An Idea Is Nothing

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Last week, #IWSGPit happened on Twitter. It’s one of many pitch contests/parties where users post their pitches and hope that an agent or publisher requests more information about their work. (I got my publishing contract through a pitch party —#Pit2Pub—, so I can vouch for the fact that they work and can be worthwhile. Not to mention fun.)

Anyway, I recommended it to many of my writing friends and encouraged them to get out there and submit. Most of them jumped in, but one surprised me by refusing to participate. Why?

“I’m not putting my idea out on Twitter for someone to steal,” he said. “If I tweet my pitch, everybody’ll be able to see the idea and write it for themselves.”

Okay, tinfoil hat time.

I pointed out that ideas are a dime a dozen and are, basically, theft-proof. The idea itself is nothing. Most writers have ideas pass through their heads all day long. Many have the same ideas, at the same time. Most ideas amount to nothing because the writer just can’t see a way to make the story work. Does that mean the idea is bad? No. Some other writer might be able to turn that fleeting idea into a novel. But even if that were to happen, the novel written by writer #2 would be very different from the one written by writer #1.


Everyone thinks differently. We all bring our own experiences and biases to the work. We also have our own genre preferences. When you take all of that into account, the idea will mean very different things to different writers. For example, let’s say your brilliant Twitter pitch is, “Atropos is the Fate who cuts lifelines. Alex is a boy dying of cancer. She can’t love a boy she has to kill, can she?” (That was mine for #Pit2Pub.) One writer, me, turned that into a YA fantasy romance.

But someone who’s more interested in horror could have turned it into a twisted psychotic thriller involving a Fate who enjoys killing and intentionally falls in love with her victims so she can kill her lovers. Or a sci-fi enthusiast could have set the novel in an alternate universe or on a space station and turned Atropos into a robot who supposedly has no feelings. Or does she? Someone interested in medicine could have had Atropos discover the cure for cancer and save Alex. These are all very different stories from what I wrote.

Even if someone had chosen to write a YA fantasy based on my tweet, chances are that their cast of characters, setting, motivations, plot, and subplots would be very different from mine, rendering the two stories unrecognizable except for the superficial difference of the idea.

Idea generation

To become a viable novel, an idea has to develop and germinate. A pitch isn’t a developed idea. Sure, it’s developed in your head and in your manuscript, but those 140 characters do not represent a fully developed idea to anyone else. Ask a hundred people to write a story based on your pitch and I’m pretty confident that you’d get a hundred very different stories and interpretations because everyone else would have to start from the germ of the idea.

And most ideas never make it past the germination stage. I’ve got notebooks full of ideas that are probably great stories, but I can’t make them work for me. Maybe I’m just not enthusiastic enough about it to spend a year or more living with it. Maybe the pieces of the story just don’t come together in my head. Sometimes an idea is too dark or too light for the type of writing I prefer. Whatever it is, the idea remains just that… An idea.

In other words, I could spend days reading various Twitter pitch feeds and seeing thousands of ideas. Most of them wouldn’t resonate with me on first glance. Of those that did, the majority wouldn’t survive the first few attempts to make it work. Anything that did survive would, by the time I fleshed it out and made it interesting to me, be completely different from the original author’s idea.

If you’re still not certain that ideas are nothing, think about this: How many books/TV shows/movies have you read/watched that share the same basic premise? Boy meets girl. Shape-shifters live among us. Vampire romance. Alien abductions. People with superpowers. The chosen one goes on a quest. Boarding school as a setting. And on and on. Each story is unique, though, because the creators brought their own unique perspective to the idea.

It’s the execution and the finished work that matter. Not the idea. So put it out there and give yourself a chance to succeed. No one’s going to steal your idea and write your novel.

A few more random words on ideas.

Just a few more thoughts on ideas that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the piece above, but which I wanted to share. Because, you know, I can’t shut up.

You can’t copyright an idea. Only the execution. 

There’s a reason why ideas can’t be copyrighted. It’s because there’s really nothing unique about them. There’s nothing stopping ten people from having the exact same idea at the same time. Given the number of humans on this planet, it’s likely that it’s happening right now. If you could copyright an idea, the world would be a much poorer place because we’d be missing out on a lot of great work. Not to mention having no competition in areas that would quickly descend into monopolies. Only the finished work can be copyrighted or patented. And there’s a long road between idea and finished product.

Telling others about the idea can help you refine it and generate accountability.

Instead of fearing that others will steal your ideas, I’d argue that there’s tremendous value in sharing them. Others can give you valuable feedback and lead you down paths you wouldn’t have discovered on your own. That Twitter party you’re so afraid of? Think of it as a test balloon for your idea. If no one “likes” your tweet or asks for more information, maybe the idea needs more work. Plus, when you tell others your ideas, you have people bugging you to finish the work. “Hey, remember when you told me about that book idea you had? Have you finished it, yet?” gets old after a while and you just want to finish to get those people off your back. Seriously, accountability does wonders for getting a writer moving.

Ideas are worth nothing monetarily. 

No one is paying people for ideas. Well, I guess they kind of do in think tanks, but you’re not working for one of them. Publishers don’t swoop down and hand you a check for your story idea. They only hand over money when there’s a finished, salable product. So if someone does “steal” your idea, they haven’t stolen anything tangible from you. It’s on you to turn that idea into a salable novel that knocks a publisher’s socks off.

The more ideas you generate, the better you get at generating them.

Ideas are never wasted. That’s why I write them all down, no matter how stupid they seem at first glance. Idea generation is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. And the more ideas you have in your idea file, the more likely you are to one day see a connection you didn’t see before. Either that or something you couldn’t make work ten years ago suddenly clicks. (You’ve grown and changed as a person and now you have the experience and/or skill to write something that wasn’t possible before.) Suddenly, bang, you’ve got a real winner. But you don’t get there if you don’t keep generating ideas.

Ideas can capitalize on trends.

Okay, so you never want to chase a trend just to chase a trend. That way lies madness. Yet we all know that publishers like trends and will beat them to death. If you happen to have an idea that resonates with a current trend, it might be worth exploring it further. Provided you can complete the book (and it’s great) before the trend dies, the idea could pave the way to a greater chance of publication. Or not.


(Photos courtesy of Krzysztof Puszczyńskiandrewlloydgordon)

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