“But that’s MY novel!” When your idea is written by someone else.

At some point, it’ll probably happen. You’ll have this FANTASTIC idea for a novel. The characters are unique. The setting is all yours. The plot – hah! No one will EVER come up with this! You’re feeling great. You start to dig into the research . . . and come to a screeching halt when the first thing you Google turns out to be . . .

Your novel.

Written by someone else. 

How could this be? You were so sure! Unique characters! Your setting! A plot no one else could ever come up with! Then WHAT IS YOUR NOVEL DOING ON SOMEONE ELSE’S AUTHOR’S PAGE ON AMAZON?????

I know. It sucks. Been there, done that. Sort of, anyway. Mine was more creepy than this, though. I’ve been working on an urban fantasy series for a while now, and I think my plot and characters are pretty unique to the story. Without giving too much away, in one of the books, secondary character Bridget is possessed by a demon at a church, and my MC, Erin, is desperately trying to save her. Only my beta readers have seen it. Then one day, I decided to attend a writing group at my local library, just to see what it was about. Imagine my shock when one woman started to read a scene from her novel . . . involving characters named exactly the same names as mine, and set in a church and a demon has possessed one of them. 

I seriously don’t think I breathed for about ten minutes. No, it wasn’t quite the same. It wasn’t as if she’d grabbed my manuscript and tried to pass it off as hers. But damn! It was close enough. And it still creeps me the hell out. (And no, I never went back.)

But you’ve probably also heard the saying there are no new stories. And it’s kind of true. Look at how many people came out of the woodwork to blast JK Rowling for infringement over some things in the Harry Potter novels (none of which, BTW, were held up). I still swear I’ve heard the term ‘muggle’ before from some book I read as a child, but I can’t tell you which one. And I don’t really care, either.

Here’s the thing:  you can write a story and it can be similar to another, or it can have certain similarities. But will it be word for word, 100%, just like it? NO. Why? Because you wrote it, and you’re bringing different views, different experiences and justifications, different expectations, different research, to the process.

Take my own example as a – well, example. Without knowing anything more about that woman’s idea and manuscript other than what she read aloud to us, I can tell you that we were going in VERY different directions. I can tell you that our characters were creme brulee and Jell-O (see, I took inspiration from My Best Friend’s Wedding there!) – my Erin is kick-ass and street smart, argumentative and stubborn, and quite likely an agnostic (though we’ve never really discussed it); her Erin was quiet, depressed, faithful but doubting that faith. My characters are best friends; hers were mother/daughter. Just due to their very different outlooks on life, our characters should make very different choices – which will influence the directions of the novels. It was also very clear that hers’ was a Christian novel. Mine is – not. 🙂

I can’t imagine the gutting, wrenching sensation you must get when you find a book already published that, on first glance, is just like yours. I can’t imagine spending years working on a novel, only to find that its doppelganger was published just a few months ago – or maybe, God forbid, years ago. But – when you can breathe and when you can think without hard liquor in your hand – look at it rationally. Sure, on the outset there may be quite a few similarities. Look deeper. How is yours different – and more importantly, how is yours better? 

In a blog post, author Bryn Donovan wrote:

I believe that some myths are deeply rooted in our collective unconscious. Magical weapons, resurrection, demons, fairies or “little people,” changelings, ghosts, heroic quests, and other elements show up in stories across the globe.

How true is this? Think abut the books you read growing up. You and I may or may not have read the same things, but in many classrooms across the country, certain books are required reading, and librarians certainly know what we want to read and what’s popular, and strive to put those books in our hands. And even if you haven’t read the books, you are probably familiar with the movies. We’re all inspired by the things around us. Everything we see, read, watch, and learn becomes part of us, and probably, in some way or another, will make it into our novels. We may not be aware of it, but it’s true.

There have always been hero quests. There always will be. A young boy finds out he is the only one who can save the world. Let’s see. Lord of the Rings. The Sword of Shannara. Harry Potter. Star Wars. In fact, look at the plots of Harry Potter and Star Wars for a second. As Melissa Donovan points out in her blog, their plots are uncannily similar:

A young orphan who is being raised by his aunt and uncle receives a mysterious message from a stranger (a non-human character), which leads him on a series of great adventures. Early on, he must receive training to learn skills that are seemingly superhuman. Along the way he befriends loyal helpers, specifically a guy and a gal who end up falling for each other. His adventures lead him to a dark and evil villain who is terrorizing everyone and everything that our hero knows and loves — the same villain who killed his parents.

