You Can’t Sell an Idea

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“1/52 ideas” by DaNieLooP is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Today’s post is excerpted from the new book Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer: The Artistry, Joy, and Career of Storytelling by New York Times bestselling author and Hugo Award winner J. Michael Straczynski (@straczynski), published by BenBella Books.

The emails come almost daily.

I’ve got this great idea for a movie/TV series/novel/short story, would you like to buy it? Tell me how I can sell it to a studio/network/publisher.

If I give you my idea and you write it we can split the money 50/50.

And one more literally from this morning:

I’m looking for someone who can work with me to package my ideas and sell them, can you help me?


Because nobody wants your ideas.

(And I don’t know what package my ideas even means. Put them in a box? Staple them together? Here’s a six-pack of ideas, want ’em? They also come in twelve and sixteen packs of double-ply ideas in decorator patterns that won’t clog the pipes.)

Unless you’ve figured out a Unified Field Theory or faster-than-light travel (in which case yeah, contact me and we’ll split the money 50/50), ideas are worthless, a dime a dozen. Give ten writers the same basic idea and you’ll get back eleven stories. What matters is the execution of that idea (rather than its assassination), which is entirely a function of the person writing it.

Talent is the product of training and natural inclination focused through a unique point of view, implemented with an insane degree of dedication and the determination to strive for a level of achievement sufficient to set them apart from the crowd and lift them out of the ordinary. Lots of people can sing. Nina Simone is a one-off. Paul Simon is a one-off. Aretha Franklin is a one-off. Frank Sinatra is a one-off. Janis Joplin is a one-off. They could take songs you’ve heard a thousand times and, through their interpretation, make you hear them in ways you’d never even thought about before.

Writers are performers no less than singers; we’re just quieter. Whatever success we achieve is the direct result of how we interpret the story we wish to tell, and how well we are able to communicate that interpretation to someone else. Ideas are just the start of that process, they are not the process in toto.

Let’s say you have the most amazing idea in the history of amazing ideas. What’s a studio or publisher to do with it? They can’t publish it as is, or build a film shoot around it. Can you imagine tuning in to a TV network one evening and someone on-screen says, “We had this guy come to us yesterday with an amazing idea, check this out,” and he reads you something covering about half a page? Ideas are useless on their own terms; even if someone were to buy your idea (which they won’t because no one does), they’d still have to give the idea to another writer who could actually render that into something practicable, and whose interpretation would be so vastly different from your own that it’s no longer even the same idea, so why do they need you?

As much as we like to think we’ve come up with an idea no one’s thought of before, the odds are pretty good that whatever we’ve stumbled upon has been encountered by other writers over the long course of human history. That should not be taken to mean that there is nothing new under the sun, or that all art is just reinterpretation of what went before, justifications that are often used for plagiarism and excessive sampling. There is a profound difference between an idea, which can be, and in many cases is, generic or broadly thematic, and the expression of that idea in ways that are unique to the artist and specific to the time and culture in which it is created.

It’s the interpretation of an idea that makes it feel fresh; by the time it comes out the other end of the crazy-straw of your particular talent as a finished work, it looks like nothing that’s been done before because you haven’t been here before.

I was pursued online for years by a guy who said he had an idea for the perfect ending for a series I’d produced that never went past the first season. Even though there was no way he could have the right ending because the information needed to reach it would only have been brought out during the intervening seasons, he was adamant about getting me to read his ideas. He came at me on Facebook. I blocked him without looking at his material. He created a new account. I blocked him again. He got my email and came at me directly. I blocked him. He changed email addresses, and when my assistant intercepted his next volley, he became abusive with her.

Another individual popped up online saying that he had written a story set in one of my fictional universes and wanted me to read and give it my stamp of approval for his own personal satisfaction. Once again, I said no and blocked him. In response, he switched up accounts and came at me again. Over and over.

I’ve never read either of these pieces and will never read them, because I don’t like being stalked and bullied, and because I have the right to say no. (I suspect that guys like this, and they’re always guys, have problems with being told “no” that extend far beyond TV writers.)

