Archive | August, 2012

Is Writing Fiction From A News Story Plagiarism?

Suppose you see a news story and you think, “Wow, that would make a terrific novel!” Are you a plagiarist if you base your novel on that story?

Chloe posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have an idea for a novel that was inspired by a news story that was published a couple of years ago. The only thing I’d like to use is the plot, because in my novel the setting will be changed to some imagined future (instead of a historical event) and none of the characters in the news story will be recognizable (I will be creating my own characters).

Here are my questions:

a) Is using a plot in that manner considered plagiarism?
b) Should I be concerned about about getting into any legal trouble for using a plot I’ve read in the news?
c) Do I have to give credit to the source of my idea, and say that the novel is “inspired by real events”?

Thanks! I look forward to your reply.

Randy sez: A fascinating question. Since it’s essentially a legal question, I first have to give you the standard disclaimer that I’m not a lawyer, I am not giving legal advice, and you should consult a qualified lawyer for all legal opinions.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, on to the question. As I understand it, plagiarism is not about reusing a plot you’ve seen somewhere else. There just aren’t that many plot ideas out there. People reuse plot ideas all the time.

Plagiarism is about reusing another person’s words. If you are using somebody else’s expression of a concept, then you need to at least give them credit (if your usage falls within the “fair use” guidelines). If you want to use more than “fair use” allows, then you need to get permission. You can look up the rules online for what constitutes “fair use.”

Taking over the basic sequence of events from a news event is not plagiarism (assuming you’re not planning to use the news report verbatim, which you apparently aren’t). It may be a few other things, if you’re not careful:

  1. It might conceivably be invasion of privacy, if the news story didn’t reveal the identities of the characters, and if your presentation of the characters might reveal their true identity. But that’s not the case here.
  2. It might possibly be so close to the real events that it isn’t really fiction, it’s actually non-fiction. But that’s not the case here either.
  3. If the news story was broadcast widely enough, and if it was sensational enough, it might already be the storyline of numerous other novels and movies, in which case yours would be considered nothing new. But it sounds like this wasn’t a widely-publicized story and you’re changing the setting and characters enough that this probably isn’t an issue.

I have many novelist friends on various e-mail loops, and sometimes when there’s a bizarre story in the news, one of them will post it on a loop with the comment, “This would make a great novel.” It’s not uncommon for one of the other writers to immediately call dibs on it. Which is not actually possible, because a news story is fair game for anyone, so long as you don’t invade anyone’s privacy.

Given all that, Chloe, I’d say you’ve got nothing to worry about except the quality of your writing, which is the same thing all writers worry about. So get working on it and have fun!

You asked if you should say in your novel that it’s “inspired by real events.” It depends how closely it tracks with reality. If you intended your novel to be a novelization of a real-life story (in which case you might need to buy the rights to the story from one of the people who were in it), then it would make sense to include the tag about being inspired by real events. But if you change the characters and the setting, as you intend to do, then I don’t see any reason to draw attention to the source of your inspiration.

Bear in mind that many historical novelists write entire series of novels based on real historical events with at least some real historical characters. This has never been considered plagiarism (unless the author were to quote entire long sections from ancient historians, which would be too boring for words, because ancient historians didn’t know how modern fiction works). In this case, it’s always assumed that the story is inspired at least partly by reality. Authors rarely say so, unless the events are so unbelievable that readers might say, “No way, that could never happen!”

My own CITY OF GOD series is set in ancient Jerusalem and brings in several real characters from history, such as the apostle Paul and James the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. Like all historical novelists, I have my own vision for who these characters were. My vision is different from every other novelist’s vision, so I don’t worry much about other novelists who might use these same characters. (I hope to release this series in e-book form later this year and then add a few more books to the series.)

In RETRIBUTION, the third book in this series, I felt it necessary to explain that the most horribly shocking sequence of scenes in the novel actually happened. In the spring of AD 66, certain young Jewish rabble-rousers in Jerusalem publicly mocked Caesar and the Roman governor, Gessius Florus. The governor retaliated by sending out soldiers onto the streets of Jerusalem to arrest hundreds of innocent people and crucify them on the spot without a trial. According to the historian Josephus, who was there, Florus had about 3600 men, women, children, and even infants crucified in one day. The number is probably an exaggeration, but no historian doubts that a large number of innocent people were tortured and killed all in one day. However, this incident isn’t commonly known, and it’s so horrific that I included a note at the beginning of the novel to make it clear that this actually happened. As retribution. For an insult.

