Idea Theft

In what seems like 1,000 years ago I posted on r/writing, a somewhat harsh diatribe about how people need not concern themselves with their work getting stolen and especially did not need to protect their ‘ideas’. Some lauded the post while others became salty.

Reflecting, I’m still struck but how prolific the worry is, but also my tendency towards a mean reaction – I suspect this has a lot to do with the harsh truths of writing and publishing and my response is something akin to a parent wanting to tell their child that the Boogeyman doesn’t exist, but give them forceful warnings of real world dangers of bad debt, workplace bullying, global warming and politicians.


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So I figured its time for a review and discussion about Idea Theft.

First of all what am I talking about?

Many writers feel some level of anxiety about Idea Theft, that someone somewhere upon hearing their ideas will in fact go on to write their own story based upon them, get published and essentially find fame and fortune before you.

This anxiety ranges from not wanting to discuss their story online, to refusing to share work for beta-reading or critiques to being highly suspicious even of professionals. And to be fair when I first began researching writing I thought that the job of Literary Agents was to prevent publishers from stealing your story. It just seemed like a plausible outcome.

Bear in mind that Idea Theft is different from plagiarism. Plagiarism is blatantly taking the words of another work and claiming them as your own. Plagiarism is most definitely wrong, but in fact does happen and seems to be more enabled in today’s online market than ever before.

So Idea Theft sits in a weird realm between irrational worry, and interrelated with originality anxiety (e.g. writers also worry that they will discover a work similar to theirs already published regardless of whether they nicked the idea). I want to make some points that hopefully for any reader relieves that worry – without being too harsh and perhaps guides towards what should be worried about!

By the way by ‘Ideas’ this usually means the premise, or brief synopsis of a book/story, but can really mean any aspect of a story that is floating around in a person’s brain-cage.

Over-estimating the value of ideas

Here’s the thing, we’re all walking around with amazing stories in our heads. Period. Sure what got us into writing was probably some level of arrogance that our ideas are darn good, the darkest, most exciting, never been done before ideas.

Ultimately however the value of your art is the thing that you eventually produce. The novel, comic, movie, video game, whatever.

Let me ask you this, have you ever seen or has their ever been a market for ideas? People collaborate all the time, but I guarantee you’ve never spent money on a the idea for a book because the idea was that good! No when you buy writing, its the actual book that got written that you purchase, sure you might have been sold on the premise, you might talk about the work as if its brilliance lay in the mere idea of it, however anyone who has seen a poorly produced or badly acted movie knows that the ‘idea’ means little when the piece is poorly executed.

An idea is only as valuable as the motivation and inspiration it gives you to write that actual book and pursue its success. Which still might give people a twisted worry that someone else might be motivated and inspired by it! So here are some hard truths.

Your Idea is already out there.

I say this is a hard truth, because it risks catapulting writers away from worrying about theft, to worrying about their originality (which you shouldn’t worry about either).

Right now, whether you’ve shared your idea or not, there are any number of aspiring writers in the world, its one of those statistics that we don’t actually have data for but I’m willing to bet that the number is in the millions. Alongside that there is also the myriad of books already published both recently and historically.

And sure I realize that your unicorn vampire crossover sounds pretty original, but the fact of the matter is that Rowling did not invent the idea of a magical school, Tolkien did not invent the idea of magic rings, and what is going to make your book a success isn’t how protective of the original idea you are.

I think this concept is hard to get one’s head around because people underestimate just what the publishing industry/self marketing field is like. There are probably six manuscripts with your idea sitting in a slush pile about to not be read as we speak. The issue is how committed you are to producing a polished, well crafted product from your idea.

Which brings us to the next point which has already been mentioned a couple of times:

Execution matters

This line is rolled out so often on this topic its almost cliche, but its super important to realize. When people worry about their ideas being ‘stolen’ and someone publishing a work before them they are essentially saying they are essentially worried that someone is going to take 1% of the creative effort from them, produce 99% effort and succeed but somehow it all comes back to the Idea being stolen (not those efforts).

