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Idea vs Story, or why nobody is trying to steal your ideas

Talking to noob writers by which I mean writers who are just a tiny bit less experienced than I am (I am under no illusions otherwise) I am often struck by how many of them live in mortal terror that someone is trying to steal their ideas. You can see them go through an existential struggle as they size you up, calculating whether or not you can be trusted with this Great Idea, and idea so unique, so earth-shattering that they are scared to share it with anyone. I’ve heard people ask how they can protect their idea from an editor. Boy, that’s a bad way to begin that relationship.

What they fear is something of a mystery. Do they imagine editors supplement their income by firing off letters to Stephen King full of all the great ideas they gleaned from this morning’s slush pile? It sounds silly but I’ve never been to any gathering of new writers where it doesn’t come up.

Sometimes it makes the news, when someone claims that Hollywood, or a major writer stole their idea. Almost inevitably, the “stolen” idea turns out to be something so standard you can’t believe anyone would dare claim to have invented it. Or it’s just a laughable attempt to grab money by being a pest. Anyone remember the woman who claimed J.K. Rowlings ripped her off because she had created a character named Larry Potter in one book, and a race of trolls named muggles in another? Also, Rowling used wooden doors in her stories, just as she did. I’m not making this up.

Now it’s not unreasonable to fear that some Hollywood producer would rip a writer off because of course they would. But if you are in the position of being ripped off by Hollywood you are living a far more exciting life than I am.

Nobody is trying to steal your great idea!!!

Chances are, your idea is a lot less ground breaking than you imagine it to be. This is not a criticism. Any idea that has actually not been used is probably because it’s not all that great an idea to begin with. Most good ideas have been used many, many times. So you should probably hope that your idea is not completely original, since that increases the odds of it being a good idea.

And if your idea is genuinely new and great but you can’t write, it becomes worthless. If a magic djinn offered me the choice between being a fantastic writer with no original ideas or an infinite number of terrific ideas but no greater writing skills than I have now, I’d be a fool not to take the first offer. Maybe I’d just spend the rest of my life writing fantastic variations of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Yeah, I’d end up richer than Croesus. I could pay people to come up with those great ideas.

Should you ever in the presence of a good writer who is willing to work with you, out of a generous nature or your open bar tab, by all means share these ideas, and then stay quiet while the experienced writer helps you hammer out a story. THAT’S what you need.

And don’t be scared of sharing your story. In the end, it’s your voice that will make this all work (or not), and there is no way anyone is stealing your voice based on a conversation.

But if you ignore all this probably excellent advice, at the very least do NOT admit to this fear in public, in front of writers and publishers, because the number one rule in getting your first book published is to not present yourself as someone who is going to a tremendous pain in the ass to work with.

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