Plagiarism is not the highest form of flattery

Whenever I see my cousin’s new wife, my favorite this to talk to her about is Cassandra Clare. Neither of us can stand her. My favorite complaint about her is that in one of her awful books, Hermione Clary or whatever her name is has a pin that says “still not king” or “I’m the prettiest” or some other allusion to Clare’s own work! Admittedly, The Very Secret Diaries are funny, but alluding to your own work is pretty pretentious, imho. My cousin’s favorite gripe is laptopgate.

Our petty grumblings aside: plagiarism, what the fuck? That shit’s not cool. As it relates to Ms. Clare, the short of it is that she became a pariah (or not) in the Harry Potter fan community for copying down parts of a novel she liked in a notebook then typing it into her computer as part of her fanfiction and pretending that she had no idea.

I admit it: a million years ago, I wrote slash. I wasn’t so big in the fan community, but I enjoyed the people I met and the little bit of fanfiction I wrote and read. But apparently, and I had no idea this was going on at the time, it was cool with fanfic writers to put bits of dialogue from media they liked (Buffy or Angel, for example) into their stories. And this was ok. It wasn’t plagiarism. It was borrowing. Or something. Unless you did it too much or didn’t properly attribute your borrowed dialogue.

I think that shit’s not cool. I wouldn’t call it plagiarism, not if you’re giving credit, but what’s the point? Maybe it stems from the idea that if people recognize your words they will subconsciously like it more, which makes it not a far cry from fanfic in a way. Or maybe it’s just lazy writing. I couldn’t think of anything clever to have my characters to say, so they’ll just say what Anya said on Buffy last night. Or I couldn’t think of a plot, so my plot will center around that line in that Monty Python sketch. Or I can’t think of what slogan to put on a piece of flair, so I’ll break out something I wrote a million years ago that people thought was funny.

Then I realized, oh crap, I may have done it too. If I did it, it was completely subconscious. Which means, maybe I was judging people too harshly (though it’s hard to accidentally quote yourself).

In my story, one of my minor characters goes through great lengths to sleep with another character. Rationalizing it to himself, he said “the things I do for a fuck.” Several drafts later, I realized it was way to close to “the things I do for love,” what Jaime says before he tosses Bran out the window in Game of Thrones (which I read when I was high on Vicodin so don’t even remember very well). I deleted it.

Another character wants to learn more about being a werewolf, but no knowing how to research this, he goes online. My cynical main character says that online, he should only expect to find “self-mutilated parodies of nature.” I loved this and thought it was hilarious. But it was unfortunately from the computer game Sam and Max Hit the Road. I changed it to side-show freaks as soon as I realized it.

When my main character learns she’s a werewolf, at the big reveal the guy who explains things to her says “There is such a thing as werewolves, Ms. Black.” And today I’m wondering it this is too close to “You best start believing in ghost stories Miss Turner. You’re in one!” from Pirates of the Caribbean. I loved Pirates of the Caribbean, but I didn’t purposefully take this line. I don’t think that makes it any better that it was done subconsciously, but I think, if the line is too close, I have a duty to take it out.

All that being said, much later in my book, my werewolves are trying to break down a door and I describe them as “huffing and puffing and trying to blow a door in.” This is very obviously from The Three Little Pigs and was completely intentional. Also, when describing werewolf eyes, I wrote “better to see you with, my dear.” So I’m guilty. I did the same thing. I borrowed a line from culture and put it in my work. But in my defense, there is no way people will think those were my own words (at least, no one should). It’s a much more overt allusion. I’m doing it to draw attention to the older story, not trying to hide it. It’s also in the public domain. Are these just rationalizations, or is there really a difference between alluding to a fairy tale or ancient story and using a bit of dialogue from prime time television?

About emmawolf

I'm a freelance writer living in Baltimore with my husband, son, and two cats. I'm working on editing my first novel. I love reading, traveling, and the cello.
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16 Responses to Plagiarism is not the highest form of flattery

  1. Muriel says:

    I’m not sure I understand you correctly, but from my point of view, your position seems quite extreme. I mean,
    “There is such a thing as werewolves, Ms. Black.”
    “You best start believing in ghost stories Miss Turner. You’re in one!”
    are you kidding me? How is that even similar, let alone plagiarism? I don’t get it.
    Concerning the broader point: I think if you’re obviously alluding to something else, be it your own or someone else’s work, and expect people to get it, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that. It can be badly executed or senseless, then it’s bad writing, but it’s not a bad thing in and of itself.
    Stephen King alludes to his own work all the time and while I realise there are people who hate this, I personally enjoy it very much.
    The line between stealing and using someone else’s work in a legitimate manner ist sometimes very thin and difficult to see, but there’s no way anyone can write anything without using what other people wrote, so we have to draw it somewhere and hope we do it right.

