Tidbits for Fellow Scholars

What Is Plagiarism?

It is plagiarism when you take something out of a book and use it as your own.  If you take it out of several books then it is research. — Ralph Foss quoting Wilson Mizner

One moon shows in every pool, in every pool the one moon. – Zen Proverb

As a concept, plagiarism is easy to grasp: you take someone else’s work and pass it off as your own.  In practice, plagiarism can be a slippery little sucker, eeling away to hide amongst quotations, fair use, common knowledge, and figures of speech.

Even worse, there is a distinct difference between academic plagiarism and the kind that happens off-campus.

Fortunately, the complexities of plagiarism can be navigated with confidence as long as we remember that the crime is a combination of theft and fraud.  The value of the stolen object comes from the originality of its idea and/or the quality of its prose.  The level of fraud depends on what is extorted from the victim.

In school, plagiarism occurs when the student tries to defraud the teacher of a grade by convincing the teacher they created something actually written by someone else.  It does not matter if the actual author – such as a friend or a Website – agrees to this fraud.  That only makes them an accomplice.

Professional plagiarism, however, requires that the original author does not give permission for the use of their work.  For instance, an unknown song writer gets their tune stolen by a popular band.  Even if the ditty turns out to be a dud, the song writer is the victim of theft, regardless of whether the song were copyrighted.

However, people who take from the author with permission are not plagiarists. Speech writers, ghost writers, and the like may give or sell their work if they want to.  While the public may feel defrauded when they learn some actor’s “autobiography” was actually written by someone else, well, cry me a river.

But, you may ask, what about when the original author is dead?  The moral answer is that passing off any dead guy’s work as your own is definitely plagiarism.  The real answer is to get a lawyer to check if the estate holds a copyright.

So by understanding just what plagiarism is, we can tell when and how plagiarism occurs.

Scenario 1:

John gets an assignment in his history class to write a five-page paper on Thomas
Edison.  He goes to Wikipedia and copies and pastes five pages of stuff.  The only thing he actually writes is his name.  Then he puts the whole paper inside quotation marks and lists Wikipedia on his Works Cited page.

Has plagiarism occurred?

No.  John indicated exactly what he took and where he got it from.  He still gets an F for being a lazy twit, but he hasn’t violated the honor code.

Scenario 2:

Jane writes an article for the local newspaper on pollution in the drinking water.  Stressing to meet her deadline, she goes into the paper’s “morgue” and finds an article written twenty years ago by some guy.  She takes a few lines about the responsibilities of the government to keep the public safe.

Has plagiarism occurred?

Yes.  She’s stolen from the author and defrauded the newspaper.

Scenario 2 -a:

Jane writes an article for the local newspaper on pollution in the drinking water.  Stressing to meet her deadline, she worries her last paragraph is really dull and livens up her prose with a famous but unaccredited phrase from Shakespeare: “to thine own self be true.”

Has plagiarism occurred?

No.  Jane assumes that the reader will recognize the quote and that no one will think it’s her original phrase.  The credit to Shakespeare is left out because she deems it unnecessary, not because she’s being deceptive.

Scenario 3:

Jose get an assignment in his third grade class to give a presentation on choo-choo trains.  He goes home and asks his parents about it, then he watches a couple of shows on TV about trains.  His friend has a father who works on trains, and he shows him some drawings of the inside of a locomotive.  Jose eventually draws his own picture of a train and shows it to the class while telling them about the things he’s learned.  He gives no credit to anyone but himself.

Has plagiarism occurred?

No.  Though the information was new to Jose, he gathered up common knowledge and presented it in his own words.  No one in the class thinks he’s pretending he invented trains or is the first person to talk about them.

Scenario 4:

Josie is writing a dissertation on President Bill Clinton.  She’s fortunate enough to get a personal interview with him.  It lasts for hours.  She puts sections of the interview in her book, taking care to attribute them all correctly.  She particularly likes his discussion of regulation and its effects on the economy.  Worried that the dissertation is getting “quote heavy,” she takes several of his sentences explaining the basics, substitutes a few words, and leaves off the quotation marks.

