Friday, 28 May 2010

Creativity, illness and The Silent Hills

A recent piece on the BBC website by Health report Michelle Roberts, caught my attention. Headlined 'Creative minds mimic schizophrenia', the article cited a conclusion drawn by scientists at Sweden's Karolinska Institute.

In essence, brain scans of highly creative people and those who suffer from schizophrenia show striking similarities.

You can read the BBC piece here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/10154775.stm

We are, of course, used to the notion of the tortured genius, and it may be worth noting that a popular creative writing technique is to just close our eyes and listen to 'the voice within'. I have used this approach to good effect, on occasion, when a clear voice will come through and tell its story. In my opinion, when this does work, the stories themselves have a different quality and arrive whole, with little plot or narrative editing required.

I used to travel regularly between the West Country and London; so regularly that I'd trained myself to see travelling time as writing time. One time, I looked at the cover of a train mag and saw a tiny photo of green fields. From there, I hopped from Green Hills to Silent Hills. Then I closed my eyes and listened for that elusive voice from the depths of my imagination. I didn't stop to question what was coming or from where it had been influenced, I just waited and listened, as my pen hovered.

The Silent Hills arrived over the course of the journey, in free flow. The protagonist's voice was there from the start and my only real effort lay in keeping pace with him and writing down his words. When we pulled into Paddington, I ran to the Underground so I could sit down again and pick up the thread.

The story was published in Issue 2 of the Black Market Review and is available online:
http://www.blackmarketreview.com/issue2/03.html

Addendum
The Silent Hills was also published by Musa Publishing as an ebook Oct 14th 2011 - Oct 13th 2014.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Thieves, Betrayers and Liars!

Thieves, Betrayers and Liars. No, not politicians; I am of course talking about writers.

We take whatever’s useful from the world around us. A line of dialogue heard at the bus stop, the core of a tragedy from the news, a scene that plays out before us in everyday life – we observe, we listen and we remember. Then we steal it away without anyone suspecting who we are and what we are.

Theft from strangers is one thing but we go a step further. We are betrayers of those we love, those we hate and even ourselves. We prise open the vault of the past and whisper its confidences to anyone willing to listen. Secrets and skeletons are our traded goods; anything for a line of text that ensnares the reader. Friends and partners tread warily around us once they know that our true loyalty is to the page.

Betrayal and stealing carry dire consequences - if we get caught. So we resort to lying, swearing that up is down, on the printed page; or that he was a she. We offer silver-tongued assurances that it is all just a coincidence, a similar event with no connection to something we were told in trust. Purposefully, we smelt the truth down and fashion it into new forms of our own design, revelling in our creations and the attention they bring.

Except… except, sometimes, in creating these works of fiction, we lose touch with the reality that was.

Recently, a kindly blog reader contacted me about my little American flashback (http://alongthewritelines.blogspot.com/2010/03/one-august-night.html) and the novel I’m still picking at, which draws on personal experience to create drama and (I hope) comedy.

‘How do you think,’ my wily reader said, ‘the other people would write the story – how would they see you and everything that you depict.’ In other words, how was it for them? I have to confess that the notes I’ve put together don’t dwell too much on other people’s perspectives. But maybe, taking another person’s viewpoint and working with that as the starting point, opens up a much broader canvas.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Freelancers beware - a guest blog

Taking inspiration from the excellent Strictly Writing blog (available at http://www.strictlywriting.blogspot.com/), here is a guest blog from a working freelancer, with a cautionary tale to share.






With the enthusiasm of the novice freelancer, I was thrilled to win a new ‘contract’ with a specialist web site. (Although, actually, I never signed anything, nor did I receive anything in writing.)

The deal seemed straightforward enough. The site expected three or four articles a day on the areas it covered. Each piece was to be between 250 and 400 words long, and I was to receive the princely sum of £8 for each one. (When you’re freelancing, any scrap of work seems a godsend, and £24 a day adds up over time.) I would not be paid for any articles which were not used.

With hindsight the instructions were, arguably, not as clear as they might have been, with only a vague indication that the pieces should be ‘freshly written, and not regurgitated press releases.’ I was to go to two or three sources for each story, rather than relying on just one.

For a few months, it was an arrangement which, broadly speaking, worked. The site got its articles, I got my money. The work was enjoyable and regular, and I was paid on time. What more could any freelancer ask for? It also gave a framework to an otherwise unstructured day, a reason to get up and log on in the morning, and a guaranteed source of income each month.

When I first began writing for the site, I was given a bookmarked list of sources to trawl for stories. The site was read by employers, who used it mostly for the daily updates on changes to UK and EU law. So the bookmarked sites included the Confederation of British Industry, the TUC and other news sources.

As the weeks went by, I went through these stories every day, mindful of the need to demonstrate balance, such as representing both the trade union and employer sides of a particular story.

But I was also very aware that, at £8 a pop, each story had to be churned out quickly to remain worth my while. Too much time on each one would have left me almost in minimum wage territory. Some days, I just had too many things to juggle.

