Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘William Goldman

Foundation and Hollywood

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Yesterday, the news broke that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy will finally be adapted for television. I’ve learned to be skeptical of such announcements, but the package that they’ve assembled sounds undeniably exciting. As we learn from an article in The Wrap:

HBO and Warner Bros. TV are teaming to produce a series based on Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation trilogy that will be written and produced by Interstellar writer Jonathan Nolan…Nolan, who is already working with HBO on Westworld, has been quietly developing the project for the last several months. He recently tipped his hand to Indiewire, which asked him: “What’s the one piece of science fiction you truly love that people don’t know enough about?” [Nolan replied:] “Well, I fucking love the Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov…That’s a set of books I think everyone would benefit from reading.”

Whoops, my mistake—that’s a story from two years ago. The latest attempt will be developed by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman for Apple, which acquired it from Skydance Television in what Deadline describes as “a competitive situation.” And when you turn back the clock even further, you find that efforts to adapt the trilogy were made in the nineties by New Line Cinema, which went with The Lord of the Rings instead, and even by Roland Emmerich, who might be the last director whom you’d entrust with this material. There were probably other projects that have been long since forgotten. And it doesn’t take a psychohistorian to realize that the odds are stacked against this new version ever seeing the light of day.

Why has the Foundation series remained so alluring to Hollywood, yet so resistant to adaptation? For a clue, we can turn to Asimov himself. In the early eighties, he was approached by Doubleday to write his first new novel in years, and an editor laid out the situation in no uncertain terms: “Listen, Isaac, let me make it clear. When [editor Betty Prashker] said ‘a novel,’ she meant ‘a science fiction novel,’ and when we say ‘a science fiction novel,’ we mean ‘a Foundation novel.’ That’s what we want.” Asimov was daunted, but the offer was too generous to refuse, so he decided to give it a try. As he recounts in his memoir I. Asimov:

Before I got started, I would have to reread the Foundation trilogy. This I approached with a certain horror…I couldn’t help noticing, of course, that there was not very much action in it. The problems and resolutions thereof were expressed primarily in dialogue, in competing rational discussions from different points of view, with no clear indication to the reader which view was right and which was wrong.

This didn’t mean that the trilogy wasn’t engaging—Asimov thought that “it was a page-turner,” and when he was done, he was surprised by his personal reaction: “I experienced exactly what readers had been telling me for decades—a sense of fury that it was over and there was no more.” But if you’re looking to adapt it into another medium, you quickly find that there isn’t a lot there in terms of conventional drama or excitement. As Omar Sharif once said about Lawrence of Arabia: “If you are the man with the money and somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a film…with no stars, and no women, and no love story, and not much action either…what would you say?

In fact, it’s hard to pin down exactly what the Foundation series—or at least the first book—has to offer the movies or television. Speaking as a fan, I can safely state that it doesn’t have memorable characters, iconic scenes, or even much in the way of background. If I were hired to adapt it, I might react in much the same way that William Goldman did when he worked on the movie version of Maverick. Goldman confesses in Which Lie Did I Tell? that his reasons for taking the assignment were simple: “I knew it would be easy…The last thing in life I wanted was to try another original. This adaptation had to be a breeze—all I needed to do was pick out one of the old [episodes] that had too much plot, expand it, and there would be the movie.” He continues:

One of the shocks of my life happened in my living room, where I spent many hours looking at the old Maverick shows I’d been sent. Because, and this was the crusher, television storytelling has changed…Not only was the [James] Garner character generally passive, there was almost no plot at all. Nothing for me to steal. I essentially had to write, sob, another original.

Similarly, the Foundation series gives a writer almost nothing to steal. Once you get to “The Mule,” the action picks up considerably, but that’s obviously your second—or even your third—season, not your first. In the meantime, you’re left with the concept of psychohistory and nothing else. You have to write another original. Which is essentially what happened with I, Robot.

And even psychohistory can be more trouble that it might be worth. It works most convincingly over the course of years or decades, which isn’t a timeframe that lends itself to movies or television, and it naturally restricts the ability of the characters to take control of the story. Which isn’t to say that it’s impossible. (In fact, I have some decent ideas of my own, but I’ll keep them to myself, in case Goyer and Friedman ever want to take a meeting. My schedule is pretty packed at the moment, but it frees up considerably in a few months.) But it’s worth asking why the Foundation series has been such a tempting target for so long. It’s clearly a recognizable property, which is valuable in itself, and its highbrow reputation makes it seem like a promising candidate for a prestige adaptation, although even a glance at the originals shows how deeply they remain rooted in the pulp tradition from which they emerged. If I were a producer looking to move into science fiction with a big acquisition, this would be one of the first places that I’d look, even if these stories aren’t exactly what they seem to be—the Deadline article says that they “informed” the Star Wars movies, which is true only in the loosest possible sense. When you combine the apparent value of the material with the practical difficulty of adapting it, you end up with the cycle that we’ve seen for decades. Asimov was the most famous name in science fiction for thirty years, and his works were almost perpetually under option, but apart from a quickie adaptation of Nightfall, he died before seeing any of it on the screen. He was glad to take the money, but he knew that his particular brand of fiction wouldn’t translate well to other media, and he concluded with what he once called Asimov’s First Law of Hollywood: “Whatever happens, nothing happens.”

