She came up to me after I had spoken at one of those writers' club affairs. I make a point of addressing them whenever asked, so I can discourage people from becoming writers. To anyone who asks about getting into this line of work I give the same counsel: "Don't do it! Unless you absolutely have to. If your fingers begin to type involuntarily in midair if you haven't written anything for a day, you might be a writer. If you get physical symptoms -- stomach ache, lightheadedness, extreme grouchiness -- after abstaining from writing for a week, you might be a writer. Otherwise forget it. You won't like it, and the feeling will be mutual."
Come to think of it, I don't get asked to speak to writers' clubs much any more. So that worked. (Jack Limpert, the longtime editor of Washingtonian Magazine, used to say at every opportunity, "I HATE talking about writing.")
Anyway, the lady in question didn't exactly come up to me, she sidled along the walls of the room until she was behind me and then, her eyes flicking from one departing person to another, said out of the side of her mouth: "Can I ask you something?"
"How do you keep your ideas from being stolen?"
"I try not to have any."
"No, I mean it. You hear stories all the time about publishers and production companies stealing peoples' ideas and making fortunes and not sharing with the people who had the idea."
"Actually, I don't hear that. What I do hear from time to time is a story about some wannabe who claims an idea was stolen."
"Are you saying it never happens?"
"People claiming they wuz robbed? Happens often enough that publishers will not even touch an envelope that comes over the transom (which is to say unsolicited). That's why you have to have a legitimate agent send it in to even get your stuff looked at. But theft of ideas? No. Plagiarism happens, once in a while. But that's not stealing an idea, that's stealing work, which is quite different, and the thief is usually a desperate individual, not a publisher or production company."
"Well," she was about to write me off as hopelessly naive, "I want to know how to keep my ideas from being stolen."
"Have you actually written a book? I would bet not."
"Well, no. I want a contract first."
"Don't we all. But you know how I knew you haven't written one yet?"
"Because you still confuse the idea with its execution, and no one who has written a book would do that. Assign ten writers an idea -- hell, give them a detailed outline of a book -- and a couple years later you'll get ten books that are completely different from one another in concept, quality, approach, emphasis, point of view -- a hundred ways.
"If someone steals your hubcap, and builds a car around it, you might be justified in demanding the return of the hubcap, but it's not your car. Publishers don't buy -- or steal -- ideas, they buy work. When you've done the work, slap that little copyright emblem on it, and you'll be fine."
Her tension seemed to have eased a hair, so I decided to push it. "So tell me -- just between us -- what's your idea?"
She looked at me for a minute, stricken. "I...I can't tell you." Then she sidled along the wall to the back exit and slipped out, watching alertly for a tail.
Well, Jack Limpert would have liked her.