Friday, July 31, 2009

Anarchomancy

I find it difficult to put a coherent thought together at the moment, so I just have to hope that this message comes through.

My writing world has seen two straight issues come about lately. First, there's the Hugo Awards issue: A writer named Adam Roberts has seen fit to express his dissatisfaction with the nominees in a very well-publicized blog post. That his creative tendencies have seen fit to express this displeasure in a letter addressed to the Science Fiction reading audience can be seen as either interesting or arrogant (depending on which side of the fence you occur) is just an aside; the main point to take into account is the fact that Adam Roberts is displeased.

On the heels of this international issue comes the list of those individuals named to the list of Philippine National Artists this year. One of the aforementioned individuals, a man named Magno Jose Carlo Caparas, is now a National Artist in the area of visual arts and film. The local artistic community seems to have taken offense to this, and suddenly the web sites I frequent are suddenly filled with catcalls and hate mail.

Both of these issues revolve around a similar premise: Worthiness. A first group of people have seen fit to grant certain awards to a second group of people, and a third group of people suddenly decides to challenge the merit of such nominations. There is one issue at the core of these two events, and that is the simple fact that different people have different opinions about other peoples' work.

Muddying up these waters, of course, are our own elegant methods of expressing our feelings. Some of us attempt to dissect the situation, wondering how circumstances converged unto this final decision. Some of us feign indifference, nursing the conflict within their own minds. And some of us attack the controversial winners, asking how it is that something they despise can gain so distinguished a recognition.

I feel that the third aspect of our expression has been outnumbering the first two so far. And I refuse to join this growing mob.

Kvetching is not a new concept. We can't expect all opinions on a single work to agree with each other, after all, and we're bound to run into situations where that movie or song or novel or painting or comic that we despise suddenly turns up on the winner's pedestal with a nice blue ribbon affixed to the frame. We can probably fill entire shelves with works that we dislike, yet which have likely won countless awards, or sold innumerable copies.

It's not inconceivable that a selection committee somewhere will come up with a winner — or even a list of nominees, mind you — that we think deserves to be buried somewhere and forgotten for centuries. We can't agree on these things all the time.

What I'm saying, however, is that this sort of thing happens. It's been around since the first time one man decided to compete against another in the opinion of their own peers.

Adam Roberts most likely has his own opinion of what should go on the Hugo shortlist this year... but frankly speaking, that's his opinion. It's for him to decide. If he's not on the Hugo selection committee, then it's entirely his problem if none of his choices are recognized. I'm not going to pander to his complaints if he's the one who has issues with the Awards organization, lament or no lament. Roberts can complain about how Science Fiction concentrates on old-fashioned concepts, but again, that's his opinion. I don't see why I should be drawn into his argument.

For the purposes of this writing, I assume that the people running the Philippine National Artist nominations have followed their established procedures to the letter, and this is why I don't necessarily question Caparas's ascendance. I neither like nor dislike his work, to be honest, but it's not my place to figure out who should be National Artist and who shouldn't. I leave that to what I presume to be an honest and open-minded selection committee. If people question his title just because they don't like his works... then, well, that's not something that I feel is worth arguing about.

If these assumptions are wrong, of course, and if there was something wrong with either of the two distinguished panel selections this year, than that's worth arguing about. You can question greed. You can question selfishness. You can question whim or indifference or domination or unmitigated power-mongering, especially when it comes on the heels of a competition that you once assumed to be fair. I feel that action is justified in these cases, if only because integrity and impartiality is obviously at stake.

But questioning a writer's accomplishment just because you yourself don't like his work? That's a really low blow.

So watch what you say. Watch what you do, and ask yourself where your motivation lies. You may choose to investigate the situation further, perhaps to see what redeeming value lies in these winners and find out how their judges were able to notice this when others did not. You may choose to throw in the towel and work on that potential award-winning work of yours for next year.

You may also choose to take up the poison pen and spread your vituperations across the World Wide Web. That's your choice, really. Just bear my words in mind: Look at yourself first, and ask why you wish to piece such an argument together in the first place. Check your awareness. Open yourself up. And most importantly, figure out why you're willing to throw yourself into the fray in the first place.

