Reminder: Don’t Send Me Story Ideas

Really, that’s it. If you send me story ideas, I immediately dump them unread into the trash, and I won’t acknowledge I’ve received them.

The reasons should be obvious, but in case they aren’t:

1. I have lots of ideas of my own, thanks;

2. Seriously, I have more ideas for books and stories than I will ever actually be able to write;

3. We live in a litigious society what I don’t want to be doing is spending time or money defending myself from some random person claiming I took their story idea, and yes, there’s past precedent of people sending writers ideas and then getting angry when they’re used.

Also, bluntly, I don’t need help. I’m pretty good with this whole “think up cool concepts to write stories about” thing. By all indications, it seems to be working out for me.

I suspect the vast majority of the people who want to give me story ideas mean it as a compliment, as in, “Hey, you could do this better than I could.” A rather smaller number mean it kind of in the other way, as in, “you’re not very good at this writing thing so I will graciously deign to help you out.” And some people mean it in another way, as in “the tin foil hat slipped and the voices are telling me to send this to you.” Regardless of the reason these ideas are sent, however, they all end up in the same place: The trash, unread and unacknowledged.

So might as well just not send them to me at all. Keep them! And maybe one day write them yourself. And then maybe I’ll read them, and go, “Hey, that was a cool idea. Glad I got to read it.”

48 thoughts on “Reminder: Don’t Send Me Story Ideas

  1. Perhaps these folks could send me their book ideas? I’ve always wanted to write a novel but have yet to come up with an original story idea. :-)

  2. It’s like what Weird Al said: if anyone sends him any idea for a parody, he immediately scraps any similar idea he had & it all goes in the trash. It keeps his life a lot simpler legally, even if he had to can some really good ideas (both his own &/or other peoples).

  3. Back when a computer was much too expensive for most people to buy, I had a Programmable Calculator. The manual had a suggestion form at the back with legalese basically meaning “I won’t try to claim royalties if you use this idea.” It added they would return any suggestions not made on this form unread.

  4. Sangela71 made most of the joke I was going to, except I was going to suggest you could email me any spare ideas you had for best-selling novels that you simply didn’t have the time to execute! I can’t promise I’d share the royalties, or even complete the project based on my own past track record, but you can bet if I wrote it, I’d advertise it as “… inspired by an Official John Scalzi Idea!”
    Or, you could even pull a James Patterson and “collaborate” with unknown writers, letting them do the bulk of the work while you profit. (Of course, now you can’t because I made the suggestion, I suppose…)

  5. Hey! you could write a story about someone inserting a story into a writer’s head by embedding a trojan virus-worm in a comment on his blog, and then suing him for all his cats when he uses it!

    Feel free to use this idea. None of the many lawyers in my family will sue. Promise!

  6. If I were someone who was paid for my writing, having people send me ideas would scare the heck out of me. Few ideas are 100% original enough as it is. The comment above about Weird Al reflects my thoughts exactly: “Thanks a lot. Now I can NEVER write about [X]!”

  7. My sneaky mind thinks there are people out there who will send you ideas they know you will not read, and then years later, when you come out with a new story that vaguely resembles a small portion of their idea, will shout, “Hey, he stole my idea! Look I have proof!” and whip out the original email along with a subpoena. Is there a way you could flag these and have them deleted upon receipt so you can prove you never read them?

  8. Email all outlandish and unbelievable story ideas to: The White House, USA. The Pres will tweet them out as his own the following morning, after adding “greatest” or “stupid”, and ending with “truth!”

  9. What if someone wrote an AI that would think of all of the possible stories, and send all the ideas automatically to all the possible writers? You can have that idea for free! Ignore the embedded code that identifies its origin.

  10. I get it, but really, story ideas are worth about the same as business ideas. The value is in the execution.

    Also, obvious joke is obvious.

  11. “The tin foil hat slipped.” That’s a gem of a good line. Yoink!

    Ideas are a dime a dozen, even good ones. It takes time, effort, talent, and usually money and luck, to turn an idea into something worth anything. Tor didn’t offer OGH money for his ideas, they offered him money for the work it takes to turn those ideas into novels. This is how it usually works.

