Lessons Learned from the Romance Author Plagiarism & Ghostwriter Scandal (AKA #copypastecrislist)

Eat. Pray. Be original.

You know it’s over when….

Romance author Cristiane Serruya has been called out for being one of the most prolific plagiarists of all time.

I’m listening.

Apparently, Serruya, who’s also a former law professor and Supreme Court clerk (girl, check yourself), hired a ghostwriter (or maybe several ghostwriters) on Fiverr. The Twitter rumor mill under ‪#copypastecrislistsays that she gave the ghostwriters sections of text from other authors’ works and told them “rewrite them”. It’s not clear if she told her ghostwriters the origins of these passages or not. I’m guessing not since the ghostwriter(s) kept the passages pretty much as-is. You can view some of the comparisons here and here.

Welcome back. While alleged author Cristiane Serruya (who wasn’t even smart enough to plagiarize under a pseudonym…and yet she clerked for the Supremes) has tweeted an apology saying she had no idea and has removed the plagiarized works (so, all of them?), to me it smells like she’s shoveling crap on a fire that’s already roaring out of control. Too little too late.

Never mind that her non-fans on the Twitter feed are saying there’s evidence she didn’t even pay the ghostwriter.

I feel like there’s a lesson here….

So, Peaches did a lot of things wrong, but let’s talk about what’s notwrong.

  1. It’s not wrong to hire a ghostwriter.

  2. It’s not wrong to be inspired by authors you admire.

  3. It’s not wrong (see Fair Use Doctrine) to parodya work (and to publish it and to get paid).

Now let’s review what Peaches allegedly did that was wrong and then how YOU can avoid ruining your life in similar fashion.

  1. She expected her ghostwriter to be her editor and fact checker. Again, girl, check yourself…as in check the work yourself.

  2. She used direct quotes (and no doubt plot lines) from other authors’ works.

But Mom, My English Teacher Said Using a Ghostwriter Was Plagiarizing

So, first, let’s talk about the fairness of using a ghostwriter and how that’s not plagiarism. To the undergraduates to whom I teach various writing courses, hiring a ghostwriter is absolutely plagiarism. They’re turning in their work with their name on the top, but they’ve paid someone on one of the many college essay sites to write the real paper.

I’ve actually gotten to the point to where I don’t kill myself trying to prove it. I can usually smell fish, but proving you’re trying to sell me a cod and call it flounder is easier said than done and a waste of my time. So, fine, be stupid. Enjoy life. (Not sure why you’d pay tens of thousands of dollars to cheat, but whatevs.)

In real life, outside of the academic bubble, ghostwriters are commonly used. After all, all of the dumbasses who paid to have their essays written in college aren’t going to get their degree and magically know all of the things they failed to learn (this isn’t the Wizard of Oz, scarecrows).

So, ghostwriters are used for all kinds of things:

  • Content marketing

  • Website development

  • Novels (especially genre fiction series)

  • Books (memoirs, technical manuals, etc.)

  • Blogs

  • Social media

Sometimes people hire ghostwriters not because they lack the ability to write; sometimes, it is because they haven’t the time. That’s fair. As one of the bloggers pointed out in an article linked above, Amazon, (which I wrote about in detail a couple of weeks ago) pays authors to play. They want content. The more you churn out, the bigger your return and your paycheck.

So, I do pity authors who just want to make it as an author but who know they have to be prolific to survive. It doesn’t help that Amazon’s structure perpetually drivesdownthe price of written works, which means authors get paid less and less. So, they become wordsmithing hustlers; the ones who aren’t part of a collaborative (i.e., two or three or more authors work together to write for the same series, which allows works to be churned out both authentically and quickly to satisfy readers and algorithms alike) typically hire ghostwriters.

If you grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s and read Sweet Valleyor works by R.L. Stine or L.E. Blair (Girl Talk), then guess what? You read works penned by ghostwriters. (This NPR story from 2013 is by Amy Boesky, a Harvard alum who was one of Francine Pascal’s ghostwriters back in the day.)

How Does Using a Ghostwriter Work?

When authors work with ghostwriters, they usually provide an outline. The author has already conceived of the characters and the overall story. The ghostwriter just fills in the blanks. The contract with the ghostwriter determines stipulations for edits and rewrites. Note that in real life, in novels, ghostwriters are usually given credit. It might just be in fine print on the inside cover, but it’s common practice for a ghostwriter to be credited.

In the nonfiction world, the author is given a style guide (voice / tone, punctuation, etc.) and guidelines to follow as well as a topic. The writer is obligated to do any research necessary to write the story.

All work is contracted. While any ghostwriter worth her salt will check facts herself and will cite sources (nonfiction), it is ultimately the work’s owner (the author or the company or the blogger, etc.) to verify that the work is accurate and does not contain any plagiarism.

(You have no idea how delightful it is when a student turns in a ghostwritten work that is also plagiarized. Um…can I get a refund on that education?)

In case it seems ludicrous to suggest these people check their own facts, there are editors who can be hired to fact-check a work. So, there’s really just no excuse (not the tyranny of time or anything else).

So, What is Plagiarism? AKA, How to Not Cheat 101

Now that we’ve established what ghostwriters are and that using them isn’t a crime against the written word (okay, not paying the ghostwriters is a crime), let’s look at what is…plagiarism.

As you recall from those sweaty pencil-written five paragraph essays of yore, plagiarism happens when your work isn’t cited or referenced properly. Pretty basic, but it’s actually more detailed than that.

