough to spend a chunk of that advance, you may rest assured. Then she sat down to write the first novel in the series of romantic comedies (two books, remember?) in the same vein as SEX & THE CITY which was huge at the time, and discovered an absolutely epic case of writer's block.

Listen, anyone who thinks writer's block is a joke has never suffered from it. I won't judge her on that. Really, I don't judge her at all. I think she did what she had basically been programmed to do by her peers, her schools and her lifestyle. She acted like a kid, not like a professional and it blew up all over her face. After realizing she was never going to come close to making the deadline presented to her in her obscenely large advance, she panicked and got very stupid.

She copied someone else. Not a little bit, but a lot. I remember reading the articles that showed where sentences were copied and doctored just enough to let her think she'd get away with it and entire scenes she put into her book were literally lifted from another book that was doing well enough as a mid-list novel. Mid-list. You know, doing okay, not a best seller, but earning out. You may rest assured that the author of the book she copied from had very likely not received enough of an advance to buy a small house, and likely not enough to buy a brand new car. But it was well known enough that a few people caught on and then cried foul as loudly as they could. That makes her a little smarter than the (once again unnamed) individual who cut and pasted entire scenes from a Dean Koontz novel and changed only the names. Nope. I'm not kidding. Nope. I'm not naming names.

Last I heard about the situation the extremely large and more than a little overzealous publishing house that had offered an insane advance to a kid was looking into the matter, had pulled the hard back books from the shelves (Because when you decided to offer a complete unknown a quarter of a million dollars you do not put out a paperback. No, you put out a hard back and you advertise be bejeezus out of it, and you probably convince Oprah to at least consider it for her book of the month club.) and they ate a very epic plate of crow. And then they stated that they were considering whether or not to insist that she pay the advance back.

I heard second hand that they demanded the advance back and were considering going to even greater extremes to recoup their losses. I heard a lot of second hand stories about what happened to the editor that pushed for the book and on and on, but we won't get into the gory details here.  It's enough to know that it didn't end well for our young prodigy.

That's not the first time plagiarism ever happened. It won't be the last. These days there are computerized search engines designed to stop anyone from cheating on their term papers by copying too much and I suspect the same engines get a work out making sure writers don't get published by a few houses before the tales get carefully checked out.

What happened to the girl? No idea. It was all up in the air. What I can pretty much guarantee you is that unless she decides to self publish a novel (and barring being forbidden by court documents she might) she will never get published again by any of the major publishing houses. Ever. A few companies might even have her posted on a wall of shame just in case she gets too close to their buildings.

That, friends and neighbors, is a case of going too far with your imitation.

It's been said there are a finite number of ideas. I suspect that's probably true. I know I have run across entire shelves of books that all looked to one source or another for their inspiration and imitation and that some of them went waaaay too far with following the source material for plot points.

There's a case of a few fantasy novels I read and enjoyed a great deal both times I read them the first time when they were written by J.R. R. Tolkien and the second time around when the fantasy races involved were changed and the One Ring was replaced by a sword, if I recall correctly. Scene for scene it was the LORD OF THE RINGS. The names were changed and exactly enough was different to make me think that the author might not have even realized that the inspiration had slid far enough over to be called imitation.

I do not think that all cases of these things happening are intentional or caused by dread of deadlines. Some are very likely accidents. I don;t even blame the authors in all cases. I think you can also look to the editors now and then and ask exactly how it is that something THAT derivative got through the fact checkers, proof-readers and everyone else who looks at a book before it sees print.

I think there's plenty of blame to go around when things go wrong.

All of which brings me to my statement and opinion for this piece. I know writers who will adamantly refuse to read ANYTHING about a subject they are preparing to write about for fear of the accusation of plagiarism. I understand their philosophy but I do not follow that process.

When I set out to write BLOOD RED, my vampire novel, I promptly read every vampire novel I could think of. I bought extras that I had heard of, and I watched all of my rather substantial cache of vampire movies. Want to know why? Because I wanted to make sure that what I did in a subject that has been done many, many times was something different. Maybe not completely original, because, let's be honest here, there are a LOT OF VAMPIRE NOVELS OUT THERE, but different. One reviewer said that BLOOD RED reminded them of SALEM'S LOT, by Stephen King. To be fair, both are about vampires in New England. That's all they have in common. I made sure of it.

I just did another vampire novel, by the way. It's called CONGREGATIONS OF THE DEAD. It's co-authored by my frequent partner in crime Charles R. Rutledge and is an indirect sequel to BLIND SHADOWS. I did my research again, and so did Charles.

Seriously, how cool are those end papers?

And I still love the cover, too!

I have done three full vampire novels, I'm working on a series of novellas with Christopher Golden (BLOODSTAINED OZ, BLOODSTAINED WONDERLAND & BLOODSTAINED NEVERLAND) that are all twisted tales of vampires in different worlds of classic children's tales, and I'm soon to start work on the second on a series of shared world anthologies called V-WARS about non-supernatural vampires and werewolves. I wrote back in the day for the roleplaying game VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE. I have done a LOT with vampires.

I have to know what's been done before if I want to avoid doing it again. It's exactly that simple for me. I do my very best to know the field I'm working in.

Remember how I said earlier that I had no desire to read the TWILIGHT series? I still have to give a nod to Stephanie Meyers. She made vampires that are uniquely hers and she became a best selling author in the process. More power to her. Seriously.

I think research is vital. I think before I write about a subject I want to remember what it is I love about that subject and I want to make sure I write something that is different and something I can call my own.

I've been inspired by many, many writers and by endless things in this world. I've written about sea monsters that were decidedly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft. I have dabbled in the world of split personalities and stranger things and I was inspired by Robert Louis Stephenson's THE STRANGE CASE OF DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE. I've written about vampires, ghosts, witches, sorcerers, and myriad other subjects and I hope to keep being inspired for a very long time. and I hope, I PRAY that I am never afraid to touch on any subject, but you better believe I'll research the hell out of all of it before I start.

That's my two cents for the week.


  1. I absolutely agree, James - I think reading & watching extensively in the canon is huge. At that point, a creative person has such a rich soup to draw from that it's no longer just one source feeding in. I really liked this post. Well done!

    (I remember that gal's deal, too. Just an awful situation.)

  2. I think they key is not to copy the most recent thing without understanding where those people got their ideas. It's like the numerous sixteenth generation Lovecraft pastiches being written by people who never read Lovecraft. I know that for Congregations of the Dead, you and I went back to old Vampire folklore. Not only pre-Buffy and pre-twilight but in some cases, pre-Dracula. There's a wealth of inspiration to be found by going back to the old sources of supernatural tales and with the amount of information available through the internet there's really no excuse for not doing your homework before writing.

  3. Totally agree with you and Charles. If you're going write another take on a myth, dig deeply into the roots of the mythos. Even LOTR was based on lore of the Isles.

  4. A comparison I can make it so listening to music these days. At first you might think the newest hits are amazing, and after a while and a few discussions someone turns you on to the last generation's music and you are suddenly discovering the Beatles and The Who and the Rolling Stones and then you look back even further and you learn about Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and the whole of the Blues and you keep looking back further and suddenly all that stuff that was just noise without words is Mozart and Beethoven, et al. There is so very much history out there in the genre and beyond that not studying it seems positively negligent.