Lyn Gala

One writer's journal through one version of reality

How to Plagiarize

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Pulled to publish fanfiction. A dozen different books that feature a bazillionaire with sex issues falling for the innocent virgin.  Plagiarism.

These are the key words that are designed to make reviewers’ hearts skip a beat.  They rail.  They pound the keyboards in fury.

What is an author to do?  Simple.  Plagiarize well.  Yep.  You need to know your plagiarism rules.

Rule 1: Setting

If you’re ripping off something (your work or someone else’s), change the setting.  No, that does not mean go from Washington State University Vancouver to University of Oregon.  It means you change the whole reality.  You move from contemporary to science fiction, from fantasy to historical.  You really get off your ass and move that entire reality.

Let’s look at a confrontation from my fanfic “Butterfly Kisses” where Xander learns that his former mentor nearly got him killed while plotting to kill their former enemy turned ally and lover—Spike.

“Honey, we’re home,” Xander called as he walked in the door, bellowing like a sitcom father.

“Xander. Oh thank god,” Giles said. Giles’ smile vanished when Spike followed.

“Evening,” Spike said, narrowing his eyes in warning. He wanted to kill, and Rupert needed to understand that the soul wouldn’t stop Spike—not when he faced an enemy. As far as Spike was concerned, putting Rupert down would be a favor to Buffy and Xander.

“Spike.” Giles’ voice was utterly devoid of emotion.

“Funny thing happened on the way to the forums,” Xander said with a mock cheerfulness that reminded Spike eerily of Angelus, “and now it’s time for all the little Watchers to get the hell out of my house.”

“What?” Willow had been sitting in Spike’s chair, a huge book in her lap, but now her head snapped up like a poppet’s.

Being fanfic, this is set in the world of slayers and vampires and watchers created by Joss Whedon. I really can’t copy that setting. So how about turning this into a hard-core science fiction?

There are no slayers, so to give Buffy’s character authority and leadership responsibility, we can have her be the captain.  Giles, her former mentor, can then be a retired captain she served under for years before having to ask for his help. And the reference to Angelus won’t work, because the setting has changed, so we’ll have to be more explicit there. That could work. So, let’s run the text through that filter.

“Honey, we’re home,” Xander called as he stepped up the ramp into the loading bay proper.  He bellowed the words like some sort of sitcom father from those old vids from Earth.

“Xander. Oh thank god,” Captain Giles said. His smile vanished when Spike followed.

“Evening,” Spike said, narrowing his eyes in warning. He wanted to kill, and the captain needed to understand that the fear of getting arrested wouldn’t stop Spike—not when he faced an enemy. As far as Spike was concerned, putting Rupert down would be a favor to Buffy and Xander.

“Spike.” The captain’s voice was utterly devoid of emotion.

“Funny thing happened on the way to the forums,” Xander said with a mock cheerfulness that reminded Spike eerily of his old captain when he’d run with the pirates.  That man had seen a good disemboweling as art, and right now, Spike was starting to think that Xander might have that same violence in him. “Now it’s time for all the little ex-Captains to get the hell off of my ship.”

“What?” Willow had been entering data onto the deck console, but now her head snapped up like a poppet’s.

Rule 2: Characterization

Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s starting to feel a little better, but it’s still nowhere near acceptable because the characters are still clearly fanfic characters, especially Xander.  That inappropriate humor is totally Xander, and I need to give my original story original characters.

Okay, so my Xander is going to be a little darker, edgier and a man of fewer words.

But wait.  If he’s all danger-boy, then why would he need to make an alliance with a dangerous ex-pirate Spike?  Why would Giles be surprised that Xander survived?  Okay, this changing personality thing is harder than it looks.

Right then, what if Xander is a bookish sort, sick from childhood with lungs still prone to pneumonia?  The rest of the crew are family, and they’ve sheltered him, and only Spike—the newest on the ship—notices that Xander has a coldly dangerous mind.  Okay, that fits.  Let’s run that through.

“We’re back,” Xander called as he stepped up the ramp into the loading bay proper.  His voice rasped, but given their recent adventures, it was hardly surprising. At least he’d gotten control of the coughing that had racked him earlier.

“Xander. Oh thank god,” Captain Giles said. His smile vanished when Spike followed.

