Bright Ideas

I got a little distracted there for a couple of weeks (and with good reason), but this blog is supposed to be mainly about writing fiction. So let’s get back to it.

Today saw a plaintive post in one of the Facebook writers’ groups where I hang out. A newcomer announced that he has some great ideas for stories, but he’s not a writer. So he’s looking for a writer — a ghost-writer, he said — to turn his ideas into marketable stories.

This evening his post seems to have disappeared. Possibly the advice I and others were giving him got a little too real. But it may be a topic that’s worth discussing. On its face, the notion of working with an experienced writer who can turn your visionary concepts into polished stories seems not unattractive. So what’s wrong with the idea?

Everything is wrong with it. Everything.

First, ideas by themselves are no more valuable than lint. In its raw state, an idea is worth exactly nothing. It’s the way the idea that is worked out on the page that makes it valuable. The hard work is in the writing, not in the dreaming up of ideas.

Here’s an idea for you: Two teenagers fall in love, but their families are locked in a bitter feud. Due to an easily preventable misunderstanding, they both commit suicide. Sound familiar? Sure. It’s Romeo & Juliet. But there’s not a line of poetry anywhere in the idea. It’s a classic not because the idea itself was visionary but because of the way it was written.

Here’s another: A boy and an escaped slave float down the Mississippi River on a raft. That could be dreadfully boring — but of course it’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, possibly the greatest American novel of the 19th century. An idea is just the first tiny step in the writer’s journey.

Second, every decent writer has more ideas than he or she has time to turn into stories. A writer does not need your idea! In fact, a decent writer probably doesn’t want to hear your idea, because if you pitch it to her, she might already be working on something similar, and then you might sue her for stealing your idea.

Third, your ideas are probably not nearly as brilliant or original as you think they are. They may be old-fashioned. They may be shallowly derivative of currently popular work, and therefore unmarketable. They may be incoherent. Unless you’re familiar with recent work in your chosen genre, and unless you understand how plotted fiction works at the level of nuts and bolts, you won’t be able to evaluate your own ideas. Did your friends tell you your ideas are brilliant and would make great sci-fi movies? Unless your friends work for a Hollywood agency, their input on this subject is worthless. They quite literally don’t know what they’re talking about.

Fourth, you’re not going to be able to hire a competent writer, not even a halfway competent hack writer, to wrangle your idea into a story unless you pay them a nice chunk of change up front. Promising them half the royalties would be pointless, because the market is very tough. If it’s an idea for a novel, your collaborator could work on it for months, yet it could fail to sell. Let’s say it takes three months of full-time work for a writer to produce a novel using an idea that sprouted in your brain during a ten-minute shower. Three months vs. ten minutes, and you’re only offering them 50%, with no guaranteed payment in advance? Really?

Fifth, if you do happen to find a collaborator and you’re able to reach agreement with him or her on the basic terms of the deal — the divvying up of primary royalties, residual rights, business costs, and all the rest — you’re going to have to put it in writing in order to make sure that the two of you are both protected. You’ll need to hire an attorney to draw up the contract, and attorneys cost money.

What if an editor wants to buy the novel but demands that 10,000 words be cut? Will your collaborator be required to do the additional work for no additional money? What if your collaborator loses interesting in the project before it’s finished, and you have to find another collaborator? How will the revenue be divided up in that case? Or what if your collaborator introduces ideas into the story that you find objectionable? Will you be able to pull the plug, or will you be stuck with a story that you hate?

Did your handshake deal cover all these possible scenarios? Deals of this sort are not simple. That’s why you need a lawyer.

Sixth — and this is the real killer — you’re trying to find a collaborator because you’re not a writer yourself. So how will you be able to judge whether your collaborator is any good? You could offer a handsome advance to a ghost-writer or collaborator whose output is shockingly unprofessional in a dozen different ways, and you won’t know it. You’ll be wasting your money — but what’s worse, when you submit the manuscript to an agent or editor with your byline on it, you’ll be developing a reputation as a clueless amateur. This is not a good outcome.

The way to turn your ideas into finished stories, novels, or screenplays is, you learn how to write. It’s not easy, and it’s not always fun, but there aren’t any shortcuts. That’s how you do it. If you lack the ability to write effective prose, you develop the skill. You take courses. You buy books on how to write. You write a bunch of really bad stories, collect a stack of rejection slips, and gradually get better. That’s how you do it; that’s how we all do it. Nobody else is going to do the hard work for you.

This is not to say that collaborations can’t work. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle had great success as a writing team. The original Ellery Queen mystery novels were written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, working together. A number of successful authors have hired less well-known writers to extend their series. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman collaborated on Good Omens.

I have a fat and handsome fantasy novel on my shelf that was co-written by Jennifer Roberson, Kate Elliott, and Melanie Rawn, and published by DAW. It’s called The Golden Key. Here’s the thing, though: All three of those women were already published professional authors. They knew what was involved in putting together a novel. Also, they all had literary agents to work out the business details.

How did they do the actual writing work in a collaborative way? According to wikipedia, each of them wrote one section, but it’s hard to imagine that they didn’t toss ideas back and forth during the process, and read one another’s drafts.

In sum — yes, there are ways to collaborate with other writers. But first you have to learn to write.

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