Idea-Stealing: How Not to Let Your Fear Stifle Your Creativity

by Gabriela Pereira published in Writing

Writers have a number of fears–fear of failure, fear of success, fear of doing what they love–but perhaps the most insidious fear of all is that someone might steal their ideas. There’s been a lot of talk about this in the blogsphere lately. A few weeks ago, one writer blogged about sharing an idea with a friend, only to discover later that this friend got a book deal for that very book concept. And earlier this year, a prominent book blogger was outed for plagiarizing articles from other blogs.  And what about writers who refrain from pitching or querying a great idea because they’re afraid that agents or editors might steal it? These writers end up missing out on some great opportunities to share and get feedback on that work.

I’m not going to get into the ethics of it all; that’s a topic for another post. And I’m not here to start a flame war over situations that have already been discussed at length in other online venues. I want to talk about fear.

The way I see it, there are two ways that idea-stealing can involve fear. First, there’s the writer who’s so afraid that someone will steal his idea that he never shares any of his work. On the other hand, there’s the writer who is so afraid of unknowingly taking someone else’s idea that she never writes anything at all. These are the extremes, but most writer often oscillate between these ideas, sometimes worrying that their original ideas might get stolen, sometimes worrying that the ideas aren’t all that original after all.

Don’t get me wrong, a healthy respect for the intellectual property of others is a good thing. That little nagging fear in the back of our minds–”was that really my idea?”–helps keep most writers on the straight and narrow. But when fear gets out of control–when it leads to paranoia–then it can cause serious problems. Here are some tips to help lessen that fear.

Fear of Having Your Ideas Stolen

I’m a firm believer that the best way of protecting one’s intellectual property is to have LOTS of it. The more ideas you have, the less each individual idea matters so if one is copied or doesn’t work out, the sting won’t hurt as much. I like to have at least 3-5 projects of varying intensity going at the same time. At DIY MFA I hardly ever put all my energy into only one project. There’s usually at least a couple of things in the works: a series or two of articles, at least one eBook and one larger, more long-term project. What can I say, I’m  a polygamist when it comes to writing projects, and my friends and colleagues often joke that I start almost every conversation with: “So, I’ve got this crazy idea…”

But what if you’re more of a serial monogamist when it comes to your writing, completely dedicating yourself to a project and completing it before you embark on something new? When you invest all of your energy on one project at a time, it’s perfectly understandable to be afraid of having your idea stolen before you’re ready to share it. Here are a few tips to help you manage that fear:

1) Challenge yourself to juggle more than one idea at a time.

This point is worth emphasizing. Cover your bases and have a few different projects going in case you have to abandon an idea. Actually, the odds of having an idea stolen are much smaller than the odds of that idea just not working out. Even if you do encounter another book out there eerily like the one you’re working on, the odds of it being theft are also small. Many times, writers or other creative people will work on the same idea independently only to realize late in the game that someone else “scooped” their project.

Regardless of whether something is theft or not, if your idea has already been done and there’s no way you can make your project new and different,  it could still mean abandoning the project altogether. Even if you’re not comfortable working on multiple projects at once, keep ideas for new projects in a notebook or file. It’s useful to have a stash of ideas that you can turn to if the one you’re working is no longer feasible. Of course, giving up a treasured project will always hurt, but if you have other ones on the side, it will hurt a lot less. At the very least, working on something new will distract you from the pain.

2) Document your work.

Heaven forbid you ever have to file a lawsuit over your intellectual property, but if that ever happens, it helps to document different versions of your work with date and time stamps. Emailing drafts of your work to yourself using gmail can help establish a timeline of when you developed an idea. Plus it’s a great way of backing up your work because if you ever need to go back to an early version it’s right there in your email.

3) Be smart about what you share (especially online).

The internet can be a big scary place so be smart about what you share. For instance, while I share a lot of DIY MFA information on this site, I rarely talk about my own fiction writing. The fear of having the idea copied is actually not my main reason for holding back from sharing that work. My bigger concern is that if I talk about projects before they’re done, I’ll suck the life out of them and then never finish. Also, if I decide a project isn’t working, I hate having people asking me: “So, when’s that book coming out?”

