On the Value of Ideas

One truism of being a writer is that, somewhere along the way, someone is going to ask you where you get your ideas.  It is also not uncommon, if one is a famous enough writer, for people to approach you claiming to have a brilliant instant-best-seller idea, and they will share that idea with you and you can write it and you will both split the profits of this sure-to-be-blockbuster 50/50.

Here is the truth about ideas: they are literally everywhere, and they are worth exactly nothing.

Most of us have heard variations on the Edison quote “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”  This is true of writing, as well:  the idea isn’t the story.  The idea is a seed, and you have to roll up your sleeves, nurture and water it, prune it and pull up the weeds that threaten to choke it off.  The fruits (or flowers or vegetables) of your labor are the source of its value, in the end.

Authors give away ideas all the time.  We share prompts, we read and react and respond to others’ works.  A hundred authors with a single idea between them will come up with a hundred completely different stories.  The story is not the idea, but how we nurture and grow that idea.

(For an example, Tor.com once gave five authors the same surreal image and asked them to write a story inspired by it. You can read the fascinating and varied results here.)

There is no best-seller idea because people don’t buy ideas, they buy the finished product.

For example, here are a bunch of ideas and prompts I have sitting around in my idea stash:

  • “He ate an embarrassing amount of oranges.”
  • “Monday is a day of lies.  Friday is Opposite Day.”
  • “That’s my favorite pony!”
  • “Our coffee table was gnawed by wolves.”

Have at them.  I bequeath them to you.  Roll up your sleeves, play with them, see where they will take you.

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