Bottom line, Chloe, is that the only reason I can think of for adding a note that your story is based on real events would be if the story is so massively unbelievable that you need to remind people that truth really is stranger than fiction.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

NASA’s Billion Dollar Thriller on Mars

Sunday night at 10:31 California time, NASA will be running a high-stakes thriller, live from Mars, with billions of dollars at stake.

There’s no room for error. The one-ton Mars rover Curiosity is traveling right now toward Mars at 13,000 miles per hour. Within a seven minute window of time, it has to come to a clean stop, exactly on the surface of Mars, at a precisely determined spot inside the Gale Crater.

How do you go from 13,000 to zero in seven minutes? It’s complicated.

The ship doesn’t carry enough fuel to slow it down, so it’s going to fly through the thin Martian atmosphere, using a heat-shield as a giant brake. At 13,000 mph, a ship flies like a brick, but it does fly — if you steer it on a needle-sharp course.

If you go in too steep, the atmosphere doesn’t bleed off enough speed and you go splat on the ground.

If you go in too shallow, you bounce off the atmosphere and skitter off into space, with no way to turn around and try again.

You must fly at exactly the right angle, letting the atmosphere bleed off your speed, using your heat shield to keep you from frying to a crisp.

But that only slows you down to 1000 mph. Seven miles above the ground, you open your parachute. The atmosphere of Mars is less than one percent the density of earth’s atmosphere, so the parachute has to be huge. Even so, it can only slow you down to about 200 mph. Still way too fast to land.

Now you release your parachute and fire off your rocket engines. You don’t have much fuel here, but you have enough to slow you down to 2 mph.

Can you land safely at 2 mph? Yes, if you happen to be inches above the planet when you reach that speed. But there’s a catch.

Those pesky rocket engines are blasting out hot gases to slow you down. If you’re a few inches above the ground, those hot gases are going to blow up a massive cloud of dust that will mess with your rover’s instruments. You can’t safely get inches away from the ground with your rockets.

Here’s where it gets crazy. You use your rocket engines to hold you steady a couple of dozen feet off the ground while you lower your rover on a cable down to the surface.

As soon as the rover touches down, you cut the cable and zoom your landing ship away to crash land somewhere safely far from the rover.

It’s never been done before. NASA has spent over $2 billion on this project, and now we get to find out if it succeeds. If everything goes right, the rover will be sending back photos and scientific data for the next decade.

And if it fails? Don’t even talk about failing. There was a mission planned in 2016, but it’s been cancelled. There was a mission planned in 2018, but that’s been cancelled too.

If the Curiosity mission fails, it’s going to be a long, long time before NASA gets the money to try again.

Here is a YouTube video, “7 Minutes of Terror,” showing how it’ll all play out:

And why spend all that money going to Mars?

It’s good science, for one thing. It’s great science, in fact. I’m a physicist, so don’t get me going on that or we’ll be here all day.

For another, the challenge of exploration always has unexpected benefits — from the 15th century exploration of the New World up to the Apollo missions to the moon that began in the 1960s.

More importantly, taking on difficult challenges gives mankind a vision. Yes, $2 billion is a lot of money. But the US government spends $2 billion every 4 hours and 52 minutes of every day. Vision is a precious commodity, and we need all we can get.

The rover Curiosity is a robot. Why send a robot? Why not send humans?

If a robotic mission fails, that’s bad but nobody dies.

With humans on board, everything changes. As Dave Akin noted many years ago, “Space is a completely unforgiving environment. If you screw up the engineering, somebody dies (and there’s no partial credit because most of the analysis was right … ).”

Someday, we should send humans to Mars. It costs more, because humans need to take life-support systems with them and they need to return home. Every life-critical system needs a backup and a fail-operational option. That adds weight, and every pound you send to Mars costs money. Every extra system costs money and adds complexity.

