Friday, November 28, 2008

The Gap Between Idea and Execution

I love ideas. I get lots of them every day (more if I write). However, I, being a physically average woman, cannot write them all down into a novel - mostly it helps if I take one BIG idea that I've thought about and detailed for a while (i.e. as I'm doing now with my NaNoWriMo romance novel, The Duke of Snow and Apples which is doing REALLY WELL!) and just start in on it.

Great Ideas do not necessarily equal Great Books.

And, as I'm beginning to discover, Terrible Ideas do not necessarily equal Bad Books. Case in point:
Scandalous By Night by Barbara Pierce. I mentioned this before on my blog how the general idea (a man who decides to seduce a woman in revenge for something she did when she was ten years old) gave me the serious willies, and I couldn't possibly understand how it could be turned into a realistic story. However, a lot of the reviews for it were positive (although, I must add, many reviewers commented on the oddity of the hero remaining angry at a ten-year-old).

Another case in point is this novel:

To Sin with a Stranger, by Kathryn Caskie. It's been getting a lot of press, and I read the blurb and I thought - what?

On first glance, it sounded incredibly contrived and somewhat tiresome. Seven siblings, allowed to run ragged after their father loses it after his wife's death, are nicknamed The Seven Deadly Sins by society and their feelings are hurt (boo hoo). To guard their hearts against the naughty ton bullying, they assign themselves to a particular sin (I'm imagining a lot of frustrated paper-rock-scissors matches over who got Lust, natch) and decide to live it to the fullest.

Wait - really? That's how you deal with being snubbed by society for being spoiled brats? By becoming even more spoiled brats?

Oh, and did I mention - their names also (out of purest coincidence) eerily correspond (either alliteratively or symbolically) to their chosen Sin: Lachlan is Lust, Grant is Gluttony, Sterling (as in silver, baby) is Greed, Siusan is Sloth, Killian is Wrath, Ivy is Envy, and Priscilla is Pride.

So they're basically like the - wait, wait, wait WHAT? Ivy is Envy? Who chooses to embody envy? Or, for that matter, Wrath? I can definitely imagine people wanting to embody the other mortal sins - after all, the reason they're so widespread is because they're fun! Who doesn't like sex, food, money, sleeping in all day and being awesome? Am I right?

But Envy? Who gets off on being envious? The fundamental core of Envy is hate: unlike Jealousy, which is just wishing you had what other people have, Envy isn't necessarily wishing something for yourself, but rather hating people who have something you don't. A jealous person is someone who sees a neighbour with a big house and wishes she also had a big house. An envious person is someone who sees a neighbour with a big house and wishes it would burn to the ground. Iago from Othello, for instance, is an envious person, because he doesn't want to seduce Desdemona away from Othello or steal Othello's exalted position for himself - rather, he wants to make Othello suffer for having the gall to acquire something Iago doesn't himself have.

I feel similarly about Wrath - who wants to be angry all the time? - but I can see it explained away in a romance novel by making Killian, say, a soldier, or someone out for revenge. But envy? I seriously can't imagine how a person could dedicate their life to envy and not be miserable all the time. The information from Caskie's website also states that each of the siblings already demonstrated proclivities towards their particular sin before choosing it, which makes me wonder: if Ivy is Envy, why would her siblings encourage that? Wouldn't they find it, oh, creepy or malicious or mentally disturbed? Or (since they seem to be loving siblings from what I've gathered from the reviews) wouldn't they be worried for her happiness?

But I've gone off on a tangent. Back on topic - these siblings basically sound like the Bridgertons if they'd been raised by Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey. Eventually, however, Deadbeat Daddy Dearest comes to his senses and kicks his progeny out of the house and limits them to a frugal allowance, essentially cutting off the rest of their finances until they can clean up their act and get married.

And that's the plot. After my eye-rolling over the Everyone's a Particular Sin idea and the title of the next book in the series, The Most Wicked Of Sins (which sounds like a terribly shark-jumping title for the second book in a series of seven dedicated to the sins - what are the next books going to be - The Almost Wickedest Sin? Still Somewhat Sinful? It's Gotta Be a Sin Somewhere?), I also gave a mental groan at the idea of characters who willingly dedicate their lives to being assholes.

I know the rake and the rogue and the scoundrel are all supposed to be hot, but they overcrowd the genre. I can tolerate the occasional rake, but when it comes right down it it, I think a guy who screws around is an asshole. I think a guy who eats like a pig is an asshole. I think a woman who makes it a point of pride to be prideful is an asshole. Why would I want to read about or associate with people who make a point out of being selfish public nuisances?

