Those Who Can’t

*Sorry guys.  I haven’t had time, yet, to go over Elf Blood and I promise to have a chapter by next week. But this week I have an additional excuse since one of my eyes is trying to come apart, which makes half of my field of vision (on the right) really er… messy.  This post is from my blog two years ago.  I think it still applies, though.*

Back when I was in school, one of the things that used to astonish me was most people’s lack of originality.  By which I don’t mean that they didn’t have enough piercings or tattoos (I have a culturally inherited phobia of making permanent alterations to my body, which is why my parents refused to pierce my ears and I got teased about it.  I then pierced my ears myself at eighteen, but I wear earrings so rarely I’ve had to re-pierce them twice.)

What I mean is that when teachers gave writing (or drawing, but we’ll go with writing) assignments most people would echo our last reading assignment.  Worse, most of them didn’t seem to be aware they’d done it, or to what extent they’d done it.  And EVEN WORSE most teachers didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with it.

Okay, to give a concrete example: sixth grade – we spent four months reading a book about a poor kid who finds a stray dog and nurses him to health.  (Okay, the class spent four months.)  I read it that evening, then I hid SF books under the book and kept an ear on the discussion while I read my way through the golden age.  (Hell is a language and literature class that moves at the pace of a normal 11 year old.)

At the end, we were told to write an essay or story that involved friendship with a dog.  Ninety percent of the class wrote back a summary of the book, even though that was NOT the assignment.  I mean, they didn’t even try to write say about how we make dogs and dogs make us, which is what I would have done, had I written an essay.  The rest of the class – except me, of course! – wrote “stories” which were in fact reworded scenes from the book.  They ranged from “barely reworded” to “completely rewarded” to “Might have extended the scene” but they were still IN FACT part of someone else’s work, using their characters.  No, calling the boy Mike instead of Michael did NOT make him a different boy.

Me, well, I wrote a story of a magical dog and three wishes.  Okay, not stunningly creative.  Look, kid, I was 11 and it was an in-class essay, unannounced.

That same year, when asked to make up a legend, I got my story downgraded and got penalized because one of my classmates said he’d read it in “a book somewhere” (No, he effing well hadn’t, though I daresay he’d read a dozen like it.  It was an enchanted maiden story [per instructions] and that has limits) and the teacher agreed that word choice, coherence and detail were beyond an 11 year old.  SO I MUST have copied it.

Yes, I am still steamed about that thirty eight years later, why do you ask?  The fact my parents were of the school that the teacher is always right meant no one would fight for me, and that was one of the grossest injustices I’ve had to deal with.  (And part of the reason I fight for my boys in similar circumstances.)

Taken in their totality, and added to the rest of my career, I’ve come to the scary conclusion most of the human race can’t create at all.  They can’t even create in the limited amounts that require you to mash together two forms/thoughts/stories.

Worse, most people can’t tell when you’re being creative or not.  It’s not a put on, they HONESTLY can’t.  They don’t even know WHAT creative is.  I’ve had “stunningly creative” applied to some of my work where I was phoning it in – and it clearly wasn’t – and I’ve heard “stunningly creative” applied to other people’s work that makes me want to scream “no, taking twilight but making her fall in love with the werewolf instead, is NOT creative.”

Of course, if you ARE capable of creating you tend to underrate how creative you are.  You know who you stole from – even if heavily disguised.  Of course, sometimes you don’t.  I didn’t realize to what extent Darkship Thieves was Heinlein fanfic, for instance because the things I hit the same way are incidental to the story.  Stuff like “Fresher” for bathroom – and that’s because I grew up reading Heinlein and it has become, in a way, interwoven in the fibers of my being.  My consolation is that he did the same, to an extent, to Mark Twain, and hey, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.  (My future history, etc. is actually my own and differs from Heinleinian future history in marked degrees, though both follow TANSTAAFL and such, logically.)  But in re-reading Darkship before I wrote the sequel I kept going “Oh, G-d.  I could have made up another word!” (The different is before the read I’d re-read Heinlein.  Before writing it I hadn’t.  Hence the “fibers of my being” thing.)

Anyway, this was a shock when I entered school because my family WAS creative.  Someone trying to just re-write a scene from a book would get laughed at at the dinner table.  So.  Now every time I venture out into the world, in the middle of people not engaged in writing for a living, I’m shocked by this creative inability anew.  The family my husband and I made is creative, the boys wildly so.  So.

So we come up against a problem that has bedeviled Academy the last several years, and which will hit indie hard.

