Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

The Things I Think About When Making Things

1. Ignore the Connection Between Quality and Paycheck.

I think if the things I make have/create value then I’m doing a good job. If they don’t, then I’m not. But the connection between my perception of value and the money that comes in can be wildly inconsistent.

Some years ago, when people still listened to the radio, I got paid a lot to write some radio spots for McDonald’s. By the time my half-ass’d ideas had made it through the sausage grinder of approval and production, they had become the kind of 100% wholeasssausage BadVertisng that you’d expect from a place that serves pink slime and sprays buns with a flavor-additive to ensure that their “hamburgers” will taste like meat1.

The only thing to do about this quality/paycheck disconnect is to ignore it. As someone who makes things, the insanity of the world isn’t my concern. Which leads to thought number two.

2. Always create more value than you capture.

Steven Pressfield (War of Art, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Tides of War, etc.) has a great way to say this. He stole it2 from the Bhagavad Gita.

You aren’t entitled to the fruits of your labor. You are only entitled to your labor.

If you can’t make the act of creation its own reward then you are flirting with madness and self-destruction. Sooner or later, external rewards will desert you (or they may never come) so this attitude is the only way to build a firm foundation for yourself.

3. Fix it in Pre

For all things, Plato said, there is the Form and the Ideal. If the Ideal, or idea of a thing is bad, then the Form can never be good. No matter how much time or money you pour into execution.

An iterative approach solves this and other problems making a crappy version then making it a little better each time around. If it doesn’t improve fast enough with iteration, you just stop.

Iteration works for software, but where the cost of iteration is high, as in Film or the printing of books, you can’t use this approach.

When a bad idea makes it in front of a camera people often say, “We will fix it in post.” This means that, by means of editing or special effects, they will find a way to make it work. This never, ever happens. No matter how much you polish a turd, it will never shine.

This is also true for the writing of novels. While the costs of printing and distributing a book have dropped dramatically, the cost of writing one is about the same. You don’t want to have to spend a year writing a book in order to figure out whether it is any good or not.

So, whatever I am making, I think the most important work is done with outlines, comps, models and summaries. There is an entire school of thought that suggest if you can’t boil a story idea down to a good slug line (e.g. James Bond = Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) then you shouldn’t write it. For commercial purposes, I think this is exactly right. But it would be a dull world indeed if we only did things for commercial purposes.

4. If you want more good ideas, you need to come up with more bad ideas.

Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.
— Ray Bradbury

This just hurts. Nobody likes to suck. But, the way I see it, sucking is the creator’s job. You wallow in the suck and fight and claw until you win something of value.

Put it this way, the sum of Babe Ruth’s hitting career was 714 home runs. To hit those, he went up to bat 8,399 times. So if the greatest hitter in the history of the game3 only knocked it out of the park 8% of the time, what percentage of home runs should we expect when coming up with ideas?

I think it’s about the same. The 8% barrier means for every good idea I need, I need to come up with at least twelve bad ones. This is what failing fast looks like. And failing fast in the idea stage is a lot cheaper than failing fast in the execution stage.

5. Some people are better than others, but for the purpose of the working creative, it might not enough to matter.

This is not merely the idea that envy of someone else’s success or ability is counter-productive (it is) but that, from the standpoint of the person doing the work, talent, skill and ability are irrelevant.

I don’t think that Babe Ruth felt like the greatest hitter in the game when he stepped up to the plate. I think he was worried about hitting the ball. And, as a professional, he was worried about performing to the limits of his abilities.

A pro says, “If I can just go out there and play my game.” An amateur says, “If I could just hit one like Babe Ruth.”

The difference between the two attitudes is that the amateur doesn’t want to face up to how much he sucks. The pro has a higher tolerance for the pain of reality. Especially when it comes to creation.

At any rate, at the limit of all our abilities — when we are performing at our best — we all face the 8% threshold. I think this applies universally and without exception.

Consider Sir Issac Newton. You could argue that Newton was three standard deviations above the normal population in terms of his ideas about physics. Certainly, he was sharper than your average tack. But if you look closely, you will find that he spent an inordinate amount of his time having bad ideas about alchemy and obscure points of religious doctrine.

Newton had a lot of good ideas. But he had waaaaaaay more bad ideas.

6. For commercial film and video production, lower the production quality a little and produce multiple ideas.

The sad fact is that our judgment about what is going to work isn’t very good. This is why William Goldman summed up the collective business wisdom of Hollywood like this:

Nobody Knows Anything

It’s not that people don’t know anything. It’s that what they can know (how to direct, how to operate a camera, how to act, how to write, how to build sets) doesn’t add up to the ability to predict how a complex production process will turn out.

Don’t skimp on sound. Don’t skimp on actors. But rather than spend time, effort and money getting one impossibly perfect shot in the can, do something simpler. Then go make a whole other spot. Because it may turn out better. You just don’t know.

This is also useful to remember in post-production. Especially with sound. I once watched an engineer spend 45 minutes trying to match the reverb on two sound effects that were so far back in the mix, nobody but a fellow sound engineer was going to hear it.

In 45 minutes a talented engineer can edit and mix a whole other spot.

7. The Greatest Gains in Speed Come From Releasing Bad Ideas With Grace.

Sometimes people let a good idea go for lack of confidence, but I find this is the exception rather than the rule. What usually happens is that you have an idea and you are seized with a kind of mania. It’s going to be awesome. You will be universally acclaimed. Fame and fortune will soon follow.

And in this mania, it becomes hard to think critically. Now, not only can’t you move on to another, better idea, but you can’t hear the genuinely helpful advice that a well-meaning person might offer.

So when I’m trying to make something that solves a problem I do this:

  1. Have an idea.
  2. Flesh it out as much as I need to understand it.
  3. Put it down and return to step one.

This takes emotional maturity and self-knowledge. It’s hard to walk away from a thing that makes us feel smart and creative and powerful. Even if it’s a false god. See also crack pipe.

8. You Should Hate Your Bad Ideas a Little Less.

Bad ideas give you information, if you let them. A deep understanding of why an idea doesn’t work helps you get to an idea that does. Even if it’s only because you ruled out a possibility.

So I try to be a little more grateful for bad ideas.

9. Don’t Attach to Failure.

Don’t Fear Mistakes. There are none.
—Miles Davis

The job of someone struggling to create something new is to fail. When a child learns to walk he or she falls down a lot. And he or she does this in front of the most important people in his or her life. But the kid doesn’t think twice about it. Procedurally, it looks like this:

  1. Fall down.
  2. Get up and try again a different way.

Because if a child took the time to get self-conscious and embarrassed over each stumble, he or she wouldn’t walk until adolescence. As the Japanese say:

Fall seven times and stand up eight.

10. Don’t waste time worrying about how to end blog posts.

You can always do something clever with an additional heading. Besides, nobody cares about the ending. They just want the meat of it.

This is especially true of dramatic scenes. Get in late, and get out early.

  1. Seriously, take the meat off a McD’s hamburger and eat it. It tastes exactly the same. On second thought, don’t ever eat a McDonald’s “hamburger. 
  2. all great writers are thieves, so that’s a compliment. 
  3. The only person to have a better at bat/home run ratio is Mark McGuire, but he was ‘roided to the gills when he did it. Not only did the Babe not have steroids, but it’s a good bet he hit many of his home runs hung over. 

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