Your Ideas Just Aren't That Great

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." -- Howard Aiken, designer of the first automatic computer.

A lot of wannabe authors out there are living in fear. They're afraid someone is going to steal their idea and hit it big before they get their shot. I understand this fear, even shared it at one point. But I am increasingly of the opinion that this is a silly thing to be afraid of.

First of all, there is no such thing as the "Killer Idea". There are great ideas, sure, but no idea is so amazing that it (a) hasn't been done before or (b) can't be done again. Child born in obscurity destined to save the world? Star Wars, Harry Potter, Eragon, Ender's Game, The Matrix. Witches and wizards secretly living among us? The Dresden Files, Witch Hunter Robin, Harry Potter again. Aliens as predatory monsters? Yes. Aliens as friends? Many times. Vampires among us? I think you get the idea.

These are all good ideas, but they've been done before. And whether you like them or not, they'll be done again (I'm doing a couple of them right now). Why can they be done again and again, each time different and many times really good? Because if you give two authors the exact same idea, they will write two completely different stories.

What that means is, even if someone did steal your idea, the novel they'd end up writing will look nothing like yours. And that's assuming they take it in the first place. Cuz you know what else? Anyone with the skill and motivation required to finish a novel already has ideas of their own. Lots of them. And they are probably more in love with their own ideas than they will ever be with yours. Finishing a novel is hard enough, but can you imagine working on an idea you weren't excited about? For a year or more?

Mind. Numbing.

Not convinced? That's fine. Let's say you actually have a killer idea. It's amazing, totally unique. It's going to blow Harry Potter, Twilight, and every James Patterson novel ever written to the clearance bin. Odds of that: 0.5% (that's really generous, guys).

Then someone sees the idea's obvious genius and steals it. Honestly, just saying that kinda makes me laugh. I mean, (a) even the professionals don't know what will and will not break out and (b) potential thieves probably won't even agree with you on what's "good". Not to mention the reasons I've already stated. But I'll be generous again. Odds: 1%.

They write the novel faster than you and better than you. We'll assume we're dealing with a pro here, so odds: 90%.

Although their novel is very different from what you were going to write, it's close enough and successful enough that it ruins the market for your novel. Again, this kinda makes me laugh. Do you know how many Twilight clones are still selling? Generous odds: 1%.

So the GENEROUS likelihood of someone stealing your idea such that you can't do it anymore is 0.000045% -- about the same as the odds of you being crushed to death. And you know what? If this hypothetical thief did all that, I think they deserve the results of their labor. Seriously, coming up with a great idea takes all of 5 minutes. Turning it into a bestselling novel takes years.

So don't be afraid of people stealing your creativity (or of being crushed to death). Publishers don't sell ideas, they sell books. While a good idea can grab a reader's interest, the best idea in the world can't hold that interest for 300 pages if it's executed poorly.

What I'm saying is: worry less about what other people might do with your idea and more about what you're going to do with it.


Amie McCracken said...


Natalie Whipple said...

Sigh, I remember when I was worried about idea stealing. It was also when I had a lot less skill, so I had to hope The Idea was enough.

Nope, it wasn't. I actually had to get some skill too.

fairyhedgehog said...

You're so right, Adam.

It's a pity we need both ideas and skill. I'm not sure I've got either!

jjdebenedictis said...

"They may steal our ideas, but they can never steal our talent!"

I don't have to paint my face half blue and wear a kilt to yell that, do I?

Adam Heine said...

Oh, fairy, you've got great ideas, and I'm sure you've got the skill (even if you didn't, you can get it with effort).

You don't have to, jj, but I think you should!

fairyhedgehog said...

I agree that skill comes with practice and a willingness to learn. I'm not sure where ideas come from, though!

Adam Heine said...

Ideas come from everywhere!

(Yes, it is my goal to write a post for everything I could say online ;-).

Unknown said...

Great anti-paranoia post, Adam

Ideas, skill and luck - and not to worry either? Put together as a whole it is a big ask.

Ideas are, as you say, everywhere: shop, street, events, TV, lyrics. My note book is full of the things I've seen, hear and done - my pen is always ready.

Leanne said...

To quote Editorial Anonymous (I think) "execution is everything."