  12. You know, I commissioned a story once (from Lynda West, who was an up-and-comer accepting commissions at the time) because I had an idea and I didn’t have the time or style to write what I was imagining. It cost me about $150, and I still love the piece. It’s very personal to me, yet I never could have made it myself.

    So, there are contexts in which telling an author your story ideas is great! It’s just, those contexts are 1. when the author asks you to and 2. you’re paying them, because you understand that the hard part is not the idea but the whole “sitting down and actually writing” thing.

  13. Wizards of the Coast has a blanket ban of “do not send us card designs” for Magic the Gathering, for exactly the concerns about people getting litigious.

  14. Whenever I see a post like this, all I really want to see is the note or email or tweet or whatever it was that set it off.

    And you never share, John! Don’t tease me like that.

  15. sangela71:
    New ideas are overrated. Blatantly rip off an old oldy but goody and change one thing. I suggest replacing the protagonist with a middle aged woman.

  16. (which line, The Princess Bride, like, totally ripped off from me! So sue-worthy. It was… inconceivable!)

  17. William Gibson had to walk out of Blade Runner when it first came out. It was too close to his partially written Neuromancer. And he then rewrote much of it, just so no one would think he was copying the film.

  18. There’s another common “fan sends author a story idea” situation, which authors also cannot use, where a fan has what he thinks is a way-cool story idea for his favorite series, and naively thinks the author will write that into the story for him. The fan typically thinks, “Ooh, this would be so cool! I just know MyFavoriteAuthor will write it into the story. Ooh, I want to see (plot line with characters A and B).” — But of course, a professional author can’t do that for the legal and copyright reasons John Scalzi said above, because the OverEagerFan might then claim, “Ew, he didn’t do it the way I wanted and ew, he stole my idea, and icky, ew, and hey, he made lots of money from it and I want to be rich and famous and have lots of girlfriends/boyfriends and eat cake!”

    Uh, hey, even fanfic writers (or other amateur online writers) usually know better than to do that. Or they learn better after OverEagerFan gets upset over how the would-be writer wrote the idea in, or else the OverEagerFan loves it and then wants, more, more, moar! and starts dictating storyies to the writer. In which case, the writer typically gets tired of that and says, “Hey, whoa, chill. I’m not writing that in! If you want a story with X, Y, and Z, fine, but dude, go write it your own dang self. Please! Especially if you now think you could write it better than I did, or you didn’t like how I wrote the last one.”

    —–

    I have become convinced too, that it’s often best for people to write their own, completely original story instead of to try to write fanfic within an established story-universe. While there can be really good fanfic, I admit, that would be neat if it could be published within the franchise; on the other hand, if it’s really good, that also points out that the new author is good enough to write their own original stories.

    I have mixed feelings on that. I’ve seen good fanfic that would be great fun as an official novel or short story in a given popular series, or that might make a cool episode. I’ve also seen where amateur writers would be good as newly published writers of original fiction. Cool! There’s room for new stories and new writers. That’s the great thing about storytelling and the imagination, books, video, and theater. There’s always room for more good stuff, and the pros love it too, for the same reasons, because pros are, well, professional fans; they get paid to write and act and make video and so on.

    And oh, yes, I have also seen slush-pile stuff, stories that were real stinkers, for multiple reasons. I used to volunteer for amateur online fiction. I saw stuff you would not believe. Once in a while, you’d find a raw gem. Sometimes, you’d find a writer had some potential but was still figuring it out. Many were just not. But it’s possible to find a person who’s never tried to write a story before, who has a really fine story with a few rough edges, but the basic storytelling talent to write a really good story. That newbie writer might be a teen or might be a senior citizen or might be in college or out working as an adult, or might never have gone to college, but in any case, they still have that basic skill, the makings of a real storyteller. (Note a few of the great SF&F authors began writing and sometimes selling their stories when they were still in high school. It can happen.)

    I suppose it doesn’t matter if someone starts writing fanfic or original stuff, so long as they start writing and keep at it.