    • Muriel says:

      Oh and while I’m at it:
      “Rationalizing it to himself, he said “the things I do for a fuck.” Several drafts later, I realized it was way to close to “the things I do for love,” what Jaime says before he tosses Bran out the window in Game of Thrones (which I read when I was high on Vicodin so don’t even remember very well). I deleted it.”
      I don’t see that problem, either.
      It’s a figure of speech, for god’s sake. People say stuff like that all the time. It’s like refusing to use “Good morning!” in my stories because I heard the characters in “Mad Men” say it.
      Or am I mistaken because I’m not a native speaker? Is “The things I do for…” not a common saying in English?
      I hope my comments do not come across too aggressive. I’m not. I’m mostly confused.

      • emmawolf says:

        Common, but not so common that I feel comfortable using a very memorable line in the series in a way with similar meaning.

        • emmawolf says:

          I didn’t mean that to come off as so enigmatic. Yes, it is common. But it is not so common that I would fell totally comfortable using it, given how memorable it was in Game of Thrones and given how little it’s differing.

        • Muriel says:

          Alright. I guess I can relate to that. For me, the main thing is the overall result. If there’s a line that reminds me of something else, I don’t mind as long as it’s done well, but of course, if someone just steals the same idea from someone and expects me to applaud him for it, that’s just stupid. If you can make something good and new from older stuff, I say go ahead, use it.

          • emmawolf says:

            I’m beta reading something for someone and just a few minutes ago I came across two things. The first was one character said to another “take me to bed or lose me forever.” And the second a few pages later, the character said “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

            I feel like I have no problem with the second one. It’s obviously a reference to the Wizard of Oz, in part because this book I’m reading doesn’t take place in Kansas. But the first, it’s not obvious it’s from Top Gun, so I feel like I have an issue with it (maybe).

            I think for me, when I referenced Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs, the references were pretty obvious and that was why I thought it was ok. My werewolves weren’t really huffing and puffing, so I was clearly using a literary device or two. But with the others I did, they weren’t so obvious from somewhere else. So I was borrowing more than alluding. Does that make any sense or am I just rationalizing?

          • Muriel says:

            Makes perfect sense.
            I think along those lines sometimes, too. I often hear or read things I like, and later on, I’m tempted to use them, and of course I have doubts if it is okay or I’m just stealing.
            By the way: I’m really looking forward to seeing your book on Amazon, or somewhere, because it sounds mighty interesting.

          • Muriel says:

            Yes, same here. It’s taking shape, though, and I hope to publish it before May. I didn’t know booksnobbery until now, but I’ll give it a try.
            I might need an English-speaking editor sooner or later.

          • emmawolf says:

            She might only be doing it for me because she’s my bestie, but her blog is worth reading. And if you are interested, I did recently come across someone else who does freelance editing for non-besties. She betaed a few chapters of my book and provided me with great feedback (though she and I did have a disagreement about commas). I would probably be hiring her if I didn’t have sj (booksnobbery).

          • Muriel says:

            The contact might be useful, in case the promising friendship between booksnobbery and me might not develop fast enough towards besty status.

          • emmawolf says:


            That’s her website. Aside from disagreements regarding commas, I thought she was excellent.

          • Muriel says:

            Oh, and should you ever find yourself in need of a German editor, I know a very good one who reminds me of my grandmother, except she’s very kind and likable.

          • Muriel says:

            Hm. Danielle’s taste in books seems a little … questionable.
            On the other hand, the whole point was that she doesn’t have to become my bff to edit my work, so I guess that’s alright.

    • emmawolf says:

      For my last example, when I realized this, I couldn’t remember the words of the movie, but the feeling seemed very much the same. When I looked it up online while writing this, I was glad that they were so different. But I couldn’t unsee what I already saw.

      I don’t read a lot of Stephen King, so I don’t know what he does. But I remember reading Gerald’s Game and he referenced another book (Dolores Claiborne, I think) but it was in a very obvious way that made me as a reader think that these two books are part of the same world. I actually really liked that and it made me want to read more. But with the Clare thing, it was more of a nod to fans and it just came across as obnoxious. She wasn’t placing Clary in the world of The Very Secret Diaries, she was trying to get more mileage out of her old story. I don’t think I feel this way just because I don’t like Clare.

      Thanks for your input. You’re helping me draw my own line.

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