Friday, November 18, 2011

The Word Thief

by Susan McBride

I've been reading with interest information regarding the latest case of plagiarism in the literary world.  A novelist named Quentin Rowan writing as Q.R. Markham has admitted to stealing passages from various novels in order to compose Assassin of Secrets, a modern day James Bond-type book published recently by Little, Brown & Company.

Once caught, Quentin wrote a letter to one of the authors whose words he stole, trying to explain. Here's a bit from his email to spy novelist Jeremy Duns, rationalizing away (or is that irrationalizing?):

“Once the book was bought, I had to make major changes in quite a hurry, basically re-write the whole thing from scratch, and that’s when things really got out of hand for me. I just didn’t feel capable of writing the kinds of scenes and situations that were asked of me in the time allotted and rather than saying I couldn’t do it, or wasn’t capable, I started stealing again. I didn’t want to be seen as anything other than a writing machine, I guess. Some call it ‘people pleasing.’ Anyway, the more I did it, the deeper into denial I went, until it felt as if I had two brains at war with each other.”

A tiny piece of me feels sorry for the guy.  Having been under the deadline gun dozens of times myself, I understand the sense of pressure.  But to resort to plagiarizing?  Honestly, my only response is WTF???

It isn't easy writing a book, and it never gets easier.  I have the utmost respect for writers who sit down and compose a draft, accept the editorial letters they in turn receive requesting changes, and sit down again to revise like a madman (or woman).  It's what we do, and we learn to bite the bullet and get it done because that's the only way we're going to write the best damned book we can write.

What a cop out it is to hear someone say, "But revising was too hard!  I couldn't do it!  I had no choice but to borrow words that other authors slaved over and tweaked and revised."

Am I crazy, or does it sound even more complicated to plagiarize?  I can't imagine having to read through book after book, locating specific passages that would fit into the scenes I'm working on, and do that enough times to complete a 300-page manuscript. Yipes. I think I'll stick to what comes out of my own brain, thank you very much.

I know I sound mean--I'm feeling a little like Simon Cowell here--but the literary world seems to be taking quite a beating lately and I hate seeing another scandal that detracts from all the good stuff going on. My advice for Mr. Rowan: If you can't stand the heat, get out of the publishing kitchen.

If you can't write your own books and you can't conjure up descriptions and narrative and dialogue from your own imagination, please ask for a ghost writer.  Look at the Kardashian sisters, Lauren Conrad, Hilary Duff, that mom and daughter team on "Selling New York," or Snooki, for Pete's sake.  They don't write their own novels either.  Their publisher pays someone else to do it for them.  Someone who (hopefully) doesn't resort to stealing other authors' words.


  1. Well said, Susan.

    And LOL on Snooki.

  2. Thanks, Laura! I just wonder if they think they're actually going to get away with it. Boggles the brain.

  3. It sounds like the excuses my high school students used to try. It didn't work for them either, meriting a zero on the assignment and a call to parents. At least they were just kids, still in learning mode . . .
    My favorite was the young man whose mother (also a writing teacher) made him write his own story for no credit. He wrote about a boy who plagiarized instead of writing his own work. I emphasized the lesson by telling him his work would have earned at least a B if he'd done it himself to start with.

  4. Mary, I've no doubt that cheating in school is great training for cheating later in life. So good for you for nipping it in the bud! You did that kid a big favor (even though I'm sure it didn't feel like it to him!).

  5. What a timely post, Susan! I have read with interest this story, too, and couldn't believe it. Thanks for doing the research necessary to write an original post. :-) Maggie

  6. Good grief, I can't imagine how stealing passages from different novels could all come together in one novel and sound authentic. I agree, Susan, it's much harder than actually sitting down and writing the darn book yourself!

  7. I began writing poetry in my junior high school years and I was always asked by people if they could "borrow" what I had written to give to friends or family and I never had a problem with that because they ultimately gave me credit for my work, until around my senior year in high school I had a "friend" borrow one of the poems I had written and did with it what I never had the spine to do, submit it to a publication for payment. I don't know if they were under the mistaken impression that it was a publication that I had no interest in reading but when confronted about it, they offered to pay me what they were given for the poem getting published, thus missing the entire point. I didn't care that they had gotten paid for MY work, I cared that they got CREDIT for MY work. I wrote from my heart, I wrote from the very depths of my being and this person raped the very essence of who I was by passing my work off as theirs. It was that one act that caused me to stop writing poetry with the exception of on the occasion that I NEED to get the emotion out of me and onto paper before it takes over (I had a very rough time of things in my childhood and teen years and its continued into adulthood, writing poetry is an escape, a means to vent so to speak so when I write, it comes from the very essence of what I am experiencing). It is both depressing and REPRESSING that I was given a gift of words and I no longer feel safe sharing that with the world because of one person's actions.

  8. Oh, Lady Red! I don't understand why some people do the things they do. I truly hope you'll start writing again, if only for yourself. If only those people realized the damage they did when they stole something so precious and personal. Don't let those word thieves take away such an essential part of you. Sending you loads of positive vibes!

    Maria, seriously! I think it would be ten times as hard to construct a novel from other people's work. Why not just muddle through like the rest of us? Or find another job? Crazy.

    Maggie, I strive to be original. I'm an overachiever that way. ;-)

  9. IDK, Susan, I have trouble mustering any sympathy for this guy! But we've proven that you're way nicer than me, so I get it! Good or bad, the one thing I take great pride in is that every word is all mine!!

  10. Laura, I doubt the sympathy I feel would fill a thimble. So maybe I'm not as nice as you think I am. ;-)

    P.S. I hope when you post next time, you show us pictures of the kitties!!!

  11. . Sadly, I can see this happening. When I taught English, there were two separate incidents where I showed parents the original work the students had copied. In both cases, the parents refused to believe it because the students were such wonderful writers. That is according to the parents.

    How unfair to all.

  12. If only those parents realized what a disservice they do to their kids. How else will they ever develop the confidence to think for themselves? Argh.