perpetual stew

Strap on your leather aprons, guys. Time for a club meeting.

There’s a new Shaft in theaters. This one, Shaft (2019), is a sequel to Shaft (2000) which, itself, was a sequel to the original trilogy of films beginning with Shaft (1971). Richard Roundtree reprises the titular role, and Samuel L. Jackson returns from the previous film. In each case, an extraordinarily long hiatus between installments.

Film had an expiration date; each subsequent generation got its own set of cultural cues. If an idea had legs, after a certain point, you’d just reboot it with new actors in a contemporary milieu. Now, filmmakers can continue the same story from movies released before many in the audience were old enough to watch them and count on us figuring things out by catching up with YouTube and Wikipedia.

It’s much more narratively satisfying than a reboot. It’s also smart from a business standpoint: the actors who got more famous in the interim—Tom Cruise between Top Gun and Top Gun: Maverick—can draw new audiences, while the rest of the cast remains, well, affordable.

The long-hiatus sequel allows for a unique strain of creative fermentation—look at what Paul Newman did with the role of “Fast Eddie” Felson in The Color of Money (to my knowledge, the very first such sequel, made 25 years after The Hustler). It’s fascinating to watch the evolution of an actor and character when a decade or more has passed since their last adventure together. Shaft (2019) isn’t very good—apparently—but the fact that Roundtree is still around to play the role feels miraculous. It satisfies our desire for authenticity.

Now, for all you quibblers—and the quibbler-percentage of Maven Game readers continues to astonish me—I’ll define a long-hiatus sequel as one that continues the narrative from a non-recent film using at least some of the actors in their original roles. Ghostbusters (2016) isn’t a long-hiatus sequel, but Ghostbusters 3 (2020) will be. Terminator: Salvation wasn’t, but Terminator: Dark Fate will be. Emma Thompson reprises her role as Agent O in Men In Black: International, but the gap there is a modest seven years. Insufficient hiatus.

The reboot, as an art form, pleases no one—except audiences, I guess. The long-hiatus sequel is the storytelling equivalent of a perpetual stew where the pot is never cleaned and the flavors keep evolving forever. By the time Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill are long gone, we’ll be enjoying long-hiatus sequels featuring septuagenarian Daisy Ridley using the Force to fetch her slippers.

At the breakfast table the other day, I wondered aloud whether the new Shaft is the first long-hiatus sequel of another long-hiatus sequel. If it is, it won’t be the last. These sequels are now a massive trend—from Rocky Balboa (16-year gap) through Star Wars: The Force Awakens (32-year gap) and on to Bill and Ted Face the Music (29-year gap, assuming they stay on schedule, and if they don’t, they just have to remember to use a time machine to tell their earlier selves to make the movie sooner).

Inevitably, we’re going to have periodic franchise “hatchings” every decade or so, at whatever point the cultural soil has lain fallow long enough to return to a particular world and its inhabitants. Yet it irritates me not to have a name for this overall phenomenon beyond “long-hiatus sequel.”

Maybe, I wondered aloud, you could coin a snappy moniker for long-hiatus sequels using the metaphor of periodic cicadas? Cicadas lay their eggs and then go dormant for a specific number of years before re-emerging. Brood X, for example, fountains forth from the ground in disturbingly vast quantities every 17 years. (Come 2021, expect a Pharaoh-worthy swarm of locusts across the eastern United States.)

“Cicadian rhythm,” my wife quipped. (Reader, I married her.)

This is the thought process I use to craft book titles. Whimsy plays a role—you have to be willing to go a little too far to know when you’ve gone far enough. When we were brainstorming what would eventually be called Wisdom of Bees: What the Hive Can Teach Business about Leadership, Efficiency, and Growth, my colleagues were playing it safe, so I suggested Beedership. Because, obviously. Unfortunately, they never let me live that one down.

So be it. It had to be suggested. And, in fact, I’d still vote for Beedership. Better the slightly-too-bold title. Alas, a publishing house is not a democracy.

So, what are we going to call films in a series separated by a lengthy hiatus? Cicadaquels.

p.s. Leather Apron Club founder Benjamin Franklin documented the emergence of Brood X in Pennsylvania in May 1715 and May 1732. I imagine he took a break from air-bathing for a few weeks to avoid a cicada-themed version of Frank Costanza’s fate: “Million-to-one shot, doc. Million-to-one.”

stay sharp

My friend Josh Bernoff, author of Writing Without Bullshit, is conducting a survey of people who have published, or are working on, nonfiction books. Since he’s asking about publishing plans, expectations, goals, and outcomes and plans to share the results with all participants, I’d fill it out.

