Monday, December 5, 2022

Back to Basics by Ashley E. Sweeney



Who is your most memorable character in literature? Jay Gatsby? Scarlett O’Hara? Sherlock Holmes? Gandalf? What is it about that particular character that has stayed with you over the years?

Scout Finch tops my list, the indomitable young girl in Harper Lee’s 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout’s naiveté, coupled with her tomboyishness and blunt honesty, creates a flawed yet fully fleshed character who’s stayed with me since I first read the novel in the early 1970s. Even when I taught a unit on TKAM every year in high school English, I never tired of Scout or her earnestness. If anything, her character grew on me.

So how do we, as authors, create memorable characters in our own works? Knowing our characters inside and out, sometimes before they hit the page, is one of our most important tasks as authors. 

Think of it like dating. You don’t marry someone you hardly know (well, not usually!) It can take weeks or months (or in my case, years) to decide if that certain someone is right for us. We assess, observe, and question our potential mate’s inner and outer characteristics as we experience shared events and situations. 

Does he/she/they have road rage? Negative political views? A nasty habit? Does he/she/they have a penchant to do good in the world? Accept others, warts and all? Love wildly? All of this factors into our decision whether to take a chance on a relationship.

The same goes for characters. Who are they? And why should readers spend time with them?

Early on in every manuscript, my (very detail-oriented) editor asks for a five-pronged character map for each of my characters. Talk about time consuming! When I’d rather be writing! But it’s proved an invaluable tool for each novel.

Here is a sample:

Character Worksheet 

Be as specific as possible 

Vital Statistics - Physical Traits - Socio/Economic Situation -  Gut Reactions
Full Name: Height: Education: Certainty vs. Change: Gender: Weight: Occupation(s):
Confusion vs. Understanding: Age: Ethnicity/Race: Income:
Defeat vs. Success: Born: Hair:
Attitude toward wealth/ poverty: Despair vs. Joy:
Now Resides: Eyes:
Jealousy vs. Acceptance: Birth Order:
Striking Features: Personality Loss vs. Gain:
Parents: Physical Flaws: Introvert/Extrovert/Other:
Love vs. Hate: Siblings: Habits: Mental Illness (if any):
Panic vs. Calm: Spouse (if any): Health: Strengths:
Worthiness vs. Unworthiness: Children (if any):
Skills: Weaknesses: Pertinent Backstory: Hobbies:
Triggers: Disabilities: Spiritual Life (if any): Speech 

After this exercise, take the five category headlines (Vital Statistics, Physical Traits, Socio-Economic Situation, Personality, Gut Reactions), winnow it down, and write a character synopsis. I repeat this exercise for every major character in the book, first the worksheet and then the paragraph.

Note that these are more detailed for primary characters than secondary characters. Tertiary characters and cameo characters are not as fleshed out (or at all).

Here’s an example of a character synopsis of the protagonist, Ruby Fortune, in my recent release, Hardland.

Ruby Fortune: protagonist; VS: Ruby Barstow Fortune, b. 1873 in Tucson, Arizona (6 years old (1879) to 34 years old (1907) in span of novel), only child of now-deceased George “Big Burl” Burlingame Barstow, widowed, mother of five boys (one deceased), resides in Jericho, A.T. north of Tucson, kills husband, Willie Fortune, in self-defense, swindles co-mine owners for claim of Silver Tip Mine outside Jericho, A.T. 

PT: Short, blonde, thin, flat-chested, weathered face, fit, attractive, low voice

S-E: Eighth-grade education, "Girl Wonder" (sharpshooter in her father’s Triple B Traveling Carnival and Wild West Show), now owner/proprietor of Jericho Inn/The Miracle.

P: Extrovert, outspoken, hard worker. Character Strengths: willful, loyal. Character Weaknesses: details, men. Triggered by nightmares of past abuse. Admits mistakes. In awe of nature.

GR: Difficulty working through change. If taken once by someone, vows not to be taken again (exception: Willie Fortune). Accepts everyone at face value, although not without judgment; slow to alter first impression, but does, when warranted (for good or evil). She-bear about sons; puts them first at her own expense. Struggles with relationship to God. At times, hot-tempered and foul-mouthed; at other times, reflective and soulful. Often own worst enemy. Makes mistakes in relationships. Works to manage pain and panic. Questions whether she is worthy. 

