Friday, September 19, 2008

The Theory Of Idea Consistency

So I've been reading 'The Making of Star Wars' and 'The Making of Indiana Jones' (both big, thick, meaty books that you could probably use for weight training), and it got me thinking a bit about George Lucas...and then I read 'When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?', one of George Carlin's last books, and I noticed something they had in common. They're both ferociously lazy. Lucas has had a downturn in quality ever since the early 1990s, and 'When Will Jesus...' reads like it wasn't edited at all. (Seriously, it reads like Carlin just typed until he'd gotten three hundred pages of words, and his editor just rubber-stamped it.)

And this got me formulating a theory. (Actually, a hypothesis, but I don't think we'll need to worry about the scientific community's opinions on this.) My theory is this: All creative people have roughly the same percentage of good ideas.

Now, that doesn't mean all creative people are the same; Lucas is an absolutely brilliant visionary, and anyone who doubts that should really read 'The Making of Star Wars' to see just how ahead of the curve he was, and just how much that movie transformed film-making as we know it. But the other thing you notice when you read 'The Making of Star Wars' is just how much he was throwing out. He was constantly redrafting and redefining and recreating the script from the frankly incoherent gibberish it started as into one of the truly timeless and enduring films of the 20th century. In other words, some people have better good ideas than others, some people have more ideas than others, some people's internal crap detectors are better than others, but everyone is churning out about the same percentage of good ideas.

This is the problem with guys who make it big, like Lucas and Carlin (and I'll toss in Frank Miller here, too, and I'm sure commenters can add to the list ad nauseum.) Everyone, no matter how brilliant, needs some help in sorting out the good ideas from the bad ideas. Nobody's crap detector is one hundred percent perfect. So when Lucas had to justify his every idea to a skeptical studio, he was forced to sharpen and trim and cut all the weak stuff out. When he had $200 million just lying around to make a movie with and a studio begging to distribute it sight unseen, he made a movie that was flabby, underthought, and with a lot of bad ideas overshadowing the good stuff. (And again, I say this as someone who really does think Lucas is brilliant, and it's one of the great tragedies of Hollywood film-making that 'Star Wars' soured him on directing for so long.)

Ultimately, what I'm saying is that there's a belief in the creative industries (film, prose, music, et cetera) that the vision of the artist is paramount, and that all oversight ever does is compromise it. Everyone wants to see the "Director's Cut", everyone complains about the editor butchering the work, everyone thinks that this story would be better if the artist was just left alone. But it's not true. For every one empty suit that just doesn't get it, there are a dozen talented editors and producers who can function as additional crap detectors, helping you sort your good stuff from your bad. And when you become too successful to listen to them, your work is bound to suffer.

Your work, that is. Everything I write is brilliant.


Matthew E said...

What I'd say is, once a writer or director or whoever gets to a certain point of prominence, far fewer people are willing or able to say 'no' to them. So they do whatever they want. Sometimes this is bad, because these people need some kind of editor to take them in hand to get good work out of them. Sometimes it's okay: a Stephen King or a Neal Stephenson can still produce good, or great, albeit somewhat self-indulgent or meandering, work if you just turn them loose.

Eric TF Bat said...

I'm fairly certain that theory explains JK Rowling as well: there were fair-to-middling children's novellas lurking in the Harry Potter doorstops, that only required a courageous editor with a large pile of red pens to liberate them.

Some counter-examples, though: Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld series deserves a Storytelling Engine post of its own, still manages a good proportion of ideas in his books. He started out writing D&D campaigns, mutated into Gilbert-and-Sullivan-in-Wonderland, then did the unexpected thing that (sadly) Douglas Adams and Robert Aspirin never managed, and morphed into writing real literature.

And outside the realm of books: Andrew "Tridge" Tridgell, the programmer who was largely responsible for at least two and maybe three or more really great ideas in computer systems: rsync, Samba and arguably SourcePuller. Any one of them would be enough to put him on par with some of the greats, but he just keeps producing more.

Thomas said...

The Harry Potter books got longer and longer. They didn't get better and better.

And I'm going to go on record here and predict Diablo Cody, Sarah Silverman, and, sadly, Steven Colbert as the next ones to fall under this phenomenon.

magidin said...

Something's been happening to Terry Pratchett, though (and I don't mean his recent illness). The latter books are much better, tighter and more carefully thought out that some of the earlier ones, I think. I suspect he got a better editor, or sought a better editor.

Michael Hoskin said...

>...and I'm sure commenters can add to the list ad nauseum.

Listing names is fun!

