2.25.2007

"Write what you know" takes on a whole new meaning

Dear Miss Snark,
I write suspense novels and would like feedback on a couple of books I've finished. I fear, however, that if I join a writers' critique group, my story concepts might be used by someone else looking for a good plot. The very uniqueness of a suspense plot is, in my opinion, what sells a suspense novel.

Why, one of your snarklings even 'fessed up to this by commenting that the Happy Hooker Crapometer gave her some good ideas! (They weren't mine; I was afraid to participate because of above reasoning, though I certainly would have loved your feedback.)

What to do?



First, you need to realize that while plot is important it's the writing. You don't have copyright on ideas, only execution (ie writing).

If I seriously thought there was going to be a problem posting people's work in the crapometer I wouldn't have done it. People get ideas from all sorts of things including previously published work (T. Jefferson Parker acknowledges a debt to Jon Lethem in a recent novel); art; music; and, their own families. It's what you DO with the idea that counts, ESPECIALLY in suspense novels.

I find the people most paranoid about other's stealing their work are the ones least likely to be stolen.

Screenplays are a different story, but you've said novel.

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, I've always found that the people most paranoid about someone stealing their work are the ones mostly likely to steal someone else's.

Anonymous said...

There is controversy among the crit-lit types about how many different plots there are, but it's a finite number and there are millions of books, so narrative originality is highly over rated. Will S., at whose altar we all worship, stole everyone of his story lines.

Cecil Brooks of the Chicago reader considered this on his web page, The Straight Dope, citing varying literati theories on how many plots are out there, ranging all the way from 69, Kipling, to 1, my favorite:

"One school of thought holds that all stories can be summed up as Exposition/Rising Action/Climax/Falling Action/Denouement or to simplify it even further, Stuff Happens, although even at this level of generality we seem to have left out Proust."

Anonymous said...

oops I meant Cecil Adams, in the previous post, not Brooks.

I must have had guns or jazz on my mind.

Jen said...

LOL. I have to say that I'm not afraid of my ideas being stolen. I'm often surprised at how often I've "thought" of an idea and then read a book two months later (as I'm sweating blood to produce that idea) some big author comes out with a similar premise. *sigh*.
I refuse to worry about this. Someone could take my idea, but they can't mimic my awful syntax or my unfortunate grammar. THAT is all my very own, thank you.

Anonymous said...

A couple of weeks ago I sent a short story off to my critique group. A few days ago I discovered that a big novel in 2005 had the same title and touched on a similar theme. It's small world, and we have small brains.

--Jeff

Anonymous said...

This is like the people who put "copyright" notes on their submissions to lit journals. That little encircled C by a title is always a tell-tale sign that the story's going to seriously suck.

Anonymous said...

Many people like to write, but not many have the stamina to sit down and complete an actual novel.

Don't worry about your ideas being stolen. Even if the idea is, the person still has to sit down, write the thing, query it, get sample chapters read, etc. That should take a year or more. If I had a dollar for every time, I heard someone say, "That's a good idea for a novel/screenplay, etc.!" I'd be rich. Do they follow up on said idea? As a rule, no.

harrietcat said...

Yeah, aren't there like 7 basic plots in this world? Or something like that?

Here's a true story: I wrote a (bad) novel where the main characters were a teenaged East German athlete who dies young, and his parents. I was all "Wow, I'm so original!"

Then, after I'd written my bad novel, I was in Berlin, in a used bookshop. There I found an obscure East German novel from 1983 where the main characters were (drum roll...) a teenaged East German athlete who dies young, and his parents. Even the reason for his early death was the same! I was not amused.

Linda said...

Because ideas seem sometimes elusive, unpublished writers think they're worth gold when maybe they're worth a penny. Ideas themselves are meaningless because if the writer can't turn it into a story that people will buy, then the idea is worthless no matter how good it seems. I had a friend who got an agent interested in his idea for a series, but he could never can past the interested stage because he couldn't write that great idea into a saleable story.

Besides, ideas are easy to come up with ... just tell anyone you're a writer and you'll get "I've got this great idea ..." And then they want 50 percent of the profits for spending five minutes coming up with the idea while the writer spends a year developing and writing the story.

Kit Whitfield said...

You need to relax, I think. There's a difference between being influenced by other people's ideas, which everybody does - after all, you didn't invent the genre of 'suspense novel', so even you're being influenced - and stealing, which is very rare. Certainly too rare to be worth worrying about this much. I've been in a lot of writers' groups, and I've never seen it happen. People join writers' groups because they want to write, not steal.

