If Love was a Train, I’d write better.

This morning I remembered Michelle Shocked. I hadn’t thought about her in years, but I loved her first couple albums. Here’s a link to a live version of My Little Sister. Such a good song! Back in my cover band days, we used do Little Sister and If Love was a Train.

Good stuff!

I didn’t take many liberties with Michelle’s vocal style. Like, I pretty much copied her note-for-note. Well, maybe not every note but I stayed true to the way she interpreted the songs. Save that thought for later.

The thing that made me sad about remembering Michelle is that when I googled her name, I got her Wikipedia page, a couple hits about a supposed homophobic rant, followed by her apologies for said rant…or denials, or something. Then I went to youtube, and all I could find were really sketchy covers of some of her songs.

Dear god I hope my band sounded better than that.

Which got me thinking about writing. Okay, you’re right. Just about everything gets me thinking about writing, but still. The thought I’ve been chewing on this time has to do with what’s good and what’s not.

It seems to me that the difference between me and the authors that find a place in the broader cultural landscape is larger than the difference between Serena Williams and that seventeen year old kid she played on center court in Arthur Ashe Stadium last night.

Catherine McNally played well – she won the first set, which is not easy to do against Serena – but by the middle of the second set, they could have been playing in different universes.

Catherine is good. Serena is the best, possibly ever.

The thing that hangs me up is figuring out where I fit on the spectrum between “good” and “best”. Do I even reach “good”? I don’t know, and sometimes that uncertainty makes it hard to get any words on the page.

There’s this contradiction between “there’s so much crap out there” and “everyone’s voice is important”. Can both, “you’re a shitty cover band singer” and, “you are uniquely creative and no one else can tell your stories” be true?

And does it matter that my old band’s version of If Love was a Train doesn’t stray far at all from the original?

I don’t need to be Serena, but I’d like to see if I could play on the same court at least once.

I’ve been pondering whether it would be worth my while to get my MFA, maybe at one of the low-residency programs that focus on genre fiction. (I can’t stand to read much literary fiction, so don’t look for me on the lit fic bestseller list, like ever.) They programs I’ve looked at are expensive (!), and while I’m sure I’d learn, I’m not sure I’d learn more than I could teach myself by, you know, reading and writing.

Artists learn to paint by copying the masters. Singers learn to scat by mimicking Ella Fitzgerald. (And yes, I’ve had Mr. Paganini on constant rotation in my brain for the last couple weeks.) I’ve never sat down and said “I’ma write just like _______,” but I do take mental notes while I’m reading.

And I read a lot, hitting just about anything but horror and YA. (And Lit Fic, but we already covered that.) I read, and I write, and I try to push myself.

You may be wondering what brought on this little bout of naval gazing. See, I read an article about the Dunning-Kruger effect. That’s the one that says when you first learn something, your confidence is low because you know you don’t know anything, but once you learn a little, your confidence goes up, higher than your relative skill would warrant.

Once you move toward expert, you know what you don’t know, and your confidence goes down.

Here’s me, down at the bottom of the well.

I won’t ever play as well as Serena, and I do still tend to sing a lot like Michelle Shocked, but I have too much writing to do to worry about how my work will eventually be judged. So, on that note…

…if you can’t sing it, you simply have to …. swing it!
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Best Reboots

Reboots. Returns. Revivals.

I’ll be honest–these days it sometimes seems like I can’t turn my head without seeing an advertisement for a new reboot or revival of an old franchise. Often, these reboots are of something that played an important role in my childhood or adolescence, and seem cringingly designed to play on my sense of nostalgia. From live-action remakes of Disney movies to newly diverse CW reboots of 90’s television, it can seem like the only new movies and TV shows getting made these days…are old movies and TV shows.

As a writer, this sometimes strikes me as short-sighted. After all, there are so many amazingly talented authors, screenwriters, and playwrights out there writing original, creative, and often groundbreaking content that would be perfect for the big or little screen. But at the same time…sometimes these reboots really nail bringing an old storyline to a new audience. So with no further ado, here are my favorite reboots/revivals/returns from the last few years.