Has plagiarism occurred?

Yes.  Changing a few words still makes Clinton the co-author of the sentences, and removing the quotation marks means the reader will assume the passages are wholly original to her.

Scenario 5:

You are writing a seven-page research paper on the history of origami.  You want to include information you found on the specific qualities of good origami paper.  While this information is new to you, it may well be common knowledge in Japan.  You decide to put in the information without citing a source.

Has plagiarism occurred?

I’d say no, but other teachers might say yes.  Why take a chance?  When you’re unsure, ask your teacher. Consult with a dissertation editor. Ask your dissertation editing service to run a report and/or flag any suspicious passages.  If you’re finishing the paper the night before and can’t ask, cite your source.  Nobody ever got sent to the principal for  being too careful with their quotes.

The Narrator: The #1 Most Important Fact of Fiction

A writer and nothing else:  a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right. – John K. Hutchens

When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing. – Enrique Jardiel Poncela

One of the greatest dangers most new fiction writers face is that they have seen many more movies and TV shows than they have read novels.

The film audience looks through the camera, and its lens can look wherever it wants from any perspective it wants.

Take the case of a basic conversation at an Italian restaurant: the camera shoots over the man’s one shoulder, then the woman’s, then the man’s, close-up on her face, then over at the guy skulking by the pay phone, then back to the man, then at the bill, then at both people at the table in a wide shot that turns out to be from the perspective of the guy at the phones, then in his pocket where…there’s a gun!  End of scene.

Film gets away with split-second changes in perspective for many reasons, but most especially because the audience doesn’t have to do the work to imagine the visual or auditory details of the story.  They don’t even have to think, “Two people are talking at Italian restaurant.”  The actors, score writer, prop master, lighting guys, grips, make-up and hair artists, cinematographer, set designer, wardrobe mistress, and caterers do that.

The novelist has only themselves and the words on the page. The relationship they form with the reader is much closer, much more intimate without cast or crew.  The author must provide the reader with what they need to participate in the story, to be “shown,” not “told.”  And absolutely essential to this intimacy is that the reader be able to listen to the narrator without distraction or disruption.

Of course, we are talking about a mainstream writer who wants to get published. Perhaps you’ll be self-publishing your book. The editors at a self-publishing company, if it’s reputable, will want to be sure that your book is well-written. If you’re Toni Morrison, Joshua Cohen, or the latest reincarnation of Jack Kerouac, you can make your narrator do whatever you want. How do they do that?

There are four major concerns:

1.  Changes in Perspective

A writer’s arsenal:

  • First person (I, me, us, we)
  • Second person (you, your)
  • Third person (he, she, they, them, it)
    • Third person limited (the narrator is limited by following along a character’s perspective, or chronological order, or a specific place, or some other boundary)
    • Third person omniscient (the narrator knows everything everywhere all the time)

Perspective is the primary difficulty of novel writers and their narrator, because the fictional narrator cannot leap about from character to character, peering over one shoulder then the next, without causing confusion.  While the audience of a movie peers consistently through the eyes of the camera, the reader of fiction can be made to look through the eyes of multiple characters, including the character of the narrator.

Let’s try that scene at the restaurant as though it were in a novel:

John looked at Helen, concluding that she looked tired. It had been so long since he had been a date that he wasn’t sure if asking after her health would be an insult.

“I like this place,” he told her.  “I’m almost a regular.”

Helen wondered if that were supposed to impress her.  If John really wanted to win a woman over, he might try to visit the gym from time to time.  She picked up the menu, tilting it up to block her eyes so she could gaze critically at his bald spot.

“Anything on the menu you want to recommend?” she asked, looking over the prices.

John worried about what Helen might like, scanning over the prices.  While he ate here often, it was usually for one.  Thank goodness they had agreed right away to go Dutch.

“I like the soup,” he said.

Helen’s face squinted just slightly, or perhaps flinched. John spotted a small scar on her nose.  It made him think of small pox.

The guy hadn’t even picked a good table for his date, Baker thought as he scanned the lobby of the low-end Italian restaurant, making sure he was always the closest one to the pay phone.  They were too close to the kitchen.