As my Loyal Blog Readers know, back in 2001 and 2002, my buddy John Olson and I published a couple of novels about the first human mission to Mars. We set those missions during 2014 and 2015, the earliest time-point that we could envision for a human mission to Mars. But the first novel OXYGEN actually begins on August 14, 2012 — just a couple of weeks from now.

Why 2012? Because when you’re sending humans to Mars, one of the hardest tasks is finding people with the right psychological makeup. You’re sending people on a three year mission in which they might die, they might see their friends die, or they might have to make an agonizing decision using “the calculus of suffering.”

Not everybody’s head is screwed on right for that kind of a mission. If you send the wrong people, if you make just one mistake, you could kill everybody.

Oxygen, a NovelIn our novel OXYGEN, things go horribly wrong and it’s up to the humans to make the hard choices about who gets to breathe. That is doubly hard when two of the four crew members are in love. Read more about OXYGEN on Amazon.

The Fifth ManIn the sequel THE FIFTH MAN, an unexpected hazard is waiting on Mars. NASA thought it sent a crew of four — but is it possible that a “fifth man” has come to Mars? How is that possible and what is his mission? Read more about THE FIFTH MAN on Amazon.

The virtue of sending humans to Mars is that humans are still much smarter than robots. If you have to make a split-second judgment call that weighs human values against each other or calls for imagination, then a human is still far better than a computer.

The virtue of sending a robot to Mars is that a robot doesn’t need oxygen, water, or toilet paper. Robotic brains are fast and never get tired. A robot is tough. Just don’t expect it to use imagination or make human value judgments.

Sunday night’s mission belongs to a robot named Curiosity. Good luck, Red Rover! May you arrive safely, make great discoveries, and pave the way for some of us to join you someday!

NASA’s Billion Dollar Thriller on Mars

Sunday night at 10:31 California time, NASA will be running a high-stakes thriller, live from Mars, with billions of dollars at stake.

There’s no room for error. The one-ton Mars rover Curiosity is traveling right now toward Mars at 13,000 miles per hour. Within a seven minute window of time, it has to come to a clean stop, exactly on the surface of Mars, at a precisely determined spot inside the Gale Crater.

How do you go from 13,000 to zero in seven minutes? It’s complicated.

The ship doesn’t carry enough fuel to slow it down, so it’s going to fly through the thin Martian atmosphere, using a heat-shield as a giant brake. At 13,000 mph, a ship flies like a brick, but it does fly — if you steer it on a needle-sharp course.

If you go in too steep, the atmosphere doesn’t bleed off enough speed and you go splat on the ground.

If you go in too shallow, you bounce off the atmosphere and skitter off into space, with no way to turn around and try again.

You must fly at exactly the right angle, letting the atmosphere bleed off your speed, using your heat shield to keep you from frying to a crisp.

But that only slows you down to 1000 mph. Seven miles above the ground, you open your parachute. The atmosphere of Mars is less than one percent the density of earth’s atmosphere, so the parachute has to be huge. Even so, it can only slow you down to about 200 mph. Still way too fast to land.

Now you release your parachute and fire off your rocket engines. You don’t have much fuel here, but you have enough to slow you down to 2 mph.

Can you land safely at 2 mph? Yes, if you happen to be inches above the planet when you reach that speed. But there’s a catch.

Those pesky rocket engines are blasting out hot gases to slow you down. If you’re a few inches above the ground, those hot gases are going to blow up a massive cloud of dust that will mess with your rover’s instruments. You can’t safely get inches away from the ground with your rockets.

Here’s where it gets crazy. You use your rocket engines to hold you steady a couple of dozen feet off the ground while you lower your rover on a cable down to the surface.

As soon as the rover touches down, you cut the cable and zoom your landing ship away to crash land somewhere safely far from the rover.

It’s never been done before. NASA has spent over $2 billion on this project, and now we get to find out if it succeeds. If everything goes right, the rover will be sending back photos and scientific data for the next decade.

And if it fails? Don’t even talk about failing. There was a mission planned in 2016, but it’s been cancelled. There was a mission planned in 2018, but that’s been cancelled too.

If the Curiosity mission fails, it’s going to be a long, long time before NASA gets the money to try again.

Here is a YouTube video, “7 Minutes of Terror,” showing how it’ll all play out:

And why spend all that money going to Mars?