Peter Sellers, Tim Burton, Galileo Galilei, Neil Gaiman, Robert A. Heinlein, Kevin Smith, Milton Berle, Steven Spielberg, Ben Elton, Mel Brooks...

Reid said...

I agree on Lucas, but I compare Carlin's last two books more to a recently signed band that hits it big with their first album. After having a lifetime to write the first album/book, it was suddenly a success. Then there's intense pressure to do it again in a very short period of time.

Carlin's first book had all sorts of material in there that had never been performed, or certainly not regularly. The farther he went, the more word-for-word transcriptions of his acts he included.

Lucas had his entire life to create the movie series he'd always dreamed of, and got about half of it done. Carlin had forty years of prime creativity, and slacked off in his final days. I don't think it was laziness, I just think he needed the money.

In terms of comedy, Dane Cook's a good example of your point. He can do a very funny half-hour. However, he has no crap detector, and his shows tend to go on for an hour, hour-and-a-half of largely forgettable material.

John Seavey said...

King has a pretty good crap detector, yes. Even when he hit the heights of his career, when he was woefully under-edited (and doing cocaine and drinking heavily), he still managed to turn out some good material. But it's the "somewhat self-indulgent" part that's the key, there.

I knew someone would bring up Rowling. :) I'll admit, I enjoyed even her later, larger books, but I'm sure if I went back at them with an editor's eye I'd find stuff to trim.

Pratchett's an interesting one--I suspect that he might not have the kind of ego that lets him ignore editors, a true rarity in a highly successful creative person (and a useful one.)

And Dane Cook...Dane Cook might be the exception to the rule, here, as his routines sound like someone saying every thought that comes into their head, and if that's him saying every thought that comes into his head, then he's living proof that not every creative person has tons of good ideas. :) Energetic delivery style, excellent self-promotion skills, but his material is for shit.

Anonymous said...

This phenomenon is not limited to the "creative" world- you find it in the business world (and dare we mention our current President?)

Anonymous said...

Does it help or hinder if the author is having fun producing his work? My own creative work has gotten a lot of positive feedback, and if it's any good, it's because I've had the creative freedom to do my own thing, without an editor breathing down my neck to keep things in continuity. I put a lot of myself, or what's on my mind, into my work, and if it's good, it's because I have fun with it and I enjoy what I'm doing.

Hence why I write Ultimate-style reimaginings, or otherwise material that only includes canon if I like it. If I had to include canon I didn't like, it'd become more of a chore than something to have fun with, and the overall quality of the work would suffer.

This begs the question of guys like Lucas, as John mentions-does the fun factor affect these things, or are there other factors that affect the quality in a positive or negative way?

Anonymous said...

I think you just explained my problems with Spider-Man 3; it's still generally my favorite of the trilogy (please save your torches and pitchforks to the end of the post), but you get the feeling that someone should have been a bit more judicious in the editing room.

Unknown said...

Pretty spot-on. No matter how good you are, you sometimes turn out crap. Crap that you think is brilliant, crap that you love, but any other person will look at it and go "Oi, that's a pile of crap."

Sometimes, let's not forget, you can also have a very good idea that you just don't implement right. You know all the backstory and so on that makes X idea brilliant, but you don't make it clear to your audience. So you appreciate this awesome nuance, and your audience goes "What the hell was that crap?"

That's where your editors, friendly critical readers, etc, come in handy. They'll spot the idea that you love, but turns out to be crap, and they'll tell you it's a crappy idea and you should rework it. They'll spot your crappy implementation, bring it up to you, and you'll go "Well, you have to understand..." At which point they say "If I have to understand all that, you need to put in the writing so I can!"

That's where the success factor looms. It's a lot harder for someone to say to today's Lucas "Oi, George, this is crap!" because of his reputation, and because the unorthodox ideas worked. It's harder to tell what's crap, and what's genius you don't grasp. And, especially in the business world, you're afraid of being the guy who couldn't see the Emperor's clothes, you know?

So a lot of crap is allowed to slide, simply because either A) the author has too much ego to accept criticism and too much clout to force it on him, or B) the editor is so concerned about not "stifling genius" (and, more sincerely, looking dumb) that they don't put a stop to crap.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Hollywood around actors, writers, and other creative sorts trying to make it in the Entertainment Industry,

and all of them would agree with you.

They told their friends that, if they ever made it, their friends should remember that one of the signs they were in trouble would be that they stopped recognizing the need for directors, editors, and friends who are willing to call a person on his or her BS.

I don't know if Hollywood is still like that today, but I know that it was that way for a long time.