A Star Is Born

I know, I know, me and everyone else in the Academy. For me, though, this was really a high bar as far as comparison goes. I’m a big old movie buff, which means I’ve seen (and enjoyed, in different ways) both the 1937 and 1954 versions by the same name, starring Janet Gaynor and Judy Garland, respectively. (I have not seen the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand). I thought Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s rock-opera reimagining of the familiar story was poignant, inventive, and incredibly well acted.

Queer Eye

Full disclosure, I’ve never actually watched an episode of the original early-naughts version of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. However, even without a comparison, I think 2018’s reboot of the franchise is nearly impossible to argue against. The newly minted Fab Five are just about everything this world needs: a group of queer, diverse, empathetic, thoughtful, kind, and playful men who bring joy, change, and self-worth to people’s lives. If anyone who works in TV is reading this…more of this, please!

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mel Gibson, Shmel Gibson. I’d rather partake in this heart-pounding, feminist reimagining of a parched post-apocalyptic world, headed up by a prosthetic-wearing, shaved-head sporting, monster-truck driving Imperator Furiosa (played with aplomb by Charlize Theron). Bonus points: every still this movie looks like it could be a poster.

Roswell, New Mexico

Oh, I had my doubts, not least of all because the original show wasn’t very good (sorry!). But with the 2019 reboot, Liz is a scientist, the daughter of undocumented immigrants, and Max is–well, Max is very attractive. All joking aside, while the reboot is not without flaws, it does a much more thorough job of placing an alien invasion storyline amid the real-world xenophobia of modern America.

Ghostbusters

From the moment they announced an all-female reboot of this beloved classic, I knew I was all in. And I was not disappointed. Featuring some of the funniest ladies in comedy–Kristin Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy, and Leslie Jones–and the welcome eye candy of Thor himself (sorry, can’t think of him any other way) this reboot did not disappoint. Ghosts, occultists…I can’t really say more without giving spoilers. Just trust me, hilarity ensues.

And that’s just a few of the reboots/returns/revivals, past and present. What are your faves, or ones you’re looking forward to? Personally, I’m really excited about Disney’s reboot of Mulan, and Amazon’s Lord of the Rings TV series!

The Tail of Brody and the Fourth of July

When I saw that the Fourth of July fell on a Thursday this year, I knew that we wouldn’t get a lot of blog traffic, but I also didn’t want us to just skip the week in case there were people still surfing the web, looking for some distractions.

But what to post? It didn’t seem like the kind of day to post writing advice and I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump so I don’t have any recommendations but, then, I thought of it. This is a writing-based blog so, how about a story set on the fourth?

The last week of June in 2008 my husband and I had been living in our new home for a little over a month. I’d grown up a cat person, mostly because that’s the best kind of pet to have in apartments. But my husband was always, always a dog person. And he’d been missing having a dog. But now we had a house to rent instead of an apartment and houses can have dogs. It was time to look for a pup.

One morning we decided to go to the shelter, just to look mind you. Just to look.

And there he was. Adorable. Floppy-eared, brown-eyed, sweet-faced. Waiting for us.

We were kind of stunned because it’s not often that you find an actual puppy at the shelter; they’re usually snatched up as soon as they’re available. But we knew, this was our puppy and we had to meet him.

When we got to meet him, he flopped on his back and gave us his belly and climbed into our laps, desperate to lick our faces, as if to say, “Finally! Finally you found me! I’ve been waiting for you!” Obviously, we were a match.

But Brody—as we would name him later—wasn’t available for adoption yet. We had to leave him, with tiny cracks in our hearts, and come back for him and hope that no one else would show up wanting to adopt him that morning because then we would have to submit to a random drawing and leave it up to The Fates. And they can be a trio of bitches if they want to be.

When the adoption day came there were a few people waiting to get inside to be the first come in first serve and we were more than a little anxious. I started asking around to see what pup people were there for.

“The black one,” a bespectacled girl answered.

“Yeah, the black one, us too,” a man cut in, drawing a glare from the girl. “I think we’re all here for the same dog.” He gestured to the other people waiting.

