Tag Archives: writing

Can you quote it?

30 May

Quoting song lyrics seems to be one of the most confusing areas for writers (just consider the comments here). The simple answer is that no you cannot quote song lyrics in fiction unless either they are out of copyright or you have permission from the writer (which usually entails a lot of hassle and a fee). The problem, of course, is that not every piece that should be out of copyright actually is and some erstwhile owners don’t really own the lyrics, but have the money muscle to bully people into paying up regardless.

Of course, if you are writing non-fiction, discussing the lyrics of a song, you can quote it under ‘fair use’ (generally this means as small amount as possible to achieve what you need – so, no reprinting a whole song if a couple of lines would suffice). Even here, there can be risks, if the owner has deep pockets and is litigious, and where you stand if your fictional characters discuss lyrics is anyone’s guess…

What you can quote are the name of a singer or band and the title of a song, and there is nothing stopping you describing a song’s sound or lyrics as long as you don’t quote them. (Be careful not to let them slip in – write “That song the dwarves sing when they’re heading out to work,” not “That song the dwarves sing when they’re off to work,” or, worse, “That song the dwarves sing when off to work they go.”) (If you’re wondering, my use of the quotation there as a discussion of what not to do is an example of fair use.)

It is an unfair situation as songs permeate our culture and, in real life, people frequently quote them in conversation. Unfortunately, this is one area of realism your writing has to avoid unless you can get permission.

These points, of course, also apply to quoting poetry and prose. As with songs, you can mention authors and titles, and you can also mention characters (“He had a beard like Gandalf”); you can also descibe a novel’s plot.

Can you recycle character names and book titles? The answer is “yes, but…” As far as copyright goes, there is nothing stopping you – you cannot copyright a name or a title – but, and this is a big but, you do need to be aware of trademarks and ‘passing off’. ‘Passing off’ is when you try to make it appear as if your work is by or authorised by someone else – so writing a story under the pseudonym ‘JK Rowling’ would mean you were ‘passing off’ your work as hers (yes, this does lead to awkward legal grey areas where an author has the same name as another, pre-existing or more famous author, which is why you see them inserting middle initials, or just plain adopting a pseudonym). Equally, writing a novel with a lead character called Harry Potter, especially if you called it Harry Potter and the… is also ‘passing off’.

But, could you have a character called Harry Potter? Yes, technically, you could, certainly if the book isn’t fantasy, but, unless they are very minor, you’re probably looking at legal issues, accusations of trademark infringement, and certainly restrictions on using them in publicity. A character called Henry Potter who mentions he hates it when people call him Harry and ask him to whip out his wand would be far more acceptable. Names like Frodo and Gandalf, of course, if used in their proper historical context should be fine, as long as they aren’t too similar to Tolkien’s characters; you could also create the child of hippes named Frodo Jones, or something, but, like Harry Potter, you face problems with using the character in publicity, and might face litigation, even if most people would agree you weren’t treading on their trademarks.

The one area where you can quote freely (for a certain value of quotation) and use trademarked names is parody. If you are using copyrighted or trademarked material to make fun of the material, you are in the clear. (This should also apply to satire, but is more of a grey area – using Daleks to mock the BBC is a-okay, using them in other contexts may be less defensible). So, a story about Frodo bungling the ring quest in a comedic fashion is fine, better still if you change his name slightly. Frodo Jones, child of wacky hippies, could also be protected this way, especially if his life story parallels and comments upon that of the ringbearer. Generally, the more overt the parody is, the better. Subtlety might see you sued.

So, don’t give up completely on quoting lyrics in your novel, but do make sure you do the research first to avoid getting sued. (And, should you be submitting to Atlantean Publishing, let me be clear that we expect you to have done your research and that you are responsible for any legal issues arising from not doing so! This applies to most publishers.)

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The Most Common Errors

30 Mar

Wordprocessing is a wonderful boon for writers, but also the source of the four most common errors in manuscripts. As you’ll see…

The first, as you may guess, is the curse of auto-correction and auto-completion, where the computer decides that it knows what you intended to type and makes a ridiculous error. If you don’t pay attendance, it is very easy to allow silly mistakes through for this reason.

The second is an over-reliance on the spellchecker, whether it fails to notice that a word is wrong (mistaking their for there, say) or tells you that a correct ward is an error. Never blindly go with what the spellchecker is telling you if you have the slightest doubt – double check!

These two joined forces in one of my stories to provide a melodious, rather than malodorous, sewer that managed to go unspotted through about three read throughs I made, one by a friend who usually spots such errors with an eagle eye, and at least two editors who provided feedback with their rejections.

The third most common error is to hit ‘replace all’ without thought. Yes, it’s an incredibly convenient way to change a character’s name, but, depending upon how it’s set up (whether it’s case sensitive or you’ve included spaces) changing, say, Ben to Steve, could see a bend in the road become a Steved and  a benevolent monarch might transform into a Steveevolent one.

