Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Case of the Stolen Idea

I taught creative writing for a while, until the lousy pay and certain students (not all of them – most were normal) made me want to tear my hair out by the roots. Can I say normal? Is that politically correct? Is somebody out there going to challenge me on what the definition of ‘normal’ is? Here’s my definition of a ‘normal’ student: somebody who listens to the instructor, asks intelligent questions and doesn’t make said instructor want to run out of the classroom screaming.

Anyways, normal or not, I hope that I helped my students along in their writing journey. I met some very talented people who I’m sure will do very well as writers. I met some very untalented people who probably won’t do very well and better not quit their day jobs. There were a lot of creative minds in the class, but some students couldn’t write. Seriously. They didn’t know how to punctuate a sentence, and their eyes glazed over when I tactfully suggested they take a grammar course. Their solution was that an editor should be the one to worry about the grammatical details. It was hard to keep a straight face.

The most common question I was asked? Not: ‘how do I create compelling characters?’ or ‘how can I write snappy dialogue?’ or ‘how can I make an emotional connection with the reader?’ The number one question was: “What do I do if I submit my manuscript to an (agent, editor, publisher) and somebody steals my idea?” The only thing on their minds was how to hire a literary legal expert.

I would patiently explain that ideas can’t be copyrighted. That no matter how unique you think your idea is, somebody’s already come up with it. That there are no new plots under the sun. It’s all been done by somebody somewhere at some point. That they shouldn’t worry about stolen ideas. I would encourage them to write the best novel they could write, and put their own spin on the idea, which would make it unique. I reiterated that stealing ideas rarely happens in the publishing industry. Plagiarism has occurred, but that’s a different beast.  

I’m not sure if they believed me. I would survey the class and see scepticism on a lot of faces. They really figured that agents and editors spent all their ‘free’ time (even though I’m sure they don’t have any) reading through unsolicited manuscripts and wading through slush piles looking for good ideas to steal so they could become famous novelists.

So whenever this question came up, it was all I could not to gnash my teeth and wail.

It’s a wonder I have any hair left at all.

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