When I taught college English comp I was given a packet of what I was expected to do in grading papers.  I’d done this before, in the late eighties.  I didn’t realize since then the requirement to be omniscient had entered the profession.  Because, you see, the packet instructed me to give zero for ANY plagiarized paper copied from online, or any paper from an essay service.  The thing is – do you KNOW how many papers there are on line?  I can’t read all of them!

What I did was to take random sentences from suspiciously well written (compared to that student) papers and run them through search engines.  I never caught anyone red-handed, but then I KNOW a lot of these papers are behind pay walls or subscription walls.

For my money, if I had to plagiarize a paper in school, I’d go and find an OLD book of essays, or a thesis, the kind of thing no one reads, something not digitized and copy THAT.  Of course, beyond the moral wrongness of such act, my pride would never allow me to do that.  And beyond all that, the type of person who isn’t creative enough to write his/her own essay is also not creative about where he/she finds it.

Since I quit teaching for the fabulously well paid career of author (Snort, giggle) I’ve kept in touch with kids one way or another.  Sometimes they invade my blog – er… okay, that only happened once years ago, but it lasted for a month.  And yes, I also still resent that.  Did I EVER say I was a good person? – and sometimes friends’ kids, or kids’ friends ask me to review something for them.

I will point out both sets of young people are among what we would class as the best and brightest of their class.

Houston, we have a problem.

Creativity hasn’t got any better in the younger generation.  Heinlein maintained the percentage of people in a population who could truly create was fixed.  It might be.  We keep discovering this sort of ratio, though we’re not sure how it holds.  BUT the problem is that on top of that, these people  – BRIGHT young people who can speak just fine – can’t carry a sentence from beginning to end and make sense.  It’s not just logic that’s tortured.  It’s grammar and syntax.

Yes, yes, I know, these blog posts lock grammar, syntax and punctuation in a dungeon room and do kinky stuff to them.  BUT I write them while half asleep one way or another and I do no more than a cursory (and fast) typo hunt.  The essays I see from those kids are… proofread, worked on.

And yes, I KNOW I do this for a living.  Is it possible I’m judging them too harshly?  Well… maybe, but I don’t think so.  I used to teach, remember, ten years ago.  And even from ten years ago, the level of writing has gone way down.

I could hazard guesses as to why, including what they did with my older son’s class, where they let them learn spelling “free form” and “from reading.”  Which means as smart and articulate as he is, I still need to yell at him over egregious spelling mistakes.

When he was in third grade, I realized they weren’t teaching him ANYTHING relating to expression, writing and word usage.  NOTHING.  His essays read incomprehensible to me.  This is when – according to him – I started a reign of terror.  If you hear him tell it, he was an innocent happy child and I scarred him for life.

Maybe.  I’m pleading the fifth.  What I did was make him read – at first aloud, because he was pretending to read and/or skipping whole paragraphs – great essays.  I checked out of the library books of famous essays and I had him read them aloud.  Then I had him write essays.  And I deployed the sarcasm for every glopped sentence and every thought that led nowhere.

I’m happy to report within three weeks the boy could write essays upside down, sideways and possibly underwater.  And then I did it again with my second child at a somewhat older age.

What this means to me is that the kids CAN be taught.  They just aren’t being.  Heaven knows why.  That’s not even the point of this blog.  (Just let me tell you if you have a child in K-12 MAKE SURE THEY CAN READ AND WRITE.  Also, buy them a Strunk and White and make them read it aloud to you.)

The point of this blog is that now even the small minority born with (well, you explain it!) the ability to create and the verbal fluency that leads to story telling will have issues expressing themselves.  And that they might not even have any idea when they’re committing plagiarism by stealing others’ words.

I’m not worried about their getting stuck, btw – the kids, by and large, are always all right.  These poor children just have a much steeper slope to competency.  They’ll get there, once they realize there’s a problem.

Here’s what I’m worried about, though: when you couple how little even creative people create, unconscious leaning on someone else’s work which all of us do (Heinlein: They all steal from each other) because DUH we’re social monkeys, and not even being aware of what good writing is… we have a massive problem.

I said before the least creative people can’t even seem to understand what CREATIVE is.  They’ll commit plagiarism without noticing.

Now, most of them, thank heavens, don’t aspire to being novelists.  But there might be half a dozen delusional enough to try it, considering how sad our education is right now.

We could end up with a bunch of inadvertent plagiarists who’ve never been informed writing a scene from someone else’s novel and changing the names is NOT a short story.  And here’s the thing, they can put it right up there for sale.

Now, look, let’s not be dramatic.  This has ALWAYS happened, even with traditional publishing.  I can’t remember the name, but not so long ago, they found that some “literary” darling had copied almost in whole books from a “hack” romance writer.  Different character names, different titles.  And yep, this went through a major house.

