Category: On Writing

Writer Beware

By Midge Raymond,

While the Sobol Award (see previous entry) may have raised the hopes of unpublished, unagented writers, it is also raising great ire among agents and publishers. W.W. Norton executive editor Robert Weil told Reuters yesterday, “I feel extremely sorry for the thousands of eager writers who will pay $85 in the hopes it might get them started on a successful career…I do not think this is a serious way of getting published.”

In the same article, agent Gary Morris, of the David Black Literary Agency in New York, compared the contest to a lottery and pointed out that it would behoove writers to find an agent who is actually known to editors. As I pointed out in my previous blog, the Sobol Literary Agency has no known clients or sales — something that should raise a red flag for any writer seeking representation.

My favorite response to the contest comes from Miss Snark, an anonymous New York literary agent whose blog on agenting gives the Sobol Award no mercy. For all you writers out there who are thinking of submitting to the Sobol Award, I’d suggest reading Miss Snark’s blog first. She may be a little cranky about this particular award, but she does know her stuff … and maybe you’ll decide you have better places to spend your $85. And if not, at least you’ll be submitting with your eyes wide open.

No agent? No publisher? No problem. (Maybe.)

By Midge Raymond,

The Sobol Award, a new award for unagented and unpublished writers, opens tomorrow, offering the winning novelist a $100,000 prize and representation by The Sobol Literary Agency. Unlike most contests, it also offers all entrants a reader’s report on the strengths and weaknesses of their manuscripts (which helps explain the hefty $85 entry fee). The award also offers representation and cash to the top 10 finalists.

The unusual thing about this contest, aside from the high fee and amazingly high amount of prize money, is that it’s being held by a literary agency rather than a magazine, nonprofit, or small press. Most other contests pay much less to the winners (closer to the neighborhood of $1,000 than $100,000), but they do publish winning manuscripts. In this case, writers get representation (and, ostensibly, far more money than they would likely earn as an advance on a first novel) — but no promise of publication.

Of course, as the saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Generally speaking, literary agencies taking reading fees from writers goes against the Association of Authors’ Representatives’ canon of ethics. (The Sobol Literary Agency is not an AAR member, as far as we can tell, and it seems to have been created for the sole purpose of representing the winners and finalists of the award; it offers no information about other clients.) Writers may also recall the infamous Zoo Press fiction award, for which the press collected hundreds of entry fees without awarding any prizes.

The Sobol Award was founded by a self-published technology entrepreneur, and its management team and panel of judges comprise former television and publishing executives. And it will either comfort or alarm writers to know that the Sobol Award is represented by an attorney, F. Robert Stein, who previously turned down the job, telling the Associated Press that he thought the award “sounded terribly suspicious” and that “I thought it would destroy my reputation.” But, he continued, “I laid out conditions for the contest, including that winners are not bound forever to being represented by the Sobol agency … I have been over every word on the website and every word of the promotional material. I have been absolutely satisfied.”

It’s tempting for any writer to jump at a chance to win what the Sobol Award is offering, and we hesitate to discourage anyone from entering what could turn out to be the contest of the year. But there is a reason contests like this don’t come up every day — and as with contest or agent search, writers should proceed with caution.

Got Writer’s Block?

By Midge Raymond,

Tuesday’s Portland Oregonian featured a story on the International 3-Day Writing Contest, which puts writers to the task of beginning and finishing a novel within 72 hours (making the term Labor Day Weekend truly appropriate). The contest draws 300 entrants from around the world, and its $50 price tag allows the sponsors to offer publication to the winner (though it’s not clear by what criteria novels are defined or winners chosen — this year’s winning novel was only 80 pages).

I’m a big fan of Anne Lamott’s aptly named notion of Shitty First Drafts (see Bird by Bird for her brilliant chapter on this) and therefore am not sure any novel written in three days should be published. In fact, many novels that take a hundred times that long should not be published (including my own first attempt). This contest is clearly more about speed than literary quality (in only three of the contest’s twenty-eight years have the sponsors found no winning novel) — but to its credit, the contest gets people past their writer’s block and gets them writing. For some writers, it may be the competition that jump-starts their work; for others, it’s the possibility of publication. For most, it’s probably just knowing that other writers, somewhere out there, are suffering along with them.

