You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth by Nicole Kimberling

Writers are often inspired by the work of other writers. That’s natural. There’s a certain synergy created by reading. Ideas spark ideas.

But sometimes that inspiration can go too far. What started out seeming like a gift from the muses can turn out to be an outright copy of another author’s story or even worse, lifting the exact same phrasing as another author to describe the exact same thing. In other words, plagiarism. Here’s the weird thing about it, though. Authors can telegraph characters, sentences or even whole plots from other writers without ever realizing that they’re doing it. It sounds weird, right? But it’s one of those “strange but true” things about writing.

Personally, I think it has to do with the way we acquire language. Who hasn’t heard somebody make a particularly pithy remark and then filed it away for future use? Part of being a good writer at all is being able to create different voices for different characters and that requires a certain amount of automatic and mostly unconscious memorization of other people’s words. During my many years working in a restaurant, I’ve acquired a lot of great phrases that did not originate within me. Here are a few examples:

From a snowboarder: “Turns out, gravity doesn’t work like that.”

From a mechanic: “Let’s get this bad boy up and running.”

And my oft-recycled, perennial favorite, lifted from a pre-med student: “When I say that you’re drunk it’s not an accusation, so much as a statement of fact.”

The way we learn to speak is by hearing others speak. The way we learn to tell a story is, in part, by ingesting the stories of others. Some similarity with existing stories is then, inevitable. It only gets to be a problem when we remember some other story a little too well and too accurately without being aware of the source and then make the mistake of thinking that we made it up ourselves. Careers and reputations are quite easily ruined in this way.

So here I offer a few tips for avoiding the dreaded specter of accidental plagiarism.

  1. 1. Be suspicious of any story that blooms, suddenly full-formed in your mind, with no critical thought at all. This is a sign that you’ve read or seen it before and should regard it as off-limits without substantial alteration. The one kind of story that can still be used in this circumstance is a story that is so old and well-known that it has become common cultural property, such as mythological or biblical tales.
  2. 2. Careful scrutinize any story idea that can be described as “X but with gay characters.” What I mean here are ideas like, “Starsky & Hutch, but with gay characters.” Broader ideas such as, “70’s buddy cop story, but with gay characters” are still usable so long as you avoid having them ride around in a gran torino or get information from anyone even remotely resembling Huggy Bear. Also take care to avoid ideas that can described as “my version of” such as “my version of Gone With the Wind” or “my version of Moby Dick.” Rather try and personalize your concept so it becomes “my civil war story” or “my seafaring story.”
  3. 3. Unless you use quotes and attributions, be especially careful that you do not directly reproduce explanations or descriptions that you find during research. In other words, make sure that you do not take anything word-for-word from a non-fiction source. Travel guides, nature guides, science journals, histories and biographies are very often accidentally plagiarized. This is because the writing in them is very transparent, straightforward and expository and so doesn’t exactly seem to have had a writer. Always remember that all books have writers—even nonfiction ones. So any information gained through them needs to be rewritten in your own words.

Got any thoughts? Questions? Want to know if it’s plagiarism for somebody in your writer’s group to steal your premise? Go ahead, ask me!

34 comments

  • So many different aspects discussed, I just wanted to share my experience with this type of thing, but not in the writing world. My mother does stained glass. I’ve always asked if she could sell her work but she said she can’t sell for profit anything she does from a pattern she buys. However, if she takes a pattern and changes it by 10%, the patten becomes hers. She showed me how much a 10% change would be and it was so little I was shocked. I though how could they allow copy written material be used in this manner.

    My mother, being the fountain of wisdom that she is, stated that there are only so many ways you can make a rose out of glass and still have it look like a rose. You can change the shape a little bit, the materials, the color, the leaves, and the shapes around it but that’s it. If they made the changes more than 10% one could theoretically have a copyright on roses which makes no sense.

    I have to think writing is very similar. There are only so many ways boy can meet boy in a contemporary setting. So it might be easy to pick up “plagiarism” in some instances when the reality is that it’s just a common idea anyone can and has used. And readers are always looking and asking for books and stories that are like their favorite author so some similarity in writing among authors seems to be wanted.

