That Time When I Plagiarized… Accidentally.

I was riding on the wings of a book launch, when energy and excitement are high, and the invitations for radio interviews, podcasts, and guest blog posts filled the pages of my calendar.  I was delighted to have one of the most coveted (can Christians say coveted?) invitations, a guest post on a blog that’s read worldwide. I pulled an excerpt from a chapter in my book, a piece about having confidence in the sovereignty of God, even when you feel overlooked.  I submitted to the editors, I got the stamp of approval, and I waited for the day it would go live. These were exciting times, my friends. Exciting times, indeed.

The morning after the post went into the world, I got an email from an author I’ve long loved, one whose writing I have studied and learned fromI was delighted to hear from her, as I’ve long read her words and tucked them into my heart.  I found her work years ago, shortly after my husband died, when I was searching everywhere for guidance and any ounce of hope.  This author had experienced her own dark valley of grief, and I read her words voraciously, letting her light my path through the valley. She had been a lighthouse for me. She had read my guest post and she wanted to reach out to me… but not for reasons I had hoped.

She said,

Tricia: I know what it’s like to find someone else’s words that sound so much like your own thoughts and to use them so much they begin to feel like your own. I know I’ve used other people’s words in this way, so I’m not throwing stones. But your beautiful blog post today had some very familiar-sounding words, and I wonder if you might want to either rewrite them to make them your own or attribute them as a quote?

And then she wrote the text from the blog post, and I gasped aloud and spilled my coffee across the dining room table. Those words were definitely hers. I was very accidentally, but very definitely, guilty of plagiarizing. And I was horrified.  As embarrassing as it is, let me tell you what happened so I can perhaps spare you from breaking the Number One Rule of writing.  Here’s what happened.

As I devoured her books so many years ago, I had quoted her in my journals, prayed her prayers in my own voice. In my silent hours of crying out to God, I had copied her passages and doodled her quotes, weaving them into my own.  After all, she had given me words when I was too sad to find my own. But in my stream of consciousness journaling, I didn’t quote my sources. (Because who footnotes in the privacy of their own journals?)  Years later, when it came time to write this new book, I revisited those journals that had chronicled the stages of my journey.  I rediscovered words and prayers and ideas and themes, all in my handwriting.  And I simply pulled from my journals, and I wrote them into a new manuscript.

Yes, she had found her words in a blog post that could be easily fixed, but the greater concern is that the blog post was an excerpt from a book. And that book was now out in the world. Such things are not as quickly fixed.

I called my agent, Greg, immediately.  It happened to be on his birthday. First, I told him happy birthday, then I told him I had accidentally broken the law in a book that was out in the world.  I prepared myself to be sued, to lose my credibility, and worst of all, to never write again.  It felt unprofessional, and unprofessional is never something I want to be known for. I didn’t want to draw anyone’s integrity into question, certainly not mine, and definitely not my publishers’.

Greg talked me off the ledge, explained that this was an honest mistake that happens sometimes, particularly among pastors who become authors.  They gather their resources from all over, they write a sermon, and then their sermons are transcribed to become book chapters, and the original sources get lost in translation. He walked me through a plan: we would write a correction on the blog post, we would make changes in future reprints of the book, and we would make changes in ebooks immediately.  This mistake was not, in fact, the very end of the world or even of my career.

We offered our solution to this acclaimed author, and she was gracious in her reply.  She said:

Please don’t sweat this.  I know I’ve done this.  In fact, I think we would both be horrified to see how much I’ve done it without realizing it because I too have been sloppy in noting where I got things.  So please don’t beat yourself up. You are forgiven and free, my dear.  And may the Lord give me grace to respond as graciously as you have when an error like this is pointed out to me, as I’m sure they one day will be.

She was the epitome of gentleness, forgiveness, and professional compassion.  She showed me how we, a community of Christian authors, can support one another’s work and hold each other accountable. I’ve learned some hard lessons about plagiarism, gentle confrontation, grace, and footnoting everything – even in the sacred privacy of my journals.

