Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Paul Graham

Live from Silicon Valley

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Last week, on an impulse, I picked up a used copy of Live From New York by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, an oral history of Saturday Night Live that came out more than fifteen years ago. I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to get to it—it’s a fantastic read, particularly if you allow yourself to browse at random, and it seems to have singlehandedly kicked off the oral history boom that has become pervasive enough to be the object of satire itself. There are countless anecdotes that I’d love to turn into the subject of a post, but I’ll start with this one, from legendary comedy writer James Downey:

Lorne [Michaels] at the time was anxious to get into movies in a big way, and he had a deal with Paramount. And different writers and teams of writers—like Tom Schiller wrote a movie—each had movie ideas. Lorne was pushing [Al] Franken and [Tom] Davis and myself the most to do a movie. But we didn’t really have an idea. We had the deal before we had the idea, which is not a good way to do anything. So from like the summer of 1980 on and off for the next two years, we just in a desultory way wrote the screenplay, which once we finished it Paramount was then able to officially reject.

The italics are mine. And while it’s tempting to agree that you should start with the idea, that’s often not how it works in Hollywood. Instead, like Michaels, you get a development deal, which amounts to a bet by a studio that you’re talented enough to eventually come up with something interesting.

And you don’t just see this in the entertainment industry. Yesterday, my wife brought my attention to a post on Hacker News with the title “We have a great team and capital but can’t find a good idea.” The poster noted that he had a group consisting of himself and two friends, one with a lot of money from a stint in private equity, the other with a doctorate in computer science. They had “investors that are willing to write blank checks” and “cash in the bank to continue experimenting,” but they were missing one crucial element. The poster elaborated:

We have read everything on how to come up with startup ideas (ranging from Paul Graham essays to The Mom Test). We have ran interviews with friends in corporate and startups, asked old colleagues, attended conferences, organized meetups in our city, a ton of time spent networking, etc. The few product ideas we came up with following the above process we dropped, often because we discovered that that space is ultra crowded or commoditized. We will not give up but are getting unsure on how to break the stalemate. Any tips or advice?

The suggestions, not surprisingly, ranged from “stop looking for ideas and…start looking for problems” to hiring an “idea generator” to getting out of the game entirely. (My favorite: “Find an unsexy domain that you have more access to than the average person. Start to build domain expertise in that area as quickly as you can…Loop back with the people in the unsexy industry to get feedback.” I like this because it’s basically how I wrote my book.)

It’s easy to smile at this sort of thing, but it reflects an assumption that still permeates much of Silicon Valley, which is that what matters isn’t the idea, but the team. Hacker News is an affiliate of the startup incubator Y Combinator, which essentially provides development deals for promising entrepreneurs, with a business philosophy to match. In his book The Launch Pad, Randall Stross says of its cofounder Paul Graham: “Graham is much more interested in the founders than in the proposed business idea. When he sees a strong team of founders with the qualities that he believes favor success, he will overlook a weak idea.” Elsewhere, Graham himself has written:

The fact is, most startups end up nothing like the initial idea. It would be closer to the truth to say the main value of your initial idea is that, in the process of discovering it’s broken, you’ll come up with your real idea…Since a startup ought to have multiple founders who were already friends before they decided to start a company, the rather surprising conclusion is that the best way to generate startup ideas is to do what hackers do for fun: cook up amusing hacks with your friends.

And the notion that the team itself is what truly counts has led to a lot of talk, legitimate or otherwise, about the concept of the pivot, in which a startup that began by doing one thing abruptly decides to do something else.

In fact, the underlying point here seems sound enough. Ideas are cheap, and incubators are probably right in investing in founders rather than in concepts. If I had the money to be a venture capitalist, I’d do the same thing. But in the end, the real test of the team is its ability to generate and execute a good idea. (Most people who get development deals of any kind have already managed to do it at least once.) And you only get the tools that you need to do anything well by coming up with ideas on your own and taking them as far as you can. Just as you can learn vastly more from writing a novel from scratch than from fanfic or ghostwriting somebody else’s book, shepherding an idea to start to finish is the most reliable way of developing certain indispensable skills. As Chris Rock says in Live from New York:

The best thing about the show is that when you did write a piece, you were responsible for it. You were in charge of the casting. You were in charge of the costumes. You produced the piece. I wouldn’t know what the fuck I was doing if I hadn’t been on Saturday Night Live. It’s the absolute best training you can have in show business.

