Monday, August 29, 2011

Does Premise Matter More Than the Execution?

It takes a lot for me to put a book down and not pick it up again.  In fact, I think I can only count one other instance in my life where I simply couldn’t finish a book- It was Robinson Crusoe.  I was in high school and on a classic lit kick.  Robby was the only one I couldn’t get through. I didn’t care enough about the main character (sorry Robby) and preferred staring at a blank wall rather than snoozing through the plot. 

However, I just finished a series of books that were highly recommended by amazon, and goodreads, and even much of the blogging community.  Actually, I can’t say I ‘read’ them because the truth is- I put the first book in the series down after getting about half way through and didn’t pick it up again until a year later when the sequel came out and I finally decided to give it another chance.

But again, I ended up skimming most pages- looking for the actual action.  Don’t get me wrong- the writing itself was impeccable.  The author has a fantastic grasp on nuance and style but this was overshadowed by the long winded description, flat characters, incessant head-hopping, unnecessary flashbacks/backstory, monotone plot, slow pacing and pages and pages spent in the character’s stream of consciousness that pressed my snooze button one too many times.  I skimmed the second book in the series just to find out what happens.  When it came to the third, I decided to just look up the plot summary to find out in a few pages what it took the author 500 pages of the above to get across and was disappointed to find out the plot was left unresolved and filled with holes.

As a writer trying to break into the world of publishing, I can’t help but sit back and scratch my head, thinking ‘Why is it okay for this author to break so many rules?  Why did their agent and editor (which are both reputable) overlook so many of the book’s downfalls before pushing it out into the world?’

And then it occurred to me.  The premise.

The premise was unique in its own way and held a lot of ‘hot’ elements- supernatural beings, an intense romance, lots of teen angst and tortured souls.

And I realized something.  You could be J.K. Rowling or Stephen King but if your book is about a dungbeetle’s quest to find the biggest, smelliest crap pile in the world- you aren’t going to make it past the querying stage.

On the flip side- you could have a ten year old, with a ten year old’s grasp on grammar and vocabulary- write a book about the same dungbeetle but this time it’s about his quest to fight for the lives of his 300 little brothers and sisters after their parents were tragically murdered beneath the heel of an evil Converse Allstar-- and probably make it farther in the publishing process than a polished writer.

The lesson I learned from these books?

I think sometimes (I highlight ‘sometimes’ because thankfully this isn’t the norm.) what overrides whether or not a book is published in its best form is the premise- a certain mixing and matching of things that ‘work’ and things that ‘sell’. 

Sometimes the premise or even the genre itself is more important than the execution of the plot.  And it will pass with agents, and editors, and even the consumers who feel like reading ‘that kind of story’ and don’t care much about how it’s told. 

But the word ‘generic’ has a negative connotation for a reason.  It’s things being sold for genre alone with little attention to detail. And you absolutely know it when you see it.

Have you ever read a published book that left a bitter taste in your mouth?

39 comments:

Emy Shin said...

I do agree! Up to a point, at least. As a reader, I the majority of books I've read and mildly enjoyed but didn't love -- I mostly read on because of the premise. I cared more about what those books are telling me, rather than how they do it.

However, I do think that premise will only suffice up to a point. There needs to be at least mediocre writing to back it up.

Laura Pauling said...

What I love is finding a book with a great premise and writing that I absolutely loved. But recently I've found that that can be very subjective! What looks like a plot hole to some people makes perfect sense to another. And I think a lot of it depends on expectations before reading.

but yes, I finally read one book that had received a ton of hype and I was very disappointed. I think partly b/c it had been built up so much.

salarsenッ said...

I'm going to second Laura! Love to find that. And I do agree with you that the premise is by far our hook, grabbing the attention of an agent, publisher, etc... It's like the book cover, first impression. It is very important to the life of our story. :)
(Psst...I'm back to blogging today! Missed you!)

Anne Gallagher said...

Had the same thing happen last year. Read a book, built around hype, just to see what it was all about, and when I finally dragged my tired eyes kicking and screaming to the end, I threw it across the room.

The premise, I suppose, was an interesting one, but everything else about it just plain sucked. Which is why I didn't bother with books 2 & 3.

Why do we have to make sure all our projects are 'perfect' for agents, when obviously editors don't even proof read anymore.

Thanks for this post Katie.

Shain Brown said...

I had a discussion this weekend regarding when do you put a bad book down. I think we all have to remember no matter whose book it is, be it an unknown, or a "Stephen King" we simply will not enjoy every book.

To this point when I started reading again in my adult life I felt I owed it to the author to finish every book. But then as I kept reading, started writing, and make time for life I just didn't have time, not did I want to read a book I didn't enjoy.

