Plagiarism Is A Wonderful Teacher
(And Also Illegal)

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

— Charles Caleb Colton

Way back when I was but a mere boy (about seven or eight), my Year 3 teacher, Mr. Buzzard — a man equally feared and respected — assigned the class a task: to write a short story that would later be turned into a stop-animation film. Only the top five would be chosen and then we’d work together in groups to create the characters and scenery — cutting out the shapes, colouring them in, sizing them, gluing them in place, etc. Basically, our film would be a regular Blue Peter production. And once we’d completed all the hard work, a couple of directors were to come in and film our stories. The movies would end up looking like crude, cheap versions of a standard South Park episode. At the time, we were all desperate to win. This was before parents’ groups began lobbying schools to be more protective of children and their self-esteem. There was no It’s the taking part that counts. You won, or you didn’t.

And back then, even though I didn’t realise I wanted to be a writer, I did know I wanted to be a winner. Competition was in my bones, ingrained in me from birth. I was adamant I’d win this goddamn story competition, no matter what. Even if I had to cheat and steal to do it.

And that’s exactly what I did . . .

Me

(Me, aged 8)

Mr. Buzzard told us to structure our story in comic form, which would make it easier to transfer to the film format. I sat at my desk, pen in hand, clueless about what to write. Every idea I thought of seemed lame. After all, I was just a kid. What did I know about creating stories? This was too damn hard. In truth, I was talking myself out of it; making excuses out of a fear I’d fail or embarrass myself. It was the same limiting behaviour many writers still continue deep into adulthood. Convincing ourselves we’re worthless or rubbish. Telling ourselves we can’t write anything worth reading.

Then I remembered a film I’d seen recently and enjoyed: an animated short of Wallace and Gromit called The Wrong Trousers. From what I can remember the film is about a penguin orchestrating a robbery — and he plans to use Wallace as some kind of scapegoat/accomplice to the crime by using a mechanical pair of trousers to manipulate Wallace’s actions. And at one point in the movie, the penguin is mistaken for a chicken due to a red glove on his head. I can’t recall whether the robbery involved stealing a diamond, but I suspect it did. Either way, it seemed like the perfect story to plagiarise (not that I knew what plagiarism was at that age), and I began writing my story, hoping nobody would recognise the similarities.

They didn’t.

I named my story The Great Chicken Crime. It was about a chicken (I wasn’t so bold as to choose a penguin) who robs a museum for a diamond, then feels guilty (for whatever reason) and sends the diamond back to the police. He ends up in jail. That’s it. The plot was as simplistic as possible, but every idea was ripped and manipulated from the Wallace and Gromit cartoon. The two were dissimilar enough to consider my story “original”, but it was definitely a derivation of a superior work.

Even so, Mr. Buzzard picked The Great Chicken Crime as one of the top five pieces. I felt amazing. To think, out of thirty students, my story was being adapted for the screen. Albeit, an adaptation of a stolen idea.

But whatever.

It still counts. I was an eight-year-old screenwriter. 

kafaf

My point is this: in our earliest stages as writers, before we’ve fully honed our voice, when we’re still trying to discover the kind of author we want to be, copying our favourite writers can be a useful apprenticeship. I’m not suggesting ripping off their work and selling it — but it doesn’t hurt to toy around with plots by using those that you already know. Maybe you could write Stephen King’s Misery from the perspective of a female author. Maybe you could try writing Oliver Twist in a modern setting. Or possibly you could update Romeo and Juliet with contemporary dialogue. Whatever you choose, it doesn’t need to be written as a means to publication. Sometimes it’s good to experiment. Push aside your hopes and aspirations for now — put them on hold. Instead, draw from the writers you admire; copy their style, their dialogue, play around with it, fuse your own voice in with theirs and see what happens. It can only help you grow in the long run.