You’d be surprised how many times I returned to this synopsis while writing. When Ruby is hot-tempered, her mouth runs ahead of her thoughts. Check. I’m being consistent. When she’s reflective, she goes somewhere deep, into a place reserved for interior dialogue. Check, again. Consistency to character is paramount.

If it sounds like a lot of work to create characters through devices such as worksheets and synopses, it is. I contend you’ll be more satisfied with your characters, though, and so will your editors and readers.

But wait, there’s more!


After getting to know my characters, my editor then assigns a chap-by-chap plot summary worksheet, using the following classic plot template:


Opening: Falling Action: Inciting Incident: Denouement: Rising Action: Ending: Climax

My entry for the first chapter of Hardland begins this way:

September 7, 1899, Jericho, Arizona Territory


Weather detailed: windy/cloudy/dark
Locale detailed: dry/unforgiving/spare
Character detailed: stature/anxiety/bruised neck from recent abuse

Inciting Incident:

Ruby Fortune navigates steep, dangerous incline to Silver Tip Mine outside Jericho, A.T., almost falling into a crevice

Rising Action: 

Ruby Fortune arrives at Silver Tip Mine with forged will of dead husband Willie Fortune to claim ¼ of mine ownership; plans to buy a dilapidated roadhouse with funds 


Ruby confronts and pulls gun on mine owner, Jimmy Bugg

Falling Action: 

Sheriff Sheldon Sloane arrives at mine on business


Sloane arranges for Bugg to pay Ruby the next day at Jericho First National Bank


Ruby and Sloane ride back to Jericho in middle of monsoon

As a classic “pantser,” this worksheet is not nearly as detailed as outlines of classic “plotters,” but it does give structure to each chapter. And remember to end each chapter, as novelist Olivia Hawker says, with a “cymbal crash” (others call it a “cliff-hanger” or an “uh-oh” moment, something to keep your readers going and not wanting to put your book down).

In closing, there is much we can do before we even start our stories to flesh out characters and give our stories shape. Of course, authors must be flexible as writing is underway. Maybe a character develops an unforeseen ailment to deepen the plot, or we have to switch up or delete chapters for clarity. Life—in reality and in fiction—is full of surprises. Be open to them!

Until next time, Happy Writing!

Ashley E. Sweeney is the winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for her debut novel, Eliza Waite. A native New Yorker, she is a graduate of Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and resides in Tucson. Answer Creek, released in May 2020, is her second novel. Her third novel, Hardland, is set in the Arizona territory at the beginning of the 20th century. It was released on September 13, 2022. Find out more about Ashley at: 


Wednesday, November 30, 2022

New book release: Marky the MAGNIFICENT Fairy - by Cynthia Kern OBrien

Find this book in pre-order on Amazon HERE (2023 release)

 Believing in yourself isn’t always easy. Marky learns that firsthand when the other woodland fairies make fun of her. They laugh at her one small wing and say mean things about her fiery-red hair, her glasses and her freckles. It is hurtful, but through Marky’s determination, she helps them understand that everyone has exceptional qualities. Some are visible. Some are invisible. Through her kindness, Marky teaches her friends about self-love, confidence, acceptance, positivity and compassion. She reminds them they are magnificent. Readers of all ages learn to believe in themselves and the importance of treating everyone with respect and kindness.

About the author:

Cynthia Kern OBrien is the author of the A True Story by Granny debut picture book series: I Used to be a Fairy; The Tooth Fairy and the Baby Elf; and I Don't Want to Go to Preschool, the Fairy Queen Calls. A grandmother of three, she resides in California with her husband and Yorkshire mix, Pickles. OBrien finds inspiration for her writing in her grandchildren and their worldview, aspiring to teach young readers caring and kindness for people and animals of all stripes. Early on, her book series became a Readers Favorite and multi-award-winning recipient.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

New book release: GRACIE a rescue dog - by Marlene Baird

Find this book on Amazon HERE

 Marlene Baird is the author of four published novels: Murder Times Two, The Filigree Cross (The Salvation of Larry Broadfellow), Minnie and the Manatees, and Claire Walker, which are available at She took third place in the Lorian Hemingway International Short Story Contest, and has won several other awards. She is a member of Professional Writers of Prescott and Arizona Authors Association. On two occasions she has taken first place in the Arizona Authors Association's annual writing contest and serves as a judge for the contest. Marlene is a transplanted Canadian living in Prescott, AZ with her husband, Bob, and Gracie.

