A Writer’s “Original” Ideas

Posted Mar 7 2018, 7:00 am in , , ,

I saw a tweet last week that fascinated me. This is rare. Twitter is not my happy place. But…this tweet came from a literary agent who posted about “original” ideas.

Crazy. Fantastic! I hope she does this every month.

Here are few examples of “original” ideas writers asked her to search and the number of times that word appeared in her agency’s query inbox…from only ONE month of queries at ONE agency:

  • “Synesthesia” – TONS – (I had to look this up!)
  • “Face Blind” – 2
  • “Assassin” – 16
  • “Portal Fantasy” – 12
  • “Reverse Portal Fantasy” – 1
  • “Wishes” – 4 in one day
  • “Pen pal” – 3

What sounds random, isn’t random at all. If we think we’re the one who came up with “face blind”, wrong. Not one, but two people already beat us to the punch. 

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert refers to an idea as a “disembodied energetic life form” in constant search of a human host and says ideas present themselves to as many humans as they can so they can be heard. She believes this. And in a way I agree with her. If an idea comes to you, take it and nurture it but know that same idea will make its way to others as well. Gilbert talks in Big Magic about how many years ago she met Ozzy Osbourne and had the idea to make a reality television show about his crazy, fantastic family. But she did nothing with this idea. She put it away for later. Needless to say, someone else had this same idea, but they capitalized on it. Ce la vie.

I’ve seen writers take possession of their ideas like a toddler with a paci – Mine! They hoard it and hover over it not knowing it’s a dime a dozen. There are plenty others out there with the same idea. It can be a painful reality. I know. I get it. But all that hovering only creates anxiety. And as writers, we don’t need any more anxiety!

I’ve had writers at conferences say to me, “I want to tell you about my book but…” and then look around the room like writer spies hide in every corner waiting to steal their idea, ponce on it like my cat with a rubber band. Or even better finish that statement with “…but I haven’t copyrighted it yet.” Huh? Copyright a book idea? Good luck.

From Janet Reid, Agent Extraordinaire and Query Shark Queen:

From time to time I receive queries from writers who list a copyright number for the book they want  me to represent.  I don’t pay much attention other than to note that author doesn’t know much about how publishing works.

Remember that bespectacled British boy who leaves his mundane life (with a pet owl) for a life of magic. No, not Harry Potter. DC Entertainment’s Tim Hunter from a comic book series, The Books of Magic…created ten years before J.K. Rowlings wrote Harry Potter. 

*from KillerMovies.com

And The Books of Magic was a spinoff from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Fans rumbled about the similarities of Tim Hunter and Harry Potter but Gaiman called the rumblings “silly.” He said he and Rowlings  both “stole” from T.H. White’s 1958 book The Once and Future King about a young Authur coming to terms with his destiny to be king.

No original ideas.

Let me give you another example, this one closer to home. My dad. He hatches an idea about every 1/2 second. Many years ago he had an idea for a movie. He talked about this idea constantly. It would be a sci-fi movie where aliens came to earth in raindrops. He knew every single detail. Then lo and behold Steve Martin wrote a hysterical movie called Bowfinger about a desperate movie producer who makes a movie called “Chubby Rain” about…aliens who come to earth in raindrops. So not only did they “steal” my father’s idea but they made fun it. A bit of a double whammy for Dad. We still laugh about it though. Most times that’s all you can do.

According to Christopher Booker in his 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots, there exists in this world…wait for it…seven basic plots. Only seven. 

  1. Overcoming the monster
  2. Rags to riches
  3. The quest
  4. Voyage and return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

So what, then, makes our stories original?

Our voices. Our characters. Our settings. And good writing. No point wasting time worrying about being original. Use that time instead to hone your idea (whatever it may be) into the sharpest point possible. Kind of like life. Take what you’ve got and make the best of it. The idea doesn’t have to be original, it’s what you do with it that counts. And be ready, because sometimes others will beat you to the punch and do a better job of it. Hike up the big girl pants and move on to the next idea. There will always be one looking for you.

Tell me, have you ever had an idea someone else created it before you had the chance?







4 responses to “A Writer’s “Original” Ideas”

  1. Raegan Comeaux says:

    This is an eye opener! Makes perfect sense now that you write it!

  2. Rachel Thomas says:

    Good thing you come up with some kick ass characters!! I love them ALL!


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