Too many aspiring authors want to do backflips before they can walk. They’re so precious about everything they write; they analyse every sentence and seek perfection, which, a lot of the time is merely an excuse to procrastinate. Take your critical hat off and just have fun with it. Don’t sit down at the piano for the first time and expect to play Beethoven straight off the bat. Mozart learned by copying the greats, learning the keys, and hearing the music in his head. A lot has been written about his precocious talents — Mozart could reportedly play the piano to a high-standard and structure symphonies at the ridiculously young age of five — but it wasn’t until his teens that he began composing truly original work. Up until that point, he was merely a master of imitation. 

I have plenty of half-finished old novels in various styles; whichever author I was into at the time of writing, I’d be influenced by. Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, Stephen King. I went through stages where I picked the stuff I liked from their writing and merged it with my own, typing out stories in their tone, in their towns, with characters that seemed like copies of their creations — after all, I figured a terrible Stephen King story is better than a good story from a shitbag nobody. In the end, I realised how wrong I’d been, and my natural style came through anyway. I suspect it’s merely a mass amalgamation of my favourite writers and every book I’ve ever read, but that’s okay. It’s still distinctively my voice.

So copy, learn, experiment, and eventually you’ll weed it all out and develop your own style . . . filtered through the thousands who came before you.

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7 Tools To Ease The Writing Process
(And To Stop You Banging Your Head Against A Wall)

1.) SimpleNote 

This is one of my favourite writing tools — if it can even be called that. It’s basically a notebook for your iPhone. I know plenty of people use EverNote (which is similar), but I prefer SimpleNote. The minimalist layout is clearer, and it’s easy to sort your ideas into groups so you don’t end up with hundreds of different notes. Also, it syncs across multiple platforms, including Scrivener, which is a massive bonus for me. I’ll talk about Scrivener in a minute, but being able to sync my ideas directly into a novel document saves time on copying and pasting. Plus it’s free. So what are you waiting for? Download it and get to work. 

2.) Scrivener

One of Scrivener’s best features is the ability to keep all of your work in one place. With Word, you tend to end up with about fifty different saved files during a project. One marked RESEARCH, another saying SECOND DRAFT, a third called CHARACTERS, and the list goes on. When writing, you might have ten different tabs open at once and be constantly flipping between pages (usually copy and pasting), which can be exhausting.

In Scrivener, you open a single document and all of your drafts, ideas, character studies — everything you could possibly want — is all in that single document along the side tab. You can click and choose whichever you want to work on. You can also split the screen to work on both, or drag and drop items from one document into another, all without leaving the original screen. Not only that, but the file auto-saves every two seconds to help prevent any lost work, and is generally more stable than Word documents. In the time I’ve used it, it’s yet to crash once. 

It’s especially helpful during the editing stage. Having all of your pieces organised into segments along the side makes it so simple to chop and change. Shifting one scene before or after another to see how it works is no longer a chore. You don’t have to save two separate files and copy and compare. You simply drag and drop, compile the file into a PDF to see how the changes look, and then you can switch it all back if it’s wrong.

For the most part, Scrivener is easy to use, although it does take a small period of adjustment. If you’ve been using Word your whole life, Scrivener will seem like a foreign language at first. Your initial reaction may even be to ditch it and go back to Word. But once you get past the first hurdle, you’ll realise it’s actually a complex system that’s been written for simpletons. Even a brain-dead mouse could understand the functions if he spent five minutes trying.

In essence, Scrivener takes the often time-consuming side of background research, idea compilation, and rewrites, etc., out of your current creation, and helps you to concentrate on your most important task: writing a bestselling novel that will make you a millionaire.

And that’s just the tip of the nib.

If you want to see more, check out the videos on their website.

If you’re serious about writing, this is a purchase you’ll never regret.

3.) Word

Even though I just spent the last five hundred words or so bashing this and praising its predecessor, Word is still necessary for every writer to own, and deserves some recognition. Although Scrivener is more intuitive, Word continues to serve its purpose. 

For a start, most agents, magazines and publishers require work (when sent electronically) to be in Word format. Almost everyone has Word installed on their computer: when you send your stories to friends, families, and editors, they’ll want to read it in Word. If you don’t send them your work in that format, you may find some problems.

Not only that, but Word has track changes which works great for editing. You can highlight lines, add in side notes and comments (it points out all the changes with marks and colours), and it’s easy to function. Editing your own work on Scrivener is simple — editing other people’s work, however, is better suited to Word. Track changes allows your clients/friends to see what you’ve tinkered with and quickly decide whether or not to integrate your suggestions.

So for these two reasons — editing and convenience — keep Word installed. In short: Scrivener makes your work easier to write, Word makes it easier to disseminate.

4.) StayFocusd (Internet Blocking App) 

If you’re anything like most writers, both the professional and the moonlighters, the internet will be a major source of procrastination. It’s only a click away, and when you’re feeling the crush of a deadline, or the pain of a scene that just won’t come out the way it sounds in your head, it can be an easy distraction. You tell yourself you’ll just check your notifications on Facebook, or your emails, or read a couple tweets — within minutes you’re sucked in and then it’s three hours later and you haven’t done any work. Somehow you’re on a webpage about the mating rituals of baboons and hamsters. You’ve wasted half of your writing day already.

StayFocusd is in place to stop that from happening. Or at least try to.

The way it works is by blocking websites of your choosing between certain hours. For instance, if you plan to work between 9 and 5 every day, you can set it up to automatically block Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and any other websites that hog your life when you should be working. Once you’ve inputted a time for it to click in, you can’t undo or change the time until it’s up for that day — that way you can’t cheat the system every five minutes when you feel like searching the web. You are able to pre-schedule breaks, though — say between 1 and 2 for your lunch hour. And you’re able to change your daily and weekly times (and websites) every evening.

Also, you have the choice of a nuclear option which blocks all websites, or you can pick certain websites (ones you may use for research purposes) to remain available to you. When you try to access the wrong sites, the screen flashes up with the message SHOULDN’T YOU BE WORKING? and a link to donate $10 to their PayPal account to unlock the page. This isn’t the only way to view what you want, though. If you’re really desperate to check a webpage that’s been blocked, you can view it by using Incognito Mode on Google Chrome. The app doesn’t block it through that. But that doesn’t make it any less useful: when you go through Incognito, you’ll have to type in your email address and password. That might not sound like a lot, but psychologically it makes a difference. It’s no longer just clicking on your Facebook account. You’re now actively cutting corners to find a loophole into your social networks. For most people, the shame alone will send them back to their work. For others, the extra hassle isn’t worth it. That urge to check their notifications soon fades.

The only drawback is that StayFocusd is a Google Chrome add-on. I’m sure there are plenty of similar apps or sites you can use for Safari and Internet Explorer, but I don’t know about them. If you don’t use Chrome, now might be the time to switch over.

Failing that, just do a little research on internet-blocking productivity sites.

You’re bound to find something that will suit your writing needs.

5.) The Tomato Timer 

If you’re a Mac owner, you can find this on the app store. It works on the infamous pomodoro technique. If you’ve never heard of it before, it basically runs on the principles of work and reward. You’re given a set amount of time to do some work (on the app you can adjust this time to whatever you like: ten minutes, thirty minutes, etc.) and once your time is up, you’re given a set break (again, this can be manually adjusted). During the break you can do whatever you want, but the moment it’s up, you need to get straight back to work.

The clock substitutes as a boss in a sense. But it also allows you to feel like your writing time is more structured and less hectic. You see half an hour on the clock, you know that’s all you need to do before you can take a break, which means the writing doesn’t seem so daunting. Anyone can hack half an hour (or twenty minutes, or whatever you’ve picked). Then you have your short break, relax, and go straight back to the assignment.

This is a great tool for those who talk themselves out of writing because they DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME or because they’re worried they’ll spend hours at the keyboard.

Set your time, do the work, then get back on with your life.

Simple as that. Simple as a ticking tomato.

