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How Opal Mehta got plagiarized...

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Pickles

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My wip is similar to a book which took a Newbery Honor. The editor interested in my wip had suggested I read this (that's before it got the award). I have since changed my plot significantly, and I bought the book so I could double check.

It does seem hard to believe it was intentional, that the stakes would be too high, but then I never understood why a Masters Degree student would plagiarize. She blamed my friend, whom she plagiarized, for her inability to get a job because the incident went in her academic records.

Again, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.
#31 - April 23, 2006, 05:20 PM

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All together, the plagiarized sections constitute 355 words of a 320 page hardback novel.

 I really can't understand what the author would have thought she could gain by intentionally plagiarizing them.  She's obviously capable of writing on her own, since the majority of the novel is probably not plagiarized from anything.  So why risk it for 355 words?  And why do it so blatantly?  As someone else said, I have no doubts that a student of her caliber KNOWS that copying or paraphrasing another author like that is plagiarism, and that it's wrong.  I don't believe for a second that this is a "students these days just don't know what plagiarism is" thing.  So if she did do this intentionally, then I think it's safe to say that she knew it was a bad thing to do and did it anyway, which means that, in all likelihood, given the miniscule scale of what she stood to gain, she was either REALLY certain that she wouldn't get caught, or she wasn't consciously doing it at all.
#32 - April 23, 2006, 05:23 PM

I dunno, I obviously don't know this author, or her character, but to me, it seems pretty obvious.  I could understand that certain descriptions in similar books could turn out to be eerily synonomous, but this to me, is a different thing altogether.  

I can't imagine that it would be possible to have such a similar thought process, or 'voice' that certain dialougue passages could be nearly identical to that of another writer's.  How many people would say that two characters masochadistically..sp?, bought diet cokes at cinnabon/mrs. fields?  Honestly it is a very clever line, and I'm guessing she internalized it, and inserted it into her own book because it was such an innovative way to convey a character's mindset.  I mean, it is just too bizarre that all of these 'similiarities' come from two books by megan mcafferty.  If there were five passages that seemed to come from FIVE DIFFERENT books, I might think differently.   If had to wager on it, I'd guess she went through the books and highlighted passages that were interesting to her, and then found a way to incorporate them into her own novel, possibly even changing the plot or circumstances to accomodate them.  Maybe I'm just a pessimist.  

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#33 - April 23, 2006, 05:30 PM

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For starters, it would take a great deal of effort to search through another book and find sentences that fit into yours, and secondly, even if you did that, why wouldn't you change at least SOME of the details?  I mean, why keep it "170 stores" instead of changing it to "146" or something like that.  Unless you were the dumbest plagiarist in the history of the world, that one would be a no brainer. 



That's what keeps bugging me. I can't imagine someone going through all that trouble. As for the diet coke, well, I worked at fast food joint as a kid (during the early 80's) and after placing a big order, the person would order a diet coke or Pepsi saying they had to watch their weight. I got so tired of hearing that joke I wanted to scream, instead of smiling and handing back their change.

It'll be interesting to see how this plays out.

Maripat
#34 - April 23, 2006, 05:44 PM

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All together, the plagiarized sections constitute 355 words of a 320 page hardback novel.

That is, *if* that's the only novel/work she copied.

Even if that's all, that's over a page's worth of work, spread throughout the book, which, to me, is a lot.
#35 - April 23, 2006, 05:57 PM
« Last Edit: April 23, 2006, 06:02 PM by jadedmetaphor »

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This is very interesting.  I skimmed through most of the thread, looking to see if anyone knows why this woman was offered $500,000 in a two-book deal while she was still in HIGH SCHOOL.  Anyone know the details about that?

Just a thought, but perhaps she was desperately trying to meet the deadline for the first book, crammed a multitude of books in the YA/teen girl genre down her brain ... made notes and highlighted passages that stuck out as "oooh, that's a good way to say that," and then sat down to write her book ---- (a book she most likely didn't feel prepared to write by herself)  surrounded by all her notes.  Just like she did when she wrote her college papers.  This kind of stuff doesn't happen one time.  

