Ideas, like butterflies, are free

I was out doing errands t’other day (including a visit to the Tax Office to get my German contracts stamped—thank you, Niki). At one of my stops the fact of my being a writer came up and the bloke behind the counter said, “Really? You know, I have this great idea. If I give it to you, and you write the book, you can keep half the profits.”

My mouth opened. My mouth closed. See, I’ve heard other writers talk about non-writers making that offer, but I’ve never actually had it made to me so I didn’t have an answered prepared. I stammered something about being grateful for the offer, but that I have a tonne of ideas of my own, thanks all the same.

Ideas are no big deal. I have a gazillion ideas every day. Oodles of the little buggers. But without labour an idea is nothing. Unless I sit down and type for several months and turn a bunch of ideas into a book, those ideas are worthless. Their only value is in what’s done with them. Lots of people have ideas for books; not that many write them.

Scott and me were talking about the inflated value many people give ideas. And Scott wondered if that was partly behind the ever-growing insane obsession with copyright (like the Canadian Red Cross trying to copyright the Red Cross symbol). And the notion so many people have that ideas can be stolen. That rewriting an earlier story is somehow plagiarism (that’s right, Shakespeare was a plaigarist, and James Joyce, Jean Rhys, and just about any other writer you care to name).

Some are unable to make a distinction between riffing on something and stealing. If someone were to write a book about a girl who a finds a door that leads from Sydney and New York City and has adventures. I would not be bothered. Not unless the characters bore an uncanny resemblance to Magic or Madness and large chunks of the book were word-for-word the same as mine. Plagiarising means to take some one else’s work and pass it off as your own. Taking credit for someone else’s labour is wrong; riffing on someone else’s ideas is what writers/comedians/artists/musicians etc. etc. do. That’s their job.

Which leads me to Cory Doctorow’s fabulous post on BoingBoing about the publishing industries ludicrous efforts to stop Google’s fabulous Book Search which would make said riffing so much easier. What he said.


  1. lili on #

    How very timely. I was going through archive boxes at my parents’ house yesterday and found all my primary school stories. And there was one (called something terribly original and imaginative like “In the Hands of Time”) about a girl who moved from Melbourne to New York, and went through a door (but i think it was in the basement) and ended up in England, in 1412.
    And I thought: that’s pretty cool. And then I remembered that Joan of Arc was born in 1412, and I thought: that’s really cool.

  2. lili on #


    it was a dreadful story. okay idea, dreadful story.


  3. Justine on #

    Thus it is proved, indeed.

    I had a similar experience getting all our stuff out of storage. Many years worth of stories. Hardly any of it worth a damn. Most of it dreadful. But quite a few emminently nickable ideas. Excellent!

  4. Scott on #

    good ideas get better when lots of people re-work them, which is why there are so many interesting vampire stories around: they stand on the shoulders of giants. originality is certainly a virtue, but the most productive use of originality is to embiggen a concept we already know and love.

    like, the jagger/richards song “Satisfaction” is much more interesting to me because of the covers by devo, p.j. harvey and fatboy slim. if they didn’t exist, I couldn’t imagine any reason to listen to the original (again).

    and yeah, I get the “i’ll give you my idea” offer sometimes. i think one of the compelling narratives of capitalism is being wealthy for life because you got one good idea. but even albert einstein, working in an entirely conceptual medium, liked to remind people that developing his theories was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

  5. marrije on #

    i have this theory that behind-the-counter-bloke is actually a closet writer himself, and having read and re-read stephen king’s ‘on writing’, he knows that the offer to split the proceeds 50/50 is like a secret handshake-joke between real writers, an offer so ludicrous that you can’t help but laugh heartily at it and know that this person is in on the joke, too.

    then again, there are remarkably thick people in the world…

    and on the third hand: congratulations, justine! now that you have been asked the question you are absolutely definitely part of the writing establishment. it’s like a badge of honour!

  6. Sir Tessa on #

    You know, while I’ve heard stories about writers being offered this golden opportunity, I never really believed it actually happened.

    I’m a little bit gobsmacked.

