(Pensacola, Florida; July 28, 2022,) – Writers face few challenges as personal and potentially problematic as the Good Idea Fairy prodding our friends to excitedly suggest ‘a great idea’ for our stories.
This situation can be explosive for a number of reasons that have little to do with reason, and everything to do with emotion.
I’m speaking for myself, of course, but my experience mirrors the experience of many writers I’ve talked with. When someone I know eagerly tells me they have a great idea for my characters, my instinct is to draw a harsh, sharp line, telling them in no uncertain terms to pound sand because this is my world. That, obviously, would be the exact wrong thing to do. That reaction—based in my emotional desire to protect my work—would be an insulting jab at their emotional desire to engage with me. Stomping out the Good Idea Fairy does not necessarily mean stomping on your friends.
Writing is one of the most difficult mental disciplines to practice. Be it fiction, nonfiction, music, whatever—writing is difficult. While the story might be generally fully formed in our heads, the execution of slowly transliterating that idea into the written word takes time. It also takes a great deal of commitment to sit (or stand, since I use a standing desk in my studio at home) long enough to physically record the story on paper. Our ability to craft these epic adventures and transfer them to paper is little short of outright magic to most people.
Humans are drawn to stories. We all tell stories all day long. Story is how we communicate. The point Jesus made about the Prodigal Son is still understood after 2,000 years because he made his point by telling a story. However, out of seven billion people on the planet right now, only a handful of us possess the talent to be professional storytellers. Being a writer is a rare and exquisitely delicate privilege. We storytellers are the ones who ensure the continuity of our civilizations. There isn’t a human being alive who doesn’t want to contribute to that somehow.
So, despite my instinctive reaction being so harsh inside, I do not show that reaction to my friends. How could I? After all, these are people who care about me so much they want to help me succeed and value me so much they want to be part of my world…at least a little. We all do this. Look at sporting events. It’s quite common for us to wear our teams’ colors and merchandise—especially to a game. This small act connects us to our team, enabling us to feel we’re contributing in a small way by providing support.
When my friends tell me they’ve got a ‘great idea,’ I tactfully decline to listen—but I do so with open gratitude for their obvious good will and warm friendship. This is critical because I don’t want to burn bridges with people who are trying to do the right thing by me!
I never accept plot, character, or story arc ideas from anyone (except my editor, whose job is to help polish the story, after all) for two reasons:
1) This is my world. My sense of pride and accomplishment are rooted in me constructing the story on my own.
2) I refuse to be at risk of a lawsuit down the road if someone decides they should get a share of my royalties since they contributed to the story.
The first item is the trickier to navigate because the emotional reaction I have to someone suggesting a story idea, plot device, or character arc is pretty visceral. My internal hackles come up fast and hard, my verbal sword flies from its mental scabbard, and I’m set to whack off a metaphorical head or two before my conscious mind even realizes my battle armor is on.
Now, that does not mean the friend I’m talking to even suspects I’ve spun up so fast internally. If I behave like a civilized human being, they never will. After all, they’re not trying to sabotage me. Actually, quite the reverse; they’re trying to help me because they like what I’m doing!
Our friends will inevitably ask us why we don’t want to hear them out. It’s an honest, legitimate question deserving of a respectful answer. I answer truthfully that it’s a combination of personal pride and legal protection. If they inquire further (and, so far, the only ‘further inquiries’ have been about the legal angle), I’ll explain how using their idea can create a legal obligation for me, even if they don’t ask for anything in return.
I strongly encourage you to never accept plot, character, or story arc ideas from anyone unless you’ve signed a legal contract with them. You see, if you do accept ideas that are fundamental to your story’s success, you’re now in legal jeopardy of them coming after you for credit and royalties. This danger is even more egregious if you’ve communicated in writing (emails and texts count as ‘communicated in writing) because a physical trail exists showing you profiting from their intellectual property, even if they ‘freely gave it’ to you at that time. People change and relationships change, so I prefer to keep things simple and legally safe by not taking plot, character, or story arc ideas from anyone.
This position is not a hard-and-fast stand of never accepting anything. I’ve borrowed quite a few jokes and one-liners from people (with their permission). However, the critical factor here is that those jokes and one-liners are never critical to the plot. In other words, I could remove them without damaging the story’s progression whatsoever, thereby eliminating any potential claim that my story’s success was based on that idea.
Writing is little short of magic to many, many people. Our ability as writers to wield the magic pen enthralls our readers and enchants our friends. We all want to be connected to things we love, and we’re all very eager to find a way to connect with a world that is beyond our reach. Doing so helps us feel special, engaged, and valuable. This is what our friends and family are doing when suggesting ideas.
When the Good Idea Fairy strikes your friends and loved ones, waving her wand to magically motivate them to bring those ‘great ideas for…’ to you, be graceful as you stomp her out. I sympathize entirely on how maddening, awkward, and frustrating it can be to have friends eagerly try to pitch ideas to you. I urge you to be graceful and tactful when responding because these people are only trying to help. Draw firm boundaries, yes. But do so graciously.
Stomping out the Good Idea Fairy doesn’t mean stomping on your friends; it simply means setting boundaries and enforcing them. Doing so with tact and grace ensures your relationships continue to thrive even as the magic of your writing continues to bewitch your audience!
-Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/iscfUbP36-c
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