How valuable is the idea?

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Tonight over a few brews, after a bike ride, a friend asked me about ideas and writing. I mentioned that I’m heading back to Iowa for the Summer Writing Festival, and described the workshop process up there. Manuscripts get shared among those classes, we comment and mark up the writing, then tell the writer how we felt as readers while consuming the story.

My friend asked, “Aren’t you worried about people stealing your ideas?”

It’s a question I’ve heard before, so I had a ready answer. “Not at all. The idea is not the most important part of my creative writing.”

Why? For me, it might come from my years in the theatre, creating roles. We worked from the character outward, reading every line we had been given, looking at the relationship between our character and the others in the play. We were hungry for details of description, habits, beliefs, age, blind spots. All the things that make up a memorable, vivid character. We made up what we didn’t read, found motivation and meaning in costume and voice.

So I’ve learned to build my creative writing from that foundation. Who is it that reader is seeing and hearing on the page? What does that character want more than anything? Answer those questions for everybody in the story, and you’ll have an idea that flows from character. I’ve never been one to start from plot, the heartland of ideas.

The fellow who wrote screenplays like Mr. Holland’s Opus, Pat Duncan, schooled us on the relative value of ideas during the Heart of Texas Screenwriter’s Festival in Austin. He said he’s got a file cabinet full of ideas. Duncan said “Start with a character with a problem, or a situation or a place you want to explore.”

Stealing? Sure it goes on, and artists quip that “if you’re going to steal, steal from the best, the masters.” But what they mean is to steal technique, style, or structure; the substructure of story that is almost impossible to duplicate exactly. Start with the same idea, two writers might. By the time they finish, get through rewrites of their own, or from agents and editors, and they won’t have the same book.

Forget those copious copyright notices on your manuscripts. Make your characters vivid and original and give them tough problems. That’s where the ideas come from, and the ideas are like water in the sea. It’s the fish that draw our interest.

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