We've come to the last Writing 101: 1- series entry. Fear not, we're going all the way to 105. The 101: 1-4- series will go over all the tools a writer needs to master before beginning a story. The 102 series deals with strategies for problems that arise while writing that should be tackled at or near the start of writing. The 103: 1-2- series deals with writing and and basics of editing, 104 deals with getting an agent for traditional publishing or preparing for self-publishing, and the 105 series deals with the finite details between those options.

But I thought being done was going to be my best gift!


For now we're celebrating the last entry of the "how to brainstorm" section. We're going to pick through, using a fine comb, something we've touched on: using ideas from others. This is not existing published/produced/distributed ideas such as novels or movies, but ideas not produced that are given to you. And for every writer, boy do people want to give you ideas, as in your family, your friends, and people you meet at parties who discover you're a writer.

Now a few good hard-and-fast rules for this:

1) Never use an idea in full
2) Always politely say "I'll consider it" when given an idea
3) Never use an idea in full (it bears repeating)
4) If you like the person who gave you the idea, thank them in your author's note

To explain the rules, remember that everyone telling you these ideas imagines it will make you rich and famous, and they will get 50% of that fame and riches without more than the 30 seconds of work for their pitch. In other words, these people have no actual understanding of what writing is all about. They may not be too well read, and consequently 99% of the ideas are shit. We're going to deal with the 1% that are good.

No matter what it is, you're going to have to severely change it. You want to make it more your style so it's easier to write, and also change it enough no one wants to sue you, and better yet, change it enough no one can sue you and win. This is the business side of writing, never forget it's a dog eat dog world.

Speaking of which, later we'll handle the good ideas you stumble upon from other writers. I'll reveal the dark side of critique and writers' groups, but for now let's stick to the ideas from relatives, friends, and party-goers.

You know, the people who pitch ideas with this expression.    Credit


Let us use an example: you are a science fiction writer, through and through. No other genre flows from your fingertips. Someone gives you a great idea about a war story set against WWI. The human interest/mystery/love story aspect is what grabs you. You will need to change the setting, alter the protagonist, change the cast, and change the arc. When you do all those things you have an idea that will hold up in court because the changes have made it your own..

Step 1 Change the SettingHere's where you have to ask yourself why the idea was set in WWI. Was it because of the technology of the time (mostly ground warfare)? Or was it about the reasons for the war (threatened de-stabilization of world central economy)? Or the nature of the war (the first truly global conflict that changed the standings of world powers)? If you don't know, you might not want to ask the originator. Do you want to originator of the idea to know you're using it? If so, ask. If not, go read up on WWI. This is not true research, so go ahead and use the Wikipedia entry and get the bare facts of WWI, then ask yourself what it is about the story that requires it be set then and there.

Obviously as a science fiction author you're going to want to change the setting anyway. If this was your own idea, I'd say re-write WWI, set it in a post-Steampunk world and go nuts. Since you're using someone else's, if it's the technology or the world situation, set it on another world. Perhaps the war of the worlds goes off when the premier of Jupiter's Io is touring the Sol system, and all the various colonies of the Sol system represent Europe. Or keep it simple: humans have settled a super-earth and recreated modern history as humans tend to repeat it over and over again. Or go nuts: the Venusian timeline in ten centuries follows Earth's closely. If it's just the technology and not the politics the world depends upon, go post-apocalypse, another planet, or alien setting. Just find what is the most important aspect of the setting and carry the aspect through to a new setting.

Step 2 Alter the Protagonist: You'll apply the same process to your protagonist as the setting. What is it about the protagonist that's so important to the arc? Is it truly gender? Age? personal history? Mind-set? Think of these four things: whichever one is important must be kept, but vastly alter the other three. If he must be a man and started as a 20 year old enlisted soldier that is a drafted pacifist, make him a 35 year old man and career officer. If's the history, make "him" a 25 year old enlisted woman in the military for school money. So forth and so on. If the idea is good generally the originator gives you these 4 basic things. Keep the one basic aspect most important to your protagonist and change the other 3. 

Step 3 Change the Cast: There will always be 1 other character you have to keep. As with the examples above, it's the one who is central to the plot. If the plot is a romance, it's the love interest. If it's about brotherhood, it's the best friend. If it's coming-of-age it's the mentor. If it's a hero story, it's the antagonist. You can change the age, gender, history of this character, but you have to keep them. All other characters you must drop, and substitute your own. Based off the changes you made above they won't fit as the originator had presented them. If the idea given to you involved a young pacifist reluctantly drafted, maybe one of the characters would have been their chaplain. If you made your protagonist a 35 year old career officer, he's much less likely to need a chaplain, and more likely to need a bartender. So keep the 1 pivotal character that the plot depends on and delete the rest, substituting your own.

