Friday, February 11, 2011

Writing is an Exercise in Extremely Delayed Gratification

Free-form Friday

Writing can be protected in the U.S. with a copyright but not with a patent.

What's the difference?

Patents protect ideas. Copyrights protect the expression of ideas.

This means there's nothing to stop you from writing a story about a boy wizard who falls for a sparkly vampire while they're trying to survive as contestants in a blood-sport arena. The fact that other writers have already expressed those ideas in books that achieved commercial success doesn't necessarily stop you from expressing the same ideas. (As long as it is a new expression and not plagiarism or a cheap knock-off.) What matters, both in the eyes of the law and in the marketplace, is the quality of the expression of the idea.

Like the experiment in Plato's Republic, where Socrates examined states in order to understand personal virtue, there's an analogy between copyright law and the delicious ideas that spring up as you imagine the story you'll write. 

In your enthusiasm for those ideas, you'll be tempted to share. There's nothing so heady as cornering someone who will listen to you and explaining how great the story will be because it's all present and vibrant for you. Of course, what you really want is the validation that comes when someone else acknowledges your ideas.

But the fact of the matter is that great ideas about what could happen in your story are meaningless until you express them (i.e., write them down). Put another way, if, like the tree that falls in the forest, no one else can appreciate the idea in its expressed form, then for all practical purposes, it didn't happen.

At a personal level, this means that the satisfaction of someone saying, "Yes, that's a great idea," must be delayed until you've found a compelling way to express that idea. And if you're looking for acknowledgment from a circle larger than critique partners, beta readers, agents, and editors, you'd better be prepared to wait years between the idea and its publication.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /