Writing Question #3: Will They Steal Your Work?

posted in: writing | 0

Blog-reader Harry put the following question to me:

You mention that critiques are important and how you’ve used a writing group to get feedback from all your work, including what gets published. Are you ever worried that someone in the club will steal your work and publish it? It sounds crazy given the success rate of the business but is it a real worry? How do you deal with it? Hard copies only with watermarks or just the honor system?

Aspiring writers want to know…

I’ll give a short answer, then a long answer. The short answer is, no. I don’t worry about it in the least, because I trust the people in my writing group. They’re my friends, we’ve been together for years, and if I didn’t trust them with my work I wouldn’t trust them to critique it, either.

Okay (I can hear you thinking), easy for you to say. You’ve been with a group for years, but what about me? I’m just thinking of joining a group. How can I know whether to trust these new people?

Fair question. Clearly any writing support group, especially a new one, must set out guidelines for treating members and their work with respect, and clearly there is an element of trust involved. I can’t tell you who to trust; you have to use your own instincts for that. I guess I’d say that if your instincts are causing you unease about the group you’re in, maybe you should look for another group. But that’s true whether or not you are worried about them stealing your work.

So let’s look at whether it’s a realistic worry. Suppose some new member had you all bamboozled about being trustworthy and decided to steal your story. What are the chances that he or she would get away with it? Pretty damn small. You’ve got an entire group that saw the piece and knows you wrote it. If someone did take your work, submit it to a publisher, and get it published (a very long shot in itself), wouldn’t all hell break loose when someone (like one of your friends) noticed that your story had just appeared under the name of the other person in your group? Imagine what that would do to the thief’s future career when the publisher was informed.

Does it ever happen? Yes. (But not within a writers’ group, so far as I know.)

I’ll tell you about it, because it happened to me. One of my stories, a novelette called Reality School: In the Entropy Zone, was plagiarized after it was published. A student at a university took the story, changed a few words, and submitted it as her own work to an online student anthology, put up on the web by the English Department. I think it was there for about a year before someone came along, read it, and thought, I’ve seen that before. Thanks to the web and the SF community, word eventually reached me that I should take a look. I did–and within a week, the student was up before the deans for disciplinary action. (She also had stolen another writer’s work. Though I was never officially told the disposition of her case, due to confidentiality rules, I have good reason to believe she was expelled soon after.) A sad irony of this particular case is that the university decided to prohibit future web-publication of student work. The irony, which I guess escaped the administrators, was that if the story had not been published on the web, the plagiarism would never have been discovered.

So didn’t that change my feeling about showing my work to my group? Why would it? After all, this happened after publication, and the perpetrator was a complete stranger. Which, if you think about it, makes a lot more sense than stealing from someone you know. If you’re going to steal.

So basically, I’d say: read my short answer again.

0 Responses

  1. Harry
    | Reply

    Thanks for both answers, Jeff.

    Would the use of online writing support groups change your answer at all? Friends can be thousands of miles away and strangers next door here. Trust is still trust, though so I’m sure that is the only basis.

    Harry

  2. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    I’ve heard some people express satisfaction with online workshops. However, I have no personal experience with them.

    Maybe some other reader can help?

  3. Anonymous
    | Reply

    Hello, I see that people ask you questions so I’m going to ask one. I have a friend in the Boston area who is looking for a writer’s group. He is not having much success. Would you have any thoughts? He writes ficton. He was involved in a writer’s group in Michigan and found the support of others to be most helpful. I have been doing some research which brought me here and I’m hoping you might help me go forward in my search.

    thank you in advance, Susan

  4. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Susan — I’m not sure if I can help, but why don’t you email me directly, and I’ll pass on what I can.

    jeff(at)starrigger.net

  5. Caliban
    | Reply

    Many years ago, I read in an interview with Stephen King that he had been asked many times to do an anthology, but had never been offered a compelling enough concept to actually do one.

    So I wrote him a letter with my idea. That idea was, even given a pretty detailed story plan, most authors simply will not do anything remotely similar with it. So why not grab five or six decent horror authors, give them all the exact same story plan, and have them go nuts with it?

    The anthology never appeared, and I never got a response to my letter, but some years later he produced an unusual pair of books called “Desperation” and “The Regulators” – the latter written by Richard Bachman, King’s now well-known “secret” pseudonym.

    The two books are strikingly similar. They share the same characters, the same setting, even the same basic plot points. And yet, the two books are also shockingly different, in much the same way Thad Beaumont’s work is said to differ from George Stark’s in King’s previous novel [i]The Dark Half[/i].

    So I like to think King had my idea stuck in his head all that time, and put his own spin on it by drawing from his own experience writing under two different identities. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.

    But it does make the concept of “stealing” someone else’s ideas look pretty ludicrous, if you ask me. By the time they’re through with it, it’s not your idea anymore.

  6. Anonymous
    | Reply

    This is an interesting topic the stealing of ideas. I am in a critique group where only last week a member said that another member had stolen an idea (not for a whole story but for a theme in the MS). She did not want to confront the other member but instead seems to have lost faith in all of us. Should she confront the other member and what if the other member genuinely had forgotten where she had heard the reference? She is convinced however that this member did steal from her. Your thoughts?

  7. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Good question. I guess I can’t answer directly, because I don’t know the people and don’t know the situation. But my first thought is, did the rest of the group notice a similarity? Did anyone say, “Gee, Sally, this really reminds me of Suzie’s manuscript!”? Or did Suzie herself say anything at the time, like, “Huh, that’s a lot like what I was trying to do in the story I showed you guys last year.”? If other people felt it, too, it might be better for someone else to raise the question.

    It need not be a confrontation, necessarily. People are influenced by other people’s work all the time. Sometimes it’s conscious, sometimes it’s not. Maybe this isn’t a case of theft. Probably it’s best to start from the premise that it’s not, and raise the question nonconfrontationally. See where it goes. There might be an innocent explanation.

    Maybe you’ll conclude it was theft. Then you’ll have a bigger problem on your hands than just a cribbed story idea. You’ll have a group in danger of self-destructing, because of resentment and loss of trust and all that. If that stuff is simmering beneath the surface, you’ve got to get it out where you can deal with it–and either resolve the issues or part company. As I said in the original post, a writers’ group has to be based on trust, or it can’t function.

    Having said all that, remember that ideas can spin in an infinite number of directions. It would be interesting to deliberately take an idea and see how two different writers dealt with it. (As the poster above suggested. Somehow I think I missed that post before and never responded to it.) But that, of course, would have to happen from an agreed-upon starting point.

    Hope this helps.

    Jeff

  8. Wow! Thank you Jeff! Honestly, I love the internet for having writers like yourself that sit down and take time to educate, and mentor us into preparing us through the right way to succeed in life. Whether you think that this helps or not, I just want you to know that it most definitely makes a huge impact and a difference for someone like myself. I’m taking my time to write this because I don’t want you to go feeling un-noticed! You have most definitely been recognized and you should know that this has surely helped me along my way! Thank you once again, really..
    Have a great day!

  9. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Thanks for the kind note. I’m really glad to hear that it helps!

    If SF is your interest, you could also check out my free online guide at http://www.writesf.com.

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