Wednesday, 1 June 2011

READER QUESTIONS


Hey, everyone, and welcome back to the blog on this lovely Wednesday. I can actually see blue sky from my window this morning, which already makes me feel overjoyed. Maybe the UK will have a summer afterall? *Knocks on wood* 

Time for some questions submitted by readers!

First, an email from Borko, who comes from Bulgaria (oooh!) and says:
"I write a book (fiction) and the problem is that I can not describe unfamiliar things. For example, animal - I cannot say: It looks just like a dog, but is ten times greater and no tail because the action takes place on another planet, and it sounds silly."
A very good question! This is a unique issue that challenges all writers of epic (that is, Other World) fantasy or science fiction at some point. When you move the action to an invented landscape you lose the baseline of 'normal', which allows readers to make assumptions about the world of the story without description. And you not only need to describe everything, from the colour of plants and sky and the smell of air, to the number of arms and legs a character has, but you often also have to develop a new vocabulary to describe everything, since your characters, as you point out, may never have seen a dog.

The thing you need to decide is this: are your characters as in the dark about the world of the readers, as the readers are about the world of the characters?

What that means, is that just because your readers come to the story blind, without any frame of reference for your imagined landscape, it doesn't mean the characters in the book have to. If they've arrived on Planet Smeerp from earth, they WILL know what a dog looks like, so why not use that as description? Or if they've never seen earth, haven't they been educated about it? Read books, seen videos? In a fantasy, if you have a creature that looks like a dog, sounds like a dog and fulfils the same function as a dog, just call the thing a dog! Making up fantasy names for familiar things is a waste of effort. Concentrate your imagination on describing the truly unfamiliar elements of your landscape, and don't make life unnecessarily tough for yourself.

On the other hand, if your characters really have never seen a dog, and if such a thing as a dog does not exist within their experience - why would you create a creature for them to encounter which is 'like a dog'? Especially 'like a dog, but ten times bigger, with no tail'? I mean - that's boring, Borko! If you're giving yourself completely free range to invent fantasy creatures which have no basis in reality at all - creatures which are like nothing any human has ever seen - then DO that. Go wild! 

Describe the interesting things about your invented animals, not the familair ones. Give your alien beast shining scales the colour of flame, stunted vestigial wings, foot long teeth and frondy, waving antenna. Why limit yourself to descriptive terms which reduce the wonder of the new world and things your characters are seeing? Consign such pointless terms as 'like a dog' to the dustbin and have fun! Then the problem of describing imaginary creatures and worlds stops being a problem and becomes a pleasure instead.

Next, also via email, is a question from Delaney (hi, Delaney!):
"I'm a bit scared of plagiarizing someone accidentally. I can't go around and read every single book in the world and make sure mine doesn't copy one. I probably sound really weird and paranoid, but it has just been bothering me. Have you ever felt this way? If so, how did you move past it." 
Delaney, let me give you a piece of information which will hopefully make you feel much better:

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO PLAGIARISE ACCIDENTALLY.

Literally impossible. Plagiarism is a crime whereby one person deliberately takes the actual words another person has written and tries to pass them off as their own. If you were to take THIS sentence and post it into your blog, and say that you wrote it? That would be plagiarism. Plagiarism is just a fancy-pants word for stealing.

If, on the other hand, you decided to write a post on your blog tomorrow about plagiarism which made all the same points as I'm making here, but in your own words? That is NOT plagiarism. 

I mean, it's kinda a skeezy thing to do. But it's not a crime.

And if you were not to read this post today, Delaney, but instead go off and do some research and write your own post about plagiarism based on that research, and post it tomorrow? Then you would have done nothing wrong, either morally or ethically. It would be nothing more than a coincidence, and would get no more reaction from me than a smile. Really.

The same thing applies to books. If you copy and paste a chapter someone else has written into your story and pretend you wrote it, you've committed a crime. If you take someone else's ideas and write them up in your own way, you're stunting your imagination and being rather unfair to the author - and other people will figure it out and laugh and point at you, and you're highly unlikely to get published - but technically there's no copyright on ideas and no crime has taken place.