Looking at “The Spires,” Part 3

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Note: Over the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novelette “The Spires,” the lead story for the March/April 2018 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.  

After I had been working on “The Spires” for about a week, I had what might have seemed at first like a lot of material. I knew that the main character would be a bush pilot in Alaska sometime in the thirties, and I had a decent sense of his backstory. The mystery would revolve around the silent city in the sky that Charles Fort discusses in New Lands, and despite my initial trepidation, I even had an explanation for it, in the form of the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program and a mirage that went backward in time. But while this might seem like a fair chunk of story, it really wasn’t much at all—because I didn’t know what would actually happen yet. In Which Lie Did I Tell?, the screenwriter William Goldman speaks of the range of possibilities that he confronted when he began writing an original story based on his love for red wine:

Now, what kind of tale could I try? Answer: anything. There are no rules when you start in. I could have written a heart-wrenching drama—Ray Milland deux, if you will. A Jimmy Cagney gangster flick, set in Prohibition, about who owns Chicago. I could have made it a George Lucas job, set in the future when scientists have discovered that if you substitute blood for Bordeaux, people will stagger around a lot but they’ll also live forever.

Goldman ended up writing it as a romantic comedy thriller, and the result was The Year of the Comet, a flop so infamous that its male lead, Tim Daly, recently said wistfully to The A.V. Club: “That was my shot, right? That was my shot to be a movie star.” Which might be a warning in itself.

As far as “The Spires” was concerned, though, I found that I could reason my way toward a plot largely from first principles. My protagonist probably wouldn’t fly up to Willoughby Island alone, since it’s usually better to have more than one character, if only so that he could occasionally talk to someone. Like most of my stories, it required that a fair amount of information be fed to the reader, which is usually best handled with dialogue. I didn’t want my main character to be an expert on Charles Fort, mirages, or time travel, since this didn’t fit his background, and by withholding some of the details for as long as possible, I would have more options when it came to structuring the mystery. The obvious conclusion, then, was that my pilot was flying someone else into Glacier Bay. It occurred to me at some point that it could be a woman, which suggested a few angles in itself, and when I added a third man—the woman’s husband—to the equation, the possibilities multiplied. For a while, I considered writing it as an homage to Dead Calm, and there are still a few traces of this in the finished result, although I didn’t take it as far as I might have. This might all sound pretty mechanical, but I hoped to proceed along these lines for as long as possible, simply by following my instincts about what this sort of story needed. I also like to get ideas from the setting, and I spent some time reading about Willoughby Island. Its geography gave me a few story beats, and I learned that at one point it had been a fox farm, which provided me with some useful images. (Remarkably enough, about six months after writing the story, I ended up on a cruise to Alaska, and I had a chance to see Willoughby Island with my own eyes. To my relief, it looked more or less like I’d imagined it.)

It wasn’t until I’d been working in this manner for a while, and maybe not until I started writing, that I realized that I had a problem on my hands. Because I was dealing with HAARP, which still made me uneasy, I decided to stick all of that material at the very end, outside the boundaries of the main plot, which would put some distance between it and the narrative. This wasn’t a bad strategy, but it also gave “The Spires” the structure of a setup followed by a punchline. In other words, it was a shaggy dog story. There’s a venerable tradition of this kind of thing in science fiction, so this wasn’t necessarily an issue in itself. The trouble was the tone. In most cases, a plot like this benefits from a light touch that alerts the reader to the fact that the ending is going to pull away the rug, and if not, then it should at least be short. (One of my favorite examples is “The Figure” by Edward Grendon, which is close to my ideal of this sort of story.) “The Spires” was neither of the above. It was moody and atmospheric, with a dynamic between the three main characters that was played more or less straight, and it became clear early on that it was going to be a novelette. Part of this has to do with my own tastes—and limitations—as a writer. My stories vary widely in time period and setting, but their tonal range tends to be relatively narrow. I don’t really do humor, because that’s a specialized skill that only a handful of science fiction writers have ever managed to pull off, and I’ve refined a style over time that works for me. If my touchstone is The X-Files, I don’t think I’d ever be able to write a Darin Morgan episode, but on a good day, I can manage something like “Ice” or maybe even “Pusher.” So I ended up writing “The Spires” in my usual fashion, even if I wasn’t sure how it would turn out.

