I'm the critique group coordinator for the local writer's group. Last week was the first general meeting of the school year (we meet September through May -- are other towns like this, where the bulk of activities fall during the academic year or is this a college town thing?). I was late, but at the end of the meeting, I got to announce a little about the critique groups and said I had handouts. I got mobbed with people who wanted a handout. But once the crowd calmed down, an older man came over to me.
"I have a question for you," he said. Okay, shoot. "How can I be sure no one in the critique group will steal my ideas?"
Someone else overheard and said, "Oh, copyright everything."
Except you can't copyright an idea. And I knew what this man was getting at. He was afraid he'd take an unpublished essay or article to be critiqued by the members of his group and someone would like the idea so much he or she would rush home and write an essay or article on that very topic.
I thought it was interesting that he was more concerned about someone stealing his ideas rather than his actual words.
But he isn't alone, of course. I know many writers who worry that by sending a kick-ass idea to an editor will result on not getting the assignment because the editor "stole" the idea. It's even harder to dispell that fear when a month or two after you sent the query, the magazine had an article on that exact same topic. Heck, I had that same feeling myself when I had an editor love one of my ideas, and she sounded like she was going to give me the assignment only to disappear off the map. When I finally reached her again, she apologized to say the EIC had a similar article in the works already. I felt used. But then I saw the article -- it was a 100-word blurb the following month. Sure, maybe there was a longer one in a future issue, but that blurb told me everything I needed to know -- my idea, while great, wasn't all that original. Obviously, someone else thought of it too.
We like to think that our ideas are always fresh and new and exciting and editors will love them. But because our ideas have to come from somewhere, it means the heart of the story is already out there for someone else to pick up. I've lost track of the number of times I had a query making the rounds on a topic only to find another magazine that I hadn't pitched was publishing that very same article idea. It's frustrating, but it's not uncommon.
There are certain topics called evergreens. Parenting magazines, for example, use lots of evergreen topics. After all, new parents have essentially the same questions and issues, so these topics need to be addressed regularly. But magazines want fresh approaches to those topics. And that's what individual writers bring to the table -- a unique take on the idea at hand.
This particular writers group meeting was an open-mike forum. Anyone who wanted was invited to read a published or in-progress work. I came in just as this gentleman was reading his essay, which I gathered was about the lack of respect night owls get from an early morning world. As we spoke later, he said to me he read a published work because he didn't want anyone stealing his idea.
I politely nodded and said I understood. I didn't say that I have written about this same topic a number of times, in essays that I've never quite finished and at least once in another blog.
Yes, idea theft does happen sometimes, but mostly it's just two people happened on a similar idea at the same time. Rather than worry that someone is going to steal your idea, kick it up a notch and prove why you, above anyone else with the same concept, are the person who should actually get the assignment. In the end, that's what it is all about. The writing, not the thought.