It’s good science, for one thing. It’s great science, in fact. I’m a physicist, so don’t get me going on that or we’ll be here all day.

For another, the challenge of exploration always has unexpected benefits — from the 15th century exploration of the New World up to the Apollo missions to the moon that began in the 1960s.

More importantly, taking on difficult challenges gives mankind a vision. Yes, $2 billion is a lot of money. But the US government spends $2 billion every 4 hours and 52 minutes of every day. Vision is a precious commodity, and we need all we can get.

The rover Curiosity is a robot. Why send a robot? Why not send humans?

If a robotic mission fails, that’s bad but nobody dies.

With humans on board, everything changes. As Dave Akin noted many years ago, “Space is a completely unforgiving environment. If you screw up the engineering, somebody dies (and there’s no partial credit because most of the analysis was right … ).”

Someday, we should send humans to Mars. It costs more, because humans need to take life-support systems with them and they need to return home. Every life-critical system needs a backup and a fail-operational option. That adds weight, and every pound you send to Mars costs money. Every extra system costs money and adds complexity.

As my Loyal Blog Readers know, back in 2001 and 2002, my buddy John Olson and I published a couple of novels about the first human mission to Mars. We set those missions during 2014 and 2015, the earliest time-point that we could envision for a human mission to Mars. But the first novel OXYGEN actually begins on August 14, 2012 — just a couple of weeks from now.

Why 2012? Because when you’re sending humans to Mars, one of the hardest tasks is finding people with the right psychological makeup. You’re sending people on a three year mission in which they might die, they might see their friends die, or they might have to make an agonizing decision using “the calculus of suffering.”

Not everybody’s head is screwed on right for that kind of a mission. If you send the wrong people, if you make just one mistake, you could kill everybody.

Oxygen, a NovelIn our novel OXYGEN, things go horribly wrong and it’s up to the humans to make the hard choices about who gets to breathe. That is doubly hard when two of the four crew members are in love. Read more about OXYGEN on Amazon.

The Fifth Man, Writers Journey EditionIn the sequel THE FIFTH MAN, an unexpected hazard is waiting on Mars. NASA thought it sent a crew of four — but is it possible that a “fifth man” has come to Mars? How is that possible and what is his mission? Read more about THE FIFTH MAN on Amazon.

The virtue of sending humans to Mars is that humans are still much smarter than robots. If you have to make a split-second judgment call that weighs human values against each other or calls for imagination, then a human is still far better than a computer.

The virtue of sending a robot to Mars is that a robot doesn’t need oxygen, water, or toilet paper. Robotic brains are fast and never get tired. A robot is tough. Just don’t expect it to use imagination or make human value judgments.

Sunday night’s mission belongs to a robot named Curiosity. Good luck, Red Rover! May you arrive safely, make great discoveries, and pave the way for some of us to join you someday!

Self-Editing For Self-Published Fiction

How do you go about editing your self-published novel? Are there some steps you can take to make sure your fiction is ready to go before you push the button to upload to the online retailers?

David posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I saw your blog about knowing when your book is finished, and you seemed to gear your response towards those who are seeking to be published via the traditional route. But for those of us that are considering the self-pub route, how would you recommend we decide when our book is finished and ready for publishing?

Randy sez: Good question, David! As recently as three years ago, most professional authors felt that self-publishing didn’t make good financial success. (That was the advice I gave in my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES. It was good advice at the time, but things have changed radically in three years.)

Today it can make all kinds of financial sense to self-publish a novel in e-book format, with one caveat.

A self-published novel should be just as well-written and well-edited as a traditionally-published novel.

There are actually two issues in your question, David. First, you have to decide if your level of craft is good enough to justify publishing anything yet. Second, you have to decide if the actual book you’ve written is ready to be published. Both of them have the same solution:

You need a second opinion from a qualified editor. I need to expand on this, because there are at least four major steps in editing a novel: the “macro edit”, the copy edit, the line-edit, and the proofreading.

I’m not saying that you need somebody to do the copyediting, line-editing, and proofreading. You might well be able to do these yourself. Some authors do these tasks for a living and many authors are competent to do them. (Some authors are incompetent in one of these areas, and if that’s you, then you know it and you should hire somebody to do these jobs.)