And to be honest, a year and a half later and with the story in print, I’m not entirely convinced by it. I still think that the connection between HAARP and the silent city is pretty neat, to the point that it outweighed my other misgivings, and the way that the story is resolved through primary sources turned out to be rather elegant. The human side works well, too. I like the characters, the setting is exactly as evocative as I hoped it would be, and the writing seems fine, although I probably could have pushed the period angle a bit further. The trouble is how these two halves fit together, and in retrospect, I’m not sure if either piece fully serves the other. On the shaggy dog side, the story spends a lot of time developing relationships and conflicts that aren’t strictly necessary for the twist at the end, and while the length is appropriate from the point of view of internal logic, it feels long for a plot that is essentially there to deliver a slightly precious idea. (If a lot of the gimmick stories in Analog have historically suffered from flat characters and dialogue, this might simply be a case of managing the reader’s expectations.) And the fact that the ending unfolds through a series of quotations means that the plot doesn’t really get the conclusion that it deserves. As a result, I deliberately allowed the drama to simmer beneath the surface, because I knew that it wouldn’t receive a traditional resolution, but I wonder now if that was a mistake—if I’d gone with something darker or bloodier, the punchline might have landed harder. Or perhaps it wouldn’t have worked at all. In the end, this was going to be a weird story no matter what, and I did what I could to hold it all together. And maybe that’s how it had to be. As Fort himself once wrote: “The fate of all explanation is to close one door only to have another fly wide open.”

Written by nevalalee

March 14, 2018 at 8:56 am

Life on the last mile

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In telecommunications, there’s a concept called “the last mile,” which states that the final leg of a network—the one that actually reaches the user’s home, school or office—is the most difficult and expensive to build. It’s one thing to construct a massive trunkline, which is basically a huge but relatively straightforward feat of engineering, and quite another to deal with the tangle of equipment, wiring, and specifications on the level of thousands of individual households. More recently, the concept has been extended to public transportation, delivery and distribution services, and other fields that depend on connecting an industrial operation on the largest imaginable scale with specific situations on the retail side. (For instance, Amazon has been trying to cross the last mile through everything from its acquisition of Whole Foods to drone delivery, and the fact that these are seen as alternative approaches to the same problem points to how complicated it really is.) This isn’t just a matter of infrastructure, either, but of the difficulties inherent to any system in which a single pipeline has to split into many smaller branches, whether it’s carrying blood, water, mail, or data. Ninety percent of the wiring can be in that last mile, and success lies less in any overall principles than in the irritating particulars. It has to be solved on the ground, rather than in a design document, and you’ll never be able to anticipate all of the obstacles that you’ll face once those connections start to multiply. It’s literally about the ramifications.

I often feel the same way when it comes to writing. When I think back at how I’ve grown as a writer over the last decade or so, I see clear signs of progress. Thanks mostly to the guidelines that David Mamet presents in On Directing Film, it’s much easier for me to write a decent first draft than it was when I began. I rarely leave anything unfinished; I know how to outline and how to cut; and I’m unlikely to make any huge technical mistakes. In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman says something similar about screenwriting:

Stephen Sondheim once said this: “I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.” I sometimes feel that way about my screenplays. I’ve been doing them for so long now, and I’ve attempted most genres. I know about entering the story as late as possible, entering each scene as late as possible, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper screenplay.

Craft, in other words, can take you most of the way—but it’s the final leg that kills you. As Goldman concludes of his initial pass on the script for Absolute Power: “This first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.” And sooner or later, most writers find that they spend most of their time on that last mile.

Like most other art forms, creative writing can indeed be taught—but only to the point that it still resembles an engineering problem. There are a few basic tricks of structure and technique that will improve almost anyone’s work, much like the skills that you learn in art books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and that kind of advancement can be enormously satisfying. When it comes to the last mile between you and your desired result, however, many of the rules start to seem useless. You aren’t dealing with the general principles that have gotten you this far, but with problems that arise on the level of individual words or sentences, each one of which needs to be tackled on its own. There’s no way of knowing whether or not you’ve made the right choice until you’ve looked at them all in a row, and even if something seems wrong, you may not know how to fix it. The comforting shape of the outline, which can be assembled in a reasonably logical fashion, is replaced by the chaos of the text, and the fact that you’ve done good work on this level before is no guarantee that you can do it right now. I’ve learned a lot about writing over the years, but to the extent that I’m not yet the writer that I want to be, it lies almost entirely in that last mile, where the ideal remains tantalizingly out of reach.

