The Problem with Great Ideas

I’m a top writer on Quora. You know: that website where you can get your questions answered or can go on and answer other people’s questions. I spend a lot of time there answering questions about writing, which makes sense, since I teach it at the university level.

One of the questions that pops up now and again is, “What do I do if someone steals my great idea?” And the stock answer is, you let them. You just go to your closet and pull out another great idea and use that for your next book.

I’ve had many “great” ideas stolen, often by better writers than I. Mostly they stole the ideas because I took too much time writing them and didn’t get them out there. There are actually two big problems with big, great, wonderful ideas. Here’s the first: they are really a dime a dozen, and you can’t lay claim to them. Ideas can’t be copyrighted. It’s only your creative manifestation (that thing called a short story or book) that will fall under your legal protection. That wonderful dream that you were intending to turn into a great blockbuster movie? Let Joss Whedon go ahead and write it up. He’ll probably do a better job anyway.

And so we come to problem #2. Great ideas tend to grow in your mind. And as they grow, they become very big and intimidating. Sometimes you can see them as perfect, so perfect in fact that you are afraid that you will never be able to write them the way you see them in your head.

Don’t worry. You won’t. That book idea that is way up there in the stratosphere as far as quality won’t be there if you put it on paper. That’s just plain reality. Them’s the breaks. Once in a very great while you might come up with an epiphany while writing that turns your good idea into a great idea, but generally it goes the other direction.

But chin up, bucko. On the flip side, if you write that story, even if it comes out mediocre, it EXISTS. That’s something that didn’t happen until you made it happen. Once it is on paper, you can improve it. In fact, all stories go through their crap draft stage. The test of a good writer is in the rewriting. But you have to have something on paper to rewrite.

A great idea is like a fleeting dream. It’s great while you are experiencing it, but we’re not in the dream business. We’re in the story business. And a story is only good if you can share it. And you can only share it if you write it first. It might not be the perfect idea you had envisioned, but editing does wonders.

So get to work.