“I think I’ll have the minestrone,” John announced.  Helen seemed to suppress a sigh.

Baker looked over the other diners.  What a boring bunch, he decided.  When was the damn phone going to ring?

Dinner ended, the waiter set a single bill on the table.  Both John and Helen looked up in annoyance. They had specifically asked for separate checks.

What a cheap-o, Baker thought.  The guy wasn’t even treating.

Inside Baker’s pocket was a Walther PPK.  James Bond’s gun.

Whew, what a mess.

The reader can follow along if they try, but there is nothing to be gained from making them work so hard.  The reader can’t even tell who the main character is supposed to be.  There are many hints about the characters’ true selves, but what reader could keep them all straight as the novel progresses, leaping about from person to person?

Note that by writing from a character’s perspective and then shifting to third person omniscient, the astute reader will wonder just who, exactly, knows there’s a gun in Baker’s pocket and that it’s James Bond’s gun.  Why would some all-seeing narrator make a Bond reference?  Is this, in fact, Baker’s perspective we’re getting? Or maybe the gun’s?

Consider the basics of setting the scene while using multiple perspectives.  How can the story “paint the picture” to provide a context when the meaning of the words change?  To John, the restaurant is a familiar and comforting place, it seems to make no impression on Helen at all, and Baker thinks it’s low-rent.  While that’s interesting, how can the reader develop an emotional connection?  How can they fill in the blanks and see the restaurant for themselves?

Changing the narrator’s perspective means you’re swapping out a new speaker.  Say you start with the perspective of an artist, “who finds the red sunset diluted with the soul of the world.”  Then you start talking through an electrical engineer. The words “red” and “diluted” will no longer hold the same meaning.  What is the reader to think?

Be kind to your poor reader, who simply wants to settle into the story and have a good time.  Pick a perspective and stick with it.  Let the words come from a single voice, or, if you must shift perspective, do it plainly and with obvious purpose.

A good exercise is to write at least one story of some length in the first person and be 100% honest about it.  This is, after all, the way we actually live our lives.  If we’re John sitting at that table, we may notice that Helen is trying not to be obvious about staring at our bald spot.  If we’re Helen, we may learn she’s so critical of John’s appearance because it looks nothing like the photo he emailed her.

But if we are John and Helen and Baker and James Bond’s gun all at once, we’re probably going to put the book down and wonder how it got published.

2.  Inappropriate Knowledge or Lack of Knowledge

This one is similar to perspective, but has its own concerns.  It’s also something people usually associate with character.  If your lead is, say, Trickster McGee, a steamboat captain of the 19th century who is not magical, then he should know how steamboats work but have no clue what a “computer” is.

But narrators are characters too.  If the narrator is ever once limited in their perspective, then they must continue to be limited in that fashion unless they make a formal change in perspective from one character or location or time to another.  Take the example:

Ace looked up at the sky, perhaps wondering if he could get right back into his plane.  The sun was hot on his face, and the runway was clear and golden as a sunbeam.  He thought he’d better get back into the cockpit before someone doubted his reputation.

There is no reason for the narrator to wonder what Ace is thinking one minute then know what Ace is thinking the next.  Either the narrator can tell what Ace is thinking or the narrator doesn’t.  Be your own editor and pick one.

3.  Changes in Voice

A writer’s arsenal:

  • Tone: primarily described as an emotion: happy, sad, mean, angry, delirious, rapturous, serious, conversational, casual, formal
  • Voice: primarily described as a person: news anchor, scientist, boss, mother, child

Turgid cynic:

The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived. New York was steaming – an angry concrete animal caught unawares in an unseasonable hot spell. But she didn’t mind the heat or the littered midway called Times Square. She thought New York was the most exciting city in the world. — Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls

Nostalgic older man:

I scooted up farther and rested my worn Keds on the hump that ran through the middle of our old Pinto station wagon. I was skinny and tall for my age, which made my knees curl up toward my chest. Mom said I was safer in the backseat, but deep down I knew that it wasn’t really about safety, it was about the radio. I was constantly playing with it, changing the dial from her boring Perry Como station to something that played real music. – Glenn Beck, The Christmas Sweater

Stark reporter:

Outside it was getting dark. The streetlight came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu. From the other end of the counter Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in. – Ernest Hemingway, “The Killers”

This isn’t an article on finding your voice.  I’ll have to tackle that later.  But once you have a voice, whatever it is, you need to stick to it.