6.) Focus Music

Focus Music is a website that offers up a selection of music that has been “proven” to enhance productivity and levels of focus. You can choose between multiple options — from cinematic to operatic to classical — and within each genre, there are a variety of different pieces of music. All are specially picked to be non-intrusive. That way, while you’re at the computer typing away, the music gently soothes and coaxes you in the background without you being aware of it. It’s both relaxing and invigorating.

There’s a paid version in which you can choose a playlist of songs and repeat or change their order and record how long each music session lasts. But if you don’t have money for that, the free version has more than enough options to satisfy the casual user. Some songs may not be to your liking, or may feel obtrusive, but you’ll find a decent balance after a while of testing. I tend to switch between cinematic (for my action-based scenes) and classical (for my emotional scenes). You’ll soon find out what works for you.

For the skeptical among you, numerous studies have shown there’s a direct correlation between music and work when attempting to form a long-lasting habit. If every time you sit at your laptop and begin typing, you’re playing Mozart, your brain will associate that music with writing. It will merge as part of a work pattern. Then, next time you play similar music, you will be psychologically primed to engage in that work.

If you find it hard to connect with any of the music on this site, you can always make your own playlist on iTunes. Just make sure you keep the music low and don’t let it distract you. The more you play it while working, the more you’ll solidify the habit-forming neural pathways you’ve created — thus turning writing into a habit not a chore.

Try it out and see what works for you.

7.) Wunderlist 

Finally, Wunderlist is another Mac/iPhone app, but again, if you don’t own any Apple products, I assume there are equivalent apps that you can find for your operating system. In any case, Wunderlist (which my computer just tried to change to Wanderlust) is a simple way to keep on top of your hectic schedule. For all the writers who can’t find enough time in their day to write, read, edit, clean the dog, or wash the dishes, this simplistic productivity app can help you to organise your time better by listing your activities for the day and shifting them around on the basis of their importance.

Structure is a key component of many professional writers’ success. They’re disciplined and they know when to work, when to take a break, and when to take a shower (in rivers of whiskey and vodka, usually), and this app helps to regulate that schedule for the lazy.

Which is most of us. We’re lazy, sluggish procrastinators.

And if you don’t like Wunderlist, try writing out a list every morning in a notepad and grouping them in three different columns: MOST IMPORTANT, KIND OF IMPORTANT, LEAST IMPORTANT, and work your way through it, scratching out something every time you’ve completed it.

You’ll be surprised how much a list can make a difference to your discipline.

* * * * * * * * * * 

Anyway, that’s it for now, but if you know of any other useful writing tools, please leave a link to them below. I’m always searching for new techniques and tricks to enhance my productivity. These are just some of the things that work for me. Your list might be very different, and that’s cool. We all have our own way of suppressing the angry, procrastinating monkey on our backs.

So let me know some of yours. I’d love to hear about them.


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Rejection Is Good For The Soul
(If You Choose To View It That Way) 

“A rejection is nothing more than a necessary step

in the pursuit of success.” 

— Bo Bennett

Over a decade ago, before two children and a broken marriage, I thought I’d written a future bestselling crime novel that would change the world. I truly believed it would be stocked in every major (or minor) bookstore, and I’d see someone reading it on every tube or train or bus ride I went on. I guess I was a delusional fantasist. Or, in other words: a writer.

And because I’d decided my book was amazing, the next logical step was to grab the attention of an agent. I didn’t care who or what agent I ended up with; whether they represented crime fiction or usually dealt with non-fiction gardening. It didn’t occur to me to research the field. I simply picked a few names online, found one that accepted email submissions, and lumped together an embarrassingly inept query package.

Instead of a brief covering letter and synopsis, I wrote a rambling five-page email  in which I claimed to be The Next Big Thing  and then, to make things worse, I added an attachment of the entire book (rather than the standard three sample chapters), and finally, I signed it off with Yours Sincerely, Your Client-To-Be. I wish I could go back in time and punch myself to death. If that wasn’t bad enough, the novel itself was a pile of dog shit. In fact, it was quite possibly one of the most horrific things ever put to paper. Reading it back these days is on par with looking at a thousand pictures of Nazi death camps.

