Sometimes great ideas go horribly wrong. Is there a book with a genius premise that you'd like to rewrite?
Definitely, starting with a few of my own that exist only in beginnings. Interesting premise, new characters, I’m off to a great start. Twenty minutes into my whirling brain activity, I realize she can’t do that for a living because…or, he can’t fly off to Chad because…or I don’t know the first thing about Spanish law enforcement. Genius thwarted, again.
Seriously, there are lots of crime novels that start strong, perhaps because we authors work like demons to get off to a good start, having been told a thousand times that we have to hook readers by the first page, or paragraph, or even the first sentence. (I don’t believe that, quite. If it’s well written and charms us, aren’t we willing to at least turn one page? Come on.) Anyway, I am involved, ready to stay with the author’s clever idea.
But around page 50, something begins to wobble. It might be the plot, in which something too improbable happens, clearly arranged only to create The Conflict. Or, the protagonist does something that shrieks of discontinuity with character, something that the person the author has gone to pains to create would not do, period, like leave her beloved new husband in bed on their honeymoon to investigate a strange sound out on the dark lake. Or – and this one is bigger for me than for some readers, I know – the writing is flat, repetitive, unexciting, and I can’t ignore it. It gets in the way of the storytelling and pulls me right out of the book.
I’m hesitant to name names because I’m sure the author wrote the best book he or she was able to at that moment, as I do myself, and because most of what I’m saying is subjective. You might love the book I just tossed aside. Heck, it might even win awards, be praised by reviewers and in blurbs, sell lots of copies. I recently read a debut novel that had an interesting premise, but which had me wanting to slam the book against the wall when the character, who had behaved like one person for 250 pages, morphed completely, without explanation, into a different person physically and mentally, in the last 20 pages. And, the saddest thing about that was that the idea for the story was a good one, worth 250 pages. In answer to this week’s CM question, yes, I would have written a different ending, one that completed the circle of the story, the character, and The Conflict.
If I go back in time, to stay on safer ground, I’ll admit that as much as I love Agatha Christie, her later books, spy stories like They Came to Baghdad (1951), start with an interesting idea in a fascinating environment but don’t play to her talent. They have a synthetic, stagy quality that leaves me cold. She operated best in her fantasy worlds – the small town, the locked room. John Mortimer created a wonderful character in Horace Rumpole, but then he drove the conceit into the ground with stories that did have small, clever plots, but in which the dialogue was interchangeable from one story to another. In an excess of enthusiasm I once bought all three Rumpole Omibuses, but I haven’t made it more than a story or two past the first.
There is one book I remember desperately needing to rewrite and that was when I was about eight or nine: A Christmas Carol. I did not think Tiny Tim should die, and at the Christmas Future point in the narrative would have written to Mr. Dickens to tell him. It was a great story until that moment, and then – amazingly – Mr. Dickens came to his senses and wrote my ending to the story. I’m so grateful that at least one author took my advice.