Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Copyright & Plagiarism

by Annette Lyon

Reader question from Terry:

Can you, or do you need to copyright short stories to put on a blog?


A disclaimer: The information here is based on my industry experience, but I’m not a lawyer. For legal advice, be sure to consult an attorney familiar with the publishing industry.

The short answer is no, you don’t need to copyright short stories on your blog.

The somewhat longer answer (which will also diverge into another area):

Once you write a story and it’s in any tangible form (saved onto your computer, scribbled in a notebook, typed out, on your blog, written in crayon on a napkin), it’s already under copyright protection by law. There is no need to register your work to have that protection.

When you get a book published, the publisher takes care of actually registering the copyright, which makes it nice and official so everyone is aware of your copyright. You get the © and a date by the mark so everyone knows how long it’s been under protection (generally the year the book was actually published, not when you wrote it, even though, yeah, it was already protected then).

Since publishers and agents know the generalities of copyright law, they aren’t going to try to steal your work. That would take a lot of effort, frankly, and they’d rather just be ethical, sell your stuff, and get both of you some money.

As I’ve mentioned before, putting that little copyright sign next to your manuscript’s title smacks of amateurism and paranoia. It doesn’t hurt, however, to put a copyright notice on your website or blog as a gentle reminder to readers that your work is under protection, just a small, "Content Copyright 2008." In this electronic age, it’s ridiculously easy for anyone (not editors and agents, but casual readers) to cut and paste and republish without permission or attribution.

If you’re genuinely concerned about someone stealing your work, you can do one of two things to prove your work existed when you say it did.

Register your work with the U.S. copyright office. Not hard to do, but it does require paperwork and a fee.


Mail yourself the manuscript. Then don’t open the package. That way, if Joe Schmoe comes along three years later and steals your work, you have physical proof on your postmark as to when your version existed—and that yours pre-dates Joe’s by a margin.

And here’s where the topic expands:

If Joe writes something that rings a bell—it has a similar concept, maybe—that may or may not be a violation of your copyright. His version would have to have a lot of similarities. You cannot copyright an idea, just the expression of one.

He might be plagiarizing your work. Or not. It would be depend if Joe uses your actual words, regardless of whether the story is the same. An author can be guilty of plagiarism if you’re lifting or just slightly altering someone else’s words. Paraphrasing without attribution is often considered plagiarism too.

While violating copyright and plagiarism are both unethical, they are not necessarily the same thing.

Say, for example, that a writer silently ripped off Jane Austen. She wouldn’t be guilty of violating copyright. No court around would find an author guilty of that, because Austen has been dead for so long that her work is in the public domain. (This is why you can find a dozen different houses publishing her books—they can do it without paying anyone royalties.)

However, if the author were to try passing off the copied Austen sections as her own, that would be plagiarism. Sometimes the two overlap, but sometimes they don’t.

When working on my last book, I was sure to tread carefully. The story is a retelling of a Shakespeare play, and some scenes are—deliberately—similar to the Bard’s.

During the drafting phase, I had a writer tell me that I could use anything from the actual play. Lift whatever I wanted, he said. Shakespeare is very much in the public domain, so he’s centuries past being protected by copyright.

The whole idea of trying to pass Shakespeare’s lines as my own didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t put my finger on why until later: that plagiarism and copyright don’t always fall under the same umbrella. Sure, I could lift some lines and be free of copyright issues. But I’d still be plagiarizing.

As I wrote the book, I made sure not to directly quote Shakespeare, but because some scenes do mirror the originals, I made sure to make it very clear to everyone that my book was an adaptation of good old Will’s work. That way I’m not trying to take credit for someone else’s words and ideas. The similarities would be seen as what they really are (an homage to Shakespeare) and not as an effort to pass off his ideas as mine.

I made it crystal clear everywhere: My publisher knew. I posted the “adaptation” information on my website and (repeatedly) mentioned it on my blog. I advertised the book that way in press releases (“Shakespeare Meets 1860s Salt Lake City”). It's even mentioned in the acknowledgments so readers would know going in.

Unfortunately, some writers do try to pass of other people’s work as their own, as romance author Cassie Edwards recently learned the hard way. And no, inserting speaker tags and otherwise changing up someone else’s words just a little doesn’t keep it from being plagiarism.

Since I’m a historical novelist, Edward’s situation provided a good reminder for me. Not only should I track my sources to protect myself, but I need to also be sure to use them the right way—as just that: sources of information, not a place to fall back on when explaining something. It needs to be my words, my voice, my expression. Not theirs.

That applies to all writers, regardless of whether you’d technically be violating copyright, because plagiarism is just as serious, and if you want your readers’ or your publisher’s trust, you have to make sure what you’re writing are your words. And if you’re using someone else’s words, say so up front, giving credit where credit is due.

