Friday, December 13, 2013

The Books We're Writing are Not All Ours

ETA: Changed this post's title because 'plagerized' seemed too strong.

I paint. A lo lot. I'm actually known as the artist amongst my family (great genes from my mom, thank you mom!). It's what I do, in all mediums, but my 'real' work is in oil paints, and especially portraits.

Once a week (usually) I go to a professional artist's studio and paint under her guidance. She's incredible; an amazing teacher and artist as well.

So, many weeks ago, I was doing this portrait with her. But I couldn't get the face to look how it should. I couldn't block in the colors and the paints how she does, so after a while, she took my brush (something she doesn't like doing - she likes having the student's work be the student's work) and helped me out. Because of her help, artistically speaking, that portrait was the best I've ever done. Yet even though I did the underpainting and the structure of the face, even though I did basically everything else of the painting, when it came for me to sign it, I just couldn't. It's still unsigned, even though she told me over and over to sign it, that it was all my work.

I can't handle that. It feels wrong that I'm taking full credit for the painting when one of the most beautiful parts of the painting is the face: how wonderfully, loosely, and artistically it is handled. I half-jokingly told her that she should sign it too, but of course, she wouldn't hear of it.

It's still an amazing painting; I love it. It's the best portrait 'I' have ever done; but the thing is, I didn't do it. I had help. A lot of help.

The top art shows, if I am not mistaken, require that all paintings be done at home or without any sort of supervision. Meaning you can't get help from your teacher. And in most shows, if you even mention that your submitted painting was partially painted by someone else: immediate disqualification. It's plagiarism.

So what irks me and makes me feel so guilty is that if (and hopefully, when) I get an agent, then an editor and a publishing deal, how will I ever write my name on the bottom of the book cover?

And even though many of us aren't at that stage yet, how about critique partners? Beta readers? We'd be lying through our teeth if we say that we could create the same book without their help. My critique partners saw things I'd never have caught in my first manuscript. Because of them, I've grown so, so much. And when I finish my current work-in-progress, I'll send it to them, and that book will be the work of not only me but my friends as well.

Can you ever deny that your critique partners, your agent, your editor, did not even change one word in your book? Most likely, only because of them, you changed pages and pages of your book. And in the painting world, if you dared write it off as your own....

This isn't just a problem for authors hoping to be traditionally published. If you're going the correct way in self-publishing, you'll hire an editor to go through your manuscript as well.

It's something I have a very tough time with. I can't feel good about writing my name at the bottom of my book, or that painting, when other hands have formed it as well. How can I take credit for their work as well?

Some consolations:
1. You did come up with the main idea and do almost all the work by yourself (but that's the same with the painting).

2. You have an acknowledgments section in which you can list everyone who helped you. This is what's keeping me sane. The idea that the other hands will be written with the book as well.

3. In the end, it is your decision to take your editor's, agent's, and/or critique partners' suggestions. You, technically, can say, 'Screw you, it's my own!' or, 'I like that idea, I'll do that,' and then it's your idea...kind of. But that's idealism. You can't disregard everything an editor or agents suggests. Doing so would mess up your publication deal. At most, as a debut author, you can have three possible big changes to fight for and win (but that's pushing it). So technically, in the end, your book is ultimately approved by you and you can keep anything you want, but it's either do the changes or ruin your relationship with your agent/editor, so..... Also, even if you love the suggested changes, would you ever have thought of them by yourself?

That's all the consolations I can think of. This isn't really a very happy post.

Realizing that this applies to basically every book that's been published is scary and maddening, because it tarnishes the image of authors I love and idolize. All their genius wasn't only theirs.

I don't know. I don't know how to come to terms with this.

I think the best thing possible is to really go hard on that acknowledgments section. Otherwise, we might just have to add 'Mostly written by' in front of the author's name, and that'd be more correct.

I think, in the end, we simply have to give more respect to agents, editors, and critique partners. All the attention usually goes to the author, and honestly, that's not right. It's a bitter truth.


  1. I have to disagree a little with this. Not everything goes to the author. When I hear someone is being published with Random House over someone being published with a small press I tend to think the Random House book is going to be better. So in that sense I'm focused on the publisher and not the author. In other ways though, the creative mediums are totally different. When it comes to painting, brush strokes differ between persons. When it comes to writing, sentence structure differs. So my CP's might suggest a different way to phrase things, but I'll take their suggestions and make it my own. Honestly, CP's do deserve more props, but they're benefiting as well. Learning as you do and you're returning the favor when the need a reader. I don't think we should be afraid to own up to what we've accomplished. From the first sentence to publication, you were the only person who oversaw all of it. That's like a business owner who refuses to call himself the owner simply becasue he had employees or friends who helped him in anyway. It's your work, own it!

  2. Plagiarism is a willful wrongdoing--someone taking something without permission and passing it off as their own. Agents, editors, CPs, etc, aren't giving writers anything without permission, they are offering their help willingly. Not plagiarism.

    I have yet to see an author say, "I did this all alone, without any support or help whatsoever. I'm so awesome!" Most authors acknowledge they received help, and are grateful for it.

    For one, I'm glad to know I don't need to do this alone. If I did, and it was a total solo job, I'd never have a chance at being published.

    As for the art show, is it considered "plagiarism" or "unauthorized assistance" to get help from a teacher/instructor? There is a huge difference.


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