You could say much the same thing about any project, as long as you see it to the end. Its lifespan may not be any longer than that of your average comedy sketch, but its lessons remain—which is just another way of saying that ideas and experience emerge from the same cycle. And the apprenticeship is necessarily brutal, in Silicon Valley or anywhere else. As Martin Short puts it elsewhere in the same book: “You’re a star on Saturday night, but if forty-eight hours later you haven’t come up with an idea, you’re a failure.”

“When Renata awoke that morning…”

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"When Renata awoke that morning..."

Note: This post is the twelfth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 11. You can read the earlier installments here.)

A writer makes a lot of decisions before he starts to put words on the page, but the most important choice is easily that of point of view. Determining whether a narrative should be written in the first person, third person, or some other variant not only shapes the concrete choices you make from one sentence to the next, but it fundamentally influences the kinds of stories you can tell. A writer’s preferences are a reflection of his tastes and personality, and I’m no exception. I won’t go as far as Henry James, who believed that the first person was “barbaric” for anything but short works of fiction, but it’s no accident that of all my published stories, only one, “Ernesto,” makes use of the first-person point of view, and it’s also the shortest story I’ve ever written. (I decided to write it in the first person partially as a personal experiment, but also for sound narrative reasons. It’s a scientific detective story featuring a thinly disguised version of the young Hemingway, and by telling it from the perspective of another character, I was able to avoid the temptation to write it in a bad version of Hemingway’s style. It was also an homage to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: if your lead character is a genius, it’s often best to narrate it from Watson’s point of view, or else your hero will spend half the story commenting on his own brilliance.)

For the vast majority of my stories, I use a third-person omniscient point of view, in which I can dip at will into the thoughts and perspectives of any character, although I do what I can to keep it under control. Most of my scenes and chapters are effectively written in third-person limited, which means that I stick to one character’s perceptions until the chapter is over, switching to another only when the next scene begins. I prefer this to the approach, which you see in such authors as James Clavell, in which every character’s thoughts are fair game at any point: it can often feel as if you’re switching between perspectives at random, and it makes it hard to keep any secrets without actively cheating the reader. When I do switch between perspectives in a scene, as is sometimes necessary to intercut the action, I try to do it only once, at a pivotal moment, and I do what I can to make the transition clear. The result has served me well through three novels and multiple short stories—most of which are written in pure third-person limited—and I’ve come to think of it much as Paul Graham thinks of the Lisp programming language:

If you’re not sure yet what kind of program you’re writing, it’s a safe bet to write it in Lisp. Whatever kind of program yours turns out to be, Lisp will, during the writing of it, have evolved into a language for writing that kind of program.

"Renata ignored her..."

Yet the third-person omniscient point of view also has its pitfalls. It offers the constant temptation to switch between more perspectives than you really need, and more than two or three can be hard for a reader to follow. We’re naturally inclined to focus our emotional energies onto a single character, which is why most movies have a clearly defined star part, and it can be hard to know where to fix our attention if multiple characters are competing for time. This is particularly troublesome when long gaps go between appearances. Some readers find the shifting perspectives in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire difficult to manage, and I vividly remember losing patience with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, an otherwise excellent novel, when it became clear that each section was going to be told from the point of view of a different character, and that we’d never return to that perspective again once the section was over—which made it very hard to invest in any one person. I’ve learned from hard experience to provide a narrative home base for the reader, which is why each of my novels start by emphasizing one thread slightly over another. In The Icon Thief, it’s Maddy’s story; in City of Exiles, it’s Wolfe’s. So I always begin each novel by cutting back repeatedly to this main thread, usually in every other chapter, until the core of the narrative has been established.