So, as of now if I don't enjoy it or think it is a bad book. I quietly close it. I never say anything negative about that book or the author, because the very book I didn't enjoy may be the book that returns a long lost reader.

Jess said...

Yes. I feel like I've seen this before, but I'm always torn and think, "Is this just bitter me talking, or is this...just not the greatest?" I think there are agents who will take on an amazing premise if the writing is adequate, and try to edit the writing enough so the book is successful. And a lot of times it is.

By the way, I think an AWESOME picture book would be about a dung beetle trying to find the smelliest crap pile in the world. It's got science, bugs, and poop--a veritable trifecta for kids and parents. I'm totally serious, Katie. I think maybe you should try your hand at a picture book. It could be an awesomely hilarious story! Just maybe switch the words "crap pile" :)

DL Hammons said...

I had an opposite reaction recently. I read a book last year (first in a series of three) that was tearing up the blogosphere, so I had to see what all the stir was about. After I finished it I admired the author for the lean writing style and intersting characters, but couldn't wrap my head around the premise. Needless to say, I didn't read the other two books.

As far as closing the cover on a book before I've finsihed reading it, I've become less tolerant in the last several years since starting my own writing journey.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

OH,YES! And I don't have to go back as far as my high school reading nemesis (Moby Dick)! While I was in the Amazon Vine program, I read a whole slew of children's books that seemed to be published solely on the premise and the "sell" factor -- but which were torture for me to read. I felt obligated to finish them, because I had received them free in return for a review. Eventually I decided my time was too valuable to spend that way and quit the program.

Old Kitty said...

Oh I've read many many many traditionally published books where I thought, how and why they ever got through to be published (and in my most vindictive moments, think that maybe the author was well connected or slept with someone imporatant in the business, LOL!!!!) But I digress!

This is where I think that books are so subjective. What I love, others hate, what I hate, others love. That's the beauty of story telling. It should get a reaction from me no matter what.

I don't know if I've answered the question but I guess all I'm saying is long live variety and eclectic reading material! take care
x

Suzie F. said...

This recently happened to me and I blogged about it. I was reading the first book in a trilogy that was getting good reviews around the blogosphere but I just couldn't get into it. I ended up finishing it, but I'm not reading the next 2 books.

Obviously a lot of people liked it or it wouldn't have been published, but it's such a subjective thing. And in the case of this author, he/she already had many successful books published. This one just didn't do it for me.

Slamdunk said...

Good post CQG. The premise can compensate for so many other issues.

With biographies, there are many I have left unfinished--they just seem to be written for dollars rather than having a message.

Amish Stories said...

Been a long time since i read a book, i might pick-up something being Amish fiction. For research only!. Richard

Jessica Bell said...

Yeah, I have and for the same reasons you say :-/ It is frustrating, isn't it!

Matthew MacNish said...

I've only ever given up before finishing two books in my whole life. I think you're right though. Sometimes it's the story, and sometimes it's the way the story is told. The best books are a combination of both.

Sarah Pearson said...

I'm greedy, I want both. However, I'll forgive a badly written book (to a point) with a great plot over a well written dull book. I've definitely become more picky as I've got older.

mshatch said...

Sadly, I have read many books that either did not live up to the hype, imho. I used to finish everything, but now...not so much. There's just too many other good books waiting to be read.

Talei said...

I've never finished a book thats made me feel that way. A couple of years ago there was one - it went on to become a movie - and I see wouldn't rate it. Sometimes theres no rhyme or reason for books being successful when they truly suck (IMHO) - I probably shouldn't say that but there you go. I'm feeling honest today. ;-)

Ps. As I'm confessing here - I also skimmed Robinson Crusoe... *yawns*

stu said...

As a ghostwriter, I find this all the time. I know I'm writing perfectly well, but there's only so much the actual writing can do.

Even structurally, I'm a big fan of strong premises. I think they give writers so much in terms of a coherent, special feeling book.

Carolyn V said...

Oh yes. I did. I can't say anything more than that, or I'll get myself into trouble. ;)

Hart Johnson said...

I think premise definitely sells. It is why they go so bonkers for 'high concept' books. it is why garbage like Twilight was released 5 drafts before it could possibly have been cleaned. they were in a rush because of the PREMISE. I think as an unknown author, too, this is our only route in... once our name is known, I think we get a little more slack, but our first few books need to have a premise people can't resist. That, though, is easier said than done. I know I didn't get it until I actually had an idea and wrote the book--something so easily described and unique that I finally realized my other ideas hadn't beent there yet...

NiaRaie said...

I have read many sluggish books (often NYT bestsellers) with kick-ass premises and wondered how they got this far. And just like you, I've put down a book and picked up again when the second part of the series came out only to find I STILL fell asleep while reading it. Subjectivity? Idk.

Theresa Milstein said...

