I was visiting a school on Monday and one of the teachers asked me whether it often happened that a writer came up with an idea for a children’s book, submitted it to an agent or publisher and the idea got stolen. This is a very common fear among people who are starting out on the long journey to becoming professional authors and the good news is that there’s nothing to worry about.
This fear, which I shall call Brilliant Idea Anxiety, is based upon a misunderstanding of how writing works. The fact is that it’s never about one absolutely magical idea. That’s just for the movies. In reality a novel is a bit like a joke. Two people can tell the same joke; one will make you laugh, the other will make you cringe. It’s all in the delivery.
Part of the problem is that people get confused about originality. Of course originality is important, incredibly important, but originality doesn’t necessarily mean thinking up new stories. Shakespeare was astonishingly original but all of his plays are based on stories that already existed. It was what he did with those stories that counted.
Audiences don’t turn up to see Macbeth over and over again because Shakespeare came up with the astonishing idea that three witches would tell a man he could not be beaten until Birnam Wood came to his castle and then his enemies cut down branches from that very forest for camouflage and crept up on him. No, that idea creates a nice little ironic twist but the reason the play stays as evergreen as the boughs the soldiers wear on their heads is the way the play is written: the characterisation, the control of irony, the manipulation of narrative and, above all, the language.
The truth is that no-one really owns ideas. They always emerge out of a cultural backdrop and their development is contributed to by a multitude of individual realisations. All that an author owns is his or her text, the code we produce that can be replicated a million times anywhere in the world.
So if you think you’ve got a brilliant idea for a story, don’t get anxious about sharing it with the world – get writing. If your writing is good enough, your book will sell; if it isn’t, it won’t. It’s that simple.