Reader’s question: when is it plagiarism?

Flannigan writes:

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.

And I answered:

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.

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  1. I have read interviews where some writers have said they refuse to read anyone else’s work while they are working on a project. Personally, I have to read others work, and, I try to be very careful about this, I find myself imitating other writer’s writing all the time. For me, I guess it’s about developing my own style. I don’t think it’s plagiarism if you are aware of what you are doing and make sure that you’re not down right copying someone else’s work.

    PS: When I was starting out, I once stole a certain teachers sentence patterns 😉

    • I try not to read novels that are similar to what I’m writing. So with my SF novel, I’m totally avoiding a new SF novel just out that sounds a bit like mine, because I find it off-putting. But I love to read lots of poetry while writing it.

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