The Writer & Author

“Hey, That’s My Idea!”: When Works of Fiction are so Similar You Want to Sue

This morning an interesting story showed up on my Facebook feed: Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the Avengers movies, was hit by a lawsuit over alleged copyright infringement. In the lawsuit, an author by the name of Peter Gallagher (not the actor) alleges that Joss Whedon and the film company Lionsgate, among others, stole the idea for the 2012 movie Cabin in the Woods from his own self-published novel The Little White Trip: A Night in the Pines, which he first put out in 2006. Apparently both the book and the movie have similar premises (spoiler alert!): a bunch of teens go hang out for the weekend in an old cabin, they’re attacked by monsters, and they find out they’re subjects in a horror-film scenario run by a strange organization or group. Gallagher also says that several of the characters in both works have similar names and personalities. No word yet on what the defendants in the case say or whether the lawsuit will actually go through or be thrown out of court (for the full story, click here).

Strangely enough, something similar happened to me last year. I was on Facebook and I saw on my news feed that a movie company that produces really interesting horror movies was getting ready to release a new film and had just uploaded its first trailer online. When I read the synopsis of the movie and saw the trailer, I was instantly reminded of a short story I wrote back in June 2013, one with an eerily similar premise and which I plan to expand into a novel when I get a chance. I will admit, the thought to sue did cross my mind.

But I didn’t. This was partly because I’d never published the short story. I’d sent it to a friend who recommended I expand it and I did speak of it one or two times on my blog, but beyond that it’s been languishing on the shelf until I feel it’s time to start expanding it. It’s a little too much to suppose that they somehow found a single post on my blog back in 2013 or maybe even hacked my flash drive and used that material to create their movie. That sounds more like a conspiracy theory or something.

Not only that, but I felt that what I was going for with my story set it apart enough from the movie in question that I didn’t need a lawsuit. And finally, I’m just finishing up my undergraduate degree. I have no time and none of the expenses for such a lawsuit, even if I was inclined for one.

But just because I didn’t feel that copyright infringement had happened here doesn’t mean it never happens. There are quite a few cases where judges have found that movie producers or book writers or TV showrunners have owed someone money over a possible infringement. Some ways to prevent yourself from being caught in either the plaintiff’s or defendant’s side include, of course, to seek out every copyright protection you can get. For example, with every book I publish I make sure to send it to the US Copyright Office first. I know, technically publication or sending it to myself in the mail is considered copyright enough, but it helps to have federal protection.

Another thing to do is, if you suspect that someone’s infringed on your copyright, that you do as much research as possible. See if you actually have something to worry about. Also remember that there are plenty of stories that have similarities (like Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down have similarities, for example), so keep that in mind while you research. It could turn out your work and the work you’re researching only has a few similarities, and the ones there are just the kind anyone could come up with.

But if there’s enough resemblance that you can’t pass it off as just a few coincidences, then perhaps you might want to see if a few more people see the resemblances. If they see them too, then maybe you should consider consulting a lawyer.

Of course, I am no lawyer and I’ve never had to worry about this. If anyone has experience with this subject, please let us know your story and tell us what happened. We’d love your feedback.

In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye on this Whedon-Gallagher story and see how it turns out. Because this could be our story. Anyone of us could go through this, as any one of us could have a copyright infringement lodged against our own properties simply to con us or someone could steal our works and sell them for their own profit. And we need to watch so we know how to fight it and keep it from happening to us.

Categories: Copyright, General Writing, Publishing Basics, Self-Publishing, The Writer & Author, Writing as a Business | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

Tips for Avoiding Burnout

I’m sure you’ve heard it said over and over again how important it is to get the next book out.  One of the most effective marketing techniques out there is to publish the next book.  Ideally, this will be a compelling story, but in order to create a compelling story, you need to be energized.  If you’re facing burnout, your work (and other areas of your life) will suffer.

A couple of quick indicators that you might be facing burnout are trouble sleeping, lack of energy/excitement, trouble focusing, headaches, increased illness (ex. you get a head cold easier),  irritability, and anxiety.  Having any of these once in a while isn’t cause for alarm.  But when you notice this is an ongoing thing, you’re probably facing burnout.

What are some causes of burnout?  Doing too much, lack of sales, lack of social support, doing work you’re not passionate about, and negative feedback.

The good news is you can take measures to avoid burnout (or, if you’re currently in the middle of it, pull yourself out).  This is something you have control over.

