Friday, September 25, 2009

Subliminal Plagiarism

I recently asked readers at my blog for some help with fresh topics and my friend Cathy McDonald asked this:

I know you read a do you keep the plots and twists and characters that you have previously read about from becoming a part of your book? I mean the leftover spaghetti from Sunday, the corn and green beans we had Monday, and the roasted chicken leftover from tonight will become chicken vegetable soup tomorrow...each part recognizable from some other dinner. How do you make it a "new meal" in your head rather than leftovers you remember?

Good stuff. I like this vegetable soup analogy except the part about the spaghetti noodles. But if I were having dinner at Cathy’s house, I’d eat the chicken, vegetable, and spaghetti noodle soup and love it. Mmm!

This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about her question. I’ve heard authors address the same thing at writers’ conferences. At least two panelists have said that they refrain from reading mysteries while they are working on a book because they fear committing what one speaker dubbed “subliminal plagiarism.” I subliminally plagiarized that guy and used his phrase as my title today.

So I guess now this has happened to me.

But seriously, I count myself among the lucky ones because this hasn’t been a problem for me yet. Maybe that’s because I’m only working on my second book. I’ll be interested to hear what the other, more prolific, Stiletto Gang ladies have to say about their reading and writing experiences in this regard. Since it takes me about a bazillion years to finish a manuscript, refraining from reading mysteries anytime I’m working on a project would basically mean taking a vow of whodunit chastity.

Even though it takes more than a year for me to write a book, the whole time I’m working on the story I already know what I’d like to happen. The struggles, conflicts, clues, and ending have already been imagined if only in a crude form. The real work lies in getting the words on paper and bridging the gaps in the story. In other words, I’m not at a loss for ideas once I’ve started a story. The idea train has already left the station.

When I read other people’s books, I’m relaxing and being entertained. In fact, I’m usually reading those books because I’m putting off working on my own. The last thing I want to do is make any connections between the polished, engrossing novel in my hands and the horrid, incoherent rough draft waiting on my laptop. A link between the two would only remind me of what I ought to be doing instead.

But perhaps the most compelling reason that ideas never mix for me is that when I’m reading, I’m not in my world anymore, I’m in the story world. I’m not thinking about my manuscript challenges because I’m too caught up in the action on the page. When I’m away from a story I’m reading, I’m more inclined to worry about its characters or try to find time to sneak in more reading than I am to draw parallels to my own work. I think because, to some degree, I view the story I’m writing as work and the ones I’m reading as fun.

Here’s the best way to explain. I wouldn’t enjoy a pool party with my co-workers. Part of that scenario is fun but the other part is work. Mixing them together is just a bunch of unsightly researchers in Speedos.

Rachel Brady


  1. I don't read mysteries while I'm writing either, but since I haven't been writing...well, you see where I'm going here. But mainly I don't read others' works because I'm afraid of losing my "voice." I don't want Alison to sound like one of my other favorite writer's main characters or do things that would be out of character for her. So I stick to the Daily News ("New York's Hometown Paper!") and my favorite blogs.

    Rachel, great blog, as always! Can't wait to see you at Crime Bake. There'd better be a glass of wine in our schedule so we can catch up. Maggie

  2. Michael Connelly calls it "cross-fertilization," (not to be confused with trying to grow crosses in your garden) which maybe a more clinical and less cynical assessment of the issue. Everything we see, read, hear, consider affects in some way, though mostly it's chaff in the wind. I actually seek out cross-fertilization. If I feel my descriptive passages are weak I will read Barry Lopez. If my dialogue needs improving, Elmore Leonard. If my sentences are too long and rambling, Hemingway. Subliminally, my unaware "mentors" help me get back on track. I don't worry that someone is going to read something I wrote and say, "OMG, this is exactly like The Sun Also Rises and Get Shorty." But I wish they would. I wish to hell they would.

  3. Frankly, I think we could all be given the same plot and the books we wrote would be very different.

    By the way, your blog made me laugh. Thanks for writing it.


  4. Great hearing from all of you. Thanks for these neat comments. Marilyn, I'd like to try your idea sometime. Get a bunch of writers together with a single plot prompt and see what everyone comes up with in a thousand words. It'd be worth it just to see David write in all his literary styles at the same time. :-)

  5. Great blog and I love the left-overs analogy. When I'm in full writing mode (i.e. writing from terror - deadline approaching) I only read non-fiction. It's as if my mind can only handle one imaginary world at a time. But - I agree with Rachel, when I'm reading other authors work, I am (hopefully) engrossed in their character's lives and not thinking about my book at all.
    I'm on my 4th book at the moment and I admit to finding it hard to keep everything fresh. Are there REALLY that many murders in my fictional town of Gipping-on-Plym?