All Rise, The Court is in Session

March 13, 2013

Song of the day: Justice by Rev Theory

This month is a buzz of newsworthy stories. The latest being the outcome of a lawsuit filed by an unpublished romance writer against Harlequin.

In a nutshell, the writer claimed that her story was stolen by an author of Harlequin and published by Harlequin. The plaintiff claimed that the Harlequin author was a judge in a Romance Writers of America approved and/or sponsored contest, had read the entry and synopsis, and copied the work as her own. The plaintiff pointed out that there were over 40 similarities to the published, financially successful book and that it was blatant plagiarism of her creative expression.

You can read the claim here.

The judge handling the case disagreed and dismissed the case. The judge, in part, says:

“The similarities that [the plaintiff] asserts are either stock elements of romance novels or plot elements that naturally flow from the broad themes that the two works share with other works in the same genre. The two works share common tropes that are typical of, and generic to, the romance novel genre. A beautiful woman and a handsome, wealthy man fall in love, become estranged, find themselves alone together in close quarters, have a passionate reunion, rediscover their love and commitment, and begin a new life together. These are familiar plot elements in the romance genre. Many of the similarities accompanying these tropes in the works are scenes à faire. They describe similarly choreographed scenes of love, estrangement, rediscovered passion, and recommitted love. The details of these scenes are similar not because of infringement, but because they flow logically from the plot elements.”

You can read the document here. Or you can read the condensed version here.

Getty RF Justice

The author must have felt truly infringed upon. Unfortunately, her actions wreaked undue havoc on an innocent author’s life and likely put a death knell on her own career. Should she seek publication through a publisher, she will probably to be seen as a pariah.

The purpose of my blog is not to chastise this author or take sides, but to point out this is a lesson for us all. A plot, theme, idea, generic characteristics and details cannot be copyrighted. Not even zombie-loving Highlanders with secret babies.

The other issue at hand is now many published authors are reluctant to offer help to newbies still green and learning their craft. There is a fear that they, too, may be accused of stealing. They no longer want to judge contests. This in a time when finding qualified judges is difficult. Published authors are wary of offering mentorship and advice.

What a shame.

The romance genre, with all that amazing talent, is one place where authors share their knowledge freely. There is camaraderie and a drive to help peers succeed. One good turn deserves another. Paying it forward. However you want to describe it, romance authors learn from each other. Judging not only helps others with their craft, it strengthens your own writing. It’s invaluable to both parties involved. I’d hate to see that disappear.

Instances such as this lawsuit are rare. I would encourage published writers to be informed—know your rights, act accordingly. But don’t be so gun-shy that you deny others help. Remember you were once wet behind the ears, too. Your hard work and talent had some guidance and encouragement along the way from a writer more successful than you.

Do you agree or disagree? What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you.

Order in the Court

September 3, 2009

Song of the Day: Listen Like Thieves By INXS


Here on MuseTracks, we’ve discussed a lot about contests. We know it’s all about love and hate. Er . . . no, I mean, subjectivity. We learn from feedback, embrace what we agree with or ignore what doesn’t work, trawl for overall opinions, and toughen up our skins like leathery old sailors.


We’ve discussed the benefits of contests. We root out problem areas, recognize our strengths, polish the craft, and aim for a coveted spot in front of agents and editors should lady luck smile upon us with a final.  The latter often leads to scaring household pets as we jump from our chairs and perform ritualistic happy dancing.


Whether fumbling through the first mazes of the writing and publishing community or seasoned to taste with years of experience, all-in-all, contests are great tools in bettering ourselves as writers.


But it’s not just in entering contests that we can profit from. There is another way, an even greater gain that writers can greedily snatch up. Become a judge. Sounds like a message from a public broadcast, doesn’t it? “You too, can prevent forest fires.”


Becoming a judge for a contest yields many advantages. Not only are you giving back to a unique kinship of people –  people who instead of stuffing out competition like a spent stogie, strive to lift one another up, stoking fellow writers’ dreams into  fiery blazes – you are helping yourself.


How? You’d be amazed at what you can learn from reading contest entries. Mistakes made, from simple spelling errors to major swirling, black plot holes, are easier to spot on someone else’s work than in your own masterpiece. This, in turn, makes you more likely to avoid making the same faux pas.


So what, you may say. I can do this with my critique group. True, but with contests, you are encouraged to elaborate and be constructive in an unbiased enviroment when explaining why you give the scores you think an entry deserves. Golly Molly, just why did you score a 3 instead of a 4? By backing up your claims, you are forcing yourself into a deeper insight into your assertion. You give yourself an honest understanding of not only the craft but of your own writing style.


As a judge, you will read entries that are complete messes, bless their hearts, and entries that are polished to an ungodly gleam. There is something to be gained from them and all those entries that fall in between. One may be completely written in a passive yawn. Here is your chance to gently guide the author to the right path, pat them on the shoulder and wave them on their way. You wouldn’t leave a comrade hemorrhaging on the battlefield, would you? There is a communal instinct to help. After all, someone probably once helped you when you needed it, right? All for one and one for all! Yip! Yip!  Then there’s the manuscript that leaves you to wondering why you haven’t seen it in the bookstores. Surely they are already on the Best Seller List. Take note of what this author did right and see if you can apply it to your own writing.


Contest judging isn’t necessarily easy, though. If you decide to give judging a try, here are a few tips.


Judge in the same category you write. This will allow you to experience what others are writing in your chosen genre. A touchy-feely way to explore what works and what doesn’t.


Judge in a category you don’t write in but enjoy reading. Maybe you write contemporary single titles but love curling up with Regency historicals. By doing this, you may pick up on strengths and weaknesses easier, ones that you might be prone to miss in your genre. Therefore, you can translate what you learn into your writing.


Pass on categories or entries that you may find moral or ethic issues with. For instance, if you are an inspirational writer, you probably shouldn’t judge erotica or paranormal manuscripts that could rattle or offend you, or make you want to scrub your skin raw in the shower. Likewise, if romantic suspense gives you heebee geebies, provoking nightmares, steer clear.


Remain open-minded and respectful.  Just as you covet, nurture and protect the stories you weave like a mother bear, so do the entrants. They, too, have put in enormous amounts of effort, time and love into their cubs.


Be fair. Judge tales based on what the contest score sheet is asking, not on what you think it should be asking. I’ve read manuscripts with multiple, cringe-worthy errors but still gave them average or better scores based on the score sheet questions. That said, I point out these blemishes in hopes to help the author fruitfully. And remember, comments should always remain productive.


Don’t get hung up on crafting rules. Many score sheets will ask about mechanics. Score accordingly. However, don’t make the entry suffer overall because you have a pet peeve over improper comma usage. Sometimes, it’s more about the entertainment value.


Explain every score, including the high ones. Don’t just point out the flaws; give the entrant reason to rejoice their strengths.  


Always be kind. Telling someone they need to retake 2nd grade English is a no-no. Most of us who’ve entered contests have come across a nasty judge or two. Ugliness is not constructive and a superiority complex will not take you far.


Don’t be too critical or too nice. The point is not to give false hope or to squash dreams. It is to follow contest score sheet guidelines and justly fulfill the expectations of the entrant.


By nature, judging is subjective. Each judge has their likes and dislikes and own beliefs. And of course, this will invariably affect an entry’s score. The key is to remain honest and fair.


Bottom line, being a judge can train us to become better writers in both what we perceive and what we achieve.


Have you ever judged? Do you have judging tips? What is your opinion of judging? Let me hear from you.