What's the Big Idea? - Nick Green

I don't even own that coat anymore
I shelved the blog post I was going to write, because something caught my eye and made it pop out in anger. You may or may not have noticed that last month was the deadline for The Big Idea Competition, an apparent bid to find the ‘next big thing’ (you’re not yawning already?).

This is the brainchild of Barry Cunningham, well-known as the editor who discovered Harry Potter, which was the biggest Big Thing in publishing history, and also Tunnels, which… wasn’t. The premise is simple. As in, simply infuriating.

‘Have you got an idea for a story that children will love?’ the website asked. ‘Then tell us in 500 words! Win the chance of seeing your idea transformed into a book, movie, TV or theatre production!’

There is so much wrong with this premise – in fact the whole concept is so breathtakingly cynical and disingenuous – that I hardly know where to begin. The supposed rationale, as explained in its publicity materials, sounds reasonable enough: there are lots of people out there who might have a great idea for a story, but who lack the skill / patience / masochism to actually sit down and write it. But don’t worry! the organisers assure us. We’ve got stacks of authors and playwrights and impresarios right here! You come up with a good idea, and we’ll do the rest. Simples.

I’ll skip over the obvious question – can’t this crack team of in-house gurus come up with a good idea themselves? – because as any writer and indeed reader should know, a good idea isn’t the point. And I believe Barry Cunningham knows this (or at least, he really should know this) perfectly well.

Let’s take Harry Potter as our example. What’s the Big Idea behind Harry Potter? A boy discovers he is a wizard, and goes to Wizard School, where he has many adventures and battles a Dark Lord. Now with all due respect to J K Rowling, this on the face of it does not make you sit up. Not even back in 1997, when the first book came out. In those days, in fact, it looked almost like a throwback – a rather quaint revival of ideas seen in books like The Worst Witch, with a bit of Mallory Towers, Diana Wynne Jones and Tolkien mixed in.

You can imagine a million ways in which Rowling’s idea could have been written, and ended up as a total train wreck. The fact that it turned into a great story can be attributed solely to how she handled it. The same is true of almost any book. Three-foot hero carries indestructible ring of ultimate evil to volcano to destroy it. Napoleon invades Russia and lots of people fall in love and die. A parallel universe wages war on God, aided by animals that are actually their souls (yeah, Pullman, like that’s ever gonna fly). A girl lives with her family in a castle and… writes about them. Booor-ing.

The competition organisers offer an example so you can ‘see how it works’. They ask, what if Peter Pan were to be a submission? They then proceed to give a 500 word synopsis of Peter Pan, to illustrate their point. My jaw unhinged. It was a bit like when Robert Maxwell sold shares in the Mirror newspaper, and told the public that if the value of Mirror Group doubled in a month, they could double their money. It’s completely true and accurate and at the same time the most whopping pack of lies.

Now, I don’t know how J M Barrie wrote that book (though I think it was a play first, wasn’t it?) – but I would wager he didn’t start out with that kind of detailed synopsis. The Peter Pan pitch does look interesting – BUT OF COURSE IT DOES. Because we all know the story and we can all picture it, and because it’s based on an existing work, a classic no less (not to mention a colossal Disney franchise) so it also makes coherent sense and ‘feels finished’. Furthermore, it includes snippets of Barrie’s prose, just to hammer it home. Which, incidentally, takes this beyond the Big Idea, into the realm of actual writing. See, see – they are cheating at their own game, even as they set out the rules.

And yet… even then, would you commission ‘Peter Pan and Wendy’ based on that pitch? I doubt it. If you’d never heard of any of those characters before, and didn’t know the story or how big an impact it made, you’d probably think: bit weird. A tad surreal. Too different. Change the name ‘Tootles’. And most of all: not sure my team of ghost writers are up to developing this one.

I would argue the very opposite of what this competition claims. I’d suggest that a great book is often one where the original kernel of the idea looks unremarkable. Because it really is all in the treatment. It’s in the writing. That’s where the quality comes from. That’s what turns a concept (which is neither good nor bad in itself) into a Big Idea. The Big Idea isn’t the start of the book. It IS the book. It’s irreducible. I never know if my ideas are any good or not until I write THE END and go back and read over the whole novel.