Gracie, on the other hand, belongs to no organizations. She is adept at eating, sleeping, hiding, walking and being petted. She can lift spirits and make a person laugh. She loves other dogs, snacks, and playing. She is a smart dog who has taught her people all of her tricks. Her ancestry is unknown.

Gracie was adopted December 15, 2020 from Yavapai County Humane Society in Prescott, Arizona. This is the story of how she became so important to the family that adopted her. The purpose of the book is to promote adoption of helpless animals and to thank all of those individuals who do this necessary work.

Monday, November 21, 2022

New book release: To Travel Well, Travel Light - by Mary Coday Edwards

Find this book on Amazon HERE

As a young mother, Mary moves from the US to Peshawar, Pakistan, with her family to help her Afghan friends rebuild their country, only to painfully watch her patriarchal Christian worldview tumble down and be rebuilt with soul-driven goals and values.

To Travel Well, Travel Light is a two-part memoir of an outward journey and an inward journey. Part 1 tells the story of the joys and pitfalls of living and working abroad with children in tow. A USAID program brought educated young Afghan men to the Midwest to instruct them in public administration. Mary and Mike befriended them through a community friendship program, and these mujahideen persuaded this adventurous family to move to Peshawar.

They lived in Pakistan instead of Afghanistan because of security concerns. But with Peshawar’s ultra-conservative honor code of Pushtanwali, men threw rocks at Mary because of her exposed blonde hair, and she traveled through Pakistan’s tribal territory veiled and disguised as a good Muslim woman.

She worked for an Afghan NGO in post-conflict reconstruction projects inside Afghanistan, and Mike administered the Afghan Eye Hospital in Peshawar. Their older son finished high school in Peshawar through a university distance-learning program and, in the process, learned to hang glide, grew fluent in the Pashtu language, and met young people from all over the world. Their younger son attended pre-school with children from around the globe and picked up language peculiarities, such as calling an eraser a "rubber".

In Part 2, Mary narrates the crumbling of a worldview that no longer served her and the creation of its replacement.

This section opens in Indonesia where the family moved after living eight years in Pakistan. Mary worked as an editor for Indonesia's newspaper The Jakarta Post, and Mary toured and wrote about a rehabilitation and release sanctuary for majestic hawks and eagles located on one of the nation’s 17,000 islands. Rescue personnel ensured that these birds of prey did not become dependent upon humans and thus unable to survive in the jungles upon their release.

Mary compares the dangers of domestication of wild birds with Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ interpretation of the Red Shoes Fairy Tale. Dr. Estés explains how a woman can be metaphorically captured through coerced cultural conformity, overly domesticated as she tries to fit in, and then when she is free, goes feral. When feral, she is vulnerable to various wounding traps.

Mary uses Dr. Estés’ tale as a metaphor for her own life. In Chapters 19 to 23, she recounts how she was “captured” as a child. When set free in her late teens, she made unhealthy choices before joining the Jesus Movement, which morphed into the trap of patriarchal Christianity—a system of belief that denied adult women their agency and kept them as children.

She knew she had to flee that enforced childhood. Just as the hawk and the eagle needed a safe space to recover, Mary narrates in Chapters 24 to 30 how she found her safe space during her global travels in Pakistan, Tanzania, Kenya, and Indonesia. She dug out the buried parts of herself that had gone underground and, with that as her foundation, created a life-affirming worldview. Her initial guides were psychiatrist Carl Jung and the sixteenth-century monastic John of the Cross, both of whom affirmed her inner knowing.

A wise South African professor led her to more guides: physicists-turned-theologians Ian Barbour and John Polkinghorne and their research and comparison of religion and science. Through them she gained new ways of considering the natural and spiritual realities. These tools included critical realism; the use of metaphors, models, and paradigms in science and religion; and the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics.

