Friday, September 30, 2011

Have I got an idea for you!

That's one of the usual reactions you get when you tell someone you're a writer.

It's incredible how forthcoming people are with their great ideas. Don't they know that they could take their great idea, write it into a book, and sell it for millions of dollars? Of course they do! But why should they do that, when all they have to do is give their idea to a writer-friend and have that person do all of the actual work? Then, the "idea man" can just sit back and collect the profits from his brilliance. That's what America's all about right?

And of course, us authors being the friendly, congenial, and tactful people we are, rarely have the backbone (or discourtesy, depending on the situation) to tell these helpful people that we already have lots and lots of ideas that we'd love to write, if only we had the time. Nor do we mention that the spaceship discovered by archeologists under 100 feet of ice in Antarctica premise has already been done,or that the half-elven prince in search of a magical sword to save the kingdom really isn't that great of an idea anymore.

One of the things writers learn through thousands of hours of experience is that the story's premise usually has very little to do with its success. A premise is a gimmick. It's a spaceship in the ice or a magical sword (or ring) and that's all it is. A bad writer can take these ideas and kill them. A great writer can turn them into bestsellers. In either version, the premise remains the same. It's the execution that matters. One of the things I love to read in reviews is "I loved this character so much!" When I hear that, I know I've connected with someone. I've taken an empty page and turned it into a story, and more importantly, into characters that my readers can actually feel for. That's not to say I'm a great writer, though I would certainly like to be at least good on some level, but it does tell me that I have succeeded somewhere, with some readers, at doing what I'm supposed to.

Now here's the crux of the matter: Your idea won't work for me. 

What does that mean? Well, it's like this. In order for me to develop a world and characters that seem real and organic, I have to be interested. And the ideas that interest me most are the ones that I create, because those come from the places that my mind goes when I'm being creative. And being a writer, I have lots and lots of ideas like that. I have notebooks full of them, waiting for me to explore and create and refine them into stories. I have a lifetime's worth of notes sitting under my desk right now, and I'll probably never get to half of them. And with that being the case, why would I invest hundreds of hours in someone else's idea, doing months of labor all by myself, and then happily hand over a percentage of the profits? That doesn't make sense at any level. Imagine going up to an architect and saying, "Hey, I've got this idea for a house! It's got a steep roof and gables, and a really long covered porch. Why don't you build it and then give me half the profits?" I can't think of any trade where someone would expect that, except with a writer.That's not to say that the spaceship under the ice doesn't have potential. It does. But it's not for me to write, it's for the person who had the idea.

Now, if a person should feel like they really want to help a writer out, here's a good way to do that: Buy his or her book. Review it. Tell some friends about it. Spread the word. Building that kind of relationship with a writer is likely to be far more rewarding than offering him or her that great idea and creating an awkward, uncomfortable situation for everyone involved. 

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