So… what can be done about it?  Well…  NOT legislate it.  Any law passed on it will simply be used by would-be gatekeepers to go after anything they don’t like.  (Say, accuse me of plagiarism because I use the word “Fresher” for bathroom.)

It is a problem, but there is no problem so bad a law can’t make it worse.

Here’s my suggestion:

First, police yourself.  I do.  Obsessively.  Yeah, I let certain words get through.  I tell people I grew up in Heinlein books, they’re part of who I am and you write from who you are.  Deal.  I disagree with my literary daddy enough on matters of future history, (well, I grew up in different countries and generations) that we don’t overlap enough to repeat the same stories.  Yes, you could say Darkship is my answer to Friday – and to an extent A Few Good Men is my answer to TMIAHM, (which remains my favorite book) but the actuation of the same “principles” in very differently built worlds makes ALL the difference.  And “Yes but” is a valid reason to write a science fiction novel.

Where you need to police yourself is in the things you don’t/wouldn’t think of stealing.  They’re not part of you.  You don’t read them for fun.  There is a reason most of us – unless editing or working with half a dozen VERY close friends/mentees – don’t read other people’s stuff.  I’ve had newbies ping me on facebook begging me to read their novel and tell them if they’re aiming in the right direction.  Beyond the fact that I just don’t have TIME, it terrifies me.  The things I’ve found getting under my radar (never more than a paragraph or a character name) are usually from stuff I read from my kids, or a sentence in a news blog.

You’re only human.  You’ll “lift” minor stuff.  But do try to prevent yourself from doing it.

Second – police others.  NOT obsessively, and for the love of heaven, don’t go and report someone to Amazon because you “think you read it somewhere” like that boneheaded boy in my sixth grade comp class.  (He’s so lucky I’ve forgotten his name, isn’t he?)  BUT if you come across a passage and remember it from another book, go and check.  Apparently there is the charming habit of lifting wholesale and reselling under another name/cover.  So, if you find one of those, yeah, that’s reason to report it.  (No, I don’t mean same plot.  If you read Romance, or some fantasy, you’d NEVER do anything else.  I mean, if it’s word per word the same book.  Report it.  DO.)

If it’s not word per word, but you find a few pages (let’s not try to go to the level of a sentence or two.  That’s just … what it is.  Sometimes a sentence is just right, and you don’t remember reading it before, and if your head is a word-cement-mixer it can happen.) that are the same, it might be appropriate to tell the author.  Politely and under “Well, sorry.  I don’t think you realize you did that.”  And then of course that author bears watching.  VERY carefully.  And if you get one of those emails and they are right, DO watch yourself.  (No, it’s never happened to me.  NO, I don’t think it could happen.  Not pages, word per word.  BUT I’ve been very ill while writing some books, and I wrote one – Draw One In The Dark – while so concussed I was experiencing “lost time”.  Could I have done it then?  Gah.  At the time I was terrified I was killing people during the hours I’d lost. [As far as I can tell, mostly I went shopping.  Which is just weird.])

I’m firmly convinced no more plagiarism is taking place than ever has.  It’s just that now it’s our responsibility and we don’t want it to give indie a bad name.  The big guys only need an excuse to regulate us out the whazoo.


Third and most importantly: if you have kids, if you mentor kids, if you teach – teach them what true creativity is, and what plagiarism is.  Teach them plagiarism is illegal.  Explain that intellectual property IS still property.  And that writing the same story but calling the kid Mike is not wildly creative.  Explain to them that data might be free, but the compilation of data isn’t.  Story forms might be free, but the expression of the story ISN’T.

Kids aren’t stupid.  They will learn.  It’s just that no one is teaching them.


  1. I was just thinking about this earlier today, that those who keep proclaiming certain award-winning works to be ‘fresh, unique, and original’ don’t get out much, do they? The worst of it is, they ignore and cram under the rug any data that shows they haven’t got anything approaching a clue.

  2. OTOH, a certain SF writer made quite a career for himself with his first half dozen or so novels simply by taking a concept from an earlier Heinlein, turning it 90 degrees on it’s axis, and creating a new and different story entirely. He later went on to create works with no such link, or at least none I could detect.
    I recently did a first read on a novella, a romance of all things. Tight, well written, a couple grammar and spelling issues, but IMHO publishable as it stood. My main comment was that it could well have been written by Louis L’Amour had he been brought into the 21st century. Meant it as a sincere compliment, I rank old Louie right up alongside RAH as storyteller extraordinaire.