    I have a range of story ideas and scenes or chapters or sometimes several chapters, but so far, I have very little that has a complete short story or novel plot, or is of the quality I think would work as a published story, self-published or submitted to a publisher. But I put in work on it in short or long sessions. I figure at some point, I’ll get something I feel is good enough to run with, or I’ll get so consumed by a full story idea and full plot and characters, that I’ll have to write it. Until then, I’m just a wannabe. ;)

    On the other hand, I have seen TV and film series lately that, well, I think a lot of people could have done better, and I wonder how the writing teams produced what they did, because it misses the mark, in my opinion.

    Other stuff, though, is fantastic, and I wonder sometimes how individual writers, or teams, come up with such brilliant stuff, book after book, episode after episode, whether standalone or series.

    But dude, seriously? Don’t send a writer your story ideas and think he or she can use them. They can’t, to protect their livelihoods as authors. If you have a great story idea, write it your own dang self and send it in to a publisher. Let the editors decide if it’s something they want to publish. Keep at it. This is what people like Scalzi or your other favorite writers and TV/filmmakers do. It’s how they started. But don’t send them an idea, because that only disappoints you and gives them something they can’t read through or use. Really.

  19. Someone once advised us all to write the stories we’d like to read. I’ve tried it and it works, but I did run into my own limitations. I do shorts and short-shorts well, not so good at longer tales. Multiple inter-woven plot threads are best left to others ;-)

  20. Re. JADA – “But what about my idea for a unicorn vampire space pirate?”

    Evil unicorns? That’s heretical! I think I’m gonna steal that one ;-)

  21. One reason a person might send an idea to a writer is because that person really likes the writer’s work, and wants to be a part of it. Sort of like fanfiction

  22. One of the little secrets of life is that good ideas are a dime a dozen.

    The hard part is making one into an actual story (or movie, or stage play, or game, etc.)

  23. It’s so funny that you posted this just after the post about you calling it! Of course you don’t need story ideas, you are the Source!

  24. “But of course, a professional author can’t do that for the legal and copyright reasons John Scalzi said above”

    Well, no. There are no such reasons, and that wasn’t what Scalzi said.

    US Code, Title 17, Section 102(a): Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression….

    US Code, Section 102 (b): In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, …, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

    You cannot copyright an idea. US copyright law is maddeningly vague on a lot of things, but that’s not one of them. If you have an idea, anybody is free and clear to author an original work based on that idea, and you have no rights or claim to that work. The exact words you use to express your idea in a tangible medium are copyrighted (so, for example, an author could not use the text of your email in a pitch to a publisher), but the idea itself is not. This is keeping with a principle that most creative types understand, but that the sort of people who send ideas to authors often do not: ideas are easy, it’s the actual creative work that has value.

    Scalzi did not say “If you send me an idea I cannot use that idea because to do so is prohibited by law.” Because that isn’t true. What he said was that he doesn’t want the headache of fighting a (baseless) lawsuit. He’s not protecting himself from violating copyright law, he’s protecting himself from being sued by people who don’t understand copyright law and might sue him anyway.

  25. Dana notes: “Someone once advised us all to write the stories we’d like to read.”

    Probably Benjamin Disraeli, though many others have no doubt expressed similar sentiments: “When I want to read a novel, I write one.” Leaving aside egotism issues, I suspect this is why most authors write: they have a great idea and want to see how the story works out.

    Dana: “I’ve tried it and it works, but I did run into my own limitations. I do shorts and short-shorts well, not so good at longer tales.”

    It helps if you understand that any novel is really just a compilation of sequential short stories, stitched together with varying degrees of skill. Now all you have to do is write the requisite number of short stories and stitch them together well enough that nobody will trip over the seams.

    Before anyone objects that this is simplistic: yes, it is. But in my experience, the main reason most people believe they’re no good at novels and other works such as PhD theses is the fear of length and complexity. That fear affects every step of the writing process, including the first stepL getting started. Break any large task into a series of small steps and it suddenly becomes much less intimidating. There are *many* other reasons for difficulty with long projects, including (very significantly) the need to keep track of continuity and not understanding the characters well enough to be able to predict their character arc.