Here are some tips to avoid burnout.

1.   Take breaks.

This was a hard one for me to do because I used to believe if I wasn’t writing every single day, I was failing as a writer.  After all, you hear over and over how important it is to do this if you’re serious about writing. I’ve found it’s best to take planned breaks.  My new philosophy this year is to write five days a week and take two off.  It doesn’t matter which two are my days off.  I just need to make sure it’s at least two a week.

Ever since I started doing this, I have found it so much easier to write when it comes time to sit and write. I feel renewed and energetic.  When I was making myself write every day, it took me about fifteen to twenty minutes before I could get into the story, and there were days when I felt like I was pulling teeth to get my word count in.  But when I gave myself permission to take days off, I can get into the story in five minutes and I’m able to write more with less effort.

I believe when you take breaks and you’re giving our mind a rest, your subconscious thinks over the story and works things on its own.  Now, I do find it helpful to keep a notebook nearby to mark down ideas if they pop up, but I don’t do any writing.

2.  Take vacations.

It’s okay to take vacations.  These are extended breaks.  If you had a job outside the home, you get days off.  There’s no reason why you shouldn’t use this same principle if you work at home.

Your vacation length will vary depending on your situation.  It can be a week, two weeks, a month, or more if you need it.  I find it helpful to take at least one vacation a year, though I do three because I have kids and realize I need to spend these times with them while they’re still young.   So my husband and I will pick somewhere to visit and spend a few days there.

This time should be dedicated to nonwriting/nonbusiness stuff.  Take time to play, spend time with family, or check out something new.

A word of warning: the longer the vacation, the harder it might be to get back into the writing routine.  It takes me about a week before I’m back in the flow of things.  The most I can manage at first is 500 words. Each day, I can get more in.  On an average day, I write about 1500 to 2000 words.   I know some authors can do more in a day, but that is where I settle on the word count spectrum.  And this brings me to my next tip…

3.  Adjust Your Word Count or Time Goal for Your Comfort Level

Not everyone can write 5,000 words a day.  I know some authors who do, and they do it very well.  I’m not one of them.  As I said above in the five days I write, I average 1500-2000 words.  Some authors prefer to sit down and write for a certain amount of time, like 30 minutes to an hour on their writing days.  Some break up their writing throughout the day.  They might write an hour in the morning and another hour in the afternoon.  Another might break up their writing by word count.  Five hundred words in the morning and a thousand in the afternoon.

Whatever method you choose, pick the one that is most comfortable for you.   If you don’t know where your comfort level is, I suggest taking a couple weeks to monitor how you feel while you’re writing.  When you start to run out of ideas or start feeling like you’re winding down, this in an indication that you’ve reached your limit for the day.  If you ignore this indicator, you could overdo it and risk burnout.  (I’ve done this and learned my lesson the hard way.  Yes, it’s hard to stop, but sometimes you need to stop before you exhaust yourself.)

4.  Do Not Dwell on Sales (or Lack Thereof) or Reviews

I know this is hard.  It is probably the hardest thing we need to do, but focusing on sales (whether good or bad) can hinder the creative energy that makes it exciting to write.  I don’t know how often you can track sales without it affecting your ability to write with as much enthusiasm as possible.  I’ve found I can’t look at my sales report any more than once a month.  I do this at the very end of the month to plan out my budget, so I pretty much have to check them at this point.  But doing more than that will make it difficult for me to write because then my mind is on sales and rankings instead of the story.

Sales go up and down.  The highs can inflate the ego and the lows can bring on depression.  I don’t like this roller coaster ride.  I like to keep things as level as possible in my emotions, and I found I’m actually a lot happier when I ignore what is going on with my sales.

The same is true for reviews.  Reviews are for readers, not the writers.  The time to get feedback on your story is before you publish.  This is why a good editing team (which includes beta readers and critique groups) is so important.  The input you get at this stage is what you need to make your story the best it can be.  Once you publish, that part is over.  Reviews are for potential readers.  They are to help readers decide whether or not to read the book.  It’s okay if some people don’t like your book.  Look at the reviews on your favorite books and movies.  Scroll down to the 1 and 2-star reviews.  See how subjective the reviews are.  Embrace the fact that some people will hate your story.  You can’t please everyone.

This is why the most important thing you can do as a writer is to write the story you are most passionate about.  The one person who should love your work is you.