As a result, there’s a point in each of my books, usually around Chapter 10, in which the story branches out into a more expansive structure. If you map it out on paper, the moment when this happens is clear at a glance: it’s when I drop the alternating structure of the opening section, having established the protagonist, and start to move more freely between different characters. In City of Exiles, this occurs in Chapter 11, which is told from the point of view of the photographer Renata Russell, who has appeared until now only in a supporting capacity. Giving this chapter to a tertiary character serves a structural as well as a narrative function: it’s a signal to the reader that from this point onward, the scope of the novel will widen. It also allows me to incorporate information that couldn’t easily be provided from the point of view of any of the characters who have taken center stage thus far. Here, Renata pays a visit to James Morley, a fund manager who has agreed to have his portrait taken, and at first, its significance to the larger plot isn’t entirely clear. Hopefully, though, the reader will take it on faith that this scene will pay off later on—which is why it lives most comfortably here, and not earlier in the novel, when the rules of the game were still being established. As it stands, it’s a nice, short scene that also gives me a chance to explore the headspace of an interesting supporting character, and as it turns out, it could only happen now. Renata, alas, won’t be around for much longer…

Written by nevalalee

December 27, 2013 at 9:16 am

How to think in the shower

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I realized recently that what one thinks about in the shower in the morning is more important than I’d thought. I knew it was a good time to have ideas. Now I’d go further: now I’d say it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.

Paul Graham

I know what he means. For as long as I can remember, my morning shower has been my best thinking time, the protected space in which I can most comfortably work through whatever problems I’m trying to solve. And while it’s easy to let your mind wander, which, as Graham points out, is a good way of discovering what really matters to you at the moment, I’ve decided that this time is too precious to be left entirely to chance. When I’m writing a novel, I try to look over my notes for the day just before I turn on the water, and I usually find that I’ve come up with a number of new ideas before it shuts off. If I’m stuck for a topic for a blog post, I’ll take whatever sliver of inspiration I can—often in the form of one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies—and mull it over for five minutes as the shower runs. More often than not, I’ll emerge with something useful. It works so consistently, in fact, that I’ve come to see it as an essential part of my writing routine, an extension of my office or brain. And I’m far from alone in this. Woody Allen, for instance, takes his showers very seriously:

I’ve found over the years that any momentary change stimulates a fresh burst of mental energy…The shower is particularly good in cold weather. This sounds so silly, but I’ll be working dressed as I am and I’ll want to get into the shower for a creative stint. So I’ll take off some of my clothes and make myself an English muffin or something and try to give myself a little chill so I want to get in the shower. I’ll stand there with steaming hot water coming down for thirty minutes, forty-five minutes, just thinking out ideas and working on plot. Then I get out and dry myself and dress and then flop down on the bed and think there.

Allen here is as insightful as always—if you haven’t checked out Eric Lax’s Conversations With Woody Allen, from which this quote is taken, you really should—but he’s particularly shrewd on identifying a shower as a moment of change. In the shower, we’re taken out of our usual environment; we become semiaquatic creatures, in a humid little cube, and it’s at such points of transition that our minds are likely to move in promising directions.

There are other ways of encouraging this kind of mental and physical shift, most of them linked to relaxing, unconscious activities: taking a walk, doing routine chores, shaving. But there’s also something about the shower itself that seems especially conductive to mental activity. Alone, unclothed, we’re in a particularly vulnerable state, which is what makes the shower’s most famous cinematic appearance so effective. All the same, we’re in a state of relaxation, but also standing, and although I know that a lot of writers have done good thinking in the bathtub, I don’t think it’s quite as conducive to the kind of focused mental trip that the shower provides. You can read in the bathtub, after all, as long as you’re careful with the pages, while the shower is an enforced citadel of quiet. Hanging a radio or, worse, an iPad on the tile robs us of one of our last remaining fortresses of solitude. It’s best just to stand there in the cone of white noise that the cascade of water creates, as removed from the world as we can be while still remaining awake, and it’s the best time I know for uninterrupted, right-brained, intuitive thought.

And keeping an eye on your thoughts in the shower isn’t just a way of working through problems, but of clarifying which problems really matter. To close on Paul Graham once again:

I suspect a lot of people aren’t sure what’s the top idea in their mind at any given time. I’m often mistaken about it. I tend to think it’s the idea I’d want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it’s easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it’s not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something.

In the shower, we come as close as we can to who we really are when all the masks are gone, and we can learn a lot about ourselves by seeing where our minds wander. My own shower has a little window that looks out on my backyard, and I’ll often catch myself looking out at the square of lawn behind my house, thinking over my life, what I’ve accomplished, and what still remains to be done. It’s something like the state we enter as we’re drifting off to sleep, but with our eyes wide open. When we emerge, we’re refreshed and at peace, with a new perspective on the tasks ahead. If this were a new invention, it would seem like magic. And it is.

