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Rogue Mutt Classics: When Good Ideas Go Bad

August 15, 2011

This is still one of my favorite review/entry titles.  I did a blog entry along these same lines later when I talked about how even a bad movie can have good ideas in it.  Maybe I jumped the shark!

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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.

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4 Comments
  1. 1) I don’t think Terry Pratchett would be a good example as he has Alzheimer’s disease. I think his writing days are done.

    2) I don’t believe in karma so I see your point. I don’t believe in god, satan, leprechauns, luck, ghosts, goblins, snarks, and grumkins either. I tend to think that what people call karma is really revenge. Revenge that is taken out on them for when they upset people and those people know people. Kinda takes out all the mysticism from the whole thing and calls it what it is…people kicking you because you kicked someone else.

    3) The difference between a bad and a good writer is an amazing editor in my opinion. I don’t think it’s fair for you to compare your efforts with “Where You Belong” to Michael Chabon or John Irving when they have more resources than you. It’s like saying “This dude is just skinnier than I and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Then I examine said dude and they have tons of money, don’t have to work a day job, can go to the gym for four hours and spend the rest of the day recuperating, they have a nutritionist and can afford gourmet, highly nutritious low-calorie foods, etc. Yeah…there’s a reason behind everything, my friend.

  2. Hey, come on, champ, you’re great!

    Seriously, you are very good.

    You’ve hit on here what I was thinking, without being able to make it a coherent thought, about the difference between “Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children” and “John Dies At The End,” two stories with similar conceits — but in one (“John…”) the book was phenomenal while in the other it was pedestrian — the latter is a bad writer with a good idea (or not so good an idea, maybe.)

    But I disagree about King — I’m not so sure he’s a great writer. He’s just got a lot of great ideas (and some bad ones.)

    It’s kind of like what I say about lawyers: A good lawyer can’t make a losing case a winning case, but a bad lawyer can make a winning case a losing case. A good writer can make a bad idea good — John… is kind of like that — but a bad writer can’t really wreck a good idea, which is why all those YA novels get published: the idea is good, the writing is bad, and kids don’t care much about the writing.

  3. I think that happens a lot. A great story idea gets wasted a bit by poor execution. I think it happens more in movies than in books, but it still happens a lot.

    Stephen KIng is a masterful writer. I don’t think he tells a coherent story very often, but the ride itself is always amazing, even if I don’t know where it’s going, or where it’s been.

    I don’t have dreams of being a world renowned, once in a generation genius. I just want to tell entertaining stories.

  4. Great point on the dialogue.

    I for one, love your work. Plus, you have amazing advice and great insight.

    -E

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