Take it from me, my fellow writers. Even on cocktail napkins, journal pages, and fleeting scraps of paper, note your sources so you can quote your sources.

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Is Your Email Inbox Overflowing?

I recall when my husband and I first got dial-up internet with an email service. Now and then, an email would pop into our inbox. We’d cull through the few emails, respond as needed, and move on.

I also remember when I first established an email address for my writer website. Again, emails trickled in, and I was happy to read each and every word that came my way.

Those days are long gone.

Email inbox showing 179 unread messages

Photo credit: ©adimas

Perhaps they’ve passed for you too. When you start getting a bunch of email, it’s exciting because it means you’re reaching people. Isn’t that what you want your words to do? Don’t you want many readers?

Yes, but that increase in email also means you probably can’t read every word. Or at least you can’t respond personally and extensively to each and every email.

As a person involved in ministry, I feel terrible when someone pours out their heart and soul, telling me their personal story and asking for my help, and I simply can’t answer like I want to. This has been a difficult shift for me. Especially when I know how wonderful it can feel to get a personalized return email from someone you contacted.

But I also know that if I did answer each and every email with the care and attention it deserves, I wouldn’t be able to write more books or even blog posts. I’d spend day after day counseling people one by one through email.

And that’s not the mission God gave me.

Jesus dealt with this same press of needy people. Sometimes He stopped and interacted with them, but sometimes He stepped away so that He could stay focused and pursue His primary mission:

When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake” (Matthew 8:18).

And after sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan” (Matthew 15:39, ESV).

Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:15-16).

Do you feel guilty about the emails sitting in your inbox? About the people who desire or demand your time when you just don’t have it to give?

Yes, we need to let God interrupt our work when He wants something done. But all those emails in our inbox aren’t necessarily God’s calling for us. He has given us a mission of writing, whether in fiction or nonfiction, and that is the primary way we reach people for Him.

When I remember my Lord’s calling above all, I can keep my eyes on where He wants me to work. And I can trust that the Holy Spirit will lead those in need to other resources, because I’m definitely not the only one who can help. We exist in a Body of Christ, and I am just a finger.

In the meantime, I send out canned responses to thank people for their emails, explain what my response policy is, and encourage them to seek local help if they need Christian counseling, mentoring, or pastoring. And then, I write more blog posts and more books, praying these resources will answer some of those questions and help the marriages I long to help.

How do you approach your overflowing email inbox? How do you stay on mission?

7 Slippery-Slope Reasons Writers Shouldn’t Blog

 

Yes, I know. I am a writer and this is a blog post about not writing blogs. Irony is everywhere. Embrace it. But this topic still matters because many publishers urge authors to start and maintain a blog. Should you? Start the slope with me, then decide for yourself:

  1. Blogging can create a dopamine addiction, a Pavlovian instant-feedback dependence. Especially when you’re working on manuscripts that take a year or three; it’s a long silent drive with no one in the car. That immediate rush of reader response can derail the long obedience of writing (riding) patiently to a distant destination. And clearly, then…
  2. It also steals precious time away from long form writing and from writing articles with larger readerships and influence. Even if you only post once a week (as I do), even that can take the entire day, which means one workday out of five is gone. Not to mention the time taken to respond to every comment, which you absolutely should do.
  3. Because of this, and because you never have enough time to write, and because you know #1 and #2 are true, you will then decide to write your blog as efficiently as possible, which then means hasty pasty work that can degrade your artistry and your own standards of excellence. You blog to create a “brand,” but maybe your blogging “brand” tarnishes your book brand? But…
  4. It won’t matter and you won’t care because now advertisers are at your gate and you’re soon selling so much merchandise you realize you could do this full time with a few small adjustments to your editorial content and your wardrobe and your housewares, which you now feature because you’ve become such a commodity you spend most of your time taking photos and signing contracts rather than crafting paragraphs. Or…
  5. Just as easily, You become a political crankcase. Though you never plan this, the immediacy of blogging, the outrageousness of current politics and the catharsis you imagine awaits you after verbal tirades and blood-letting on your blog can oh-so-siren-song you into becoming a self-righteous rant-er in your beloved space which you once intended for the literary care and feeding of others. It will happen so gradually you won’t even notice until eventually…
  6. You will see yourself as a social/medical/educational/historical/everything commentator as knowledgeable about every current hot issue as the next guy and, armed with opinions you no longer want to waste, you deputize yourself and spend your energy preventing the demise of the free world or whatever your current passion has become now that you’re a Truth-warrior and Word-slinger rather than a writer. But also, you could slide the other way and…
  7. Care so much about your readers who are themselves tired of the sensationalized fake-newsy rants of the blogosphere that you spend your time devising outlandishly clever posts that occasionally include YouTubes about goats to prod your weary readers into liking and sharing your freakish brilliance. In other words, you’re writing simply for their attention rather than writing about what you really care about which doesn’t work at all, Or it does work and because you now have 50,000 followers, you decide to run for political office or move to L.A. to try stand-up comedy. Failing in both, you move back in with your parents and get a job designing slipper socks. You forgot you ever wanted to write.

