Ideas versus Story

Writers always have tons and tons of ideas, but ideas aren’t necessarily stories.

I spent most of the evening the other night trading emails with a friend of mine about various writing ideas. Both of us have ideas out the wazoo, but neither one of us really has a story arc thought out for all of them.

In several emails, we discussed a zombie Christmas story, my current novel (THE GRIMM LEGACY), my plans for my next novel, her multitude of ideas for futuristic romance, Judy Garland, romantic suspense, steampunk, my idea for a Victorian supernatural monster hunter, and Caleb Carr’s CREEPY CREEPY CREEPY novel THE ALIENIST. (Which I have to say fascintated me, because I have a degree in Criminal Justice, and there were all these cool historical crime-fighting and forensic things that I had read about in college on the history of law enforcement and corrections.)

Anyway, back to the point; I get weird ideas, and I get them at weird times. I sometimes call myself the Queen of the Weird Mental Connection. Here’s an example.

Several months ago I was walking through an outdoor store with a friend and got very quiet. My friend asked several times if I was okay, and I made some non-committal pre-verbal noise meant to shut them up and reassure them at the same time. We repeated the process several times throughout the store, and when we got in the car to leave, my friend inquired again if I was okay.

I said I was, but that I’d had an idea. My brain had tumbled pretty far down the rabbit hole, exploring the idea (zombie deer hunters), and it took a bit for my brain to file it away.

I have yet to write this. I may never do so. I needed to process the idea (especially while surrounded by lots of camo pants and ammunition), and figure out if I had a PLOT to go with the idea. I still don’t, even though I keep coming back to a similar idea. It’s not enough. Writing “zombie deer hunters” twenty thousand times is not a novel.

There seems to be some misconception out there that writers need ideas. Believe me when I say that they don’t. Ideas are everywhere. Ideas are a dime a dozen. An idea is generally not enough to write an entire book or even a short story.

Ideas are the fuel that the plot engines run on. You might have a killer idea, but it needs more than that. Once you have your idea, the next question really needs to be about what kind of story you want to tell. And then it’s about the next idea that takes you on the path to tell your story.

An idea is the start. It’s the first step on the journey, but the journey is made up of multiple steps. You don’t finish the journey until you’ve taken more steps.

That’s also why writers gnash their teeth at people who propose to come up with the idea so that the writer  can write the book and split the proceeds. You’re saying you’ll take the first step, and they should take the remaining 9,999 steps and give you 50% of the profit. Um, didn’t we all learn in kindergarten the idea of ‘that’s not fair’? And truthfully, it isn’t, unless the idea-haver is willing to pay the money for the writer to write the book the way they want it. That’s a different kind of writing, and that’s okay. I know people who write on contract for others; people writing a publisher-owned series, people who write media tie-ins (i.e., Star Wars novels, World of Warcraft novels, and more). That’s nothing to be ashamed of, but that’s not the same thing.

On the other hand, it’s okay to share ideas. Ideas are not copyrighted. If I said redneck zombie deer hunters to a group of writing friends, someone would write about a zombie apocolypse wearing camoflauge and plaid flannel, some would write about hunting zombie deer, some would write about the deer taking on the zombies. Some would write about zombies in a trailer park. Those are totally different ideas.

Now, it’s completely okay to call up a writer friend and say, “I had this weird idea. You might want to use it.” It’s okay if they disagree. It’s okay if they agree. An appropriate thank you for the idea, if it is used?

  • A mention in the acknowledgements page, if the book gets published. Or a free, personalized, signed copy of said book to the person with the idea. Even an Advanced Reader Copy (aka ARC).
  • An opportunity for the idea-haver to be a beta-reader. As in, they read it first!
  • The writer taking the friend out for coffee.
  • A small (and I mean $10 or less) gift certificate.
  • Flowers
  • A thank you note.

And that’s up to the writer. Not the idea-haver. And the writer’s not required to do any of the above. They are nice gestures. The idea-haver is entitled to nothing when the writer used the idea and turned it into something bigger. The writer did the work.

Of course, the writer’s response may well be to encourage the idea-haver into writing it themselves. And that’s good, too. The writer and the idea-haver may not think of all the same things, the same PLOT, if you will, so they would end up writing entirely different books.

CAVEAT: There is a difference between sharing an idea, and someone ripping off your story. There have been lawsuits about this kind of thing. It’s unethical. If you write and try to sell a story about Larry Rotter, who goes to school in a castle to learn about magic, who has two best friends, a pet owl, and a wicked scar on his forehead, I would bet that you will hear from attorneys representing J.K. Rowling. And quickly. I said IDEA. Not copyright infringement.

My friend and I talking about steampunk would come up with entirely different ideas. She writes mysteries. I tend toward fantasy and paranormal, which likely has mystery elements. We’d write different futuristic stories. We’d write different mysteries, even if we started with the same core idea.

Just recently, an attorney I know called me with a story of something that happened to him. Personally, I would have been creeped out by the whole thing, and I told him so, but it was a heck of an idea to use in a book. It’s not an entire plot. I don’t know the settings well enough to write his story, but it brings up an interesting idea to use in a story of my own. Don’t know if I’ll ever go there, but it’s interesting. He knew I wrote fiction, and wanted to share it. I’m good with that. I appreciate the story, and the idea. It’ll bounce around in my brain for a while for me to decide what, if anything to do with it.

My point? Share ideas. It’s okay. Understand that the idea will not make you rich and famous. It probably won’t make the writer rich and famous, but even if it did, the most you get is a cup of coffee, a mention in the acknowledgement section, and bragging rights. It takes WAY more work to come up with a complete plot.


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