My heart sank. We were going to have to do a drawing.

When the doors opened I rushed to the counter with Brody’s ID number memorized.

“Anyone else for A773790?” the guy behind the counter called out. My stomach twisted as I waited for the others to say something. But then: nothing!

Turning, I furrowed my brow at the bespectacled girl, wondering why she wasn’t saying anything.

“Oh,” she said, understanding dawning on her. “You’re not here for the pug? The black pug?”

“No,” I said and my husband smiled. No one else was there for Brody.

On June 30, 2008, we took him home.

The thing with puppies though is you can’t take them out until they’ve had all their shots. So when the Fourth of July rolled around we knew we couldn’t take our new puppy out to the parade or the fair downtown*. But we still wanted to go.

We’d decided to crate-train Brody but I still had reservations about leaving him in a crate for any real amount of time when we weren’t home; I only wanted to crate train him so if we needed to put him in the crate for emergencies we could. I never intended to put him in a crate when we weren’t home. That’s what house breaking and training is for. But five days after coming home, he wasn’t house broken, so we couldn’t let him roam.

I decided to put his crate against the doorway leading into the kitchen, with the door facing into the kitchen so he would be able to have the whole kitchen to himself with a bed, pee pad, food and water, and the crate if he chose while we went out for just two hours to enjoy a little bit of the holiday. It was a big crate, too big for him at the time, because we knew he’d be over 50 pounds when he grew up we bought a crate for a 50 pound dog but at least I knew he couldn’t move it and get out of the kitchen.

Brody barked a little when we put him in the kitchen and didn’t stay with him, but he wagged his tail and set to sniffing every nook and cranny once he accepted we weren’t going to move the crate so he could follow us.

Off we went to enjoy the fair downtown.

I don’t even think we made it a full two hours. I was worried about leaving Brody alone for too long in his new home after living at the shelter.

When we got home and opened the door, we heard Brody yapping excitedly from the kitchen and his whip of a tail thumping on the linoleum floor.

But something was amiss.

There were things scattered on the floor in the living room.

A ball of yarn from the back room was unspooled and strewn across the floor. Papers were scattered. A lone shoe had made it out of a bedroom.

Someone had been in our home.

Our front door is mostly glass so we spun to inspect the panes, but they were all intact.

“You had to unlock the door to open it, right?” I asked my husband.

“Yeah,” he answered in a low tone, eyeing the doorway into the hallway. “Wait here.”

I watched as he went to make sure the back of the house was safe before I went to check on Brody—so relieved they hadn’t stolen him.

I could see him sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor, goofy puppy smile on his face, and his tail still wagging. His crate was exactly as we’d left it: pressed against the wall and blocking the doorway so he couldn’t get out. It wasn’t shoved so I knew, I knew, Brody hadn’t gotten out. After all, he was still in the kitchen.

“All clear!” John called out to me from the back of the house.

“Okay,” I replied as I scooped up the unspooled yarn. I stared at the tangle of thread, wondering how it had made it from my knitting bag in the back bedroom to the living room floor.

A loud clatter interrupted my thoughts and I spun toward it.

Brody’s front paws were on top of his crate, claws gripping the metal frame as he pulled desperately, his back paws pedaling in the air, looking for something to push against.

“Wha—” My voice died as I watched my three-month-old puppy pull and wiggle and claw himself up and on top of his crate until he was able to sit on it, still smiling but obviously desperate to say hello to me. His tail banged against the metal grate as he waiting for me to recover.

“John,” I said, then, louder, “John get out here you have to see this!”

“What? What?” John ran into the dining room to see me still standing there, holding the yarn, staring. He turned to follow my stare to see Brody sitting proudly on the top of the crate.

Brody got to his feet and picked his way to the edge of the crate before jumping to the floor and raced over to us, so happy that we were home.

John bent to pick him up, holding the bundle of fur against his chest to stare him in the eye before turning to look at me.

“So,” I said, pausing. “He climbed up there, jumped down, then went through the house, having a great time and then…”

“Climbed back over to get back into the kitchen before we came home so he wouldn’t get caught,” John finished.