It’s hard to come up with an analogy, perhaps because in other fields is more obvious the idea is lesser to the actual action. Its a bit like the difference between the concept of an exercise regime and the commitment to sticking to it. Not talking about your idea is the equivalent to not discussing your regime in case other people go away and get fit.

Anyway the point is as above, ideas can be inspiring but writing, especially novels, are about producing a very large amount of material that provides a well executed story that fits into the market and entertains as much as it provokes deep thought. There is a certain point where even if someone did thief your story idea one wonders if they managed to publish a novel from it they had the creative writing chops already in place anyway.

Which brings on another point:

Ideas do not get used up

I suffer from this illusion also. Alongside thoughts of theft, writers also worry that they will ruin their good idea if they try to write a novel and produce something average.

This simply isn’t the case.

Sure you might feel slightly worried about whatever is ‘hot’ right now. It’s worth considering what is already out there in terms of magical monster hunters, sparkly vampires, and fantasy intrigue to the nth degree but the reality is people crave good stories, and while publishers are often looking out for the next ‘thing’ they are equally looking to ride the wave of the current ‘thing’ and/or publish works of traditional stories that have been enjoyed throughout the ages.

As mentioned before novels are complex and filled with material, multiple ideas in fact. These are not one shot concepts they can never been used again, nor is it hacky to use them again in that piece. In many respects the brilliance of a novel is how those ideas are put together that intrigues (and will be unique).

So don’t get me wrong, its a hard pill to swallow, the thought that your idea might be already out there, or already a WIP in someone else’s laptop, but the reality is the issue is not that you need to get protective of your ideas, but that you need to get working hard on them to produce your story!

On the other hand

So while I’ve kind of hit people over the head with how they aren’t going to get their ideas stolen there are some flip-sides to the argument:

There are trolls out there. While it’s unlikely that someone is going to steal your idea and become the next block buster author, the internet is somewhat of a horrible place, and there are people who may threaten to take your work, or people who will attempt to spite you through their writing. It’s important to realize that while its a nasty feeling to think someone is doing that, and they may impact a local community (e.g. if they produce stories on the same website you prefer) but I guarantee they won’t hurt your chances of success except as long as you don’t succumb to angst.

Plagiarism.  I mentioned this before, online now days the potential for literal theft of material is high. I’ve heard about savy crims taking older works that haven’t been e-published and releasing them in their names, fanfiction authors blatantly stealing and even successful authors lifting passages from other works.

Thing is there actually isn’t a tonne to be done about this stuff, its really up to the platforms that host writing to prevent his practice. On the other hand again its actually unlikely to directly hurt you, and in fact could create a scandal that puts your name out there if you catch someone at it!

The truth is I think that anxiety about Idea Theft is actually a manifestation of the overall anxiety we experience as writers. Honestly its a bit of a fearful hobby, we fear ridicule, not being noticed, being noticed by thieves, being unoriginal, writers block.

Ultimately I think the goal is to overcome our fears – not avoid them through being overprotective or defensive or not getting out there.

Anyway that’s my thoughts on Idea Theft – what are yours?



On Writing: Cognitive Bias

I have a slightly different topic to discuss today!

Something which is of immense interest in psychology and has really taken off as a topic for fascination in the mainstream is cognitive biases. Biases have a lot of relevance in writing especially when it comes to editing and feedback and I think discussing them can be useful in general anyway (ok maybe I’m just geeking out in psychology but whatever)

Cognitive biases sound like irrationality incarnate but its more accurate to say that they are essentially identified ways in which human beings think and behave that are not purely rational. Ironically for many centuries human beings were assumed to be purely rational creatures who, however it is far more accurate to describe us as intelligent beings who are capable of rationality but its not the default setting.

