Stuck

I’m not a whiner. I mean, every now and then I’ll feel a little down, but I generally don’t talk about it, at least on social media. I’d rather set a goal, make a plan, and get on with it.

Whatever it is.

But I’m stuck. All the things I should be doing (taxes/writing/housekeeping/bills/gardening/savingtheworld/etcetcetc) are circling me like a damned bunch of alligators. Instead of picking one thing to focus on, I’m curled up in a metaphysical ball, hoping they’ll all go away.

A couple months ago I wrote a post about New Years resolutions that was kind of obnoxious in its enthusiasm. “I’ma do This and This and This and it’s gonna be fun!”

I just….haven’t done much. Instead of using those resolutions to motivate myself, they’ve been closer to a chain of weights around my neck, dragging me down.

For example, one of my goals was to write something my agent can send out on submission. Toward that end, I came up with an idea for a mystery series set in Victorian London, and I’ve put together a decent stack of books for research.

It’s gonna be cool. A brother and sister team – he’s a physician, she’s an apothecary – solve crimes at the edge of Whitechapel.

However – there’s always a however – rather than doing that research, I’ve spent days to weeks telling myself I’ll never be able to create a believable Victorian setting.

Because that’s a much more productive use of my time. (#sarcasm)

A publisher I’m interested in has a call for holiday novellas, with a deadline of May 1st. I have an idea, I played around with character sheets, and knocked out the skeleton of a plot. I’ve even written the first 1500 or so words.

And…they suck. Well, maybe suck is too strong a word. They’re just…not very good. To borrow a phrase from Marie Kondo, they do not spark joy.

But I really can’t blame the words for my current mood. It’s a combination of things: the current political shitstorm (like, Michael Cohen must have titanium gonads), lack of sleep, worry that writers I consider my peers are leaving me in the dust, stress related to putting 2 kids through college.

You know, the usual grind.

Also, lack of sleep.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not usually a public crybaby, so to wrap things up, I’m going to list a few things that are going right.

— Irene and I are working on a new novel!
— My agent saw an editor looking for stories set in either WW1 or WW2, so she queried my Paris story and the editor requested it!
— The damned sun is shining – which might not sound like much, but this is Seattle in February, so…

…spring can’t be too far away, can it?

Advertisements

On Plagiarism

Image purchased from Adobe Stock

You may have heard that there are (at least) two major plagiarism scandals going around the publishing world lately. In case not, here’s a quick recap:

  1. An “author” by the name of Cristiane Serruya has been accused of lifting whole pages of text from romance novels by bestselling authors Courtney Milan, Bella Andre, and several others and passing them off as her own fiction. She even went so far as to enter the books in the RITA awards, which are the Oscars of romance. When called on her actions, she blamed a ghostwriter she hired on Fiverr, who conveniently had already closed his/her account. However, she then deleted all of her social media and website. As of this writing, some of her books have been removed from sale, but others are still available. UPDATE – Nora Roberts has some new information on her blog.
  2. Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, has been accused of plagiarizing passages from her book
    Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts. She, however, is not denying it. She blames a mistake with the footnotes in a galley copy (an early review version of the book), which she has corrected in the final version.

To me, the most frightening of the two is clearly the second. I’ll get to why in a minute. The first one is stupidity, plain and simple. It’s not that hard to avoid plagiarizing fiction. (Hint: write your own stuff.) But let’s for a moment assume Ms. Serruya is innocent and the blame lies with the anonymous ghostwriter.

  1. Who hires a ghost writer on Fivver? If you are going to do it (and I personally think it a stupid and expensive move, especially for someone whose name alone doesn’t have the power to sell books), there are plenty of reputable agencies out there who can put you in touch with ghostwriters. Or ask around the writing community. Many authors either have or currently do ghostwrite.
  2. Even if she did, did she not quality-check the book? You would think, given that these are HUGE names in the romance industry, that she would have read at least a few of their books before “writing” her own and could recognize their style or turns of phrase. Or at least that her spidey sense would have told her something wasn’t right.
  3. If you are innocent, a proper reaction would be to apologize, remove the offending works from sale, and publicly admit the error (on your website, social media, newsletter list, etc.) and tell people how you are going to fix it and/or avoid in the future. That is crisis communications 101. A public letter of apology to the defrauded authors along with remuneration would be nice as well. What you do not do is turn tail and run by deleting your online presence. Even if you are scared and trying to avoid trolls, all it does is make you look guilty.
  4. No, just no. Write your own work, dammit!

But I highly doubt she is innocent. Her reactions, especially deleting her online presence, follow the pattern established by scammers long ago. Chances are good she will pop up under another name and do it all again. But she may not get away with it since one of the authors she victimized is Courtney Milan, a former lawyer who clerked for the Supreme Court. Because Ms. Serruya was an RWA member and entered the RITAs, they have payment information on file for her. Assuming she didn’t use a false identity there, this gives Ms. Milan the possibility of pursuing legal action. And I hope she does. Watch this space.