Which, if you’ve never done that — is pretty fucking horrible.

* * * * * * * * * * 

I didn’t know any of this at the time, though. I still saw the novel as a masterpiece. And when the agent responded with a generic This isn’t for us email, I decided to rewrite it in a new style and send it off again a month or so later — to the same agent as before.

Within days of this second attempt, I received a personal response this time, a quick line or two that said the writing wasn’t quite “up to par”. Not letting this deter me, I then rewrote the novel a third time, overhauling the style and trying to make it sound smarter — which, ironically, had the opposite effect: I somehow managed to transform a small pile of shit into a twelve-acre field of manure.

Still arrogant in the belief that I had written something amazing — just like one of those tone-deaf singers who audition for X-Factor every year — I persevered and submitted my novel to this long-suffering agent yet again. I can only imagine what he thought when he received the same subpar package in his inbox, with the promise of a new and improved writing style, for the third time. Most likely, he slammed his head into his computer monitor. Maybe he took out a blade and stabbed himself repeatedly in the chest. Not for any reason other than to release his frustration at my relentless idiocy.

I waited for a response and constantly refreshed my email, certain I’d soon be offered a contract with this agency. The agent would call me up, apologise for overlooking my talent, and give me a virtual pat on the back for the immediate improvement in my writing. Alas, that’s not quite how things turned out . . .

* * * * * * * * * * 

He did respond (I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t), only this time he sent a personal and cutting reply. And almost twelve years later, I have it here for you to read:

George, well, full marks for trying but I’m afraid this really doesn’t grab me at all. I’m afraid I really do think the prose is pretty dire. Sorry! Frankly I think you need to read more, and more widely, as your use of English is slightly inaccurate and ‘stilted’. Eg, ‘rancid sweat’, ‘epileptic images’ and ‘massacred headlice in a battlefield of beauty’.

Kind Regards,

Robin Wade.

Before I carry on with how amazing this email was, let me just address the crack-addicted pink-tutu-wearing elephant in the room. I’m talking about the line: Massacred head lice in a battlefield of beauty, which is quite possibly the worst thing ever written in the history of the world. From what I can remember, it was meant to be a simile about blood in a little girl’s hair. I can’t recall the original line, but it was probably: blood droplets in her hair looked like massacred head lice in a battlefield of beauty. Even typing it out here I feel a little nauseated. Somewhere in my mind I thought referring to blood drops in the hair as massacred head lice was an intelligent idea. Let that just sink in for a second.

What the hell was going on with my life back then?

* * * * * * * * * * 

Anyway, back to the email. I loved it. Not at the time, probably. But as the years went by, I would constantly refer to that email. The rejection (and the brutal way in which Robin put me in my place, and deservedly so) inspired me to work harder, read wider, and write better. I wanted to prove this guy wrong. He’d written me off as a failure, some no-hope shit-bag writer, and I was adamant I wouldn’t live up to that belief. (And I didn’t: six years after that email I was finally signed to a literary agency; that rejection letter was partly responsible for my determination to succeed.) 

Some people might take such an email to heart, call the agent a hack, an idiot, rude, or any number of things. Those are the type of people who will most likely never fulfil their ambitions. This email was quite possibly the greatest response about my writing that I’ve ever received. If it hadn’t been for that, if he’d merely sent me another generic template letter, I might have written in that vein for years. People around me — friends and family — probably would have convinced me I had talent, and I would have continued on that rusty track until I slammed into a brick wall a decade down the line.

* * * * * * * * * * 

The fact is, if you pin your self-worth on your work, you’re bound to be hurt by rejection. For some of you, a rejection as harsh as the one above (or maybe even as gentle as a standard template letter) will be enough to derail you from your career as a bestselling author. You’ll take it as an indication that your work sucks giant donkey dick and you’ll bow out of the race — sometimes when you’re only inches from the finish line. That’s pretty tragic. Right now in a basement somewhere is the next Stephen King, or Dennis Lehane, or Shakespeare, but he no longer sends his work off because he can’t deal with rejection. We might never see the mastery he’s created due to his lack of a backbone. Thankfully my spine is made of titanium.