So if you’ve got that in mind – it’s okay! What can YOU bring to the idea to make it fresh and yours?

Or this one:  a girl falls in love with a boy who isn’t what he seems to be. Twlight. The Vampire Diaries. The Mortal Instruments. Beauty and the Beast. Even Cinderella (if, of course, you flip the genders). Make it yours (though I will tell you, shape-shifters seem WAY overdone at the moment, and for the love of God, do NOT put  a menage-a-trois in your shape-shifter novel thinking that will make it fresh – it won’t. Just. Won’t.).

It even happens to the big authors. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about just this:  her husband told her a story about an effort to build a highway through the Brazilian jungles, but when the project had to be abandoned, the jungle swallowed the entire thing – the road, the machinery, all of it. She loved the idea. She adored it. She had a love affair with it. And then she got sidetracked by life and the idea left her – but then, months later, she discovered that Ann Patchett was writing a book about the exact same thing. There were differences, but the plots were eerily similar. As she puts it:  “. . . we each counted backwards on our fingers, trying to determine when I had lost the idea and when she had found it. Turns out, those events had occurred around the same time.”

See, fantastic ideas are just that – and if it occurred to you, there’s no doubt it occurred to someone else, too. The key is to make sure you bring enough of yourself to the novel to make it yours. 

And just to prove that there are no new ideas under the sun, here’s a sample of blog posts and forums about this exact topic:

http://www.bryndonovan.com/2016/04/26/someones-already-written-a-story-like-the-one-youre-writing-and-thats-okay/

https://www.writingforward.com/writing-ideas/are-there-any-original-writing-ideas-left

http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?112580-Writing-a-novel-and-then-realize-another-book-has-a-similar-plot

https://theawl.com/this-witch-wrote-my-book-bb480ee9d264#.z77xha56w

And here’s a previous post I wrote about seeing Liz Gilbert in person:  An Evening with Elizabeth Gilbert and An Evening With Elizabeth Gilbert, part 2

Photo Challenge: It IS Easy Being Green

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/it-is-easy-being-green/

Kansas has a lot of green. Usually. Sometimes. Okay, where I live, it does.

During spring and summer, it’s easy to be green:

rainbow 1

flowers 1

Even during winter, you can find something green:

cedars in snow 1

But sometimes, you have to trek down back alleys to find it.

chair 3 vg

So you want to start an Etsy store, eh?

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Open an Etsy shop. Watch the money roll in.

HAH.

I’m approaching my fourth anniversary on Etsy with my shop, CatNip Collectibles (https://www.etsy.com/shop/CatNipCollectibles?ref=hdr_shop_menu). I sell vintage accessories – hats, gloves, scarves, jewelry, and men’s accessories like tie clips and cuff links, mostly. And it’s a lot of fun.

But it’s also a lot of work.

Every year, thousands of people start shops on Etsy, and every year, thousands of shops shut their doors – some without ever selling a single thing. Most of them come to the Etsy forums asking the Same Exact Questions Time After Time. So I thought I’d put a few things together as a bit of a FAQ for Etsy.

1.) How does Etsy differ from eBay? I’ve sold on both venues. Etsy is often described as a large mall of individual shops, owned by individuals across the world. Items are offered at a fixed price, no auctions. Currently, there are over 1 million shops on Etsy. eBay, on the other hand, is an online auction site where you can sell almost everything except live animals and your excess liver tissue.

2.) What can I sell? You can sell anything handmade and anything vintage. Vintage is over 20 years old. That means you cannot clean out your closet and sell off last year’s stuff. Put that on eBay instead. Here’s a link to the Etsy Seller Handbook:  https://www.etsy.com/seller-handbook/?ref=ftr  (There are restrictions on certain things, and Etsy will remove items deemed to go against their rules.)

3.) When can I expect my first sale? Depends. I sold my first item within the first 30 days of operation. I sold two more in April, 3 in May, 1 in June, 4 in July . . . get it? It takes a lot of time to become a trusted seller. It was October before I had 10 sales in a month. It takes a lot of time to get the right feedback, to create your brand and ‘look’, and to get your inventory listed. There are some people on Etsy who’ve been open for a year without a single sale. There’s a rule of thumb, though:  the more items you have in your shop, the more likely it is you’ll be found. Many claim 100 items is the ‘magic threshold.’ (And OMG, please, please, read up on SEO before you start posting!)