“Evening,” Spike said, narrowing his eyes in warning. He wanted to kill, and the captain needed to understand that the fear of getting arrested wouldn’t stop Spike—not when he faced an enemy. As far as Spike was concerned, putting Rupert down would be a favor to Buffy and Xander.

“Spike.” The captain’s voice was utterly devoid of emotion.

“You won’t guess who we ran into on dock,” Xander said with a mock cheerfulness that reminded Spike eerily of his old captain when he’d run with the pirates.  That man had seen a good disemboweling as art, and right now, Spike was starting to think that Xander might have that same violence in him. “Now it’s time for certain ex-Captains to get the hell off of my ship.”

“What?” Willow had been entering data onto the deck console, but now her head snapped up like a poppet’s.

Better, but not okay. Spike still sounds awfully Spike-like.  Okay, so we know he’s a pirate, right?  Well, ex-pirate.  He’s a bad guy turned good guy who still has a lot of the bad going for him, but if he was a space pirate and all-around bad-ass, when did he have time to learn words like “poppet”?  Yeah. Never.  So, through another filter we go, this time for Spike.

“All clear,” Spike said, narrowing his eyes in warning. He wanted to put a blaster in this asshole’s gut and pull the trigger.  He desperately wanted to see flesh rip and burn as Giles’ collapsed with his hands clutching at his stomach.  And the captain needed to understand that the fear of getting arrested wouldn’t stop Spike—not when he faced an enemy. As far as Spike was concerned, blasting a hole in Rupert Giles would be a favor to Xander and Captain Summers.

“Spike.” The captain’s voice was utterly devoid of emotion.

“You won’t guess who we ran into on dock,” Xander said with a mock cheerfulness that reminded Spike eerily of his old captain when he’d run with the pirates.  That man had seen a good disemboweling as art, and right now, Spike was starting to think that Xander might have that same violence in him.

“Now it’s time for certain ex-Captains to get the hell off of my ship.”

“What?” Willow had been entering data onto the deck console, but now her head came up like a gun turret snapping into position.

Whoo hoo.  Okay, that sounds good.  But wait.  Xander and Buffy Summers and Spike and Giles?  Yeah, the names have got to go.

“We’re back,” Hill called as he stepped up the ramp into the loading bay proper.  His voice rasped, but given their recent adventures, it was hardly surprising. At least he’d gotten control of the coughing that had racked him earlier.

“Hill. Oh thank god,” Captain Courvier said. His smile vanished when Mueller followed.

“All clear,” Mueller said, narrowing his eyes in warning. He wanted to put a blaster in this asshole’s gut and pull the trigger.  He desperately wanted to see flesh rip and burn as Courvier collapsed with his hands clutching at his stomach.  And the captain needed to understand that the fear of getting arrested wouldn’t stop Muller—not when he faced an enemy. As far as Muller was concerned, blasting a hole in Rupert Giles would be a favor to Hill and Captain Bolton.

“Muller.” Courvier’s voice was utterly devoid of emotion.

“You won’t guess who we ran into on dock,” Hill said with a mock cheerfulness that reminded Muller eerily of his old captain when he’d run with the pirates.  That man had seen a good disemboweling as art, and right now, Muller was starting to think that quiet, bookish little Hill might have that same violence in him. Hill smiled maliciously as he delivered his next line.

“Now it’s time for certain ex-Captains to get the hell off of my ship.”

“What?” Della had been entering data onto the deck console, but now her head came up like a gun turret snapping into position.

Rule 3: Plot

The plot has to be changed enough to fit this new setting and new characterization.  If you change it enough to do that, trust me, you will change it enough that no one will catch you copying.  Right then, if we’re in space, the big bad is clearly not the First.  And honestly, I’m bored with the all-controlling government as the big bad.

So, let’s make the big bad a mining conglomerate called the Viking Company that is trying to monopolize the jump gates.  Hill and his Captain Shelly Bolton are a small family ship trying to fight back when the company goes from lawsuits (which they lose) to hiring pirates to drive off the other ships.

Muller comes into the plot when he jumps from pirating to the Bolton family ship to try and save his sister.  His sister doesn’t appreciate his attempts to get her out of the path of danger, and she tells him to fuck off before shooting him in the leg, leaving Muller to either crew up with the Boltons or get spaced when his old enemies catch up with him. That seems at least as believable as the subplot with Drusilla, and no, we’re not even going to discuss the damn chip.

