Quentin Rowan, the plagiarist author of Assassin of Secrets, apologizes and explains himself via email (posted online with permission) to one of the writers who blurbed his book. Rowan’s words continue through successive comments, so keep scrolling down.
Here are some excerpts:
But the minute I got an agent and started showing it to people who suggested changes, I began to distrust the quality of whatever real work I’d done on it. So I started ripping off passages from spy novels in my collection that fit. Somehow public scrutiny has always been the pressure point for me. Once I feel I’m doing the work for someone else’s eyes, I begin stealing, because I want to impress.
I just didn’t feel capable of writing the kinds of scenes and situations that were asked of me in the time allotted and rather than saying I couldn’t do it, or wasn’t capable, I started stealing again. I didn’t want to be seen as anything other than a writing machine, I guess. Some call it “people pleasing.” Anyway, the more I did it, the deeper into denial I went, until it felt as if I had two brains at war with each other.
I would say it was fear. Plain and simple. Fear that my own spy novel wouldn’t be good enough. That I just didn’t know enough about neat gadgets and missiles and satellites or government agencies to do it right.
There have been a lot of people talking about Rowan’s arrogance and contempt, about how sure he must have been that everyone but him was too stupid to realize what he was doing. If we can believe what he’s saying now (and I’ll tell you straight up front: I do believe him) it’s clear that he plagiarized out of insecurity, not arrogance.
And why do I believe him? Because I’ve felt all those same feelings. All of them. Just because I never turned to his self-sabotaging “solution” of stealing text from writers I admire doesn’t mean I haven’t endured all of these doubts.
The trick, though, is to keep in mind the one most important thing: You must fail on your own terms. You can’t cheat the process because of a deadline, or because a certain genre/tone is in style now. You can’t keep doing the same things all the time because that’s been successful in the past.
And even more importantly for someone like Rowan, you have to shrug off your early praise and criticism. Rowan had all this self-imposed pressure on him to amaze everyone who read his work, and where did it come from? He won a poetry award at 19, when he wasn’t mature enough to deal with it. The “Best of the Year” notice changed his self-image (he doesn’t put it in those terms, exactly, but it’s right there in his email) into a writer who had to impress people, and he didn’t believe he could live up to that self-image.
Now, I’m not going to go into Imposter Syndrome with regard to writing. Everyone covers that and if you follow writers at all you’re probably sick of hearing about it. I suffer from it, too, like everyone. So I’m going to skip the analysis and jump right to my own personal solutions to it, which comes in two parts.
First: write for a specific set of three people. When you’re writing a book imagine three people as your audience. Don’t tell them, don’t talk about it with them, nothing. You don’t even have to know them. Maybe one is your oldest pal. Maybe another is a writer you admire but never interact with. Maybe the third is an interesting genre critic, or your book-crazy hairdresser, or your snobby aunt.
The point is, you don’t want to write for an amorphous, undefined audience consisting of everyone in the world. You can’t amaze or astonish everyone and you shouldn’t try.
Second: You should dare to fail on your own terms.
Let’s talk about Game of Cages here. My editor hated the ending. That scene in the food bank? Written as one long sentence? She thought it was too dark, too down, and she wanted something more heroic in its place.
And I’m sure she was right. I refused to cut that bit and I’m utterly certain that it hurt sales. Thing is: that scene was right for those books. It was cruel as hell, anti-heroic, and deliberately tragic. I’ve been thinking of those Twenty Palaces books as action tragedies–full of the sort of thrilling violence that leaves you feeling sad at the end. To me, cutting that scene would have been cheating the whole concept of the series; the end of Child of Fire is pretty much a promise that this scene will be there.
So everyone, including my agent (no-god bless her for everything she’s had to put up with from me) explained that the scene would hurt sales. In response, I explained my own deepest fear: what if I change the scene to make it more heroic, and the book fails anyway? I wouldn’t even be failing with my own book.
I’ve seen a few responses to my end of the Twenty Palaces series that suggests I’ve “learned a lesson” about what makes a book good or bad, and that’s really not the case. I’ve certainly learned what makes a book popular, but good?
No. I believe the Twenty Palaces books were successful. I said so in that post. Commercially, no. Artistically? Well, of course I would like to go back and fix things, but not the things that would sell more copies. Artistically, I think the books work. I love them. And I don’t care if somebody on Goodreads gives them all one-star reviews. That doesn’t matter to me.
I am ready to fail in the market place. I am ready to never win any award, ever, within the genre community (frankly, I don’t expect to win any awards for the work I do and I don’t care–someone else would appreciate it more). I am ready to be laughed at and shrugged off and called boring. It’s true that I’m working on something that I hope will be successful in a commercial way–I have bills, after all–but I’m never going to write the farmboy-who’s-secretly-a-prince story just because that’s what people like.
A soldier goes into battle knowing he might die, but he goes anyway. Yes, he takes every precaution, but that is the risk he takes. If he can do that, I can take the meager chance of a bunch of one-star reviews on Goodreads, or even a complete lack of interest from publishers.
And now my son is up and wanting to get on the computer, so I’m closing out. See you all on the far side.