Otherwise you're just going to be part of the mob. And the mob eats its own young.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Bibliophile Hunters

I was in the back of the bookstore, browsing something on one of the lower shelves. It was cold in that lonely corner where the sunlight didn't quite reach, and when the hairs on the back of my neck started picking up, that was when I knew that I was being watched.

I turned slowly. Two people now stood at the end of the aisle, glancing in my direction. The man was tall and bespectacled, and he wore a loose green shirt against crisp blue jeans. The woman wore a dominating black blouse on top of formal black slacks. They both looked young, lean and hungry, and I instinctively clutched at the book I was holding with greedy fingers.

"We know who you are, Sean Uy," the man said.

I only clutched harder at the book, in case I needed to use it as a weapon. "How do you know my name?" I asked.

"We've been watching you for some time," the man said.

"Do tell," I answered, cautiously standing up. "What business do you have with me?"

"We have a proposition for you."

It had come to this, I realized. I had spent too much time in the bargain bookstores, too many moments perusing dusty shelves and ancient stock, all for the want of new reading material. It was only a matter of time before my presence would have been observed and recorded. It was only a matter of time before they came for me.

I tucked the book under my arm. "There are thirteen more shelves in this establishment that I haven't yet visited," I said. "If you have a proposition for me, you'd better name it right now, or else stop wasting my time."

"We represent a consortium, Mr. Uy," the man said, removing his glasses. "A small consortium with powerful members."

"And what would this consortium want with me?"

"You are a man of developing skills, Mr. Uy. You know the correct price for a rare back issue, the scarcity of a long-forgotten series, and the volatility of the collectibles market. You can spot a single relevant title from a stack of three thousand covers about five meters away."

"What does that have to do with you?"

"We are hunters," the man said. "Simple lovers of good books, and ruthless hunters of the same. Each of us has a different set of interests, Mr. Uy, and we employ a great deal of talent with skills similar to yours."

"And you want me to be part of your talent pool?" I asked. "Is this the meaning of the entire black charade?"

The woman started forward. "Why, you insolent little ass," she said. "Do you know just who you're talking to?"

The man laughed at this, and I wasn't sure if he was amused by my response or her reaction. He drew a soft white cloth from his pocket, and began wiping his glasses in the silence of the aisle.

"Our operation is quite simple, Mr. Uy. Each of us is a bibliophile, much like you are turning out to be. Each of us scours the magazine racks, the bargain outlets, and the garage sales for many an elusive volume to read. But we're only human, and we can't be in more than one place at a time. We're each mostly confined to our own little areas."

I smiled. "I know this," I told him. "You can't get rid of that nagging feeling, can't you? That crawling sensation that you have when you imagine that there's a valuable book sometime, somewhere far away you can't find or reach. Maybe you're at work when the store gets its new shipment. Maybe you're three hundred miles to the north, wondering about that convention in the south. Maybe you lie awake at night, concerned about how many books out there you've missed, all of them sitting somewhere beyond your long, dark reach."

The man stopped cold. The woman snarled silently at me, and I knew I had them all figured out.

"What we ask is simplicity itself, Mr. Uy. Each of us has a list of wants and needs. All that we require each of our members to do is to keep such a list in mind whenever they browse the shelves in their own spare time."

"What, then," I growled, "if it means that I'm doing your shopping for you?"

"Oh, you won't be doing our shopping for us, Mr. Uy. You'll just be... canvassing for us, in a way. If one of us seeks a Diana Wynne Jones novel that you should find, then you drop us a line. Should one of us demand a second-edition Crichton manuscript, then you shall reserve a copy if you ever manage to locate one."

"And what do I get out of it?"

"The same, Mr. Uy. That lost Steve Jackson volume that you're been looking for? Should one of our contacts finds it, then you can be notified within minutes. That rare interactive Escape series that you've been seeking for the past ten years? We can have you on the site within an hour, if one of our operatives sees fit to make a call."

