How to Choose Between Multiple Creative Projects

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S1: This Ad Free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. Hello and welcome to another episode of Working Overtime Workings bi weekly advice focused Little Sister. I’m your host, June Thomas.

S2: And I’m your other host, Karen Horn. Hi, June.

S1: Hey, Karen. How are you doing today?

S2: I’m pretty good. How are you? I keep well, I just ask you to answer a question, but now I’m just saying more to prevent you from doing it. But I have been thinking about you a lot because I think the episode in which I tell you that I just bought some things will have already aired and I am now telling you that they have arrived. Oh.

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S1: Oh, my goodness.

S2: So thinking of you in my lifetime.

S1: Oh, and I’m thinking about your inks. We’re going to have to bring this to. To the real world.

S2: Definitely. Okay. So now to get back on topic, what is the topic of this week’s episode?

S1: So today I want to respond to a listener for a snap. Here’s what the listener who didn’t leave her name, but we still love you anyway. Anonymous listener wanted to know.

S3: I love working. It’s my absolute favorite podcast and I am hoping you can help me with my current dilemma. I have four ideas that are all niggling at my brain. Each one of them seems to want to be worked on and I don’t know how to settle on one or another. Is there a priority? Of course, if somebody offered me a lot of money to work on one of them, I would do that. But it would require development of one of the four to get to that stage. So how do you decide between these wonderful bubbles that are showing up in your unconscious and then making it to your conscious? Thank you.

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S1: Well, thank you, first of all, for leaving a message. Also working is also my favorite podcast. Isn’t that funny? Coincidence. What a.

S2: Coincidence.

S1: But we really, really love it when people ask us for advice. This is one of those eternal dilemmas. And I feel like I say this a lot of times when we get questions about the creative process, but how you answer depends how much of a factor deadlines and a need to get paid are at this moment in your life. Yeah, like one very legitimate response to this question would be to say, which one do you think is the likeliest to get picked up? And listener, you acknowledged this yourself when you said that if somebody offered you a big bag of money for one of your ideas, you would gladly focus on that one. And you know, I know it might seem crass to be elevating money over art to take that into consideration. But as we always say here, I’m working, the need to eat is real. And also it’s good for your creative confidence to sell something. So I think it’s perfectly fine to prioritize what seems most commercial. It’s not like it’s the only consideration or everyone would be trying to write dumb brown style thrillers or host Joe Rogan style podcasts.

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S2: Don’t go down that road. Don’t do that. Don’t do that. Come to Joe Rogan. That’s not good for anybody.

S1: No, indeed not. So the problem, I think, is that it isn’t always obvious what is most likely to sell what’s most commercial. There isn’t some equivalent of like Google Trends that you can just plug an idea into and get a ranking from. So let’s start there. Karen, do you have any advice for figuring out which idea among several, say, three or four, is most likely to get picked up?

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S2: On a very basic level, if we’re speaking specifically about figuring out what project you’re thinking of, that’s the most easily marketable slash sellable. I think it’s best if you look at what’s really popping right now, do you have something that you can sell as similar where you can say this is the new Yellowjackets or the new squid game? Or Do you have something that nobody else is doing that you can pitch that way? Because being able to convincingly pitch your idea is pretty important. Why is this an important story to tell? Why are you the person who should be telling it? And also, I think in that respect, sometimes it’s just best to go the project that you feel the most passionate about because the more energetic and more jazzed you are about an idea, the more likely the person receiving the pitch will also get that energy. Like they’ll also be like, Oh yeah, like I also should be excited about this. I also am excited about this. One other thing that I’ll add, though, is if you’re not working in a vacuum, there sometimes are like algorithms basically in place. Like I’ve heard friends talk about, like working with a company that like will basically figure out like this sort of genre is what people are looking for right now. This is what the market wants. And sometimes it will sound really stupid and you won’t have any interest in those ideas. But sometimes if you have an idea where you’re like, Oh. Actually, this thing I’m working on does fit into this category that people are looking for. Then why not go ahead and pitch it? And like working with my manager, sometimes he’s been like, Oh, like this is just an example. Like, Oh, Disney Plus is looking for murder mystery. And you can be like, Oh, I have that, I can pitch that. And sometimes then that’s the one that you’re going to want to prioritize.