This contest makes NaNoWriMo look like a walk in the park. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a soon-to-be nonprofit that every year inspires writers to pen novels during the month of November. The rules for NaNoWriMo make a little more sense: the minimum word count is 50,000 (about 200 pages); it’s free to sign up; and any writer who reaches 50,000 words is declared a winner. NaNoWriMo doesn’t publish any of the finished novels and acknowledges that this approach provides a starting point only (though many writers who began novels with NaNoWriMo went on to revise and sell their books to such publishers as Warner and Berkley Books). But perhaps best of all, the organization collects donations to help the children’s literacy non-profit Room to Read fund libraries in Cambodia and Laos.

For anyone who has writer’s block but not $50, I’d suggest setting your own Labor Day Weekend goals — devise a personal contest of your own, or challenge a few writer friends to help each other finish your long-neglected projects. And if this weekend doesn’t do the trick, November and NaNoWriMo are just around the corner.

Too Much Truth in Fiction?

By Midge Raymond,

Most often when the subject of libel comes up in our workshops, it’s in the memoir classes. But of course fiction writers, too, draw stories from real life, though as Rachel Donadio notes in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, “it’s extremely rare for a publisher to drop [a novel] because of libel concerns.”

Yet according to Donadio’s essay, that is just what happened to J. Robert Lennon’s novel Happyland, which according to Lennon was dropped by W. W. Norton at the last minute due to its storyline being based on an actual woman and actual events that took place in upstate New York. While Lennon maintains that aside from this foundation, the rest of his novel is entirely fictional, apparently the publishers were concerned enough to let it go.

It’s enough to make any writer paranoid. Many fiction writers do base characters and events, at least in part, on characters and events from their own lives. Then they either let the characters take on entirely new personas — or they very carefully disguise them in hopes that they won’t be recognizable. But libel is always tough to prove, particularly in fiction, so most writers don’t worry too much about it. When my students ask, I turn to my favorite source on the subject, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. For her take on the matter, see Part Five: The Last Class. She says it all.

The good news, as the essay reports, is that Lennon’s novel did receive publication — as a serial in Harper’s. As Lennon told Donadio, with its circulation of 200,000, Harper’s may have provided a better vehicle for the story anyhow. At any rate, it’s good to see that the First Amendment has prevailed. Donadio also reports that the real-life subject of the novel has no intention of either reading the novel or suing over it. It’s a lesson for writers nonetheless: write whatever inspires you, but do it carefully.

Reading for Writers

By Midge Raymond,

Not long ago, a couple of my workshop students joked that taking my classes has really ruined their reading pleasure. That is, whereas they used to simply enjoy a book, now they read it with a critical eye, noting what works and what doesn’t, and trying to figure out why.

Francine Prose’s new book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, reviewed today in the New York Times, is about this very subject: reading books not only for pleasure but (mostly) for their didactic qualities.

Many writers will maintain that creative writing cannot be taught (including Times reviewer Emily Barton, who writes, “I used to inveigh against writing workshops — right up until the day I started teaching one.”) I myself used to take great pride in having published fiction without ever having taken a fiction-writing course … and even though I now teach fiction workshops, I’d be the first to tell any student that they don’t really, truly need me in order to write. (Though I do aim to help.)

What we all need, however, are the writers who teach us by example. Not necessarily the ones who write books on how to write — while some of these are certainly enlightening, they fall under the same category as classes: perfect for some aspiring writers, but not for all. I’ve always liked Stephen King’s second foreword to his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, in which he writes, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do — not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t work when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.”

Yet learning from other writers’ novels or memoirs or poetry is irreplaceable. It’s through reading that we learn what we like, what we don’t like, how to find our own voices, as well as how to handle all the little details that create a character, a scene, story. Prose’s new book sounds like one of the rare gems in books about writing; as Emily Barton writes, “Like the great works of fiction, it’s a wise and voluble companion.”

Love and Work

By Midge Raymond,

Freud famously said, “Love and work — that’s all there is.” Rachel Donadio’s essay, “What I Did at Summer Writer’s Camp,” in today’s New York Times Book Review, explores two of the U.S.’s most famous artists’ colonies, Yaddo and MacDowell, pointing out that love and work are alive, well, and abundant at both.

In her essay, Donadio repeats the popular saying that the sex is better at Yaddo but the work better at MacDowell, and she interviews writers from Alice Sebold to Michael Chabon to Jeffrey Eugenides about what really goes on at the colonies. It’s an interesting piece for anyone who’s ever been to such a retreat as well as for anyone who’s ever thought about applying.

