Ask me a question about writing

Don't be afraid - ask me a question!

Don’t be afraid – ask me a question!

Today, it’s your turn. Ask me a question about anything to do with writing, critiquing, editing or publishing!

If it’s straightforward to answer, I’ll compile some questions and answers and put them in a post. If the answer needs a whole blog post, I’ll do that, too. If you don’t want to post in the comments section here, feel free to email me at sherryl (at) ebooks4writers (dot) com.

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  1. Flannigan says

    When is it plagiarism?

    Recently, I was getting on with my writing, and I was doing well, too. Getting the words in, doing something different. Inspiration poured from books I’d read and things I’d seen. It was fun. I was having a laugh.

    But I missed reading. So I’d decide well, I can do both. So every day, I’d read a chapter of my book, and then write a bit.

    I’d write, read, write, read, write, read. It got to the point where I was reading a chapter of a book, and then put the book down and go write my thousand words.

    And then I noticed something that spoiled all mah goddamn fun. The books were creeping in on my writing.

    Not through paragraphs or story, or even narrative. But the structure of the story.

    Now I don’t know which is which! I’ve got characters and interactions and timelines, and they’re all my timelines and characters and interactions, but I’m afraid that if someone reads the eighth chapter of my saga, they’ll realise something’s up.

    Just things like: “Hey baby,” said John. “How’s your porcupine?” “Quite good,” said Elizabeth, and flung her nose in the air. SHe stomped off to meet nathanial in the garden.

    And yours is: “Yo, Jemima,” said Philippa. “How’s the mystery book?” “It’s utter crap. I can’t move from all the tripe. We’ll be eating tuna for weeks,” said Jemima. She sighed gustily and wandered off to meet Anita in the rhinoseros highrise.

    So I’d like to ask: When is it plagiarism.

    Because it’s making me tear out my hair. And I love my hair.

    • It’s tricky, isn’t it? We love a certain author’s work and read all of their books, but at what point does your own writing tip over from unintentionally echoing into plagiarism?
      Straight out plagiarism (the kind that gets students into trouble) is lifting whole paragraphs or bits from other people’s work and using it as their own. We teach them about paraphrasing but the original material has to be attributed still.
      At the other end of the spectrum is a book such as “Talking Back to Poems” where the writer purposely does what you feel you’ve been doing inadvertently – the exercise is to take a poem you like and write your own version using exactly the same structure – nouns, verbs, line breaks etc. The idea is to pay homage by saying what the original is but not everyone does because I think they figure the new words are their own.
      It sounds like this is where you are at, but not on purpose. You’ve picked up the other author’s sentence constructions and style.
      If, as you say, the characters and story are completely yours and bear no relation to the other book/s, then I doubt it’s plagiarism. But it’s obviously bothering you that it’s happened. I guess at this point I’d suggest you stop the routine of reading and then writing, or turn it around – write first and then read for pleasure afterwards.
      And when you get to revision, deliberately revise to vary your sentence structure.
      The other thing I’d suggest is try some free writing every day for a few weeks, on any topic at all (maybe not even fiction). Natalie Goldberg has some good books about free writing – I like “Wild Mind” the best – and see if that frees you up to find your own style again.
      PS If you have no objection, I’d like to copy and paste your question and my answer as a blog post!

      • Flannigan says

        Thank you! This reply has helped greatly. I like this idea of free writing. Sounds very interesting. And sure, you can certainly copy paste my answer. *grins* Just remember I wrote it after a long sleepless night.

  2. Last year, while ill, I got into a habit of procrastination. I’ve always done this, but now I feel that I’m out of control. Now that I’m much better, before I write for the day, I must go for a walk in the fresh air, read the newspaper (online), read a chapter or two of whatever ebook I have handy, make sure my office is tidy, check emails and what not. And that’s all before I even attempt any of my assignments, my re-draft of my novel, or my first draft of an anthology of poems, or keeping my blog updated, answering comments etc… It’s not like I’m trying to avoid writing, because once I do glue my bum to the chair, I’m often up until very late attending to all my different pots that are on to boil.

    As a professional writer, how to you deal with procrastination? Is there a certain level that is okay?

    • The only writers I know of who don’t struggle with procrastination are those on deadlines! I know myself that I like a deadline – it keeps me focused and on target. But I’m also the kind of person who hates leaving things to the last minute. What you have now is a ritual of sorts, one that actually eventually gets you to writing, but that takes way too long. Maybe you could look at choosing two things out of that list which are the most inspiring, and limit each to 20 minutes, with a promise to yourself to start by a certain time. And use the other things as “bribes” – you’ll do them after you’ve written.
      Everyone is different, but you do have to be tougher with yourself to get past it. Brian Tracey talks about procrastination and the tasks we avoid as the “frogs” we have to eat in order to move on in our day. And you always eat the biggest frog first!

  3. Hi Sherryl, I was wondering – how do you format a verse novel for submission?

    You’re an expert on verse novels (and I’m a huge fan of yours, too) so I thought I’d ask for your advice.

    I’ve written a children’s verse novel which I’d like to submit to an agent, but I’m not sure how to format it. I’ve heard poems shouldn’t be double-spaced unless this serves a specific creative purpose – is this right?

    I’ve also planned where I’d like page breaks to split longer poems. But if I make an actual page break on A4, it seems a waste to have a yawning blank space under each poem (which wouldn’t be there in a book-sized publication).

    I’d really appreciate any advice you could give me. Thanks!

    • Hi Ann,
      Some people do like to present poems double-spaced (some competitions even require it) but with a verse novel manuscript, I usually present it single-spaced. That way the stanza breaks and your use of white space shows up more clearly, I think.
      With “Runaways”, where Jack’s poems are spread across the page, using double-spacing would have made his poems too hard to read the way I intended them!

      It will sometimes mean you have a lot of space at the bottoms of pages but it’s OK. I wouldn’t suggest you deliberately split the longer poems, because it’s better to be able to read them “complete”, as you intend them. Where they do go over two pages, split them at a convenient stanza break. In a book, you don’t know what size font will be used or the page size so it will be up to the editor to discuss that with you.
      Good luck with it!

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