As your books are finished, you're in a strong position anyway. All you'd need to do before submitting them is redraft and polish. Even conceding the highly unlikely scenario that a writer's group harbours a dirty little thief who'd lift your idea wholesale, they'd have to write a whole new book with it, which would take longer than redrafting. By the time they'd finished it, you'd already be well on your way with the submission rounds. You'd beat them to it.

And here's another point to soothe your mind: let people see your idea, and you've got witnesses that you thought of it first. Suppose A shows a story to the writing group, and a few weeks later, B produces a story that's clearly based on A's ideas. Everyone in the group from C to M heard A's story. If A says 'Hey, that's like my story!', the group will agree with him.

And writers want to write their own stuff. We're kind of attached to the idea of being original. A writer who flat-out pinches an idea from another writer is probably someone who lacks imagination. In which case, they're not much threat to you anyway, because without imagination, who writes well?

But these are theoretical scenarios. Miss Snark is right; the selling point of a suspense novel isn't the uniqueness of the plot, it's how suspensefully it's told. A unique idea badly rendered won't sell; a common idea brilliantly rendered will. Hence, the really important thing is not to guard your idea, but to polish your presentation of it. And for this, you'll need feedback.

You're far more likely to lose out by failing to get the feedback you'll need to perfect the novel than you are to lose out by having someone 'steal' your ideas. And you can't isolate yourself on the assumption that there are crooks everywhere; it's no way to live. Just take a deep breath and find yourself a group. But don't go in telling everyone not to steal your ideas; that isn't friendly, and writing groups thrive on an atmosphere of mutual support.

skybluepinkrose said...

One of the most frequent questions published writers get is, "Where do you get your ideas?" New writers and non-writers think ideas make the difference between the pros and them, and that ideas are the top commodity in the writing biz. So they believe everybody's on the lookout to steal them, and if they come up with an idea themselves they'd better keep it under wraps. Sorry, but it's a basically amateurish fear.

To agree with comments made above, the writing's the thing, and you will benefit from a good group far more than you will risk anything by revealing your idea. The others have their own ideas. Besides, your idea probably isn't as unique as you think. Any day now, a big name writer could publish a book that's so close to your plot that you'll put your own in a drawer. It's a risk we all take.

Tom said...

Her Snarkliness writes,"I find the people most paranoid about other's stealing their work are the ones least likely to be stolen."

That's true for product ideas and business proposals too.

Venture capitalists and angels smell nitwit as soon as someone demands a confidentiality agreement. (If you won't trust someone you want millions from, who exactly will you trust?)

Shouga Tea said...

The idea is an amorphous being. I have taken a lot of inspiration from other writers; I've recently started having a theme book to read a chapter from before starting the writing for the day, to set the mood.
But one of Jane Smiley's theories is that what makes a novelist is someone who reads a story and loves it, yet can say, "but what if the writer did..."
And that is how a novel is born.
I'm not sure that's always true, but it's always a possibility.

Inspiring others to write is something to wish you could do.

Look at writing groups like the Inklings. C.S. Lewis and Tolkien shared a lot of the same ideas. Did the end product look anything alike? No. But the synergy of learning from each other made them strive for better things. Frankenstein came out of a similar setting. Will anyone mistake the offspring for the original? Not likely.

I really suggest you look at "13 Ways to Look at the Novel"; she has a lot of good stuff to say about inspiration.

Anonymous said...

"You don’t get widely plagiarized until you’re widely published--and then it doesn’t matter."

-- Joe Bob Briggs

Anonymous said...

"Screenplays are a different problem" - does that mean I should keep my unpublished manuscripts away from my Hollywood friends? (B actors who are desperate for work and who know a lot of Hollywood writers)

I'm serious about this question, because my book has big-screen potential.

~Nancy said...

I got an idea for a story off an another agent's website; she said it was free to use by all and sundry. I now have a completed ms. (revising it, at the moment).

What have I read/heard, that there aren't any new plots, just different ways to write them? A writer will bring something different to the table as to characters, slang, etc. It's all in the execution.

FWIW.

~JerseyGirl

Saipan Writer said...

Like the most recent anon, I'm curious about the screenplay exception.

Was that a joke? Or is there something I'm missing? Need clue gun.

randomsome1 said...

I'll try for a different angle: Can't shake your worry? Write it first, write it best.

What, you're still reading? Get to work!

Deborah said...

There are so many reasons why you don't have to worry about someone stealing your idea ... first of all, as Miss Snark said, you can't copyright an idea, only the expression of an idea.

Second, as a former reporter in a very competitive market, every day I'd see five or six reporters from different papers write completely different stories about an event that we all attended -- and we didn't even have to make up anything.

Third, if an unknown writer steals your idea, he or she won't find it any easier to sell it than you will.

Fourth, a famous writer isn't going to steal your story because he or she could probably sell a million copies of anything he or she wrote, including a grocery list, daily to-do list, or an overly long kvetch about the relatives.

