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Fear of Plagiarism and Falling Objects
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Mary and I occasionally look over our shoulders while we write. There's always that niggling fear that someone else has already conceived the same book we're working on and will get it into print first. If we see a review that hints that another author has already used a device or situation similar to what we're working on, we cringe.

Once a writer puts an idea into circulation, it doesn't matter whether another has come up with the same thought independently. The second writer might escape being charged with plagiarism, but the idea is no longer original as far as readers (and editors and agents and publishers) are concerned.

As co-novelists, we've never been preempted. In my case, though, I largely gave up much of the humorous writing I used to do for amateur magazines for fear of being labeled a copycat.

Actually, in the beginning, thirty years ago, I was a copycat, but not many readers would've realized. When I discovered Robert Benchley in the dusty stacks of the local library, I couldn't resist trying out a lot of his comic devices. I figured it was permissible because Benchley allowed how he'd copied everything from Stephen Leacock and James Thurber admitted he'd stolen everything from Benchley. I was just carrying on the tradition. Besides, most of what those humorists wrote, has been relegated to the stacks.

Unfortunately, before I started to sell anything anywhere, Dave Barry came along. I don't know if he's ever confessed to it, but Barry has lifted a good portion of his schtick straight from Benchley. (Or maybe Leacock or Thurber) I soon decided if I continued to write my usual essays I'd be dismissed as a Dave Barry wannabe.

Before I quit, I did sell a Benchleyesque essay to a small magazine called Modern Secretary. Oddly enough, the piece was about fear of being hit by a meteorite. Or perhaps it wasn’t so odd. For all I know fear of meteorites is endemic amongst modern secretaries, particularly since they no longer have steno pads to cover their heads with. I have to admit I have never actually asked a modern secretary whether she fears falling debris from outer space. It isn’t generally the kind of thing that comes up in conversation. Some people might even find it a peculiar sort of question and I must admit, when I think about getting a hard look from a modern secretary it makes me want to think about being flattened by a meteorite instead.

One thing that will probably not strike you as odd (if I may use the term “strike” here) is that after the essay was published I found that Benchley had actually written an essay about fear of meteorites.

Footnote: I should probably add in the interest of scientific accuracy that what we are likely to be hit by are “meteors.” The large, deadly, fearsome rock is properly termed a “meteoroid” while outside the atmosphere, where it poses no threat. Only when it reaches the surface of the earth does it become a “meteorite” by which time we would be under it. Or what is left of us would be. There would probably be little enough left that the “meteorite” could be said to have reached “the surface of the earth” scientifically speaking. Presumably, it is the flaming “meteor” streaking through the atmosphere which would smash into us. Not that it would matter at that point. I don’t know what the scientific term would be for the brief moment when the blazing boulder is in contact with our surface but has not yet reached the ground. “Ouch” isn’t Latin.

Footnote to the footnote: Some may quibble about the importance of nomenclature but I want to point out that “Look out for the meteorite” and “look out for the meteor” require somewhat different reactions. A limited vocabulary can sometimes put you at the bottom of a crater.

Addendum: Now I’m beginning to wonder if the reason Mary and I occasionally look over our shoulders while we write isn’t so much fear of what other writers are up to, as, well...

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