I wonder if all the writers in that teen chick lit genre shouldn't read her book ... they might find some even more interesting passages.
#36 - April 23, 2006, 06:03 PM
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I also still think that although she certainly knows what plagiarism is, she may have convinced herself that this didn't fall into that category -- just like your son, sbk...'I changed enough words' -- she may have been sloppy and thought that counted.  After all, smart or not, she was only 16.  I met a 16 year old at the conference this weekend, and she was very gifted, without a doubt, but I could see her doing something like this -- to get ahead, to get that extra push, that extra point across...one of the agents called her an 'overachiever'...perhaps Opal's author was similar?  I don't know.  But I don't think it was a coincidence by any means!
#37 - April 23, 2006, 06:14 PM
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« Last Edit: April 23, 2006, 07:04 PM by jadedmetaphor »

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It couldn't have been coincidental, if by that you mean that she hadn't even read MM's book.  And I find it hard to believe that she doesn't know what plagiarism is.  I read the passages to my 6th grader, a high achiever, and he knew it was plagiarism right away - both in the strict sense of using exact words, and also in the more subtle use of the voice and situation.

One, or even two of these, and I would believe that she had just pulled it out from her memory unknowingly.  But this?  Either she knew what she was doing and thought she could get away with it, or she had put these passage in- almost as place-holders, intending to change it but forgetting, or the theory of using notecards from other books, like writing a term paper.

I hope it's the last.

Note to self: don't take notes from other novels
#39 - April 23, 2006, 06:30 PM
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This reminds me of a similar situation a few months ago:

http://www.hbook.com/blog/2006/02/snake-tale.html#links

Personally, I would like to think these folks are plagiarizing on purpose (because I'm afraid of plagiarizing by accident!) but it's hard to believe they wouldn't expect anyone to notice, especially the one with the same title!

As far as how she got caughtI don't think it was necessarily someone with a grudge against the author. Since the story was in the Harvard Crimson, my guess is that one of the author's fellow students read her book and remembered Sloppy Firsts, which came out five years ago--i.e. when a current college student might have been reading YA. As I recall I had a much better memory for details when I was a kid, and was more likely to read the same book repeatedly, so it doesn't seem unlikely to me that a college student would remember phrases from a book read in junior high or high school.
#40 - April 23, 2006, 06:56 PM
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That is, *if* that's the only novel/work she copied.

Even if that's all, that's over a page's worth of work, spread throughout the book, which, to me, is a lot.

I don't mean that it's not a lot in terms of plagiarism- it is, and I think MM would be justified in taking some kind of action.  I'm not trying to minimize the seriousness of it- I'm trying to put the amount of "work" or "time" it would have saved her to steal these bits into perspective.  When you're writing a 320 page book, it's not going to save you a tremendous amount of effort to have a page of material you get from elsewhere.  Even if the author did this with four or five different books, she'd still be left with at least 310 or 315 pages that she had to write herself.  It's impossible that any kind of majority of the book could be lifted from other books- it just wouldn't be doable.

So the question I'm asking myself is why would anyone do this?  Why risk everything for what amounts to saving you very little time or work?  There are really only three answers: either she did it on purpose, but didn't realize it was wrong, she did it on purpose, realized it was wrong, but didn't think she'd get caught, or it was somehow accidental.  There is no way that someone would do this, think there was a decent chance of getting caught, and do it anyway- if you thought there was ANY chance of getting caught, the benefits would be far, FAR outweighed by potential risks.

I can't help but think that however this happened, one of the major contributing factors was the way in which this deal was offered.  The author was referred to a literary agent by her college counselor, and they "discussed" and "brainstormed" a proposal, which suggests (to me at least) that Opal Mehta was not a work that the author had started writing before the meeting.  They later sent four chapters and a synopsis and it sold based on that.  Little, Brown then sent Kaavya to a packager, to help the seventeen year old with the book.  I read an article in which her editor was quoted as saying there was "more shaping to this book" than most of the books they do.

To me, this all sounds an awful lot like they found a kid who could write and had a decently interesting angle (the Harvard thing), and they sent her to a packager to make the book into a more widely appealing chick lit book.  She was getting input on marketing from all sides before the book was anywhere near finished, and I'd bet a lot of money that she was under pressure to up the chick lit aspects of the book.