There’s one task no author is qualified to do. You can’t objectively do a “macro edit” on your own work. You’re too close to it. You are always going to see your novel subjectively. You need a qualified editor to read your novel and tell you whether the story is working–the concept, the story structure, the characters, the theme, the voice.

Here’s the procedure I’m using for a couple of novels that I’m working on which I plan to self-publish:

  1. Write the first draft.
  2. Pay a professional freelance editor to do a macro edit and produce an analysis of the story.
  3. Revise the manuscript, either following the advice of my editor or (on careful consideration) rejecting that advice.
  4. Copy edit, line-edit, and proofread the novel.
  5. Hire a graphic designer to do the cover art.
  6. Prepare the novel in the standard e-book formats. (To do this, I style the manuscript in Microsoft Word, export it to HTML, clean up Microsoft’s horrible HTML using my own custom software, and package the HTML in epub and Kindle formats using the free software Calibre.)
  7. Upload to the online retailers–Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, and the Apple store. Smashwords is also a distributor and they take care of getting my work into other online retailers, such as Kobo, Diesel, etc. Note that Smashwords does its own e-book conversion direct from Microsoft Word format, which is handy and can produce quite good results but you have to create the Table of Contents manually, which is a hassle.

Most of these steps are obvious ones that anybody would take, with the exception of Step 2. Amateurs don’t get their work macro edited. Professionals do.

And where do you get this magical macro editor?

You may get good results by having a writer friend do your macro edits. Some writers are brilliant analysts and can produce an excellent report for you, detailing the issues you have in your concept, your structure, your characters, your theme, your voice, and so on. But some writers are terrible at this, so don’t trust your macro edit to just anybody.

A good macro editor doesn’t have to be a writer. She doesn’t even have to be a professional in the industry. She just needs to get your writing, know how to tell you what’s right with your fiction, and know how to tell you what’s wrong. Each of those points is important.

Your editor must get your writing. I once had a professional editor at a major publisher who didn’t get my novel. He hated it, in fact. Thought it was drivel. (Another editor at that same publisher thought it was my best stuff ever, and other editors who’ve seen it agree. But this one editor just didn’t like it.) Fortunately, the project crashed and burned and neither I nor the editor had to suffer the injustice of him editing my work.

Your editor must know how to tell you what you’re doing right. She is going to give you a report detailing all the things wrong with your novel. If she doesn’t also point out the many things right with it, then she’s going to crush your ego and possibly kill your novel. Don’t let this happen. Make it clear that you desperately need to know what’s good in your work.

Your editor must know how to explain what’s wrong. She needs to be sensitive here, but firm. She does not need to know how to fix the problem. Fixing your fiction is your job. Pointing out what needs to be fixed is your editor’s problem. She may point out that your craft simply isn’t at a publishable level yet. If so, then get a third opinion to confirm that. If your craft really isn’t there yet, then go get some more training (that’s what this web site is for) and then rewrite your novel and have your macro editor look at it again.

Every writer is different. Every editor is different. When you find an editor who gets your work and who can distinguish the good from the bad in your work, hang on to her forever, because she’ll be gold for you. If an editor fails in any of these areas, never use her again. She may be great for somebody else, but if she’s not right for you, then that’s a showstopper.

A macro edit will generally cost you. If you’re very lucky, you might have a friend who will do it for free. Typically, it’s going to cost hundreds of dollars and sometimes as much as a few thousand dollars for a high-end professional editor. You don’t always get what you pay for, so be wary here.

I don’t do macro edits myself, so please nobody ask me for my rates. When I need macro editing, I work with Meredith Efken at FictionFixitShop.com. She gets what I’m trying to do with my fiction and she knows how to tell me what’s good and what’s bad. She may or may not be the right editor for you, but there are plenty of other fish in the sea.

As I noted above, after you make revisions in response to the report of your macro editor, you still need to copy edit, line-edit, and proofread your work. These are mechanical tasks that you can do yourself or hire out. It’s up to you.

When those tasks are done, you’re ready for cover art, file conversion, and uploading.

Don’t try to make it too complicated by spending forever on the editing.

Don’t try to make it too simple by skipping the macro edit stage.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.