Author’s note: This essay appeared in a slightly modified form at www.makingcomics.com under the title ‘You Have a New Idea! So What?’
No one ever says to the surgeon, “You know, I think I’d really like to try performing a kidney transplant sometime.” Meanwhile, there is no professional or aspiring professional writer – by which I mean someone who has actually put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and done the work, for pay or otherwise – who has not heard, at least once, upon explaining his or her vocation, “You know, I think I’ve got a novel in me, somewhere.” It’s infuriating.
To one degree or another, it’s probably also true.
You see, writers share a dirty little secret, guarded with as much conviction as a magician protecting his tricks: ideas are a writer’s least valuable currency.
No, seriously. Everyone has ideas. Ideas are easy. As the White Queen said to Alice, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many six impossible things before breakfast.” That acquaintance of yours who wants to write a novel someday? She probably started with what she thinks is a really good idea.
Of course, not everyone can possibly develop a fecund imagination to rival Stan Lee or Jim Henson or Tom Waits – the current state of the film industry in Hollywood, endlessly churning out its sequels and remakes, more or less proves that some imaginations are healthier than others, but that’s probably a discussion to circle back upon later – but an ability to generate ideas remains the merest of a writer’s skills.
What separates the writer from the masses, then, is not an idea, but an ability to cultivate an idea. An idea is not a story, and not every idea will survive the rigors of becoming a story (in the same way, one supposes, that not every person who has an idea will weather the process of becoming a writer). An idea is only a question, one that begins “What if…?” A writer’s job is to answer that question and all those questions that come after. More specifically, the writer’s job is threefold: determine if the question is worth answering and whether anyone will care if you do, apply the appropriate language, and find the courage to write or walk away. No set order exists for these responsibilities, the writer executes all three at the same time.
I suppose that what lies above represents a digression from the topic at hand. Mark Waid’s keynote address at the 2010 Harvey awards – and forgive me, Mark and anyone reading, I’m cobbling his gist together secondhand from tweets and sound bites – vindicated the limits of copyright, arguing that allowing art to pass into the public domain is ultimately better for culture. “Culture is more important than copyright,” he said. “No one would argue that the world isn’t better by being able to see a Renoir for free. No one says we’d be better off if Shakespeare plays weren’t allowed to be read and performed in high schools.” Mark went on to talk specifically about comics, and specifically about the supremacy of comics as a medium of ideas. “There are more ideas in one week at your comics shop than in 3 years in Hollywood,” he said.
Given such a proliferation of ideas, Mark suggests that protecting them may not be nearly as important as finding ways, new and old, to capitalize on them. The word ‘profit’ leaves a bad taste in my mouth, if only because I still cling to romantic notions of why one produces art, but such is the way of the world we live in. A man has to eat, keep a roof over his head and clothes – preferably clean – on his back. The world in which we live is also one plagued by theft and piracy, and so protecting intellectual property may be as impossible as it is unwise.
The writer’s profession has long been unique insomuch as it rewards the work you’ve done, either through royalties or through the sale of IP, as much as or more than the work you do. But in an era when the work is being given away, with or without its owner’s permission, writers need to recognize that the paradigm has shifted. Gone are the days when you could count on money for the work that’s already been done. Resting on your laurels and selling the IP to Hollywood based on a high-concept pitch scribbled on a napkin, that remains the writer’s equivalent of winning the lottery, so don’t rely on movie money as a source of income. These days, you have to keep writing.
Others can steal your ideas, but the thing they can never replicate is you. Don’t worry about those stolen ideas, you had as many as six of them before breakfast. In an era when ideas are devalued – or, more accurately, in an era when we’re waking up to the fact that ideas never had much value in the first place – what remains is craft, and from craft comes reputation. If ideas are like naked blocks of marble, you need to become goddamn Michelangelo. Remember, anyone can have an idea, but not everyone can turn it into a story. Hone your craft, develop a reputation for quality and efficiency and dependability and the money will come, modest at first, but that’s how it goes. If you wanted to be rich, you wouldn’t have become a writer.
Something else every writer will hear, at least once: “I have a really great idea for a story. If you write it, we can split the profits.” No, thank you. That’s a fool’s bargain. Every writer knows that ideas are the easy part.
If you want to be a writer, find the courage. Do the work.