Monday, April 28, 2008

On Writing Fantasy--genre toolbox

By Julie Wright

On Writing Fantasy

Genre Toolbox

In every genre, there are important tools to use for writing in that genre. I am going to spend the next couple of weeks doing a genre toolbox for a few of the genre's that I know intimately. I'm starting with fantasy since that is what I'm currently working on.

• Magic system-- Create rules for your magic system. Where did your magic come from? Who controls the magic? Does your magic have limits? Does it cost your characters anything to use that magic?
• Plot-- I don’t care how cool your world is if nothing cool is happening there. No matter the genre, plot is essential.
• Characters—I don’t care how cool your world is if I can't relate to the characters. Even if you have dwarfs and elves and creatures we can't pronounce, you need to make them relatable on a human level.
• World building-- Even when you turn our world upside down, you have to build it up again in some new way that works for the story and is believable. If you are building a new world from scratch, then write yourself a research paper on the populations of that world. Draw yourself a map of that world. Explain what kinds of plants grow on that world, and what the people of that world eat. What do people do for a living? Is that world ruled by a king or a queen? Is it governed by the people? Does chaos rule supreme? Never underestimate world building. Most of the background history will never be used in the book, but you as the author MUST know your own world if you want the reader to believe it exists.
• Biology/science-- Just because this is fantasy doesn’t mean there are no rules. The science of the world needs to make sense. If you have a purple land-roving-squid with twenty tentacles and two legs, there better be some logical believable reasoning behind it.
• Industry knowledge-- Fantasy now-a-days is so much more than middle earth. If the most current fantasy book you’ve read is Tolkien, then you don’t know your field. Research the Hugo and Nebula award winners. Know what is being published so you don’t fall into the trap called: “Yawn, that is so yesterday’s story.”
• Reinvent the wheel. Don’t be afraid to retell an old fable or myth from a fresh point of view. Think how many times Cinderella has been remade; consider the success of Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl.
• Imagine it. Close your eyes. Can you see your world, hear the dialect of your people? Do you understand the pressures and stresses in your character's daily life as they move throughout the world you've created for them?

Meet me back here next week for the romance toolbox.

Monday Mania--First Page

One of our readers submitted the first page of a novel. Feel free to make comments, but please keep them constructive.

Critique Archive 0016:

Chapter 1

The cursor blinked a challenge at me: do. it. do. it. do. it. I reached for the mouse but my finger hovered over the button, not quite ready to click. Holding my breath for a minute while I screwed up my nerve, I finally blew it out with a defeated “Dang.”

There was a snort from the sofa. “Dang?”

I could see Sandy’s bright red hair peeking over the top of the sofa arm. “Quiet in the peanut gallery,” I told her.

“Sorry. It’s just….dang? Take it easy there, Jessie. That’s tough talk for a nice little Mormon girl,” she teased.

“I can’t use any of the really good curses because you’re inactive. I have to set a good example.”

There was an even louder snort from the sofa, but this one was laced with laughter.

“What’s your problem, anyway?” she asked. “You didn’t bring work home with you again, did you? What happened to New Year’s resolutions and all that?”

“Coerced resolutions don’t count.”

“Do I need to get your butter pecan again?”

Just last week she abducted my deluxe carton of Haagen Dazs and held it hostage over her head until I promised to go out more during the new year. I stayed strong until she waved a spoonful of ice cream under my nose. Then I folded like an extra chair in Sunday school. It was a dirty fight.

Which brought me back to Sandy’s question. Or rather, her accusation. “No, it’s not work.” I hesitated. “I guess…..maybe your nagging worked.”

The top half of Sandy’s face finally made an appearance over the sofa arm, her blue eyes showing curiosity. “I don’t nag. I make suggestions. Which excellent one are you taking?”

“There’s so many to choose from. Let’s see, I’m not going to get weekly manicures, I will not be taking up yoga, and I will never eat tofu on purpose.”

The last one I delivered with a glare. She tried to sneak some tofu into my diet by sticking it on a whole wheat pizza but I figured out pretty quickly that it was not, in fact, a gourmet Italian sausage. “Bean curd will never be meat, Sandy. Never. Leave me to my carnivore ways.”

“Okay, but I don’t think you should be praying for your double pepperoni pizza to make you ‘strong and healthy’, either. God’s too busy to work that kind of miracle.”

I burst out laughing. “It’s pepperoni, not anthrax.”

She grinned back. “All right, so I haven’t reformed you from your carnivorous, nail bitten, meditation rejecting ways, so what are you—” she interrupted herself. “Oh.” She looked at me thoughtfully for a moment. “You’re going to go on a date, aren’t you? Spill it.”

“Well, the thing is I, uh.…” I trailed off in embarrassment. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. I squirmed ever so slightly in my seat.