As a result, I end up revising endlessly, even a late stage, and although the draft always gets better, it never reaches perfection. After a while, you have to decide that it’s as good as it’s going to get, and then move on to something else—which is why it helps to have a deadline. But you can take comfort in the fact that the last mile affects even the best of us. In a recent New York Times profile of the playwright Tony Kushner, Charles McGrath writes:

What makes Angels in America so complicated to stage is not just Mr. Kushner’s need to supervise everything, but that Perestroika, the second part, is to a certain extent a work in progress and may always be. The first part, Millennium Approaches, was already up and running in the spring of 1991, when, with a deadline looming, Mr. Kushner retreated to a cabin in Northern California and wrote most of Perestroika in a feverish eight-day stint, hardly sleeping and living on junk food. He has been tinkering with it ever since…Even during rehearsal last month he was still cutting, rewriting, restructuring.

If Tony Kushner is still revising Angels in America, it makes me feel a little better about spending my life on that last mile. Or as John McPhee says about knowing when to stop: “What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”

The sound of the teletypes

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A few days ago, after a string of horrifying sexual harassment accusations were leveled against the political journalist Mark Halperin, HBO announced that it was canceling a planned miniseries based on an upcoming book by Halperin and John Heilemann about last year’s presidential election. (Penguin, their publisher, pulled the plug on the book itself later that day.) It’s hard to argue with this decision, which also raises the question of why anyone thought that there would be demand for a television series on this subject at all. We’re still in the middle of this story, which shows no sign of ending, and the notion that viewers would voluntarily submit themselves to a fictionalized version of it—on top of everything else—is hard to believe. But it isn’t the first time that this issue has come up. Over four decades ago, while working on the adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, the screenwriter William Goldman ran up against the same skepticism, as he recounts in his great book Adventures in the Screen Trade:

When I began researching the Woodward-Bernstein book, before it was published, it seemed, at best, a dubious project. Politics were anathema at the box office, the material was talky, there was no action, etc., etc. Most of all, though, people were sick to fucking death of Watergate. For months, whenever anyone asked me what I was working on, and I answered, there was invariably the same reply: “Gee, don’t you think we’ve heard enough about Watergate?” Repeated often enough, that can make you lose confidence.

He concludes: “Because, of course, we had. Had enough and more than enough. Years of headlines, claims and disclaimers, lies, and occasional clarifying truths.”

This certainly sounds familiar. And even if that Trump miniseries never happens, we can still learn a lot from the effort by one of America’s smartest writers to come to terms with the most complicated political story of his time. When Goldman was brought on board by Robert Redford, he knew that he could hardly turn down the assignment, but he was uncomfortably aware of the challenges that it would present: “There were all those goddam names that no one could keep straight: Stans and Sturgis and Barker and Segretti and McCord and Kalmbach and Magruder and Kleindienst and Strachan and Abplanalp and Rebozo and backward reeled the mind.” (If we’re lucky, there will come a day when Manafort and Gates and Goldstone and Veselnitskaya and Page and even Kushner will blur together, too.) As he dug into the story, he was encouraged to find a lot of interesting information that nobody else seemed to know. There had actually been an earlier attempt to break into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate, for instance, but the burglars had to turn back because they had brought the wrong set of keys. Goldman was so taken by this story that it became the opening scene in his first draft, as a way of alerting viewers that they had to pay attention, although he later admitted that it was perhaps for the best that it was cut: “If the original opening had been incorporated, and you looked at it today, I think you would wonder what the hell it was doing there.” Despite such wrong turns, he continued to work on the structure, and as he was trying to make sense of it, he asked Bob Woodward to list what he thought were the thirteen most important events in the Watergate story. Checking what he had written so far, he saw that he had included all of them already: “So even if the screenplay stunk, at least the structure would be sound.”

As it turned out, the structure would be his primary contribution to the movie that eventually won him an Academy Award. After laboring over the screenplay, Goldman was infamously ambushed at a meeting by Redford, who informed him that Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron had secretly written their own version of the script, and that he should read it. (Goldman’s account of the situation, which he calls “a gutless betrayal” by Redford, throws a bit of shade that I’ve always loved: “One other thing to note about [Bernstein and Ephron’s] screenplay: I don’t know about real life, but in what they wrote, Bernstein was sure catnip to the ladies.”) From his perspective, matters got even worse after the hiring of director Alan Pakula, who asked him for multiple versions of every scene and kept him busy with rewrites for months. A subplot about Woodward’s love life, which Goldman knew would never make it into the film, turned out to be a huge waste of everyone’s time. Finally, he says, the phone stopped ringing, and he didn’t have any involvement with the film’s production. Goldman recalls in his book:

I saw it at my local neighborhood theater and it seemed very much to resemble what I’d done; of course there were changes but there are always changes. There was a lot of ad-libbing, scenes were placed in different locations, that kind of thing. But the structure of the piece remained unchanged. And it also seemed, with what objectivity I could bring to it, to be well directed and acted, especially by the stars.

