Week 42

42! The meaning of life, an excellent level and tower, and the king of buses. This week's word count is more like it; I've got into the swing of working part-time and knuckled down on my days off. 5,000 words a week is the rate I need to keep to if I'm going to get my first draft done by Christmas.

I've found a good library with a blank wall in front of the seats available for study, so my mind doesn't wander off and not notice when my eyes rest on the bumcrack of someone bending down for a book, and, thinking of the five act structure I mentioned last week, I wrote a scene to get the third act ("turn") going, and another one, a little random and later on in the story, and not even an idea I'm sure of yet, but one that for some reason I felt drawn to.

The scene that got that third act up and running had two results: it got me writing again, and thinking about my main character, and the outcome of her decision at the end of the second act in particular. It also got me thinking about plagiarism.

Dropdown showing the commands copy and paste

Plagiarism's been in the news a lot this week. QR Markham was exposed as having written his first novel almost entirely from other people's words, and Jeremy Duns continued to call out another writer, the novelist Leonore Hart, on his blog and on Facebook.

I read the story about QR Markham with particular horror, not least because of the bare-facedness of deliberately copying out passages from other people's books and stitching them together, but because of his reasons behind it. After having a poem he wrote when aged 19 chosen for a high profile anthology, he felt the need to be more than an "indifferent dabbler":

"However, unlike any normal person who works at something a long time and eventually gets good, I decided I had to be good then and there. Because I was already supposed to be the Best," he told Duns. "I didn't really plagiarise poetry, it was when I switched to fiction (God knows why) at the age of 20 that I began to distrust my own voice and began swiping other people's words or phrases because I thought they sounded better or more clever than my own. [...] There was a need to conceal my own voice with the armour of someone else's words."

This may sound like the pathetic excuse of a privileged author hell-bent on maintaining a reputation for literary prowess, rather than pursuing it creatively, and there is a lot in that to declaim. But I also felt a huge sympathy for him. I didn't have such a spotlight put on me at such a young age, but I certainly showed promise, and potential, throughout my formative years, and recognise the pressure it puts on a person to live up to those expectations, to "succeed".

Moreover, I too have felt the chasm between what I know to be good writing (the books I read, the writers I admire), and my own rather feeble attempts. It's humiliating, though that seems the wrong word for something experienced only by me. No-one, as yet, has read my work. When friends jovially tell me I shall be a famous writer some day, I feel a pang of fear that no, I won't; they have no idea what terrible sentences are forming daily on my computer.

I am trying to work through that fear, and find huge solace in the idea that writing is a life-long skill, that writers as accomplished as Ian McEwan consider their early work to be a disappointment. (I try to ignore those writers who talk about their first and second books going unpublished though, and it's not until they wrote a third that they got any good - halfway through my first novel and flailing, I can't cope with the idea it might never see the light of day, though the odds are stacked against me.)

I wish that I had started writing with such enthusiasm when I was younger. I wish that I had read what Ira Glass, the writer and presenter of PSB's This American Life, had to say on the subject of creative apprenticeships when I was younger, maybe the age that QR Markham was when his poem was included in a national anthology (I'm including it in full as it's so awesome, and should be read by everyone):

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

See the video this came from (and other related tips Ira has on storytelling) here.

I started writing the scene I had had the idea for months ago - when my main character is alone on a train, that quiet, contemplative period when you have left one place and are approaching another - but I chose to write it in the voice of another.

Since thinking of that scene and pinning it to my storyboard, I read a passage in On Beauty by Zadie Smith that made me croak - with awe, envy, whatever - at how beautifully she expressed the moment a lone person comes into contact with her friends (the passage is, in itself, part of an homage to EM Forster's Howard's End). It concludes by describing that "daily miracle whereby interiority opens out and blooms into the million-petalled flower of being here, in the world, with other people".

Beautiful. The writing blooms just like that million-petalled flower, and I had to put down the book and take a few deep breaths before I could continue reading. Despite all the hype, Zadie Smith is a stunning writer. (I hate Zadie Smith.) (Just kidding.) (Sort of do though.) (She's too good and she's so beautiful and clever and oh! I've snapped my pen in two.)

I immediately thought of my character sitting there on a train, alone, indistinct, fumbling for a sense of herself, until she tumbles out of the train and into the arms of her waiting friends. It gave that scene a firmer place in the story, gave me an idea for where she was coming from, what had just happened before she stepped on the train, and what she was travelling to. It also suggested a neat way of showing how things had changed over time, how she had made new friends, and had a new status in life.

When I came to write the scene this week, I must admit I re-read that passage at the start of part 2, chapter 7 of Smith's book. I noticed again how she created a slow blossoming effect with words, and was cowed all over again by her skill and pacing. (I hate Zadie Smith.)

The passage was exactly the note I wanted to hit. I listed some of the key points in the narrative, some of which I wanted to imitate, and started writing. What had previously been a paragraph became a description of a scene, an uncomfortable meeting, and, finally, the arrival of the train and her procession through the station, just as Zora Belsey walks along a sidewalk, alive suddenly and a character at last.

The note I wanted to hit was a thematic one, however. Smith's book involves a character of similar age to mine, a girl, who lacks confidence in who she is, tries to project a certain self-image for herself and as a result is trying too hard. I reread that passage for inspiration, as a model for what I wanted to achieve with that page or two, and set it aside. I didn't set out to copy Smith, and certainly did not seek to copy it word for word, or indeed, use any similar phrases consciously.

As I wrote, I felt a pull between where I wanted my story to go, ie where Smith had gone, and where my writing was going. My version tugged in a different direction, it had a different character with different anxieties. Why is she on her own? Who is she meeting? How does she relate to them now?

I've already made notes to expand on this scene, as I realise now rather than simply a nice bit of introspection, it could summarise earlier events and situate current state of affairs much better. I dare say by the time I come to rewrite this in the second and third drafts, there will be no trace of Smith's influence at all. The more it integrates with the rest of my story, the more it becomes a scene that originated with me.

The question is, how much can we ever call anything truly original? When does plagiarism become influence or homage? Where does Eliot's notion of the "tradition" sit with plagiarism? Some authors insist on not reading any other books while they write, for fear of being unduly influenced. Is that the sort of discipline we should all undertake?

But what about those unconscious echoes, the indelible imprint of other people having said it so eloquently? How do first-time writers such as myself steel ourselves against the onslaught of writers who have said it better, and before?

I do not want to defend Markham's or, allegedly, Hart's actions, and I understand other writers' anger at the thought that some people profit by copying others' work. But what they have done raises some rather prickly questions for me, and perhaps, other first-time writers. The "armour of someone else's words", Markham called it. I wonder how long it takes for us to shed that?

Word count this week: 5,050 Total word count: 75,488 First draft: 65,472