You could end up here OR, you could slide another way and discover that life is strangely riddled with holiness and your weekly posts press you to find the divine you might otherwise miss. And around those words a collection of strangers begins to gather into neighbors you soon love who join you in this weekly act of holy listening. And before you know it seven years have gone by and you know many by their names and this wondrous crazy life now belongs in some way to all of you. And you may sell more books or you may not, you don’t keep track because you’re too busy writing and writing and all you know is you never want to stop.

Should you blog? You decide.

Writer’s Block? Consider a Template

You sit down to write your blog post or speech, and your mind goes blank.

What do you do? Panic? Make a fresh cup of coffee? Take a walk outside? Or tie yourself to your desk chair, vowing not to get up until it’s finished?

We’ve all had these moments of frustration when the words refuse to come. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one.

Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then start on the first one.”

One way to do that is to use a template. Michael Hyatt suggests, “I create a template for any task I find myself doing repeatedly. So instead of reinventing the wheel every time, I do it once, save it as a template, and then reuse it.”

If you’ve every written a book proposal, you understand the value of a template. And you compose it in chunks, right? In fact, just typing the cover page is a helpful way to start; then, you go on to the next page.

I use templates as I compose teaching or speaking notes, as well as for some of my hard-to-write blog posts.

I start with an overall look at the topic.

  • Audience. I start by examining who I’m writing for, or who will be attending the event.
  • Felt need or problem. I examine not only what problem I’m addressing, but also what I want the audience to know and to do.
  • Main thought. For me, it’s often hard to reduce my message into one or two words. So, I attempt to summarize my message in one sentence to get my focus.
  • Scripture or reference. Since I write on nonfiction, Christian topics, I write out the main scripture or promise I want to share, or the authoritative source.

The next part of my template includes spaces for each section planned.

  • Opening statement or story. Here’s where I try to capture the attention of my audience with a quotation or an intriguing story.
  • My story. I connect with the topic, using an illustration from my own experiences.
  • Our story. I consider borrowing from other people or source that expresses how many reader will relate to the subject.
  • Resource. What does my primary resource say about this topic? This could be Bible reference or another authoritative source.
  • Your story. Now, I try to lead the reader to connect the topic with one of her own life stories.
  • Application. I encourage the audience to adopt some practical way to apply the message that might change their life.
  • Conclusion. What is the take-away? Write something the audience can remember—a clever quote, a power statement, or repeat what you just said in the post in a memorable way. I propose a premise, then reinforce it with strong, concluding words.

How do you handle those times when the words won’t come for your project?

I hope you will consider developing a template for those tasks you find yourself doing routinely, like blog posts or speaking notes.

And if all else fails, just take a walk or do anything to get your mind off your writing, and allow yourself to refocus on something pleasant or beautiful.

Then, go back to your desk, sit down, and just write!

Have templates helped you in your writing? If so, share a few examples with us.

