Monday, January 07, 2008

Trust me: This is NOT how writers get their ideas

On Saturday, Neil Gaiman posted the following on his blog:

This is an extract from a letter that came in a few days ago, and one or two letters like this tend to come every week:

...I am not a writer - I neither have the passion for it nor any amount of experience - but I have an idea for a story that I think, if done properly, could be absolute gold (both artistically and financially)! I will work with someone someday and it will be done, for it is too good not to complete. However, I am asking you because I admire your work immensely, because I think if you ever by chance hear me out you'll like it...

Here's part of Mr. Gaiman's reply:

There is a hunted expression you can see on the faces of writers. All you ever have to do, if you want to see it, is to walk over to a writer of fiction and say, "You know, I have an idea for a story. I'll tell it to you and you can write it and we'll split the money fifty-fifty." You will watch their smiles glaze over and watch them back away. Because no matter how good the idea, the execution is everything. And the real work is done at the keyboard or huddled over the notebook, putting one word down after another.

I don't receive nearly as many of those "please write my story" e-mails as Mr. Gaiman, but I do get two or three every month. Here's a snippet from a blog entry I posted two years ago and called "No, I won't write your book":

No published author worth her salt is going to give you a piece of her action. The authors I know are proud of the work they do, and they don't want or need "helpers" giving them story ideas. Although nonwriters often assume that writers worry about running out of story ideas, in fact the imagination is like a muscle; it becomes stronger with regular exercise. So a working author is not running out of ideas....

Writing a salable novel takes a whole lot more than an idea. Ideas are the easy part, and I don't know any romance author who wants help in that area. We want to write our own stories, not yours.

On Saturday, the same day Neil Gaiman posted that how-about-a-collaboration letter, I received an e-mail from Janie M. from Wisconsin, who wondered if I'd be interested in writing her life story. I didn't read past the first couple of paragraphs (the message was long and my attention span is, regrettably, not), but I quickly discerned that Janie was not a reader of my books, my website, or this blog. Clearly, this particular message was intended for mass consumption--so I wondered how many of my writing friends would end up getting it.

An hour or two later, the first message came through one of the writers' e-mail loops I read: Has anyone received the e-mail from Janie M. about writing her life story? Shortly after that, a similar message came through on another loop. I replied to both, said I had received Janie's e-mail, and invited my fellow authors to copy my response to it: I'm afraid the only stories I'm interested in writing are the ones that come out of my own head. Imagine how Janie will scratch her head, I wrote to my friends, when she gets the exact same e-mail from a dozen of the authors she approached.

All right, that's a little snarky, but Jamie imposed on us. Here on the internet we have a name for people who send unwanted, unsolicited business propositions to long lists of complete strangers; Janie spammed us, pure and simple.

I often get "let's collaborate" e-mails from readers of my books, my website, or this blog. But while I do get a little tired of explaining that I don't write other people's stories, those e-mails are hardly unsolicited; in the back pages of my books, as well as on my website and here on the blog, I always invite readers to contact me. But there's a world of difference between those messages and the one that Janie sent.

She's probably quite sincere in her belief that her life story will resonate with readers. And I doubt that she realizes how her e-mail irritated the authors she addressed. I don't know how many of the writers will ignore her message and how many will send a polite reply. But this, I do know: None of us wants to write your story, Janie. We're all too busy writing our own stories.


Mark Crumpler said...

I'm not a published writer Brenda, but I'm amazed and amused that somoeone might make such a request of you. I'm a pastor and i'd never be able to take someone else's sketchy notes and turn it into a compelling message. Seems to me that you and other published writers are already participlants in the best kind of collaboration - the kind where you write and I (we) get to read what you've written and enter the world you've created. That's a partnership worth investing for both parties. I'm a newcopmer to your blog, but enjoying it.

booklady said...

Hear hear! Not only are ideas the easy part, but they are also FUN. I love that lightning bolt when I get an idea that just might work, and I love exploring it in more depth, playing with it, developing it.

One author mentioned on her blog that she always refers people like Janie to a ghost writer. Hey, you could find a good one to refer people to, and then *you* could get a cut, too! ;-)

DG said...

This is can anyone do this is just beyond me.

If it is a ghostwriter they need, there are plenty of sites available...I do not see the sense of approaching established authors with "story ideas"!

I enjoyed this post and would like to link to it so I can come back regularly:)

George G. said...

Brenda, it seems like folks believe that writing involves a "black box", where "stuff happens" and out of the box comes this fresh, perfect piece of fiction. Like with most things, there's a great amoung of "but in chair" involved... which is exactly what your "collaborators" don't want to do. Hard not to come away with the impression from such folks that writing involves "just filling in the blanks," something that can be readily done by the "little people". Talk about an indirect way of pissing on folks!

George G. said...

Apologies, Brenda; "amoung=amount; but=butt

heather goodman said...

makes me sometimes want to not tell people i'm a writer.

Brenda Coulter said...

I'm a pastor and i'd never be able to take someone else's sketchy notes and turn it into a compelling message.

Well, that's a real shame, Mark, because I had this great idea for a sermon....

One author mentioned on her blog that she always refers people like Janie to a ghost writer. Hey, you could find a good one to refer people to, and then *you* could get a cut, too!

Booklady (and DG), I am not a fan of ghostwriting because it involves deception. To call somebody the author of a book when she didn't write a single word of it rubs a lot of readers the wrong way. I have no trouble with a book like My Story, "by Susie Star, as told to Bill Author." But otherwise, I can't respect ghostwriters because they are a party to deceiving readers.

DG, please do link and return. I'm flattered to know that you want to.

George G., rest assured that bad spelling, sub-par grammar, and even lame jokes are always forgiven on this blog, in part because the blogger herself is usually the greatest offender. But could you please watch your language? Profanity makes me itch, so I usually delete comments containing it. But I know you didn't mean any harm, and it was very good of you to take the time to post a message, so I just winced and let it go. Thanks for reading my blog. Please don't go away mad.

Heather (and everyone), the people who send the please-write-my-story e-mails always say, I'm not a writer, but my story needs to be told. Translation: I think this might be a quick, easy way for me to make a lot of money and maybe even get to meet Oprah in person. So there's no mystery here. While only a relative few of us have the overwhelming urge to write, everyone wants to be published.

DG said...

Thanks, Brenda, I will. I like your whole attitude, and enjoy your writing here:)