My mouth felt dry and heavy. I raised an eyebrow in swift anticipation, but lowered it a second later when I realized the consequences.

"No deal," I said.

"No deal?" the woman answered.

"No deal."

A smile played at the corner of the man's mouth. "Fascinating," he said. "I suppose you would care to enlighten us as to your reasoning?"

"You've got a good idea there," I said. "It looks good on the paper you've scribbled on. But reality has a way of tilting things out of whack, and it's reality — and more than a bit of human behavior, mind you — that will cause it to collapse like a house of cards."

The woman glared at me as though I was throwing away a golden opportunity. The smile never left her companion's lips, and I wondered if he somehow knew something that I didn't.

"People don't always visit the bookstores just to look for books," I said. "That's an unrealistic way of looking at things. Since when was the last time you passed by a place to buy that one exact volume that happens to be on your mind? People browse — and it's only when their sense of curiosity is sated do they actually bring their choices to the cashier's post."

"You say that as though you truly believe in it," the man said. "But we know better. Each of us has a list in our own minds, a true idea of wants that we constantly seek in the literary receptacles. And we're always looking for those."

"Take a close look at those 'lists' sometime," I said. "It's easy to say that you want a first-edition copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, for example. But how specific are your requests? How sure can you get when there are tons of variants and endless minutiae out there?"

"Perhaps the tables have turned, Mr. Uy. One of us now seems to be wasting the other's time."

"Stephen King is on my list, you imbecile. But I neither look for just any Stephen King work, nor do I search for select volumes. I look for Stephen King works that I find interesting, something that I believe will be worth the time they take to read.

"I can entrust the responsibility of specific titles to another person, but I can't entrust the impression that comes from my heart and mind. I want to leaf through my books, find something good enough to read, and then take it home. And I am the sole arbitrator of such personal standards.

"I don't want thirty people telling me that they've found a Stephen King novel in such-and-such a store, because Stephen King is in practically every sale. I want to find him myself, and I don't want to be beholden to you all just because you're looking for something that I may or may not be able to find."

The man drew himself up, his glasses reflecting the cold glint of silicon and wire across the sparse light. He seemed to grow across the shadows of the empty aisle, and his companion shrunk against the chill of his long gaze.

"You are a fool, Mr. Uy. We seek to do a service across those... collectors... who only wish to fulfill their literary desires."

"Then you're talking to the wrong person," I said. "I'm not one of your so-called 'collectors'. I'm just a plain old reader, looking for new books."

For a moment, I thought that the man was going to do something rash and regrettable. For a moment I imagined thunder and lightning to emerge from his form. But the shadows held back at that point, and the light resumed its march, enough for him to lean back against the shelves and fix me with nothing more than his companion's cold glare.

"You will understand in time, Mr. Uy," he said. "I hope that, by the time you realize just what you have denied this day, then you shall still be able to find all of what you seek."

And in an instant, both the man and the woman were gone.

I turned back to the shelf, feeling the brittle pages of the paperback book under my arm and wondering if, perhaps, the wisdom was there. We all had certain items on our watch list, after all, certain items to look for in the darkest recesses of the bargain bins and the rotten corners of forgotten warehouses. To the collectors, ignorance may have been bliss, and knowledge divine.

Then I found another title that looked as though it might have provided some interesting midnight reading, and I settled down to browse.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Spoils

I've been hitting the bookstores pretty hard lately.

I'm not sure why, really. I imagine that I've suddenly developed a burning need to read stuff; my office laptop is littered with free e-book samples and gazeteers, I troll the international RPG forums looking for campaign journals to pore through, and of course, there's the aforementioned bookstore visits to consider.

My work is an easy culprit to identify — it's both challenging and exhausting at the same time. When you have to think on your feet and dream up ways to meet a flood of deadlines, you tend to use up a significant portion of your resourcefulness each day.

That said, my circumstances still don't give me a good reason behind my sudden bookstore visits. When the urge first came along, I started hitting the high-class places with discount card in tow. Only recently have I come to my senses and focused these attentions on the cheaper book sales; if I'm going to have to feed a temporary addiction, I hope that I don't break my bank accounts in the process.