(On a related note, consider conducting research for your own work-in-progress. Even a small, informal study conducted via SurveyMonkey can offer insights. It doesn’t hurt that publishers like to see data, too. If you could ask your ideal readers anything, what would it be?)

[Apollo] is the god of music and poetry, so everyone who writes or recites poetry, for example, thereby sacrifices to him; he only accepts rams and rubbish of that sort from boors and the bourgeois, who have nothing better to offer him.

Gene Wolfe, Soldier of the Mist

Every “for your review” email to a client with the requisite Microsoft Word attachment, every Maven Game essay sent to you, every Sunday morning spent wrangling my own writing projects—another sacrifice to the golden god.

(Phoebus, buddy: Is a ram still acceptable on my off-days? Because sometimes it just isn’t happening.)

Recently, I returned to the Flatiron Building, home for many years to St. Martin’s Press and the rest of Macmillan, one of the Big Five publishers. With Macmillan relocating to the Financial District, we alums were invited back to reminisce about old times.

Naturally, I couldn’t resist sneaking into my old office during the party. It looked so small—guess I’m all grown up now. (No, it was always small.) To be clear, no one actually gave me an office. This being St. Martin’s Press, it was empty and I took it. I employed a similar strategy with my editorial acquisitions—and it showed.

Being back in the old building and seeing all those familiar faces raised an uncomfortable question: What have I been doing in the decade and more since I left that fine publishing establishment? Have I truly grown as a professional? Or am I still relying on the same old bag of tricks? More important, where am I going to be a decade from now? How do you actually get better at this stuff?

Benjamin Franklin was also preoccupied with personal development. An ambitious young printer of twenty-one, he assembled a dozen or so fellow Philadelphia tradesmen to debate politics and philosophy, as well as share business tips, in what became known as the Leather Apron Club. (So Franklin, right?) He called it the Junto, but with the negative connotations attached to juntas, I think Leather Apron Club wins.

Franklin describes it in his Autobiography:

[We] met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.

This seems like the very distillation of a good conference or meet-up. And, no offense to members of Napoleon Hill-inspired mastermind groups, but this sounds way better than a Napoleon Hill-inspired mastermind group. I’d love to put together a club like this, but oriented around a more contemporary and unisex style choice for potential members: Warby Parker glasses, maybe, or Herschel Supply Co. bags.

Ideally, this would be an actual, in-person group, of course, not a Slack channel or Discord server. That doesn’t seem feasible, though. Everyone talks a good game about wanting to escape from social media and get back to real-life interactions, but nobody actually goes to in-person events anymore. Right? I mean, I haven’t been invited to any…

Franklin prepared a list of thoughtful questions to spur discussion at each meeting, from “What new story have you lately heard agreeable for telling in conversation?” to “Do you know of any deserving young beginner lately set up, whom it lies in the power of the Junto any way to encourage?”

These make good blog or podcast prompts, too. The Wikipedia page has the complete list.

If you haven’t read this essay about the Dark Forest Theory of the Internet—derived from the excellent Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu—do so. In his novel, Liu makes a good point: The universe may be absent of any signs of intelligent life because it’s empty. In a hostile universe—think a dark forest—keeping hidden might just be a necessary survival technique. Yancey Strickler, co-founder of Kickstarter, makes the point that the days of free-wheeling public sharing may be over for similar reasons. It’s just too unpleasant, even dangerous, to live in public on the internet anymore.

In response to the ads, the tracking, the trolling, the hype, and other predatory behaviors, we’re retreating to our dark forests of the internet, and away from the mainstream.

Hence, a Leather Apron Club, a venue where you could enjoy a really good talk without having it turn into a viral sensation and then a TED talk and then watch it blow up in the speaker’s face because they misquoted some research.

But what form would a Leather Apron Club take in 2019? Right now, I’m leaning toward a flash mob, just for old times’ sake, but I’m open to suggestions. Shoot me an email.

limit your options to stick your landing

After Game of Thrones sounded the full depths of its creative nadir in May, society collectively scrambled for its next narrative diversion from the crushing daily grind of surviving the Darkest Timeline, i.e. everything that’s happened since the Large Hadron Collider started up on September 10, 2008, unleashing forces that accidentally shunted us into a parallel reality where hope for humanity’s future burned inexplicably bright before all of it was suddenly and utterly extinguished with stunning, tragicomic force.

Didn’t realize you were in the Darkest Timeline? I hate to be the one to break it to you. Your best clue is always the sudden appearance of facial hair. Case in point: prior to 2008 I was clean-shaven. Post-2008, I have a beard. Post hoc ergo propter hoc: Darkest Timeline.

Don’t ask me. I only speak Pig Latin.