4.) I want to make things of fabric. Can I use anything? NO. NO, NO, NO, NO. I know what you want to do. You want to make cute little things out of all that Disney-themed fabric you see at Walmart, don’t you? You think it’ll sell like hotcakes. YOU CAN’T. Disney has all their stuff trademarked. You can’t make a profit off their images and designs. The same thing if you try to hand-paint anything with a Disney image – they’ll nail you for infringement. They’ll send a cease and desist order to Etsy, who will shut you down. They might even sue you. Just don’t do it.

5.) Wait. What’s infringement? Infringement is when you take someone else’s stuff and try to make a profit on it. That’s not the technical, legal definition, but that’s basically it. You can’t use ANY trademarked logos, images, or names. That goes for all professional sports teams, Disney, Marvel, Warner Brothers, anything movie-related, etc. The only exception is if you’re selling a legitimate item and it’s vintage (for example, a vintage movie poster). So you can’t embroider Micky Mouse on a shirt and sell it. You’d have to get a license from Disney first.

5.1) So how do I know what’s trademarked? Good question! Here’s a link to the US Patent Office’s website, with a search engine just for trademarks – https://www.uspto.gov/trademarks-application-process/search-trademark-database And here’s the link to the US Copyright Office:  https://www.copyright.gov/ Keep in mind that even certain terms, like ‘fairy dust,’ are trademarked now . . . so is ‘onesie’ and a host of others.

6.) But everyone else is doing it! So what? Are you a lemming? Just. Don’t. Unless you’re ready for a massive lawsuit from the parent company.

7.) So . . . then what CAN I do? You can produce  your own artwork and designs, your own photography, your own purses, handbags – the sky’s the limit! Just be sure it’s YOURS.

hat-88.) Hmm. Well, that vintage thing sounds good. How easy is it to sell vintage? If you’re asking that, just go away. Seriously. Selling vintage is bloody hard work. You have to love vintage. Adore it. Live with it every single day of your life. You need to be able to tell, within a few seconds, if something is vintage or a knock-off. You need to be able to accurately describe not only the item, the maker, the colors and materials, but all flaws in the items you’re selling. Can you tell I sell vintage? It’s also difficult to store properly – right now, my bedroom is stuffed full of plastic storage tubs full of vintage hats. Ideal? No. But you can’t store vintage outside. It needs to be in climate-controlled areas. You also have to be willing to do the research –  A LOT OF RESEARCH. For instance, do you know what style hat this is – and what era it’s from? I do.

9.) How much money can I make? Depends. How much work do you want to put into your shop? There certainly are people who make a good living from their Etsy shops. There are many more of us who have it as a ‘side gig’ – we make a few hundred a month. There are many, many more who maybe have one sale every six months. It also depends on your overhead and how much your items sell for.

10.) How do I get started? Easy. The best thing to do before you ever start a shop is visit the Etsy forums (https://www.etsy.com/forums/?ref=ftr) and read the Seller Handbook. Decide if this is really right for you. It takes time to photograph and list items. It takes time to promote on social media. You need to develop a shop name and a brand. This is just like starting any other business – it is a business. Look at other shops doing what you want to do and see 1.) how many there are, 2.) how many sales they have, and 3.) how well their items are made. Had I looked at how many vintage shops there were before I started, I might not have! But there are shops that specialize in just one thing, too – glassware, handmade jewelry, vintage movie posters. Find your niche. Then, you’ll just sign up to become an Etsy member, click on the little “open shop” icon, and get started.

I don’t want to sound crabby and bitchy, but the fact is, this isn’t something to undertake lightly. So many people come on the Etsy forums with the same questions, usually about “I opened my shop last week and no sales! Why?!” I hope some of this might answer a few of your questions, and that the links prove useful.

If you do decide to go for it, good luck! 🙂

 

The Adjunct Files: What’s in a Classroom Policy?