5.  Embrace Stories You’re Excited About

Some of you might be tired of hearing me tell you to focus on what you’re passionate about, but seriously, the best way to avoid burnout is by doing work you love.  If you’re working on things you don’t enjoy, sooner or later, it’s going to drain you of your energy.  You might be able to sustain momentum for a while.  And for a while, it may seem like it’s working great for you.  But creativity is best fueled by passion.  If you focus on work you truly love, it will be easier to write for a the long haul.

Categories: The Writer & Author, Writer's Block & Burnout

Short Stories That Are Too Short

Last semester I took part in a creative-writing class of about seventeen people, including our instructor. This class taught me many things about writing and gave me several new insights into my craft as well as many new tools to write more compelling and interesting stories. It also gave me a few ideas for articles, such as this one:

My classmates and I each had to turn in three short stories during the semester (two original short stories and one edited story). A few times people turned in stories that were really short and just had the barebones of a story. There were numerous reasons for why one or another student would turn in stories like that, with very little meat to it if any. Usually it was something along the lines of having their deadline sneak up on them and rushing to get something written and printed before class (I remember one girl was actually stapling the typo-plagued copies of her story together in the first few minutes of class before she turned it in. She later said that she’d rushed to get the story done, and had spent the first hour or so just wondering what the first few words should be. We all laughed at that, mostly because we’d all been there at one point or another).

However while other students were pressed for time, one or two said they were afraid that if they wrote anything longer it would be too long! When we heard this, we often told the student that their fear of making the story too long had actually made it far too short.

I’ve always defined a short story as between a thousand and ten-thousand words. This leaves a lot of room to work with, even for authors such as myself who are better suited to more expansive works like novels. Yet a lot of authors fear that getting close to twenty-five hundred words is going too far, getting too long, crossing into a territory reserved only for longer projects. Why?

I think it might have something to do with magazines and getting published in them. Many magazines, especially ones that pay, have a maximum word-limit, usually around five-thousand words or so. This creates pressure on the author who wants to be published. They want a wonderful and engaging story but at the same time they’re hampered by the feeling that they can’t go over a certain word limit or they won’t get published in this or that magazine. Even self-published authors aren’t immune to this: many indie authors write stories and send them out to magazines, often to get people to read their work, along with maybe a desire for income and maybe a small wish to show the critics of self-publishing that we can get published in the same magazines as traditional published authors and still have quality work.

The thing is, a story is going to be the length it needs to be. You can’t help it. Twice I’ve thought up and even written short stories that turned out that they needed to novels. And even when a short story manages to stay a short story, I find that a story that needs to expand to four or five thousand words or more is going to expand that length. As much as you try, you won’t get it down to twenty-five hundred without sacrificing quality. At least, not very easily.

I usually end up writing short stories between four and five thousand words. In fact, I try to make sure they stay that length. I’ve tried for shorter but that usually doesn’t happen, and longer stories do sometimes happen, though they often get shorter when I start to edit. The thing is, these stories are going to be as long as they need to be and sometimes you have to accept that. If you want to write a story that’s shorter than what you usually write, do it more as an exercise, as a way to get better at saying something in less words than normal. Don’t feel like you have to make a story shorter, but just try and see if you can. And if you can’t, don’t feel disappointed about it. Just meant that story wasn’t meant to be that short.

And if you’re worried about getting published, there are plenty of magazines, anthologies, contests, and podcasts that accept longer short stories and even short novelettes. Just do your research, you’ll find them. Or don’t go looking for them at all, but try and put together a collection of short stories. You have full creative control then and can make your stories whatever length you desire.

Or perhaps short stories aren’t your thing. They’re certainly not my area of expertise, though that hasn’t stopped me from trying. Either way, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Plenty of authors don’t do short stories and they’re excellent. Just stick to your area of strength and see what amazing stuff you can do there.

But if you do endeavor to create amazing short stories, just remember not to let the length of your story become an inhibition and a drag rather than a tool for successful writing. As I and my classmates have learned, length is important, but it’s by far not the most important thing to keep in mind. That would be the story itself.

 

On an unrelated note, thanks to Ruth Ann Nordin for the new background on this site. I was kind of attached to the old one, but I like what’s here now. It’s warm and welcoming, if you ask me.

Categories: General Writing, Psychology of Writing & Publishing, Short Stories, The Writer & Author | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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