Don’t Give Me Any Ideas

From time to time someone will send me an e-mail with an idea for a story or a novel, presumably because they’re not going to use it but they think it should be used by someone, and particularly by me. I think it’s a sweet and thoughtful gesture, and as soon as I recognize what’s going on (usually in the first sentence, and before I get to the actual idea being proffered), I stop reading, close out the e-mail and delete it. These e-mails don’t get an acknowledgement from me that I have read them.

Why? People, in the wide world out there, some people are crazy, and if one of them sends me an idea and later I write something even vaguely related to the idea they’ve sent me, there’s a possibility they will, in their craziness, try to sue me over it. Don’t laugh, such things have happened, and while these suits go nowhere, it costs money to make sure they go nowhere. If they try to sue me, an e-mail even acknowledging the receipt of their idea is going to be a pain in my ass. There’s no point helping crazy people make my life miserable. Unfortunately for the rest of you, who are sane and wouldn’t attempt to sue me in a fit of foamy foaminess, it means that as an exercise in excessive prudence, I’m not going to read or respond to your idea e-mail, either.

The best thing to do, when seized by the philanthropic desire to give me an idea for a story or novel, is not to. Know that I really do appreciate the thought, however. Know also, simply as a practical matter, that I already have a whole stack of really cool ideas for stories and novels that I’m working through, and to which I am constantly adding. I have more ideas than I have the ability to write them all out between now and the day I croak. Ideas are not the limiting factor, here. Time is. But thank you.

(Note this is different from the “Hey, let’s collaborate, I’ll give you the idea, you write it and we’ll split the money” thing I and every single author who’s ever existed in the history of time gets from people. The answer to this one is always no, really, let’s not.)

61 Comments on “Don’t Give Me Any Ideas”

  1. I had this idea for a novel about authors who get emails from fans wanting to give them ideas about books to write…

  2. I completely understand your problem. It is pretty obvious why you have to take that approach. But most of us can’t write our way out of a wet kleenex. This inability doesn’t stop us from getting the occasional interesting idea. A few of those would probably make good books or stories. So is there some place they can be shared without legal complications?

  3. John Scalzi Appreciation Generator:

    Step 1) Have idea for a story.
    Step 2) Do not tell John Scalzi.
    Step 3) Bask in auto-generated appreciation!

  4. I used to be a lawyer for Xbox and we’d treat the whole unsolicited idea thing like a bomb squad treating a potential explosive. We had designated contacts and isolation procedures. Suffice it to say, “I have this great idea for a video game” communications never went very far. It of course was only incidental that Microsoft has more money than the deity of your choice.

  5. It sucks that you have to do that, but I understand. I have heard of authors having to withdraw their online presence because of this sort of problem.

    Hey… Wait a minute… If I write to every author I can think of and suggest that they string a bunch of words together in such a way that they tell a story, then I can claim that every story they write is based on my idea and sue them?
    Just don’t expect me to split any of the piles of cash I make with you just because you gave me the idea.

  6. And then there are people like the little box of Froot Loops that broke into Stephen King’s house back in 1990-something while his wife was home, and accused him of stealing the plot to “Misery”.

  7. What about actual collaborations, you know, kinda like Niven/Pournelle, or, you know, Niven/Barnes, or like, Niven/Pournelle/Barnes?

  8. So you didn’t read that story idea about an army of old men regenerated genetically?

    I’ve been smiling to myself all this time for no good reason.

    I’m crushed.

  9. But what if people just post their “brilliant” ideas in the comments here on Whatever?

    Oh…. wait – that mallet ain’t just for trolls, is it? :-)

  10. Gee, and I always say “use, lose, or abuse this idea as you see fit.” Since ideas can’t be copyrighted (only patented, which is useless for a novel), an idea is actually fairly worthless, especially if it’s in someone else’s fictional universe and I can’t do anything with it. I give them away all the time.

    In one incident, I realized I might have accidentally revealed a major plot point for one of my favorite non-Scalzi authors in that author’s blog. I then emailed the author saying basically, “Um, if I just revealed the major plot point in your next book, please realize that I’m not claiming any rights to it whatsoever. Do what you want with what I just wrote.” That author graciously wrote me back and said, “Yes, I was thinking along those lines, but I like your version better. Thank you, I’ll give you an acknowledgement in the book.” That was the end of it.

    For fans, I suggest this kind of gift-giving, not that I’m going to email John about any of his stories.