In the end, however, Goldman says that if he could live his entire movie career over again, “I’d have written exactly the screenplays I’ve written. Only I wouldn’t have come near All the President’s Men.”

But the thing that sticks in my head the most about the screenplay is the ending. Goldman writes: “My wife remembers my telling her that my biggest problem would be somehow to make the ending work, since the public already knew the outcome.” Here’s how he solved it:

Bernstein and Woodward had made one crucial mistake dealing with the knowledge of one of Nixon’s top aides. It was a goof that, for a while, cost them momentum. I decided to end the story on their mistake, because the public already knew they had eventually been vindicated, and one mistake didn’t stop them. The notion behind it was to go out with them down and let the audience supply their eventual triumph.

In practice, this meant that the movie doesn’t even cover the book’s second half, which is something that most viewers don’t realize. (In his later memoir Which Lie Did I Tell?, Goldman writes: “In All the President’s Men, we got great credit for our faithfulness to the Woodward-Bernstein book. Total horseshit: the movie ended halfway through the book.”) Instead, it gives us the unforgettable shot of the reporters working in the background as Nixon’s inauguration plays on television, followed by the rattle of the teletype machines covering the events of the next two years. The movie trusts us to fill in the blanks because we know what happened next, and it works brilliantly. If I bring this up now, it’s because the first charges have just been filed in the Mueller investigation. This is only the beginning. But when the Trump movie gets made, and it probably will, today might be the very last scene.

Off the hook

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In his wonderful interview in John Brady’s The Craft of the Screenwriter, Robert Towne—who might best be described as the Christopher McQuarrie of his time—tosses off a statement that is typically dense with insight:

One of the things that people say when they first start writing movies is, “Jeez, I have this idea for a movie. This is the way it opens. It’s a really great opening.” And of course they don’t know where to go from there. That’s true not only of people who are just thinking of writing movies, but very often of people who write them. They’re anxious for a splashy beginning to hook an audience, but then you end up paying for it with an almost mathematical certainty. If you have a lot of action and excitement at the beginning of a picture, there’s going to have to be some explanation, some character development somewhere along the line, and there will be a big sag about twenty minutes after you get into a film with a splashy opening. It’s something you learn. I don’t know if you’d call it technique. It’s made me prefer soft openings for films. It’s been my experience that an audience will forgive you almost anything at the beginning of the picture, but almost nothing at the end. If they’re not satisfied with the end, nothing that led up to it is going to help.

There’s a lot to absorb and remember here, particularly the implication, which I love, that a narrative has a finite amount of energy, and that if you use up too much of it at the start, you end up paying for it later.

For now, though, I’d like to focus on what Towne says about openings. He’s right in cautioning screenwriters against trying to start at a high point, which may not even be possible: I’ve noted elsewhere that few of the great scenes that we remember from movies come at the very beginning, since they require a degree of setup to really pay off. Yet at this very moment, legions of aspiring writers are undoubtedly sweating over a perfect grabber opening for their screenplay. In his interview with Brady, which was published in 1981, Towne blames this on television:

Unlike television, you don’t have to keep people from turning the channel to another network when they’re in the theater. They’ve paid three-fifty or five dollars and if the opening ten or fifteen minutes of a film are a little slow, they are still going to sit a few minutes, as long as it eventually catches hold. I believe in soft openings…Why bother to capture [the audience’s] interest at the expense of the whole film? They’re there. They’re not going anywhere.

William Goldman draws a similar contrast between the two forms in Adventures in the Screen Trade, writing a clumsy opening hook for a screenplay—about a girl being chased through the woods by a “disfigured giant”—and explaining why it’s bad: “Well, among other things, it’s television.” He continues:

This paragraph contains all that I know about writing for television. They need a hook. And they need it fast. Because they’re panicked you’ll switch to ABC. So TV stuff tends to begin with some kind of grabber. But in a movie, and only at the beginning of a movie, we have time. Not a lot, but some.

And while a lot has changed since Towne and Goldman made these statements, including the “three-fifty” that used to be the price of a ticket, the underlying point remains sound. Television calls for a different kind of structure and pacing than a movie, and screenwriters shouldn’t confuse the two. Yet I don’t think that the average writer who is fretting about the opening of his script is necessarily making that mistake, or thinking in terms of what viewers will see in a theater. I suspect that he or she is worrying about a very different audience—the script reader at an agency or production company. A moviegoer probably won’t walk out if the opening doesn’t grab them, but the first reader of a screenplay will probably toss it aside if the first few pages don’t work. (This isn’t just the case with screenwriters, either. Writers of short stories are repeatedly told that they need to hook the reader in the first paragraph, and the result is often a kind of palpable desperation that can actively turn off editors.) One reason, of course, why Towne and Goldman can get away with “soft” openings is that they’ve been successful enough to be taken seriously, both in person and in print. As Towne says:

There have been some shifts in attitudes toward me. If I’m in a meeting with some people, and if I say, “Look, fellas, I don’t think it’s gonna work this way,” there is a tendency to listen to me more. Before, they tended to dismiss a little more quickly than now.