Having never been, over the years I’ve thought many times about applying to one of the myriad retreats available to writers. I’ve heard a lot about them (mostly that a lot more loving than working actually happens). And I have yet to send in an application. Sometimes it’s due to scheduling, a daunting application process, already being happily married, or, in one case, the fact that the location was so remote that I’d have needed to bring my own power saw in case a tree fell and stranded me from the main road.

The main reason I have never applied, though, is that I’ve become so used to being a working writer — that is, a writer with a day job — that I’m not sure how productive I’d be if I had two weeks or a month with nothing to do but write. My writing process has become all about fitting it in when I can, and sometimes it’s the lack of time that makes me the most productive. Donadio’s essay touches on this, with one writer saying that all that free time at the colony evoked in her an “exsistential terror.” Other writers simply report sleeping a lot.

What I do try to do sometimes, and what I recommend to others who can’t get away for long periods of time, is to create a retreat of one’s own. This is similar to what Julia Cameron calls the Artist’s Date. What Cameron means is to take yourself out and enjoy some play time or leisure time. But if writing is what you need to do, set aside a day and go to the library, or the beach, or a coffee shop — somewhere you can write all day, uninterrupted by phone, family, or work. Or ask your partner to make him/herself scarce for the day, and to take the pets and kids along, leaving you with a quiet space to write. (Better have him/her take the remote control, too.)

Great work can be done anywhere; you don’t need an artists’ colony to write. However, it’s still worth looking into. As the essay points out, of the many advantages of places like Yaddo and MacDowell, with all that sex and creativity in the air, returning home with good material is one of them.

Just a Phone Call Away

By Midge Raymond,

Fact-checking is a part of any editor’s job, and a recent New York Times article reminded me of one of my best resources for random, obscure, and weird questions while I was working in Boston: The Boston Public Library’s telephone reference line. We all had the number in our rolodexes, if not posted above our phones or even programmed into auto-dial. You could call the number and ask about literally anything — and nine times out of ten, you’d get the answer you needed.

The Times article (it appeared a couple of weeks ago, actually; I’ve been a little slow on my blogging lately) was, of course, about the New York Public Library’s telephone reference service, and it even included the number (212-340-0849). Those of us on the West Coast needn’t worry — the reference librarians take calls from anyone, anywhere, and even offer to answer your question within five minutes (especially good news for anyone for whom this is a toll call). But don’t forget the time change (they’re available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern time, daily except Sundays and holidays).

Check Out “Chapter One” and “First Chapters”

By Midge Raymond,

Some of us buy books based on the cover, the storyline, the genre — and many of us also open them up in the bookstore (or on Amazon) to read a few pages. (John, for one, never buys a book whose opening paragraph doesn’t hook him immediately — and I suspect he’s not alone.) We’ve found a couple of good ways to check out the first chapter of a book without hogging the chairs at Barnes and Noble or flipping through all those electronic pages on Amazon.

The Washington Post hosts a wonderful web site called Chapter One that posts the first chapter of new books — and it’s so much fun to explore. It’s also highly addictive. The site features fiction and nonfiction from a range of literary and popular authors, and most of the books have been reviewed by the Post. But it gives readers a chance to check out new prose for themselves — the best addition to any review.

The New York Times features its own selections in “First Chapters,” in the Books section of its web site. This, too, is highly addictive. But these sites are clearly win-wins — for both readers and authors (and of course, advertisers). We hope they’ll stay around.

Novel Ideas for Novels

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s Wall St. Journal features an article on new ways to sell fiction: by reaching into niche markets.

I’m fascinated by the innovative ways authors sell books, from giving readings at casinos to finding a platform. This is all for good reason — as this Journal article reports, more than 5,000 new novels are published each year, even as sales are slowing. Publishers and authors have to be inventive.

This article reports the myriad ways publishers can find readers, from cable-TV shows to nonprofit organizations to businesses. While some of these approaches are risky (approaching autism reaearch groups to help promote a novel about a boy with autism) and some fall flat (a novel about a woman who runs a bed-and-breakfast didn’t sell well in the B&Bs the publisher targeted), publishers are clearly finding it necessary to go beyond bookstores to capture readers’ interest.

And I really enjoyed reading about how authors themselves are thinking ahead — the article highlights a writing pair whose mystery novel is tied to scrapbooks, a growing market that the authors, as well as their agent and publisher, are specifically targeting. Traditionally, this sort of marketing analysis has been the concern of nonfiction writers, who sell book proposals rather than finished manuscripts. Novelists, we like to believe (especially if we are novelists ourselves), only have to worry about the writing itself.

