What writers and start-ups have in common

Last week I said I wasn’t going to reveal the ‘spark’ that drives the writing process for Charlotte.

This week I’m going to explain why.

But first, a scenario: Not long ago I had a conversation with a woman who had an idea for a start-up company, in the area of sustainable energy. What was interesting about this conversation was that she wouldn’t reveal to me – or anyone – what the idea was.

I found myself wanting to giggle irreverently for much of the conversation because – as I see it – in a start-up context, it doesn’t make sense to ‘hide’ your story. Why? Because when you’re starting a business that’s going to require a lot of people-power, you’re going to have to trust the collaborative process, the networks, the people in your tribe to support you and invest their time, energy and skills to help you build your business. You simply can’t do it alone. I know this from my own experiences with Nuance, Scope, The Powerhouse, and The Woolf.

I wanted to share some contacts I had with Sustainable Energy Start-up Woman. I wanted to put her in touch with people I knew. I was open to the discussion.

Sustainable Energy Start-up Woman’s response?

“But I’m worried someone’s going to steal my idea.”

Here’s my take: People don’t tend to steal an idea unless they are perfectly, financially, technologically and networkingly (?!) poised to realise it. They might do something similar, but it won’t be the way you envisaged it. It will be different, because they have different resources. Besides which, while you’re sitting around fretting about intellectual copyright, you’re wasting time and energy. (Obviously, you need to be smart about who you share with, but you get the point.)

How is this related to writing?

It’s related because writers often think that talking about the writing process, or giving away the general overview of a book, will mean someone will steal their idea.

As I’ve said before (in a previous post), nobody in their right mind would try to take someone else’s idea and write about it. Do you know how much energy and time and creative juice it takes to write a novel?!

You can say exactly the same for a business idea: it takes years to get businesses off the ground successfully. Actually, it’s almost safer these days to ‘put it out there’ than to ‘keep it in’. At least there’s an electronic paper trail, and you can claim some kind of ownership over ideas with Creative Commons licensing. [NB. I am still learning about this, but as I understand it, Trademarking e.g. technology, is a different story. Feel free to comment if you have intel on this.]

My point: the spark and the story are two different things.

The story can also be called the plot, or the log-line.

  • Writers = ‘What’s the story about?‘ Example: ‘Person A meets Person B and, because of this, Event C happens
  • Start-up = ‘What’s the business?‘ Example: ‘Person B buys Service C, to solve Problem A

The spark, however, is something private. It’s the internal motivator.

  • Writers = Often, it’s a theme. ‘Youth is wasted on the young’, for instance.
  • Start-up = the reason you’re doing what you do.

As a writer, talking about the writing process and the writing landscape can be helpful for others who are trying to hone their craft. Or, at the very least, it can be good (ahem) therapy for the writer.

But there is something a bit precious about a spark, and it’s worth protecting. As a creator, sharing too early or with the wrong listener can result in a three-way relationship that just gets messy. Talking about it can kill it.

Charlotte will soon be in the hands of readers. I have discussed one or two aspects of the book with a few select writerly pals, and I’ve discussed process here and there, on the blog. But I’m waiting for the finished draft before I set Charlotte free, spark and all.

Then I can pass on the flame. Wish her well as she moves on to a new relationship with a reader.

…And then re-write her 16 times!

PS. Writers take note: a good book about starting a business (relevant to writers as much as anyone starting anything) is ‘The Art of the Start‘ by Guy Kawasaki.


  1. Interesting take on this ‘idea stealing’ issue… Strangely enough, the reason I rarely talk about my novel has nothing to do with this, and I think that is because I find it so difficult to provide a nice concise summary for someone else to possible ‘steal’. For me, yes, it is the spark. But what that is, I have no idea. I feel that the story is bubbling away in me, desperate to come out, and if I let it out, then it’s done. Already written, already told. If I don’t talk about it, the only way the story can get told is for me to write it down, and this is some pretty intense fuel for me.

    I’m not sure that makes any sense whatsoever… the creative process is so incredibly difficult to attempt to articulate. I’m reading a book Margaret Atwood wrote about writing, and she really hits the nail on the head. She said (excuse my laziness – the book is around somewhere… no idea where right now, and I can’t be bothered getting up to accurately quote it) something along the lines of the fact that you can never truly meet the author of a book. She says she feels like a fraud at book signings when people appear to be in such awe of her. At that moment, she is a cupcake-baking, knitting grandmother! Why would people be in awe of that? But then, when she sits down to write, she is another beast entirely. It’s true, I believe. At least for me. And so, if I were to talk too much about my story or my novel (not the process of writing itself – I love talking about that!), then it all just becomes horribly inauthentic. And I lose the passion to write.

  2. Yes, agreed. I find, especially with kids and work in the mix, that my writing energy needs to be preserved and carefully meted out at the right times, and I guess that’s another fine reason to not fluff on about the content of my stories: it wastes precious energy that will be tapped in the creative process.

    I also agree with you that the creative process is extremely difficult to articulate. My Nuance colleague, Liz, and I have literally books full of hand-drawn maps and flow charts and brain-dumps and so forth because, well, because we can’t help ourselves!, but also because it’s so interesting charting the evolution of ideas, and the connection of points on concept maps. Magic, really, and something I don’t expect to ever reach a conclusion on. But it’s fun exploring the territory!

    Very interesting to hear what Margaret Atwood has to say. Thanks for that. I’ll look that one up for a spot of reading. (She says, casting an apologetic look at the 25+ books that sit on her desk, awaiting their turn on the Reading Train…)

    Thanks for the comment, Joh! :)

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