This family traveled and worked around the world for almost 20 years before settling back in the States in 2011.

About the author:

Of the twenty years Mary Coday Edwards lived and worked abroad with her family, eight were in Pakistan, where she worked in Afghan refugee post-conflict repatriation and reconstruction projects. She is an internationally published author and worked as an editor for English daily newspapers in Jakarta and Mexico. With her BS in engineering, an MA in energy and environmental studies, and post-grad studies in ecological justice, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels emphasizing the physical interconnectedness of all things.After living in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America, upon returning to the US she became a nonsectarian ordained minister through Denver's People House, where she has been a regular blogger for more than six years.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Energizing Your Marketing &Technical Strategies - by Jeanne Burrows-Johnson

Operational Organization For Authors & Artists

As I prepared to receive a new desktop computer, I realized it was a great time for pruning hardware and electric gadgets, as well as software—at least versions that were no longer relevant. This project revealed challenges that could have been avoided if I had simply reviewed my operations periodically. Other issues appeared unexpectedly, as during the review of book manuscripts.


While I awaited the arrival of my techie and her latest construction of a desktop computer, I examined the contents and arrangement of my office. Due to the wiring in the room, I was not able to arrange the furniture and equipment as I would have preferred, but everything is now functional and relatively aesthetically pleasing.

How appropriate are your office furnishings to your daily tasks? Would a simple change in your desk chair or adding a recliner enhance your working hours? If adding new pieces, consider using an L-shape to improve your work flow. I have a multi-level rolling table that I place alternately in front of chairs or perpendicular to my desk. I’ve found secondhand residential and office furniture stores, as well as retail stores that are closing, offer useful pieces with lift-up leaves and chair-side tables with electric strips. And don’t forget that shelving, craft, lap-top, and even puzzle tables can greatly expand functionality within a tight space.

Are there greater elements that you should spend the time and money to upgrade? Lighting is especially important to artists. Would louvres or other window covering improve productivity? What about adding a skylight or other lighting enhancement? I removed closet’s clothing bars and added shelving to accommodate office supplies and equipment (a process that can be reversed if needed). Are there other construction, floor covering, or painting projects you should consider undertaking? Depending on whether you take a tax deduction for your office, or you plan to sell your property, such expenditures may be appropriate. A tax professional can help you evaluate such options.


The world of technology is constantly evolving. Some emerging products are truly wonderful. Others, not so much. As with most authors, data storage is a major concern for me. With the arrival of each new product in the marketplace, the public is assured that we will never have to worry about the loss of information again. That’s proven to be about as real as the promise that the modern office does not need paper. But the need for varied forms of backups and even paper printouts continues. You may laugh, but I still have some files stored on floppy diskettes. Why? Because zip discs, CDs, DVDs, and even thumb drives can fail...probably at the worst possible moment. Sadly, I have sometimes failed to backup material, or to print out invaluable data I could not replace fully.

Here are examples of the unfortunate experiences of two colleagues to which you might relate. One of them spent months restructuring two books because when her computer crashed, she did not have printed copies of her manuscripts nor any other form of electronic backup. Another friend (very tech savvy) had a glitch occur when a thumb drive was plugged into his CPU. So, what are you doing to safeguard your precious words and images? I trust that you have multiple forms of data storage, as well as hardcopy backups. I believe the major issue in updating hardware is having the input of a techie who truly knows you, your needs, your technical capability, and the spectrum of features available in the products that you are about to purchase.

Another issue I face is checking the synchronization of various electronic gadgets. Most important to me was ensuring that my tablet was in sync with my desktop computer. First there was the matter of passwords. For me that’s simple, because unless I’m travelling, I minimize the use of passwords. Encryption is another issue, and again, I suggest you confer with a techie who can provide consistent advice. 

Next are phones. You may laugh at the idea of hardline phone service, but if there is ever a major power outage, a cell phone will only be serviceable as long as the last charge it received. Therefore, our household has both hardline and cell phones. If you have been following the scandals and crimes regarding phones, you already know that your cellphone data is subject to being hacked.

