Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Idea versus Execution

Recently I had the strangest experience while reading a book.

I was reading an ARC (advance reading copy) of a book scheduled to be published later this year and I couldn’t shake the sneaking suspicion that I had read it before. Not only couldn’t I shake the feeling, but I knew when I had read it, the title, and what had happened. It was a manuscript I had requested and was looking forward to reading but eventually rejected because I thought it still needed a lot of work.

While I’m positive this is not the same author or the same book in a new package, I was amazed at how much the ideas matched. The settings were similar, the hero’s background was almost identical, his profession was the same, and I even wondered, but couldn’t remember, if the hero’s name was the same. The truth though is that there were enough differences, enough things that I doubt the author would have changed in a rewrite, to make the books different. I know the heroine’s profession had changed, as well as her personality. I also know that there were more characters in this book and some of the back story of each of the protagonists had been altered enough that I knew it couldn’t be the same author. And more important, the execution of each book was completely different.

No, I don’t think anyone plagiarized or stole an idea. What I think is that there are very few amazing and original ideas out there. The truth is that most of you are writing from a box of ideas, and what really matters when writing your book is the execution. I’ve seen a thousand different cozy mysteries and hundreds of vampire submissions. None of these are really new ideas. What makes a book dance for me (and for editors) is the execution. Sure we’re intrigued and initially pick up the book based on an idea, but in the end, when we offer representation or buy the book for the publisher, we’re making that decision based on how well you executed the idea and how much you made it your own at that time.

So when you hear that someone else is writing your idea, don’t sweat it, just make your execution that much stronger.



Cole Reising said...

I think this idea is awesome! And can be applied to ones own writing...if the story isn't working, the execution is failing somewhere, know that you can totally rewrite it! Know that you can take one scene, have 10 people all look at the same points needing to be made and have 10 totally different ideas on how it should go down. Which means, that a scene is never 'locked'--you may feel or think you can't alter something, but as you just pointed out, Jessica, one can. :-) Great post!


kris said...

"So when you hear that someone else is writing your idea, don’t sweat it, just make your execution that much stronger."

But that's the HARD part!


Anonymous said...

This has happened before and probably many times before. http://www.nytimes.com/library/books/031600potter-suit.html

Anonymous said...

Ooh, yes! What a comforting--and challenging--post!

I'm reading a terrific example of this right now: SUGAR DADDY by Lisa Kleypas, who spoke so eloquently at the RWA convention a couple of weeks ago. When I scanned the cover flap my first thought was, "I've read this already." Not so! I've read the idea in one incarnation or another, yes, but the execution...Oh, it's lovely! Her style is utterly her own. I'll read many more books by Lisa Kleypas, I'm sure.

And you know what I find interesting? The basics are so strong in this book (and, really, in any romance or women's fiction I've ever devoured). Victory-obstacle-tactic...goal-motivation-conflict...whatever you want to call it, the success of a story always seems to come down to that, doesn't it? So often I've tried rising to a new level of uniqueness in my writing, and I wind up crashing to the ground with a dud I'll never show to anyone. But I once had a very wise editor tell me to write a book "like what we're already selling. Your voice will make it different." I reluctantly--very reluctantly--followed her advice. She bought the book in a week, it made the Waldenbook's list and won a Rita--all for a "too common" idea I'd been sitting on for months while I tried to come up with something better.

Wow, this was long-winded. You wrote another provocative post :-D

Sandra Cormier said...

When I started writing my current WIP, the plot involved a group that had been hovering under the media radar for years.

Two weeks after I got into it, suddenly the group was in the headlines all over the world due to a bombing in Europe.

I struggled with the decision whether to carry on with the novel, but I still feel it's a great story. So I'll keep at it and see what develops. At the same time I have to keep an eye on the headlines. It's almost like life imitating art.