Written by nevalalee

December 4, 2013 at 8:44 am

A writer’s code

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Anagram generator from Foucault's Pendulum

One of the small pleasures in writing this blog—and in particular in coming up with the quotes of the day—has been a renewed appreciation of the affinities between writing fiction and computer programming. There’s a remarkably rich body of literature on the art of coding, and simply by browsing through the available works in search of memorable insights, I’ve come to realize that coders deal with many of the same problems that I’ve had to confront in my novels, especially structure, clarity, and managing complexity. Hacking, like writing, requires a balance between formal elegance and quick and dirty fixes, and a coder is often required to choose between ingenuity and readability: a clever solution may be beautiful in the moment, but it can be all but impenetrable if the author—or anyone else—comes back to pick it apart months or years later. And unlike novelists, coders get immediate feedback on the validity of their solutions from a rigorous, if somewhat unimaginative, reader.

The problem is that I haven’t done a lot of hacking on my own. Growing up, I spent hours messing with BASIC on an ancient “portable” computer that didn’t even have a hard drive. (My earliest program, written when I was thirteen or so, involved expanding the anagram generator that Umberto Eco provides in Foucault’s Pendulum to handle words of more than four characters.) Later, I took a computer science class or two in high school, but I haven’t done anything meaningful since.  More recently, I’ve found myself longing to jump back into programming for a fairly specific reason: not to do any serious coding of my own, and certainly not to get paid for it, but simply to gain access to the enormous amount of material written by coders on how they approach their work. Compared to the handful of well-worn tidbits that writers repeatedly invoke on craft, it strikes me as admirably pragmatic, dense, and varied, and even at a glance, it clearly has elements that I can put into practice.

A snippet of source code from Doom 3

This leaves me with the question of which language to learn, an issue that inspires predictably strong opinions on all sides. Not surprisingly, I made the final call based on the books I wanted to read. At the moment, I’m working through The C Programming Language by Dennis Ritchie and Brian Kernighan, which is generally regard as the best book of its kind, and I’m planning to follow it up with The Design and Evolution of C++ by Bjarne Stroustrup, which is one of those extended looks into a sustained design process that I find so irresistible, whether the subject is writing, animation, or cuisine. C and C++ might seem like odd choices for recreational coding, but they’re useful for my purposes because there’s so much source code available, along with what I can only describe as a highly specialized form of literary criticism, like Shawn McGrath’s recent appreciation of the beauty of Doom 3. There’s a whole world of material out there, and I’ve found that it only takes a little work to start to appreciate the basics.

Once I’ve played with C and C++ to my satisfaction, I’m hoping to jump into Lisp. This might seem like another strange choice, and I hope to explore it further in a future post. Suffice to say that Lisp, like C, offers a range of interesting reading material, from Paul Graham’s books on the subject to Douglas Hofstadter’s three essays in Metamagical Themas to Peter Seibel’s Practical Common Lisp. (Seibel, a former English major, is also the author of Coders at Work, which attempts to do for hacking what the Paris Review interviews did for fiction.) Lisp also strikes me as the most novelistic programming language, and the one with the greatest natural affinities to creative writing—but we’ll see. When you’re a writer, you’re always looking for tricks that your peers haven’t discovered yet, as well as any source of insight or competitive advantage, and given my interests and approach to craft, I think a deep dive into coding is the next logical step. Whether or not it yields anything useful is something I’m still waiting to find out. But if it does, you’ll be reading about it here.

Castles in the air

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Illustration by Jules Feiffer for The Phantom Tollbooth

I’ve written about The Phantom Tollbooth a number of times on this blog, but I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that Norton Juster’s fantasy contains the most moving passage I’ve read in any modern novel. Shortly before leaving the kingdom of Dictionopolis on his quest to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason, our young hero Milo has the following exchange with King Azaz the Unabridged, who has just been asked who will accompany Milo on his journey:

“A very good question,” replied the king. “But there is one far more serious problem.”
“What is it?” asked Milo, who was rather unhappy at the turn the conversation had taken.
“I’m afraid I can only tell you when you return,” cried the king, clapping his hands three times.

After many adventures, Milo and his friends arrive in the realm of Digitopolis, where they have a similar exchange with Azaz’s brother, the Mathemagician:

“But there is one problem even more serious than that,” he whispered ominously.
“What is it?” gasped Milo, who was not sure he really wanted to know.
“I’m afraid I can tell you only when you return. Come along,” said the Mathemagician, “and I’ll show you the way.”

