Years ago, I was chatting with my friend Jess Lebow, and told him about this great idea I had for a video game. I don’t even remember the idea anymore, but I do remember his response: “No one cares about your great idea.” He went on to elaborate (and I’m paraphrasing), “Everyone can have a great idea, but no one will really take notice until you sit down and do something about it.” He was talking about the video game business in particular. Was I ready to put something down on paper at least? Raise money? Create some kind of proof-of-concept, and so on?
Well, needless to say, I am not the founder and CEO of a video game company and again, I can’t even remember what that great idea was.
Last October I was in Los Angeles for the Writer’s Digest Conference West and in my seminar on writing science fiction and fantasy I went off on a bit of a tangent on this same subject. If you have an idea for a novel or a short story (or a video game or an invention, and so on) . . . so what?
I know that sounds rude, even condescending, but I don’t mean to be either of those things. I want you to take that idea and do something with it.
Here’s what came to me, off the cuff, at that seminar:
Leonardo Da Vinci is widely accepted as one of history’s great geniuses, the very embodiment of the “Renaissance Man.” Da Vinci was all over the place. Remember a few weeks ago when I pontificated on the necessity of intellectual curiosity? Da Vinci had that in spades.
One of the things we know from looking at his mountains of notebooks, was that he once drew something that looks suspiciously like a helicopter.
Da Vinci’s helicopter, powered by the muscle of the pilots—probably four men—would never have been able to leave the ground. We know, in fact, that late fifteenth century Italy did not see DaVinciCopters roaring across the skies. What Da Vinci was missing in the 1480s was the internal combustion engine, which can produce enough energy to move itself. Becuase Da Vinci had an idea for a helicopter five hundred years or so ago doesn’t make him the inventor of the helicopter. It makes him a smart guy, interested in lots of stuff, with an active imagination and a strong intellectual curiosity, but credit for actually making something like this that actually worked goes to Frenchman Paul Cornu, though it was Russian-American Igor Sikorsky who’s considered the father of the modern helicopter.
These guys built on developments made by others through much of the time since Leonardo (and back even farther than that), but they actually got it flying.
“But Phil,” you say, “here we are five centuries later talking about Da Vinci’s idea for a helicopter.”
Sure, okay, but had Leonardo Da Vinci only just drawn pictures of things he couldn’t build (and his notebooks are full of many other examples of just that) we probably wouldn’t remember him. When you hear the name Leonardo Da Vinci, do you think of helicopters, or this?
This is the famous Last Supper, just one of Da Vinci’s extraordinary masterpieces and one of the most famous works of art the world has ever know. Centuries later and it’s instantly recognizable.
But what if the Last Supper existed only in the form of a description in a notebook? At that seminar in LA I did a little improv thing where I took on the role of Leonardo and pitched it:
“Okay, so, it’s like a really long table, and for some reason, everybody’s only sitting on one side. And Jesus is in the middle and he’s, like, doing this thing with his arms spread out and all the apostles are there and I’m thinking maybe Judas . . . bear with me on this . . . has knocked over a salt shaker! Get it? Right? It’s gonna be awesome.”
And you know what? He probably did pitch the thing before painting it on the wall of that convent in Milan. But the point is he then actually painted the thing. There it is still, for all the world to see.
Do you have a great idea for a novel? Terrific. Don’t send me your pitch. Write the thing.
Now, that having been said, there are authors who can sell their great ideas based on the pitch alone. If J.K. Rowling called up any publisher on Earth and said, “Okay, I have this great idea for a series of fantasy novels for kids,” she’d be immediately interrupted by an offer. So if you’re J.K. Rowling and you’re reading this, never mind, but actually, if you are reading this, back me up a little.
She actually wrote that first Harry Potter book before she sold it.
An idea is an elusive thing. Like Leonardo’s helicopter, if your epic fantasy exists only as a bunch of notes, no one will remember that, unless maybe you go off and do something else. If Leonardo had concentrated on powered flight and actually built the helicopter the story would read “Inventor of Helicopter Also Had Idea for Religious Mural.” But the point is we’re remembered, if at all, for what we’ve actually done.
Got a great idea? Get to work!