And the thing is, this sort of thing has been happening for as long as I’ve been working in television. Somebody will come at me with ideas or stories set in worlds I’ve created, demanding I read them. Some can be discouraged, but others simply don’t get the message. On three occasions the stalking—online and, in one case, in person at conventions—became so virulent that I had to enlist the services of private investigators to find them. Usually it only takes making their family members (or in one circumstance, the stalker’s employer, since he was using the office computer for purposes of harassment) aware of what’s going on to trigger an intervention and make it stop. But that doesn’t make the months and dollars spent, and the emotional turmoil endured, any easier.

Writers spend their lives building careers and reputations because doing so gives us the leverage and freedom to tell stories that are personally resonant and important to us, not so that we can tell your stories. We don’t need some stranger’s ideas, we don’t want to risk being sued, and harassment is not the appropriate response to either of those preceding clauses.

Returning to the point about selling one’s ideas instead of giving them away or posting them, whenever I conduct a writing workshop there’s always at least one person who approaches me afterward to say that despite having no prior experience writing TV scripts, they’ve spent the last six months writing a pilot for a new series and do I have any advice as to how they can get it sold?

Though it pains me deeply, I have to tell them a very hard thing: that they spent those six months writing something they cannot and will not sell. Naturally, they don’t want to hear it and try to cite prior examples of people selling pilots without prior TV credits, but those stories are like unicorns, rumored and reported but never actually seen in the wild. The examples evaporate in the harsh light of web searches confirming that the person in question was either an established writer’s offspring or had at least some prior experience writing for TV.

An unproduced, inexperienced writer cannot sell a pilot. It just never happens.

Here’s why.

As noted, story ideas have no value because it all comes down to how that idea is expressed. The same applies to television, with the added caveat that whoever writes the pilot is generally the same person who goes on to run the show, and before handing over that kind of authority, the networks and studios want to understand your process as a storyteller and have a comfort factor with your experience as a producer. The only way to get that experience is to come up the ranks from freelance writer to staff writer to story editor, then on to co-producer, producer, and eventually executive producer, until you’ve finally acquired the clout needed to run your own show, and the networks have some idea of your approach to storytelling.

If that seems unfair or closed-minded, let me turn the question around: If you were boarding a flight from New York to Melbourne, who would you prefer to have at the controls: a pilot who has logged hundreds of hours of flight time on this route, or the guy who plans to start attending flight school next Thursday? The queasy feeling you just got in the pit of your stomach is exactly why there’s not a TV network or streamer on the planet that will hand you millions of dollars to make a series unless they’re absolutely confident that you won’t drive the car off the road halfway through shooting. It’s about trust as much as what’s on the page.

And the prospect of convincing a working writer/producer who does have the chops to sell a series to collaborate with you is extremely unlikely (unless that person is already a friend, but that situation can get very awkward very fast). The gift of being allowed to create a new TV series is hard won, extremely remunerative, and can be easily torpedoed if something goes wrong. If a writer/producer can sell shows on his/her own, why would they bring in a project by an unknown writer, for whom they’ll have to fight like hell to get network approval (which likely won’t come), and sacrifice 50 percent of what they’d normally earn for one of their own series, with absolutely no guarantee that you won’t blow up the entire process through inexperience?

Answer: they wouldn’t.

And they don’t.

Which is why it hasn’t happened, isn’t happening, and isn’t going to happen.

If you want to sell a TV series, start by writing for established shows and work your way up. Focus on stories that let you demonstrate your unique perspective, and take the time to learn your craft on the writing and producing sides. Gradually, as you move up the ranks, the networks and studios will get comfortable with you and your creative process. Only then will you have the opportunity to sell a pilot and run your own series.

Again, it’s not about ideas. Ideas that lack interpretation, effort, and the willingness to put them into workable form are the currency of people with short attention spans and no discernible ability. It’s about stories, about what that idea means to you and where you want to take it, followed by all the hard work needed to transform that idea into a script or a novel or a short story.

That being said: If you’ve worked out the whole faster-than-light travel thing, seriously, call me.

Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out J. Michael Straczynski’s new book Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer: The Artistry, Joy, and Career of Storytelling.

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