If you happen to write a book on the same topic as another author? Or happen to create a character similar to other author's characters? Or use the same fairytale as your basis? It is NO BIG DEAL. It happens all the time. It's impossible to avoid doing it, to some extent. There are only a very limited number of stories, archetypal characters and plot twists in the world, and since humans have been creating stories since they first crawled out of the swamp and said 'Ugg', trying to create some wildly original idea that no one could ever have thought of before will just cause your eyes to bleed.

How do I know this? Well, let's take a look at one of the best known book series in recent memory: J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. They are often called 'derivative' - which is to say that many other children's writers have used the same kind of ideas in different books before J.K.R did. When I initially read the first Harry Potter book, I remember saying 'Hey, this stuff is just like Diana Wynne Jones' books!' I was not the first person to say this, and I was not the last either. But no one's suggesting that J.K.R. actually stole or copied ideas. It's just that the ideas - wizard school, scarred hero, chosen one - were fairly common and unoriginal.

Did that stop anyone loving Harry Potter? No. Did it stop J.K. Rowling from selling enough books to build her own private island? No. Did it get J.K. Rowling in any kind of trouble? No! In fact, every time that someone has tried to say the writer copied from them, not only have their cases been thrown out of court, but the whole world has mocked and laughed at them for their attempts to cash in on Harry Potter's success.

Write the books you want to write. Tell the stories that you love and believe in. Create the worlds and characters that make your heart sing. If anyone ever accuses you of plagiarism you smile and shrug it off, because you know that a) they don't actually understand what the world means and b) it's not true anyway.

I hope this post was helpful for you! As always - if there are anymore questions, email me or leave a comment and I will do my best to answer. If you recently left a comment with a question and I *haven't* answered it, let me know, as there have been problems with Blogger swallowing comments lately and I may not have seen it.

Over and out!

19 comments:

Megha Z said...

I commented, didn't I? ARGH. BLOGGER IS SO ANNOYING!!

So. Yeah. I used to think I would end up plagarising by accident when I was younger before I decided to research properly.

And the description tips really 'elped! THANK YOU! <3

Zoë Marriott said...

Looks like that's another comment that got eaten! Never mind. Ur welcome, Megha.

borky_qk said...

OMG! Thank you, Zoе. I was starting to think that you wont answer and that the anser was strange. But anyway... Here in Bulgaria we have Children's Day today and this is the biggest gift who anyone gave me... Actually this is the only one. :( I love the advice but I want to be clear that the dog was only an example. At this moment I don't think to put a giant dog without a tail in the book. I like the other theme too :) .

Zoë Marriott said...

You are very welcome! I did mean to send you an email to let you know I was answering this here, sorry that I forgot. I was sure the dog *was* an example, and that's why I used it too. It illustrates the point perfectly :)

Megha Z said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
borky_qk said...

argh not that the "anser" :D was strange - "that the question was strange." Sorry. I guess that is not the first and will not be the last error on my part. Perhaps in this sentence has an error ... Ahhh, the English. tc tc tc

Megha Z said...

Zoe! I have great news!

Okay, so there are ideas pouring in. I know, I know, right? It's awesome. I've got o many ideas... Now I was thinking of combining two I love, which would make an awesome story, or maybe just sticking to one and expanding that. I guess that not ONE, single idea came to me, but loads. I don't mean, like, many many MANY, but quite a few... to last me many WIPs! LOL. I'm happy!

I feel ready to go back to novels instead of writing these short stories and poems that I was writing -- I had literally TONS. I have a whole folder called Inspiring Stuff I Wrote During Depression to Teach Future Megha a Lesson to Not be so Upset Next Time. Well, I was going to call it that, but I called it ISIDDtTFMaLtNbsUNT. So weird, right? I'm CRAZY.

(Okay, I was kidding. I just called it Scrap. Scrap. That was the best I could come up with.)

Should I go straight back to writing or wait, now?

WH00T!