I can't imagine writing a book this way, ESPECIALLY your first book.  If you're getting that much input and influence from different places (the agent, the packager, etc) before you've written more than four chapters, how much of the book is going to feel like it's really yours anyway?  I think, that if you want to trace her motivation back to pressure somehow, it may be more the pressure to "write the book LIKE THIS" rather than just the pressure to finish writing her book.

Not, of course, that any of this excuses the plagiarism- I definitely don't think it does.  And I really hate to think how this might change public (or industry) opinion towards teen authors in general...
#41 - April 23, 2006, 07:08 PM

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Either way, I feel quite sorry for the girl (intentional cheater or no).  I think a novel about an overachieving young person who was so intent on being the "prodigy" that she was reckless enough to steal a few clever passages from another novel for her own makes a fascinating story--more fascinating than the nerdy-girl-goes-wild-to-get-into-Harvard tale.  I wouldn't be surprised if Dreamworks buys the film rights to that one, too.

Unfortunately, it looks like this could mean no more Harvard for her.  If you google "Opal Mehta plagiarism," you get this link:
http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/w/writing_and_writers/index.html?query=HARVARD%20UNIVERSITY&field=org&match=exact

There's an earlier article about her book and if you look down a few headlines, there's an article about Harvard professors ("When Plagiarism's Shadow Falls on Admired Scholars").  'Course it wasn't like this was a school paper or anything, but I don't think it's going to do her any good.
#42 - April 23, 2006, 07:13 PM

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Jen, do you think there's anyway there's another possibility?  That she did it on purpose, knew it was wrong, and wanted to get caught?  I mean, I don't know the girl, but --

We had a professor when I was in law school who was caught shoplifting.  It shocked the school, but they understood this was a mental health issue, so they worked with him.  He obviously didn't need the whatever-it-was--he made quite good money.  Anyway, a few years later, he was caught again and lost his job.  I really liked the guy and felt quite bad that he had this issue.  I don't condone shoplifting, of course.

I don't condone plagiarism, either.  I have flunked college freshmen for it, though I never turned them into the dean for expulsion (as I was supposed to).
#43 - April 23, 2006, 07:17 PM

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Okay, after reading Jen's latest, so you think these "coincidences" could have come from a source other than the author, since the manuscript was being shaped and tinkered with so much.  As in , maybe suggested changes, and she didnt' realize they came from MM's book?

And I agree with Jaina. I feel sorry for the girl.
#44 - April 23, 2006, 07:53 PM

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Okay, after reading Jen's latest, so you think these "coincidences" could have come from a source other than the author, since the manuscript was being shaped and tinkered with so much.  As in , maybe suggested changes, and she didnt' realize they came from MM's book?
.

I didn't mean to imply that I thought the packager or anyone else is responsible for these phrases.  I think that is HIGHLY unlikely.  I just wonder how much the fact that she was getting input from all of these external sources might have contributed to whatever mindset she had that led her to lifting these passages, either intentionally or unintentionally.
#45 - April 23, 2006, 07:58 PM

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Oh, you didn't imply it. I just wondered.

I found this interesting article on the subject of plagiarizing and accidental borrowing.

http://www.anchoragepress.com/archives-2006/literaturevol15ed13.shtml
#46 - April 23, 2006, 08:10 PM

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Thanks for the read, Pickles--I enjoyed that!
#47 - April 23, 2006, 08:21 PM

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I'm shocked to read this after a lovely weekend with my family ...

Intentional or unintentional, I think it reflects poorly on the author.  It's hard to believe why someone who obviously shows talent would cheat, unless she doesn't realize that it is wrong.  Several people have mentioned that cheating is rampant.  Is it because there is a general decline in morals?  Fuzzy morality?  The competition is stiff, so I copied?  I copied because I can do it?

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#48 - April 23, 2006, 08:23 PM
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Plagiarism in General:
I've had a surprising number of students simply not *get* the idea of plagiarism. Recently, I failed a girl (& submitted it for further academic review).  Her explanation was that she hadn't "copied the whole thing." Copying ideas/concepts is a sort of dishonesty too. 