And that is how we knew, from the very first week, that Brody was too smart for his own good.

Brody is still clever with a big personality and has been immortalized in my Ash & Ruin Trilogy as the inspiration for Blue. I mean, a dog like that could only be fiction, right?

*Fun side note: Turned out the bespectacled girl and her roommate won the drawing for the black pug. How do I know? Because we ran into her on the 5th, at the vet, where they were having their tiny puppy treated for heatstroke because they couldn’t resist taking him to the very same fair we made sure not to take Brody to. Yes, the puppy is fine, but that’s a lesson learned, right?

GRRM and the Three Bears…

…or, the virtue of leaving clues that are visible to the average reader but not ham-handed, neon-bright arrows.

I’m going to start with a small qualifier: I have neither read A Game of Thrones/A Song of Fire & Ice, nor have I watched the HBO series. I am, however, a sentient human being with access to the internet, so I know the last episode – in which the Mother of Dragons went postal – created something of a stir. Or a shitstorm. Or therabouts.

I know this in part because Chuck Wendig made a tweet thread in which he argues that character should come before plot – accusing implying that GRRM &/or the series creators may have overlooked this small detail.

You can read his thread HERE, and you should. He knows his stuff. Also, he deconstructs the episode – and the series – HERE. (And if you’re really into it, fashion bloggers Tom & Lorenzo also have a detailed review you can find HERE.)

The big concern with the Game of Thrones episode seemed to be that Daenerys Targaryen behaved in a way that was inconsistent with her character. Maybe or maybe not – I did see at least one tweet prior to the episode suggesting that the Mother of Dragons might end up being the Big Bad, which tells me there must have been at least a couple hints along the way.

Hints that the vast majority of the television-watching public apparently didn’t notice.

Sunday night, while the rest of humanity was glued to HBO, I started a mystery by a new-to-me author. It was a pretty standard trope: Big City Woman is dragged back to her small-town home for Reasons, where she Learns Things, Figures Out Whodunnit, possibly Falls In Love, and then decides to Stay Forevermore.

Sadly, I bailed on it by about 30 pages in, because:

  • I didn’t connect with the main character. At all.
  • Which turned on my editing brain, so that every time her eyes wandered around the room, I lost a little more patience. (Her gaze wandered. Her eyes stayed in her head. Thanks.)
  • As a result of my lack of connection and super-editor, the clues to the character’s arc were glaringly obvious.

The main character was the only one in the family who had the time to take care of the problem in the Small Town, even though it meant leaving her job in the middle of a project and pissing off her boss. Because apparently a woman’s work is never too important to interrupt.

Whoops. That’s another blog post.

Anywhoodle, her stated goal was to return to her uber-exciting life in the Big City, but from just about the moment she arrived, she had Feelings. Right there in her internal dialogue, she noticed a strange connection to the place, one she could not understand. “Why do I feel this way?” she’d ask herself.

Why?

Because it says in the blurb that you’re going to have a change of heart, sweetie, and you’ll want to stick around.

*ahem*

Leaving aside the (potentially sexist) set-up, to me these “what an odd emotion” moments were clunky, too-obvious road signs to her character’s development. I think it would have worked better if she’d had a chance to earn that sense of connection rather than just stumbling into it like a slap-happy princess in some insta-love romance.

And honestly, maybe she did. I mean, I did quit at only 30 pages. But hey, I’m over 50 and there are too many books left for me to read to waste time getting annoyed.

Although the stories are very different, I think the essential problem is the same. Daenerys’s behavior took a wild left turn from her established character, and the mystery character’s “odd feelings” didn’t relate to anything intrinsic to her personality. In the one case, the clues were too subtle, and the other, too blatant.

Seems like we should be able to split the difference somehow.

I wish I could say I knew how to avoid either mama bear or papa bear details. I’m researching Victorian London with an eye to writing a mystery, so I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to leave baby-bear style clues – hints that give readers just enough to keep going, but don’t beat them over the head.