But it’s becoming clear that novelists would be wise to think like nonfiction writers when they’re getting ready to approach agents and editors — that is, to look for innovative ways of reaching new readers. As the fiction market grows more competitive, writers with ideas that go beyond character and plot might find themselves with a big advantage…not to mention bigger sales.

Authors in Vega$

By Midge Raymond,

As we all know, author readings and book signings aren’t just for bookstores anymore. And an article in today’s New York Times shows that for some popular authors, casinos have become the new bookstores.

I’m not at all surprised by this … I had never been to the “old Vegas” of $19 hotel rooms, $5 buffets, and not much else to do but gamble (and engage in other activities that inspired the saying “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”). But the newly polished Vegas has a lot more to offer. You can still find cheap hotels and good deals off the Strip — but it’s also very easy to forgo gambling in favor of fine dining, fine drinking, shopping, shows, and now … book readings and signings.

From Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in the east to Mandalay Bay in the west, casinos are welcoming authors. The article points out that publishers see these venues as a better fit for popular writers than literary writers (Robin Cook, Augusten Burroughs, and Erica Jong are among the writers to speak at casinos this year) — but judging by the crowds a casino can draw (the Times reports that mystery writer Janet Evanovich sold 1,125 copies of her new book at Foxwoods, setting a record for sales of a single title in one day), I’m guessing that publishers and writers will begin to open their minds to it.

I, for one, would love to see a little culture in the casinos. And it sounds as if many writers are already embracing the idea. Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean, among other books, told the Times that she didn’t have a problem with her appearance at Mandalay Bay, even if she did have to read over the sound of slot machines. More important, she sold books.

Julia Cameron’s New Book

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s Los Angeles Times features an article about Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way and The Vein of Gold, among others. Cameron has just published a memoir about her life’s struggles, from the breakup of her marriages to her recovery from drug and alcohol addiction to her nervous breakdowns. She has never before revealed the extent of her struggles, and those familiar with her creativity books may not realize, as Gina Piccalo of the Times points out, that back in the 1970s, Cameron “was best known as the lush whom Martin Scorsese left for Liza Minnelli, the hotshot writer who swore like a sailor and matched Hunter S. Thompson drink-for-drink.”

But since the publication of The Artist’s Way in 1992, Cameron has been the one people turn to for guidance. I first read the book shortly after it was published — it was wildly popular among creative types in New York, where I lived then. Artist’s Way groups met regularly, working through the twelve-week creativity program together, and individuals exhorted one another to read the book — nearly everyone who recommended it to me said, “It changed my life.” I have to admit it changed mine, too. It was in the mid 1990s that I began writing fiction, and I published my first short story a couple years later. I still recommend it to students and fellow writers. And yes, I still do morning pages (most of the time).

Cameron told the Times that she wrote her memoir, Floor Sample, to let readers know of the struggles she had to overcome to become who she is today; she doesn’t want it to look as if it’s too easy. From the few examples revealed in this article, it sounds as if this book will accomplish that. I’m looking forward to reading it … but first, I might pick up The Artist’s Way again.

(Free) Summer Reading

By Midge Raymond,

Yesterday, in conjunction with New York City’s Shakespeare in the Park, Google launched its Shakespeare site, where you can view Shakespeare’s complete works online. Reading Shakespeare while sitting in front of a computer on a summer’s day may not be everyone’s idea of “beach reading” — but it’s good to see these works so accessible. While I think it’s probably more fun to browse through a hard copy of a book, one big plus about this site is that if you’re looking for a famous quote or passage in a certain play, a search will bring it to you within seconds.

Another site,, also offers free books — again, these books are free because their copyrights have expired in the United States. (The site does post some books, with permission, that are still under copyright and gives instructions for their legal use.) But you can download the works of such authors as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and Virgil. The only problem with this is that you’ll have to print them out to take them to the beach, or wait until after beach season to buy a Sony Reader that you can carry around with you.

Curling up with Virgil’s Aeneid on a Sony Reader may not appeal to everyone. For those who prefer something a little lighter, or prefer their pages in the paper version, we’ve still got bookstores and libraries. But it is fun to see books appearing in newer formats — and especially to see books in the public domain becoming ever more accessible. Of course, publishers will still be able to sell their own copies of the classics (for most of us there’s still no replacement for a physical book) and performances of Shakespeare will always be an experience that goes beyond the page. Yet it’s good to see options out there — the Sony Reader, for example, offers a larger type size than most books (especially reprints of the classics) — and there’s no downside to (legally) making it easier for people to search for and find the books they want.

