Monday, July 15, 2019

What Matters More? Story Execution or the Idea?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The age-old quandary--is a well-written novel novel better than a great idea?

Idea or execution. Two directions many writers struggle with. Should they write the technically perfect book and not worry about the idea, or find the perfect story and not worry about the writing?

The reality is that each takes precedence at different points of a writer's career. Sometimes you'll want to worry about the technical aspects of writing, and later, the storytelling is what matters more. By the end of your path, both become vital for success.

But you don't have to hit that end goal first, and focusing on the wrong aspect at the wrong time can even hurt you. I've seen plenty of first-time writers worry so much over finding the perfect idea that it keeps them from writing at all. I've also seen many long-term writers who were so sure of their ideas that they didn't bother to edit after a first draft.

Both types of writers struggled much more than than needed to.

For those of you heading down the writing path and wondering which matters more--idea or execution--consider where you are on your journey before you decide where to put your creative energy.

Writers Still Finding Their Feet 

When you first start writing, a great idea is, well, great, but it’s more about the execution, because you're still learning the skills you'll need to be a professional author. Ideas won't matter if text is clunky and hard to read.

Understanding what makes an effective paragraph takes the same basic structure (and skill set) that writing an effective scene does: something interesting to catch a reader's attention, compelling information to keep them reading, and something at the end that intrigues them to move to the next piece.

Learning how to construct a great sentence leads to building great paragraphs that draw readers along, which leads to great scenes that bring a story to life. These are vital skills necessary to craft a strong novel.

If you have a wonderful story idea to go with your developing writing skills, that's wonderful. But don't feel you need to find the perfect idea while you're still learning, or feel as though you can't write that book until you do find the perfect idea. The better your writing skill, the easier it will be to write a compelling novel.

(Here's more on Under Development: Writing That First Novel)

Writers Still Learning to Walk

After you’ve developed your basic writing skills and have a solid understanding of the mechanics of writing, story idea becomes more important. Now it’s time to train yourself to execute those ideas in a compelling way.

Spend time learning how to tell a story and finding your voice. Explore the best ways to deliver your story to your readers. A strong story is more than just words on a page, it’s how those words are organized into scenes, how those characters are built, how that world is crafted. The writing doesn’t have to be professional level yet--you want to focus on getting the story to unfold the way you want it to.

It's not easy to transfer what's in our heads onto the pages of our novels, especially in those early days when we're still figuring out what makes a good story and how we like to tell those stories. It takes time and practice to understand what goes into a strong story, same as it does knowing how to craft a strong sentence.

(Here's more on Get What's in Your Head Onto the Page)

Writers Learning to Run

Eventually you’ll get to a point where your stories are working as intended, but you know you can make the prose better. It’s time to go back to working on your execution.

Most likely, it’s the subtleties of writing you’ll be focusing on now and not the basic fundamental. Thin of is as the intermediate writing level, with the the tiny tweaks that turn good prose into great prose. You'll figure out the best places to tighten your pacing, how to clarify your dialogue and internalization, where and how to smooth your narrative flow. All the polish that will make your writing shine.

These are the steps and skills that give you the first push toward writing at a professional level. They're the aspects of writing that make great writing look effortless, even when it's not.

(Here's more on What a First Draft Should Look Like)

Writers Taking Flight

By the time you’re submitting to agents and editors (or abut to indie publish), it’s all about the idea, because everyone who gets published is, by default, writing at a professional level. Even if you disagree what “good writing” means, (it is subjective) the novel has to be good to even be considered ready for publishing.

What sets one well-written book apart from the next on the stack is the idea. Agents, editors, and even readers have thousands of novels to choose from, so the idea matters most. The idea is what gets that book picked up over another. After that, it's up to the writing and the particular tastes of the reader.

(Here's more on Are We Done Yet? How To You Know if Your Novel is Ready to Submit)

Writers Who Skip Steps

It’s possible (and not uncommon) to start querying or indie publishing before you’ve reached a professional level. You might get good rejections, or even requests to revise and resubmit, but they're rejections all the same. They're saying "this manuscript isn't ready yet" for a reason.

Sometimes this reason is the writing skill isn't up to professional level yet (the execution). Sometimes it's because the story isn't grabbing anyone's attention (the idea). Sometimes it's both, and yes, sometimes it's even neither. Some books just aren't right for some agents or editors, some books arrived too late for a particular trend, and some books arrive are too early and aren't hot yet.

Never be afraid to step back and reevaluate your writing if you get a lot of rejections. You might be a great writer, and be really close to getting your work out there, but you still have a few more steps to take. You might have a great idea that just needs more polish.