The fourth is the easy way in which you can rewite a sentence. But, too often you can find yourself messing up to delete everything, leaving echoes of the your previous sentence to cause confusion.

This is why it’s always vital to read your work aloud, and print off a copy if you find it easier to spot mistakes that way than on screen. And, all errors in this post are deliberate, even the ones I didn’t mean to make.

Sensitive Readers – Insensitive Writers?

26 Jun

The Bookbaby site recently discussed authors using ‘sensitivity readers’ and the comments from authors were largely negative (and, I must say I’m in accord with the feeling that stories shouldn’t pander to the easily offended). But, one interesting point struck me – that the term ‘sensitivity readers’ was being used for both actual ‘sensitivity readers’ and what we might call ‘accuracy readers’, and that most people were fine with the latter, but not the former.

For clarification, a ‘sensitivity reader’ exists to check for issues in the story (whether words, stereotypes or situations) that could cause offence. Of course, this can prove useful (if you’re writing what is intended to be a positive portrayal of black people, you don’t want to find you’ve propagated offensive stereotypes or used terms that will offend) and may be necessary for certain markets (books aimed at the schools market need to be appropriate to their intended readership). But, too much caution can stifle good writing (after all, the best writing will challenge and risk offense), and an over-reliance by editors on ‘sensitivity readers’ may cause them to reject books that tackle difficult subjects for that very reason.

What I’m calling an ‘accuracy reader’, on the other hand, is someone who checks for factual errors. Although, in the context of ‘sensitivity’ I’m discussing, this may mean asking a transperson to check that everything related to your transwoman protagonist is accurate, this is no different to asking an expert for assistance in ensuring the accuracy of your work. Of course, there may be an overlap between ‘sensitivity’ and accuracy (“yes, that word is used correctly, but it is very offensive and not suitable for a children’s story”), but the aim is primarily to get the story right, not mollycoddle.

While I wouldn’t advocate setting out to offend for the sake of being offensive (or attempting to gain publicity through outrage), I have little time for editors who would neuter a story in case it offends someone. There will always be a need for stories that take risks, ask difficult questions and present awkward truths and we shouldn’t fear them. But, we should strive for accuracy.

Just Do It!

28 Feb

If there is one piece of advice I give to wannabe writers again and again, it’s “Write it and submit it.” If you don’t do it, you might never know failure, but you’ll certainly never know success.

I’ve known many excellent writers who have come nowhere near the success they deserve and the one thing they all have in common is that they either don’t write much or they do, but refuse to submit it. Of course, some of them have good reasons for not doing so – they may be busy with their family commitments or pursuing a career they love, or have other artistic talents that take precedence – but most fail to reach their potential because they just don’t believe in themselves. Perhaps, they worry about the quality of their writing and, so, just don’t put pen to paper. Or, they continually revise it, seeking elusive perfection rather than actually submitting it. Or, they produce reams of work, but, fearing rejection, put it to one side and write something else that nobody will ever read. Then, there are those who are too caught up in every day minutiae, the need to earn a crust, who put off writing till for a tomorrow that never comes.

This is the reason so much rubbish gets published commercially. Professional publishers need reliable writers who can produce to deadlines more than they need good writers. If only those excellent writers would actually write and submit, they would be successes. Instead, the mediocre writers succeed unopposed.

Hence my exhortation. Write your story, poem or article – and, then, submit it. It may be rejected. In fact, it probably will be rejected – even the best novels were usual rejected several times before being accepted for publication, and even well-established writers will sometimes have work rejected. That is a hazard of being a writer – but, if you can understand it has little to do with the quality of your writing (whilst paying attention to any feedback you receive), you will be well on your way to success. Those who submit lots of work and resubmit rejected work stand a much higher chance of acceptance than those who write little and allow rejection to stifle their work’s chances.

If you have written something, you have achieved more than many potentially-great writers. If you submit it, you’ve made the first step towards publication. Keep at it, don’t be scared, and success is likely to come your way. Give up, and you’re guaranteed to fail…

Redundant Advice

29 Jan

There are many, many sites out there offering suggestions on improving your writing style. Most advice, if not applied slavishly, is well worth considering. Not every piece will apply to everything you write, but you will become more aware of what you are writing and why, helping you to improve.

As an example of why you shouldn’t just apply an idea without fully understanding it and when not to use it, I will take as my example eliminating redundancies in language. You are most likely aware of such things as ATM Machine (that is, Automatic Teller Machine Machine), but not all apparently-redundant words are actually redundant.

To consider just a couple of examples I found one site listing hundreds of redundant words they recommended writers should edit out, take ‘circle around’ and ‘climb up’. The site that suggests reducing ‘circle around’ to just ‘circle’, but this raises an immediate issue for me – the former implies 180 degrees (in the sense of getting behind someone), while the latter means 360 degrees. Of course, a sentence such as “circle around behind them”, could be changed to “circle behind them” and still make sense as it retains sufficient context. But,other sentences could be rendered gibberish or end up changing what you meant to say into something quite different.

