You’ve Got a Great Idea for a Story? Don’t Tell Me!

We’re storytellers, right? It’s one of the reasons we became writers of fiction. We love to create fictional plots, characters, and places. And when we succeed in creating something unique, fun, exciting, even riveting, we can’t wait to share it with others. We excitedly tell our family members or our friends or even total strangers, sometimes via Twitter or some other social media platform, about the fantastic idea we’ve had for our next story or novel or series of novels.

My advice? Don’t do it. Wait. Fight the urge to share your latest cool idea for a story.

I feel so strongly about this, I’ve learned to rudely interrupt people when they start to share their ideas. This often happens when I speak to book clubs, or groups of students, or service clubs. Inevitably, after a talk, at least one person from the audience comes up to say he or she is also a writer. I enjoy meeting writers and look forward to this. But then, frequently, the person says something like, “The book I’m writing now is about…”

I interrupt the person and insist he or she stop sharing. Knowing this is rude, I hope the person sticks around long enough to hear why I believe it’s important not to verbalize those great ideas.

You may be thinking this is simply encouraging writers like you to protect your intellectual property. In other words, don’t verbalize your cool ideas because others may steal them before you get a chance to finish writing and publishing your work. While this may also be a reason to refrain from sharing, it’s not the most important one.

To quote a long-ago television sitcom character, you should “zip it” simply because doing so will help you finish your book. If you are freely sharing with people your great ideas, it has the psychological effect of fulfilling that inherent need you have as a writer. It diminishes your drive to get the story out onto the written page.

On the other hand, if you force yourself to keep quiet, the desire to share that amazing plot point or character or whatever builds within you. It pushes you to find the time to sit down, and write.

I’m not a psychologist, and I claim no scientific basis for this advice, so to convince you to pay attention, please consider two things: first, the advice didn’t originate with me. Secondly, I know it works because of personal experience.

Taking the first point first, the advice came from author Hilary Masters. If you don’t happen to know of him, Masters was the author of nearly twenty works, including novels, stories, and a memoir. He served for more than thirty years as a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was honored in 2003 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters with a Lifetime Achievement award. I was fortunate to have him as a writing teacher for one semester, years ago, when he was a “writer in residence” at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

There is no way to know whether the advice originated with Masters. I can only tell you I took it to heart, and I am very glad I did.

My first novel, Burying the Lede, very nearly fell victim to the all-too-common scenario of “dying in the drawer.” I wrote six chapters many years ago, and then set it aside as life got busier with marriage, children, work, graduate school, etc. It might have stayed in the drawer except for two things that happened in close succession. In one instance, at a luncheon with business colleagues, someone dismissed mention of the novel, saying she didn’t want to hear about it because the same six chapters had been done for 25 years. I found myself more than a little red-faced, and more determined to finish the book.

More to the point, the second instance was the creation of the exciting plot twist the novel needed. While the book sat idle in the drawer for all those years, I didn’t stop thinking about it. For years I mentally explored various answers to the key questions, “Who really committed the double murder, and why?”

One day, answers to these questions occurred to me. I got excited. It was a storyline I never had read or heard of before. Having an idea that might be truly unique is reason enough to get excited. It also provided the opportunity to expand the plot of the novel to something broader, more sinister, and more exciting.

I couldn’t wait to tell everyone about this great idea, so I didn’t. I took Hilary Masters’s advice and never shared the idea with anyone. It was incredibly difficult to keep quiet, but it had the precise effect he predicted: I could not wait to get the book out of the drawer and go back to work on it. Despite the fact that life was still busy, four months later, the book was finished.

After a few rounds of editing and proofreading, and with the fantastic support of the professionals at Bookpress Publishing, Burying the Lede was published in early 2019. It has now won two awards and has been released as an audiobook. My second novel, Cry from an Unknown Grave, has just been released, and novels number three and four are finished.

All of this is due, in part, because I refused to verbalize my story ideas. So if you have a great idea for a story, don’t tell me, but I can’t wait to read it.