It’s really important not to slip into a defensive perspective and assume that this is a bad thing. The book Predictably Irrational is amazing on the topic and this is weird to get one’s head around, but being less than rational is actually a good thing. First of all life and the world is horribly/wonderfully irrational and our brains need to help us survive in it by making quick useful decisions – we’re not pulling out our pros and cons notebook every time we cross the road. Second many of our biases actually aid in making useful decisions, its only in certain situations where suddenly people appears to be terrible decision makers that cognitive bias becomes a major problems (see: all of politics)

Anyway there are tonnes of different quirks and traits that have been identified as common or universal biases inhuman thinking, but I think four in particular are useful to consider as writers.


Is an unusual bias, like many it may seem not that flawed at first. This is the tendency to incorporate prior information into our judgments, which sounds reasonable at first until you realize this occurs more around temporal proximity (stuff that happens immediately before) regardless of whether it is relevant or not.

Anchoring bias is used all the time in marketing, for example showing consumers original prices next to discounted (you should not buy things based on how discounted they are but by whether their price is fair at all). Again this bias makes a lot of sense because how else are we to make sense of the world but by linking things together? But the problem often occurs when we don’t realize how we’ve been influenced by unrelated material.

How does this link to writing?

Anchoring bias is important to consider because as a creator you as a writer will be influenced by a whole raft of factors in any given moment, which is great really for creativity, but its important to be aware of the anchoring effects of any given point. Especially during editing you may be unduly influenced by the words you’ve already laid down (which is a common theme in this post) the coffee you just drank before sitting down or the last work you read.

Now being influenced by stuff really is kinda the creative process, but what I think is worth considering is your readers will largely be working through your story as is, they will in effect be anchored by whatever words you put down, so as a writer/editor you want to be considering what the reader will be experiencing as they read your words not what you experienced as a writer to get there.

Sunk Cost

The Sunk-Cost fallacy is such an entrenched way of thinking its hard to sometimes accept that its an irrational bias. The Sunk-Cost fallacy is the perception that the amount of effort, resources or other energies that we’ve already put into a decision is important in whether that is the right decision. That is our ‘costs’ increases the value of something.

In terms of emotional experience his isn’t necessarily illogical, as we don’t want to see our energies go to waste, and we want to achieve the goal we perceive we’re working towards. Where the bias sets in is failing to see that emotional need isn’t relevant to whether that decision is correct or not (and perhaps should be abandoned).

Sunk Cost fallacy is common in financial decisions (including gambling) and is sometimes referred to as “throwing good money after bad”. For example folks might lose x amount of dollars gambling and find themselves thinking that the best decision is to continue gambling to try and earn that x back, when logic suggests that’s a good way to lose 2x dollars.

The sunk-cost fallacy can be seen in all manner of situations. Bosses push dud work projects because they perceive the efforts already made as wasted if they give up, people consider how long they have been in a bad relationship to be a good reason to stay (let’s maybe not dive into that one).

When is comes to writing Sunk-Cost fallacy is huge, because it related to all those tricky decisions around which projects to pursue, ‘killing your darlings’ and accepting feedback or editing suggestions. Let me assure you, a reader does not care how long you laboured over a scene if its a terrible piece of writing for your book.

Even though I know all this I still find the concept of how much a draft might have to change daunting once I’ve actually written something. It’s kind of a combo of different biases because its not that I’m so arrogant I think my piece is perfect immediately, its more that its hard to even perceive major changes once words are down on paper(micro-soft word).

The important part of sunk-cost fallacy is realizing that sunk costs create a powerful emotional reaction that we should acknowledge and attend to BUT realize that reaction does not factor into an objective decision about the best direction for your writing!

Backfire effect

The Backfire effect is a strange one that is an important element of combating the above two bias. When I first heard about the backfire effects I was completely flummoxed, I didn’t believe it. The backfire effect is the stronger the argument given against our point of view the more we dig our heels in and stick to our point of view. How does that even work?