They were taught that lifting passages of text is "research" & if it's not "word for word" or a certain percentage, it's not plagiarism. In fact, the software/service I beta-tested at my old university gave me a percentage report.

I used to be shocked by the number of students who truly didn't get why I was being "so unreasonable."  Sadly, I've been a bit less shocked as time passes. I don't know of a solution. Over the past decade, I gave a hard-core You Cheat, You Fail lecture to every single class (more than once).  I made them sign an Honour Code. I offer extensions. I still bust at least one almost every term. It's disheartening.

The worst? Having a student turn in text I wrote (no joke) and sign his name to it. *sigh* It was beyond depressing.

TANGENT from there:
A question that arises--academically speaking not in re: this specific book--is the line between plagiarism & homage. S.T. Coleridge was accused of plagiarism. Eliot's use of phrases was "using touchstones" & "making allusions." It's not a clear-cut answer.  If my character feels like a "pair of ragged claws" am I offering homage to Eliot? With literature, the answer there is yes, it's homage.  If, however, I use a phrase from New Living Author it's plagiarism.

#49 - April 23, 2006, 08:56 PM

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That is, *if* that's the only novel/work she copied.

Even if that's all, that's over a page's worth of work, spread throughout the book, which, to me, is a lot.

Let me clarify- That's a page + of carefully selected, artfully honed quotes that obviously fulfilled some purpose she thought she couldn't handle on her own. If I took a page's worth of John Donne's lines and put them in my horrible poetry journal from way back in high school/early college, it would sound a lot better. Even though she lifted a small fraction of text (as far as we know), I imagine she did use the quotes to save herself a lot of work. Why else use them? We all know how much time and effort it takes to make something sing. The grace notes, while small, are often the most important parts. A few lines here and there could have been her grace notes.
Still, I wouldn't be surprised at all if she's copied much more than we presently realize.
#50 - April 23, 2006, 11:28 PM
« Last Edit: April 24, 2006, 03:07 PM by jadedmetaphor »

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I have been reading this whole thread with interest (and a little bit of sadness to be honest).

I thought I might add one more possible explanation to the mix here. As the child of a first-generation immigrant family, one of the things that has always given me anxiety in my own writing is wondering if my dialogue and the voices of my characters sound authentically American. This is because I grew up in a household where English was a second-language. It was spoken well, but the expressions, the way of phrasing things were distinctly foreign.
When I was in a writing program, my teacher constantly made comments about my dialogue being off -- the diction sounding strange or the colloquialisms being off. In fact, until he mentioned it, I had never noticed it, but after it did, it has always been a source of worry.

I don't know Viswanathan and I haven't read her book so this is really just speculation. But I can't help wondering if she had the same anxiety herself. Maybe it could have even been a comment from an agent or editor or other involved party -- your dialogue sounds wooden, you need to make them sound more chick-lit.  Who knows? And in those last pressure-filled days during finals, she might have thought, well how do characters sound, how do they talk in other popular books? Let me study them and see if I can replicate that voice. Notice a lot of the similar passages are pieces of dialogue. And she might not have tried to copy everything obviously, just a few things here and there to round out the voice.

Even now I'm working on a book with a male character and being female, I've turned to other books with male characters to hear their voices, to see how they speak. I try to listen teenage boys when I get the chance. I think the instinct to do that is okay and even told to us (study the masters, etc). But I think what she did as a result was reprehensible. I wish her editor and agent had been more vigilant. I wish she really thought about what she was doing. But these are all after the fact, of course.
#51 - April 24, 2006, 05:26 AM
« Last Edit: April 24, 2006, 05:29 AM by springfever »

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I understand the argument.  But, if she had such trouble, why would she stand out enough for Little, Brown to offer her (at 17) a two-book contract that any of us would slobber over?  Developing an authentic voice takes time and mileage on the keyboard, and in life experience. 

