Happy All Hallows Week, Y’all! The regular posters are covering things that go bump in the night and other scary phenomena in this week’s posts. As number four in the list, I’ve been beaten to the punch. Misty and I covered my personal terrors when I brought up centipedes on Tuesday. I hate those things with their long feathery legs and their quick, snakelike motions as they run toward me. (Girly squeal!) David covered most of my writerly fears on Monday. Edmund got in early salvos on Saturday. So, the good subjects taken, I intended to write something snarky and tongue-in-cheek and keep it light.
But then I remembered. I do have a fear not yet covered this week, a paralyzing, painful fear. So I decided to share that, even though it isn’t fun, even though it’s more headless horsemen and less carved pumpkins and trick-or-treat. I fear lots of things, but most don’t wake me up at night in a cold sweat, chased by nightmares.
My fear? I fear accidentally plagiarizing someone else’s work.
There are plagiarism checkers on the Internet, available for a subscription price, but they are mostly for professional papers and articles, undergrad and graduate school papers, that sort of thing. They are, by and large, non-fiction sites, not sites dedicated to the kind of stuff I write. So as a fiction writer, I am hanging out on a limb over a Class VI rapid, one named Writer’s Bloody-Bag-o-Bones, that will chunder me into a dead bag of broken limbs. And that worries me. (Chunder is a word used by hairhead paddlers to describe the beatings suffered in dangerous whitewater. And yes, dangerous rapids are awarded cool names like Soc-Em-Dog or Gorilla or Screaming Left hand Turn or Tennessee The Hard Way.)
In fact, I’ll make a Screaming Left Hand Turn now. Despite my horrid fear, I copied my AKA’s (Gwen’s) work once, on purpose. I did that deliberately and with aforethought. I wait for the few fans who read both Gwen’s work and my work to comment on the single scene and similar character intersecting the thrillers and the fantasies. When that happens, we have a lovely conversation about the trajectory of a writer’s life and work and the importance of being true to genre and fair to readers, and yet being willing to step out and follow a muse into new creative territory.
The accidental kind of plagiarism is, however, the terror that haunts me. It wakes me up at night, wondering if the great idea I wove into my work today was just like someone else’s and I simply don’t remember reading it in the past. Usually, when I wake up, it’s just a night-terror, not reality. But there was this one time when I woke up and the fear didn’t go away. I thought I had borrowed and reinterpreted another author’s work. I dream-remembered a plotline that I had admired. And I had unconsciously used it in my WIP.
I dove from the bed, found the other writer’s book, turned on the computer, and started comparing. And yes. It was there. That major plotline in one writer’s work had become a tiny spark of backstory subject matter in my own. The monster in my dreams had a basis in reality. It was four a.m.. I was in a panic and sick to my stomach, all alone in the dark with the fear. It stalked toward me with a butcher knife that would kill my career.
Of course, in the morning, that huge theft was not quite so menacing and angry and its claws and four inch killing teeth had dwindled down to little kitten claws and milk-teeth. But. It was still there.
After calls to my editor and to my agent, (who forgave my jangled nerves and panic) and several sleepless nights, I allowed myself to become convinced that the subject matter, while unusual, wasn’t absolutely unique to the other writer’s work. In my case, the similarity was mere backstory, not an elaborate plot line. It was not important in the great scheme of things. Yet, it took days (okay, weeks) for me to feel any sort of confidence in my own work and creative process again. It was a hard time.
Perhaps my fear of plagiarism is partly based in a serious accusation I once received. I’ve mentioned here before about the time I was accused of plagiarism, for real, by a writer I met at a con. This writer could write like a dream! I was trying to help her get published. I had introduced her to my thriller agent and he had read her WIP. He was waiting for her to complete it so he could send it on to pubs. I was waiting on her to finish it so I could blurb it and send it to writer friends who might blurb it. It was wonderful work. I just knew she was headed for bestsellerdom. We lived close enough to meet for lunches. I critiqued her work. We talked on the phone. We became friends.
And then she read my new book and went bonkers. She called my thriller agent and screamed plagiarism. She also screamed that I had put her mother in the book. (Say what?) The agent had read her work. He had read my work. And he heard her on the phone, highly emotional and sounding irrational, if not unstable. The *mother claim* was the clincher for him. He checked with me to make sure I hadn’t stolen something he hadn’t read. And he accepted that it was a crazy accusation. In the end, there was no evidence to support her claim, even in this day of electronic info stored forever. My agent didn’t believe her. But I never completely got over it.
That writer lost an agent that day, and I lost a friend. Even if health problem or meds had been the causative spark for such an accusation, I had no choice except to put her away from me and out of my life. She was toxic to me and to my profession. But that accusation fueled my fear of accidental plagiarism and turned it into something big and ugly and monstrous that invades my dreams.
It doesn’t take much to steal a writer’s muse. Fear, sickness, grief, and any other intense emotion can do it, can scorch the mind and chainsaw the creative process, killing off the lush foliage and rushing streams of inspiration, leaving only an empty wasteland, a desert covered with the bones of dead characters and devastated creativity. That kind of paralysis is not writer’s block, which, as I’ve said before, I do not believe in. It is a whole nother kind (as we say in these parts) of obstruction, like when a mountainside slides off and buries its mass in the gorge below, stopping the flow of water, backing it up into a lake that never existed before, and changing the shape of the land.
Plagiarism. That’s my fear, the boogeyman who haunts my dreams and wakes me in the night. And that is one reason why my own muse is so very ugly and unappealing. No one else would want him, so no evil imp (not you, David) will kidnap him. He is so ugly, he is likely to be overlooked by time and the slow destruction of aging. He is big and strong and troll-like enough to fight off any psychotic hallucination (or created character). He can say and do what ever it takes to keep me writing, even cracking that braided whip I gave him not long ago, on days I try to slip away without sufficient page count. He’s useful and helpful in his brutish, indelicate, unsophisticated, unlovely way. And he comes equipped with a .45 caliber, Dirty Harry gun, in the desk drawer. He can kill off my night terrors. Together, we can deal with my fear and carry on, trying hard to make sure I don’t copy. Anyone. Ever.