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All About Execution

I got some great questions while I was away. This one comes from UK reader Adele:

I recently heard someone on the radio ask a famous business entrepreneur (James Caan from the UK version of Dragon’s Den), “What is more important: the idea, or the execution?” His response was that, in business, ideas were a dime a dozen but the execution of the idea was the deciding factor in whether it would turn into a business or not. So when it comes to a book – what is more important, the idea or the execution?

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and I’m so glad Adele landed in my inbox to give me a great launching pad (or, you know, soapbox, if you will).

Books are all about execution. I could pitch editors fantastic, high-concept ideas until their ears bled, but if the actual manuscript didn’t live up to the promise of the great idea, none of my enthusiastic, great-idea-but-don’t-read-it-just-trust-me-that-it-rocks manuscripts would result in a sale. Because the idea is just the first step in a long writing journey.

In my experience of writers (and my own experience as a writer), there are often idea people and then there are execution people. I’m an execution person. The few times I’ve had idea manuscripts, I didn’t execute them as well as I could’ve. Some writers have both fantastic, commercial ideas and then know how to take them to the next level in terms of writing and storytelling (execution). Those are the writers I want to work with.

If a writer came to me and pitched me the idea of, “A group of kids locked in a death match, playing as the political pawns of a crumbling country,” I would be electrified to see it. But would it be done as well as THE HUNGER GAMES? I’m sure there have been similar ideas written and pitched in the world, but most of them remain in drawers and on hard drives because Suzanne Collins took this dynamite, dystopic idea and really gave us a world to immerse ourselves in, characters to care about, and unbelievably high stakes, written like an action-packed thriller.

That’s why I always ask to see writing when I hear a pitch. Many ideas sound fantastic when pitched to me at conferences. But that’s just the idea. How is the actual writing, the execution? I can’t decide anything until I read the manuscript.

In stark contrast to this, I’ve heard that a lot of people in Hollywood don’t read (this is not an insult, Hollywood people themselves always seem to brag about this). They’re all about ideas. Pitches fly around the room and the ones that sound the most awesome are frequently the ones that turn into fast-tracked blockbuster action flicks that have a great premise, but usually aren’t nearly as satisfying as the movie that bloomed in your head after you heard the idea. Why did the movie Snakes on a Plane get made? Not because of its brilliant art house execution, let me tell you (which still didn’t stop me from going to the midnight showing…ahem). It was because Samuel Jackson heard the title (which implies the idea of the movie) and, without reading it, greenlighted the project.

Not so in books. In your writing, you should strive to have the kind of idea that would make a Hollywood board room sit up and take notice, but you also have to deliver on the promise of the premise and write a killer book. Would THE HUNGER GAMES have ridden on the coattails of its great premise to the kind of worldwide success it has enjoyed if the writing had been flat, the pacing slow, and the suspense mild? No. So you can’t rest on the laurels of a great idea, either. You have to deliver the execution.

This is why I still find people who think agents will steal their ideas to be misguided. Ideas are a dime a dozen. If ideas were all that mattered, I’d probably make a nice living off of stealing other people’s ideas and selling them for a lot of money. But the ideas aren’t the hard part. It’s the execution. When I read slush, my biggest complaint is, “What a great idea, I wish they’d made it work.” So to make any money as a plagiarist, I’d have to spend years of my life stealing great ideas and then coming up with my own execution for them since the original writer couldn’t. That kind of labor-intensive theft suddenly starts to look a lot less likely.

I will leave you with one more example of this point: ever since humans realized they were earthbound, they’ve wanted to fly. Drawings for flying machines can be found in Leonardo da Vinci’s journals, and I’m sure he wasn’t the first to have that particular lightbulb flare on. But it took a very long time for people to come across the right execution, and even longer to make that execution commercially viable and safe for constant use (and, I hope, snake-free). So what would you rather trust your life to? Leonardo da Vinci’s great idea for a flying machine? Or an airplane as executed today?

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  1. Ishta’s avatar

    So true! Ideas really are the easy part. It’s the writing that’s the work part.

  2. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    Great post! So true. Lots of fantastic ideas, but if the writing isn’t up to par, it’s easy to put the book down. Thanks for asking this question Adele.

    Happy Friday, everyone!

  3. Michele’s avatar

    A very thought-provoking post, to be sure… I think ideas are the easy part. So many people have ideas for books, if they were all able to execute there would be many more authors in the world today! I’m with you, execution is the key. An idea is just a fantasy; execution is what creates reality.

  4. Kate B.’s avatar

    Thank you for this!

    I’m still working on learning how to execute a good idea into a great manuscript. I keep telling myself that I know I can do the “great idea” thing because my query letter gets me full requests. When I’ve managed to execute, I’ll know because I’m getting offers.

    Wonderful post!