  7. Justine on #

    Scott: zackly! Times infinity.

    Marrije: You know, I hoped he was kidding. I was hoping it was just that Aussie dry wit for which we are legendary, but no. He was serious. So, yeah, I’ll go with your third hand: I am now part of the secret writers’ club. Yay, me!

    Sir Tessa: You and me both! Totally gobsmacked. I thought the whole thing was a writers’ urban legend. Apparently not. Just think any day now it’ll happen to you!

  8. Charlotte May on #

    Margaret Attwood’s take on ideas and writing are apposite here:
    “any such notions that have wandered into this book [negotiating with the dead -a writer on writing] have got there by the usual writerly methods, which resemble the ways of the jackdaw: we steal the shiny bits, and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests.”
    She is refering to notions of literary theory here but I think all writers of all kinds of texts will relate to her notions.

  9. Damien Warman on #

    browsing past, I feel compelled to say that the cover of ‘satisfaction’ by cat power is pretty amazing

  10. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I have a friend who goes the opposite way: she keeps asking if she can have my old books if I’m not using them. It was funny the first few times.

  11. Naomi Novik on #

    Wow, I have to admit, I always thought that was a sort of mythical/hypothetical suggestion that only got made in illustrative examples for young writers. *boggles*

    Also, a big big big YES to Cory Doctorow’s post.

  12. niki on #

    what are you guys complaining about – try having someone tell you they have a great idea for a film and they’d be happy split the proceeds 50 -50 …you mean the debt 50 -50 ….. mmm come to think of it that’s a good offer ….

  13. Richard B. on #

    good call on the covers, Scott, and I’m glad to see Damien pitched in Chan’s version of “satisfaction” but shocked, shocked I say, to see no one mentioning the great Otis Redding version. Which reminds me, I should drag out my Otis box and listen to the whole thing.

    sometimes covers end up better than the originals, as time passes. I’d rate the Stones version of “Just My Imagination” over the Temptations original, by a nose.

  14. Justine on #

    Charlotte May: Well, this writer certainly does. Though being an Aussie I’d say I was a magpie, not a jackdaw, on account of not knowing what a jackdaw is and being too lazy to google.

    Damien: Not heard it, but I can imagine.

    Diana: That’s a smacking offense.

    Naomi: Yup, me, too. Cory’s post is so spot on in every single way it possibly could be. How anyone in their right mind could think the google book search was a bad thing. That’s something that boggles my mind!

    Niki: Hollywood’s the place where they most worship the notion of the sacred “idea”. They’re all mad there so you might as well let them have 50% of your debt.

    Richard B: Every thing Otis does is of the best. And while we’re talking about “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction” ain’t it a reworking of Muddy Waters or someone’s “I can’t be Satisfied”?

  15. jonathan on #

    i think niki’s got it. next time someone suggests it, if the idea sounds good, say yes. then tell them that, of course, to share the profits 50/50 they must share the expenses 50/50. let them know it takes six or twelve months to write a book, that that writing is your main source of income, and so if they’d front half the costs, say $40,000, you’d be happy to discuss it seriously.

  16. Chris S. on #

    Consider it a rite of passage tickmarked, with the bonus of an esprit de l’escalier remark put away for next time. Next up, the snide-and-bitter wanna-be with the pointed questions about who you must (suggestively)”know” to have gotten published. Or the Patronizer, who’ll remark that s/he’s thinking of writing a book soon, and might knock one off over the next couple weekends.

    Pretty soon your Dumb Things To Say To Writers Bingo card will be full.

  17. Kate on #

    Justine wrote: I had a similar experience getting all our stuff out of storage. Many years worth of stories. Hardly any of it worth a damn. Most of it dreadful. But quite a few emminently nickable ideas. Excellent!

    Hey J, we’re doing a “Juvenilia Readings” thing at Conjure. Sean and Kim are gonna read stuff they wrote when they were 12! Want to join in?

  18. Justine on #

    Are they really? Oh my Elvis! I think I would die! Let me think about it—I’ll see if I can find something that’s either so bad it’s hilarious, or that won’t make me blush with embarrassment.

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