So last week we looked at basic building blocks for your syllabus – what to include and why. This week, I want to take a closer look at your own policies – because let’s face it, that’s probably what you have the most control over. You can’t change the college’s policies; you can’t change the textbook; but:  your classroom, your policies.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Nota bene:  different colleges offer instructors, especially adjuncts, differing levels of leeway in setting your own policies. Some departments may require you to do things their way; one college I applied to required instructors to use ONLY the course material they provided, in the course shell they provided, with the exams and assignments they set! There was absolutely no leeway there whatsoever, and even when adjuncts pointed out inaccuracies in the textbooks and quizzes, they refused to listen. So before you start to write your policies, double-check with your department chair or lead instructor.

Your policies are not going to be perfect out the gate. I promise that you will not be able to cover everything the first time out. What you need to decide first is what are you willing to enforce, every single day, in class?

My personal polices cover the following areas:

  • Late work
  • Making up tests (for my athletes who might be gone on an exam day)
  • Attending when ill (DON’T!)
  • Cell phones
  • Plagiarism, Cheating, Academic Integrity
  • ‘Helping’ others (teammates, significant others, etc.) with class work (it’s cheating, according to my school)
  • Best practices for contacting me (just to reiterate it)

For this blog post, though, I want to focus on cell phones and late work.

Cell phones. For some, students using cell phones in class is the biggest pet peeve there is:  it’s rude, disrespectful, and a barrier to learning. Just last week, I had a student who was playing on his cell phone, not listening as I spent 15 minutes talking about what would be on their first exam. Imagine what grade he got. (He did have the grace to scribble on the last page, “I didn’t know there was an essay.”) For some, however, if students choose to play on their phones rather than participate and take notes, that’s up to them; they’re presumably adults and if that’s how they choose to do things, they’ll have to live with the consequences. Still others have found ways to incorporate phones into their classrooms. Decide how you want to structure your course and what your policy will be when you see the texting begin.

Late work. I’ve seen the gamut. I knew an instructor who, in her online courses, opened all the assignments the first day of class and left them all open until the last day of class. No late work, no problem. Your college may frown on this. Mine certainly does. There’s a lot of options here, and you need to decide what works for you and your students. Can you offer a three-day grace period once for credit? A coupon for a missing assignment? I’ve seen both of these.

A lot of instructors offer a grace period with a set percentage taken off the total score for the late work. For instance, up to three days late, a 10% reduction; 5 days, a 25% reduction; after 7 days, not accepted at all. If you’re willing to take the late work and figure out the reduced points (and most importantly, stick to it!) this can be effective.

My personal policy is quite simple:  you get a week to do an assignment. If it’s late, it’s a zero. I will only reopen assignments in cases of extreme emergency, and those, I evaluate on a case by case basis. Your computer crashed at 7pm Saturday night, four hours before the deadline? Not good enough. I take into account when the student lets me know, the severity of the crisis, and what their previous work has been like. I really think you have to have a loophole of some sort. A small one, but a loophole. Bad things happen. I’ve had students hospitalized, students lose their parents (and children), students left without power by hurricanes and students flooded out of their homes. All that? That’s an emergency. That’s why, whatever policy you choose for late work, it should be fair to both you and the student – but it should also hold them accountable for their actions. I firmly believe it’s our job to not only teach them a subject, but also responsibility – and to be honest, this may be the first time in that student’s life that they’ve ever been responsible for their own actions!

Okay, I lied. I want to do one more thing:  The Unprepared Student. What about students who come to class unprepared? Let’s say you’re teaching Literature, and on Thursday you’ll be discussing “The Rocking Horse Winner” in class. You expect the students to have read the story by then and be familiar with it. You’ve told them this in class. You’ve sent them an email about it. And then – half the class shows up without having read the story. What do you do?

There really should be repercussions. You can choose to punish those who aren’t prepared in some way, or to reward the ones who are – and really, you’ll probably do a mix of both. Did you require them to answer questions about the reading? Can you give them a pop quiz? My guess is that you can’t waste a class period for them to read the story – you’ve got things planned. Do you excuse them, with the caveat that they can’t have the points for that day’s in-class assignments? It’s up to you.

On that topic, a small sidebar – I love pop quizzes. If students aren’t paying attention, or if I think the material isn’t quite getting through to them, I’ll surprise them with one. I’ve even made them up on the fly – a quick five questions, typed into Power Point and answered in just a few minutes. They can be for points or for extra credit, whatever you want to do. I’ve done both. They do tend to keep students on their toes, and it’s a great way to check for understanding on complicated (or boring!) topics.

