On original thought and stealing ideas in writing: the same but different

In the light of my recent success in the innovation arena, I’ve realised that the paranoia over ideas isn’t limited to inventing, but also runs a thick seam through the world of writing.

In my excitement at the possibility of finally maybe getting something published, I gave a friend my novel to read. She read it and liked it, but asked me if something she had written three years ago had given me the idea. It definitely hadn’t, because I had written the outline for the novel before that. There was a hint of annoyance in her tone, as if my whole novel, which was about something completely different but included one particular event, a breech birth, which I later found out she had included in her story, hinged on something she thought she had mentioned to me. Interestingly, when I did read her story and realised she had also included a breech birth, it never occurred to me that she had copied (or stolen) it from me, even though she knew that I had experienced a breech birth in real life. So who owns the idea? Me, her or everyone who ever heard of a breech birth? Surely it is the context it is used in that matters, not the fact that something that happens quite often is used.

On another occasion, I was submitting another novel to agents and a fellow writer asked me if I was worried that ‘they’ would ‘steal my idea’. Again, the suspicion with which ideas are guarded surprised me. Likewise with fellow NanoWriMoers, conversation sometimes turns to what happens to uploaded material in the site.

Stories almost inevitably involve relationships and people. I have read dozens of books where people get married, have children, babies die or are stillborn, adults die in road crashes, or simply get old and pass away. It’s the telling of these dramatic stories and the common events that hold them together that holds the interest of the reader. We are interested in them, and how people cope with them, and therefore writers write about them. I have read dozens of novels set in Cornwall and London, as well as a fair few set in Manchester. Novels are set in interesting places so that readers can enjoy the location. It has never once occurred to me that the authors of these novels have copied the stories from each other.

In terms of plot, the similarly between plots and the formulaic nature of the stories partly dictates genre. There are only so many permutations of characters types and plots, and it is likely that two people, perhaps on different sides of the world, might have a very similar idea at some time. In fact, this has happened to me. I submitted a novel to an agent who told me that she loved the story, yet it was too close to an already published story. One that I had not read. Coincidence? No. What I considered my original story was close in formation to someone elses because of the commonalities of experience.

Another possibility is that aspects of books that people have read stay with them and find their way into their own writing. I know that I was very impressed by the chapter structures in ‘The Help’ and deliberately made a note to order my own work in this way. So I learnt structure from reading, not copied it. I have never deliberately read someone elses story and copied any aspect of it. What would be the point? Writers tend to write in the context of their own flow and story and to add in something from someone elses story would hardly fit in any case.

I write about families and women, and the milestones they encounter in life, and how this may have been affected by crime. You can bet your life that anything I write about – marriage, births, deaths, children, broken promises, divorces, menopause, even murders – all these things will have been written about somewhere else. However, someone else would be writing about these things through the lens of their own unique experience, and it is this that makes it their own unique work. I certainly would never stop writing about what I want to because someone else was writing about them – I own my experiences and imagination and I will use them as I wish.

So do I think that people might steal my work? No. No more than I would steal someone elses work. Let’s take an imaginary scenario, where I have read someones work and decided that I will steal it. If I stole a whole passage of the work, that would be downright plagiarism and obviously wrong (and fairly easy to detect with today’s anti-plagiarism software). Also, I would be cheating no one but myself, because I would never have the satisfaction of my own achievement. If I want to copy an idea, it would be difficult without using the exact same words to replicate the writers work or even their intentions. But what if later, after reading their novel about two people getting married in the 1930’s, I write a book about someone getting married in the 1940’s? Have I actually stolen an idea, or reflected on an aspect of my own experience or imagination, that is common to the human experience, and written it in my unique voice? I didn’t need to read their novel to know that people get married, so maybe it was never their idea in the first place.

I can see how confusion might arise, especially in the novice, insecure about their work, who suspects that their piece of genius is sought after by the whole world and they must guard it with their life. Then, they pick up someone elses work, published or, worse, a friend’s who has actually read the piece of genius, and find that, shock horror, the main character in their book someone also gets married and has a child. Just like in their story! Or the child dies, or the mother dies, or a similar emotion inducing episode is detailed, albeit in a different way, in the ‘competing’ novel. Or aliens emerge from the sea or space. Whatever common, universal theme of experience or imagination has been innocently duplicated will lead to cries of ‘foul’.

In reality the paranoia over stealing ideas is often seated in the insecure writer’s ego. They have created their piece of genius, and it’s taken a lot of time and effort. It’s precious. My precious. And if someone comes along and writes about anything similar, even if it is something that has directly happened to the author of the similarity, what is often a shared human experience and one that has been written about many times before grows, in the authors mind, into and act of theft as they are privileging their own work and not understanding the true nature of creativity, where success is not limited in supply and there is enough for everyone.

In my early writing days, when I sat in my cave with my first precious manuscript, I jealously guarded it with my life. I even coded it when I uploaded it to NaNoWriMo for word count verification. Now I realise that even if someone does directly steal my plot idea, it is highly unlikely that they will write the same story as me. How could they? They do not have the benefit of my unique life experience and writing style. So I am no longer worried about people reading my work. In fact, if I did see a clear concept of mine wedged into a story I would be honoured that someone had liked it enough to use it. Obviously I wouldn’t be happy about text copied and used verbatim, but I can’t stop other people writing about life events that I have written about previously, because, in life and in print, life goes on.

Original thought? Of course such a thing exists, it’s in all our own unique worlds that we imagine inside, built of our individual experiences. But often it’s filtered through emotional life events and feelings which, by their very essence, is what brings us together as the audience of great stories. They’re by us, and about us. The same, but different.