Most people in the online writing community are good and generous and would never steal an idea. Still there are a few rotten apples out there so be careful about what you share via the internet. Not only do you have no control over what people do with your tweets or blog posts once you put them out there, but there’s a certain permanence to the internet and once you make something public, it’s really hard to take it back. Also, some publishers and publications consider content that has been posted online as “previously published” so you might make things difficult for yourself if you try to publish that same work later on. There are many good reasons to hold back on sharing some of your work online. Idea theft is only one of them.

Fear of Accidentally Copying an Idea

Let’s face it, there’s a finite number of truly original ideas out there especially when it comes to story-telling. While the execution of an idea might be fresh and new, chances are there’s a nugget buried in there that has been done before. Depending on who you ask, there’s only two (six, twenty) basic plots and every story is derived from those basic story archetypes. Whatever the exact number, one thing is clear: the number of completely original ideas is finite and like it or not, it’s all been done before.

The other problem is that many times, different people might arrive at the same idea completely independent of each other. For instance, the idea for the television was something that several scientists were working on in different labs at the same time and it’s hard to really know who the true inventor is. Other innovations like Tivo or Pets.com were launched but the timing or business model wasn’t right and it was only later that companies were able to launch similar ideas (DVR and Wag.com) that were actually successful.

I for one am constantly terrified that I might unknowingly take someone else’s idea without realizing it. After all, I go to a lot of conferences, I read a lot of books and I talk to a lot of writers. When an idea pops into my head it’s hard to know whether the concept came solely from me or from some other creative input I’ve ingested. Chances are, ideas are a combination of both internal A-Ha! moments and external inspiration. Here are a few safeguards you can implement to help you avoid accidentally taking another person’s idea:

1) Let ideas hibernate before you execute.

I have ideas for new plots and characters several times per day. If I acted on every single one as soon as it popped into my head, I’d never finish anything! Times like this is when I’m glad I have an idea jar (pictured above). I’ll write a concept on a slip of paper and tuck it inside. Then, every few months, I look through the contents of the jar and cull through the ideas. Some of them I can toss out right away because they’re just plain awful. If an idea really resonates with me, I’ll paste it into my notebook and start planning out how I’ll put it into action. The rest of the ideas I just tuck back into the jar and revisit them in a few months.

2) Train yourself to identify your idea’s USP (Unique Selling Proposition).

If you’re going for something completely new and unique you’re fighting a losing battle because the odds of inventing something completely from scratch is virtually zero. Instead, focus on finding that piece of your idea that is different. In product development and marketing, this is called the USP or Unique Selling Proposition. For example, when I worked in the toy industry, I managed products in the toddler division of a company. The products we were making weren’t all that earth-shattering in terms of concept (puzzles, lacing boards, arts & crafts kits) but what was unique was the target market. At the time there were lots of baby toys and preschool toys, but that 18-month to 3-year age-group didn’t have many options made especially for them. By taking preschool toys and modifying the designs so that they complied with infant and toddler safety standards, we were able to create a line of products that found its niche in the market.

The same is true with your book. OK, so vampires have been done to death and dystopian isn’t all that new, but can you find something in your dystopian vampire novel that makes it completely different? For instance, the Harry Potter books were a new concept, but magic had certainly been done before and so had the good-versus-evil theme. What made those books so engaging were the compelling characters and tightly-woven plots. And let’s face it, while the Twilight saga wasn’t exactly an original concept (vampire love stories have been around since the 19th century), I can see why girls would enjoy reading a book where an ordinary Bella is the object of affection for not one but two sexy boys with superpowers.

Find your idea’s USP and even if it’s been done, you can salvage something from it and give it a new spin.

3) Learn when it’s time to let go.

Some years ago, I had the unfortunate experience of having to abandon an idea I truly cared about and believed in.  If I had not let that project go, it would have brought much grief to me and the other people working on it, but more importantly I would never have learned some important lessons about business, writing and life. Also, had I remained on that project I would never have embarked on DIY MFA and I wouldn’t be where I am now, building a business and writing life that I love. Sometimes–no matter how much it hurts–you just have to let go.

Now go on, write your heart out and remember that without fear there is no courage.

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
–Mark Twain

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