The Art of The Steal


There is absolutely nothing worse than striking upon the most brilliant idea, working it, honing it, shaping it, then opening Publisher's Marketplace or Variety and seeing your perfect idea, one that you've never even discussed with anyone, SOLD for a ton of money. 

It happens so often that you have to wonder if all artists' brains are wired together. I've had it happen many times. It happens to my friends. It happens to all of us. It's frustrating, and annoying, and demoralizing, especially when your concept is either done really, really well and makes millions, or it's butchered into pieces. Either way, your brilliant idea is done.

Or is it?



It's all in the treatment, that's what sets the seven stories apart. We're all so wildly different: different life experiences, different living arrangements, different parts of the country with different local news stories that capture our attention. While ideas may germinate and look similar on the surface, it's rare that they're actually stolen. It happens, though. Check out this story from my friend Doug Richardson, screenwriter extraordinaire. It's our nightmare.

There's another side to this problem. When you've pitched an idea, it doesn't sell, and then, a year later, someone comes out of the blue with an idea eerily similar to yours and it's snapped up.

Timing? Or stealing?

Hey, plagiarism happens, we see it in the news all the time. The stealing of concepts, though, that's a much more amorphous area. Do we own our ideas? Hollywood screenwriters register their concepts; we fiction writers don't have that mechanism in our world. We should. We really should. 

This is why new writers often refuse to submit, because they're afraid their idea will be stolen. I tell them again and again - that would never happen. Publishing is a place of integrity, they aren't in the business of stealing people's ideas and giving them to others.

And yet, and yet, and yet... a conversation overhead plants a seed, more conversations are had, and the next thing you know, a deal's been struck. It's just the way the world works.

Happily, since we are all so very different, an original concept will rarely, if ever, mimic your story. 

Think about it this way. Every house is built using the same tools - wood, nails, hammers - yet look at the variety of styles and colors and shapes. Story is similar. The basic premise might be there, but the finished product will vary wildly from page to page.

The best thing you can do when you have a brilliant idea is write it, and submit it. Keep it to yourself until you're ready to share. And if the unthinkable happens, and another writer scores a deal on a book that is so close to your own you're gnashing your teeth? Well, I'll leave that up to you, but there are always ways to get your sweet revenge. 

On the Vagaries of Research

There's a controversy a-brewing out there in literary land. A couple of them, actually - a(nother) plagiarism scandal, and a research scandal. For the record, there is no excuse, none whatsoever, to ever, ever plagiarise. So that's all I have to say about that. 

No, I want to talk about the research flap. The very fine author Jodi Picout has apparently infuriated the wolf world with her new novel Lone Wolf.  I can't see that pissing off a bunch of lycanthropes is such a great idea, but...

So Evil Wylie posted the following Tweet:

@Evilwylie NPR: "Wolf scientists howling mad at @jodipicoult over new book"   (where was their outrage with Twilight?)

Which of course made me giggle, then follow at the link. In case it doesn't work, here you go: Why Are Wolf Scientist Howling at Jodi Picoult?

There's something I've learned over the course of the eleven novels I've written. Research does matter. And you are never, ever going to make everyone happy. Having been on the receiving end of nasty grams when I mess something up, I know that firsthand.


We are writing fiction. Fiction. There's an age old debate concerning literary license. I fall somewhere in between, along the lines of in order not to strain credulity, hold to the iceberg theory - only show the teensiest bit of your research on the page, but do your research. There is no better way to lose a reader than to get something easily figured out wrong. Cocking the hammer on a Glock, for example, is one of the my most favorite screw-ups.

There's a fine line between fiction, stretching the truth to fit your story, and making shit up. Some readers are forgiving of mistakes, and some lose their minds. I try very hard to get stuff right, but I know I make mistakes, and sometimes, purposely distort reality to fit my story. I am a fiction writer, and that is my right.

I haven't read Jodi's book, nor do I know much abut wolves. But I do know that you can't make everyone happy. Any time you write something that has a bit of esoteric information, you'll manage to upset someone. So let that be a lesson - when in doubt, look it up. But don't freak out if you need to fudge things to make it work.

Since fiction, by its very nature, isn't reality, that's kind of the whole point, isn't it?