I relied heavily on my sources to hit deadlines, while following the initial advice to use more than one source per story. Where possible, I spoke to organisations directly for quotes, but, given the timescales, people rarely came back to me in time.

I tried to alter the wording, rather than doing a straight ‘cut and paste’ job. I certainly believed that I'd changed the wording enough. While it vaguely crossed my mind that plagiarism could be a potential issue, I had a naïve idea that Internet articles were in the public domain and therefore not subject to any copyright laws. How wrong could I be?

Out of the blue, one Monday morning in February, came an email from the website’s editor, explaining that a national personnel magazine from a large London publishing company (a competitor), had complained that our site had been plagiarising its content. The magazine cited three instances of copied articles, going back to December. My editor added that, while I could continue writing for him - at least for now - he had ordered a full investigation. The email included a warning that I could be the subject of legal action as a result.

All week, worried sick, I thought about little else. The Citizens’ Advice Bureau could only gulp that I should get myself a lawyer. A law centre offering help through Legal Aid promised to call back but never did. The NUJ couldn’t help as I wasn’t a member at the time.

A contact, a former lawyer, assured me, rightly, that I couldn’t personally be charged with plagiarism, or breaching copyright, only the website - as the publisher -could be. He reckoned I could mount a robust defence. When I heard from my editor again a few days later, confirming several incidences of plagiarism, my friend advised me to tone down my response, telling me I didn’t have to be so grovelling. I pointed out the problems with time, and stressed, truthfully, that the ‘plagiarised’ stories were the minority of my total output for the site. I was guilty of naivety, foolishness and downright carelessness, though not deliberate malice or knowing deception.

My editor telephoned me at the end of that week, and we thrashed out a resolution which did not involve legal action. Inevitably, it did mean I could no longer work for the site, and I agreed to write off what would have been my final invoice - worth over £500.

I also agreed to go back over every single story I had written for them (dozens and dozens, over the weeks) and cite the sources I had used for each. This took me at least a full day, and was, of course, unpaid. At the same time, the site reserved the right to take legal action in the future, should any further allegations arise.

The impact on my fledgling business was huge. And personally, I was left feeling not a little ashamed and embarrassed. I'd always wanted to work ethically and within the law. Yes, the site could have been more rigorous in some aspects of its approach. It didn’t help that I worked for several different editors during my time with them. Certainly my last editor took the issue seriously, but, then again, this was his business, established by his own hard graft, and his reputation, too, was at stake.

But, in the end, it came down to me: my mistake. I know things could have turned out far worse. And, as a trained journalist, I should have known better. I also know that it will never happen again.

What the Law Says

High profile cases always hit the headlines, such as that of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, alleged to have plagiarised a quote for an online column from another writer’s blog. And TV psychiatrist Raj Persaud was suspended from practising a year ago for bringing his profession into disrepute after copying extensively from academic colleagues in articles and a book.

But what exactly is plagiarism, and how is it different from copyright?
In his article, Plagiarism and the Law, Joss Saunders, a partner in law firm Blake Lapthorn Tarlo Lyons, plagiarism covers a wide spectrum – from verbatim copying to reproducing ideas and arguments.

The golden rule, the one which got Dr Persaud into so much trouble, is, of course, to acknowledge your sources. As Joss Saunders says:

‘If you quote from another author, and provide the citation, then in general you are not a plagiarist.’

But even providing an acknowledgement doesn’t mean you can help yourself to whatever you like, especially with material which may have an economic value.

To establish copyright infringement, copying must have taken place, and it copying needs to have been substantial. Generally speaking, the question of acknowledgement is irrelevant in terms of copyright infringement.

If you take an idea and express it differently, in a new article, then generally this does not constitute a breach of copyright.

As Saunders points out, it’s an odd fact that:

‘An author may be a plagiarist, but not an infringer of copyright, while another
author may infringe copyright, even though he is not a plagiarist, because he or she has provided an acknowledgement.’

Plagiarism remains a minefield, a huge issue that is unlikely to go away anytime soon. The Internet may have made it easier to copy work, but sites like Copyscape make it easier for plagiarists to be discovered.

The message is clear. Don’t do it. Don’t think it’ll be OK, that you won’t get caught. And if you do have to copy someone else’s work, at the very least acknowledge your sources.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Well don't just sit there, people!

The more observant among you may have noticed that this is a brand new dawn. No, not the political shenanigans, I'm talking about this blog.

Following creative negotiations, a Skype call that was so pun-filled that the transcript has been impounded and a meeting of minds, Mr Thorn Sully and I have embarked on a collaborative endeavour to link up British and American writers. We promise you a platform for free speech, flippancy, bonhomie and opinion. What's not to like?

You can find the link to the right hand side of the blog page.

The first item for discussion concerns the 'special relationship' between Great Britain and America, what we share and where we differ. Don't just sit there, sit there and click on the link. Thorn and I want to know what you think, especially the feedback that British accents are sexy and that we're to blame for the 1812 war (which I dispute).

If you can't find the link on the front page, here it is again:

http://www.awordwithyoupress.com/2010/05/11/derek-and-i-are-going-steady/