It just doesn't make sense to me ... and, I'll bet, now that they think about it, somebody over at Little, Brown is kicking themselves.  Perhaps 'they' thought, okay, we need a book about teens/college age girls, why not go straight to the source? A really smart, Harvard bound gal.  How many writers on the blue boards --- no matter how well they wrote as teens or in college ---- knowing what they know now at say, age 35-55, would have been able to hand over a quality product to Little, Brown at the age of 19?  A product worth $500,000 ... okay, one book, $250,000.

Nope, the story doesn't jive.

#52 - April 24, 2006, 06:13 AM
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Found this interview with the author - I believe before her book came out.

Cleary the 'author's who have inspired her' question could have been expanded!

http://www.bookpage.com/0604bp/kavya_viswanathan.html


You know in reading bits and pieces of this story from various sources, I don't know what to think.

Yes, from the beginning I (as in my personal opinion)felt it was plagiarized material.

Yes  I feel she 'cheated' and the appropriate measures should be taken by the publishing houses involved.

I'm starting to see her as a pawn in several peoples games. I mean, Harvard clearly likes to eat their young, and I would be very interested to know what part did the agent, editor(s), publishing house, 'packager' play in this charade - that's where I feel the truth to this story is held.


As an aside, am I the only one that doesn't remember  the  Janet Daily (sp?) issue with Nora Roberts.
 

#53 - April 24, 2006, 06:19 AM
« Last Edit: April 24, 2006, 06:23 AM by steph »

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Ena,
I don't know if you were responding to me, but I wanted to clarify about what I meant by an authentic voice. I agree with what you said on how it takes time and skill to sustain a voice through a whole book. But I think I was mostly referring to dialogue -- to phrases, certain word choices that sound American, or more specifically like an American teenage girl.
Dialogue is such a tricky thing -- you never really know if you are getting it right, especially if you are anxious about it in the first place.

I also wanted to add that it really depends on what else is unearthed in her book as time goes on. If all that is found is these few phrases here and there, my guess again is that she had a moment of anxiety and wanted to make sure she got the voice/dialgoue really right and went back and sprinkled in those few phrases here and there (I like jadedmetaphor's use of gracenotes). Again, this was a mistake -- in so many ways! She ought to have trusted her own writing.

But if there's more and more lines, plot points, maybe material from other books, then well...my theory still makes sense to me... but then it really makes me wonder if she could write at all.

On a different note, why do people plagiarize and cheat? I have come across others who have done both -- often very smart, capable students who don't need to, and it baffles me every time. They're people who even brag about it afterwards, as if they've outsmarted everyone else. Someone else mentioned mental issues in a past thread. I'm not sure if that applies to Viswanathan, but certainly that's a component for some people -- a weird kind of thrill-seeking.


#54 - April 24, 2006, 06:25 AM

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Springfever,

I agree with you completely.  English as a second language will make writing dialogue very tricky.  I, for one, lean heavily on Mark Twain to get me through those trouble-spots.  JUST KIDDING!

My point is, you'd think an editor would have AT LEAST seen writing samples, especially of dialogue, before signing such a hefty contract.  

If she had trouble with dialogue while she was writing this book, it's not as though that problem crept up on her.  It had to have been there all along ... maybe she got away with it in HS English classes, and they even called her brilliant!  

Really, what editor do you know who wouldn't reject work based on dialogue that didn't quite cut it?  Either, all her writing samples previous to this experience were doctored, or ... well, I don't know.  

I don't think this type of behavior happens in a vacuum.  For many people it's a pattern of behavior.  A crutch they've become dependent on.

My biggest question:  How many blueborders got rejected so they could publisher her books and pay that advance?

Any guesses?

#55 - April 24, 2006, 07:02 AM
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Why do people cheat and plagiarize?

Well the kid who plagiarized me was my former roommate's brother. I suspect he just needed to round out an assignment, and my poetry helped him win an award. All I asked for was a reprint, and I had to threaten legal action to get that. Ummm...I'm editing this to add that my issue was with the college adminstration, not my friend's brother. It got hairy, and then with other plagiarism cases cropping up the same year, the entire state university system was involved. They wanted me to go away so I wouldn't embarrass the school, and I refused to go away.


