Monday, November 06, 2006

What To Do About A Thieving Critique Partner

Here's a question I haven't addressed on this blog before. I got an email yesterday from a writer asking what to do about a critique partner who keeps stealing material.

This is actually more common than you might think. Sometimes critique partners can't help picking up things subconsciously. I once had an idea for a story. I was really excited about the plot and immediately sat down to begin writing. Without hesitation, I named my hero and heroine Jacob and Mandy. The names just seemed perfect together.

I wrote ten or fifteen pages at one sitting. Still excited, I shot the story off to one of my online CPs. In short order, I got an email back, saying she liked everything but the name of my H/H. Taken aback, I asked why. She responded, "Because those are the names of the hero and heroine in my last book."

No wonder the names sounded so good together. I'd read them for months while critiquing her chapters. I was mortified, but my CP just laughed. I changed the names, and we moved on.

Additional note: When I emailed her to ask the characters' names tonight, she reminded me that SHE also stole the name Warrick from me on another occasion. When she realized it, she immediately changed the name.

Another of my CPs told me she's become much more comfortable writing "sexy scenes" since she began critiquing my work. I told her that I'd become more comfortable inserting humor in my scenes because of her deft touch with comedy. This is another example of the kind of osmosis that happens between critique partners. When you work together intensely for long periods, it's natural for your styles to be influenced by each other. Again, this is nothing to worry about.

The key is to be willing to talk about it. Had my first CP decided to harbor a grudge instead of telling me I'd stolen the names, we could have had a problem. Instead, with the issue in the open, we were able to resolve it.

This kind of thing was NOT what the writer who emailed me yesterday was talking about. In her case, her CP (in an in-person group) began to write a book whose plotline (including several of the plot twists) closely mirrored one the writer had finished and been querying for some months.

The thing is, you cannot copyright an idea. And that includes ideas for plots or scenes--as two different sets of plaintiffs found out when they tried to sue Dan Brown for "stealing" the plotline for The DaVinci Code. In fact, there's a joke among writers that there are only twelve original plotlines out there. To support this, how many times have you read Romeo and Juliet in one form or another? Or Cinderella? Or Beauty and the Beast?

Having said all that, after I read several emails from the writer whose email prompted this blog, I have to admit that I'd have been uncomfortable with the situation she was describing, too. To begin with, this was not the first time this particular CP had been accused of stealing--another of the writers in their circle had complained previously about the same sort of thing. Instead of responding the way one would if the poaching was not deliberate, the CP simply brushed off the complaint. The writer who had first brought it up dropped out of the group shortly afterward.

I asked my correspondent if she would be comfortable bringing the subject up again in the group with specific examples of what she was talking about. She said she'd have to think about it. I replied that, as I saw it, she had four choices: (1) She could confront her CP in private; (2) She could confront her CP in the group; (3) She could drop out of the group herself; or (4) She could suck it up and say nothing. None are ideal. However, before I'd drop out of a group myself, I'd make sure I put the issue on the table.

There was an article in the New York Times on November 5th about Neil Gaiman's newest novel, Fragile Things. In reading it, I was struck by this line: "[A]s he recounts the origins of each work in the book, it becomes clear that just about everything Gaiman comes into contact with inspires him to write: the invitation of a friend or editor will usually do the trick, but so will a Tori Amos album, a Frank Frazetta painting, the screenplay for 'The Matrix' or a photograph of a sock monkey."

Not all writers are as creative as Gaiman. Some are what I'd call journeymen: competent, but just not imaginative. Give them a plot, and they can turn out a perfectly serviceable manuscript--not brilliant, not inventive, just viable. But they're incapable of coming up with a truly unique and exciting plot on their own. They borrow plots from other published writers or wherever they can find something usable.

Time and again on this blog, I've cautioned writers to cherish their CPs and to treat them like the treasures they are. I can think of no single thing more important to your success than to develop trustworthy, capable CPs.

The only comfort I can offer my email correspondent is that, if her CP continues to react the way she did the first time the problem was brought to her attention, she'll eventually find no one willing to let her read their manuscripts, which will, of course, lead to no one being willing to read HER manuscripts. And, that's a really bad place for a writer to find herself.

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