I actually put together a short, personal guide to bargain bookstores a few months ago, and I still follow these same expectations. Bargain bookstores (or book sales, or whatever you want to call them) really haven't changed much over the years. I imagine that there are now more than a few bibliophiles who know exactly how to scour a new branch each month, and promptly pick it clean of those volumes that they find interesting.

The last few weeks have made me realize that I approach each book sale with a certain set of goals in mind. My first priority, of course, is to seek out and hoard any particular books that I'm looking for. From there, my second priority involves looking through any titles that seem interesting enough to take home and read. My third priority then involves checking out specific authors or series for collection filler or familiar ground. Finally, if all else fails and I can't find a single thing that I would want to pick up, I just grab the strangest item in the bunch (as long as it's cheap, of course) and bring it to the cash register.

I find that this is not a very organized system, but it does ensure that I leave every book sale with at least one paperback package tucked under my arm. This inevitably gets added to the clutter of a room that has bookpiles in some of the strangest places.

This doesn't even begin to cover the habits I've developed in the bargain bookstore aisles. For starters, I've developed the "bibliophile squat", a maneuver that allows me to inspect the lowest shelves on the pads of my feet for minutes at a time. In cramped spaces or narrow passages where people will inevitably want to walk by, I employ the "crustacean shimmy", so as to let them pass without interrupting my otherwise oblivious stupor.

There are a couple of bookstores that most likely have developed stories about me. In one of them, I spent a solid two hours scouring the bookshelves once it became obvious that at least fifteen volumes of a hard-to-find series were scattered among the collection there. In another, I became so disgusted at the way the books were organized that I started stacking and collating them myself. In the former case, I found myself spending almost a thousand pesos in front of a very surprised cashier; in the latter, I ended up getting some dirty looks from someone who I took to be the branch manager.

The most irritating habit that I've developed so far, however, involves the impromptu "dusting" some of the grimier volumes. I'm allergic to dust, so I can't just start wiping books or melodramatically blowing the tiny particles away... so I end up whacking them once or twice against a convenient surface. Like, say, the seat of my pants.

This has yet to give me any strange looks. I imagine that the people who frequent bargain bookstores themselves have habits that are strange enough to warrant ignorance of mine.

I act a lot more "civilized" when it comes to the more expensive bookstores, of course — these are the places where the titles come shrink-wrapped, and where you can mill around doing absolutely nothing each day until the time comes to grab a Mocha Frappe at the nearest Starbucks. I tend to score a lot more impulsive buys in these areas — if only because I find it difficult to judge books that I can't conveniently open for all of the plastic that covers them. (Yes, it would be easy for me to simply remove the silly wrappers under the watch of a bookstore employee... but why bother?)

That said, even these places aren't safe from my strange habits. I tend to ask the employees about the quality of certain titles, for example. Every now and then I get into a self-propelled debate on the merits of one writer over another, which usually gets me a nod and a smile from people who probably couldn't care less about what I'm talking about. They probably get the same drill from other customers, I think.

I suspect that I've picked up at least thirty different titles in this way over the last few months, with ten of them from the previous two weeks alone. At my current rate of reading, that means that I've got enough to last me about two to three months or so; nevertheless, I still continue to pick up books.

Perhaps it's an obsession. Perhaps it's a compulsion. Perhaps it's merely an outlet for my own curious brand of deviant behavior. Whatever the case, I'm now a hoarder of volumes for my own reading pleasure, which would be nice if it weren't for the fact that I'm rapidly running out of shelf (and room) space.

The other day I inquired about the sale price of a massive plastic container, big enough to fit a small TV with matching DVD player and game system. The saleslady at that time made the unfortunate decision of asking me what I wanted it for, and when I told her that it was for my books, she clearly didn't believe me.

It's just as well, I suppose. Maybe I should start saving for the dump truck...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I Know Where This is Leading...