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S1: That is such great advice. I just have one thing I want to maybe kind of argue with you about, but to take one example of nonfiction books, when you’re trying to pitch one, you have to establish that there’s a certain level of interest in that topic. And when you write your book proposal, you need to show comparable books. And so that the people who will be, you know, considering those proposals, they’re going to look at how those comps sold. And so being the first can be difficult because if, you know, there are a few ideas where people are just going to go, yes, that is amazing, do it. But being a first is really, really hard. So it’s so tricky because you don’t want to be the first, but you obviously don’t want to be the 99th person either so early. But with enough to show a track record. Super, super hard. But do you have any tips about learning from what’s already out there, from those comps, those comparable titles, Karen?

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S2: Oh, boy do I. So on a very broad level, I like I actually do like looking at what’s already out there because it’ll help you learn what to do and what not to do. I feel like I have this kind of advice a lot, but it’s just true that reading or watching or listening to more of the feel that you want to go into will help you learn how to do your job in that field really, really well. And in terms of the difficulty of selling an idea, when you’re the first person to do it, I think it’s actually it is still valuable to see what’s out there. For instance, my book on Bong Joon Ho, this is the first really big kind of monograph on him. But there are other similar books that I can point to that do the same thing with other directors. I also on this front kind of think a lot about the journalist Taylor Lorenz. If you have heard of her. She does a lot of really incredible reporting on Internet culture, basically, and is kind of a pioneer in that field. But the thing is like she’s not necessarily doing something new. She’s covering a new topic. But what she’s doing has been done before because there’s just so many different fields that have to get written about or have to get covered and somebody is going to be the first person to do that. It’s just that the big hill in that point tends to be how do you make people take you seriously? For instance, I think even video games reporting falls in that space where people are just like video games are for kids are brilliant, they’re stupid, why really cover them? But they’re such a huge part of our cultural landscape that it doesn’t make sense not to cover them anymore. And that’s why so many media outlets are starting their video game verticals because they’re like, Oh shit, we also need to do this. It makes no sense for us not to. In the cases where you’re kind of on the vanguard or the forefront of an emerging field, it’s kind of just best to make sure that you keep doing really rigorous work, make sure that you’re working hard because it will pay off because someone has to cover it. Someone has to be doing this work.

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S1: That’s such a great point. I mean, children’s writes amazing things, makes amazing observation, but unfortunately, it has to spend so much of her life kind of defending herself against jerks.

S2: Yeah. Just to do.

S1: Her job and to do her job better than those people that she’s defending herself against do there. So that is it’s both kind of enraging, but also a really great and salutary example.

S2: Yeah, the stuff she has to deal with is insane. It’s really.

S1: Awful. Oh, my goodness. Okay. All right. So having addressed that important dimension money, let’s put commercial concerns aside and just consider how we’d prioritize things if we were already billionaires and we just wanted. Yeah, that was great. My God, it’s nice. Oh, my God. I wish. God, I’m taller, I’m thinner. I’m just.

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S2: I can finally respond to my college’s repeated mailings being like, Can you please do like, I can’t?

S1: So now we’ve now we’re billionaires. We can figure out what project would bring us most joy. We finally have the opportunity. So if you had four or five ideas and you thought they were all pretty good, how would you go about picking just one to work on first?

S2: This can sometimes not be a surefire answer, but I would say my kneejerk answer to this question is if there’s one idea that you can kind of keep brainstorming about longer than the others, if there’s one that generates more ideas, one that you don’t feel any sense of writer’s block about, one that you are really excited and just can’t stop talking about, then that’s a pretty sure sign that that’s the project that you should be pursuing. But in the case that there are more than one project that you feel that way about, it gets a lot harder.

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S1: Should. Oh, my goodness. Yeah. No, but I think you’re absolutely right. But you have to figure out which one excites you the most. Mm hmm. Some other ways of doing that. Like, which one do you find yourself thinking about in the shower? Or as you’re walking to the subway, or when you’re kind of you’re you’re not trying to be creative. What just keeps just forcing itself into you, into the front of your mind, which one has just a grip on your psyche? Another thing that I’ve done in the past is to look at my bookshelves and look for topics or themes that I keep coming back to. Like, what if I spent money on you? Yeah. And then you do have to ask yourself if you have anything to contribute to this topic. Like, maybe you have all those books on your bookshelves and those are all the books that are needed on that topic. You know, an interest isn’t quite enough to pursue something like if the field requires specialized knowledge that you don’t have and you don’t particularly want to game, you shouldn’t work on that. Like I should not write about science. That’s just a fact. And, you know, looking at the evidence of your possessions to see what you have is useful, but it’s not completely dispositive.

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S2: Yeah, I agree that it’s definitely a good starting point, but what you’re saying is totally correct. If you’re not really qualified to be writing at length about a certain topic and you probably shouldn’t do it. But at the same time, if even if you’re not going to write a whole science book, it is, I think, very useful that you have a little bit of knowledge or interest there. It’s sort of like what we were talking about in the last working overtime episode where you can repurpose things, where it’s like, maybe then you’ll just have a character in your book who’s into all this stuff and you’ll have dialogue to give them. For instance, just like I’m obsessed with naval expeditions, but that doesn’t mean that I’m qualified to talk about boats at all. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t include some tidbits and whatever else I’m writing about that kind of thing.

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S1: Well, you always are saying I learned more and more about you, but I learned a lot about you, Karen. A fascinating, fascinating thing.

S2: You have to watch the first season of the terror. It is just incredible.

S1: So that name does not appeal to me. But I will trust you to.

S2: Scary.

S1: It’s not too scary. Okay. We’re going to take a break here, but we’ll be back with more thoughts on how to choose among different competing projects.

S2: Hi listeners. So how do you decide which project you want to work on? Get in touch and share your experiences with us. You can email us at working at Slate.com, or even better, you can call us and leave a message at 3049339675. That’s 304933. w0rk. We look forward to hearing from you.

S1: So the next thing I think needs to be said is a tough one. It may even be the most frustrating part of what can be a very frustrating process, which is that whichever of your competing projects you choose to focus on, you’re going to have to put in a bunch of work before you can put it out into the marketplace. You’ve got to do a lot of research to flesh out the idea, maybe find some fascinating, fresh nuggets that will excite potential publishers, track down sources, and do some interviews. If you want to sell a novel, you need to have a novel written for non-fiction projects. Could just be a magazine piece or a book or a narrative podcast. You don’t have to have the whole thing, but you do need to know the structure, what the story or chapters will be, who the main players will be, what the through line will be, what you think of all this, your take, if you will, and to finding the time to figure all that out before anyone’s paying for your work. It’s really tough. Like I remember asking my agent how people did it when I wrote my proposal. I had a demanding job and I already felt like I didn’t have enough down time. So signing up for a bunch of hard work that might end up being uncompensated wasn’t easy for me to do. And I am very aware that I have way fewer obligations to other people than most human beings do. But you know what? A few months in, I understood, like on a deep physical level why that was an essential part of the process. The proposal that we sent out and that I’m now working on was pretty different from my original idea and I am really, really happy with the way it evolved. My book is about certain iconic locations, and when I started out I had a different idea and then some different locations in mind. And eventually I realized that some didn’t fit, or in one case, I just didn’t care enough about that place to spend a lot of time thinking about it. So I’m not going to pretend that every single weekend I was psyched to tackle that project, but I wouldn’t have sold it. And more to the point, I certainly couldn’t write the book without those six or seven months of work. Karen, what did you learn from the way you conceived of your book and the way you pitched it?

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S2: I think I had a much less fraught experience than you did. Just because the structure of these books that Abrams and Little White Lies puts out is much more kind of defined where there’s one chapter for each movie that the director has made. There’s a chapter that’s interviews with their collaborators. There’s an intro and outro, and that’s kind of like the structure is kind of decided. There’s a little room for variation. For instance, Adam Damon’s book on Paul Thomas Anderson, he puts the movies in chronological order of when the movies take place rather than when Paul Thomas Anderson made them. But it’s still a pretty straightforward structure. Like, it’s not the same as, for instance, like we’ve talked a lot about how Isaac structured his book. Like, it’s not nearly as complicated as that. For me, the main thing was definitely figuring out, I honestly think more as I was writing than when I was putting in the proposal how to make sure these chapters still connect to each other and how to build a kind of coherent portrait of an artist within that text. That said, I think it’s almost two kind of divorced issues where it is very important to have hashed out the structure of your book. But it is at the same time very important to make sure that you’re getting paid for your work. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Or it’s very hard sometimes to motivate yourself to do something that you’re not going to get paid for, especially when you have other projects that you are getting paid for. Or it’s like, it’s not that I don’t want to be working on the book, it’s just that this will not make me that much money right now. It won’t help me in the short term.

