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 married 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 you’re 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.