  3. Beyond pure plagiarism, IMO there’s setting your story in a thinly disguised world created by another author.

    That is, your “universe” is actually the Star Trek universe even when you didn’t intend it to be.

    Some of this may be simply that (as Cedar says) they don’t get out much. [Grin]

    A few years ago, I read about some Star Trek fans complaining about Babylon 5.

    To them, it was “established” that in the 24th Century communicator badges would be located on the people’s chests not on the back of their hands. [Shakes head sadly]

    That’s bad enough for fans but IMO would be dangerous for people trying to write SF.

    To be honest though, in one of my lost SF stories, I had a human sub-species that were very Vulcan like. Stronger, more logical than “standard” humans with telepathic powers. [Sad Smile]

    Mind you, the rest of the story had elements of “the Star Trek writers were nuts” so this is how an exploration starship would really be like. [Smile]

    1. Those B5 comms always looked uncomfortable to me. Would you really want that sticking to the back of your hand all day?

      1. And those chest communicators might “turn on” at an inappropriate moment. [Evil Grin]

        Seriously, your comment about wearing them on the back of the hands is reasonable.

        The Star Trek fans’ comments invoked a “Oh come on now” reaction from me. [Smile]

  4. ” I hid SF books under the book and kept an ear on the discussion while I read my way through the golden age. (Hell is a language and literature class that moves at the pace of a normal 11 year old.)” You mean that I spent all those hours in class waiting for recess to open the pocketbook was wasting good reading time? Misspent youth, how I miss it. No wonder I’m an annoying straight arrow. In regard to the ‘fresher’ I think I’ve read more than one story that used it. I wouldn’t call that ‘word stealing’ but ‘meaning acceptance’ and if we had to go back an figure out what ‘comet’ was a derivative of, or any other word we would end up picking nits forever. It’s good to add in your notes to readers that you did use the ‘RAH Dictionary’ which makes readers like you as a human being more. I’m still looking for the story I can insert ‘rain locker’ and ‘reefer’ from my naval days into.

  5. Perhaps the most well known “borrow” was the kerfuffle over ST tribbles vs Heinlein’s Martian flat cats. Here’s a remark by WSU professor emeritus Paul Brians on that subject:
    “A 1952 Heinlein novel The Rolling Stones featured flat cats, extraterrestrial creatures that quickly multiplied inside the human characters’ space ship. That likely inspired Gerrold’s tribbles, says Brians. When Heinlein was offered credit for the idea, he demurred, passing the credit to a Disney movie titled “Pigs is Pigs” which in itself was a derivation of a 1905 Ellis Parker Butler children’s story about guinea pigs left in a train station, he says.”

    1. I thought RAH pointed at the story not the movie.

      Oh, the “funny” thing about the Tribbles is that Gerrold heard that RAH wanted a copy of the script and signed it with “admiration of your work”.

      Then he learned why RAH wanted a copy of the script. [Very Big Grin]

    1. they have it in audio. When younger was painfully dyslexic (he’s conquered a bunch of it now) he listened to it back to back, till it stuck.
      BTW, your spelling and syntax are MARKEDLY improved just since you’ve been reading and writing here. I don’t know what to cal that, or why, but there it is.

      1. Sarah,

        I’ve noticed that I’m an intuitive mimic. Subconsciously just being exposed to good grammar will improve my writing. Plus, I did get exposed to all this in high school, and a lot of it is just coming back in bits and pieces. A lot of my bad writing habits are just that habits, that need to be over written with new better ones.

        Hmmm… ahhh… A work in progress.


        1. Well, you might be like older son. Both kids are dyslexic, having got it from me. If Robert hasn’t been reading in a while, his writing decays. So maybe you want to keep a book on your bedside table. TRUST me, you’re far more credible when writing clearly.

  6. I purely avoid reading fiction by other authors set in the time and place of my current WIP. Memoirs, letters, non-fiction, advice manuals – yeah, bring it on. Straight history, by the stack. I pick up on ideas – notions – characters and incidents in a very weird and random way. Something grabs me and I think “Oooooh – that will have to be in ‘the book’!” I absolutely cannot take the chance of subconsciously lifting something from another scribbler of fiction.

    One of my other odd traits is that I can ‘pick’ up a particular writing style, just by reading a lot from a certain period or author. If I load up sufficiently on Dickens, or Thackeray, I can write for pages and pages in their style. It’s like actors who have a knack for doing accents, I guess.

    On another front, I had the most fun,with revamping the “Lone Ranger” – turning the whole thing upside down, inside out, and filing off the identifying marks, racking it back to 1840s Texas and calling it Lone Star Sons.