If you’re writing, as most writers do, in a detached third-person limited perspective that does not comment on the action, you will startle the reader out of the story if you suddenly change your voice.

Watch:

Hannah was really tired of the coffee at McDonald’s, but she saw no reason to shell out $5 for something equally horrid at Starbucks.  The new place on Edison sounded halfway decent, and it wasn’t much of a walk out of her way to work.

Standing at the street corner and waiting for the light to get a move on and change, she idly watched a red car make an illegal U-turn.  Man, pushing the start button on that monster would set off the distinctive roar of a pure thoroughbred race car, all muscle and no mercy.

She considered buying a bagel or something.  The pastry cart that came around at work was so expensive.

The break in voice is actually good, if we’re looking to startle the reader and if there’s a payoff to being startled, such as finding out that Hannah is a car nut.

If there is no reason for the break in voice other than that the author likes cars, then it is again time to be your own editor.  The sentence about “the distinctive roar of a pure thoroughbred” has got to go.

If your narrator has taken the perspective of a child, don’t use big words.  If the narrator is supposed to be well-educated, use big words, but make sure they mean what you think they mean and check your grammar.

Your narrator is the one speaking to your reader and it is their voice they hear.  If the voice irritates or confuses them, they’ll stop reading.

4.  Breaking the Fourth Wall

The “Fourth Wall” is a theatrical term made popular by Denis Diderot.  The stage usually provides two wings, a back wall, and the front, which looks out over the audience.  Traditional theatre has the actors pretend that the audience isn’t there, that there exists a fourth, invisible wall between the action and the rest of the theatre.

Characters have been breaking that wall since theatre was invented.  Shakespearean characters make asides to the audience to reveal what they’re thinking.  Characters in political plays turn away from their scenes to make social commentary.  And so on.

The term is used in film when a character directly addresses the camera and the audience beyond it (Ferris Beuller, Wayne Campbell).

In novels, an author breaks the fourth wall by directly addressing the reader with warnings, commentary on the action, jokes, and other “asides.”  As with other media, narrators can break this wall if they choose, but they must do it consciously and consistently.

Narrators break the fourth wall when they throw in judgments that don’t belong to characters, such as “fortunately” or “unhappily.”  They break it when they point out that it’s a shame a character doesn’t know something.

Spot the break in the fourth wall below:

Tex walked up to his horse, the best damn animal a man could have. Lil Sal would eat from his hand and kick a stranger in the head.  They’d survived more than one suddenly blizzard crossing the Rockies.  And the sweetheart still had a soft mouth, meaning she only needed light guidance on the reigns.  He’d sell his gun before he’d so much as rent Lil Sal to a sheriff’s wife.

Just who is saying “meaning she only needed light guidance on the reigns”?  The narrator was speaking as Tex, and then breaks the fourth wall to explain what he has decided the reader can’t figure out for themselves.  As an editor, I’d take the phrase out.

A narrator breaking the fourth wall on purpose can be fun, as long as the author never forgets how intrusive this is between the story and the audience.  Let’s take a look at some excerpts from the classic story Andy Griffith used to tell in the guise of a clueless country bumpkin at a football game.

And what I seen was this whole raft of people a-sittin’ on these two banks and a-lookin’ at one another across this pretty little green cow pasture.

Somebody had took and drawed white lines all over it and drove posts in it, and I don’t know what all, and I looked down there and I seen five or six convicts a running up and down and a-blowing whistles…

I seen that the men had got in two little bitty bunches down there real close together, and they voted. They elected one man apiece, and them two men come out in the middle of that cow pasture and shook hands like they hadn’t seen each other in a long time…

I don’t know, friends, to this day, what it was that they was a doin’ down there, but I have studied about it. I think it was that it’s some kind of a contest where they see which bunchful of them men can take that pumpkin and run from one end of that cow pasture to the other without gettin’ knocked down or steppin’ in somethin’.