Some electronic devices do not require much maintenance. This includes e-readers, since e-books can be accessed on your desktop or laptop computer, tablet and smartphone. One thing I urge you to think about is that the number of images you have stored on any device can become unmanageable and you should consider backing them up, just like your text files.


 Many software companies are forcing users of their products into subscription programs to maximize their profits…and to force acceptance of changes the company wishes to foist on the public during regular updates. Personally, I’ve been very displeased with such updates that often lessen, rather than enhance, functionality.

While I greatly dislike the cost and complexity of subscription services, there’s little you can do to avoid them. Even if you have an original CD or DVD of a program, you may not be able to install it if it’s not compatible with your new operating system. As I watched this growing trend a few years ago, I rushed to buy the last versions of programs that were still available on CDs or DVDs. I recognize that eventually even these versions of programs will become obsolete as updated operating systems refuse to recognize them. But for the foreseeable future I am able to massage images that I have designed for the projects I am now undertaking.


Many people find the Cloud their preferred method of backup. But how do you feel about your original creations being available to sharp hackers cruising that universe? To avoid this, you can use a cloud service with patented and standardized encryption design. I should note that my designer uses Cloud services, over which I have no control. Also, remember that once you have uploaded your work to any website, it is available to the public.

In closing this article on operational organization for authors and artists, I suggest you ask yourself, “What will happen to my copyrights of material I have saved to my websites and the Cloud when I die?” Consider ensuring that you have legally stipulated beneficiaries who will receive the benefits of your labors once you have departed from this plane…

Wishing you the best in your creative adventures,
Jeanne Burrows-Johnson, author, narrator, consultant, and motivational speaker 

For more ideas to aid your career as an author or artist, visit: Author Website:
Author Blog:
Marketing Website:
You can email me at 

Jeanne Burrows-Johnson is an author, narrator, consultant, and motivational speaker who writes works of fiction and nonfiction. She is the author of the award-winning Natalie Seachrist Hawaiian Mysteries, featuring pan-Pacific multiculturalism and history in a classic literary form that is educational as well as entertaining. She was art director, indexer, and a co-author of the anthology Under Sonoran Skies: Prose and Poetry from the High Desert. Drawing on her interdisciplinary experience in the performing arts, education, and marketing, her authored and co-authored articles have appeared in literary, professional, and general readership publications such as Newport This Week, Broker World, the Hawai`i Medical Journal, and The Rotarian. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Announcing the winners of the 2022 Arizona Literary Awards



1st place Fiction
Second place Fiction
Third place Fiction


1st Place Nonfiction
2nd Place Nonfiction
3rd Place Nonfiction

Honorable Mention Nonfiction


1st Place

2nd Place
3rd Place

Honorable Mention


2nd Place

1st Place


1st Place
2nd Place
3rd Place


Honorable Mention

Sunday, November 6, 2022

The 2023 Arizona Literary Magazine is now on sale

You can now order a copy (or 2 or 10) of the 2023 Arizona Literary Magazine, publishing the winning entries of the 2022 Arizona Literary Contest.

Click here to order it on Amazon. 

Friday, November 4, 2022

New book release: JESUS, HIS BROTHER, AND PAUL - by Dr. Diane Cheney

Find this book on Amazon HERE


Using analysis of recent archaeological discoveries and her extensive education in psychology, theology, and biblical archaeology, Dr. Diane Holloway Cheney is bringing a fresh new take on the lives and ministries of some of the most well-known New Testament figures: Jesus, his brother James, and the apostle Paul.

Jesus, His Brother, and Paul: Their Lives and Archaeological Evidence provides a fascinating quest for truth about these famous men—these founders of Christianity—and their relationships with each other. It examines how Christianity transformed from its beginnings with Jesus and James into something that has lasted through the centuries. It even looks at how Jesus’s against-the-grain decisions invited worldwide acceptance, far beyond what he had ever envisioned.

Perhaps most importantly, this book poses the question: Is the current version of Christianity better or worse than Jesus’s original vision? Read these pages and judge for yourself.

