Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Writing a Thriller: Recent Plagiarism scandal shows just how difficult it is

by Jamie Freveletti

By now many have read about the most recent plagiarism scandal involving Assassin of Secrets, a spy novel that received high praise and launched a couple of weeks ago. Since the launch, it's been discovered that the author lifted entire passages from over thirteen spy novels, including those written by such famous authors as Robert Ludlum and Bond author Raymond Benson, (a lovely and multi-talented man who lives here in the Chicago area). When asked why he did it, the author mentions (I'm paraphrasing here) that after he sold the book to Little Brown he received extensive edits from his publisher that amounted to a nearly entire rewrite of the manuscript. Upon receiving the edits he realized that: 1. that he had to create these edits in record time and 2. began to have serious doubts about whether he could create something compelling enough to satisfy the house. 

 Welcome to the world of thriller writing. 

In fact, welcome to the world of writing in general. If you're a writer and reading this then you know just how difficult it is to create a scene that holds together and drives the story forward. In thriller writing that scene may also include action sequences, which I love to write but have their own rhythm and can fall flat if not done just right. 

If you're a reader then you know, too, because a thriller requires a certain type of pacing and detail that is the mark of an interesting read. Readers know what a thriller feels like and they aren't confused about the work that goes into creating such a novel. I know this, because before I became a writer I was-and am- an avid reader. I'd read a book by one of my favorites and think about how tough it must have been to write over three hundred pages that kept me so enthralled. I never took books or authors for granted. 

Writing is a struggle enough when not under deadline, but when under deadline or when asked to rewrite passages a writer can freeze. I remember the joy of writing my first before I sold it. It was just me and the story late at night when the city was quiet and I allowed my imagination to fly. After Running from the Devil was sold I, too, like every other author, received a list of suggested edits from my editor and a few short weeks to create them. Panic, especially if you are doing it for the first time, as I was, can set in. You think, "I just wrote this and now I have to write it again?" Some authors have confided to me their anger at having their scenes gutted or questioned by the editor. They spent months writing them only to find them marked out and left on the cutting room floor. 

From the first time it happened to me I remember looking at the list of edits and taking a deep breath. I knew intellectually that they would probably make the book better, but I was frightened that I would not be able to produce on a regular basis. Yet, once the book is sold that's what you are asked to do. So I created a mantra for myself and it goes like this: 

You're a writer. That's what you do. You should be able to rewrite this scene a hundred times and make it interesting. So let's go. 

If you're writing your first and haven't sold yet you are in that wonderful place where it's just you and your imagination. Enjoy it! When you do sell it will still be magical, but the reality of other expectations will crowd into the room and stand at your back as you write. Don't worry, it's not all pressure; they'll applaud, too.

And when I looked at the list of thriller writers that were plagiarized it makes me want to go out and read their novels. They're all good, but because Raymond Benson is a Chicago based author and this is a Chicago blog I suggest that you start with his latest, The Black Stiletto.














22 comments:

Kelly Robinson said...

This article makes it sound like he only started plagiarizing in the editing phase. In Markham's interview with the Guardian he says he started swiping stuff at the age of 20, because he didn't trust his own voice.

He DOES say that it got even more out of hand when edits were requested, because he was having to patch things into what was already a patchwork of other authors' work.

Well before the edits, though, he was this: "Sitting at his kitchen table with the books spread out in front of him, he typed them up word for word, looking for passages which would fit the plot he had dreamed up.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Hi Kelly! I agree and thanks for pointing out that he said he'd been doing this for a while in other mediums as well. What I couldn't discern is how much the original manuscript that was sold differed from the final product, especially in light of the comment that it escalated quite a bit after edits.

It's not a pretty story, that's for sure! My piece here is not intended to offer excuses for the author, but to give some measure of comfort to others who may receive edits and be overwhelmed. That it's normal to receive them and normal to be scared and just work through it. Thanks for commenting

M.E. Anders said...

Never happy to hear about the demise of any author, but plagiarism is intolerable. This issue has become quite the stink, but it's a reminder to us all. Our craft should be honed through practice, not through someone else's words.

Allison Davis said...

Jamie, thanks for the thought that I'm in a stage of nirvana to get me through the th final draft of this book. It helps to know I should be enjoying this. (Especially from another lawyer, this is damn hard to juggle both lives).

What numbskull plagerizes entire passages? He should have stuck to poetry.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Allison--the juggle is always a challenge, isn't it? And, yep, enjoy the moment--it's like your first kiss-it never happens again!

Enjoy!

Kelly Robinson said...

Jamie--Thanks for your clarifications! (Glad you could figure out what I was even saying with all my typos. Oops.)

One think I do think is refreshing is the extent to which he has copped to it --not only admitting it, but confessing to having done it for a long time.

There have been other authors caught plagiarizing who swear it was accidental, or blame bad record keeping and note taking.

He didn't have to admit as much as he did. I actually have some respect for that.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Hi Kelly! I agree-he didn't do the "fake apology" that we hear these days, did he? And few excuses. Guess he realized the gig was up. And I love that some sharp-eyed Bond readers caught it. Never underestimate the avid reader. We've got a LOT of fiction stored up in our brains!

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