Thursday, December 27, 2012

What I Wish I'd Heard at Graduation, Addendum: Underpromise and Overdeliver

Every relationship in Hollywood begins when someone says, “Wow, this kid’s the real deal” and ends when that changes to, “Nope, just another windbag.”  Your job is to keep that window open as long as possible.

The secret is to underpromise and overdeliver.  This is common general advice, and it’s always harder than it sounds, but in Hollywood it’s especially difficult, because the pressure to overpromise is overwhelming.  It’s a town run on hot air.

Writers hate to sit around writing, which is way too boring.  We’d rather be out partying, which we refer to as “networking”.  The problem is that, when you’re out “networking”, people are constantly asking you, “What are you working on?”  The honest answer is, “Nothing, obviously, or else I’d be home writing instead of at this party,” but, rather than admit to that, you start boasting about all your “irons in the fire”: the project you’re “setting up” at one company, and the one that’s “under consideration” at another…

In a great, long-out-of-print memoir called “A Friend in the Business”, Robert Masello tells about moving to L.A. to make it in TV and running into a friend who had already been out there for a few years.  He was happily surprised to discover that his friend was doing great: “I’m selling projects all over town!”  Only after Masello himself had gotten a staff job (on a horror show called “Poltergeist: The Legacy”) did he realize what his friend had meant: Everybody is selling all over town, but very few have sold anything.  His friend was overpromising and under-delivering.

The problem gets even worse once you actually are selling.  Now you’re surrounded by people who are over-promising to you: telling you that they’re going to make you rich and they’re over-the-moon excited about your current draft.  It’s only natural to believe them and then pass on that excitement to others.  You relate their enthusiasm to your friends, family, colleagues, reps, other clients, etc.  Then it proves to be yet more hot air.

There are two great reasons not to give in to exaggeration.  The first, obviously, is that it makes you seem like a dupe and/or liar.  But the second is even more insidious: The more puffery engage in, the more inflated you feel, but actual writing produces the opposite feeling: it’s very, very deflating. 

What’s on the page will never match your how great it was in your imagination, and that’s painful, but it’s even worse if you’ve already boasted to everyone about what you were going to accomplish.  To cheer yourself back up, you’ll want to stop writing and go to another party, beginning the cycle anew…

The key to lasting personal and professional satisfaction is to quit the puffery cold turkey.  The only feelings of satisfaction for a writer should come after you write something good or after you sell something.  The writing itself should be unsatisfactory, as you painfully force yourself to get better and better, and the meetings should be even more unsatisfactory, since all that puffery should make you wary and weary. 

The next time you’re at a party and someone asks you what you’re working on, bite your tongue and simply say, “Nothing worth talking about yet”, then excuse yourself from the party to go home and write.

(…But wait, you may say, why are you taking that guy’s advice?  He was just a writer on “Poltergeist: The Legacy”!  More on that next time…)


Anonymous said...

I agree with the general premise of "under promise, over deliver," but it does no good to tell people you're working on "nothing worth talking about." To me that says 'writer's block' or 'hobbyist.' At the very least, if someone is genuinely interested, satisfy their curiosity with an answer like "a thriller, a comedy, a pilot for a kids show" - enough to give them a sense of where your interests lie. It's smart not to exude self-importance, grandeur, or feigned optimism, but I say don't be scared to fill in a few blanks.

Matt Bird said...

That's totally fine, of course, and it's what I tend to do myself, but I've always admired the really successful writers I know who tend to keep very mum.

The danger, of course, is that the person will later ask whatever happened that thriller and you'll have to give an embarrassed little shrug if it didn't pan out, something you won't have to do if you've maintained an air of mystery.

Of course if you're talking to a colleague who could help you work the story out, that's different. (But it's good to shift to that by interjecting a question of you own, like "Actually, I'd love to bounce my new idea off you for a second, if you're up for that..." Don't just launch into it if it was just a casual question, of course.)

Anonymous said...

Those successful writers don't have to say anything because they know you know they're successful. A nobody writer who keeps mum doesn't build mystique, they just reinforce the perception that they're not working on anything worthy. In my opinion.

Still, I like the log line of this post as a premise.

Matt Bird said...

But that's just it, I'm referring to peers who are not successful yet, as far as I know, until they suddenly sell something, and I'm left saying, "What the hell, I didn't even know that they were working on anything."

Again, I could never pull this off myself, but I've definitely noticed it as a quality of highly-effective people.