Okay, this has some possibility.

“We’re back,” Hill called as he stepped up the ramp into the loading bay proper.  His voice rasped, but given their recent adventures, it was hardly surprising. At least he’d gotten control of the coughing that had racked him earlier.

“Hill. Oh thank god,” Captain Courvier said. His smile vanished when Mueller followed.

“All clear,” Mueller said as he scanned the deck behind them for danger. It wasn’t like the Viking Company to give up on an opportunity to sabotage a ship, particularly the Bolton’s Highflyer. It made Muller wonder what fee Courvair had gotten in return for trying to betray him to his old crew. On pirate ships, he would have expected betrayal, but being on the Highflyer was making him soft because it fucking hurt to think that this asshole had tried to sell him out.

He wanted to put a blaster in this asshole’s gut and pull the trigger.  He desperately wanted to see flesh rip and burn as Courvier collapsed with his hands clutching at his stomach.  And Courvair needed to understand that the fear of getting arrested or of getting tortured by his old crew wouldn’t stop Muller. As far as Muller was concerned, blasting a hole in Daniel Courvier would be a favor to Hill and Captain Bolton.

“Muller.” Courvier’s voice was utterly devoid of emotion.

“You won’t guess who we ran into on dock,” Hill said with a mock cheerfulness that reminded Muller eerily of his old captain.  That man had seen a good disemboweling as art, and right now, Muller was starting to think that quiet, bookish little Hill might have that same violence in him. Hill smiled maliciously as he delivered his next line.

“Now it’s time for certain ex-Captains to get the hell off of my ship.”

“What?” Della had been entering data onto the deck console, but now her head came up like a gun turret snapping into position.

Rule Four: Erase the fingerprints

So, what do you think? Have I successfully plagiarized?  How much of the original text is still there?  You need to shove the original and your new version into something like textdiff.com and see what you are dragging with you.  You need to check for fingerprints, meaning phrases longer than three or four words that might betray you to those pesky plagiarism checkers and rabid reviewers with their keyboard pounding.

called as he  …  the  …  oh thank god  …  said  …  smile vanished when  …  followed  …  his  …  wanted to  …  and  …  needed to understand that the  …  as far as  …  was concerned  …  would be a favor to  …  and  …  voice was utterly devoid of emotion  …  said with a mock cheerfulness that reminded  …  it’s time for  …  to get the hell   …  of my  …  what?  …  had been  …  but now her head  …  up like a  … 

Oh my. I have some phrases to change.  Let me try this again.

“We’re back,” Hill called as he stepped up the ramp into the loading bay proper.  His voice rasped, but given their recent adventures, it was hardly surprising. At least he’d gotten control of the coughing that had racked him earlier.

“Hill. Thank the merciful gods of merchants,” Captain Courvier said. His smile faded when Mueller followed.

“All clear,” Mueller said as he scanned the deck behind them for danger. It wasn’t like the Viking Company to give up on an opportunity to sabotage a ship, particularly the Bolton’s Highflyer. It made Muller wonder what fee Courvair had gotten in return for trying to betray him to his old crew. On pirate ships, he would have expected betrayal, but being on the Highflyer was making him soft because it fucking hurt to think that this asshole had tried to sell him out.

He wanted to put a blaster in this asshole’s gut and pull the trigger.  He desperately wanted to see flesh rip and burn as Courvier collapsed with his hands clutching at his stomach.  And Courvair needed to know that fear wouldn’t stop Mueller, not fear of getting arrested or of getting tortured by his old crew. As far as Muller was concerned, blasting a hole in Daniel Courvier would be a kindness toward Hill and Captain Bolton.

“Muller.” Courvier’s voice was flat.

“You won’t guess who we ran into on dock,” Hill said with an almost cruel imitation of delight that reminded Muller eerily of his old captain.  That man had seen a good disemboweling as art, and right now, Muller was starting to think that quiet, bookish little Hill might have that same violence in him. Hill smiled maliciously as he delivered his next line.

“Now it’s time for certain ex-Captains to get the hell off of my ship.”

“What?” Della had been entering data onto the deck console, but at that her head came up like a gun turret snapping into position.

And now I’ve successfully plagiarized myself. At least, I don’t think I’ll get caught.