About the author:

Psychologist, world traveler, and armchair archaeologist, Dr. Diane Holloway Cheney is an impassioned biblical commentator. With her impressive education and experience, she is a current member of organizations like the American Psychological Association, the International Society of Political Psychology, the Archaeological Institute of America, the Biblical Archaeological Society, and the American Medical Writers Association. This book is one of her many contributions to the conversation about the New Testament, and with it she hopes to shed some light on Jesus's vision for Christianity-and how it compares to Christianity today.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Happy Halloween - Enjoy the bugs, too - by Vijaya Schartz

 Halloween decorations are up everywhere. Spooky skeletons and shadowy graves, giant spiders, ghosts, and scary sounds punctuate the season. And new book releases on the same theme accentuate the mood.

Around Phoenix, Arizona, it’s also the season when night temperatures finally drop, prompting us to open doors and windows. Of course, the bugs take it as an invitation to get indoors to shelter from the cold… and here, the buggers are big, and some can kill you, like scorpions, centipedes, killer bees, black widows. There are also roaches, brown spiders, moths, horse flies, wood bees, fire ants, and West-Nile- diseased mosquitoes.

I refuse to spray harmful chemicals around my place, so I adopted a direct approach, the smash technique. I’m good at it, and I kill nine times out of ten. No quarters. They invade my home, they want to kill me or suck my blood, they have to die. If I don’t have a fly swatter handy, my bare hand or a shoe will do, depending on toxicity. This favorite technique also keeps my reflexes sharp.

Fortunately, in my constant hunt for bugs, I have some help. Princess Jasmine, my sixteen-year-old calico cat, is also a great hunter of bugs… and lizards… and other critters. Did you know cats are immune to scorpions? They are.

Unlike me, Princess Jasmine usually eats her fresh kill, chewing it with gusto… even if it’s still wiggling. Personally, I prefer to drop the cadavers in the trash… or flush them down the toilet. But, to each his own…

There are none of these bugs in my latest science fiction novel, as space is not a welcoming environment for them. But ANGEL SHIP, Book One of the Blue Phantom series, features a strong heroine, a brave hero, twisted villains, lots of action and adventure, a little romance, and a large feline bodyguard with deadly fangs and claws. Hope you enjoy it.

 The Blue Phantom glows like a beacon in black space, appears and vanishes, and never registers on scanners. Rumors say it will save the righteous, the oppressed, and the downtrodden… and slay the unworthy without mercy. The space pirates fear it. Their victims pray for it… but its help comes at a price…

Desperate to save her people from the Marauders swarming her space freighter, Kefira prays for a miracle. Blake Volkov, legendary captain of the Blue Phantom hears her plea and deems her and her refugees worthy of his help. Grateful for the rescue, Kefira finds his price shocking. But despite his glowing wings, handsome looks and impressive abilities, Blake admits he is no angel… although Kefira’s feline bodyguard strongly disagrees.

Meanwhile, an old enemy bent on revenge unleashed an unspeakable evil on the galaxy. Time to face past mistakes… time for innocent blood to flow. Nothing prepared Kefira for the upheaval ahead.

Can Blake find redemption? Can Kefira save her people? Can she ever trust and love again?

Find more similar novels set in the Azura universe at:

Vijaya Schartz, author
Strong Heroines, Brave Heroes, cats

Saturday, October 29, 2022

New book release: HARDLAND - by Ashley E. Sweeney

Find this book on Amazon HERE

 Arizona Territory, 1899. Ruby Fortune faces an untenable choice: murder her abusive husband or continue to live with bruises that never heal. One bullet is all it takes. Once known as “Girl Wonder” on the Wild West circuit, Ruby is now a single mother of four boys in her hometown of Jericho, an end-of-the-world mining town north of Tucson. Here, Ruby opens a roadside inn to make ends meet. Drifters, grifters, con men, and prostitutes plow through the hotel’s doors, and their escapades pepper the local newspaper like buckshot. An affair with an African American miner puts Ruby’s life and livelihood at risk, but she can’t let him go. Not until a trio of disparate characters—her dead husband’s sister, a vindictive shopkeeper, and the local mine owner she once swindled—threaten to ruin her does Ruby face the consequences of her choices; but as usual, she does what she needs to in order to provide for herself and her sons. 

Set against the breathtaking beauty of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert and bursting with Wild West imagery, history, suspense, and adventure, Hardland serves up a tough, fast-talking, shoot-from-the-hip heroine who goes to every length to survive and carve out a life for herself and her sons in one of the harshest places in the American West.

