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 /


  1. Deren, I enjoyed this post on the intricacies and loop-holes of copyright laws. Spot on and informative.

    I want to go off-topic. Well, it's not off-topic. What I'm about to describe could be considered a predecessor to this post. Specifically, your section on "sharing ideas" and your mentioning of Socrates inspired me to consider the art of hypothesis and the significance of the act of sharing/expressing story ideas. Socrates is literally the father of philosophy and ethics. Isn't it an irony that he is the genesis of thought and yet he never wrote anything? Or, if he did, his writings never survived history.

    What we know of Socrates exists only in the accounts, writings, and plays from his students and fellow contemporaries: Plato, who you mentioned, Xenophon (the period's renowned historian), Aristotle (philosopher), and Aristophones (playwright), to name the most acclaimed.

    With this in light, consider your point that the sharing of ideas is moot until those ideas and stories find themselves published. Though this is true, I want to suggest that the sharing of ideas is an integral beginning point for the literary process. It's an echo of the "Socratic method" (though particulary a device for debating ethics and morals), it is a perfect device for the literary process: the process at arriving at ideas (the individual art of creation/design that Socrates considered as "hypothesis"), grounding those ideas from sharing them in a group of contemporaries (the act of sharing those ideas, asking questions, scrutinizing them, and debating answers), etc.

    IN all, Deren, and I know you agree with me on this, I think the sharing of our story ideas (plot lines, character traits, and/or story structure) help hone the story in our heads, inspire us with new ideas (what I like to call "being visited by the Muses"), and then write quality work.

    So, it's more than mere "validation" that we writers are seeking for when we share. The process of sharing should be considered literally as a school, very much like Socrates' school of Athens, in which we learn and develop our ideas through the telling of them.

  2. Michael,

    Thank you for your thoughtful expansion on ideas and expression.

    In trying to underscore the practical point that as writers we don't have a tangible product until there are words on paper (metaphorically--'bytes in a file' isn't nearly as lyrical), I glossed over the part of the process you've highlighted.

    I agree that there's an important gestational phase for ideas; one that's often aided by sharing. But there's an important distinction between the sharing that helps us clarify our ideas and the trap of feeling as though the idea has been expressed when we talk about it.

    The process of nailing down our ideas with written words that we can't amend as we might in a conversation forces us to specific. Which was the essence of the Socratic method: many of the dialogues begin with a statement by someone to which most of the party seem willing to assent until Socrates suggests that they might not understand the matter as well as they assume. In the course of the dialogue, they examine, and more fundamentally, fully express the idea.

    And then Plato wrote it all down.

    Your analogy between our efforts to develop ideas and the school in Athens is a lovely one so long as we also remember to emulate Plato and express the developed ideas.

  3. Very interesting blog.
    Am signing on to follow.

  4. Carson,

    Welcome. I hope you enjoy the discussion here.


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