Is It Safe?

March 16, 2012Workshops

“Is it safe?” This always pops in my head whenever I’m at the dentist. If you don’t understand the connection, it’s part of a scene in Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. The screenplay and novel was written by William Goldman (also author of the Princess Bride, the book is better than the movie, trust me).

In Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman plays a graduate student and he manages to get into the hands of Olivier who’s a dentist. But this is no ordinary DDS. Nope. It turns out he was a dentist at Auschwitz and he’s looking for a hidden cache of diamonds. Hoffman is indirectly connected to the dentist because of his brother and girlfriend. However, to cut to chase, he’s kidnapped by Olivier’s goons. Poor Hoffman finds himself in nasty position strapped in a chair with Olivier hovering over him with an electric dental drill and hissing, “Is it safe?” Hoffman is clueless and Olivier drills him sans novocaine and keeps on with grilling. Now you know why I always think of this scene when I’m at the dentist. Watch the movie or, better yet, read the book.

Is this post about creating tension in a scene? No—although, it is a great example. You can feel the ache in your teeth and smell the burning enamel when you watch it. And I have to say that I will always associate Olivier with this role and not Hamlet. Today’s post is about what happens when you share your work with an online critique group.

I wish I could say this is a hypothetical situation, but it isn’t. It happened to someone I know who is part of a critique group that supposedly has guidelines about submitting and critiquing work. The number one rule is that whatever is posted is meant for the group and only for submitting and critiquing. It can’t be shared with outside workshops and or with friends and family. Thus if I submit a Julius chapter, it stays within the group for the sole purpose of receiving a critique.

But this didn’t happen to my friend. She submitted a summary of her young adult novel for a work-in-progress grant proposal. Within that work, she included outlined chapter plots individually covering a common plot element, incorporating it very carefully in victory/or failure scenarios. She did quite a bit of research and worked hard at coming up with a story idea and structuring it in a unique way that would capture and maintain the attention of middle grade and teen readers.

And then something very bad happened …

She received comments on the summary from a critter who liked her idea of incorporating this particular plot element and how she structured the novel. In fact, she liked it so much that she decided she was going to use it for her novel too.

Okay, so she liked how it was structured. There are plenty of authors who write books about structure and outlining and use their own stories as examples. But those books have already been published. And in this case the critter also wants to use the same plot element for her book that’s targeted to the same audience. Oy gevalt!

To make this whole scenario even more meshugga, the critter had the chutzpah to email my friend for advice! My friend emailed the critter and asked her to please not use the same structure and plot element because both books would most likely be too similar in scope. The critter wrote back and basically said, “Nope, I don’t care. You’re SOL. I’m using your structure, your plot tools. And by the way, my local workshop thinks I should as well.” Wait … she shared this with other people who are not part of the online group? Isn’t that against the rules?

So now this has turned uglier. My friend emails the online groups’s admins, explaining what transpired.  The admins write back and say, “Ideas cannot be plagiarized.” No, they can’t, but the underlying rule of the online critique group is that work-in-progress is submitted for critique only and cannot be shared with anyone outside the group. The admins are missing the point entirely.

My friend is worried about the similarities the two books might share should they be finished at nearly the same time and that two queries might cancel each other out when agents and editors read them. It’s a legitimate concern, but mine is more on the question of ethics and that the admins aren’t enacting the rules.

The comeback can always be caveat emptor. You run the risk of having work stolen when you participate in any writing workshop–online or otherwise (or even blogging about it). But siding with the person who flagrantly ignored the guidelines and basically said “Fuck you, I’m using it” has made me rethink my position of ever wanting to participate in this workshop, which has received kudos from Writer’s Digest (and for the curious, I’ve written about this workshop often. You can do a search). I doubt anyone would steal my premise, but it’s the principal of sticking to the rules and enforcing them.  In my opinion, this participant should be booted from the group because of her disrespect and disregard.

So it all comes back to “Is it safe?” Apparently not.