Reading,  Writing


One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.

–Carl Sagan

This week, the arts and entertainment world has been buzzing with the accusations that Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarized from Megan McCafferty, Sophie Kinsella, and Meg Cabot in her book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.

The passages she allegedly copied are striking in their similarity, which begs the question of what the heck was she thinking? But when the story first came out, before I’d noticed the similarities myself, I was pondering what makes an original story. Is it the plot? Well, sometimes; certainly science fiction and fantasy authors create distinctive plots all the time. In romance, however? No. Our plots can be distilled to this: Female and male meet. There is a conflict to what seems like a perfect relationship. Bad things happen, good things happen, until the conflict is resolved and the female and male can be together.

I even had to admit to borrowing from others’ work, too; not in the open, Viswanathan way, but in inspiration (the picture below is of Calliope, the muse of arts and poetry). For example, in the last edit of A Singular Lady (the version that got it sold to Signet), I added an evil uncle whose cane dropped a piece of wood which my heroine kept in her pocket to remind her of what she had to do to save herself and her family. I thought of that after reading Judith Ivory‘s Starlit Surrender, where the heroine sees a red handkerchief she knows belongs to a woman in the hero’s past (plus Judith Ivory gave a talk on the Writer’s Toolbox and explained the whole concept of objects taking on additional meaning, which is when the epiphany struck). I remember somewhere Eloisa James saying she got inspired in her love scenes by reading Loretta Chase‘s Lord Of Scoundrels, which she keeps within easy reach of her computer when she’s writing.

But what keeps most authors’ work from being labeled plagiarism is VOICE. That intangible thing that keeps us reading the same old story time after time. Voice is the way the author says things, which is why the plagiarism accusation cuts so deep; stealing someone’s VOICE is stealing someone’s way of saying things, not like Jamiroquai borrowing Stevie’ Wonder’s phrasings, or Christian Slater doing a Jack Nicholson impersonation, but stealing someone’s core personality.

I’ve been told that, for all my failings at plot and correct titles, I’ve got a good, distinct voice. I value those compliments; plot and title stuff can be corrected, achieving a distinct voice is a lot harder to do. My favorite authors possess their own, distinct voices–authors like Loretta Chase, Eloisa James, Anne Stuart, Mary Balogh, Julie Anne Long, Judith Ivory, Julia Ross, and I could go on and on (and that’s just in romance!).

So–when you read, do you read for plot or for voice? Do you savor the author’s voice? Which authors have the most distinctive voices?

Thanks for being vocal,


0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Cara King
16 years ago

I think I read different genres different ways. In science fiction, I usually read for plot, or ideas. (I love Heinlein, though I do have some major problems with his women, etc). Sometimes I read for characters (as with Lois McMaster Bujold, all worship to her.) I think neither of these (plot and characters) are very dependent on voice.

In fantasy, I may read for setting, atmosphere, and prose. Of course, character here too. So voice is more likely to sway me in fantasy.

In romance, I really value verbal humor. Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, Joan Smith, Jennifer Crusie, Nonnie St George — and many more — have delightful humor. Here, voice is definitely a large part of it. (I also love humorous young adult and middle-grade kids’ novels — and voice is major here too… E. Nesbit, Meg Cabot, Ellen Emerson White, etc etc…)

I also read romances that aren’t so humorous…and here, voice may or may not be a major thing.

So, there you have it! My highly qualified answer. 🙂


16 years ago

One thing I’ve noticed while reading is that the books I remember have a strong voice. When I pick up a book by an autobuy author, I’m as much (or more) interested in how that author tells a story as I am in the plot.

For example, I am not a fan of pregnant heroines. That didn’t stop me from buying Erin McCarthy’s The Pregnancy Test. The plot itself isn’t my favorite, but I knew McCarthy would do something unique with it because of her voice.

As I writer, I have to say that finding my voice is one thing I’m not really worried about (knock on wood). I’ve found it. I know it will evolve, but pinning that down is a big step for every writer, I think.

There are plenty of other things I worry about, though. LOL!

16 years ago

Ah. . . hmm. . . well, I guess it’s mostly plot I go for.

But voice, I guess I would take that as those authors that are autobuy for me. I guess that would be what I look forward to when a new book comes out, their voice. Because there I’m not always paying attention exactly what they are about because I pick them up anyway.