  5. Jenn Jones’s avatar

    The trick for me is to try to stay inventive, past the “main concept” stage. If you’re an idea person, that’s great – use it to come up with ideas for the best, most specific word, ideas for heightening the stakes in a scene, an idea for a unique detail (or ten) for your world, etc.

    In other words, idea people are great execution people when they don’t sit back and relax once the big idea has been formulated.

  6. Rachael Harrie’s avatar

    Great post Mary, and such a good point. I think many of us writers get so excited by our fantastic idea that we can (consciously or unconsciously) overlook the huge amount of work required to make that idea a reality on paper. And not just a first or even a second draft reality, but a reality that works (voice, writing style and technique, overall plotline, and that little something extra I know agents and editors are looking for). The challenge I find then is to pull back, take a deep breath, and ask myself, is this my best work? Can I make it stronger? How can I improve on the execution so an agent will go, “This is the one!”

    On that note, off to watch Snakes on a Plane…I mean…work on my manuscript!

  7. Melissa Gill’s avatar

    Great post Mary. I hope you’re surviving that weather out there.

  8. MaryZ’s avatar

    So true. I know my idea is good, but I’m working to bring the execution up to the level of the idea. And I pray I can pull it off.

  9. Mary Ann Duke’s avatar

    I love great ideas and even the laborious execution of them; however, I think I write “vanilla” in a “red hot chilli pepper” world of teenage tomes these days. Do any editors and readers still I love vanilla?

  10. Steph’s avatar

    When I read slush, my biggest complaint is, “What a great idea, I wish they’d made it work.”

    Ain’t that the truth. As a reader and book blogger, this is one of my chief complaints in published books, too. Good execution is very hard to come by indeed.

  11. Corinne O'Flynn’s avatar

    Awesome post Mary, thank you yet again!

  12. Dana Levy’s avatar

    This post answers one of the most often heard comments said by non-writers, which is “I’ve got a great idea in me – I just haven’t written it down yet.” Indeed. For everyone who says they have a great book in them I either want to tell them to see a doctor, for gods-sake and get it removed, or to put their butt in a chair and try churning out some 50k words that make us all want to keep reading.

    I’m now in a crit group with picture book authors, and I’m realizing that execution takes on a whole new level of importance over ideas. The ideas can be so simple, and the amount of space you have to execute is so small (300 words, anyone?!) You really have to nail it beyond amazingly. Hats off to those talented people who can!

  13. Krista V.’s avatar

    Ditto, ditto, ditto. The day I realized the idea didn’t matter – that at least a hundred other people had the exact same idea, and one of them was probably J.K. Rowling – was a very liberating day indeed. It freed me up to worry about the writing, not the thing I was writing about.

  14. Kelley York’s avatar

    Great post, and so true. I think this is why – despite the market being so saturated with vampires and other paranormal creatures – there are still books on those subjects that manage to stand out above the rest of the pile. Common, over-used ideas… but great execution.

  15. nilla’s avatar

    Agree, except, sometimes, if rarely, it seems the idea itself outwits the execution. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code seems to be a good example. I haven’t read the book, but reviewers and literature lovers around the world seem to be agreeing on the lack of quality of the writing. But, it has sold in millions, and to so many countries. Why? It’s because the idea is something that connects to everyone in the western world, regardless if you are religious or not. The idea rocks the foundation of Western belief and culture.

  16. Erin Kelly’s avatar

    I’ve had lots of great ideas. Then I sit down to write and realize there are some stories that I just can’t execute.

  17. Rachel’s avatar

    I agree. I have heard people wary of posting their ideas online or with other writers, but I’ve always believed that it was the writing itself that mattered. Even if another writer did happen to steal your idea, they could both present it to the same agents and have it be two different books. The idea itself is not the story, it is what you do with the idea. How you choose to bring it to life, the characters involved, how tight your writing is, if you added comedic parts or suspense or tear jerking scenes. They say there is no new idea under the sun and in some ways I think that’s true. What makes you a good writer? It is all in the execution. Have a great weekend Mary!

  18. sally apokedak’s avatar

    Great post.

    Just as you need both character and plot, I think you need both idea and execution.

    Editors on a panel at SCBWI LA a few years ago were given the question: plot or voice? A couple said plot because commercial books sell better than literary. One said: voice because if your plot is broken I can help you fix that, but if you have no voice, I can’t give that to you.

    I loved her answer.

    Voice can be honed. We can learn to be better at execution–working characters and conflict together with compelling language. But I think there has to be a certain amount of raw talent or a playing-by-ear ability where voice and execution are concerned.

    And, yes, plot can be borrowed from anywhere. Still, it seems to me that in today’s climate, MG and YA writers really need to work on a killer premise, a big idea, a big concept if they want to break in.