About the author:

Ashley E. Sweeney is the 2017 winner of the Nancy Pearl Book Award for her debut novel, Eliza Waite, set on a remote island in Washington State and in Skagway, Alaska, during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898. Sweeney's second novel, Answer Creek, “a gripping tale of adventure and survival based on the true story of the ill-fated Donner Party on their 2,200-mile trek on the Oregon–California Trail from 1846 to ’47,” won the 2021 Gold IPPY Award for best regional fiction as well as first place in the Fiction category in the 2020 Arizona Authors Association Literary Contest, 2021 winner of the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award and winner of the 2021 Next Generation Indies Award.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Understanding plagiarism - by Kathleen Cook

 Few Writers Understand Plagiarism

I was reminded this week about how little writers understand plagiarism, what it is, who does it, and how serious it is. Do nice people plagiarize? Sure! Some of the best and most honest people in the world plagiarize, because they “think” they know what it means and they would never do what they “think” it is.

So, What IS Plagiarism?

Most people believe that plagiarism is someone passing off another’s entire work as their own, or taking large passages from a copyrighted book without acknowledgment. Nope. Well, okay, that IS plagiarism, but plagiarism is so much more than that. There are actually four types of plagiarism, as defined on the Bowdoin College website: 

Direct Plagiarism

“Direct Plagiarism” is a precise transcription of any part of another’s work, whether published or not, with no quote marks and no attribution. The new transcription appears to be the work of the plagiarist, rather than the one who originally authored the work. “Direct Plagiarism” could occur with as little as one unique phrase or passage, such as the example Bowdoin College gives: 

Plagiarist: Long ago, when there was no written history, these islands were the home of millions of happy birds; the resort of a hundred times more millions of fishes, sea lions, and other creatures. Here lived innumerable creatures predestined from the creation of the world to lay up a store of wealth for the British farmer, and a store of quite another sort for an immaculate Republican government. 

Original Source: "In ages which have no record these islands were the home of millions of happy birds, the resort of a hundred times more millions of fishes, of sea lions, and other creatures whose names are not so common; the marine residence, in fact, of innumerable creatures predestined from the creation of the world to lay up a store of wealth for the British farmer, and a store of quite another sort for an immaculate Republican government." 


“Self-Plagiarism” is plagiarizing your own previous work without telling the reader that you published it previously (and where). If you submitted it for an assignment, for example, and later wanted to use parts of your own work for another assignment, you would need your former as well as your current teachers’ permissions. If you didn’t get it, you could be subject to penalties for violating self-plagiarism policies. Even if such work is not done in an academic setting, it’s a good idea to let your readers know that whatever they’re reading is a reprint. You may even get more exposure by being honest with your readers, when they click on your links to the original work! 

Mosaic Plagiarism

When a person takes a passage from another author and then looks for synonyms for the key words in that passage, in order to change it just a little bit to avoid plagiarism … guess what, folks. That’s plagiarism! It’s also known as “patch writing” because you patch the original sentence with a few synonyms to make it sound like different work. According to Bowdoin College, “...this kind of paraphrasing, whether intentional or not, is academically dishonest and punishable.”

Here’s an example of Mosaic Plagiarism from Bowdoin College:

Plagiarist: Only two years later, all these friendly Sioux were suddenly plunged into new conditions, including starvation, martial law on all their reservations, and constant urging by their friends and relations to join in warfare against the treacherous government that had kept faith with neither friend nor foe.

Original Source: "Contrast the condition into which all these friendly Indians are suddenly plunged now, with their condition only two years previous: martial law now in force on all their reservations; themselves in danger of starvation, and constantly exposed to the influence of emissaries from their friends and relations, urging them to join in fighting this treacherous government that had kept faith with nobody--neither with friend nor with foe."

Accidental Plagiarism 

According to Bowdoin college, “Accidental Plagiarism occurs when a person neglects to cite their sources, or misquotes their sources, or unintentionally paraphrases a source by using similar words, groups of words, and/or sentence structure without attribution.” They go on to say, “Cases of accidental plagiarism are taken as seriously as any other plagiarism and are subject to the same range of consequences as other types of plagiarism.” 