Oh me, I love the humorous romances. I rather figure it’s because I live with the news on all day on the tv and on the internet that I want to laugh later. LOL But that most certainly doesn’t mean I read non-humorous. Plenty of those on my very favorite shelf over there! 🙂

Ultimately, I probably could just put that I agree with you guys because for the most part the comments before me say in a much better way what I said. LOL DOn’t mind me, today I’m pooped, so I don’t really know what I’m doing. 🙂


Elena Greene
16 years ago

An interesting take on the crime of plagiarism, Megan. I think there’s a lot to what you say. There are many universal plots–one could say, for instance, that the creators of West Side Story plagiarized from Shakespeare, who in turn was tapping into eternal star-crossed lover myths. So it’s right that plots aren’t protected by copyright, but words are.

Voice is important, and it seems as if those who steal words are stealing from authors with strong voices, or they’re the ones getting caught. Scary thought.

But there are other unique elements besides voice. If there’s one that’s most important to me, it’s characterization. All my favorite authors have characters that stay with me. Some of these authors have distinctive voices as well, but some are not as unusual, i.e., the writing is clean and supports the story but doesn’t draw attention to itself. Stealing their words is still a crime.

BTW I cannot believe some people out there are saying Viswanathan made a “mistake”. Dialing a wrong number, forgetting to buy milk on the way home, showing up on the wrong day for an appointment–those are mistakes. Plagiarism is a crime.


Cara King
16 years ago

I think there’s a clear difference between something which is a riff on something it acknowledges — i.e. West Side Story — and something that borrows too much and hopes to keep it a secret. One of my favorite children’s authors is Edward Eager. Some might say his books are a little too similar to E. Nesbit’s (albeit a very American version), but the kids in his books are always reading E. Nesbit books, which for me is ample acknowledgement that he’s drawn inspiration from her books, and isn’t hiding the fact.

I think, in the same way, Regency romances don’t plagiarize from Heyer. Inspiration is quite different from plagiarism.

Elena, I totally agree with you on the lameness of the “mistake” excuse! I used to scream when (red-faced confession here) I used to watch Beverly Hills 90210 and after Brenda got caught doing something very wrong, which she’d been clearly forbidden to do, she’d always say in a very resentful, persecuted tone, “Okay, already, I made a mistake!” as if people should stop being mad at her already. Um, no, a mistake is when you dial the wrong phone number. By ACCIDENT. Something you deliberately choose to do is not a mistake.

As for those who excuse it because a 17-year-old really can’t be expected to know what constitutes plagiarism, I just say if she’s old enough to be paid for her writing, she’s old enough to behave like a professional. (Though I do wonder at those who gave her a contract before she even had a complete! Um, duh.)

Cara (being plainspoken for once)

Diane Perkins
16 years ago

In my very first effort at writing a book–a romantic suspense–I discovered that I’d written a piece of dialogue that was EXACTLY the same as the Nora Roberts book I was reading. I’d written the dialogue before reading the book! So I can see how we all might sometimes use the same words and phrases and even identical snippets totally by accident.
even then, with a book that remains in my drawer and not on bookshelves, I knew that I must change my dialogue. And I did.

Cara, you mentioned Bujold. I read the Vorkosigan series for the characters. Loved them, even if SF is not my favorite genre.


16 years ago

I read different authors for different things, but voice is definitely important. I think it’s a subtle thing, though–if I feel the author’s presence too strongly, it can actually puts me off and take me out of the story. Sometimes the best voice is one that doesn’t get in the way.

That said, there are some authors I will pick up just for the pleasure of reading their prose. Not many, but some. In science fiction I feel that way about Jack Vance and Neal Stephenson; in romance, about Jennifer Crusie and Barbara Metzger. And there are the great writers of the past, like Jane Austen, P.G. Wodehouse, and Mark Twain.


16 years ago

It’s like how they explained it on CNN during the Da Vinci trial — plagarism is taking of words, word for word. But you can’t sue over ideas. In that particular case, while I never read the book, I certainly heard plenty about it — and many of those ideas I heard long before I heard of him or that other book (ex. Jesus being married to Mary). So the ideas are hardly new.

Just like in the Romance Reader groups I belong too — one question that’s always asked, what are your favorite themes. Those ideas are definitely not plagarism. Being inspired by other shows and movies isn’t — if it were, 99.9% of all the other shows and movies out there would have been sued ages ago. LOL

Huge difference between words and ideas, but I guess all you guys already knew that. 🙂


Get every new post delivered to your inbox
Join millions of other followers
Powered By
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x