Recent exercises in internet surfing have led me to rediscover the Strange Horizons web site. Strange Horizons, you see, is an online publication that's been running for almost ten years now; it focuses on speculative fiction that is made far more interesting by its access to an international stable of writers.

More importantly for this post, however, Strange Horizons is also the home of one of the more fascinating lists on the Net. Ten years of running a regular publication schedule means that the magazine's editors have come across their share of common, clich├ęd, and castrated stories, and at some point they decided to make an interesting response: They gathered some of the most irritating and overused plot ideas they'd seen, and put up the resulting list in their submissions area like some great warning in big red letters.

Naturally, this list makes for some very fun reading. Got a story idea that you tend to use over and over again? It's here somewhere. Noticed a common theme among the current crop of bestsellers? It's probably about halfway down the page. The list isn't exhaustive and may be somewhat opinionated (because it's only based on Strange Horizon's personal standards, after all), but it's great for a few minutes of derisive laughter.

Let's take one of my favorites as an example. Item 4 in their list of overused plots and themes notes the following:

Weird things happen, but it turns out they're not real.
  • In the end, it turns out it was all a dream.
  • In the end, it turns out it was all in virtual reality.
  • In the end, it turns out the protagonist is insane.
  • In the end, it turns out the protagonist is writing a novel and the events we've seen are part of the novel.

  • This never fails to get a chuckle out of me, because it's true. Somehow, sometime, somewhere, there's always an aspiring writer who makes the fateful decision to end their masterpiece with "...and it was all a dream," completely unaware of just how insulting it is to readers and editors alike. (That said, I like to think that we all grow out of this phase, eventually.)

    And lest you think that I only laugh at this because I'm almost completely immune from their identified stereotypes, I must point out Item 9 on their list:

    A "surprise" twist ending occurs. (Note that we do like endings that we didn't expect, as long as they derive naturally from character action. But note, too, that we've seen a lot of twist endings, and we find most of them to be pretty predictable, even the ones not on this list.)

    That, ladies and gentlemen, is my writing to a T, and I was still greatly amused.

    That said, I didn't necessarily bring up this article to praise Caesar, and the reason can be found early in the list, in the lower reaches of Item 2:

    Creative person is having trouble creating.
  • Writer has writer's block.
  • Painter can't seem to paint anything good.
  • Sculptor can't seem to sculpt anything good.
  • Creative person's work is reviled by critics who don't understand how brilliant it is.
  • Creative person meets a muse (either one of the nine classical Muses or a more individual muse) and interacts with them, usually by keeping them captive.

  • To be honest, I have seen a few of these floating around, and I have yet to read one that's good.

    Except perhaps for Neil Gaiman's Calliope.

    Calliope, mind you, isn't technically a short story. It's a comic that was featured in The Sandman series, published by DC Comics's Vertigo line, written by Neil Gaiman, pencilled by Kelley Jones and inked by Malcolm Jones III. It's about a struggling author who acquires one of the nine Muses of Greek Mythology and keeps her captive in order to establish a constant stream of ideas. In short, it's a plot that falls squarely on Strange Horizon's list.

    Except that Calliope predates Strange Horizon's list. Come to think of it, Calliope seems to predate every single story concerning lost creators and captive muses. Neil Gaiman, in fact, pointed this out about five years ago, and I assume that he's being perfectly straight with us on this matter.

    I can only assume that Calliope was an innovative story for its time, and that it probably ended up spawning an entire host of imitators (perhaps due to the hive-minded subconscious that all writers seem to share). Fast-forward a few years and you have a group of editors at an online magazine who have seen more "captive muse" stories than they can take. Ergo, the "captive muse" plotline is suddenly an overused one, fit only for a bit of laughter at how unoriginal people can be.

    So what happens when an editor who has read one too many "captive muse" stories finally gets his or her hands on Calliope? Such a hypothetical scenario boggles the mind.

    I wonder if this is more a matter of "shelf life" than anything else. Certain plotlines do run their course, after all, and it's entirely possible that something of great relevance and distinction in the past may no longer have the same impact in the present (which is why James Bond eventually moved away from the Cold War scenarios of his youth).