    But I can see how hard it would be for an author to spend hours coming up with a fabulous idea, flesh it out, outline it, and find out someone else also had that great idea.

    Reply
    • Issa: My mother, being the fountain of wisdom that she is, stated that there are only so many ways you can make a rose out of glass and still have it look like a rose.

      NK: Hi Issa! Thank you for stopping by.

      Your mom really is a fountain of wisdom, for sure. What a great example!

      Issa: And readers are always looking and asking for books and stories that are like their favorite author so some similarity in writing among authors seems to be wanted.

      NK: Also very insightful and very true.

      Reply
  • An etiquette question for authors.

    I was reading an article on steampunk and there was a conversation (I totally forget the details of who was talking to whom) where one well-known author is razzing another and he says, “You’d probably write a story about…X.”

    The other author says (paraphrasing here), “Brilliant! Can I have that idea?”

    The first author waves him away grandly.

    BUT here’s the deal. If you “give away” the idea, can you then do your own take on it?

    Reply
    • JL: BUT here’s the deal. If you “give away” the idea, can you then do your own take on it?

      NK: Sure, why not?

      (It would be funny to race the person you gave the idea away to. You know, first one to the publisher WINS!)

      But probably each person’s take on said idea would be so different that both would be viable products.

      And if both stories came out at the same time it might be a cool way to market them both simultaneously. You know, set up a goodreads discussion about how these two stories came into existence and why they share a crucial element.

      Both writers would have to be very secure for that promo to work, but if it DID work it would certainly be interesting for readers.

      Reply
  • Fascinating post, Nicole. One of those weird coincidences happened to a writer friend recently. She’d just finished the first draft of a novella when she read the blurb of a recently published novel, which turned out to have some striking similarities in the plot and the main characters. She’d never spoken to the other author or read the other book, but it was enough to spook her that she might be accused of plagiarism.

    Eventually she removed one detail from the MC’s past that was relatively unimportant in her book but critical in the other one. I reckon she must have had the right strategy as I don’t think anyone has ever noticed a similarity the two books in a review 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Josephine!

      I’m just curious–did anybody but your author friend notice the similarity between the stories? Cause another weird thing that can happen is that an author sees similarities that are not actually there.

      This usually happens with authors who are accusing others of plagiarism, rather than with authors who fear being accused. But since author’s perspectives about their own work are so subjective it can go both ways.

      A bad but funny example of having no perspective about oneself or things directly related to oneself is this: one time my wife entered a Humphrey Bogart lookalike contest, thinking that she would certainly win the cash prize. (Note: My wife looks like a middle-aged pixie, like everybody else whose ancestors once slept a couple of nights in Ireland.)

      The contest was a bust. She came in second to last of 100 or so contestants. The only person she beat was a 10 year old girl.

      Like I said, it’s a bad example, writing-wise but relevant in that it demonstrates that people really can’t turn around and see themselves or their works objectively sometimes.

      Reply
      • I don’t think anyone else noticed, Nicole. It was purely her paranoia. I’ve never read the other book but I’ll concede the blurbs had some similar elements, but from what I’ve read in reviews it was a very different book in terms of tone and theme.

        That said, the point she changed was actually a bit of a cliche – the kind of thing you’d assume a guy like that might have done in his past. I actually think the story became more original as a result, so it’s no bad thing 🙂

        Reply
        • JM: That said, the point she changed was actually a bit of a cliche – the kind of thing you’d assume a guy like that might have done in his past. I actually think the story became more original as a result, so it’s no bad thing

          NK: Yeah, that definitely does sound like it worked out for the better. Sometimes authors need an obstruction or two to kick the little gray cells up a notch.

          (As a side note, I’m having a great time in this post trying to slide in as many catch phrases from other authors as I can. I think that last one was the best though, Hercule Poirot meets Emeril. Ha!)

          Reply

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