The best advice I can come up with is that character trumps plot, and to be ready for a shitty first draft and lots of editing. To that end, I’m brainstorming characters’ goals and motivations and secrets and wounds and all the good stuff that will (hopefully) help me construct a story that’s character driven, and not the other way around.

With a plot Chuck Wendig would love.

Wish me luck!

It’s time.

This time last year – April 5th, 2018 – I published a post that, among other things, reflected on the upheaval surrounding the RITA Award nominations.

You can find that post HERE.

The RITAs are the romance genre’s version of the Oscars. They’re sponsored by the Romance Writers of America (RWA), and if you write romance, getting a RITA nomination is a Very Big Deal. When the awards were announced last year, there was a huge uproar because the majority – the large majority – of the nominees were white.

In years past, authors of color have been nominated and a couple have won RITAs, but no black author has ever won a RITA award.

I finished last year’s post by encouraging everyone to read outside their comfort zone, to buy books by authors of color, and to listen to what authors of color have to say about how they’ve been treated and how they want to be treated.

And then a weird, but not entirely surprising, thing happened.

Nothing.

I mean, I wrote that post with the best of intentions, and in fact I followed my own recommendations, picking up books I might not otherwise have read. The ‘listening’ part didn’t happen, though. Not because I didn’t care, but because…I don’t know…the opportunity didn’t present itself?

Yeah, that’s kinda lame.

See, for the last year and a few months I’ve been treasurer of the Rainbow Romance Writer (RRW), the LGBTQIA chapter of the RWA. Last year when the RITA nominations caused such a stir, it was brought to the attention of the RRW board that authors of color view our chapter as unwelcoming. At the time, we put out a statement vowing to change.

Which makes my inaction that much worse, because I could have worked for an opportunity, and I didn’t.

Did I mention that when the RITA nominations were announced this year, they were just as white as in years past? The biggest difference has been the fall-out: authors of color spoke more forcefully, on twitter and on various RWA forums, calling out the Nice White Ladies whose subtle, unexamined racism perpetuates the system.

I am a Nice White Lady.

I care about the usual range of liberal causes, and I want to live in a world where racism isn’t a thing, where we can all let go of that particular piece of baggage.

It’s a nice idea, but we’re nowhere close to that yet.

In the days since the announcement of this year’s RITA nominations, I’ve kept pretty quiet, preferring to read the twitter threads and Facebook posts and show my support through re-tweets and likes. Which is fine, but it’s also a demonstration of the thing I can’t ever let go of.

My own privilege.

Here’s the thing. Once the social media dust settled last year, I was able to put aside these issues and focus on other things. The authors of color I know – even those I consider friends – don’t have that luxury.

This was brought home to me with particular eloquence in this essay on privilege by NBA player Kyle Korver. (HERE‘s the link to his essay.) More than anything else, this paragraph resonated with me, and prompted me to write this post:

What I’m realizing is, no matter how passionately I commit to being an ally, and no matter how unwavering my support is for NBA and WNBA players of color….. I’m still in this conversation from the privileged perspective of opting in to it. Which of course means that on the flip side, I could just as easily opt out of it. Every day, I’m given that choice — I’m granted that privilege — based on the color of my skin.

No matter how important I think the fight against racism is, I have the ability to put it aside in a way some of my friends don’t. Hell, I was able to take a whole year off, even after hearing that a group I help run is part of the problem.

It’s a sobering thought.

I’m left asking myself how I’m going to make things different this year. It’s easy to throw things down in a blog post and then let them slide because there’s no accountability. I will say I’m lucky, because the same authors who pointed out that our RRW chapter has issues are willing to work with us, to share their ideas so that we can create a more diverse chapter.

I’ll be working with the other RRW board members to move forward on that dialogue. (Can it be a dialogue when one side is mostly listening?) In addition, the RWA has put together a number of resources for encouraging diversity, and while I don’t want to make a bunch of empty promises, I’ll be exploring what’s there.

I may not be able to change the world, but I can work on myself. I can put more effort into recognizing all the ways the game is rigged in my favor,
in the hope of finding places I can level the playing field, so that next year’s RITA nominations are a celebration of diversity as well as excellence.

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?

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.