It’s a similar problem with cutting ‘climb up’ to ‘climb’ – you can also climb down (as well as in, out and along), so it really depends upon whether the option is solely one way or not. Again, just assuming a word is a redundancy can lead to confusion.

In addition, a policy of redundancies also ignores the flow of the sentence. Sometimes a redundant word is present because it makes the sentence flow better. These can be removed without damaging context, but, sometimes, you may be left with a sentence that is less pleasing to the ear. (Of course, this can also work the other way – too many redundant words can make your writing clunky. Ultimately, you need to read aloud each variation and hear how they sound, not rely upon rules.)

So, consider the advice, but make sure you are applying it properly and you’ll produce better writing.

Word Limits

3 Oct

The word count can be confusing for those just beginning on the path of the writer. Thanks for the miracle of wordprocessing, you no longer need to count words per line and lines per page (unless you write longhand and need an estimate before you type it). Word or Libre Office or whichever program you use will tell you just how many words your document contains. Easy!

A word of warning, though. Remember that this count will include every word in the document, including the title and ‘The End’ (neither of which counts towards the total). If you have included your contact details at the beginning of the document, they will be counted towards the total (however, any words in the header or footer won’t be counted), but you can highlight your actual submission or delete unwanted words and then click restore to put them back once you have the word count.

Beware, too, of section breaks (such as *** or #), which will show up as words, but don’t actually count towards the total, and hyphenated words, which will show up as one word but may be counted individually. You may wish to remove hyphens and other such things before getting an accurate count.

So, you now know how many words your story contains. But, how many words are you allowed? The numbed will be listed for the magazine or competition – there may be a minimum and/or a maximum. You should always read the guidelines to see if these are hard limits (that is, you cannot break them by even one word) or soft limits (that is, you are allowed to break them by a reasonable amount – what counts as reasonable may be stated, otherwise a few words over is definitely okay and as much as 10% might be considered acceptable). If not otherwise stated, you can usually assume that you can go a few words over for a magazine or anthology, as the editor is likely to have the leeway to balance longer stories with shorter ones (although you probably wouldn’t be paid for excess words, if being paid by the word) and they may be willing to work with you to edit the story so that it fits. Competition entries should stick to the stated wordcount as deviating by even one word is likely to see your submission disqualified.

Personally, for competitions, I try to keep comfortably within the stated word-limits, just in case the word count I make it doesn’t match that of the judges. Leaving a cushion means you are unlikely to fall foul of a disagreement. (Remember, the judges are unlikely to contact you, so you won’t have the chance to dispute a disagreement.)

But, don’t worry about it too much – a little commonsense should see you through most situations.

Reality is Unrealistic

23 Sep

TV Tropes has an extensive selection of examples of the ways in which reality is unrealistic. That is, things that are true but which tend to strike readers or viewers as false. The same thing also afflicts editors, as I experienced twice recently.

My first experience was a passing reference, in a steampunk story set during the Prussian siege of Paris, to the loss of water pressure and the character’s need to wash at the sink. This struck the editor as liable to break a reader’s suspension of disbelief as “this is how everyone washed then.” Of course, this was in a story featuring electric artillery, massive land-battleships and a pneumatic postal system (not to mention the undead). Yet, while a reader could be expected to swallow such scientific advances, piped water was a step too far. Piped mail, but not piped water.

In real life, the French army introduced showers in barracks in the 1870s and the water supply of Paris was being overhauled, while gas was being piped into homes. So, the presence of a shower in an apartment in this alternate Paris was hardly a significant departure from the reality of the time, and one far less than the other elements in the story. Yet, it was one thing that stood out as something of a deal-breaker!

The second highlighted an apparent difference between the UK and the USA. The colours yellow and purple were relevant to a story I wrote, so I had an apparent Christmas present wrapped in yellow-and-lavender paper. In itself, it wasn’t a major plot point, but it did allow one character to observe those colours are associated with Easter rather Christmas, which served as a lead-in to a thematic element later in the story. All pretty inconsequential and throw-away, you might think.

Not at all! It seems that, unlike in Britain, where the story is set, the colours are indelibly linked with Easter, with stores being decorated in them (here, you’re likely to see greens and yellows). Thus, the American editor felt as if the story had blundered into some bizarro world, wondering why the fact was presented as if it were a piece of obscure Christian-only knowledge. Ironically, in the UK, I don’t know if you could even find Christians who are aware of the colour association (my limited researches have yet to show where the colour scheme actually derives from). Certainly, nobody I’ve canvassed knew the link. (I do have to wonder how many Americans would necessarily make the association at Christmastime.)

But, despite being entirely accurate to the British milieu in which it was set, the story lost credibility over what was essentially a minor element for the simple fact that the associations were different in the US.

So, if you need some entertainment, visit the TV Tropes pages and chuckle at the examples, but if you’re a writer, remember that, no matter how accurate you are, you will find someone who thinks you’ve made a mistake. And, if you are a reader, maybe double-check before leaping to criticise a writer for an error – they might actually be right, after all…