Wednesday, March 31, 2010

To Read On or Not to Read On

Yesterday, in the comments, Genie of the Shell remarked on the importance of both good story and good writing.

This reminded me of a book I recently finished (name to be withheld, sorry. Maybe, one of these days, I'll write about a book whose name I feel okay mentioning. Maybe). At first, the writing didn't grab me, so I didn't pick up the book. However, every time I returned to the bookstore, I'd find myself thinking about that book and looking at it some more. Eventually, I folded. I bought it.

It turned out, the writing never grabbed me. When people asked me how the book was going, I told them, "B/B+. Almost all the points for a good idea."

The only thing the book really had in it's favor was the unique and interesting idea (which, by the by, they misrepresented on the coverflap, which I hate, but that's a story for another time). I kept going for the sake of the idea, but the writing wasn't fabulous, in my opinion.

This isn't the first time I've stuck out mediocre writing for a good plot or idea, and I know I'm not the only person who does that sort of thing.

What does this mean? It means we need good ideas!

Okay, you're all rolling your eyes and saying, "Umm... No duh, we already knew that." But, what I mean is that, though editing is important and story craft is really important, the story and the idea are super important. Maybe even more important. Because, unless you've got an original and interesting idea, there's really no point in crafting it to perfection. It'll feel trite whether it's perfect or not.

I've done this myself. My first novel was ridiculously trite. I didn't bring anything new or original to it. And it took me a good long time to realize that polish that baby all I might, edit the words until they were perfect, it wouldn't change the fact that I was writing a story we'd all seen a million times and not adding to it anything we hadn't seen before.

Ideas are essential to good stories.

Which do you find essential, good writing or good story? If one element is slack, can the other make up for it? Do you sometimes read books with bad or mediocre writing for the sake of a good idea or plot? Will bad writing make you chuck a book away even if the story is good?


  1. I can't stand bad writing but then it's all relative isn't it? I also like a solid story-- doesn't have to be plot driven, but there needs to be basic story structure for me to keep reading. I won't keep reading beautiful writing when there's no story or annoying characters. But I will read poor writing to get the story, even if I have to skim sections lol.

    Another thing I love is depth of ideas and themes. Just one idea stated a million different ways (think Da Vinci Code) will bore me half way through if I get that far.

  2. I think good writing is important, but if the idea is really, really, really interesting. I'll keep reading.

  3. I think a book can do well on good writing alone, and another on a good idea alone. I mean, take Twilight and Harry Potter. The writing is nothing for me to gawk over in either of those - but the ideas are great, apparently. They didn't get where they are on marketing alone, as Nathan Bransford put so well the other day in one of his posts.

    It's when you combine good writing with a good idea that the book becomes something special. To me, that's where many of the classics fall.

  4. For me, I need both. If it's a good story but not written well, then I might read it part way, but I'll never finish or pick it up again. And if the writing is good, I'll read it all the way through, but it won't become one of my favorites.

  5. Sometimes I think of picking up a new book like dating. I like to think of myself as not a superficial girl; I'll try a book with mediocre writing if the idea or story at the core is intriguing. But if the writing is great too, I salivate.

    I seek out a particular genre, and then I peek at the prose style. If it's beautiful, I fall in love immediately. I'm seduced. I WANT the story to be good. I'll read it cover to cover, seeking that great storyline or new way of looking at a familiar theme. If there's depth to the book, I love it. I buy it. I keep it on my shelves forever. (I'm not monogamous, but I'm loyal.)

    If there ISN'T depth to the book--if the plot is trite or stupid--then, if I have already been seduced by the beautiful prose, I will be absolutely enraged. I'll throw the book at the wall and scream, "I thought I knew you!"

    But... I may have already purchased the book. I won't keep it on my shelf, but I've already given the author a commission.

    So. I guess my points are, a.) Usually, good story is more important than good prose, but b.) both are important, and c.) if you have excellence in just one of those areas, I might buy the book, even if it doesn't end up being one of my favorites. (Like Lady Glamis said.)

    Thanks for the link! :)

  6. It isn't the ideas or the writing that snares me, I become vitally attached to characters--believable, real, living--I live with them, through whatever, if I care.

  7. Karen -- I think you're right when you say that just repeating the same idea over and over again will get boring for the reader. Things need to be taken to the next level at some point.

    Susan -- Concur.

    Glamis -- I think you're right that some books do survive on writing or idea alone. I wouldn't name names, but certainly one series springs to mind that lives on its idea alone.

    Tiana -- That makes sense. I probably need both to really enjoy a book.

    Genie -- Oh, I'm totally with you on this one. If I get seduced by pretty pose only to discover that the plot wasn't of a matching caliber, I'll feel completely led. (My pleasure).

    Elaine -- Oh, yes, good characters are absolutely critical. I love falling in love with characters.