"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Guest Post: Perfect Timing, and How to Get It by Dennis Palumbo

Hollywood on the Couch

The inside scoop on Tinseltown, USA.

Knowing what to write and when to write it

Back in high school, during the late 1960’s, I was part of a tragically un-hip rock band. Desperate to make it big (at least in Pittsburgh), and to ride the wave of the current fashion, we pooled all our available cash and purchased five extremely groovy Nehru jackets. I swear, the very next day, Nehru jackets were “out.” No self-respecting rocker would be caught dead in one.

What this anecdote illustrates, among other things, is the peril of bad timing. I’ve certainly seen this in my work with the creative patients in my therapy practice. Over the years, this painful, maddening aspect of the artistic life has been a common complaint, especially among writers.

“The timing sucked,” a disgruntled TV or screenwriter will say, as another cherished project fails to take wing.

We all know what that’s about. You labor for months on a spec feature script about a murder on a space station, for example, only to learn that a similar idea’s just been put into production. Or you have a great idea for an historical romance, but your agent convinces you it’s not commercial. Then, the following year, two films with similar themes are released to great critical and box-office success.

Recently, I saw an author on PBS whose novel was then riding high on the best-seller lists. He revealed that he’d actually written it 25 years before, but its “government conspiracy”-themed story got it rejected by a dozen publishers.

“This was the post-Watergate era,” he explained. “Political cover-ups weren’t considered sexy anymore.” Only after the recent revelations of the NSA’s dubious actions in the name of national security, and the success of TV series like Homeland, was the author emboldened to send his (updated) manuscript out again. This time it was accepted by the first publisher who read it.

Timing. Every writer has felt its favor and its sting. Certainly, Hollywood is filled with stories of languishing scripts miraculously resuscitated by the interest of an actor who was suddenly bankable enough to get the movie made. Conversely, numerous films and TV series---apparently ahead of their time---appeared before the audience was ready for the material and thus failed.

“So?” you may be saying.The timing of what we write and when we write it is out of our control, right? Case in point: the creators of the cult TV series Archer have portrayed their heroes working for a spy agency called, unfortunately, ISIS. Now, given the current association with that acronym, they’ve announced that the agency’s name will change.

They’re not alone. Every day, films, books and TV series are routinely scuttled by the emotional intensity or political sensitivity of current events. (Just as an equal number of projects seek to capitalize on these same events.)

Yes, timing---like success---is essentially out of our control. However, also like success, there are certain things a writer can do to improve the odds.

For example, writers of all stripes need to be aware of the times in which they live---culturally, politically, and artistically. You might not be lucky enough to write something that hits just as the next wave of the zeitgeist is cresting, but you ought to at least be somewhere near the beach. Nothing is so dispiriting as reading a novel or seeing a film by a veteran writer who seems not to have looked out a window in 20 years.

In addition, the chances of being favored by good fortune (another definition of great timing) improve to the degree to which you apply effort. Pushing yourself to go deeper into character and narrative, to toil more consistently at your craft, to take creative risks. I’m speaking, regrettably, about hard work.

I know too many writers who steadfastly refuse to write a new spec script or take a fresh pass at a novel that isn’t working. In my view, they need to see their task not merely as the completion of this or that project, but as an ongoing, unfolding process of craft-building and discovery, whereby the rewards (if they are to come) arrive unannounced and unforeseen. In which case, success then no longer seems a product of good timing but of dutiful, consistent labor.

As legendary golfer Ben Hogan remarked when praised for his good luck on the green, “Yes, I’m lucky. And the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Does hard work and artistic relevance guarantee that the gods of timing will smile on your efforts? Nope. But then, if you want guarantees, you’re in the wrong business.

However, there’s one thing I can guarantee will reduce even the possibility of good timing in one’s career: attempting to coerce or anticipate it. Like in my story about the Nehru jackets, all such attempts at success by pursuing the currently fashionable are by their nature doomed. Such as trying to write a thriller “just like” the ones topping the best-seller lists. Or trying to craft an R-rated comedic romp “just like” the ones tearing up the box office.

Sorry to say, in terms of mass appeal, that particular ship has sailed. That cultural moment has passed. And while such moments may be occasionally revisited, as with “retro” clothes and re-booted TV shows, the triumphs are brief, little more than nostalgic back-steps on the continuing path toward an unknown future.

See, that’s the paradox of timing: the only possible preparation for showing up at the right time with the right product involves working authentically in the here-and-now, oblivious to what the outcome of your labors will be.

Which brings me back to my sorry little band. Rather than spending money on new jackets, we would have been better off spending more time rehearsing. Not that I’m convinced this would’ve propelled us to rock ‘n’ roll fame and fortune---but, hey, stranger things have happened. It’s all in the timing.

Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), DENNIS PALUMBO is a licensed psychotherapist and the author of the Daniel Rinaldi mystery series. For more info, please visit www.dennispalumbo.com.

Reposted from Hollywood on the Couch

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