Well, here's where the difference between the Idea and the Execution comes into play. I've been reading the reviews for this novel on various websites, and the reactions to the book have been incredibly positive. The first novel, or so I've read, concerns Sterling (i.e. Greed). Now, following my expectation that To Sin With a Stranger was going to be a sucky romance, I immediately assumed all the sins would concern sex in some way. Greedy - for more sex! A glutton - for sex! Wrathful - Because he doesn't get enough sex! Sloth - because she's uh, too lazy to have sex?? Well, believe it or not, Sterling's problem actually does concern money - that is, gambling and prizefighting to get extra dough for his siblings.

Now that sounds like something I would want to read. With Siusan's book will we have a lazy heroine instead of the usual perky-as-Sunday-morning kind? With Grant's book will we actually get an overweight hero (probably not - Caskie also considers excess the same as gluttony on her website description, and given the romance genre's [oft unreasonable] insistance on physically perfect heroes, I'm guessing he'll be an alcoholic or an exhausted partyboy instead)? And I have to admit I'm curious as hell to see what she does with Ivy.

Ideas come in all shapes, sizes, and colours, and can be formulated in a moment - but executing an idea takes much more time, detail, and effort - which means the story behind the idea can often take you by surprise. This is never more apparent than in romances. People unfamiliar with the genre think all romances are alike, because their ideas sound alike (the rake who falls for a virgin, for instance). But, as Stephanie Laurens, Mary Balogh and others have demonstrated with anthologies like It Happened One Night (where each author writes a different story around the same idea), it all depends - usually on the characters.

Science fiction and fantasy, for example, are genres that are based on ideas - oftentimes they don't have to make sense or be physically possible, so long as the story itself makes a point or allows us to explore an aspect of human nature we might never have thought about without the idea of a spaceship that uses baby brains for fuel, or something. Science fiction, in particular, is a genre that relies on ideas that are all unique that eventually demonstrate that humans are all the same (how they react to a crisis, for example, be it aliens or just a bad day at work).

Conversely, romance tends to be a genre that relies on ideas that are familiar to show us how humans are all different. How a rake carries out a romance with a virgin depends entirely on who the rake is, who the virgin is, and the varying elements and people who shaped them into the people they became.

I mean, I look at my one of my favourite romances of all time:
The Secret Pearl, by Mary Balogh. Beautiful book. Gorgeous book. I will cherish it for all time. But the idea? A man hires the hooker he deflowered to be his daughter's governess. What the hell? He doesn't even check her references! Or her background! Yes, she was a virgin before he had sex with her, but she could totally have been a nutso cultist before that! And he's just going to trust her with his precious five year old girl? WHAT?

And yet it turned out to be a wonderful book. Just goes to show, I guess. I'm not spending any more cash on myself now until after Christmas, but I just might want to give To Sin with a Stranger a try once I have some holiday money.


  1. Anonymous2:54 AM

    How goes your Nanowrimo novel? I don't have time to participate this year, just like when I tried last year.

    Are you going to make your story available to read? I can send you one of my crappy short stories in exchange.

  2. It's going really well, I'm having lots of fun writing it, I've made several good writing habits (I tend to be a lazy writer), and I've already beaten my highest per-month wordcount, so I consider it a victory, even if I have two days to finish 10 000 words if I want to "officially" win.

  3. OK, so. After reading this awesome post , I HAD to pick To Sin with a Stranger -( and I will mention your post inthe review by the way.)

    It is not as good nor as bad as I hoped. It stands right in a 5 rate. The premise is not as stupid as I thought - on the other hand, I have seen no SIGN whatsoever that these siblings are so so wicked as they are supposed to be. and that was partly to blame for me meh reaction to the book. If they are embodiments of these sins they have to be really really bad and they weren't.

    On the other hand, Sterling was ADORABLE. Not a rake, not a womaniser , he was refreshingly average , who fell in love at first sight. BUT he lacked depth.

    anyways these are my first thoughts on the book. just finished reading it.

  4. alas, just learnt that the smugglivus calendar prevents me from reviewing the book
    : (

    all my thoughts are here anyway- bland , lacking depth but not as bad as it sounds. I will definitely check out the second book.

    AnimeJune, if you want I can send you my copy, just drop me an email. ; )