So, reviewing the steps, we start with picking a piece (and please pick well. If you feel a need to plagiarize 50 Shades of Grey, people will make fun of you, as they should).

Then follow the rules to filter that text.  Change the setting. Then redo the characterization and character backgrounds and names.  Third, get an original plot in there, and finally erase the fingerprints.

Then you can start editing for consistency and clarity and grammar and all the normal things you must do with a text.

Effective plagiarism, or even pulling fanfic to republish, requires no less. If you’re not prepared to plagiarize well, then I have another rule for you…

Don’t.

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Author: lyngala

Lyn Gala started writing in the back of her science notebook in third grade and hasn't stopped since. Westerns starring men with shady pasts gave way to science fiction with questionable protagonists which eventually gave in to any story with a morally ambiguous character. Even the purest heroes have pain and loss and darkness in their hearts, and that's where she likes to find her stories. Her characters seek to better themselves and find the happy ending (or happier anyway), but it's writing the struggle that inspires her muse. When she isn't writing, Lyn Gala teaches history part time in New Mexico and constantly prays for that one big breakout novel that will let her leave the classroom behind forever. She loves teaching, but she loves writing more.

11 thoughts on “How to Plagiarize

  1. And….by the time you’ve done that, you’ve written an original work, so you should now refer to your work as “inspired” by the piece you were plagiarizing. Or don’t mention it at all.
    Excuse me while I go run some classics through this nifty new filter.

    • And if you do all that work, you deserve to call it your original work. If you do less than creating new characters, settings, and plots, then you don’t get to call it yours. I think that’s why some fanfic can be translated… the plots are new, and those who write AU have already created a new setting, so they only need new characterization.

  2. I remember reading somewhere that there is no such thing as an original plot – they have all been written before. I find myself petrified to put pen to paper with an original story in case I’m being unduly influenced by all of the stories I have written over the years……

    ….does that mean I have to ‘reference’ the story I read 15 years ago on the off chance that someone will read what I’ve written and think ‘this sounds like so and so’??? Is every story i write plagiarism because I have somehow latched onto an idea from the past??

    Sorry, it’s just your post set me t thinking and this gives me another excuse for my writers lock….

    • Everything we’ve ever read influences us, and I don’t think we can stop that. Someone remarked that Claimings reminded them of CJ Cherryh, and I thought, “Well that makes sense because I read her avidly.” However, if you sit down with a blank piece of paper and try to write Jane Eyre, my guess is that you’d make enough changes that it wouldn’t be plagiarism. My gripe is with people who do the “find and replace” for names and change some superficial details and think that no one is going to notice that shit. I don’t think you have ANYTHING to worry about.

  3. That should say all the stories. Have READ throughout the years – sorry!!

  4. Thank you so much. I guess sometimes you just have to make the leap and trust the voices in your head (persistent buggers seem to think sleep is optional and cramp from writing is exercise).

    • I can’t imagine not writing. Even if it was all fanfic and no income, I couldn’t do it. The voices in my head would lead to psychiatric issues.

  5. The voices know what they are doing. Writers are born as much as made. Me I’m just a reader.

    • Don’t you dare put “just” in there. In this world of instant gratification and you-tube, a die hard reader is a great title to lay claim to

  6. At this point I have to agree with several other of your commenters. You do all that work you have an original fiction, it’s different enough. I think it passes every legal test. The moral questin is a different story. If you take someone else’s story and go through all of the manipulation you describe ; it hits all my ethical squick buttons.

    On the other hand, just using a plot or character type is not plagiarism. If that’s all it took then there would never be Harlequin, Regency or Historical Romances on the shelves heck I swear I read the first Twilight’s plot and characters 29 years before it was ever releasd. And it was better written then too, for all it was a $1.99 Harlequin paperback from their gothic line.

    Zaz

    • And I doubt that even the person who wrote the original would see it. It’s like fanfiction… all of us interpret characters different ways and remember different events. It means that the same show (Buffy) can lead to hero Xander, goofy Xander, abused Xander, super-powered Xander, suicidal Xander… etc.

      I do think it’s ethical at this point, just like Clueless and Lion King are ethical, even if they’re greatly influenced by Shakespeare.

      The problem comes when people *think* they’ve done all this work, and they haven’t, which would be my last point. If you’re not willing to work your ass off to make something yours, and it does take boatloads of work, then you should avoid the whole mess.

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