Yet the more I thought about it the more I saw it – internet forums are rife with this, people endlessly arguing opposing points, sometimes with incredible detail and passion and not getting anywhere with their opponents. For myself I realized the backfire effect is totally real – if someone presents a strong argument against my point of view, nine times out of ten that galvanizes me to work harder to backup what I believe.

I’m getting my psychology geek on again, but this fascinating effect relates to how arguments make us feel, not just being irrational twits (ok a little of that). Basically when a powerful argument against us is made, we understandably feel tense, possibly frustrated. There is a deep irony here that our inclination then is to seek to reduce our discomfort by confirming our own view point.

(the oddest thing about this is that the most persuasive arguments tend to be flawed but relatable thesis, rather than 10 pages of purely logical evidence based argument – this is because people’s defensiveness isn’t triggered so they are more likely to reflect on your points and have their view swayed – the world is a strange place)

In case this common theme hasn’t become apparent, this relates to writing in that when you’re editing especially with feedback from others: the best feedback they give might in fact give you the worst emotional response and may ‘backfire’ making you double down on your original sunk-cost work.

Transparency illusion

This is a slightly different bias – that I have a tendency to report slightly incorrectly.  Transparency illusions relate to having difficulty understanding that what we know or experience isn’t as obvious to others. This can range from being annoyed at your partner not picking up on how you feel – to a really interesting one where once we know something its very difficult to see that knowledge as any other than obvious. For example try asking people a general knowledge question that you are sure they don’t know. It’s surprisingly hard (its a bit easier to ask incredibly specific or technical knowledge).

Transparency illusion is very important to consider when writing for detail and clarity. I am absolutely terrible at this element, its very easy to know what you mean by your writing (duh) and really hard to read over your own work with fresh eyes. I don’t really have a magical wand for this one, but I think this is why beta-readers and editors are extremely important – this is also why sometimes its useful to let a draft ‘sit’ for a while before re-writing as the break can help purge your brain of ‘what you knew you meant’ at the time of writing.

I’m pretty sure there are tonnes of other bias relevant to writing, luckily they also make good story fodder for finding character flaws or sources of tension!

What other biases interest you guys, and how do you think they relate to writing?


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On Writing: Clarity

I’m reading Phillip Pullman’s Daemon voices, and one particular insight from his first essay/speech stood out to me.

He talks about clarity being supremely important for a writer, using the metaphor of a clear pool of water – the writing/water must be clear to show the reader whatever is going on at the bottom of the pool, which could be complex, confusing or mysterious despite the writing being crystal clear.

I think this is something that many writers have trouble with, certainly with my writing buddies I have trouble explaining to them the importance of clear writing even within a mysterious plot.

The confusion is that much writing appears to be obtuse, we’ve all heard of red herrings, unreliable narrators and tend to praise the ability of authors to imply meaning indirectly. So how does that all relate to clarity?

The trick is in the distinction between the writing and the content. No-one should ever be confused by what your writing is trying to say, they may well be confused by the content you present them but should never agonize over what you mean when you say words.

For example consider a scene within the much loved “A Song of Fire and Ice” (I’m going to be vague to prevent spoilers and errors as its been a while since I read it). In the scene one character lies mortally wounded, but imparting instructions to another pair of characters. The scene ends with the wounded man asking for “a favour”

Now in hindsight, and probably obvious to most people who aren’t dumb like me, the wounded man was asking the other character to put a swift end to their life, which they obliged. (I only realized this when the scene happened in the show and thusly ‘showed’ it happening) At no point in the narration was their any prose describing the character stabbing the other to end their life, it was very much something implied.

So in terms of content, pretty oblique right? Strongly relying on the reader correctly ascertaining the meaning of the dialogue “favour.” How does this fit in with the idea of clarity?