Which, when you think about it, is exactly the same phenomenon as giving the script the benefit of the doubt—it buys Towne another minute or two to make his point, which is all a screenwriter can ask.

The sad truth is that a script trying to stand out from the slush pile and a filmed narrative have fundamentally different needs. In some cases, they’re diametrically opposed. Writers trying to break into the business can easily find themselves caught between the need to hype the movie on the page and their instincts about how the story deserves to be told, and that tension can be fatal. A smart screenwriter will often draw a distinction between the selling version, which is written with an eye to the reader, and the shooting script, which provides the blueprint for the movie, but most aspiring writers don’t have that luxury. And if we think of television as a model for dealing with distracted viewers or readers, it’s only going to get worse. In a recent essay for Uproxx titled “Does Anyone Still Have Time to Wait For Shows to Get Good?”, the legendary critic Alan Sepinwall notes that the abundance of great shows makes it hard to justify waiting for a series to improve, concluding:

We all have a lot going on, in both our TV and non-TV lives, and if you don’t leave enough breadcrumbs in the early going, your viewers will just wander off to watch, or do, something else. While outlining this post, I tweeted a few things about the phenomenon, phrasing it as “It Gets Better After Six Episodes”—to which many people replied with incredulous variations on, “Six? If it’s not good after two, or even one, I’m out, pal.”

With hundreds of shows instantly at our disposal—as opposed to the handful of channels that existed when Towne and Goldman were speaking—we’ve effectively been put into the position of a studio reader with a stack of scripts. If we don’t like what we see, we can move on. The result has been the emotionally punishing nature of so much peak television, which isn’t about storytelling so much as heading off distraction. And if it sometimes seems that many writers can’t do anything else, it’s because it’s all they were ever taught to do.

The A/B Test

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In this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, there’s a profile of Mark Zuckerberg by Farhad Manjoo, who describes how the founder of Facebook is coming to terms with his role in the world in the aftermath of last year’s election. I find myself thinking about Zuckerberg a lot these days, arguably even more than I use Facebook itself. We just missed overlapping in college, and with one possible exception, which I’ll mention later, he’s the most influential figure to emerge from those ranks in the last two decades. Manjoo depicts him as an intensely private man obliged to walk a fine line in public, leading him to be absurdly cautious about what he says: “When I asked if he had chatted with Obama about the former president’s critique of Facebook, Zuckerberg paused for several seconds, nearly to the point of awkwardness, before answering that he had.” Zuckerberg is trying to figure out what he believes—and how to act—under conditions of enormous scrutiny, but he also has more resources at his disposal than just about anyone else in history. Here’s the passage in the article that stuck with me the most:

The people who work on News Feed aren’t making decisions that turn on fuzzy human ideas like ethics, judgment, intuition, or seniority. They are concerned only with quantifiable outcomes about people’s actions on the site. That data, at Facebook, is the only real truth…This ideal runs so deep that the people who make News Feed often have to put aside their own notions of what’s best. “One of the things we’ve all learned over the years is that our intuition can be wrong a fair amount of the time,” John Hegeman, the vice president of product management and a News Feed team member, told me. “There are things you don’t expect will happen. And we learn a lot from that process: Why didn’t that happen, and what might that mean?”

Reading this, I began to reflect on how rarely we actually test our intuitions. I’ve spoken a lot on this blog about the role of intuitive thinking in the arts and sciences, mostly because it doesn’t get the emphasis it deserves, but there’s also no guarantee that intuition will steer us in the right direction. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has devoted his career to showing how we tend to overvalue our gut reactions, particularly if we’ve been fortunate enough to be right in the past, and the study of human irrationality has become a rich avenue of research in the social sciences, which are often undermined by poor hunches of their own. It may not even be a matter of right or wrong. An intuitive choice may be better or worse than the alternative, but for the most part, we’ll never know. One of the quirks of Silicon Valley culture is that it claims to base everything on raw data, but it’s often in the service of notions that are outlandish, untested, and easy to misrepresent. Facebook comes closer than any company in existence to the ideal of an endless A/B test, in which the user base is randomly divided into two or more groups to see which approaches are the most effective. It’s the best lab ever developed for testing our hunches about human behavior. (Most controversially, Facebook modified the news feeds of hundreds of thousands of users to adjust the number of positive or negative posts, in order to gauge the emotional impact, and it has conducted similar tests on voter turnout.) And it shouldn’t surprise us if many of our intuitions turn out to be mistaken. If anything, we should expect them to be right about half the time—and if we can nudge that percentage just a little bit upward, in theory, it should give us a significant competitive advantage.