Every rejection helps to push me harder and further on my journey. It’s the fuel to my fire. And if you want to be one of the greats, you’ll embrace it too. Even better: you’ll seek out rejection. Because praise means nothing in the long run. It doesn’t help you, it doesn’t improve you as a writer, it’s just a short and meaningless ego boost. You’re an amazing writer from your best friend will not sell any novels in real life. What you need is the truth.

Brutal as it can sometimes be. It’s the only way you’ll progress.

* * * * * * * * * *

Think of all the authors who were rejected and went on to be big stars. If you do a quick search on Google, you’ll find numerous stories about authors who were rejected multiple times and later went on to critical and financial success. Harry Potter, probably the best known book/character on the planet, was turned down by twelve different publishing houses before a Bloomsbury editor was convinced to publish it by his eight-year-old daughter. John Grisham’s A Time To Kill was rejected by sixteen literary agencies and twelve publishers. It sold 250 million copies. Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (co-authors of Chicken Soup For The Soul) received 140 rejections, many of them stating that “Anthologies don’t sell” — they went on to sell 125 million copies.

And it doesn’t stop there. Look at Stephen King, Dean Koontz, even The Beatles: every artist who ever made it to the top has a story about rejection. They all started off being told no, or being told they were rubbish, and they all pushed through regardless.

My friend, author Rob Boffard, sent his debut novel Tracer to ten agents. They all rejected it. So he went back to the book, rewrote it, tightened some scenes, made it better, and sent it off to another ten agents. In the end, he had to choose between three who all wanted to represent him.

He went from being rejected by multiple agents to being sought out by three of them in the space of a few months. He then signed a three-book deal with Orbit Books for his Outer-Earth trilogy. That’s the difference between a whining quitter and a success story. He didn’t give up. Incidentally, his debut novel (the aforementioned Tracer) will be out on July 2nd 2015. I’ve read it and it’s a great Sci-Fi novel. I recommend it highly. Go and pre-order it. (Also check out my interview with him here).

* * * * * * * * * * 

Finally, on a related note, go and check this brilliant fable (here) which appeared in Lawrence Block’s writing guide Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. It encapsulates everything I’ve been saying in the form of a short story. Read it, and then go get rejected.

Okay?

You have my permission.


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Burial by Neil Cross

imgresBurial is a crime-thriller-cum-horror written by the man behind the hit TV series, Luther.

The story kicks off when Nathan, an employee of a famous radio DJ, attends his boss’s house party. From there, everything goes wrong. First he argues with his girlfriend in front of everyone, making a fool of himself. Then, drunkenly, he swings for his boss. And finally, he meets a girl and decides to drive out to a forest with her (alongside another guy he met at the party: Bob) and have sex with her. Bob also has sex with her, and during this twisted backyard swap-session, the girl dies. The two men bury her and conspire to cover up her death. To be on the safe side, they cut all ties and part ways. 

Nathan gradually gets his life back on track, and in a misguided attempt to assuage his guilt, he hunts down the sister of the deceased. To complicate things further, he falls in love with her. Then, ten years down the line, with that horrible night far back in his rearview mirror, and everything falling into place for the first time in forever, Bob turns up at his house and tells him they need to dig up the dead girl.

The story speeds towards its conclusion from there.

It’s a gripping premise, one that draws the reader in instantly, and the story, for the most part, delivers on it. As a whole, the book’s quick-moving, atmospheric, and realistic, with one major set piece (the death of the girl) and everything else just a long, winding, emotional aftermath. The finale is a little too neat and easy, but the novel is still worth reading for the journey to get there. The book almost feels like a novella in some respects; something that was stretched into a novel. But if that’s so, Neil Cross stretches it with skill. 

It’s not a story that will linger in the memory for years to come, but it will help pass a boring weekend.

Check it out.


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