So the Big Idea Competition is based on a fundamental misreading of how fiction is created. This leaves us with two possibilities. Either this misreading is accidental, or it is deliberate. Either Barry Cunningham is totally clueless about books, in which case he must be the luckiest chancer in history – or he knows perfectly well that real stories don’t happen this way, and the whole exercise is merely a publicity stunt to attract attention, and manufacture a phenomenon in the hope that it’ll take off in a way that ‘Tunnels’ so spectacularly failed to.

I wonder which it is.


madwippitt said…
Let me join you on the cross step!
Lee said…
Aha, I get it. You're a 'there's only seven basic plots' sort of guy - or was that seventeen?

Good post!
Jan Needle said…
Hang on, Nick. Have I missed summat or have you?

‘Have you got an idea for a story that children will love?’ the website asked. ‘Then tell us in 500 words! Win the chance of seeing your idea transformed into a book, movie, TV or theatre production!’

When we've given this chap our 500 words, who gets to 'transform' it? Who gets to earn the money? Has this feller not read the Guardian today? Come across the word Wonga, for example?

Thanks for dropping your original blog. This one is dynamite. (Perhaps you ought to sub it down to 500 words and send it to him. He might be able to use it!)
Penny Dolan said…
I could not agree more, Nick! Extremely well said - and explained!
Kathleen Jones said…
Nothing like asking a group of eager writers to pitch ideas, then nicking the best of them and offering a pat on the head as a reward! Wish I'd thought of it first.
Lydia Bennet said…
oh yes there's a lot of nicking ideas, TV have been doing it for years if rumours are true. This is brilliant, I think they are just hoping to land a whopper of an obvious winner in the net of tiddlers, and then clean up with maybe a polo mint for the originator who'll be grateful to have their idea in print. Great post Nick! I now feel bad for all those at gigs who've told me 'I've got a great idea for a novel'. and when I ask why not write it and send it out, 'someone might pinch the idea'. This way they can use your idea without you going to the bother of writing it first!
Nick Green said…
Good points - Jan, yours especially, I don't remember seeing any financial terms!

The evil genius of this ploy is that it really doesn't matter WHAT the idea chosen is. Only the fact of it being picked, and all the inherent publicity. Any random assemblage of characters and incidents could be cobbled into a passable story by their hired guns. And the headlines and fanfares do the rest.

The fact that there is famously no copyright on 'ideas' is also highly pertinent, probably.
Absolutely brilliant post, Nick. And yes, it's a thoroughly cynical exercise isn't it? I wonder what the 'rules' are about the further exploitation of the idea. They never do know what the next big idea will be until it's out there as a real piece of work. Although they may claim a sort of retrospective intuition about it. He may have 'discovered' Harry Potter, but my understanding is that it was children and their word of mouth that really triggered the avalanche. That and the fact that - at the time - grim reality and issue based fiction was where it was at and writers were being told that fantasy was over and done with. Unfortunately, they didn't ask the readers. It was young readers who spread the word about Harry, not some big publicity exercise. Or to repeat the William Goldman assertion 'Nobody knows anything.' He was talking about Hollywood but it's as true for books. Once something has taken off, of course, they are always trying to predicate the next big thing on the last big thing, when it invariably comes out of left field and takes them completely by surprise. Usually in some genre that the 'experts' have been telling everyone is over, finished and deeply unpopular. Then somebody manages to squeeze a really good book under the wire and they suddenly say they knew it all along.
glitter noir said…
I was just about to add what Val has already written. To me, this is clearly a 'fishing expedition' from scouts too lazy to read whole books or even outlines for something they can run with. If anyone doubts that this happens...the great Website Preditors and Editors 'outed' numerous literary agents caught selling pitches based on books that they'd rejected.
madwippitt said…
Hope you manager to pop the eye back in incidentally. Or someone might nick the idea for writing a a poem about the one-eyed idle writer well to the north of Khatmandu ...
julia jones said…
I really TRIED to like Tunnels ...
"I'M the next big thing!" (come on, you've all seen Spartacus...)
Mani said…
Superb analysis.

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