Well, while the scene relied heavily on reader understanding at no point was the writing unclear per se, nothing needed to be reread for understanding from a prose point of view.

I’m not 100% sure I’m being clear here (ironic much) but what I’m getting at this idea of what is OK to make a reader go “huh?” about and what isn’t. No reader should be left scratching their head to make sense of a sentence, whereas its generally acceptable, potentially desirable to leave a reading scratching their head because of a mystery within the story.

As I suggested earlier, I think that writers struggle to make this distinction between mysterious stories and problematic prose. Writers often seem to think that because prose is riddled with deeper meaning, it doesn’t matter if its actually immediately accessible. To me this is like a movie director not worrying that their set is poorly lit because they are filming a mystery thriller.

I like Pullman’s idea of writing needing to have ultimate clarity, even its the clarity to reveal something confusing, its like being precise with where you put the confusion.

Anyone else read this collection? Thoughts?

I’m looking forward to the rest of the pieces.


On Writing: Character Goals and Motivations

Kurt Vonnegut is attributed with the quote: “every character in a story should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water” 

And generally speaking this is advice much passed around, but in my typical style I want to dive a little deeper into this idea and try to understand why its so important for characters to have a goal and/or want something, glass of water or otherwise


First point is that there really isn’t too much more generally relatable for a character than wanting something. While the specifics can vary wildly (e.g. we might not relate exactly to suddenly finding out your a wizard and off to Hogwarts, but almost everyone relates to feeling out of place on first days of school). And almost all of us understand the roller coaster ride that is getting/not getting or fighting for what you want.

Having a character not want something is almost throwing the connection to the audience to chance, perhaps hoping the reader will bond with their characters over taste in music, or fashion choices.


A more tension filled point is that characters goals create a sense of dynamics and motion within a story. The instant you introduce a desire or a goal, you raise a number of questions: will they reach their goal? What will they do to get it? What happens if they are thwarted? Most importantly a goal creates a sense that the character cannot stand still, or perhaps more accurately a promise to the reader that this character is going somewhere.

Of course with multiple characters’ goals, this creates the playground with which the conflicts of the story become manifest. Will characters have similar goals that are mutually exclusive (e.g. love triangles) conflicting goals, or perhaps motivations which sit comfortably together but methods which clash?


Similar to the above point, character’s goals also provide a context for other events. Sure its sad when a characters beloved pet cat dies, but it creates even more impact when that cat is a familiar that the MC needs to help channel the spell they’ll use to save the world (OK a bit over the top but hopefully point made).

I always remember the scene in Fellowship of the Ring, where Frodo gets horrifically stabbed by the Ring Wraith. Obviously its a terrifying, well written scene, however something that really makes the incident stick is the fact that Frodo (and the team) have an overarching goal, and while a stabbing is a fairly dramatic event anyway, the fact that the goal of the MC is thrown into turmoil adds so much more emotional impact to the event.

Framing the Story

Finally goals kind of are the story. I guess this is a matter of philosophy and perspective but in almost all respects, stories are about people getting what they want or not. Don’t get me wrong there is obviously literary studies galore to explore the exact nature of fiction , but really when you get down to it 99% of fictional tales are MC + goal(s) = what happened?

That is not to say that fictions is about one MC, and one goal and whether they achieve it. More often than not a story is about how that character’s goals change or are shaped by the events of the story, to go back to Lord of the Rings, Frodo originally just wants to help get the ring to Rivendell, then volunteers to be the Ring Bearer to Mordor, and as the story progresses his perspective on that goal changes from being a hopeful quest to a self-sacrificing nightmare journey that Frodo never recovers from.

Most books on writing will talk about the key plot points being decisions made by characters, and if those decisions aren’t about character goals then what are they?

I think there is a whole other post worth of material exploring the relationship between active and passive protagonists and whatnot, but I think I’ll leave this one here on Goals.


Happy New Years everyone!

What are your thoughts on character’s goals and motivations?