Friday, October 11, 2013

The Lines I Have Crossed

I've committed plagiarism. It's how I found out what it is. I was in the tenth grade, writing a paper analyzing some book or the other. In reading someone else's analysis of the story, I picked up a sentence verbatim and subsequently didn't cite the source. Isaac Asimov, I think. Hell, if you're going to screw something up, go straight to the top. It wasn't a research paper, right? Citation didn't belong in an essay, or so I thought. One teacher called it out. Another defended me, saying I was bright enough to have come up with that sentence all on my own.

I'll love her forever for her faith in me.

Except I wasn't that bright, was I? I wasn't even clever enough at fifteen to figure out that by not citing my source, I'd passed his work off as mine until someone said the word 'plagiarism'. After I'd looked it up, and realized with one of those nasty thumps that makes you feel two inches tall that I was guilty, I made damned sure I never made the mistake again.

That was writing nonfiction, something that doesn't particularly fill me with smurfy joy and glittery rainbows. Not like fiction does. Okay. Maybe not smurfy joy. Don't let it shock you when I confess I might be a titch more Vulcan subdued than that. Regardless, the point of writing fiction is that I'm putting words on paper in an effort to get the all-consuming story and its noisy characters out of my brain space. Other people's words will not do. I do have sympathy for anyone on a deadline who suddenly finds there's nothing in their heads but an echo chamber - but that's part of the writing experience. You're a writer when you stare into that abyss, wrestle down anxiety, and show up at your keyboard anyway. It's also the point at which inspiration might be useful.

Except when I get a hold of inspiration and break it.

I was attempting my first SFR novel. There was a TV show I loved. I wanted to imitate the tone. Got a third of the way into the book. A contest came up judged by librarians and book sellers. I entered the opening of that WIP. The scores came back. They were good. The comments were enthusiastic. "My customers would love this! It reminds me of *name of TV show*." This is how I discovered that I seem to have a knack for mimicry. Not a line of what I'd written was plagiarism per se, but I'd done so well imitating the voice of the show that two different judges nailed it by name. Inspiration had crossed a line that gave me the willies.

I took the WIP out and buried it, unfinished, in the backyard.

My cold comfort is that I can do this singing, too. Not like the gal who imitates 19 different singers in one song - cause if I could, I'd totally be looking for a way to parlay that into a European tour of some kind. Ply me with alcohol sometime and ask for Barbara Streisand. Or don't. I'm not sure that demonstration would win us any friends.

Kind of like how writing a story that lifts copy from someone else, or strangling inspiration to the point that readers can ID what inspired you (unless you're writing really skillful parody) won't win friends. It sure influences people, though. In that 'you're going down in infamy' kind of way.

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