Fifth, 87% of Americans say they want to write a book, but how many actually do it? An idea is nothing. They all have ideas already. It's not a lack of ideas that stop people from writing the Great American Novel -- it's a lack of discipline and a lack of passion. And I can't imagine anyone getting passionate about someone else's idea.

Anonymous said...

To summarize:

When asked by a comic if he liked his act, Milton Berle replied, "I laughed so hard I almost dropped my paper and pencil."

Anonymous said...

A great premise is all you need to pitch film rights in Hollywood. Actual verbage doesn't matter at that point because during the "development" process the production company pays screenwriters to write & rewrite the script. When you see the "story by" credit, the name that follows is who wrote the premise. So rights to the story in a hook can be sold or "stolen", yes, and litigation about the source of a story is not uncommon. It might be a great idea to keep your Hollywood buddy's hands off your manuscripts.

That said, only very rare hooks are that original or good, as shown by the Crapometer, and unless yours is uniquely brilliant and your sneaky associate knows a producer they can successfully pitch it to, there's about zero chance your novel's premise will get "stolen" and become the next blockbuster without you.

What really irks me at writer's gatherings is when I tell a great funny story to some twerp who forgets where they heard it and tries to tell it to me two days later as if it was their original but their timing sucks and they can't quite remember the set-up or the punchlines. This is how the pitch would go if they tried to "steal" your film rights. Flat. I don't think plagarists really understand what makes a great story or joke. That's what drives them to plagarism in the first place. Then they have something to work with, but they still don't understand so they're doomed to mess it up every time. They're more to be pitied than feared.

Anonymous said...

Not speaking for MS, I'll give my reasons why it is different for screenplays. In the film and tv biz, deals are often made from a pitch in an office. In fact, more money can be made that way than the average debut advance. It just takes moments to read an idea off the internet, as a poster here said. And ideas posted by an agent on a website, ideas free for the taking? Yikes, hope that's not my agent. Then the thief can work out the key beats and fashion a five minute pitch. The producer says yes and pays them to take it to the next step. The lazy writer doesn't have to invest a year of writing a novel to earn money off the concept.

I know this happens. Ideas have been stolen off desks of "friends." Some writers get dry, they have a meeting tomorrow and they lose all sense of morality. Because the odds are these projects will never actually hit the screen, the original writer will never know that thousands of dollars were made off their idea unless they too are in the business. It doesn't matter what witnesses you have, it is almost impossible to litigate.

It is true that many newbies are overly concerned about their idea being stolen, while in fact their ideas are not really fresh or high concept enough to be worth stealing. But some are. If you're one of those writers, you must decide whether what you have to gain is worth the risk of exposure. Sometimes it will be.

In terms of joining a critique group, dear OP, it is well worth any risk to get the feedback to become a better writer. Your idea will be exposed to a small number of people invested in their own novel manuscripts. But consider asking them not to discuss your concept to their producer spouses, or outside the group, until you have at least finished your first draft.

Kit Whitfield said...

I think many people might be offended if someone at a writing group asked everyone not to reveal their story idea, unless that person had a specific deal brewing that included some kind of non-disclosure clause. Without a good reason, the request carries two implications:

1. You're all lousy no-good thieves and so are your loved ones.
2. My idea is so incredibly terrific that anyone who hears it will want to steal it.

Neither of which will make friends and influence people. Which matters; people will be far more willing to give you thoughtful and detailed feedback if they aren't out of patience with you.

This is a novel, not a movie. Just finish it and start agent-hunting. People attend writing groups all the time, and nothing bad happens. It'll be fine.

Heather said...

On plagiarism, borrowing, and influence

Uncle Orson says it a lot better than I can.

In the end, someone who will "steal" your idea is no threat to you, because people who cannot come up with their own original ideas are generally not capable of writing them as well as you do.

I don't worry about it at all.

And if you don't trust your critique group, why in the hell are you trusting your clearly vitally important manuscript to them?

emmy voter said...

I'm a working writer in Hollywood (more TV than features, admittedly), and I don't share the opinion that script ideas are easily stealable or commonly stolen. Every writer I know has plenty of their own ideas and not enough time to write them; every producer I know has a budget to pay for ideas they like, and no need to steal them. And many 'unique' ideas I've had in my own hopper have turned up onscreen, written by some other person who had a similar idea and got their version done sooner. Usually, this doesn't mean that mine is dead -- there are differences as well as similiarities, so both projects cold conceivably get produced and find audiences if both are any good. Just like in novels, ideas have very little value here -- execution is all.

Anonymous said...

Plagiarism: So, where do you draw the line?