While failing to cite a summary, a paraphrase, or a direct quote (with quotation marks) is definitely considered plagiarism in academia, the real crime is taking someone’s intellectual property. Here are a few things that fall under that umbrella:

  • The content itself (i.e., the essential story / theme)

  • The organization of content (i.e., the plot and / or plot flow)

  • The contents within the story (i.e., characters, settings, etc.)

  • The words…even when rewritten in your “own” words (this is called patchwriting and is the worst)

I once had a student rewrite an entire web article. He put the whole thing in his own grammatically-challenged words. He retained the original organization of information. He also retained the information itself. And then he got a zero and a printed copy of the original article.

The student committed three infractions:

  • His writing was all patchwriting

  • He took the ideas from someone else and passed them off as his own

  • He took the organization from the original author

These are the same professional “crimes” Serruya is being accused of. If you look at the links that show comparisons between her works and others, the similarities are too remarkable to be coincidence.

Note that even just one form of plagiarism is enough to discredit an author and to ruin his or her career.

Dayum. How Do I Avoid Plagiarism?

Professional ruin is a scary prospect; thankfully, by not plagiarizing, you can avoid professional ruin. How do you do that?

Writing Genre Fiction

At the forefront, it seems easy…just be original. And most authors are original, even if they use structures or concepts that are tried-and-true. For example, Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code’s underpinnings are one of the most typical and classic forms of mysteries…it’s one that features the protagonist at odds with the police because he’s been accused of the crime, so the protagonist must not only absolve himself in the eyes of the law, but he is also the one¾the only one, who can solve the crime.

Does that mean Dan Brown is a plagiarist? Of course not! His novel and characters are completely original compared to other works of the same genre.

In fact, in genre fiction in particular, the author is almost obligated to “give the readers what they want”. In other words, for readers who eat romance genre fiction for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, if you kill off the lovers or deny them their “happily ever after” (or at least their “happy enough for now”), your readers will rebel.

What makes these works original are the stories and the characters. Who are these people? How do they get from point A to point B (as in Bed)?

Plot Points

Okay, but now let’s say I want to write a period romance in which a feisty duchess refuses to give her hand (at her parent’s behest) to the neighboring Lord’s repulsive son because she’s in love with the strapping horseman (aka, the horse man. Giddyap.).

I write my outline and develop my characters and then realize that there are already several historical genre fiction romances that have the exact same premise. If I keep going, am I plagiarizing?

No! Hypothetical me thought she was being original. Now, so long as I write my story the way I’ve envisioned with my characters, then I ambeing original, and any similarities between my writing and those works would be completely coincidental and likely so minor, no one would even notice.

Changing the setting and the characters

On the flip side…let’s say I just read a book with the exact premise and plot structure. I liked it so much that I decided to write my own version with the same premise. Instead of England, I set it in Scotland. Instead of a duchess, she’s a princess betrothed to an obnoxious prince, and instead of a horse man, she falls in love with a seaman (now with more semen!).

Is this plagiarizing? No, this is being inspired, but it’s getting a little risky. Hypothetical me is changing lots of things and will also change some details about my characters to make them even more unique. No biggie.

Same premise, different plot

To fully avoid plagiarism, I need to come up with my own plot. Writing a tried-and-true genre structure and having a similar premise aren’t crimes. Taking the plot is. In other words, my characters will need to meet in a different way and possibly at a different place in the story. The unveiling of details and the character interactions should be completely dissimilar from the original, too

Here’s where most people mess up

The plagiarists, and I’ve heard accusations of a few including our new friend, will go so far as to change characters (and even their clothes), but they won’t change the plot in a significant way.

For example:

Original: Marie spun a golden tendril around her pinky finger, unaware he was watching her take her morning stroll in the rose garden.

Copy: Anastasia played with a loose curl, unaware she was being watched while she toured the garden.

Here’s why this brand of plagiarism is particularly dirty. It’s just different enough to be a real hassle to prove, but as one who doesn’t believe in coincidence, when an entire work or entire chapters or even sections look this way, you’ve got a plagiarist. Or, if you do this, you are a plagiarist.

How Do I Protect My Work from Plagiarism?

Though this is a truly harrowing story, the reality is that plagiarism is NOT that frequent; however, it is also easy to protect your interests should your work be plagiarized. As I explained in this article on copyrights that I wrote last year, your work is naturally protected by copyright law once it’s tangibly expressed (re: written down or recorded, etc.).

You can still apply for an official copyright for $35. For an additional $35, you can (and should) register your copyrighted work. Registration is essential to be able to file an infringement suit in court. Registration also makes you eligible for claiming statutory damages, attorney fees, and other costs. You must have filed registration prior to infringement occurring.

Again, plagiarism is thankfully rare. It doesn’t occur often, but when and if it does and you want to go to court, you need to have registered your work. The process is very easy. The forms are all online, and once you do, you have (some) peace of mind in knowing that if you are a victim, you have options.

Phew. I’ll stop there. I hope this was a useful and informative read. If it was, please share it, and sign up to get my e-mail newsletter. Also, if you’re looking to work with an editor who values honesty and integrity, give me a shout. I do free sample edits, negotiate the cost for work based on our mutual needs and interests, and always make sure we’re a good fit. So, contact me, Vonnie York by clicking this link or by sending an e-mail to vonnie@creativeeditingservices.com.