“What? Spit it out.” She levered herself all the way off the sofa and beelined toward me, stopping when she could see over my shoulder. “Online dating?” I squirmed even more in an effort to block her view. She held me still with a hand on my head while she looked. Cringing a little inside, I waited for the jokes or the lecture. I got neither.

“That’s not a bad idea,” Sandy said after a moment.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Ways a Writer Reads a Book

by Lu Ann Staheli

Recently I attended a workshop with Newbery Honor author Kirby Larson (Hattie Big Sky). During her keynote address, she gave a list that I thought was worth sharing.
Keep a reader’s journal where you record your thoughts about the following for each book you read like a writer.

1. Did you connect with the book?

2. Who was the publisher?

3. Study the opening line. Does it hook you?

4. Does the book shock and intrigue you?

5. Does the title hint at the main problem?

6. Does the opening page at least hint at the main problem?

7. What is the story’s main problem?

8. Are there at least two plot lines in the book?

9. How is the story resolved?

10. Who resolves the problem?

As you study your responses, think about how your own writing would fare in someone else’s journal. Is there something you should be doing to make your story stronger and more marketable? Think about her list of questions as you write and revise.

And good luck with someday having a Newbery of your own!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Posting Excerpts on Your Blog

From one of our readers:

Hi. I am not sure if this would be good for your blog readers in general, but it seems to be a growing concern/confusion amongst many writers. Should we put up excerpts of our novels or other works we hope to see published (i.e., articles that may go into a book, a short story from a collection, a novel excerpt, etc.) on our blogs? Several other writers and myself have been reading lately that publishers won't publish anything that has been, even in part, "already published on a blog."

This is timely question since there are many publishers who don't like authors to publish exerpts of their contracted novels on blogs or websites. You need to get permission from your publisher in order to post an excerpt--even if it's still in preproduction.

If you have a novel you've written, but it's not under contract, it's all right to post an excerpt. But make sure to label it as a work in progress--and that it shouldn't be quoted in a review of your final book.

Posting an article that you are trying to get published is probably not a good idea. Most magazines ask for first rights until after it has been published by them (often, they give back the rights and you can take the same article elsewhere, but you must obtain permission). The magazine wants an "exclusive" per se and doesn't want it to be posted elsewhere.

A short story falls in between a novel excerpt and an article. If the short story is part of a collection, it is probably okay to label it as a "preview from my short story collection". But if it's a stand-alone, then a magazine won't be happy if the short story is already available to everyone. After all, why would their audience purchase their magazine to read your story when they can read it for "free."

Any other thoughts, anyone? Or personal experiences?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Titles, Schmitles

by Annette Lyon

With all due respect to Steve Almond, his latest article in Writer’s Digest wasn’t exactly en pointe.

This is the first time I’ve disagreed with a word he’s said. Usually his fiction column is a great resource, and I find myself mentally cheering him on with each example and explanation. (His piece on metaphors a few months ago was priceless.)

But this month . . . not so much.

In it he touts the importance of picking a title for your work. He claims that those poor souls who don’t pick a title might not be ready to show their work to the world, and then he proceeds to give a lesson (a pretty great one, actually) about how to come up with titles.

All well and good . . . if authors of published novels actually picked their titles.

Which happens, oh, about 1.3% of the time.

Okay, I made that statistic up, but in my experience, that might be guessing high. Sure, Dickens and company got to pick the titles of their books (really catchy ones, too, like David Copperfield and the one that makes you so eager to read it, Bleak House). But in the last, say, ten years, I’m aware of maybe three novels that hit shelves with the title that their authors submitted.

Writers are good at writing. We aren’t so good at selling stuff. That’s the marketing department’s job. That’s also why they hire professional graphic designers to make the covers—so prospective customers might actually pick up the thing and read the back liner . . . and maybe walk out the door with it.

And it’s why they get to pick the title. By and large, these guys have a ton more experience than we writers do in seeing what kinds of titles sell books and which ones land on their faces.

When they’re wrong, well, the author pays the price, because generally you’ll be at their mercy. You might be able to give suggestions or ideas, but in the end, they get the final say. The one exception might be with short stories, but if you’re planning on writing novels, there’s very little point in fantasizing about what they'll be called.

If you’re lucky enough to keep your title, party on. Throw confetti and toast your success.

But I know too many would-be writers who obsess about their titles, to the point of avoiding the nitty-gritty job of making a great book behind the brilliant title. A catchy name isn’t going to sell your work to an agent or editor. Knock-your-socks-off writing will.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ll probably use some of Almond’s suggestions when coming up with something to call my next manuscript before I submit it. But I won’t be married to the title, and I won’t be remotely surprised when (not if) it gets changed.

So I’ll be focusing my efforts where they really matter: Writing the best story I’m capable of.

Then I’ll let the marketing folks worry about assigning a title and a cover to it. That’s their job.

I think mine’s much more fun anyway.