After the GoT finale, I was ready to watch anything that might take my mind off the culmination of disappointment that had been mounting in me since the end of season 3. Yes, it was only after the episode with the Red Wedding when the real bloodbath started, as David Benioff and D.B. Weiss started gleefully murdering everything that was good about George R. R. Martin’s books.

Breathe, Dave. Just breathe.

“Don’t worry,” I’d think to myself after every illogical and unmotivated twist and turn of the narrative. “Benioff and Weiss will pull this out of the dragon-fire by the finale. We’ve learned from Alias, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica. Nobody would take an epic start and write themselves into a corner like that ever again. David Benioff wrote City of Thieves. He can tell a story! They’re definitely making choices here.” If God doesn’t play dice with the universe, Benioff and Weiss wouldn’t dare play darts with A Song of Ice and Fire.

After struggling to digest season 7, I told myself, “This must be why they’re taking such a long break before Season 8. They’re busy writing.”

In the end, nothing was pulled from the dragon-fire. Not even the Iron Throne.

You can blame HBO, mucking about with a winner in their desperate attempt to hold on to half their subscribers. You can blame the showrunners, already hard at work on a new Star Wars series. You can blame the unrealistic expectations of the rabid fan base or the harsh realities of production, casting, and all the other factors that inhibit good TV storytelling. But that wouldn’t be the whole answer.

Why is it so hard to end anything properly? Information theory. That’s right: Mathematician Claude Shannon is making a cameo appearance in a discussion of an episodic television series about ice zombies. Nobody does middlebrow like the Maven Game.

If you’re not up on Shannon’s work, read James Gleick’s The Information, one of my favorites, or settle for this excellent essay by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman at Nautilus.

A telegraph, an email, a book—these are all messages. The difference between signal and noise, the measure of meaning in any message, is defined as information:

The real measure of information is not in the symbols we send— it’s in the symbols we could have sent, but did not. To send a message is to make a selection from a pool of possible symbols, and “at each selection there are eliminated all of the other symbols which might have been chosen.” To choose is to kill off alternatives. Symbols from large vocabularies bear more information than symbols from small ones. Information measures freedom of choice.

In a coherent message, every bit limits your options for the next bit.

This applies to sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, too. If your character dies in chapter one, you’ve made a choice and limited your options. If she then gets married in chapter two, you have some explaining to do. Typically, the decision to kill your character precludes future nuptials. Is she a zombie? Is there time travel involved? Necrophilia?

Every choice you make in a book limits your subsequent options. If you side-step these limitations, accidentally or perversely, you’ve introduced a degree of nonsense into your message. Unless absurdity is your goal, your introduction essentially determines your conclusion. That’s what distinguishes a message—a coherent book, television show, film, any creative work—from whatever Game of Thrones turned into. Narrative noise.

Joyce Carol Oates often says, “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence has been written.”

All of this is just as true of nonfiction. That’s why I begin the discussion of every book project with my client’s objective. What will your career look like after this book is published? On which stages will you speak? To which conferences will you be invited? With the end in mind, we work backward to the book itself.

GoT was unusual compared to most TV shows in the sense that George R. R. Martin actually gave the showrunners a sense of how he planned to resolve the books. Turns out you need a little bit more than the final sentence to build out a story of that scope. Sticking the landing from the start isn’t easy even if you know the precise spot you’re aiming for. For example, Robert Jordan’s widow gave Brandon Sanderson the late author’s intended ending for The Wheel of Time series—written at the very beginning of the process—but completing the series after Jordan’s death still took Sanderson three full books to bridge the gap properly.

As authors, we might benefit from writing entire books backward, a.k.a. “Merlinating”: Start with the last sentence, figure out the only possible sentence that could lead to that last sentence, and go from there. How else to do any of this properly?

At the very least, however, begin with the end in mind and make sure every choice along the way limits your options until your ending is the only one available.

Speaking of proper endings: It seems like many of us have escaped from the wreckage of GoT by watching Chernobyl and Fleabag. What perfect narrative antidotes. Both works, good to the last frame. All I’ll say is, watch both series through to see how a narrative is built with the end in mind.

Craig Mazin, writer of Chernobyl, previously wrote a slew of abysmal sequels: Scary Movie 3 to The Hangover Part III to The Huntsman: Winter’s War, among others. As someone pointed out on Reddit, his Rotten Tomatoes scores range between 6 percent and 35 percent consistently before spiking to 95 percent with Chernobyl. If that doesn’t inspire you to keep working, what will? God bless you, Craig Mazin.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, writer and star of Fleabag, didn’t have quite as rocky a creative start, being more of what you’d call a legit goddamn artistic genius of the first order, but still, she made her way over the hump like anybody else.