Those who can say, “okay, I know my idea is great, but my execution needs a tad more work” are those who will probably see their name in print. Just like those who know they write beautifully, and are willing to step back to find that perfect idea to showcase their skills will, too.

(Here's more on 5 Ways to Survive Rejection as a Writer)

Ideas and execution. You do need both, but trying to master both at the same time at every stage in your writing journey can be overwhelming. There are times when one is needed over the other, and developing both skills at different times can help build a writing foundation that is solid all the way through to the end of your author career.

What do you think? What do you think a writer should focus on and when?

Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour (2010) at Writers' Chasm. Last updated July 2019.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. For years I was all about the ideas, and assumed that'd be enough to keep me going. I ended up scrapping a lot of books that way. It wasn't until I started actually learning to improve my writing that I was able to put something solid together.

  2. Every idea I've had ends up a love/hate relationship. Ideas that seem so amazing when you type that first sentence often get that voice inside your head screaming "it sucks!" by 30K words. The hardest thing in the world is to make that idea seem awesome again through good writing.

  3. Writing is indeed like going through the stages of walking-running-flying. The thing a number of people forget is that writing is a process and involves revision again and again. I know of a number of people who had great ideas but didn't spend enough time polishing them before pitching-querying-submitting them. Thi sis too bad - it leads to major feelings of discouragement.

  4. Wow, what a great point! I'd tackled a similar take on this in my "What Makes a Story Worth Writing" series, but there I focused more on the story seed itself, rather than the skills necessary to pull it off. I like this breakdown of how to make the two things work together. Great post!

  5. On a completely tangential note, you've reached 666 Followers. What a number!

  6. Paul: I did the opposite. Worked on craft, then had well-written books that bored the snot out of you. :)

    Roberta: That's so true. And often you just have to tell that voice to shut up and keep writing, then you find that awesomeness again. Manuscripts do go through an ugly stage, LOL.

    Jill: It really does, and I can never stress the importance of revisions enough. I think almost everyone will query too early at least once (also part of the process) but the ones who learn from that are the ones you'll see in print one day.

    Jami: Thanks! I'll have to go take a peek at that post. Might be a good one for a noon link.

    Shannon: My blog is evil. Or was. I'm not evil anymore it seems, LOL.

  7. You have a good point and i admire it, however, we must not forget that before a man pick the piece of wood the idea of picking the wood comes first before the action of picking.

  8. I am leaving analysis paralysis behind, and just writing for the WIP...

    1. Yay! That's a good thing. There's always time for analysis in revisions.

  9. I think the idea should take the lead with the 1st draft. After that, it should be the story execution.

    1. That's a good plan--as long as you don't let the idea stage bog you down!

  10. I can't get my head past the old adage 'You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear'. I'm also a little baffled that you are calling the story an idea. An idea is rarely more than a couple of sentences. When I pick up a book to read it doesn't matter how beautifully it is written - if I can discern no story developing I'll ditch it pretty quick. So my reasoning is that you need to learn to develop a story and learn the writing craft while doing it rather than practising on a non story. If your first effort at a decent story is poorly written you write it again, and again. Far more can be learnt by rewriting and editing than countless stories only brought into existence to perfect your execution.

    1. I'm speaking specifically of the "story idea" here. This post addresses writers who have trouble getting any writing done because they're too focused on an aspect they might not need to worry about yet.

      In the end, of course every writer needs both, and no book will do well without a good story behind it. But a mediocre story is just fine for a new writer trying to develop their writing skills. trying to find the perfect story when you're still trying to figure out how to use point of view is probably putting your energy in the wrong place.

      That's what I'm talking about here. Yes, writers need a story, but it doesn't have to be a "perfect" story or idea for their very first novel. They have time to develop their storytelling and developing skills same as their craft skills. There's a stage for both.

  11. I have so many unfinished things. Finished "won" nano once even at 50k but it's languishing because I lost interest. I've invested some time learning about plotting thinking that would help but... hmm... that seems worse for me than my usual discovery writing. I can sit down and write a few thousand words no problem but trying to organize the story beyond the initial idea is rough. Maybe it's my hell on earth punishment for past life sins... to be stuck in short story mode and never finish a full length novel. Or as I told my daughter when she marveled at how I wrote 1000 words in a half hour... writing words is easy, writing good words is the challenge. =D

    1. That last line is golden and so true. Maybe you're a short story writer and not a novelist? I can't do short stories at all. I just don't think in that word count and it always gets overly complex.