Zoë Marriott said...

Borko: It's OK - I understood what you meant!

Megha: Play around with your ideas until one that you really, really love emerges. Or try combining two that you like to see if that sets it on fire. You'll know when you should start writing because you won't be able to STOP yourself. Remember, it's all about the love :)

Isabel said...

Spot-on with everything you said!!! :D The plagiarism thing was definitely reassuring, and you are SO RIGHT about the descriptions... Thanks!

Sorry I couldn't comment earlier. Tornado activity around Massachusetts and possible tornado warnings around Boston plus violent lightning and thunderstorms made it impossible for me to get on... thank goodness it's all over now! A bit stressful!

Isabel said...

Megha: WHOOT!!!!! I am SOO HAPPY FOR YOU!!! HURRAH!!!!!!!

Plan. Let your ideas sit. Think about them. Think deeply. Start letting yourself figure out how it could turn into a plot. Start thinking about the characters, the overarching themes and hallmarks of your story... revel in your new ideas and explore them, but don't rush into them just yet!!! That's all the advice I can give for now... But yay!! So exciting!!! I told you inspiration would come!!! :D

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: honey, don't worry about turning up to comment 'on time' or anything like that. Of course I always love to see you commenting and getting involved, but there is no schedule here, and you don't have to apologise to me for being 'late'. OK? Good.

Rebecca said...

Hi :) What you said about the descriptions was really helpful! When I was little I used to be worried about plagerism too because I was worried someone might have the same idea as me. I was even reluctant to show my primary school teachers my work incase they stole my ideas, lol. Looking back now I know that my stories at eight years old weren't nearly good enough for someone to copy, lol.
Right now I've got this really good idea for a story that I really like and like Megha I've got a few stories coming in but I really love this idea more!:)Do you love all your books evenly or is there one that is your favourite? :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Rebecca: I know that authors are supposed to be like parents and say 'I don't have a favourite', but usually my favourite of the moment is the book that's just about to come out, and my least favourite is the one I'm still working on! So currently I love Shadows on the Moon to pieces. But I do think Shadows is a special book, and will always have a special place in my heart.

Rebecca said...

Shadow on the Moon sounds ace and I can't wait for it to come out so I can buy it! :D

Megha Z said...

Zoe, do you reread your own books as you'd read someone else's work (for fun. You know, reading as if you're reading someone else's book and NOT planning to review it or anything) or as a reviewer who is really concentrating on every detail (mistakes, plot originalness, usage of figurative language etc etc)? Just curious. ;)

Isabel: Yeah, I know! It's so exciting. But I'm letting the ideas mature (and getting on with homework!) before rushing back to writing.

Isabel said...

Megha: Yes, homework takes priority! (*shifty eyes* it's already 4:30 and I haven't started mine. Virtual slap, me...) Gonna get on with it right after this comment, I promise!!!

Zoe: Awh, thanks. :) I love this blog and I love commenting and talking with you guys, but you're right -- I shouldn't stress myself out about it. Thank you!

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: It depends. If I'm reading them to edit them, of course I put my ultra-critical hat on and rip everything to pieces. But after that I DON'T read them, unless I'm doing an out-loud reading for a signing or something. Then, of course, I try to ignore the mistakes and things I would change. But generally I have a hard time taking that ultra-critical hat off, even if I am reading other people's books. It takes a really great book to absorb me so much I'm not picking things apart.

Isabel: You are very welcome :)

Isabel said...

Zoe: Oh my Gosh, me too!!!! I am SO critical... sometimes it drives me nuts! Really, Isabel, you're just trying to ENJOY THE BOOK!!! Once in a while when I'm in writing mode I find myself reaching desperately for a pen to circle something before I realize this is a published novel. Oops...

Isabel said...

Zoe, you will never believe my luck: The author of Starcrossed has said that if I send her my copy of Starcrossed when it arrives at my house on Tuesday I can send it to her and she will sign it, and send it right back!!! A SIGNED COPY of Starcrossed!!! I am sooo excited!!!! :D

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