This is wonderful, funny stuff, but you had better not want the audience to care about that football game. Basically, when you make your narrator this intrusive, the narrator isn’t just the main character, but the only character.

Break the fourth wall only if you must, and only with the greatest of care.

Following these basic guidelines for narrating fiction should keep your reader in a comfortable and imaginative space.  Once there, they can concentrate on your story in the right way, getting to know your characters, envisioning your scenery, figuring out your symbolism, and enjoying themselves.

Give the reader an enjoyable experience, and they’ll always come back for more. If you’re not positively sure that your narration works, ask a good book editor or your self-publishing company to evaluate your book prior to self-publishing it.

7 Criteria to Consider When “Experts” Disagree

What do you do when experts disagree? When Mike Stelzner tells you one thing and Scott Fox another? When Mom says ‘be careful’ and Dad says ‘go for it’. When Obama says left and Reagan says right? It’s a problem, isn’t it? When writing, analyzing, doing business, dating, debating, rating—whatever—life’s just a mass and mess of conflicting viewpoints and choices. What to do? Whom to believe?

1)    Don’t be swayed by their titles, books, or relative positions of authority. Those things might be genuinely good or they might be phony and derivative pap. I’ve been in “higher education” for 35 years. One of the main things I’ve learned is that for PhDs publishing is an imperative. Even PhDs who can’t write and have nothing much to say strive hard to get published. So there’s a lot of published junk and white noise. As for positions of authority? Same thing. Just ask yourself how many inflated egos and Peter Principle people you’ve encountered with authoritative positions and titles. The Peter Principle, by the way, is this: “People rise to their level of incompetence.”

2)     Nor should you be influenced by your personal opinions of the experts. Maybe you’ve heard, read, or been led to believe they’re great or rotten. Maybe those hearsay reports are true. But maybe they’re false. You never know.

3)    So, you should dispassionately examine the evidence they present to support their statements. It all comes down to facts—my favorite topic. I’m a facts man. Everybody’s got opinions, but do they have facts to support them?

4)    Then, once you’ve set the stage up in good analytical order, determine what facts the experts do agree upon.  Dig deep into their common ground. Establish what doesn’t need to be debated.

5)     If you’re really doing your homework and have the opinions of multiple experts to evaluate, group them up as best you can and determine if there’s a majority position. This step can be misleading, though, because a majority—though it often rules—doesn’t necessarily equal truth, justice, or the American way. The majority is often on the wrong side of the right position. Of course, that brings us back to defining what’s “right” and what’s “wrong.” (See some of my Blogs on Critical Thinking for more discussion of the right/wrong problematic.)

6)    As always—at least from my experience—the effectiveness and accuracy of so much of what we think, what we decide, what we judge, what we espouse, and what we argue for and against depends on facts. Those attorneys, salesmen, bloggers, writers, and even politicians who respect and demand evidence usually come out on top. Don’t we all tend to believe people who’ve established credibility by the veracity of their words? It’s downright foolish to focus on “expert testimony”. Examine the data, the facts, the evidence people present, not the people themselves.

7)    But ultimately, you have to decide whom and what side to believe based upon your judgment and your own position on the values or issues at stake. It’s a profound irony and complexity of the human reasoning process. We can follow steps 1-6 as objectively and diligently as humanly possible. But in the final analysis, we usually make up our minds based on our own subjective viewpoints, hunches, feelings, and/or preset beliefs. What’s important to us—what’s in it for us—is the primary criteria for our conclusions.