What’s Your Platform?

By Midge Raymond,

There’s an interesting piece by Sheelah Kolhatkar in today’s New York Observer about “platforms” (“If You Build It, They Will Come — Hot in Publishing: Platforms!”). The article is all about how it’s not just the writing anymore that endears authors to publishers — it’s the author’s “platform,” i.e., the place from which the author can sell a great many copies of his or her book.

What, exactly, is a platform? The article offers an example most of us can understand: Oprah. She is not only a platform for herself and for anything she wishes to promote, but she provides a platform for any writer fortunate enough to get her attention.

But what about those writers who don’t get Oprah’s attention — and especially those “old school” writers who are more interested in their writing than in their own publicity? As the article makes (painfully) clear, this is no longer a luxury writers have. In today’s competitive market, publishers are looking for even more.

The article offers a couple of ideas — blogs, MySpace — as ways for authors to develop their platforms. It also notes that having a well-written book is a platform in and of itself. But even the best books out there don’t sell magically by themselves, and while I don’t think authors need to worry about platforms until their books are finished and are the best they can be, it can’t hurt to give a little thought to marketing, whether at the agent, publisher, or publicity stage of the process.

Word of mouth remains among the best ways to sell anything — so much so that a company called BzzAgent uses this as its business model: it hires “bzz agents” to spread the word about new products from chicken sausage to jeans (and, of course, books). The good news is that you don’t need to hire anyone to do this for you; we all know enough people to start enlisting our own groups of “agents” — and the “buzz” our friends and family create is bound to be more authentic. So think of who you know, where they live, what resources they have, and how they might be able to help.

Of course, you can’t depend solely on your connections; you’ll also need to put yourself out there. Even if your publisher doesn’t offer you a ten-city book tour, create your own. These days, most writers do just that: pack up the car, map out cheap hotels, and offer readings and signings wherever they can. And many of them have had wonderful success because they go beyond bookstores to libraries, schools, businesses, and any other place they might find an audience. You never know where your readers may be.

A great many writers today have their own web sites (you might want to register your name, and/or the title of your book, sooner than later), and this too can be a good platform. And whether you’ve written a novel or a memoir, a cookbook or a computer book, there are people and organizations out there that will be thrilled to hear from you. You just need to find them.

This may sound like a lot of work, but, as the Observer article also points out, poor sales of one book can harm your chances of ever publishing another one. So isn’t it worthwhile to go the extra mile from the very beginning? Then you’ll no longer have to worry about finding a platform — you’ll already have one.

Story v. Style

By Midge Raymond,

Last week, I gave a presentation to the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild on how to be your own editor. I offered tips on how to think like an editor when revising, polishing, and submitting your work, and in doing so, I had to point out some of the bleaker realities of publishing: that journal editors often read only the first page or two of a submission, that you often only have one chance to make an impression on an editor or agent — and of course, I emphasized the importance of editing, language, and making your work the best it can be.

Thursday’s New York Times challenged all that with a few comments about the quality of the writing in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. (Disclosure: I have not yet read The Da Vinci Code. I’m actually waiting to borrow it from a slow-reading family member. You know who you are.) But another reason I’ve not yet picked it up is the informal reviews from friends and colleagues, whose collective opinion is that the story is so good and the writing so poor that while most have enjoyed the book very much, others have not even finished it.

In the Times‘s review of the film, A.O. Scott referred to the novel as a “best-selling primer on how not to write an English sentence.” Scott also quoted a sentence from the book — “Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino with long white hair” — and this example was not presented as a compliment.

I would agree that the above is an unfortunate sentence. But to the millions of Da Vinci Code readers and moviegoers, does it matter? As a writer (who is also married to a writer, hangs out with lots of writers, and teaches writing), I find that language and style is as important as a good story — but that’s just me, and perhaps writers in general. When most readers talk about books, it’s usually about the stories they tell, not the style in which they’re written.

As writers, we want to tell a great story and tell it beautifully. But what do readers want? (And, most important to writers, what do editors want?) During my presentation at the Guild, I made a point of saying that if a great story has a few typos in the manuscript, a missing word or two, or even a few really bad sentences, editors will overlook these things. And that’s true. But perhaps editors are overlooking even more than that when they see a bestseller in the making.

In an ideal world, a good book is good all around, and as writers we should hold ourselves to these strict standards — even if we can’t fully achieve them, we should strive for them. But despite the myriad views of Brown’s prose, as well as the controversy over the book’s subject matter, he has certainly achieved what most writers dream of: Millions of people are reading and talking about his work.

