“Hey, I have a great idea for a story. I’d like you to write for me.” – Why this is not a good thing to say to a writer.

This used to happen to me on a weekly basis. Now it happens maybe once a month or so. I’ll be talking to someone, usually it is just an acquaintance, and the subject will come up that I’m a writer. Invariably, the next thing to come out of this person’s mouth will be, “Hey, I  have a fabulous idea that is completely awesome. It’s a sure-thing. I would want you to write it for me.”* I honestly don’t know why people do this. I suspect that most people mean it as some form of compliment that they are willing to entrust their million dollar sure-thing IP on little-ol-moi. Generally, since they haven’t read anything I’ve written, it is a pretty hollow compliment, even if it is full of good intentions.

 

Most of the time, I just smile and say, “Sure.” Knowing this person will never ever get their idea beyond the conceptual phase. But lately, I’ve had folks just start dumping out their idea in minute detail, as if this was just an impromptu creative meeting. And I don’t want it! It is becoming a pet peeve of mine. Of course, non-writers might not get it. So here’s a few reasons why you shouldn’t subject your writer friends (or acquaintances) to your sure-thing idea.

1 – Writing is work.

Let me drop some knowledge on you. Writing isn’t hard. No, it really isn’t. Mostly, it’s just a matter of carving some time out to throw some words onto a blank page (mostly). Oh, wait. You wanted those words to communicate effectively and to be good? Oh, well then that’s different. See, Writing isn’t hard, but Writing Well, that’s a bitch. Most non-writers don’t understand that. It goes beyond throwing together a first draft, logging into CreateSpace, and getting “published”. (Heck, you don’t even need any of that, what with this new-fangled interwebs all the kids are using). So yes, it all starts with an idea. However, there’s a long way from concept to execution. And what most folks don’t know, once you have your first draft, that’s when the real work begins. Having gone through the process several times, I can say that the sad truth is most people won’t ever make it from idea to finished work. They want to take a shortcut and have someone else do all the hard work so they can sit back and reap the rewards. Well, no thanks. See, I’m plenty busy trying to bring about my own cool sure-thing idea.

All that goes out the window, by the way, if you’re willing to pay me (Or if you’re Joss Whedon or equivalent).

2 – No-Win scenario (for the writer).

While these folks think they’re paying the writer a compliment, there’s an ugly subtext at work. They’re complimenting me on my writing (which most haven’t read), so they don’t think I suck. Maybe it’s just my ideas that suck. With their sure-thing idea, I’m the next Stephen King. The unsaid implication is that with them for a partner, we’re just a quick step away from HBO producing a hit show based on the idea. So my success is now determined by their idea, not by any talent or work on my end. On the off-chance that I did take them up on their more than generous offer, in their imaginations, they get the credit and a nice chunk of the profits. Well, no thanks. While I’m not in this racket for the profit or the credit (there’s not much of either), if and when there’s a little glory to be had, I’m not super enthusiastic about sharing it.

All that goes out the window, by the way, if you’re willing to pay me (Or if you’re Joss Whedon or equivalent).

3 – Poisoning the seeds of creation.

This is kind of my most important reason why I don’t want to hear about other ideas. I really don’t know what to call it. Here’s the scenario. The non-writer has a sure-thing “fantastic” idea. First off, the idea isn’t that good. I’m a heartless critic when I want to be. I can and will make you cry if I want to. Nine times out of ten, I’ll shred your sure-thing idea. Most of the time I do this, I do it out of love. Because I want you to tell the best story you can and we can only get there if we put your idea through a crucible. I don’t apologize for doing it and I don’t hold grudges when other writers do it to me. It is part of the process and in a Nietzschean way, makes us all stronger. Other writers understand this. Non-writers, not so much. So there’s that.

Then let’s say that the non-writer’s sure-thing idea happens to feature teenage anime girls as zombie-ninjas and they start laying out their entire plot. Well, damn it, I just happen to be writing a book that, wouldn’t you know it, features teenage anime girl zombie-pirates, but I have ninjas in there too. I finish my book. Now, non-writer comes out and says I “stole” their idea, when really nothing of the sort happened. People have similar ideas. It happens all the time. Sometimes it happens with such frequency and so swiftly, it might make you think entertainment execs have tapped your phone (*shakes fist at True-Blood*).

Or worse, what if the non-writer tells me their idea and it is good. Really good. But it could be great if it had a little extra something. I throw in that little extra something and Bam! Fantastic idea! Executed correctly, it’s a great story and very marketable. Well, now I’m in kind of a moral quandary. Do I take the idea and run with it? Knowing full-well the amount of work that will have to go into it. Also knowing that the initial idea may never even resemble itself at the end of the journey. How would the non-writer feel if a writer took their idea and ran with it, then made millions off of it, and never gave the non-writer a shred of credit or compensation? Just safer for the non-writer not to tell writers their idea.

All that goes out the window, by the way, if you’re willing to pay me (Or if you’re Joss Whedon or equivalent).

Personally, I’ve found a few ways of defusing that situation, but I got called out as an asshole recently because of it. (Hence, the blog post.)

First. Kindly, tell the person they should try to write it themselves. We writers can provide assistance but we won’t do it for you.

Second. When folks feel they need to give me a blow-by-blow of their idea, I ask them to send me a properly formatted plot synopsis. That usually ends things there, but comes with the risk that they might take me seriously. I see that as a hidden benefit. If they take the time to learn how to and then write a proper plot synopsis, they’ve taken the first steps haven’t they? I’ve opened the door to say, “Hey, this is good. You really should try writing it yourself.”

Third. (This is the one that got me labeled as an asshole by a guy who is a consummate and incorrigible bullshit artist) Ask for money. If the non-writer sure-thing idea peddler still doesn’t get it, you might need to come down a little hard. Mention that if they are serious about you writing their idea, that you’d need to draw up a work-for-hire contract before proceeding any further and that you don’t work for free. Start negotiating for how much you get paid per word or if it will be a flat fee upon delivery of the work. In my experience, they’ll back down and say they don’t have cash to pursue the idea. To which, I’ve opened the door to say, “Maybe you should write it yourself?” Pro-tip: If they are serious and have cash, you may have just landed yourself a job!

Bottom line: If you’re a non-writer, don’t feel compelled to pass on a “sure-thing” idea to your writer friends. Don’t get offended when your writer friends tell you to write it yourself. It’s your idea, that’s what you should be doing.

*Caveats

If you are another writer and are looking for help, that is an entirely different situation. I will help you. You may not always like the help I give. We may disagree on how useful my assistance is.

If you are Joss Whedon (or equivalent), please contact me. I have this great idea I want you to write for me.

1 comment to “Hey, I have a great idea for a story. I’d like you to write for me.” – Why this is not a good thing to say to a writer.

  • Claire Fishback

    Agreed agreed agreed! Pull out the pitchforks and torches! Oh, wait… but yes. I do agree on all levels. There are also the people who say “hm, I’d like to write a novel someday…” as if they can just pick up a quill and parchment and have at it (I don’t know why they’d have such primitive tools to write with, it’s just how I imagine things). Writing takes WORK. LOTS of work. I love what you said about writing is easy, but writing well is a bitch!
    Great post. I always enjoy reading (or listening to) your rants!

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>