We may strive to be fair, unbiased, and objective, but who among us isn’t swayed by our own ingrained attitudes and vested interest? “Not me!” you might say. “I’m fair and impartial all the way, all the time.” Uh-huh. Sure you are. As Jake Barnes said at the end of The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

APA Tutorial

Here’s an excellent tutorial in the basics of APA: http://www.apastyle.org/learn/tutorials/basics-tutorial.aspx

5 Ingredients to Get Your Scholarly Book Published

It’s no secret that venues for scholarly publication, especially in the humanities, have constricted in the last twenty years. When I published a 375-page collection of essays in 1985, I found it relatively easy, based upon a detailed prospectus, to secure a contract with a university press. Since then, however, fiscal pressures have compelled many academic institutions to retrench. The upshot has been a reduction of operating subsidies for journals, a mandated narrowing of monograph publishers’ editorial missions, and a concomitant increase of responsibility for prospective authors to document the marketability of their projects.

Many, perhaps most, scholars will find the last development an alien expectation, particularly when the average print run for a book is fewer than 1,000 copies. By dint of their vocational immersion in the world of ideas, academicians are unaccustomed to gauging the extrinsic worth of their work in terms of consumer demand. Now more than ever, however, those seeking publication are being called upon to validate why their manuscripts warrant the investment of institutionally limited capital. A new pragmatism has overtaken an earlier culture of scholarship for its own sake.

Given this shift in today’s publishing environment, I offer below some tips based upon my recent experience of negotiating a contract for an 85,000-word monograph on British espionage fiction. After I contacted a dozen carefully chosen university presses in the U.S. and abroad about the project, only two were receptive to considering it for refereed review. Rather than throw the dice and risk the lag of a delayed editorial commitment, I decided to approach a commercial firm that on its website profiles itself as “a leading independent publisher of academic and nonfiction books.” Because its extensive backlist of authors includes several prominent scholars, some of whom I knew personally, I decided to pursue this outlet.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that my decision would entail more extensive book editing and ongoing negotiation related to my work’s marketability. After securing a contract, I went back and forth many times with the publisher’s staff about the issue of what would “sell” my book. Their first concern was my proposed title. I had assumed that Covert Operations: British Espionage Fiction was fairly clever and elegantly simple, but it was pointed out to me that research libraries, which comprise the largest group of those purchasing academic releases, require greater specificity as well as precision in titles. After prolonged debate over various alternatives, mine eventually morphed into The Art of Indirection in British Espionage Fiction: A Critical Study of Six Novelists. (Although I still find the compromise somewhat clunky, I can live with it.) The publisher and I also danced the same jig about what constitutes “fair-use” copyright law concerning quotations from primary texts, which despite fifteen years as the editor of a scholarly journal I since have learned is an incalculably slippery slope. Finally, I will be expected to play an active role in marketing my monograph by suggesting the names/addresses of contact persons for reviews and others with specialized interests (e.g., cohorts within the Modern Language Association of America) to whom it might be promoted.

How, then, can I sum up what I have discovered in these times of shrunken horizons for scholarly publication? Some bulleted points to consider as you investigate prospects in this field may prove helpful.

• Why should the publisher be interested in your submission? Tailor your cover letter tightly to the journal’s or press’s formal mission statement. Demonstrate, in other words, that it is the right “fit” for your piece.

• How will my submission complement or enhance the venue’s extant line of releases? This too is part of the marketing game. As in the preceding entry, show that you are thoroughly familiar with the targeted publisher’s past coverage.

• Given your response to the preceding point, how will your manuscript, if accepted, attract new readers to the venue’s backlist while also expanding its current clientele? (I use the last word intentionally.) Avoid generalities and bromides that carry little persuasive weight.

• What can you contribute to the successful marketing of your text? If it is appropriate for classroom adoption, say so. Otherwise demarcate, again in concrete terms, the reading demographic for which your work is intended.

• How, lastly, can you assist the prospective press in other ways of attracting attention to your monograph? Recommend, for example, review contacts in local/regional newspapers and journals with no-cost reciprocal arrangements for full-page advertisements.

All these considerations are secondary, of course, to your main channels of investigation and scholarly interest, but to one degree or another you will have to address them in today’s world of highly competitive publishing. The trick, if you will, is not to believe that your job is done once you have completed the artifact itself. Like it or not, we are all enlisted in promoting our individual efforts within a market-driven economy.