So what good is intuition, anyway? I like to start with William Goldman’s story about the Broadway producer George Abbott, who once passed a choreographer holding his head in his hands while the dancers stood around doing nothing. When Abbott asked what was wrong, the choreographer said that he couldn’t figure out what to do next. Abbott shot back: “Well, have them do something! That way we’ll have something to change.” Intuition, as I’ve argued before, is mostly about taking you from zero ideas to one idea, which you can then start to refine. John W. Campbell makes much the same argument in what might be his single best editorial, “The Value of Panic,” which begins with a maxim from the Harvard professor Wayne Batteau: “In total ignorance, try anything. Then you won’t be so ignorant.” Campbell argues that this provides an evolutionary rationale for panic, in which an animal acts “in a manner entirely different from the normal behavior patterns of the organism.” He continues:

Given: An organism with N characteristic behavior modes available. Given: An environmental situation which cannot be solved by any of the N available behavior modes, but which must be solved immediately if the organism is to survive. Logical conclusion: The organism will inevitably die. But…if we introduce Panic, allowing the organism to generate a purely random behavior mode not a member of the N modes characteristically available?

Campbell concludes: “When the probability of survival is zero on the basis of all known factors—it’s time to throw in an unknown.” In extreme situations, the result is panic; under less intense circumstances, it’s a blind hunch. You can even see them as points on a spectrum, the purpose of which is to provide us with a random action or idea that can then be revised into something better, assuming that we survive for long enough. But sometimes the animal just gets eaten.

The idea of refinement, revision, or testing is inseparable from intuition, and Zuckerberg has been granted the most powerful tool imaginable for asking hard questions and getting quantifiable answers. What he does with it is another matter entirely. But it’s also worth looking at his only peer from college who could conceivably challenge him in terms of global influence. On paper, Mark Zuckerberg and Jared Kushner have remarkable similarities. Both are young Jewish men—although Kushner is more observant—who were born less than four years and sixty miles apart. Kushner, whose acceptance to Harvard was so manifestly the result of his family’s wealth that it became a case study in a book on the subject, was a member of the final clubs that Zuckerberg badly wanted to join, or so Aaron Sorkin would have us believe. Both ended up as unlikely media magnates of a very different kind: Kushner, like Charles Foster Kane, took over a New York newspaper from a man named Carter. Yet their approaches to their newfound positions couldn’t be more different. Kushner has been called “a shadow secretary of state” whose portfolio includes Mexico, China, the Middle East, and the reorganization of the federal government, but it feels like one long improvisation, on the apparent assumption that he can wing it and succeed where so many others have failed. As Bruce Bartlett writes in the New York Times, without a staff, Kushner “is just a dilettante meddling in matters he lacks the depth or the resources to grasp,” and we may not have a chance to recover if his intuitions are wrong. In other words, he resembles his father-in-law, as Frank Bruni notes:

I’m told by insiders that when Trump’s long-shot campaign led to victory, he and Kushner became convinced not only that they’d tapped into something that everybody was missing about America, but that they’d tapped into something that everybody was missing about the two of them.

Zuckerberg and Kushner’s lives ran roughly in parallel for a long time, but now they’re diverging at a point at which they almost seem to be offering us two alternate versions of the future, like an A/B test with only one possible outcome. Neither is wholly positive, but that doesn’t make the choice any less stark. And if you think this sounds farfetched, bookmark this post, and read it again in about six years.

Blazing the trail

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When I’m looking for insights into writing, I often turn to the nonliterary arts, and the one that I’ve found the most consistently stimulating is film editing. This is partially because the basic problem that a movie editor confronts—the arrangement and distillation of a huge mass of unorganized material into a coherent shape—is roughly analogous to what a writer does, but at a larger scale and under conditions of greater scrutiny and pressure, which encourages the development of pragmatic technical solutions. This was especially true in the era before digital editing. As Walter Murch, my hero, has pointed out, one minute of film equals a pound of celluloid. A movie like Apocalypse Now generates something like seven tons of raw footage, so an editor, as Murch notes, needs “a strong back and arms.” At the same time, incredibly, he or she also has to keep track of the location of individual frames, which weigh just a few thousandths of an ounce. With such software tools as Final Cut Pro, this kind of bookkeeping becomes relatively easier, and I doubt that many professional editors are inclined to be sentimental about the old days. But there’s also a sense in which wrestling with celluloid required habits of mind and organization that are slowly being lost. In A Guide for the Perplexed, which I once described as the first book I’d recommend to anyone about almost anything, Werner Herzog writes:

I can edit almost as fast as I can think because I’m able to sink details of fifty hours of footage into my mind. This might have something to do with the fact that I started working on film, when there was so much celluloid about the place that you had to know where absolutely every frame was. But my memory of all this footage never lasts long, and within two days of finishing editing it becomes a blur in my mind.