In this interview in The Guardian, Waller-Bridge discusses struggling through her twenties as an actress and only breaking through once she started writing proper material for herself. Crucially, she befriended Vicky Jones, who went on to be a key collaborator:

Jones and Waller-Bridge instantly connected creatively. “Everything began to make sense in my life,” she says. They encouraged each other to write, mentored each other, drove each other on, eventually co-founding the DryWrite theatre company. After Waller-Bridge had written a number of short plays, including a 10-minute vignette of Fleabag, it was Jones who made sure they were performed. 

Find your tribe, people. Nobody should wander the Darkest Timeline alone.

bare-minimum brilliant

A couple weeks back, I wrote:

Just because we don’t have an obsessive devotion to writing—or any other area of expertise—doesn’t mean we can’t get pretty darn good at doing our jobs. You don’t have to be a master to act a lot like one, most of the time. 

The following week, further confirming Jung’s plate-of-shrimp theory of universal synchronicity, I stumbled on a post by software engineer Sandy Maguire entitled “You Don’t Need to Be Brilliant to Do Brilliant Work.”

It begins when Maguire observes that his professional reputation has grown:

All of a sudden people were throwing my name around in the company of the people I looked up to, whose work I’d always felt was far beyond my grasp.

What changed? Only that Maguire has published a book—a book filled with impressive, even brilliant, thinking. As a consequence, and quite understandably, people “suddenly” decide Maguire himself is brilliant. Not quite, he argues:

[People] see this book in its finished form, but are shielded away from the tortuous months I spent writing it…None of it was exceptionally difficult. Mostly it was just tedious…Any idiot could have done what I did—read blog posts, think hard about them, write some code that used the idea, and then write one chapter at a time. That’s it. There was no magic…I’m convinced that any idiot could have put together the same book that I did.

“Any idiot”—hey, that’s a bar I can meet! What struck home was Maguire’s closing point. He suggests that, while a few problems may actually be “brilliance-constrained”—meaning only geniuses can properly solve them—the vast majority are simply “effort-constrained.” If you put enough work in, they get done. The more work you put in, the better the results are, often far beyond what you might consider the point of diminishing returns.

Writing a book is an iterative process of bottomless depth. As long as you’re willing to keep working—not just writing and editing but also researching, interviewing, soliciting valid feedback, and otherwise synthesizing new ideas and information—the brilliance of the work itself can far exceed your innate capacity.

I’d add: Of course, there’s a certain amount of necessary intelligence and talent involved. But, Maguire argues and I agree, it’s less than you think. To do brilliant work, you only have to be bare-minimum brilliant—and uncommonly diligent.

Because of the way successful creators obfuscate not only the work that goes into their successes but also the pre-existing resources they brought to bear, it’s easy to see any significant accomplishment—from writing a book to starting a business—as brilliance-constrained when it isn’t.

Effort, not brilliance, separates the brilliant from the blah. Effort, vast effort, makes stuff good. Then luck makes it successful with an audience. Anyone who tells you luck isn’t a factor in outsized creative success has been exceptionally lucky. That said, without consistent effort, luck can’t find you. Gotta buy those scratchers for a shot at the mega-millions. And unlike this guy, you can’t pick all the possible combinations to ensure a win. You have to take your shots and accept the misses like the rest of us.

On Here’s the Thing, Moby spoke to Alec Baldwin to promote his new memoir. I learned that the album that made Moby a superstar, Play, was actually his fifth. His fourth album had been a complete flop, leading his label to drop him. At the time, he’d figured his career was over. Then, someone at one of Richard Branson’s labels heard a track from the new album and offered Moby a deal. To this day, he has no idea how that person discovered a track from his unreleased album nor why Play went on to sell millions of copies, becoming an essential refrain of the turn-of-the-millennium soundscape. What’s more, while Moby has steadily produced music ever since, he has never coming close to replicating that success, even with Play‘s enormous momentum behind him.

If Moby had stopped at four albums, he would have been a “failure.” Likewise, if he’d never done anything else after Play, he’d be just as rich and famous. The lesson I take from this is: I need a better reason to make work than success.

For me, that reason is creative alchemy, the almost-too-good-to-be-true factor Maguire hints at in his post. In medieval times, alchemy was the search for a way to turn base metals into gold. That’s not going to happen outside of a nuclear reactor, but there is a far more profound and interesting transmutation any of us can attempt: turning our own diligent effort and the limited talents we’ve been given into legitimately brilliant work. Once you realize that’s actually possible, it doesn’t seem worthwhile chasing anything else.