Finally, at the very end of the novel, after Milo has returned in triumph from the Castle in the Air, he finally learns the truth:

“That’s why,” said Azaz, “there was one very important thing about your quest that we couldn’t discuss until you returned.”
“I remember,” Milo said eagerly. “Tell me now.”
“It was impossible,” said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.
“Completely impossible,” said the Mathemagician, looking at the king.
“Do you mean—” stammered the bug, who suddenly felt a bit faint.
“Yes, indeed,” they repeated together, “but if we’d told you then, you might not have gone—and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”
And for the remainder of the ride Milo didn’t utter a sound.

Jules Feiffer's map of The Lands Beyond

In a book that’s as full of wisdom as any I know, this may be its wisest and most mysterious moment, and it never fails to choke me up a little. Like most aspects of The Phantom Tollbooth, it’s something that can be hard to appreciate until you’ve grown up and had a chance to absorb some of its lessons on your own. Anyone who decides to pursue a life in art—or any urgent but impractical dream—does so in defiance of all the odds. As I’ve mentioned before, a writer needs to be irrationally optimistic to believe that he or she can succeed where so many others have failed: no matter how detached or objective you try to be in other aspects of craft, you wouldn’t be taking this risk at all if you didn’t believe, deep down, that somehow you were the exception to the rule, despite all early evidence to the contrary. As Paul Graham has pointed out, young people have an advantage here, because they don’t know how impossible their goals are:

One reason the young sometimes succeed where the old fail is that they don’t realize how incompetent they are. This lets them do a kind of deficit spending. When they first start working on something, they overrate their achievements. But that gives them confidence to keep working, and their performance improves. Whereas someone clearer-eyed would see their initial incompetence for what it was, and perhaps be discouraged from continuing.

But really, it doesn’t have anything to do with age. There was a point in my life—heck, it might have been earlier this morning—when I was convinced that I wanted nothing more than certainty: a guarantee, or at least a preponderance of evidence, that the stories I wrote would be read. Even now, though, I’m not sure that will ever be the case. There’s still a decent chance that the next story I submit to Analog will be rejected, or that the novel I’m currently revising without a contract in hand will never see the light of day. On an even more basic level, there’s always the fear that I’ll wake up one morning and find myself unable to write at all, despite the fact that I’ve done so nearly every day for years. When you come right down to it, there’s nothing more impossible than the idea that a writer can start with a blank page and turn it into something that other people will want to buy and read. Even if it’s not precisely impossible, it’s still exceedingly unlikely, and that essential implausibility of the writing life is something that never goes away. And if I’ve managed to come even this far, it’s because I’ve learned to forget how impossible it really is.

Written by nevalalee

June 13, 2013 at 8:45 am

In search of quick fixes

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Marcel Proust

If there’s one piece of advice that young writers receive more than any other, it’s that it can be dangerous to look for easy answers. Everyone dreams of an overnight success, and there are times when the need to get published and establish a name for yourself feels like a matter of life and death. Not surprisingly, many writers, especially younger ones, want to get the whole mess over with as soon as they possibly can. When I read posts by aspiring writers online, I’m often struck by the sense of urgency: they want to get published right now, and they’re hoping to discover a magic solution that will allow them to crack the problem of selling a book. The wise response, usually given by other writers who have been tackling the same challenge for years, is that it’s dangerous to seek a quick fix for something so amorphous as the writing life. If it takes ten thousand hours of practice or a million words to attain any degree of mastery, it isn’t a process you want to rush, and you need to be willing to settle in for an extended apprenticeship and long periods of doubt and frustration.

This is absolutely the right answer to give, and I’ve given it a few times myself. When I look back at my own life, however, I find that I’ve spent much of it in search of easy answers or overnight fame. I wrote my first novel at age thirteen, and when I was cranking it out on WordStar, I wasn’t thinking of it as an early stage in a long apprenticeship: I really wanted to write the best science-fiction novel of all time. Later, in high school, I got four hundred pages into an even more ambitious project, both because I wanted to get published as soon as possible and because I thought it might give me an edge in my college applications, which in retrospect seems like a rather misguided choice of extracurricular activities. And of all the projects I’ve attempted since then, finished or unfinished, published or unpublished, most of them were undertaken amid dreams of sudden glory, with what seemed like an urgent artistic deadline, usually in the form of an upcoming birthday. I knew intellectually that the writing life would be an extended process with as many defeats as triumphs. But each time I started a novel, I told myself that this one was going to be different.