While Bowdoin College’s rules may seem harsh to some authors, they are in place to protect authors from losing the control and benefits of their own work.

Is Plagiarism Illegal?

Most people think it is, but nope … it isn’t! It may be unethical and dishonest, but it is NOT illegal! So, does that mean you have nothing to worry about if you plagiarize? Nope … not by a long shot. While plagiarism may be perfectly legal, copyright infringement, which is related but distinctly different, is most definitely illegal. What’s the difference? If a work falls under the rules of copyright, then you may get into legal trouble if you plagiarize any part of that work. If the work is in the “public domain,” such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote, then you may plagiarize to your heart’s content without fearing a lawsuit. I’m not advising this, because it’s STILL unethical, dishonest, and your reputation may suffer, but it isn’t illegal.

The trouble with taking things off the internet, however, is that most written works, including Wikipedia articles, are copyrighted. You may not be able to tell, but if you use something, you could face serious copyright infringement lawsuits, which can result in the loss of many thousands or even millions of dollars. In my career as an editor, I once dropped a client for a small amount of plagiarism that he refused to properly cite. He laughed and said I was being too “prissy” and that everyone copies a line or two. He wasn’t laughing six months later when he called and said, “You won’t believe it, but I’ve just been sued for plagiarism on my first best seller! I should have listened to you!” Yes, I did believe it, although technically, he was sued for copyright infringement, not plagiarism, for something he lifted off the internet. Before it was over, the incident cost him $12,000, and that was getting off cheaply compared to other cases. 

So Why Does “Everyone” Do It?

It sure seems like “everyone” plagiarizes, doesn’t it? Everyone is taking things off the internet and reposting them. Everyone is lifting a few sentences to put on their blogs or in their articles, right? Wrong … not everyone. There is one tiny group of authors who never plagiarize anything. Who are they? Do they even matter if their numbers are so tiny? Yes, they do, because they’re the ones at the top of the heap … the ones who are making millions on their work. Most of us will never hit their heights, but nearly all of us hope that we will, someday. You know why they don’t plagiarize? Because they know they are targets for lawsuits. They know that people will scrutinize their works looking for ways to make some $$. Successful authors do not, as a rule, plagiarize even one sentence. They don’t want to be bogged down in endless hassles, endless hearings, and endless settlements that cost them time and money.

Aunt Sally or other small-potatoes writers have little to worry about, because they don’t have anything worth the bother of suing. But does Aunt Sally or that small-potatoes writer really want to stay small forever? And how can they know what article or book of theirs will somehow go viral and turn into an overnight sensation, as happened with my former client? Don’t we all dream of that? The dream can easily turn into a nightmare if we have to worry about what our work contains. And it isn’t just the book that goes viral that plagiarism hunters will scrutinize. If even ONE of your books goes viral, plag-hunters will check EVERY SINGLE WORK YOU’VE EVER WRITTEN. With just that one success, you’ve become “lawsuit bait” and must worry about everything you write in future OR have ever written in the past!

Authors who sell few copies for the rest of their lives will probably never have to worry about coming under the scrutiny of lawyers or other writers. But most authors do not want to sabotage their careers or their futures by doing something that can kill their chances of hitting the stars. They want to be known, to have their works praised … and let’s face it … most of us would love to make a living on our writing and never sweat a 9-5 job again.

In order to get big, you have to think big. And thinking big means avoiding anything that will kill your future stardom. It’s not just the lawsuits you have to worry about, it’s what the lawsuits generate: a loss of income, loss of reputation, loss of prestige, and loss of future ability to write, if Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other stores drop your account and refuse to sell your books. All of these things should be important to you now, while you’re still dreaming of that New York Times bestseller. So don’t plagiarize … not one sentence, not one phrase. Check the examples by Bowdoin College and arm yourself for your future success and fame.

May all your writing dreams come true!

Kathleen Cook is a retired editor and the author of more than twenty books. A former copy writer/editor for Demand Studios, she also served as the Fictional Religion Editor for the ODP (Open Directory Project) in the late 90s. She is currently the Arizona Authors Association Editor as well as its website administrator.