As writers, we’re prone to and encouraged to read--a lot. How can we be sure something we’ve read hasn’t (inadvertently) seeped into our own writing?

What is too much to “borrow?” An idea? A (non-signature) phrase? Obviously there’s a continuum, and a line that should never be crossed. Where is that line?

I’d really like to know, so that I can check all my outgoing work for any inadvertent offenses.

(Note: The key word here is “inadvertent.” Obviously, I would never purposefully use another writer’s material. I’d just like to have a guideline to check my work against.)

Miss Snark: is there a proverbial "line in the sand?"

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I read a lot of stories for my zine and far more of the premises are alike than different.

I've yet to read the same execution of like ideas. Sometimes, an execution of an old idea is so original we actually BUY the story!

I think a critique group would give this questioner a reality check in more ways than one.

Anonymous said...

"How can we be sure something we’ve read hasn’t (inadvertently) seeped into our own writing?"

Answer: I've had this happen more than once, but I've never sent anything to agents that wasn't ruthlessly pruned and cleansed of all "stolen" material.

Examples of not OK: scenes regarding similar experiences using similar language or dialogue beats. I wrote a story about a sister confronting her dying brother about giving up. Later, had to go back and rewatch AND reread "Dying Young" (which admittedly influenced me, although what my novel really was was a translation of losing my mom/best friend into a story about super-close siblings facing one's death), as well as "The Bumblebee Flies Anyway" and "Princes in Exile".

I found small things that I considered inadvertent stealing, ripped them out and rewrote, thinking of my own experience and blocking out the words of others that I'd loved when I read them.

That's my method: identify the similar work(s). Review them and your own scenes, as much material as you're concerned about. If you don't trust yourself, ask someone else for an objective comparison, but I've always found I can do it myself.

I dread this particular (well-known) rejection: "the parts that are original aren't good, and the parts that are good aren't original."

Anonymous said...

(A great premise is all you need to pitch film rights in Hollywood. Actual verbage doesn't matter at that point because during the "development" process the production company pays screenwriters to write & rewrite the script.)

When I was a novice, I "let out" an idea to a seasoned screenwriter
and he immediately said. "That's a pitchable idea!" He created a pitch using my core idea only presenting it in modern times and changing enough circumstances to "make it his!"

Net result - seasoned writer sold the pitch for $2 million. Currently it's in development HELL after a turnaround sell! Now, what he did is perfectly acceptible. And he always wants to "do" dinner when I'm in LA. (I never discuss my ideas anymore, but I learned to listen to others).

Haste yee back ;-)

Anonymous said...

Kit Whitfield said...
>I think many people might be offended if someone at a writing group asked everyone not to reveal their story idea,

Kit, the idea about asking for confidentiality is not out of concern that the crit group members would "steal" the idea but that their friend/cousin/associate might repeat said idea. In fact, it is a display of trust that if you ask your group to maintain confidentiality (with *everyone's* projects), you are confident they will abide by it. Nothing wrong with that. It works for twelve step groups.

Kit Whitfield said...

I'm talking tact, and practicality, nothing else. If the group as a whole has a confidentiality agreement, then fine, that's what works for them. But if it doesn't - and I've never been to one that does - then a writer who demands confidentiality is implying that they somehow need special treatment. No one responds well to that. Writing groups are founded on the principle of mutual generosity, and if one person is overly possessive of their ideas, then they're shutting themselves out of the group.

It's always possible a writer might be able to pull of the request without giving offence, but it would the request would need to be presented with exceptional grace, and it's hard to be suave when you're worried, which this writer clearly is. It just seems to me like gambling with the good will of people whose opinions you'll be depending on.

It's hardly necessary either, as people keep pointing out - execution is what counts. And someone insisting on something unnecessary generally makes things awkward.

As a further point, if the rough idea of a story is repeated to someone who repeats it to someone who repeats it to someone, by the time it got to anyone who wanted to write it themselves, it would almost certainly have changed a lot, too much to be worth worrying over. Ever play Telephone?

Writing groups can organise themselves however they wish. I'm just pointing out the downside of a particular piece of advice, in case our friend decided to follow without considering its drawbacks. It's up to them; I just thought someone ought to give an alternative perspective so they could take their decision having considered as many possibilities as possible.

Anonymous said...

kit, agreed, meant that it would be for the group as a whole. I have seen more than one writing group that had the agreement of confidentiality and it worked well for them. It also allowed participants to dig deep and reveal secrets (memoir writing in one group).

For anyone who does not believe that writers' concepts have ever been ripped off, look up the Art Buchwald case. That is only the tip of the iceberg because he was famous and rich enough to take it all the way to satisfaction.

writtenwyrdd said...

My crit group has a general policy for membership that you don't share other people's work without their permission. Solves the problem of having to ask.