My policies have changed dramatically over the past 12 years. Yours will, too. In fact, I guarantee they’ll change from semester to semester as you find new things to include, things to tweak, and items that the college may start policing on its own. But hopefully, this will give you some things to think about as you get started.

 

Getting to know you . . . Research and Characters

Have you ever had one of those ideas for a novel – or even a character – that sort of teases at the edges of your mind? There one second, gone the next. Coming just close enough for you to get a glimpse of it. To get an idea of what it might be about. But it never does more than that, and it’s frustrating as hell.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s had that happen . . . !

A few years ago, when I was taking my course on Young Adult Fiction from Oxford, I had an idea in my mind about a book. I thought it might end up being a series, in fact – maybe not open-ended, but maybe a trilogy. I’d written about it in our discussions, in fact, but I never got a good solid sense of who this character was and what he was about. His name was Chase; he was about fourteen; he was living in the 1930s; and he had an interesting side gig. But every time I tried to write about him, it was like trying to get a stray cat to come close enough to be petted – he just stood there and stared at me, with this sense of Really? I’m not that easy. 

But then Nicky came along in all his full-fledged, hotheaded glory, and Chase tipped me a nod and said, “We’ll meet again when you’re ready for me.”

Well, hell’s bells, I wasn’t ready for Nicky! But I’m beginning to understand why, although Chase and I have danced around each other a bit over the past few years, we’ve never connected.

It’s because I need to know more about how and what he is. And about his world.

Nicky, I knew. Nicky was easy to get to know. Not only did he come with a full set of operating instructions and a mouth bigger than Texas, but I got him. I knew all about the 1920s and rumrunning, and what I didn’t know, I could easily find out. But Chase was different. His story was different, and the things he knew were different.

Sometimes characters come to us, and because they’re like us, or because they’re already part of something we know, it’s easier to relate to them. Maybe they have the same outlook on life, or hate or like the same things we do, or grew up in the same town – or at least, the same kind of town. But those characters who come knocking, nodding shyly, holding everything back until they’re absolutely 100% sure you’re The One? Those are the ones that elude us sometimes, that make us worker harder than we’ve ever worked before.

So last year, I ordered books. Lots of them. I do this a lot. Most historical writers do. We need to know something specific, so we go buy everything we can. I’ve got books on 17th century witch hunts, bootlegging, the KKK, every ghost legend in England, and more. But I realized I had nothing about Chase and his life. So I bought books.

I’m reading one now, in fact, and not five pages into it, I started to get ideas. Started to hear Chase talk to me, just a bit. Not a lot, but enough. He knows I’m here. I know he’s listening.

Yes, I can hear some of you now – But I don’t believe characters talk to us! So what does this have to do with me? 

Glad you asked!

If you’re researching a historical novel – or any novel for that matter – you have to remember that personality only goes so far. Environment shapes character. It shapes you and me and the cat in the tree, and it shapes your fictional characters, too. It’s just a fact of life. Take the 1930s, for example. A farmer fighting to keep his land in the Dust Bowl is going to be a far cry from Joe Kennedy, ex-bootlegger and now Ambassador to England. They had different upbringings, took different paths, made different choices. Knowing about the Dust Bowl will help you see how your farmer should behave. You know he keeps plowing his fields, even when all common sense says not to – why? Research into the farmers of the era will tell you why. And while your farmer may have other reasons, I’m guessing he shares a lot in common with the others.

Or let’s take a common trope:  a historical novel with a woman fighting for her rights in any era – let’s say the 14th century. That’s grand, but she doesn’t exist in a vacuum; she exists in a real world, full of real laws and real consequences. She resists an arranged marriage? Then what are her legal, realistic options? And is she ready to face them? (Now, if you want to put this young heroine in the midst of the Black Death and its aftermath, this might work – lots of opportunities opened up in Europe once 1/3 of the population was dead. But before that time? No.) So your research would naturally need to include all the jobs available to women in the time period, any women who were like your heroine, the laws pertaining to women, etc. This will help you get a better sense of who this character really is and make her much more three-dimensional and believable.

That’s what I needed with Chase. He resisted every attempt I’d mentally made to put him into a cubbyhole, a place I thought he should go. I had to go to him. I had to get into his world, see things through his eyes, first.

No, we’re still not quite talking – but the researching is really opening my eyes to all the possibilities. And I know that when the time’s right and I’m ready, he’ll be there.

Just like Nicky. 🙂