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Information Scotland

The Journal of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

ISSN 1743-5471

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October 2005 Volume 3 (5)

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland


Colin Will experiences a spooky coincidence which set him thinking...

Pondering the zeitgeist

Those who know me can testify that I regard booksellers as the salt of the earth, the cream of the crop; bright and enthusiastic beings who gladden the hearts of authors, and stuff like that. Some of them, however, have a touch of weirdness in their souls. I was visiting a second-hand friend recently (you know what I mean), and the chat got round to ‘titles you couldn’t use today’. “Colin,” quoth he, “I have a collection of them. Have you seen my mid-stairs loo?”

Not wishing to offend my host, I replied cautiously that I had not, whereupon (always wanted to use that word), he led me to a seldom-opened door halfway up the stairs. There, above the usual offices, was a shelf of books with the oddest titles I’ve yet come across, mostly bound in Imperial-red decorated buckram. Has anyone else found the equal, I wonder, of Kak, the Copper Eskimo? Or how about Pong Ho, by Dorota Flatau? The Gay Hazard? First prize went to Scouts in Bondage, by Geoffrey Prout. Is there a Geoffrey Prout Appreciation Society? I somehow doubt it. And, by the way, I haven’t made any of these up.

I’ve recently had cause to ponder the Zeitgeist – well, you do, don’t you? Sometimes there’s an idea floating about in the ether, and maybe two or three unconnected people come up with it simultaneously. Darwin and Wallace independently came up with a mechanism to explain how organisms change over time, and Alexander Graham Bell and maybe two others invented the telephone at more or less the same time. Sometimes the explanation is obvious – competing teams working on the same problem, like the structure of DNA, when the race was won by Crick and Watson, or the human genome project, where the two teams announced the results and published simultaneously – an unusual circumstance.

The same thing sometimes happens in literature, and here’s a painfully personal example. When I retired I started working on a novel set in the Languedoc region of Southwest France. It interweaves a modern story with a story of the Cathar Crusade in the early thirteenth-century. There’s a cave involved, and the Grail comes into it, and my characters include an Esclarmonde, a Guilhem, and an Alizaïs.

I recently heard about a new novel – Labyrinth – by Kate Mosse, and I immediately acquired it and started to read. The superficial similarities are thoroughly startling, to me anyway. Kate’s novel, set in the Languedoc, interweaves modern and Cathar storylines, it has a cave, and the Grail, and her characters include an Esclarmonde, a Guilhem and an Alaïs (slight difference there). Spooky or what? There’s no possible connection between Kate and myself, and we’ve never met.

I’m not worried about the names. Giving away a trade secret, I came up with mine from a trawl of real Cathar period names in Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, but I can change them easily. Of course, they’re very different books, but I’m now faced with a quandary. Do I stop writing my book, or change it out of all recognition? I don’t want to be accused of plagiarism, or bandwagon jumping, but saying, “It’s just a Zeitgeist thing,” sounds a bit lame.

I don’t know if the coincidence thing happens with poetry – or at least I haven’t heard, although poetry plagiarism does happen occasionally, especially on the ‘net. What does sometimes occur is that the same poem by the same author may be published in two different magazines. It’s usually the poet’s fault. Some adopt a ‘scattergun’ approach, sending out identical batches of poems to different editors, and taking the risk that they won’t all want the same poems. When the mistake is discovered, it’s usually annoying and embarrassing for the editors, and counter-productive for the poets, whose future submissions may be viewed with justifiable suspicion. It’s relatively easy to avoid too, by keeping good records of submissions, and making sure that a poem isn’t sent to more than one editor simultaneously. For those whose poetic output is restricted, paper records will be fine, but the more prolific can easily construct a spreadsheet.

In my own case, much of what I write gets no further than the scribble in the notebook, or the fair copy. If I consider that a poem is publishable, however, it gets typed up and edited on the computer, which automatically assigns the dates of creation and modification. These dates go into a spreadsheet, with annual worksheets, which makes them easier to track. I have columns for Title (obviously), Date, Year Published, Where Published (i.e. which magazine, collection or anthology), Rejections (there’s no point in sending a rejected poem to the same editor), a Consider column (to give a poem a second or third chance with a different magazine), and a Future Projects column, for possible new collections I might want to put together.

As well as keeping track of individual poems, a ‘Stats’ worksheet also helps me to work out how many poems I’ve written in any year, how many are published (and what proportion of my output this is), what the average gap between completion and publication is, and my ‘hit rate’ with particular magazines – at some point your head says no to the brick wall.

Colin Will, website

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Information Scotland Vol. 3 (5) October 2005

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Last updated: 09-Dec-2005