Paul Graham

And I don’t necessarily think that this is the wrong approach to take. I’ve mentioned before that there’s a place for irrational optimism in the writing life: it’s such an uncertain, risky proposition that few writers would stick with it for long if they weren’t all convinced that they were the exception to the rule. As the venture capitalist Paul Graham has said: “One reason the young sometimes succeed where the old fail is that they don’t realize how incompetent they are.” And it’s important for young writers to overrate their own talents—or the odds of success for any particular project—because otherwise few debut novels would get written at all. Writing a novel is such a long, sometimes thankless process that you need to be convinced from the start that this is the project that will change your life. It rarely is, of course, and when that change finally happens, it never comes in quite the form you’ve been expecting. But as much as you may know this in your mind, you feel something else entirely in your gut. And that’s fine.

In the meantime, it’s that search for a quick fix that keeps you going, and when you look back, you often discover that you’ve learned a huge amount about craft almost by accident. Artistic maturity comes into being in the same way that Proust notes we get wisdom in other ways—as a result of countless small mistakes, and by surviving all the “fatuous and unwholesome incarnations” that we pass through along the line:

We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.

In short, as much as I tell young writers to avoid the search for quick fixes, I know they aren’t going to listen—and they shouldn’t. Because artistic maturity is really just the result of a lifetime looking in vain for ways to avoid it.

Written by nevalalee

May 6, 2013 at 8:03 am

Posted in Publishing, Writing

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How is a writer like an entrepreneur?

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Ron Popeil

Like most people, I’ll occasionally come up with what I’m convinced is a great invention or business idea. Now that I have a newborn daughter in the house, my brainstorms tend to center around products for babies: for instance, a reliable baby glove that won’t slip off within seconds of being pulled on, leaving my daughter’s sharp nails free to claw at her little face. I’m not particularly tempted to follow up on these ideas, of course, partially because products for babies can be hard to test and market—as an acquaintance of mine recently pointed out, the best idea in the world isn’t worth much after it sends one kid to the emergency room—and because I lack the skills and inclination to develop a business idea into something more. I’ve spent all my time learning how to write, and I suspect that a real entrepreneur would respond to my ideas for a killer baby app with the same impatience with which I regard people who insist that they’re full of great ideas for novels, if only they had the time to write them down.

Writers and entrepreneurs have at least one thing in common: success in either field rarely comes down to one magic idea. Rather, in the latter case, it’s the habit of entrepreneurship itself, and the ability to develop ideas and bring them to completion, that typifies the best startups. Paul Graham, the programmer, essayist, and venture capitalist I’ve quoted here before, likes to say that he’s investing in the personalities of the founders, not in the product they’re currently selling. A recent Vanity Fair piece by Randall Stross on Graham’s Y Combinator, a sort of startup boot camp where teams of young entrepreneurs pitch ideas for funding, points out that a team’s initial concept will often change between the time their application is accepted and the day of their actual interview. “We liked you guys more than the idea,” Graham tells one group at the start of a meeting, and he cautions that a company’s goals will often change as the founders figure out what problem they’re trying to solve. As the article notes:

Graham is much more interested in the founders than in the proposed business idea. When he sees a strong team of founders with the qualities that he believes favor success, he will overlook a weak idea.

Paul Graham

And if a writer often resembles a kind of serial entrepreneur, it’s because he’s distinctive less because his ideas are better than anyone else’s—good ideas, as we all know, are cheap—than because he’s relentlessly resourceful, and knows what to do with an idea when he sees it. In short, he’s like Ron Popeil, the pitchman behind the Ronco Food Dehydrator, Mr. Microphone, and the Pocket Fisherman. As Malcom Gladwell observes in a famous New Yorker piece, Popeil isn’t just a salesman, but an inveterate tinkerer, the kind of man who might “lay awake at night thinking of a way to chop an onion so that the only tears you shed were tears of joy.” And because he has the skills not just to come with with an idea, but to package and market it, he’s done so again and again. Similarly, as a writer, I have plenty of room for improvement, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that given a decent idea and sufficient time—a few weeks for a short story, nine months to a year for a novel—I can turn it into a finished manuscript. Whether anyone else will want to buy it is another matter. But as Stephen Sondheim says in another context, it will be a proper song.