    On the other hand, it could also be an issue where repetition diminishes creative impact. JK Rowling's Harry Potter series, for example, spawned an entire host of imitations, most or all of which concerned pre-teens with magical powers, or fantastic worlds that exist alongside our own. But what would happen if, in the middle of this scenario, some excellent story of similar subject matter but better quality than Rowling's writings, came out? Would a significant audience turn their interest towards that work as well?

    I suspect that the answer is "no" here, and I suspect that public reaction would consider the second work to be another imitator that couldn't stand on its own. Timing can be such a jerk sometimes.

    So it turns out that I do have a problem with the Strange Horizons list after all. The list does make me laugh, yes, because I know that both I and an entire host of writers out there have made the mistake of using those overused, overwrought, and overexposed plotlines. But the list also makes me think, because it now begs the question: Does this mean that I shouldn't use those ideas for stories at all?

    And the answer is that I should still be able to write these things. I shouldn't care what Strange Horizons or anyone else says in this regard; if I feel that a story is best served with a captive muse, a subtle plot twist, or even — God forbid — a release from the fictive dream at the end, then I should use it. I mean, if I feel that it should work like that... then, well... it should work like that.

    And if I write such a plotline, there's a good chance that some editor out there will gloss over my story, file it among the stereotypical "nonsense" themes that she has tucked away in her head somewhere, and start filling out the rejection slip. I like to think that there are good editors out there, of course, but let's face it — everyone does have their own prejudices, their own first impressions, their own pet peeves.

    Innovation, I suppose, shouldn't automatically mean coming up with brand-new ideas. Innovation should also involve taking old ideas and pushing them forward in a new way. It's another lesson that we shouldn't immediately jump to conclusions about anything; sometimes it's better to see if that road actually takes you to where you expect it would.

    We may have heard it all before, and perhaps we've already taken the words to heart. Perhaps we've even incorporated them as part of our belief system.

    But I must conclude that lists like these are more curiosities in the long run. They're like the red octagonal STOP signs — there to provide a warning against a danger that may or may not exist. Eventually we have to hold the notion of stopping in our own minds, molding it to the point where we know why the rule exists and under what circumstances it can be bent or broken.

    I feel that there are few certainties in the writing effort, and as interesting as this list can be, it shouldn't stop me from trying things out and seeing what I can do with them.

    Neither, for that matter, should it stop anyone. Play with your ideas as you like.

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009

    The Last Regulation

    No processed meats.

    No internal organs.

    Limited amounts of duck, lamb and other uncommon meats.

    Lower amounts of beef and pork.

    No fats.

    Nothing deep-fried.

    No alcohol.

    Singular carbohydrates per meal.

    Reduced consumption of cheese and other dairy products.

    Less salt.

    Drastic reduction in sugars.

    Reduced consumption of fruits.

    ...

    If you're curious, last night's dinner involved a nice cottage cheese spread on a loaf of processed cardboard, with some fresh salad greens on the side. Delicious.

    Wednesday, July 08, 2009

    Patience

    Option number one: A eulogy for Michael Jackson.

    Option number two: Another attempt at a short story.

    Never let it be said that the prospect of writing a blog post was an easy one. I resolved to write something within the previous weekend, and these were the two things I was dithering about.

    In the end, I decided to go for the short story. Michael Jackson has a ton of online memorials about his untimely passing already, and while I do want to leave some words on the death of a musical icon, I find it harder and harder nowadays to say something that the rest of the crowd hasn't already mentioned.

    So I'm writing a short story. It's reached about 1,700 words so far, which indicates something with enough pace and flow to keep my interest. The only issue is that I don't have that much time to write nowadays, and even at my current rate of eight hundred to nine hundred words per session, it might take me a while to finish this. Michael Jackson will definitely have to wait a little longer.

    What's funny is that I don't even intend for this work to be published anywhere apart from this blog. I'm just getting my groove on, that's all — it's been a while since I hit the publishing venues, and it's about time that I called back the muse from her cigarette break. I think of this as a bit of practice.