 

You can only eat so much eggplant.

eggplantI’ve rediscovered the joy of vegetable gardening, thanks to our move to a warmer clime that allows for gardening year-round. As a result, I’ve acquired some hands-on experience with how my garden grows…or not. And, being the reflective person I am, I can’t help but apply those lessons to not only life in general, but also to life as a writer. So whether or not you’re a dig-in-the-dirt kind of person, I hope you’ll find some gems in the guidelines I’m culling from my veggies.

  1. Sow liberally and see what comes up. For my first crop of lettuce, I ignored the seed packet instructions and laid seeds thickly the whole length of the row. I wanted to be sure something came up, and my confidence didn’t match the packet’s. The result: I had all the lettuce I could eat, and then some. The next time I sowed lettuce, I followed the instructions and spaced fewer seeds farther apart. The result: nothing came up and my work was a wasted effort.

Writing take-away: when you’re new at writing, try it all. See what develops for you. It’s better to produce more than you can use than have no success at all.

  1. Thin the rows to get better results. When I noticed that the new plants were crowding each other, I pulled out the smaller ones to let the bigger ones get the full advantage of soil, sun, and water. I got healthier plants that produced more and for longer periods of time.

Writing take-away: Capitalize on what’s working for you. If your fiction isn’t doing well, focus on the self-help material that’s popular with your audience and helping your platform grow. Put your energy where you’re seeing the strongest results.

  1. Some seeds just won’t sprout. Get over it. Plant something else. For some reason, I couldn’t get snow peas to grow despite two tries. Instead of letting the soil lay unused, I planted beets, which turned into a bumper crop, forcing me to try lots of new great recipes using beets.

Writing take-away: If you just can’t find an audience for something you’ve written, it’s time to try a different approach, treatment, or subject. The new material you produce might prove an easy winner.

  1. You can only eat so much eggplant. I didn’t think I could get tired of eggplant parmesan and mixed veggie grills, but after this summer and fall, I know there really is a limit to how much eggplant I can eat. Next year, I will plant only one plant, or make a habit of giving excess produce to my neighbors much earlier in the season.

Writing take-away: You can get tired of writing in the same genre. When you just can’t face writing another devotional, or romance, or even a blog post about writing, take a break. Write something else. Binge on reading books. Watch all the movies you missed in the last year. Then a day will come that you really want to write in your genre again. You’ll feel fresh and your writing will benefit.

By the way, if anyone wants eggplant, let me know…

To Blog or Not to Blog, That is the Question

The following is a guest post from Rachelle Gardner, a literary agent with Books and Such. It was first published on her blog at www.rachellegardner.com.

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Standard wisdom used to be that authors, both fiction and non-fiction, should build relationships with readers through blogs. As social media and online marketing have evolved, my thoughts on blogging have changed.

The proliferation of blogs in the last ten years has made it increasingly difficult to stand out in the crowd. Many authors are blogging faithfully but it doesn’t seem to be increasing readership of their books; in fact most of their readers are other writers. One good indicator blogging might not be for you is if you have a hard time figuring out what you should write about.

So, how do you decide if you should have a blog?
Have a blog if:

  1. You have something important to say and it seems people want to hear it.
  2.  You understand that blogging is about offering something of value, NOT about promoting yourself and your books.
  3.  You enjoy blogging (for the most part, anyway).
  4.  You find blogging contributes to your creativity and enthusiasm for writing your books, rather than sucking all the energy out of you.
  5.  You can find the time for blogging without it completely stressing you out.
  6.  Your books have a highly defined target audience, making it easy to target your blog.
  7. Your books are topical (especially non-fiction), so that you have a clear and obvious theme for your blog.

Don’t have a blog if:

  1. You keep asking yourself and others, “But what should I blog about?”
  2. You only want to blog to promote your books and/or because you think you “have to.”
  3. The whole idea stresses you out.
  4. You honestly don’t have the time in your schedule to blog regularly.
  5. You’ve been blogging for a year or more, and haven’t built up to a traffic level that seems worth it.

