I’m currently working on the beginning of my novel – going back over the first draft (only maybe half way through the whole thing ATM) to maybe polish it a tad before I submit to the FenCon Writer’s Workshop. I’m stoked to be able to share the idea with a published author and fellow writers and get feedback about the direction and plot. I’m a bit in a slump and feel like things are getting repetitive, so hearing how other writers have dealt with mid-draft lag is hopefully going to get me back on track.
While prepping, I was reminded of the age old new writer dilemma of idea theft. A lot of new writers are scared to share their ideas for fear that someone will steal the premise or maybe even the entire piece. Some are scared to visit critique groups, get feedback from beta readers, or submit drafts to agents. I’m here to say, get over it.
Look, it is a common misunderstanding. I once got the urge to write a screenplay after attending a speech by an established Hollywood writer/producer in college. Not understanding the whole process, I simply came up with an idea and pitched it via snail mail to the guy. I didn’t have a script, I didn’t have an outline, and I vaguely described the idea out of fear that they would “steal” it. There was nothing in my query that an agent could even work with. I never heard back and consequently, never pursued writing that script.
Anyone else see how unproductive and silly I was being? True, Hollywood is different from New York and perhaps stealing an idea for a script as opposed to a novel is easier to do. However, the model is the same – if you don’t have anything to show for it (i.e. nothing already completed) what can you realistically expect? Besides, you don’t have copyright over an idea. It is the overall execution. Let’s say you have an idea for a dystopian novel about loss of identity in the face of social collectivism set in the not so distant future. Sounds interesting – hurry before someone steals it! (Yeah, old idea to illustrate this, but the point is even fantastic authors borrow themes intentionally or not.)
Here’s the real catch – everything has already been written. Someone, somewhere has thought of your idea or tried successfully or unsuccessfully to sell your idea. The idea isn’t really the rub. The real quality lies in execution. Only you can execute the idea in your way. The other thing is – the feedback you get from others about your ideas is INVALUABLE. Plot holes, sentence structure, even some really great ideas come from other people critiquing your work. Especially if you are a new author.
You have to take chances.
That’s not to say people won’t steal your ideas. I’ve actually had this happen. I’ve sporadically given half-assed efforts toward publication in the past – usually with short online articles (had soem successes). One time, I applied to be a writer at About.com. I submitted an article on the topic and never heard a word back. Months later, out of simple curiosity, I put one of the more unique sentences into Google and low and behold something using that precise imagery came up (I was comparing my toddler’s room to the battlefield on Braveheart.) It wasn’t a word for word reproduction, but a re-write/edit of what I can honestly look back on and say was a pretty over-written piece.
I checked to rule out coincidence – the article had been posted after I sent my submission, was on a site other than About.com however, through some internet sleuthing, I connected the writer there directly to the About.com site. I sent a rather nasty “f-off” email to the author and some of the people at About and never heard a peep. Probably because my submission, by their terms, was their property. What a great scam….er way to run an idea mill for writers without any creativity of their own!
That was many years in the past, and even so, I still don’t recommend people hide their ideas under lock and key. Since I have started getting serious about being a professional writer, I’ve learned a lot of things. Easy come easy go is the first. (Submitting articles for free and blindly agreeing to ludicrous “terms” fro submissions is a recipe for disaster.) The second is, for the spec fic market especially, there is SO MUCH stuff floating around out there, it is a waste of a publisher’s time to steal ideas. Third, the people you do share your work with will generally be supportive but have their own goals and aspirations. So, even though they may enjoy your ideas they are pretty sold on their own stuff as a means to publication.
To sum up – be brave, hone your work, and don’t be shy. You will probably never get published without bouncing your writing off of someone and a published writer (or those seeking to be published) are often the best people to check things out. In the drafting stages, keep your audience small and include trusted mentors and writers that share your motivations. This will keep you focused and really help develop your craft. Once you have your masterpiece finished, get down and dirty with submitting. You will probably need to make dozens, hundreds of submissions before getting any solid steps toward publication so trying to sell your genius by locking it up isn’t going to work.
Truth! It’s almost always brand new writers who express this fear. But I think of it this way: if you give five people the idea of a dinosaur amusement park, you’re still going to get five very different books (which is part of the reason ideas can’t be copyrighted). So has someone besides Michael Crichton written on this subject? Probably. Does it matter? Eh… not really. Like you said, you just gotta go for it.
Great post, really enjoyed it!