    A really good outline* helps:
    http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2017/outline-as-journey.html

    * Most people seemingly don’t learn how to create a useful outline in school. Don’t believe me? It’s enough of a problem that an older article on outlining, written for a different audience (http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2006/outlining.htm), is being used as a teaching resource at several universities and even more highschools. (This belief is based on the number of permission requests I receive every year. I’m sure many other folks just use it without asking permission, since that’s part of the terms of use of my Web site: just preserve the “originally published as” attribution and you’re good to go.) It’s really flattering to see the ongoing interest in that article, but a bit sad to think the topic is being taught so badly.

  26. And some people mean it in another way, as in “the tin foil hat slipped and the voices are telling me to send this to you.”

    I’ve seen it suggested that Big Aluminium is starting all these conspiracy theories so that the loons will spend more on hats…..

  27. Dear Pedro,

    Follow Karl’s advice, above, and start with:

    “There once was a middle-aged woman from Nantuket…”

    You’ll be gold!

    helpfully yours,

    Ctein

  28. “I have more ideas for books and stories than I will ever actually be able to write”

    That makes me really sad. Not in a “oh no you’re such a great writer and I won’t get to read it all” way, but in like an existential sort of way. As a person who is generally determined to do everything I set my mind to, it’s hard for me to imagine an idea and then know it won’t ever be seen to completion. How do you cope? Or is it just me?

  29. @Stephen McNeil — OK, yes, point taken. What I was trying to say was what you said at the end, that an author can’t afford to risk using an idea for a story, sent in by someone else, due to the risk of being sued, and the problems from using another person’s idea; which is essentially what you said to correct my misstatement.

    What Indoor Cat said about commissioning a story somewhat gets around that by the commission as a written contract with.a payment agreed upon, so both patron and author have something they can point to if either party is unhappy with the result. I’d say Indoor Cat got an incredible bargain, a story for that little. However, since that was likely many years ago, and it sounds like a “gentleman’s agreement” besides, hey, if Indoor Cat was happy and the author was happy, then it’s all good.

  30. Side note about being sued: Given that John lives in the most litigious country in the world, the most relevant point is not whether such a lawsuit has a good chance of succeeding… it’s more a case of the pain, hassle, and time suck that results if someone does threaten to sue.

    Also, and not insignificantly, as we’ve seen repeatedly over the past 10 months, the voice of reason is heard much less often than it used to be. So the fact that such a lawsuit shouldn’t succeed in a sane world doesn’t necessarily have relevance to our world.

  31. ctein: Thanks for the reality update. I’d incorrectly conflated lawyers per capita with lawsuits per capita.

    As for your other point, I’m referring to the zeitgeist, which is increasingly about basing decisions on personal feelings and preconceived beliefs rather than based on objective fact. (i.e., not about political interference with the courts, though we’ll see what happens to the U.S. Supreme Court) That’s not caused by the current political craziness; it’s got the same underlying cause. Whether court decisions follow the same loony trend? We’ll see. It’s my cynical belief (having focused on a long series of crazy decisions by judges*) that they will, but to be clear, that’s based on no hard evidence. I could be persuaded otherwise by data such as above.

    * Which play to my confirmation bias. I recognize that for every report of insane judge behavior, there are undoubtedly 100 cases in which the judge made a prudent or even Solomonic decision (here, with Solomonic meaning wise, not “cut the baby in twain”).

    As for plagiarism cases, I believe we agree. As I noted, yes, it’s the whole pain in the butt thing: “pain, hassle, and time suck” were my version of your words.

  32. Dear Geoff,

    Germany, which tops the list, has half as many lawyers as we do (per capita) yet they manage to file 60% more lawsuits.

    This clearly shows that our lawyers have a terrible work ethic compared to their euro counterparts. Slackers!**

    pax / Ctein

    **(or that our lawyers are much better at resolving disputes without filing suits. Amazing the conclusions one can draw from negligible data [g].)

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