The Mystery of Plagiarism

By Midge Raymond,

It is probably impossible that you haven’t read about the alleged plagiarism by teenage author Kaavya Viswanathan (How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life), who has been accused of copying sizeable portions of two novels by Megan McCafferty (Sloppy Firsts, Second Helpings).

The topic of plagiarism actually came up recently in our memoir class — how easy it is to unintentionally echo the style of a writer you read and admire, simply because his or her language has stuck with you. But that is clearly not the case here. To compare just one or two of the passages in question is to realize that Viswanathan copied extensively from McCafferty’s books. If you’d like to see for yourself, The Boston Globe and the Harvard Crimson have laid out some of these passages side by side, and Publishers Marketplace has listed the 45 similar passages that Crown, McCafferty’s publisher, has found so far.

There are a couple of rather innocuous similiarities such as “Nike-clad” (let’s face it; no author can claim exclusive rights to that) — yet even these don’t seem entirely innocent when you look at the other, very obvious similarities. Here’s one example, from the list posted on Publishers Marketplace:

From McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts, page 183:

“Omigod! Let’s make sure junior year rocks,” she says. “Let’s make more time for each other. Friends are forever!”

I don’t want anything to do with Bridget, Manda, Sara, and the S.O.S. So I say even less at lunch than usual, totally aware of how alone I am.

From Viswanathan’s book, page 183:

“Omigod!” Stacie had finished reapplying her face. “We have to make more time for each other. Friends are forever!”

I said even less than usual, aware of how totally alone I am.

Most of the passages listed are as alike as this one, and evidently the plots and characters of Viswanathan’s book are also too similar for comfort. The New York Times reported yesterday that Viswanathan has apologized while maintaining that any similarities were “unintentional and unconscious,” a stance that is disputed by Crown, whose publisher said in a statement that it is “inconceivable that this was a display of youthful innocence or an unconscious or unintentional act.” The Times reported today that Viswanathan claims the similarities are due to her photographic memory.

But if you study these passages, it’s hard to believe any of these nearly identical passages ended up in her book by mistake. This brings me to the central question about plagiarism: Why?

I would guess that for most writers, the joys and challenges in writing come from discovering new ways of expressing what we want to say. I can’t imagine an author stealing another’s work on purpose because it defies the whole point of writing: letting your own voice evolve, saying something that has never been said before in quite the same way.

But during my years of teaching in a university writing program, I did learn a lot more about plagiarism, particularly the myriad reasons behind it. We devoted countless faculty meetings to discussions of plagiarism: how to avoid it, how to hold students accountable for it, what to do when you knew something was plagiarized but couldn’t prove it. In my six years of teaching there, I came across probably dozens of plagiarized papers — evident from a student’s voice suddenly becoming unrecognizable, from a student’s writing C papers all semester and suddenly turning in a nearly perfect assignment, from a student’s lack of knowledge about his or her own paper when questioned. But how many cases could I actually prove? Just one. This was the difficulty: we could probe and question as much as we liked, but unless we had solid proof to take to the academic affairs committee, or unless the student confessed, there was nothing we could do.

It was troubling, of course, to see students plagiarize — and worse, to see them learn how easily they could get away with it — but even more troubling to me were their reasons for doing so. In some cases, it was laziness; in others, anger — but most often I sensed that it was desperation: students stole the work of others because they were afraid they couldn’t deliver on their own. This, I think, is the most regrettable cause of cheating: the pressure to earn good grades, to please one’s parents, to stay on the lacrosse team, to keep a scholarship.

Imagine being a high-school student whose parents have hired a private counselor (to the tune of $10,000 to $20,000) to help you get into an Ivy League school. Imagine this counselor seeing great promise in your writing and putting you in touch with an agent, who then puts you in touch with a book packager. Imagine being offered half a million dollars to write two novels, before your freshman year in college is over. This is, according to articles in the New York Times, what happened to Viswanathan. Some would think of this young woman as extremely lucky (she is certainly extremely talented), yet I can’t help but think about the tremendous pressure she must’ve been under. Imagine trying to finish your first novel while carrying a full course load during your freshman year at Harvard. In theory, it sounds like a dream come true; in reality, it may have been anything but.

There is no excuse for plagiarism, of course. But perhaps we need to make it easier and more acceptable for young people to fail. Then, at least, they can handle failure on their own terms and honestly, without the more serious ramifications of plagiarism haunting them for years to come.