The person who plagiarized my friend. I don't know. It still baffles me. Maybe she wanted the recognition of the award. I think the person thought she lifted something so obscure nobody would know. Seriously, if you lift something from a five year old publication from the opposite end of the state you probably, aren't expecting the author's close bud to be attending your college. And that's what happened. I found the article about it recently, and grinned when I read the line, "It is still unclear how (name of author) obtained a copy of the (name of college publication.) Tee-hee---ME!

Of course this is very small potatoes, but I suspect it is very rampant. Well, I know it is.

#56 - April 24, 2006, 07:04 AM

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We've all been trying to figure out why on earth she would do this. Now that I've had time to think about it and read the articles about how she got noticed, I think it makes sense. What if...

She was writing a book for herself, probably with the hopes of someday publishing, but she hadn't really planned on letting anyone read it yet. She used the words from the other book because she didn't think anyone else would see it (still something she shouldn't have done, though). Then when her advisor asked to read the book, she panicked and thought, "what are the odds the advisor has read the 'other book'?" and figured that since it was 'only' an advisor, it should be okay. I'm willing to bet  she never dreamed in a million years that it would snowball and end up being sent to a publisher in the end.  She was probably worried that it was the stuff that wasn't hers that had attracted them in the fist place. So she would be too scared to say anything, too scared to change it, and she decided to sail through and just hope that no one would notice.

How's that for a theory?

If it's true, does this excuse what she did? Absolutely not. Am I trying to make excuses for her. Definitely not. But I remember what it's like to be young and naive, afraid to speak up when the adults around me have strong ideas and opinions... I wonder if she even tried to change it but someone told her the way she had it before had been better-- that she should leave it the way it was (not knowing of course what that meant).
#57 - April 24, 2006, 07:37 AM

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sbk, your theory is interesting. It also sounds like a good story. Would it be fiction or non-fiction. ;D
#58 - April 24, 2006, 07:47 AM
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There's one other possible reason for doing this...

...publicity.

Look at how much it's got us talking!
I'm not saying I believe that's why she did it... but I it's a possibility.  :-[ It's already garnered extra interest in the book.
#59 - April 24, 2006, 07:59 AM

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I understand the argument.  But, if she had such trouble, why would she stand out enough for Little, Brown to offer her (at 17) a two-book contract that any of us would slobber over?  Developing an authentic voice takes time and mileage on the keyboard, and in life experience. 

It just doesn't make sense to me ... and, I'll bet, now that they think about it, somebody over at Little, Brown is kicking themselves.  Perhaps 'they' thought, okay, we need a book about teens/college age girls, why not go straight to the source? A really smart, Harvard bound gal.  How many writers on the blue boards --- no matter how well they wrote as teens or in college ---- knowing what they know now at say, age 35-55, would have been able to hand over a quality product to Little, Brown at the age of 19? 


This is one of the things I was afraid of happening with this scandal.  I really don't think it's fair to put all of the weight of KV's actions on the fact that she finished the book her freshman year of college, or to start making assertions about the kind of "life experience" you need or an age you have to have reached before you can write a quality product.  I wrote Golden my freshman year of college, when I was the same age KV was when she finished Opal Mehta, and there are plenty of other teen writers who wrote good, non-plagiarized books when they were even younger. You can talk about pressure all you want, but when it comes right down to it, youth isn't an excuse for this, and it's not the only driving factor either.

As for why Little, Brown shelled out such a large advance for the book- my guess would be to create buzz.  These days, an author in his/her late teens isn't the kind of media draw it used to be, because a lot of teens have been there, done that- Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, Christopher Paolini, Ned Vizzini... if LB had given their young author a standard-sized advance, she wouldn't have gotten nearly the media coverage that she did.  In this case, a large advance was a marketing tool- an expensive one, yes, but also a really effective one, because they could have given her a ten thousand dollars for each book and then spent 240,000 dollars on promotion for each book and still ended up with less media fanfare than KV got because of the size of her advance.  If LB decided to put marketing power behind the book before they bought it, offering a large advance makes a lot of sense from a marketing perspective.
#60 - April 24, 2006, 08:14 AM

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