  7. And here I’ve been getting concerned because the fantasy thing is supposed to be steam-punk flavored, and I’ve reading over bits thinking, “oh, need more railroad, not enough smoke, coal, gotta add coaldust . . .” And wondering just how to really get the magic system working properly without leaning too heavily on any of the other fantasy systems I can recall, even unintentionally.

  8. And then, for people like me, there are reviews to write, and I WILL BE JOHN BROWN if I am the 30th review and, most of my words are just laying out the facts in the story. The first 29 reviews do that. I want to talk about how the work affected me, what I saw that made me happy,about the way that Tess captures the grinding misery of the farmer’s wife in a short line mentioning the way the farmer fails to hold precious her name. I’m almost finished with this review, a special request, which will appear in my blog; and THEN….. Cedar Sanderson, writing as Lucrezia Beggarlice (something like that) presents us with a delightful allegory of those Halcyon days in NASA, before empire building tore the guts out the space program, leaving our dreams to circulate in simple harmonic motion between Jupiter and Mars. Farmhand, v 1 of the Bluehills book, I truly hope to treat with you tomorrow…

  9. Here is a question for folks. How deep do you have to go to make it “plagiarism”? The reason I ask that is because I have always admired authors that can deliver fast, hard-hitting stories. I had delusions of doing that with my first novel. Page count is currently at 350. Looks like it should finally finish around 400. So, that was an epic fail.

    So, as an experiment, I was looking over a couple of my favorite action-type novels. I have been sort of tearing them apart, on the scene-by-scene basis, to try and see if I can come up with an anatomy for action(TM). I don’t have any particular plans to do this, but if someone were to take someone else’s novel, and sort of copy the structure scene by scene, at a conceptual level, does this still rise to the level of plagiarism?

    1. Rewriting stories to make them your own version is nothing new, and very popular – so don’t worry. The key is to make your twists and your storytelling voice, and your characters’ voices yours. Ideas are not copyrighted. Tropes are tools for the writer to play with. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

      Neil Gaiman does it. So does Mercedes Lackey. David Eddings was a MASTER of this. So does Jim Butcher. Larry grabs mythological creatures from a wide range of cultures and both embraces their stereotypes, plays with them, and subverts them as the story requires. So do all the abovementioned authors.

      Sounds like you have the first draft of a novel. This is NOT a bad thing in my opinion. When writing Sparrowind, a novella-length short story, I was constantly getting feedback that it feels it should have been much longer, that there were so many stories and more expanding that it could have had – so I’m doing that now and it’s gone beyond a single novel size book, but is a series. The basic story bones involve a dragon, a princess and a prince, and a knight. Standard fantasy. If there’s nothing else that Eddings taught me, it’s that there’s nothing wrong with the Standard Fantasy Setting, but what you do with it that counts.

  10. I remember making a very specific effort as a youngish child… because I was supposed to summarize something, and I found myself using the same sentence rearranged slightly differently, and I didn’t really know there was a different way until my sister told me that was unacceptable. And just replacing the words with synonyms didn’t count, either. (Which seemed like no fair! But I loved big words…) If I wanted to prove to anyone I understood the concept, I needed to be actually able to say it differently.

    I remember it being really, really hard to do it, much less consistently. And mostly a self-directed effort. But eventually I did it…

    …and was astounded, as a result, that no one else seemed to be able to. That if you asked them to explain something, so you could see if they understood and where the holes were… they said the same thing in a different word-order.

    I realize it’s not quite the same thing you’re talking about… but it seems incredibly related.

    (…also, had I realized I was Akilika over here, I wouldn’t have been making posts as Caitlin Woods over at AtH… oy.)

    1. *waves hi to Aki* ^_^

      I’m gonna be moving over to WP for good over the next few months.

      Yeah, the thing you described as doing? A lot of people have very great difficulty in achieving, because, for a lot of them, it’s ‘absorb this, and only this’ and they’re not taught to actually THINK. They’re not taught to analyze, or express, or understand. Just soak it up like a sponge, and regurgitate on squeeze. It’s very related.

      Unfortunately for the people trying to do that, see, human beings tend to try thinking anyway.

      1. You do seem to have a good home over here. 🙂 I wish the reply-trees were easier to see on a phone once they got really big, but… I like your people, they’re good. I’ve been reading them for a while.

        (And I’m gonna try to use the short story workshop on a project I’ve got coming up, we’ll see how it works…)

        You’ve got an excellent point in the rest I agree with, to such an extent that I don’t really have a good reply (what to add?). Well-said.

Comments are closed.