Non-fiction Holds Greater Risk
The second example is my own personal nightmare as a non-fiction writer and a worry that plagues me pretty often. Obviously, when you write non-fiction, truth and attribution are everything. But did you know that even Big Five publishing houses don’t employ fact-checkers for their non-fiction books? That both floored and scared the living daylights out of me when I found out through this Vox article:

“So how do publishers generally handle it if factual errors creep into a book? Basically, the same way they handle plagiarism: They make it the author’s problem…So the facts are all up to the author. And different authors handle that liability differently. Some might want to hire a freelance fact-checker, but that can get expensive: Vulture cites flat prices of between $5,000 and $25,000.” 

I have a terrible fear of accidentally plagiarizing someone else’s work. And it’s easier to accidentally do than you might think. According to the University of Arizona,

“There are basically three kinds of plagiarism:

(1) Using another person’s exact words without including quotation marks *and* citation. If you use someone else’s exact words, then you must cite the original source (either in a footnote or in a citation in the text), and you must enclose the words in quotation marks or else set them off from the rest of the text by indenting them from the other text.

(2) Using another person’s words, but changing some of them, or rearranging them. This is plagiarism even if the source is cited.

(3) Summarizing or paraphrasing another person’s words without citation. If you use what someone else has written, but you describe it or summarize it in your own words, then you don’t need to enclose it in quotation marks, but you still must provide a citation to the original source, either in a footnote or directly in the text.

Note that it’s not enough to simply include a reference to the original source in your bibliography; “citation” of the original source means citing it where it appears in the text.”

(Note that I attributed this quote in the text and also used quotation marks, so it is clear this is not my own thought. The italics were an extra step I took to the same end.)

I tend to over-footnote my non-fiction works as a preventive measure. When I research, I am very careful to put quote marks around my notes if they are word-for-word quotations so I know that when I go back to actually write the book. And even if I restate an idea in my own words, I still footnote the source because it wasn’t my original idea.

Yet, mistakes still happen. It is very difficult to keep perfect track of footnotes when you are revising and moving things around. Editing changes can make an Ibid. (the footnote way of saying “same source as in the previous footnote”) no longer valid. I’ve learned not to put in any Ibids until I’m sure I’m on the final version or at least to the point where I won’t be moving anything. That way, the source and page number will always stay with the sentence.

I have to say, I sympathize with Ms. Abramson’s statement that she didn’t cite some sources (either in the text or footnotes) because she “was trying to write a seamless narrative, and to keep breaking it up with ‘according to’ qualifiers would have been extremely clunky.” (Source: Vox) We all want to write a gripping story and footnotes can be distracting for the reader, but they are necessary. In thinking about my experience in reading more non-fiction books than I can count for my research, I rarely notice the footnotes unless I read something I want to know more about and then drop my gaze down to read them or turn to the back of the chapter/book if they are end notes (which I personally think are a PITA for both the author and the reader, but I digress). And in most cases “according to” or some variation thereof instills a sense of trust in the author and her research when I hear/read it.

I’m sure there are more ways plagiarism can occur (besides deliberately) but these are the things that spring to mind for me. You would think that Ms. Abramson would know better given she was one of the most powerful journalists in the country and teaches other journalists, but she is only human. (Assuming, of course, that she didn’t do it on purpose. If she did, I am ashamed of her and she should be punished.)

What are the takeaways for writers? 1) Don’t plagiarize on purpose. (Duh!) 2) Be very, very careful with your notes when researching. 3) Take your time with your writing and triple check it. 4) Check over your footnotes one more time when you’re done editing 5) Pray.

I just hope it is a mistake I never make.

Forgotten Origins of Valentine’s Day

Oh, Valentine’s Day. We’re not on the best of terms, you and I. Don’t get me wrong–I’m one helluva hopeless romantic and I see nothing wrong with a holiday meant to celebrate love in its many forms. But your shiny balloons and hallmark cards and candy hearts and prix-fixe menus aren’t really my thing, if I’m being honest.

But guess what? St. Valentine’s Day hasn’t always been chubby cupids and paper doilies. So if you like your romance with a dash of ritual sacrifice, execution, and martyrdom, you’re in luck! Keep reading to find out some of Valentine’s Day’s oldest and darkest secrets.

The Festival of Lupercalia. Between conquest, orgies, and public stabbings, the Ancient Romans knew how to have a good time. Lupercalia —-celebrated on the Ides of February, between the 13th and 15th of the month—was one of their brutal revels. Believed to be inspired by the wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, Lupercalia was primarily a celebration of fertility. Young men ran naked through the streets, swatting women with the flayed hide of a sacrificial goat. There was also a love lottery that, ahem, coupled people for the duration of the festival. I hope swiping left was allowed…

The REAL St. Valentine. The Christian priest who is the namesake for the holiday lived during the reign of Emperor Claudius II, who banned young people from getting married. Supposedly, Valentine passed letters between couples in love and even married them in secret, before being jailed, martyred and hastily buried. Only problem is, Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on Feb. 14 of different years in the 3rd century A.D. And history has forgotten which of them —if either —was the elopement-friendly padre whose day we celebrate.