YES, I have. I know exactly how you feel. Too often, premise trumps everything else. I can think of 5 books off the top of my head with plenty of hype that didn't live up to the premise.

Email me and we can share if you want. See if they're the same books: tmilstein at gmail dot com

Cynthia Lee said...

Unfortunately, this happens to me all the time with YA books in particular.

I WANT to love the YA books I see on the bookshelf but, a lot of the time, I see the same old stuff and I'm bored before I even skim the first page.

(I see a few books that I think are really awesome too, just to be clear).

In my opinion, there's nothing wrong with the same old stuff. Not everyone shares my taste in material. Lots of people enjoy a certain comfort zone and there's nothing wrong with that. It's when there's NOTHING BUT the same old stuff that I become dismayed.

I kinda digressed for a second. Sorry. ;)

Dawn Ius said...

Last year, I made a vow to myself that I would give every book I picked up the benefit of the doubt until the bitter end. I've since learned that no matter the hype, it's all subjective and I may not like it...that doesn't mean I have to push through. There are WAY too many books out there I could be missing.

Jennifer said...

I agree its the premise that will keep me going even if the writing is......eh.

Meredith said...

I hate when I read a book and wonder how on earth it got published. You're right--the premise is usually wonderful, but the execution falls flat. Oh, well. Thank goodness for all the good books out there!

Kelly said...

Most books I read are meant to be published. But a few make me wonder. How in the world??!!!
But no matter how bad a book is, I HAVE to finish it.

Dean Crawford said...

I have to be careful not to mention any names or titles, but as an author who got their deal after so many years, I'm truly amazed at some of the novels I've read recently. I've read three in the last three months, and put down two of them before reaching half-way. Both were recent releases and both were very hyped. I too can only put it down to market forces as opposed to true writing ability...

Heather said...

I've definitely read books that I had to put aside and I hate that. It takes a lot for me to do it. Execution is everything to me as a reader. I could care less if the premise is outstanding if the execution is lacking.

Jen Daiker said...

For me sometimes it's my mood. I can't help myself... sometimes 50 pages is all I can push then I have to take a break. It might be one that two months later I can't put down, but in that moment it's rough!

Janet Johnson said...

Now you have me dying to know what series this is!

And yes, sometimes, just the premise can push a book further than perhaps the writing deserves.

Hanna C. Howard said...

I used to consider it a cardinal sin to give up on a book mid-way through. Even if I felt like it was boring holes in my brain, I'd slog through the thing page by agonizing page until it was finished.

And then I realized something. Even if I did nothing but read for the rest of my life, I could never get through all the books I wanted to--because more are being written all the time. So I decided then that life is too short to spend on books I dislike.

As for concept over content, I am constantly amazed at how subjective this business really is. I adore some books with almost no plot at all--but brimming with gorgeous prose and perfect execution--that some people I respect quite despise. And the opposite is also true. Like you, I've skimmed poorly written books just to find out what happens in the (rather fascinating) plot. I think this should teach us one thing for sure: Never give up. Never surrender. Because there is someone for every book.

Steph said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steph said...

I almost put Paradise aside. I wrote about it here http://stephblizzack.blogspot.com/2011/06/what-im-reading.html
After that I made myself finish, but it wasn't really worth it. I kept going because of the overwhelming reviews! To each their own.

Barbara Kloss said...

Yes, I've read books like that, and I totally agree with you. Premise seems to conquer execution in many instances. While I think you may be able to "sell" a book without great execution, I find it almost impossible if you don't have a good premise. And "good" is relative... :D

Talli Roland said...

Er... yes. But I think you're right. Premise counts for SO much when it comes to selling books. Execution, not so much.

Erin Kane Spock said...

Yes. A whole series once because a friend loved it. But, even though it was a smash hit and took the world by storm, it lagged, was badly written, and drove me nuts.
Waste of my brain space.
I have a really hard time NOT finishing a book once I start it, but I have no problem skimming like crazy. There have been many times when I screamed at the heavens because this book somehow got published and marketed and mine have not. How? It makes me wonder just how much I must suck. Sigh. Enough ranting. :)

dalyamoon.com said...

I think the concept is more important than the execution. And I have a specific reason.

Some people LOVE old houses. They like to buy them and renovate them, gently coaxing life into those good bones. It says something about them, the renovator, that they discovered and polished up the unloved gem.

That, I think, is how I would feel about acquiring manuscripts. I'd love to spot that great idea, that wondrous talent, that needs just a wee bit of guidance. You can edit and revise the writing to be better, but you can't post-inject GOOD BONES.

Sophia Chang said...

COMPLETELY agree. it's also hard for me to put down books even if they're horrible (it only happens if I just can't stand the audiobook narrator after 2 hours of traffic...) and often I do find the premise so high concept that the book is a NY Times Bestseller regardless of quality, etc.

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