Saturday, November 10, 2007

I Have An Idea...!

I decided to join a blog chain through Absolute Write because it sounded like fun. Each person writes a post inspired by the previous post. Samuel Tinianow's blog So You Majored in Creative Writing; Now What? is my jumping off point. He wrote about the misconceptions and delusions people have about writing as a career and he nailed that subject. It's astonishing how little people know, even those who wish to enter the field. He also talks about the fears people have that others will steal their ideas or manuscripts.

I've had my share of interesting encounters with writers, as well. The most aggravating, however, are the people who aren't writers, but have an idea. I don't know where the misconception comes from that ideas are on a par with the actual work of writing an entire project.

When I worked on a half hour comedy at Universal Studios, it was amazing how many people thought that might be their ticket into show biz. People would hear what I did and would immediately say, "I have this great idea for a sitcom. We should team up. I'll tell you the idea, you write it and we'll split it 50/50." What a sweet deal! That person gets to tell me a sentence (because the ideas were rarely more than a vague, general thought usually based on wherever they worked. "You should set a sitcom in this doctor's office! It's crazy here!") and I get to sweat and slave over writing an entire sitcom bible. (A bible can include a pilot episode, several ideas for future episodes, complete character work-ups, and so on.) Of course, there was always that fear that the Hollywood type (that would be little old Wisconsin-born me) would steal that magnificent one sentence idea and make millions. Despite this trepidation, they would usually tell me their idea anyway, even if I asked them not to. When you work on a TV show you really don't want people telling you ideas on the off chance there is an episode vaguely similar already in the works.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this is the assumption that I don't have the capacity to think up my own ideas! No, I need this clerk, waitress, long lost high school acquaintance, message board alias, or whomever to provide me with inspiration. It's rather like thinking of writers as typists. We don't have a clue what to do until someone else provides that crucial idea ("Here's a great idea for an episode: Have the main characters get locked in a freezer! That would be hilarious!" Yeah, loved it on "I Love Lucy" and nearly every sitcom since.)

It's not that I blame people for trying. Sometimes the ideas are good and they've fleshed them out. To those people I say, "Good idea. You should write it yourself." And when I invariably get, "I'm not good at writing. I want you to do it." I tell them that I have lots of ideas of my own and am not interested in writing theirs. I had a screenwriting professor who used to say, "Ideas are worth about a dime. The script is what brings in the real money." No one appears to want a deal where I get paid however many thousands for the script and I give the "idea man" ten cents from that paycheck. Go figure.

Bottom line is, if you have a good idea for a movie, TV show, book or any other piece of creative work, that's great. Just don't look for someone else to do all the work. You'll never see an opening credit on a movie that says, "Based on a Sentence Thought Up by Joe Jones".

Now, if only I can come up with an idea for tomorrow's blog entry...

The Absolute Write Blog Chain Participants:

Virginia Lee: I Ain't Dead Yet!
Playing With Words
A View from the Waterfront
A Thoughtful Life
Gillian Polack: Food history
So, You Majored in Creative Writing; Now what?
Life in the Middle
Finding Boddie; A Simple Way to Snort Your Breakfast
Kappa No He

Start clicking the links -- there are some wonderful blogs listed.


Gillian said...

I wonder if there are any writers who don't get other peoples' ideas given to them?

I have people who want me to write their novels, especially about things past (since I'm an historian as well as a writer). I'm happy to teach them to write their own, or advise them on where they can get training, or to tell them just to go out and write. Very few of them have enough ideas to turn into a novel - you're so right about the one sentence not being enough. One sentence is for summing up a big project to pitch it, not to feed the writing!

Writing for me is about the joy of turning ideas into stories and people, true, but unless I'm under contract to work with someone else's idea (which does happen with non-fiction from time to time) I would rather turn those million and one ideas in the sandpit into my own dream sandcastle.

Joanna Sandsmark said...

Exactly right, gillian! And no, I doubt there's a writer alive who hasn't gotten the one sentence idea pitch. And people seem so shocked when you don't leap at the opportunity to turn that amazing sentence into a finished novel, film, or whatever.

Some wonderful thoughts in your comment, thank you very much!

Virginia Lee said...

I used to get that a lot when I was doing singer-songwriter open mics. People would say, "Oh, you'd be perfect for my song!" "What song is that?" "Um, well, it's just an idea really, but it's awfully good. It's about my grandpa's pet poodle named Percival. I'm sure you could write it!"

Some nights there simply was not enough gin to shut them up either.

Kathleen Frassrand said...

Fab. Post!!! Just loved the line about the opening credit "Based on a sentence...". LOL. So very very true. It is amazing that non-writers don't understand how much WORK goes into writing. It is never just "getting words on paper". There is the flow, and the sound, and the structure, and the feel, and the... you get the idea.

Anyway - GREAT POST!

Joanna Sandsmark said...

Thank you, virgina and kathleen! I suppose we can't blame people too much because really, they simply don't understand the process. It doesn't make it any less frustrating, of course, when we're faced with the Mighty Sentence Idea. Whether music or screenwriting or fiction it's universal -- most writers are quite content to come up with their own ideas.

Grace Tyler said...

I don't know. Not that those myriad of people who wish they could write a novel don't have some (a very few) good ideas, but how many times have I read or watched something and just cried because I don't have the cleverness to think up something that good?

I am ready for the muse to give me some really really clever and well developed plots.

I don't consider the corner waitress my muse, however.

Have you ever felt reluctant to tell people what you do, because you know what's coming next? "I do a little writing too," or whatever.

Joanna Sandsmark said...

Oh yeah, I get that a lot. And then they want you to hook them up with your publisher even if your publisher doesn't publish anything near what that person writes. And why is the "I do a little writing, too" usually poetry? So many people think they're poets.

Kappa no He said...

Okay, okay, how about this...a girl is working on a production line...making, um, chocolates, and then something goes wrong and the machine starts moving faster and faster... and hey, we can get Virginia to write the theme song for it!

Wonderful post and fascinating life!

Kate Boddie said...

Sometimes people just make you want to adopt a case of Grey Goose and nuzzle yourself in a corner. I haven't gotten anyone pitching anything to me but then again I don't tell people I'm a writer. If it doesn't come up in conversation, I don't offer the knowledge. But in case it does, and I have some stooge pitching an idea to me, I have an excellent ability to glaze over and tune out when there's a voice talking that I don't want to listen to. It's amazing how desperate people are for 15 seconds of fame.

Harbormaster said...

Joanna, I have this really

What's interesting is that two writers can approach the same idea and even produce a project with the same title that will have two completely different approaches to the writing. That's why the whole business of stealing someone's idea is so off. One sentence out of 50,000 words doesn't constitute wholesale appropriation of anyone's idea.

Good post and comments to the chain!