Of course, the fact that I had to quit my job to figure out writing to my own satisfaction hints at another point of similarity. As Graham notes elsewhere:

Statistically, if you want to avoid failure, it would seem like the most important thing is to quit your day job. Most founders of failed startups don’t quit their day jobs, and most founders of successful ones do. If startup failure were a disease, the CDC would be issuing bulletins warning people to avoid day jobs.

Yet I wouldn’t say that quitting one’s day job is what makes a successful entrepreneur. More likely, it’s the other way around: true entrepreneurs, like writers, tend to be people who just aren’t happy doing anything else, so it’s only a matter of time before they decide to devote all of their energies to it. I probably could have learned how to write a decent novel while holding down another job on the side—and plenty of other authors have done so—but quitting my job, while not the cause, was certainly an effect of where my life ended up taking me. And although a writer’s life, like an entrepreneur’s, is hardly an easy one, it allows me to say, in Popeil’s enticing words: “But wait, there’s more…”

Written by nevalalee

March 11, 2013 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

April 18, 2012 at 7:50 am

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The relentlessly resourceful writer

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Recently, I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the parallels between writing and entrepreneurship. At first glance, of course, the comparison seems ridiculous: the personality types drawn by these two professions couldn’t be more dissimilar—at the very least, they attract two different kinds of nerds—and it’s not as if we see a lot of productive crossover between the two fields. But hear me out. Being a novelist and founding a startup are things that many people dream of doing, but few make the leap to seeing through. Both start with inspiration and end with the painstaking work of solving tedious problems on a daily basis. Both careers probably seem more glamorous than they actually are. For every success story, there are hundreds of unseen failures—and a few highly visible ones. And in both fields, the single greatest predictor of success, as far as I can tell, is whether one has quit one’s day job.

I’ve also become convinced that the most capable practitioners in both professions can be described with the same phrase: relentlessly resourceful. The term comes from an essay by the venture capitalist Paul Graham, who coined it as a two-word description of what makes a good entrepreneur. A startup founder, he explains, needs to be the opposite of hapless, capable of dealing with surprising difficulties on the fly—and not just once, but over and over again, and with a willingness to try new things when the old solutions don’t seem to work. This is basically what a novelist does, too. Interestingly, though, Graham explicitly states that he doesn’t feel that this is a recipe for success in the arts: “Resourceful implies the obstacles are external, which they generally are in startups,” he says. “But in writing and painting they’re mostly internal; the obstacle is your own obtuseness.”

I can’t argue with that last point. All the same, the more I write, the more I think relentless resourcefulness is exactly what a writer needs, and that the obstacles involved are, in fact, as much external as internal. This isn’t necessarily the case early in a writing project, when you’re looking at the world, and within yourself, in search of material: at that stage, the necessary quality is, as Graham notes, to be “actively curious.” But once you’ve committed to a project, and are up to your knees in a specific narrative, the problems you’re solving start to feel very external indeed: how to introduce backstory, how to sequence a series of scenes, how to create and sustain momentum, even how to get characters into—or out of—a room. And while the ultimate goal is to create something both personal and of universal interest, the only way to get there is by being crafty, tactical, and resourceful.

This applies to literary fiction as much as to genre work. When I think of writers for whom the phrase “relentlessly resourceful” feels appropriate, the first to come to mind is John Updike, who, at his best, seemed capable of almost anything. Indeed, with Updike, there’s often the sense that his resourcefulness has become an end in itself, rather than the means, as he shows off his versatility across a wide range of characters and subjects. You can see the same kind of showy resourcefulness in someone like Amis, Franzen, or David Mitchell. In general, though, we should revel in our resourcefulness in private, while never revealing it to our readers. If an entrepreneur’s goal is to make something that people want, without ever noticing the effort that went into its creation, the goal of the novelist, however ingenious, should be to create an organic, inevitable piece of story that seems like it wrote itself. But in both cases, as Graham notes, being relentlessly resourceful is the only way to get there.

Written by nevalalee

December 14, 2011 at 9:36 am

The importance of irrational optimism

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An editor should tell the author his writing is better than it is. Not a lot better, a little better.