On a more practical level, editing a movie means keeping good notes, and all editors eventually come up with their own system. Here’s how Herzog describes his method:

The way I work is to look through everything I have—very quickly, over a couple of days—and make notes. For all my films over the past decade I have kept a logbook in which I briefly describe, in longhand, the details of every shot and what people are saying. I know there’s a particularly wonderful moment at minute 4:13 on tape eight because I have marked the description of the action with an exclamation point. These days my editor Joe Bini and I just move from one exclamation point to the next; anything unmarked is almost always bypassed. When it comes to those invaluable clips with three exclamation marks, I tell Joe, “If these moments don’t appear in the finished film, I have lived in vain.”

What I like about Herzog’s approach to editing is its simplicity. Other editors, including Murch, keep detailed notes on each take, but Herzog knows that all he has to do is flag it and move on. When the time comes, he’ll remember why it seemed important, and he has implicit faith in the instincts of his past self, which he trusts to steer him in the right direction. It’s like blazing a trail through the woods. A few marks on a tree or a pile of stones, properly used, are all you need to indicate the path, but instead of trying to communicate with hikers who come after you, you’re sending a message to yourself in the future. As Herzog writes: “I feel safe in my skills of navigation.”

Reading Herzog’s description of his editorial notes, I realized that I do much the same thing with the books that I read for my work, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Whenever I go back to revisit a source, I’ll often see underlinings or other marks that I left on a previous pass, and I naturally look at those sections more closely, in order to remind myself why it seemed to matter. (I’ve learned to mark passages with a single vertical line in the outer margin, which allows me to flip quickly through the book to scan for key sections.) The screenwriter William Goldman describes a similar method of signaling to himself in his great book Which Lie Did I Tell?, in which he talks about the process of adapting novels to the screen:

Here is how I adapt and it’s very simple: I read the text again. And I read it this time with a pen in my hand—let’s pick a color, blue. Armed with that, I go back to the book, slower this time than when I was a traveler. And as I go through the book word by word, page by page, every time I hit anything I think might be useful—dialogue line, sequence, description—I make a mark in the margin…Then maybe two weeks later, I read the book again, this time with a different color pen…And I repeat the same marking process—a line in the margin for anything I think might make the screenplay…When I am done with all my various color-marked readings—five or six of them—I should have the spine. I should know where the story starts, where it ends. The people should be in my head now.

Goldman doesn’t say this explicitly, but he implies that if a passage struck him on multiple passes, which he undertook at different times and states of mind, it’s likely to be more useful than one that caught his eye only once. Speaking of a page in Stephen King’s novel Misery that ended up with six lines in the margin—it’s the scene in which Annie cuts off Paul’s foot—Goldman writes: “It’s pretty obvious that whatever the spine of the piece was, I knew from the start it had to pass through this sequence.”

And a line or an exclamation point is sometimes all you need. Trying to keep more involved notes can even be a hindrance: not only do they slow you down, but they can distort your subsequent impressions. If a thought is worth having, it will probably occur to you each time you encounter the same passage. You often won’t know its true significance until later, and in the meantime, you should just keep going. (This is part of the reason why Walter Mosley recommends that writers put a red question mark next to any unresolved questions in the first draft, rather than trying to work them out then and there. Stopping to research something the first time around can easily turn into a form of procrastination, and when you go back, you may find that you didn’t need it at all.) Finally, it’s worth remembering that an exclamation point, a line in the margin, or a red question mark are subtly different on paper than on a computer screen. There are plenty of ways to flag sections in a text document, and I often use the search function in Microsoft Word that allows me to review everything I’ve underlined. But having a physical document that you periodically mark up in ink has benefits of its own. When you repeatedly go back to the same book, manuscript, or journal over the course of a project, you find that you’ve changed, but the pages have stayed the same. It starts to feel like a piece of yourself that you’ve externalized and put in a safe place. You’ll often be surprised by the clues that your past self has left behind, like a hobo leaving signs for others, or Leonard writing notes to himself in Memento, and it helps if the hints are a little opaque. Faced with that exclamation point, you ask yourself: “What was I thinking?” And there’s no better way to figure out what you’re thinking right now.

Written by nevalalee

April 20, 2017 at 9:08 am

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