  11. Huh. I always knew the ideas were the easy part, so authors didn’t need any of mine.

    “Hey! I have this spare letter for a keyboard! D’ya want it, huh?”

    “Um, well, I already have a full set. But, you know, thanks anyway.”

  12. Re your final, parenthetical paragraph: I managed to put off someone who insisted his work stories would be great fodder for a book (he’s a hairdresser, and yes, his work stories probably would be great fodder for a book), by agreeing to co-write the book if he would scrawl down the stories first.

    That is, “Sure, I think that would be great. Why don’t you write down notes on the different stories you want to include, and I’ll go over it and clean it all up and make it all writerly.”

    Ten years later, he still does my hair, but this topic has not come up again.

  13. As a counterpoint, my wife had someone balk at sending her a manuscript to (freelance) edit because they were afraid she might “steal” their idea.

    Feh. Ideas are cheap. Good writing is expensive.

  14. JJS@2:”But most of us can’t write our way out of a wet kleenex. This inability doesn’t stop us from getting the occasional interesting idea. A few of those would probably make good books or stories. So is there some place they can be shared without legal complications?”

    Yes. Write the ideas down, then write them down again in more detail, then again in more detail still, and keep making them more detailed until they’re about 90,000 words long. Submit them for publication. There! You’ve shared your ideas and added to the world’s collection of books, and all without legal issues.

    I’d also suggest that if you’re trying to write on wet Kleenex, maybe that’s the problem. There are easier ways. (grin)

  15. I’m not even a known writer and I’ve had a janitor in my office try to tell me his ideas. I just said I didn’t have time to even work on my own ideas.

  16. I am endlessly astonished by the number of people who seem to think that ideas are the hard part of this business. Honestly, they’re the easiest part of all. I could generate more novel ideas in the next week or ten days than I could probably write in my lifetime. Some of those will even be pretty good.

  17. Charlie Stross’s most-recent-but-one blog post specifically said “What would you like me to write next?” with the subtitle “an exercise in idle curiosity feeding in to long-term blue-sky planning”. I hope he is not storing up future trouble!

    I have heard stories of the likes of JK Rowling having to have some kind of minder at book signings primed to step in and prevent her inadvertently handling packages containing “ideas” [“there’s this boy, and he meets a girl, but things don’t go smoothly”] presented by unscrupulous scavengers, vagabonds and n’e’r-do-wells.

  18. Warren Ellis, when he was moderating the Whitechapel forum at, had a very, very, very strict no fiction allowed rule for this reason, so strict to the point where your second screw-up resulted in getting banned forever.

    On a different note, re: collaboration – So, do you not (or would not be willing) to collaborate with another author?* If you would, what would be the way someone would go about doing it so as not to do the, “I have an idea, you do all the work, that’s collaborating, right?” issue.

    *This is not so I, or anyone else, can then bug you.

  19. For the record, I hereby renounce the exclusivity of any idea, thought, or deed which I post here. They’re open game for anyone.

    Not that I’ve posted such here, but it could happen.

    BTW, I did once suggest a story idea on the BBS of a particular writer. It was a two-sentence post. The first sentence was the idea, the second was an explicit grant to the author to use as he pleased. A few months back I got a note from him saying he’d used it as part of a book he was pitching, and his agent is taking it to the publisher. Win! ‘Cause I sure couldn’t write that story, and he’ll knock it out of the park.

  20. Yeah, I agree – the ideas are the EASY part!

    I have several, but I’m not going to foist them on any current author… I need to actually write, learn to write, and get good …. and then write the stories myself that my ideas could inspire.
    Most of my ideas are in the realm of “here is some cool background stuff that would generate stories” rather than plots per se.

  21. I had this great idea for a novel that tt would make me laugh out loud, tear up, and, this is the clincher, be written upon a general theme of awesomeness. Unfortunately it would appear that you already beat me to it.

    You win this round Scalzi!

  22. I’m so glad to see this post, John – particularly after I emailed you with the cool idea to write something similar as a blog post.

    When I say “similar”, it was vaguely writing-related, and while it wasn’t to do with collaboration, or the sharing of ideas, it was close enough that I know what inspired this post. And when I say “emailed”, I’m pretty sure I meant to. It’s the thought that counts, though.

    You have my address for the check, right?

  23. From what I’ve seen lately, one doesn’t become a really successful writer until you get others do all the writing for you (James Patterson) or until the books keep coming after you’re dead (Robert Ludlum). I’d like to get to that stage without, you know, actually having written, or actually dying.