    Anyway, I take heart from this post. When I was submitting to agents several months ago I got a rejection from a popular agent who said, “Love the premise but the writing style does not do it for me.” A few days later I got a rejection from another top agent who said, “The voice is wonderful, but the premise isn’t quite there.”

    :) Instead of finding this frustrating, I choose to read those and hear: Love the premise and the voice is wonderful.

  19. Mandy P.’s avatar

    Wow, that plane example just put this all into perspective for me. Seriously, just sit in an aerospace engineering senior design class and listen to their “great ideas”. The first question from me, as their TA, is always “yeah, but how do you do that?” It’s all about execution.

    Engineers are totally the execution people. Good ideas are a dime a dozen, but engineers make it happen.

    Thinking of writing the same way just makes thing make sense. I never thought about it this way. Thanks, Mary! Your airplane example totally clicked a lightbulb on in my head!

  20. Lois Moss’s avatar

    So true. It’s so easy to come up with great ideas, but the task of translating that into something that works takes talent and finesse and tons of sweat.

  21. Franziska Green’s avatar

    I love this post. I’m full of ideas but have, on occasion, discovered that my brilliant original idea was in fact someone else’s too. But now I feel more confident that the way I would write it would be different to the way anyone else would do it.

    A while ago, Jennifer Laughran (your Ablit colleague) posted over on the Blueboards about a story a client wrote that was extremely similar to another one being pitched. The story was quite unusual and yet two people had come up with a similar idea at the same time. Pure bizarre coincidence! But the style and tone of the two books WERE different because each had been written by a different author and illustrator.

  22. Franziska Green’s avatar

    I love this post. I’m full of ideas (have I told anyone about my environmentally toothbrush invention?!) but have, on occasion, discovered that my brilliant original idea was in fact someone else’s too. But now I feel more confident that the way I would write it would be different to the way anyone else would do it.

    A while ago, Jennifer Laughran (your Ablit colleague) posted over on the Blueboards about a story a client wrote that was extremely similar to another one being pitched. The story was quite unusual and yet two people had come up with a similar idea at the same time. Pure bizarre coincidence! But the style and tone of the two books WERE different because each had been written by a different author and illustrator.

  23. Lisa Albert’s avatar

    I needed to hear this today. Thank you! I have to stop worrying about my WIP’s competition and be confident that my execution is the dealmaker.

    And of course, it never fails, just when I’m supposed to working on revisions (due in 6 weeks!), I want to work on the WIP. (Snakes in the Port-a-potty) kidding!

  24. Adele Richards’s avatar

    Thank you for answering my question! I suspect that I am more of an ideas person and so have to pull my socks up and not be lazy when it comes to the execution. Who was it that said that writing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration? I need to get my deodorant out! :-)

    Just for the sake of argument, I’m also wondering if you can have a very average idea and execute it so well that it is just as good as a high concept book? Or is that just called ‘literary fiction’! :-)

  25. Glynis Smy’s avatar

    I played around with an idea outside of my genre. I fell in love with it, then tested it out my Important Ones on my blog with snippets.
    My days are busy now, I got positive feedback and am on a roll, as they say. To top it all I found paint and started little pictures to go with the wip.

    I have no idea where the idea came from, but I am so glad I followed it through.

    Interesting site, I enjoyed my visit. :)

  26. Erin B’s avatar

    I 100% agree that writing a captivating story, one that grabs you and pulls you in, is all about execution. I would argue though, that while IDEAS are a dime a dozen, GREAT IDEAS are actually far more rare. I think it’s when these two things meet, when great ideas are fabulously executed, that the real magic happens. Sure, I’ve enjoyed many well executed books, but the ones that remain on my favorites list are the ones that have something particularly special or intriguing in the idea as well. Just my two cents.

    As always, an excellent topic. Thanks for sharing!

  27. Amy’s avatar

    It’s a good thing we don’t know when we sit down to the computer just how small our fab idea seems after hours and hours and hours and hours of revision!

    I was surprised the first time I read an agent saying she’d rather have a strong voice than a solid plot, because plots are easier to fix. But it makes sense.

  28. Catherine Johnson’s avatar

    Someone once said that writing is like cross country running and I remember that pain barrier well. Some people don’t even reach it, they think they can whip passed everyone and cross the line, no mud on their legs, no stitch, no red face, smile at the adoring fans and do it again the next week. Ideas are the fun part, but the satisfaction of completing a manuscript is heaps more fun. If you were to finish a race and someone came up and said you went the wrong way, run another 2 miles in that direction, would you tell them to get lost or go run it? Give me a cross country over a sprint any day.

  29. Denise Friend’s avatar

    This post brings to mind a movie I recently saw, The Social Network. The premise was the starting of Facebook and who came up with the idea. My take on the movie is the execution should have won, therefore I would agree that with writing the execution trumps the idea every time.

    We’ve all have wonderful ideas, but once on paper they don’t seem that great.

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