January 17, 2017 by Renee
Had an interesting discussion the other day about ideas and folks who steal them. The conversation was about something not related to writing, but it got me thinking. Can someone really steal a book idea?
Think about it for a minute. It’s an interesting thing to ponder. I’ll wait.
Okay, enough of that. Fun fact: I just wrote a novella about a writer who loses his mind when his work is stolen. (Don’t you dare use it.) It makes good horror for other writers, because we’re kind of weird about our fear of someone stealing our work. This story I wrote, oddly enough, is based on an idea given to me by Christian Saunders. (I did not steal it. I don’t care what he says. Seriously, though, there was no stealing.)
See, when you stop believing you’re a special genius snowflake, you can brainstorm with other writers and EXCHANGE ideas. Give one you know isn’t right for you to someone who might make it fantastic, and vice versa.
Okay, so maybe it’s not that amazing. Whatever. My point is writers are really weird about our precious ideas. I feel dirty even talking about this, and I’ll admit, I’m hesitant to share a new idea, especially if I’m actually working it. I’ll share with a few close friends or non-writer types, but doing something like posting in a writing group or on social media seems like I’m begging someone else to write it first. And I’d understand if they did, because I don’t own an idea. The idea I might have, any idea, has probably already been done many times before. I’m technically stealing it from whoever used it before me. So, can someone really steal an idea when it comes to fiction writing? Writers get ideas from everywhere. We use news reports, fairy tales, dreams, movies, other books, people, conversations, life events, and the list is probably endless. We’re all thieves. Think about all the time you’ve used a creative writing prompt. You’re a no good, dirty idea stealing loser. We all are.
Don’t tell me you’ve never EVER used another person’s idea.
Even if you’ve never done it intentionally (and most of us haven’t), we’ve all used ideas that someone else thought of first. An idea isn’t a tangible thing. It’s a possibility. Until you actually write the story, there’s nothing to steal. If you’re foolish enough to share your entire outline with someone, well there is a possibility it’ll get swiped. That would suck, and it’s a shit thing for someone to do, but you and the thief could both write it, and you’ll end up with completely different stories. If not in terms of plot, then your characters and narrative will be different. The style and voice will be different. One of you will be a better writer, so the overall product will be different. You have different experiences, skills, beliefs and viewpoints, so your idea in another’s hands is probably going to be a totally different story.
An idea is a beginning. And for those of you (and I’ve heard this from some) who believe using another person’s story idea is plagiarism, just stop. Unless said writer copied your WORK, using an idea you tossed into the world is not the same as plagiarizing a book. It’s shitty, sure, and unimaginative and possibly lazy, but if they took the idea and wrote their own story based on it, they’re only doing what we all do in some way. Just imagine what it’d be like if using another person’s story idea was actually something you could sue over. You and Joe Writer over there could be working on separate books. Never met. Never talked. Never saw a social media post by the other. Now, you both come up with the same basic idea for a story. You both write it. Later, you see Joe has used “your” idea and he sees you’ve used “his.” They’re different stories, but you both have reason to sue the other, because the basic idea is the same. You stole each other’s ideas. So, you both sue. Odds are, whoever published first would be viewed as the “victim” and whoever took too long would be ruined. Does that seem right?
Hell, we’d all be sued in such a world, because there are no new ideas (at least in terms of plot) in fiction. Accept it. Yes, it seems depressing, but only if you’re dead set on writing something that’s never been done before in any way. However, if you view this fact as a challenge, it gets a little more interesting. Sure, every plot has been done. View these previous attempts as something you can do better and then try to realize that goal.
And if you’re really convinced that you’ve got the best, most original story idea ever, and you know someone might steal it if you share it, then shut your damn mouth and write it. Don’t tell anyone. Don’t share excerpts or blurbs on social media. Just write it. When you’re done, keep it close to your chest. Don’t even submit to editors or agents. I mean, what’s stopping them from stealing it? And don’t publish it. Someone is going to read the book and use the idea for their next book, because it’s so awesome. Better to keep it hidden, so no one is ever tempted to use it to write something new. It’s YOUR idea. Not theirs.
Sounds a little ridiculous? You’re absolutely right. It is.