Here are some alternatives to blogging when it comes to online networking and promotion.

  • joining a group blog
  • sending email newsletters
  • using Facebook effectively
  • leveraging the various ways Goodreads offers for promoting books
  • attracting a readership through Pinterest and/or Instagram
  • having an effective LinkedIn profile page

If you don’t want to blog or be engaged in online promotion, should you self-publish instead of seeking a publisher?

I get this question from writers frequently, and my answer is: What would be the point of self-publishing a book, if you have no intention of promoting it? Who will buy it? With millions of books available for sale at any given time, what’s your plan for letting people know that yours exists?

Blogging and other means of online promotion aren’t just hoops that publishers want you to jump through. They’re real and necessary methods of letting people know about your book. So if you have no intention of letting anyone know about your book, through a sustained, long-term promotional plan of online engagement, then think carefully about whether you want to write a book for publication. If you build it: they will NOT come. You must promote it.
Do you blog? If so, how’s it going? If not, why not? 

Rachelle Gardner is a literary agent with Books and Such Literary Agency based in California. In addition, she is an experienced editor, writing/publishing coach, social media coach, and speaker. She has been working in publishing since 1995. Find her at http://www.rachellegardner.com. 

4 Tips for Writing About Sensitive Topics

I write about sex in marriage. Talk about a sensitive and potentially controversial topic. Even the idea of publicly discussing sex in Christian circles can trigger everything from raised eyebrows to scathing rebukes.

4 Tips for Writing about Sensitive Topics

Yet I’ve always believed that if God is willing to bring up sensitive issues, so should His people. How can you address sensitive topics responsibly? Here are four quick tips.

1. It’s not merely what you say, it’s how you say it. Christians can be entirely right about the content of what they teach, and entirely wrong in how they treat others in getting their point across. Presenting truth doesn’t excuse us from commands to be loving, kind, gentle, patient, and self-controlled.

Ask how you’re presenting your points. Are you solely concerned about the issue, or do you consider the people affected? Do you invite conversation or lambaste anyone who doesn’t agree?

If your readers see you as caring about them, they’re far more likely to listen to what you have to say. Keep them in mind as you write.

2. Some react negatively because you poked a personal wound. Sometimes a reader’s hostile reaction isn’t personal. Rather, you unintentionally touched a raw wound.

For example, if I address how most husbands need the emotional connection of sex, I’ll get angry reactions from higher-drive wives whose husbands don’t seem to want sex, from wives whose husbands have been demanding or abusive, from husbands who’ve been refused for years and rant about how I’m too soft on wives, etc. Rather than feeling attacked, I try to show compassion for their difficult situation.

We should present our topic as fairly and lovingly as possible. But if someone freaks out about something you said, remember it may not be about you at all.

3. You don’t owe anything to false teachers. We bloggers know these commenters as “trolls”—meaning people who troll the Internet for articles on a particular topic and leave comments that promote lies and hate. At first, I tried to engage these readers, but nowadays I can spot a troll, or false teacher, pretty quickly. And I don’t put up with it.

It’s not that a writer’s skin isn’t tough. Challenges, debates, and discussion are fine, but if someone promotes false teaching or personally attacks other readers, it’s time to draw a line. Our readership relies on us to present truth and encouragement.

Adopt a comments policy explaining you’ll delete remarks with egregiously wrong or dangerous teaching. Don’t allow false teachers to soil your ministry by giving them a platform.

4. Find a supportive community. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to find a community who’ll support you when difficulties arise. My marriage author friends provide everything from encouragement to prayer to wisdom. And they laugh with me, which is healing in the face of trouble.

When it comes to writing, people who do what you do are not opponents; they are allies. Befriend them and gain strength from one another.

We can’t dismiss our obligation to share God’s Word boldly (Acts 4:31) and to help struggling people (Psalm 34:18) simply because it makes some in our midst uncomfortable. Your readers, many who’d never leave a comment or contact you, will appreciate your courage to address sensitive topics.