Confused yet? Later, Pope Gelasius I muddled things in the 5th century by combining St. Valentine’s Day (which had gained popularity along with Christianity) with Lupercalia, which was still celebrated. The new festival was still a drunken revel, but the Christians managed to keep their clothes on. Around the same time, the Norman’s celebrated Galatin’s Day, which loosely meant “lover of women.” Galatin was likely confused with Valentine, since they sound pretty much the same when you’re at a drunken fertility festival.

Thanks, Shakespeare. Both Shakespeare and Chaucer romanticized the holiday in their work, bringing it more popularity than ever before. By the Victorian Era, the holiday inspired handmade cards, love letters, and posies of violets (which supposedly grew outside St. Valentine’s jail cell in Italy). In 1913, a little company called Hallmark Cards began mass-producing Valentines, and the holiday began to transform into the glittery, sugary festival of mass consumption we know today!

Well, whether you plan to celebrate with chocolate hearts, secret elopements, or a good old-fashioned drunken orgy, I hope you tell those you love how much they mean to you! Because that never goes out of fashion. Happy St. Valentine’s Day, everyone!

So, where do you get your ideas from?

“So, where do you get your ideas from?”

Honestly, I kind of hate this question. I mean, I understand it and if someone who is an aspiring writer asked it, I would be keener to answer it. But usually when someone asks, they aren’t themselves a writer and it’s a very put-on-the-spot kind of question.

I think people want to hear some magical, “it came to me in a dream one night while a storm raged outside,” answer. And, sure, there are probably some writers who can give that answer, they’re probably lying but really the answer isn’t always magical or all that interesting. Sometimes you hear a really cool line and it sparks an idea. Sometimes you watch a movie so terrible you wonder what you would have done if you’d had the idea first and something new is born. Sometimes you get inspired by travel. Sometimes some horrific news story sparks a terrible, wonderful idea. Sometimes you just sit and think until something literally from nowhere comes into your head.

So explaining it to someone you hardly know can feel really awkward (it’s always strangers who ask, as if it’s small talk).

But I thought it might be cool to answer it here, where I have a little time to actually think of the answers.

My first series was a YA series about three teens with elemental magical abilities. This story is hugely influenced by who I was as a teen. I fancied myself a clever witch and at that time I was obsessed with how people interacted with elements of their personality or astrological sign—I’m a Capricorn and therefore Earth. And I love YA and magic and best friend stories that don’t always focus on romance, so I wrote that. As for the stories within the series, I focused each book on one of the five elements and what creatures or emotions might come with that element and the stories evolved from there. For the first book, I was influenced by a news story about a boy who claimed to be a devil worshiper and killed his girlfriend’s parents so they could run away together, it happened around the time I was in high school and I never forgot it–not exactly pleasant party talk, right?

My next series was another YA series, but this one wasPost-Apocalyptic. Hunger Games was big and The 5th Wave, but I’d always enjoyed a good end-of-the-world story and one day I had a vision. Yep, just like I teased up there. I saw a really pretty girl, about 18-19 years old, standing in front of a cracked mirror. Her hair was lank and greasy from not being washed, she looked exhausted and scared and a little bit angry. And she was holding a pair of scissors, about to chop off all that hair. It was so crystal clear and fully formed but I didn’t know why she was in that bathroom, I didn’t know how the world had ended, I didn’t know anything, but I knew I wanted to find out. So I sat down and started to think of ways for the world to end that hadn’t been done before.* And eventually I learned all about Kat and what she was doing in that bathroom and where she was going.

*Side note: originally in my story, the end of the world happened because a worker at CDC had smuggled out a vial of weaponized small pox for revenge on someone and started an accidental epidemic. But I scrapped that, thinking it was too fantastical to be believed only to have that story break about the forgotten vials of the disease at a college lab. So yeah. Fiction isn’t stranger than real life.

My longest and open-ended series is about a witch who lives in Hollywood who can’t quite get her shit together in life or love but she’s trying and she makes a living as a witch for hire, spells, potions, or charms. And that’s all thanks to Chuck Wendig. Chuck used to have flash fiction Fridays on his blog where he’d give people a prompt to write a 1000 word piece of fiction. It was a great way to inspire people and get you writing if you were stuck. If you know Chuck, you know he is a profanity wordsmith and this particular prompt was about profanity. He challenged us to get as creative as we could with profanity.

So when I sat down to write my 1000 curse-filled story, I saw an image of a young woman coming home, angry as a wet cat about something. And as I let her rant and rave on the page I wrote about her being stiffed for a potion she brewed for a guy so now she was brewing something extra special for him. And lo, my Wytch For Hire was born.

Now, my next book that I hope to write is going to be influenced by travel and by my interests in tarot and magic. I don’t quiet have the concept figured out yet because every time I think I know what the story is, it falls apart as something I don’t want to write. But we’ll see. I’ll get there. Maybe it’ll be another vision; maybe it’ll be a song that inspires me. Maybe I’ll be washing my hair and the whole plot will unfold as soap bubbles wash down the drain.

It doesn’t matter where you get your ideas from, so if you’re an aspiring writer and don’t feel confident in your ideas because they didn’t come to you in a dream, let that shit go. Just sit down and start writing.

So, where do you get your ideas from?