    Stay tuned, then, and be patient. This stuff will come around.

    Friday, July 03, 2009

    Disclaimer: July 2009

    I was conducting a short crash course on forum moderation the other day. It was right in the middle of a short discussion on plagiarism in forum posts, however, when somebody raised their hand in my face.

    "I'm not taking questions yet," I said.

    "Yeah, but how can you tell if a guy is infringing copyright or not?"

    That opened up a whole can of worms, I have to admit. Discussion forums aren't the most common place to find copyright violations, seeing that most forum posts are short and reactive by nature. However, I recalled an old case where the Sassy Lawyer found one of her articles copied and pasted in its entirety on a local board, which indicated that there was the possibility that such a thing could happen.

    The first thing that I pointed out was the lack of "voice". A plagiarized post is usually presented in a tone and style that is different from the poster's usual approach, obviously because the work didn't come from the same source. In short, you could put the suspicious piece alongside the poster's previous works and identify marked differences between the two.

    "Every writer has a distinct style," I said. "Taking my blog as an example, you'll notice that its works tend to go in certain directions. The words are chosen well enough that the posts make sense, but not so well that the writer doesn't come off as long-winded. There's also a noticeable trend towards strange humor, and the works of fiction make heavy use of dialogue and plot twists.

    "That said, it's sometimes difficult to read tone and style, so another good move would involve Googling an excerpt of the suspicious work. Most Internet plagiarists will take stuff from whatever sites are handy, so if a work was stolen, you're likely to find an online source."

    Someone raised their hand. "What if somebody copied it from a web site, but changed some words so that no one could tell that it was plagiarized? Or what if they retyped it from a non-online source?"

    "If anyone would be willing to put that much work into the piece," I said, "then they probably would not have taken the work in the first place. They would normally just write something on their own. But even if you make some small adjustments, there's a good chance that the rest of the work would come out on an online search."

    "So what should we do if this happens?"

    "Easy," I said. "You just have to remove the offending content, then place a moderator's warning at the bottom of the post. Tell them the right thing to do."

    "Which is...?"

    "That if they use any information from any outside source, they should include an acknowledgment of that source. Usually a link to the original web site is preferred. This is the approach that I use on my own blog — everything I write there is completely original, except for those areas that I borrow, reference or quote... and it's those items where I place my links."

    "Okay."

    "Sometimes you might run into the reverse situation — someone from outside the web site contacts you and tells you that one of their works was unlawfully taken and posted in the forums. In that case, you should remove the content and put up a notice in its place. Normally the authors would be willing to negotiate over the use of the work, but as a blanket policy, you should remove these at the first sign of any issues.

    "I've never had such a dispute with any external source, but on my end, I would try to talk it over with them and smooth out any differences. If I would prefer to keep using the reference (which is unlikely for most forums), I'd negotiate.

    "That goes for any work originating on the forum that gets used on the outside, too. For me, I want to get asked for permission before anyone uses my work. That's usually all that there is to it, and you'd be surprised at how many people don't even bother to do that. I don't want to find that me work got credited to someone else who had absolutely nothing to do with its creation. Neither do I want to find my work used to slander and ruin people, much less get interpreted outside its original context."

    Another hand went up. "So what do we do if somebody's work on the forums gets stolen?"

    "There's not much you can do, because that's technically out of your scope," I said. "But you should at least inform the owner if he or she doesn't know yet. From there, it'll be up to them on what action they want to take. Be prepared to provide information to the authorities if the issue gets investigated. I would suggest that you lock the post or thread immediately to preserve the evidence; that's what the timestamps are for.

    "If you're wondering, the usual penalty for copyright infringement usually involves monetary compensation. Bigger cases may see a betrayal of trust of some sort, and may have stiffer penalties. That's not discounting whatever the owner of the work can think of. Online, there are things worse than what the authorities can dream up."

    I looked over my tiny audience. "Any other questions before we move on?" I asked.

    When there were no responses, I turned back to the whiteboard. "Okay," I said, "the next thing that we need to discuss is the prevalence of the 'Me Too' response in discussion forums..."