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Thursday Reading FUNdamentals: When Good Ideas Go Bad

May 6, 2010

The title for this entry comes from my original review (or semi-coherent rant) of The Time Traveler’s Wife back in 2003.  The relevant gist of it is that sometimes an author has a good premise, but the execution of that idea isn’t as good as it could be.

Recently I came upon another example of this in Play Dead by Ryan Brown.  The book is about a high school football team in Texas that dies in a prank gone awry.  A football-loving witch then brings the team back to life as zombies to take revenge on their killers in a game of football.

That’s an interesting premise–and clearly a marketable one–but the problem was in the execution.  It was Brown’s first book–and it showed.  In my review I reference his heavy reliance on dialog, to the point where he describes a main character through dialog:

“Oh, she’s a doll.  Red hair.  Green eyes.  That adorable figure.”

Come on!  Can you imagine anyone actually saying that in ordinary conversation?  That’s a pretty clear example of writing dialog for the reader, not for the scene itself, which could probably be a Terrible Tip.

Not to rehash the entire review, but overall the writing was pedestrian and the characters stock.  It’s the kind of book you read and immediately think, “This would be a pretty good movie.”

I couldn’t help lamenting in the review that if someone with real writing talent like a Stephen King had gotten a hold of it, the book would have been something really special instead of just mediocre.  The same is true–to a lesser extent–of The Time Traveler’s Wife, where if a better author had written it instead of a novice, it might have ended up as an amazing read because in both instances the premise was interesting.  The execution?  Not so much.

If you believe in karma and all that stuff, you might think that every good idea goes to the author who should write it.  I’d say that’s pure bunk, as evidenced by the examples above, and probably a few examples you can think of as well.  Sometimes an idea goes to the exact wrong person to write it.  That’s probably because there isn’t really a “muse” or some little fairy sprinkling ideas on writer’s heads.  Like everything else in life it’s just a crap shoot.

Or if you want to get psychological, you could say that most of our ideas as writers stem from our life experiences.  Ryan Brown lives in Texas, where high school football is a big deal–see “Friday Night Lights.”  Whereas Stephen King lives in Maine, where high school football isn’t so big.  So who do you think would be likely to come up with the idea of a zombie football team?  Right.  Now if it was a zombie hockey team my money would be on Stephen King.

In Tuesday’s entry I referenced my “Writing Bucket List” and in particular one story that I’ve tried a few times but haven’t gotten right.  That story involves a sort of modern update on Don Quixote only with some crazy dude thinking he’s a superhero.  I don’t think this is even that original of an idea as it might have been in the early ’90s when I first thought of it.  Anyway, as I lamented, that’s really not the best idea for me because I’m not a good satirist.  I can come up with some good one-liners, which works on message boards and Twitter, but not so much when it comes to crafting a 300-page novel.  And I’m not very worldly, having spent pretty much my entire life in Michigan and most of that reading, writing, and watching movies/TV.  To do this idea the right way–the way Cervantes did with the original–you’d need someone who’s good a broad social satire.  Someone like Tom Wolfe (the Bonfire of the Vanities guy, not the You Can’t Go Home Again guy who’s been dead for 70-some years) or Terry Pratchett (Discworld series) or maybe someone like Christopher Buckley (Thank You for Smoking, Boomsday, etc.) or Christopher Moore (You Suck, A Dirty Job) just to name a couple off the top of my head.  Those guys have a lot more experience in writing satirical novels and thus they could all do a much better job at it than I ever could.

I felt that way even about my best novel, Where You Belong.  I did the best job on it that I could at the time, but in the hands of a really great novelist like John Irving or Michael Chabon it would have been awesome.  (Not to mention far more successful commercially.)  It’s too bad that you probably can’t sell your ideas to authors, but I’m sure they wouldn’t want ideas from a nobody like me and it’d probably wind up as a lawsuit at some point.

Please don’t try to comfort me right now by saying, “Hey, come on, champ, you’re great.”  At most I’m slightly above average and I’ve come to accept that.  Another Terrible Tip lifted from “The Dark Knight”:  Know Your Limits.  The problem is that as writers we don’t know that when we begin and so we wind up writing some real stinkers.  Or in the case of the books referenced in the opening, a book that’s all right but leaves a lot of untapped potential.

In the end, that’s too bad, but that’s just how it goes.

Come back Sunday for another Surprise Entry!

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