Step 4 Change the Arc: The last step may seem like the most important and you might want to do it first, but you have to save this one for last. The arc of a story is the path of it: it arises from knowing where you will start and where you will end. Every plot point between should follow a nice, smooth, curved line towards the end. Any plot point that doesn't relate to this arc must relate to a smaller arc or be removed/fixed in editing. Most o the suggested plot points in the original idea will not fit your changes, so you have to alter them.

Once you have a new setting, a new protagonist, and a new cast, you have to analyze the 2 main things your originator would have given you: the start and the ending. A word of warning, most only give you one. If they could think of this all on their own they'd be writers, not people who just talk to them. Perhaps in the original idea you had a 20 year old American pacifist drafted into being a doughboy, sent to France. The he meets a farm girl and through the power of love learns to reconcile his pacifism with honor, and this leads him to uncover a plot, discovering his love is a spy, but he still valiantly saves the day. However you have changed it so that a 35 year old colonist career officer leading troops into a war on Earth 3. In the midst of bitter combat...well, there's gotta be a chick, but he wouldn't have to learn to be a hero, so....

Here's where the arc changes. It doesn't have to start at the same place. It could start at the final days of the war. At the end maybe he loses his faith rather than gains it. Does his love have to be a secret antagonist? Does there need to be a conspiracy? Maybe the whole thing is investigating a conspiracy. Maybe your protagonist is a MP, his love interest is a hot babe of a CO. See how all these things change the arc? If what attracted you most was the conspiracy, make that the focus. If it was the love story, make it a romance. If it was the coming to terms with war, make it a drama. Change all the other aspects to make a plot that fits the new scenario. Once you have the other changes in place, change the arc so that it maintains whatever first attracted you, and alter all other aspects to suit yourself.

When you've done all this what you should have is that magic 3-ish page summary. All these 101 1- lessons have given you the tools to write a summary. Now you can make your character bios, and then your outline. Once that's done, you're ready to roll! 

Really? That's it? Yup, you have the tools to complete a summary now.    Credit


Remember that if you like the person who is the originator you still have to do all of this, but thank them. Never thank them specifically, just a general thanks in your author's note. Sad but true, if your work does become hugely successful, money becomes involved and nothing dissolves close relationships like money. It sucks you have to be this guarded, but that's life. If you don't like the originator, you've changed enough things you should be good. ProTip: write down by hand a pretend precursor and say you used that. I'm just being honest here, the world of writing is like any job; full of dirty tricks.

With that we turn to using pitched/in progress ideas from other writers. My honest opinion: don't do it unless you're inspired by a published story. Any published idea is fair game for fanfiction, to be used as source material, and all writers know this. Whenever something is out there in the public eye we accept this, and our only concern is guarding against copyright violations, either illegal reproductions or nearly word-for-word reproductions with only character names changed. If you try to take an idea from another writer that was bandied about in discussion of a writers' group, or attempted to be written and edited in a critique group, DON'T!

Sadly it happens all the time. But just because at times everyone else is doing it, that doesn't mean you should. I've been a member of several writing groups but I refused to talk about any ideas and never joined any critique groups. When I was 8 years old I met an author, talked about a short story I was writing, and two years later he published my exact idea, only names changed. That was my first experience with copyright law; I made my parents talk to a lawyer and we found out spoken ideas are not protected. Many people know this and as such when they have writer's block they go into these gatherings and troll for ideas. Don't join their slimy ranks.

If you do this, it will be known, and you will be blacklisted from these groups. No one likes a cheat. Guard against them, and never become one.  If by some shot your first book or two climbs onto the NY Times Bestseller List you may never need to join another group or professional society, but for the grand bulk of writers we will need to over our entire careers. Don't get blackballed before you even publish. These groups and societies are an important park of networking and marketing, you'll need them, so remember, don't shit where you eat.

Stick to ideas proposed to you for you to use, and make them your own. Follow the steps and it works. Skip any one of these steps and you can and will be sued. There's a reason James Cameron has to officially thank Harlan Ellison in every Terminator film. Ideas come from everywhere and it's rare you will want to write one suggested to you, but if and when you do, do it right.

Following the steps above = inspiration & adaptation. Failure to do so = the big P word.


This concludes the inspiration portion of Writing 101. In our next section we'll go over tools you should master before writing, from characters to conflict. These terms have been discussed before, but we'll go over them in exquisite detail. Until then, happy writing!