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That Nagging Question: Will They Steal My Idea?
Here's the answer.

Copyright 2003. For individual use only and may not be reproduced or distributed by any means whatsoever without the express permission of copyright holder. The following material is a brief excerpt from Chapter Nine the book Get Paid to Write! by Tom Williams.

When I get to the part of my freelance writing seminars where I explain how to write a query or book proposal, at least one writer in the room will raise a hand to ask this heartfelt question: "How do I know they won't steal my idea?" Perhaps you have asked this question yourself. And why not? After all, it is your idea. You had it, wrote it, polished it, and now you are ready to try to get it published. The last thing you want is to get a rejection slip, followed by a similar article over someone else's byline a few months later.

But some writers seen almost paralyzed be the fear of losing the products of their minds and hearts to faceless, unscrupulous idea-pirates plying the waters of the literary world. For them, entrusting an article idea to some unknown editor many miles away is little like sending a beloved child out to deliver a bouquet of roses to a suspected mass murderer. For this kind of writer, querying is a very painful Catch-22: they can't get published without sending their ideas out for consideration; but if they send them out they risk (they fear) losing them to people who do not have ideas of their own. So what's the truth of the matter? Are article ideas really stolen? Seldom? Often?

My Own Experience
I am happy to report that I have been a magazine editor and freelance writer for more than 35 years. During that time, I have had no ideas stolen, stolen no ideas and I have not known anyone else who has done either. If the idea-pirates are really out there, they have never sailed my way.

Moreover, pirates or no, what choice do you have? You’ve got spread your ideas around, too. Otherwise you’re like a farmer who refuses to sow his seed for fear the birds will eat them. He succeeded in protecting his from the vagaries of the natural world, but he also prevented them from germinating and bearing fruit. If you want to be a writer, you've got to send your ideas out , too, or they just rot in your mind like the fearful farmer's unsown seed are likely to do in the barn.

Ideas and Words
But here's the good news: ideas are usually not all that important in themselves. It's what your particular and personal skill as a writer brings to them that counts. Pick up a few of your favorite magazines and leaf through. How many article ideas strike you as truly original. A few? Less than that? None? I’d vote for none. These articles were bought because they were timely and well-written, and precisely slanted to the market, not because they were unique.

Here's a story that illustrates the relationship of ideas and words. The French poet Stéphane Mallarmé was asked by a younger writer where he got the ideas for his poems. "You don't make poems with ideas," Mallarmé replied. "You make them with words."

So it doesn't really matter if someone does cop your idea; without resorting to outright plagiarism, they still can't steal your style. It is the rhythm, the images, the sounds of the words — even the way they look on the page — that makes a poem or a first-rate article or story. The idea is secondary, except that it needs to be one of interest to most readers.

The same thing is true of all writing. Don’t believe me? Try this idea: "Don't give all your worldly goods to your children. They may not love you as much as you love them." Expressed this way, the idea is bland, flat. But this same idea, when dressed out in Shakespeare’s words, becomes King Lear. How many books have been based on this idea: "A young man and a girl fall in love but the natural course of their passion is blocked and tragedy ensues." How many hundreds--thousands--of books have been based on this idea, ranging from Romeo and Juliet to An American Tragedy to five million Harlequin romances. The idea is the same, but the books themselves could scarcely be more different.

The idea of the "gratuitous act" has fascinated modern writers. In this scenario a person commits an act of violent murder, not for any rational motive, but simply because it can be done. That is a very clear and simple idea, but in the hands of different writers it finds very different and complex expression: Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment, Andre Gide in The Caves of the Vatican, and Truman Copote in his "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood. It is difficult to imagine three more different books, but the same basic idea informs them all.

Ideas and Editors
In the publishing business editors see the same ideas over and over again. This is because there just not that many of them. At the most basic level are love, hate, greed, ambition, the need for security. Then there are the subcategories: pure love, erotic love, selfless love, lust; hatred of oneself, hatred of a single other; hatred of a race; greed for money, for land, for power; ambition to achieve political power, worldly status, heroic stature; That's barely a dozen ideas, and it covers almost everything in human experience. So it is not surprising that editors see them again and again.

Slant and Style
No, ideas in themselves do not tempt editors. Most editors got where they are because their own minds are fairly brimming over with ideas. Neither is a shortage of ideas a problem for most experienced writers. The problem is not a shortage of ideas but a shortage of the time required to develop them all.

What editors are looking for are two things; a new slant on the same basic truths of human experience that have always interested readers; and a strong, original style capable of dressing out those ideas in words that will give freshness and originality to their expression. No one has time or need to steal ideas. Writers are what is rare, and if you approach an editor with a fresh slant on a subject that he needs, in a query letter (and maybe a tear sheet or two) that shows him you can write well enough to bring your idea to life, you couldn't drive him off with a baseball bat. It is you , not your idea, that interests him, because you exhibit that rare combination of imagination and talent that he is looking for. . . . .

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