  24. A few years back, I thought about the whole “I have an idea” thing and realized what the problem is.

    If I handed a sculptor a block of marble, it would be reasonable to be paid for a block of marble. Two years later, there might be a sculpture. But that’s two years of my doing nothing while the sculptor works. If I got one percent of the proceeds, I could reasonably argue that the sculptor was being irrationally generous.

    The same work ratio seems to apply to idea turned to novel. Possibly a higher ratio of writing to idea; I don’t know. This does not stop people from thinking that their idea is more formed than a block of marble.

    (I’m leaving this metaphor around every time it seems reasonable, in the hope that it will eventually become a common concept, thus saving my favorite authors from having to deal with the “I have an idea” people. I am such an optimist.)

  25. Anyone ever tried…

    “I have this idea, so let’s co-author a book.”

    “Sure, you write the first 200 pages and find me when that’s done.”

  26. I just found my copy of 101 PLOTS USED AND ABUSED, by James N. Young, originally published in the 1940s, reissued in 1961. He talks about a friend who starts to tell him a story, Young finishes it and tells they guy, “That’s plot number 46.”

    How cool would that be? Or you could say thanks but no thanks because you buy your ideas from the plant and are all stocked up, like Ellison used to do.

    No, I completely understand the no response policy, but it’s good to reiterate it every once in a while. That way, instead of dealing with lawyers, you can write more.

  27. Apparently it’s also OK to make a gift of a piece of your own writing, although that requires a significant amount of ego/hubris/confidence, to say nothing of a basic grasp of what the recipient would appreciate.

  28. Wait, you don’t do collaborations with strangers? They slave and sweat to come up with an idea and all you have to do is write the book? Why not? What could possibly go wrong?

  29. Back when Babylon 5 was first on, people were excited so they were throwing ideas and theories around without nearly enough information to back them up — just having fun. JMS talked about one story (or plot thread) that he delayed for a full year, in order to distance it from somebody’s speculative conjecture. After he mentioned this, the online community collectively recoiled, and there was a flurry of posts to the effect of, “Oh, shoot, I’m so sorry! I hearby release to JMS any ideas I’ve ever posted here!”

    I don’t know if anybody ever collided with the story like that again, but after that it was standard practice to say “JMS can have anything here” any time they tossed around an idea. :)

    (So it’s sort of the reverse situation: everyone assumed JMS already had plenty of ideas, they were just trying to guess what they were. Same end effect, of course.)

  30. K, so if you want to give Scalzi an idea, you have to travel back in time and write a series of novels yourself! ;)

  31. …yeah, about the “Hey, let’s collaborate, I’ll give you the idea, you write it and we’ll split the money” thing?

    That sounds like too much work. Could you just buy me a motorcycle and a drum set instead?

  32. Aw, come on, John, I’m legit crazy, and I’d never sue anyone for stealing my ideas*! I think it’s less crazy and more that lovely blend of entitled and stupid that’s to blame for this stuff.

    *Also on account of, I’m not sharing.

  33. Erf @43: That doesn’t work.

    Here’s the thing: as to non-crazy people, it doesn’t matter if you say ‘feel free to use my idea’ or not. Hell, it doesn’t matter if somebody steals an idea. If you were non-crazy, Scalzi could say “What a fabulous idea, I am stealing it, and when I sell a million-dollar script based on my expression of your idea I WILL LOL AT U”, then your remedy would be limited to calling him a douchecanoe on your blog. Because even if you did want to sue him, what you would be doing is paying for a lawyer to tell you that ideas are not copyrightable, that will be $100 for the consultation please.

    But as to crazy people it doesn’t matter. Crazy people are not going to care that they told you it was OK to use an idea, because they didn’t mean it that way and anyway now that you are making money off it perhaps they didn’t really mean to give you permission after all. Crazy people may not sue you, but they may go around telling everyone who will listen that you ripped them off or that they were “co-creator” of your work. Crazy people who sue won’t get very far – there are mechanisms for killing really stupid lawsuits a-bornin, and lawyers who file those cases knowing they’re stupid tend to draw the frowny attention of the state bar – but they may still try, possibly by filing a lawsuit on their own. (A law professor of my acquaintance who used to work for the BLM said you weren’t really considered to be an ‘old hand’ until you’d been named personally on a shaky, hand-written, unintelligible crazypants complaint naming everyone from the President of the United States to the Trilateral Commission as co-defendants.) And dealing with it is just a pain in the ass.