T.S. Eliot

Looking back at recent posts, one of the themes I seem to hit repeatedly is the importance of objectivity. When you’re working on a novel or short story, you need to view it as coldly as possible, trying to see it, as Zadie Smith reminds us, through the eyes of an enemy. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to make the hard choice to cut a favorite line or scene, to radically restructure the plot, or even to abandon a project altogether. Objectivity, then, is one of the greatest strengths a writer can possess—with one big exception. Because in order to make the decision to be a writer in the first place, and wholeheartedly devote yourself to the writing life, the last thing you should be is objective. A writer’s state of mind, when first starting out, needs to be one of irrational optimism, because if we were totally objective about it, most of us wouldn’t become writers at all.

It’s safe to say that no one with a completely realistic temperament would ever dream of becoming a professional writer, let alone a writer of fiction. The odds of success have never been high, but these days, they’re objectively steeper than ever. First, you need to write, and finish, a good book—and that goal itself can often seem dauntingly out of reach. Next, you need to find an agent, and after that, a publisher who is willing to put real money on the line. Then, even if you’ve gotten that far, you need to navigate a hugely competitive market, with thousands of new novels published every year, not to mention what everyone agrees is a historically challenging moment for publishing of any kind. There’s a reason why the percentage of published writers who make a living solely through fiction is vanishingly small. And by definition, the odds of becoming one of those authors yourself are even more negligible.

And yet I don’t think there’s any writer, no matter how objective in other ways, who doesn’t secretly think: I will be the one who makes it. Certainly that was true of me. While I won’t say that I wouldn’t have tried to become a writer at all if I’d known exactly what was in store, it would have given me pause. Looking back, I’m little embarrassed at how confident, even arrogant, I was five years ago. Most writers would probably say the same thing. But here’s my point: for a writer, this sort of unwarranted optimism is essential. It’s the only thing that could possibly entice an otherwise rational person to become a novelist, or to enter any kind of creative field. Novices always overestimate their chances of success, and some will be bitterly disappointed, but none of them would have gotten anywhere if they’d accurately judged the odds. Paul Graham, the programmer, investor, and charming essayist, makes a similar point:

One reason the young sometimes succeed where the old fail is that they don’t realize how incompetent they are. This lets them do a kind of deficit spending. When they first start working on something, they overrate their achievements. But that gives them confidence to keep working, and their performance improves. Whereas someone clearer-eyed would see their initial incompetence for what it was, and perhaps be discouraged from continuing.

In other words, irrational enthusiasm can sometimes confer a selective advantage. If a mother didn’t have an irrational attachment to her own children, she’d smother them in the cradle. Similarly, if a young writer wasn’t convinced that he was much better than he really was, he’d never work long enough at his craft to become as good as he could be. The fact is, most young novelists aren’t very good, and even the best are generally producing little more than resourceful pastiches of more experienced authors—which, in itself, can be enough for a career. It takes years of objective practice to find an original voice, but only irrational optimism, and an inflated regard for one’s own potential, can carry a writer to the point where it pays off. Achieving this balance between optimism and objectivity is one of the hardest things for any kind of artist, but it’s essential. Because even the coldest, most objective writer needs to believe, for the sake of his own survival, that he is also, somehow, the exception to the rule.

Written by nevalalee

November 2, 2011 at 10:01 am

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Paul Graham on good procrastination

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The most impressive people I know are all procrastinators…They put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.

What’s “small stuff?” Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. It’s hard to say at the time what will turn out to be your best work (will it be your magnum opus on Sumerian temple architecture, or the detective thriller you wrote under a pseudonym?), but there’s a whole class of tasks you can safely rule out: shaving, doing your laundry, cleaning the house, writing thank-you notes—anything that might be called an errand.

Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work…

Errands are so effective at killing great projects that a lot of people use them for that purpose. Someone who has decided to write a novel, for example, will suddenly find that the house needs cleaning. People who fail to write novels don’t do it by sitting in front of a blank page for days without writing anything. They do it by feeding the cat, going out to buy something they need for their apartment, meeting a friend for coffee, checking email. “I don’t have time to work,” they say. And they don’t; they’ve made sure of that.

Paul Graham, “Good and Bad Procrastination”

Written by nevalalee

October 29, 2011 at 8:02 am

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