Picture this. Someone walks up to you—at a convention, a get-together, or behind the closed doors of an agency—and says, “Okay, tell me about what you’re working on.” You do so, with skill and fire, because you’ve been rehearsing your pitch to death and you could deliver it blindfolded and with one collapsed lung.
It pays off. They say the magic word: “Interesting.” Now you’ve got them! you tell yourself. Everything after that, once you’ve got them murmuring “interesting” to themselves, is an easy skate downhill. If only because that first part, enlisting people’s interest in the first place, is such a hump.
And a big part of how you get people over that hump—in theory, anyway—is by picking a setting they just can’t resist finding out more about. If they can’t get enough of it, then they’ll tell their friends and spread the love, and you’ll have that many more people kicking in your door for a taste of your invention.
The hard part, though, is figuring out what’s interesting. Doubly so when your idea of what’s interesting may be strongly at odds with what everyone else thinks is interesting.
If it sounds like I am leading up to an admission of guilt on that score, then I plead doubly guilty. I’ve discovered, through too many circumstances and happenstances to relay here without abusing my posting privileges, that when it comes to what I think people will be interested in for a given work, I have it dead backwards. It’s my own prejudices at work, and I know it. The things I think are fascinating are lost on other people, and things that excite most other people don’t even elicit so much as an erg of a what’s-that from me.
This gets in the way, as you can well imagine, when I try to contrive things—whether they’re settings or stories—which are intended to have some degree of mass appeal. I had fun (in a very estranged sense of the word “fun”) with this a year and change back when I presented some friends of mine with a list of Things I Might Be Working On. Four of them were ideas I had been nursing along for some time, and which I felt were downright sensational. The fifth was in a throwaway vein, one where my train of thought while adding it to the bottom of the list went exactly like this: If someone gave me this as a potential story starter, I’d bow my head in shame, but maybe I can do something with it that doesn’t sound hopelessly pedestrian.
The first four were rejected outright.
The fifth was treated like FRIED GOLD.
I put my head down on the table in front of me (after first taking two Anacin for the thumper of a headache that had come on) and tried to figure out where I had gone wrong. Was it me or them? Did I really have a terrible nose for what would draw people in, or was I just a bad explainer—with the consequence of that being the easy-cheesy idea had been all the easier to make comprehensible to people? Or was there something in the tap water?
Some time later—on a train ride, actually, when the sight of the blur of houses outside worked as a nice head-clearing exercise—the whole crazy thing came back to mind, and an answer or two suggested themselves. First was the whole vexatious question of whether or not my ideas had been more genuinely interesting. No, it wasn’t the ideas themselves that were the problem: it was my pitches for same. I was a bit more certain of that now. I’d done a lousy job of evoking the very things in them that were supposed to be unique, engaging, jolting, interesting … because I’d assumed all that stuff would have been self-evident.
How you talk about something makes a lot of difference, and what people read into that makes even more difference. One of the reasons Hollywood is hung up on high-concept pitches is because everyone’s time is short, but also because there’s a basic principle of creativity being invoked: it’s more effective to spin a great many elaborations out of a single, basic conceit than it is to take something large and sprawling and generate from that a distillation of its essence. A tight, basic concept is more interesting because it tickles the “audience” part of the brain.
What’s more, we have a tendency to let our curiosity and our tastes limit us, both when we’re in the audience and when we’re up in front of it. We think this is interesting and that’s not, but we don’t go a step further and say, “What about this would be found interesting to someone who’s not me?”
This goes double for a setting or a world, I think, because we tend to build the worlds or settings that reflect our own curiosities about things. In doing so, we forget, or at least downplay, what’s interesting to other people. This is a tough trap to work around, not least of all because it’s precisely that kind of maverick, break-away-from-the-pack thinking which results in creative work most interesting to people. But the most wild, flamboyant, idiosyncratic work won’t make good on any of its promises unless people can see what there is in it to connect with.
What people connected with in the “easy” idea I’d floated was hard to pin down, but I think I know now that it was I was unafraid to make it sound entertaining. I had so much invested emotionally in the first four ideas that I tried to make them sound serious and grave. The fifth one came out sounding like fun—or at the very least, like something where the barrier of entry wasn’t obscenely high for an audience.
My idea of fun, in short, wasn’t their idea of fun. And likewise, my idea of interesting was in conflict with their idea of interesting.
I’ll have more to say about this next time.