    Plus, from the author’s point of view, there is no offsetting benefit to opening and reviewing a “hey here’s my idea” email. It’s not like you’re going to find a hidden gem that will vault over all the other ideas you already have. And you’re starting with an e-mailer who has, to some degree, gotten it into their head that you would really love to write about their ideas, rather than your own. That’s not a good sign. The likeliest possible non-crazypants result of paying attention to such emails is sending back a ‘no thanks’ form letter, which profits you nothing.

  34. John–oh my God, the “Let’s collaborate I have this idea you can write it we’ll split it 50-50”–I’VE TOTALLY GOTTEN THAT. AND MY PUB CREDITS ARE NOWHERE NEAR YOURS. From a parent I came into contact with who “had an idea for a novel.”

    I even removed identifying details from my work for purposes of posting this. Eesh. IDEAS ARE EASY, FOLKS. THE WRITING IS THE HARD PART.

  35. “Don’t Give Me Any Ideas”

    Nah, you can plunder ideas from better, more successful authors (and TV series) yourself!

  36. If there was a profit split between one person “giving an idea” and one person “doing the actual work”, I suspect a 0% to the ideas-person and 100% to the author to be a fair split.

    An awful lot of the world seem to thinks that ideas-persons should have an equal (or larger) split.

    I seem to recall that my occasional forays into scribbling words on virtual pages have never been blocked by “lack of ideas” but stumble on the “OK, I have taken it this far. Over there is the next clear path, but I cannot seem to bridge from here to there in a readable way.”

  37. #20 – not sure if it counts but one of my favorite crime novelist (Donald E. Westlake) did a whole book about a novelist who needs an idea a a guy with a idea who needs a novelist. It had an interesting look at some “inside baseball” stuff of being a struggling writer and a successful one.

    As for being out of ideas – I have never heard Steven King complain about it but why would he complain when he makes very good money without a new idea in years.

  38. Karen Healey:

    “Aw, come on, John, I’m legit crazy, and I’d never sue anyone for stealing my ideas*! I think it’s less crazy and more that lovely blend of entitled and stupid that’s to blame for this stuff.”

    Point taken — sorry, colloquial use of “crazy” tripping me up again. These people are indeed probably neurotypical and just jerks.

  39. With regards to the ‘I’ve got the idea, you write it…” concept, it just makes me think about this story from Joe Stracyzinski:

    I was working on MURDER, SHE WROTE and a guy came in to pitch
    his story. “Okay,” I said, “what did you have in mind?”

    “Amnesia” he said, then sat back, pleased with himself.

    I waited. Glaciers slowly moved across the northern polar
    frontier. “What about it?” I asked finally.

    “*Amnesia*,” he said again, as though repeating it would
    suddenly make me understand.

    “WHOSE amnesia?” I asked. “Who forgets what, what’s been
    forgotten, and where do we go with it?”

    “Well, we’d work that out after I get the assignment.”

    He was never invited back.

  40. Sluggy Freelance was struck by this once when a personage now referred to exclusively as “She who must not be named” guessed an upcoming plot point and claimed ownership of it.

    Ever since then, the Sluggy-Related Chat forum has been split into “Reactions” and “Other”, with speculation strictly banned from Reactions, and Pete (the artist) only ever looking at the Reactions forum.

    Very sad.

  41. *Raises hand* Guilty party, here.

    John, I do appreciate the notice about other’s submitted ideas – “Yes, I got it, but I can’t do anything with it (for lots of reasons).” Fair enough, I figured that might happen.

    It just leaves me with one hell of a bizarre novel idea, no writing experience, nor the oomph or talent to develop the skills to turn it into something real.

    Does anyone want to be the Jerry Jenkins to my Rev. Tim LaHaye? My St. John of Patmos? My Ron Goulart or Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens to my William Shatner?

  42. idiosynchronic, if you just want the idea to be used, publish it on your website with a creative commons-attribution only license. That way if someone does want to use your idea, you have legally licensed away the right to sue as long as your name gets in the credits/acknowledgments.

    I do subscribe to the no new ideas under the sun theory myself. Stories are fundamentally about the characters(and not about the idea) because rwally there are only a couple dozen plots and maybe a few dozen worlds. but it is the specificity of a character that makes the story interesting.

    and character only comes out of writing. there are probably only a few dozen character archtypes. character ideas. its putting specific flesh and bones on their idea that breathes life into them.

  43. So, if you’re not going to take our ideas for books, will you take the idea of holding a national schadenfreude pie-baking contest, with 90% of the proceeds going to your local library and the remaining 10% to large amounts of peptobismol?