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S1: Yeah, this is one of those areas where passion can be, you know, it’s not the kindest thing to have a passion because I agree. Like, why do we do that? We do it because we want to work on the thing that isn’t paying us more than we want to work on the thing that is paying us, that’s about passion, but still got to pay the bills. So that can be really hard. One thing that could potentially shape your priorities that we haven’t touched on yet is if you’re working on something that was tightly time pegged like for an anniversary or timed to coincide with a big cultural event in some way, I am anxious just describing that because like so much pressure, like you have to hit your deadline come what may. And if a big news event happens and the peg doesn’t have the impact everyone was expecting all that work could be for naught, or at least for much less than you expected. Oh, God, I’m sweating. Now, I might just show my lack of ambition by taking that attitude. Karen.

S2: No, not at all. I think you’re completely right. And because. Because it’s something that’s so out of your control. Like the other thing. Like you can control how much you’ve written and how that process is coming along, but you have no control over the outside factors. Even I should clarify a little bit. The book that I’m writing is about the works of the director, Bong Joon Ho. And the way that these books are generally structured is again a chapter per movie. And I know that even in the experience of making these books, it’s been kind of a problem for Abrams, because while you’re writing it, it’s not like the director isn’t doing anything during that time, right? So like the David Fincher book came out and then Mank came out like immediately after it or as it was being printed, I think. So that’s kind of a pain because you want to have that in the book, but there’s just no way to really kind of restart the process and get it back in there. Yeah, if you can move things around to fit a certain schedule, then that’s great. But I also think don’t worry too much about it because the book will still be good. The only thing that you’re missing out on is maybe like a little bit of sales, which if that’s important to you, then it is. But I think ultimately that’s not like the biggest thing you should be worried about.

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S1: With your book. Yeah, that actually is something that I’m really struggling with. And I think probably every person who writes a book who has been doing daily or, you know, web journalism where, you know, you get published minutes after you’ve finished, you know, with the process, like, how do you accustom yourself to thinking, well, this is true now as I’m writing this, this is absolutely true. This is what the person told me yesterday. But by the time the book comes out, will, there’s still the. So it’s such a hard thing to grapple with, but. Mm hmm. Yeah. There’s nothing we can do about that right now.

S2: Sometimes it’s not within your power, and it’s wiser just to let it go.

S1: Let it go. That’s right. Before we go. Before we let this topic go, I want to share. Whoa! I want to share a piece of relevant advice that our working co-host, Isaac Butler, gave in a recent episode of Working Prime. This came up in our conversation after his interview with Lauren REDNISS. He said.

S3: The only way to know whether one of those ideas is going to work at greater length or be worth delving into or whatever is to actually start working on it. You know, you can’t figure it out in your head. I really don’t think you can. It’s like you have this gut feeling of like, I could do something with this, but then you have to sit down and start doing it. You might want to interview some people. You might want to do, you know, go if it’s something in the past. You know, the entire New York Times archive is online, so you might want to keyword search that and start reading some things or go to the library or ask people what they know or you know. You just want to figure out if it has juice because writing a book or making a documentary or, you know, all these things, they’re very long projects. You are going to get sick of what you’re working on. You are going to get angry at yourself. You are going to think about calling your agent and saying, I need to give the advance back. You know, you have to have an idea that’s rich, that’s entertaining to you, that’s going to be constantly feeding you and it being interesting to you because it’s got to sustain you through years and you can’t discover that abstractly.

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S1: Wise words that Isaac Butler is pretty smart.

S2: One of the wisest men that I know. I think he’s totally right. And I also think this relates to another episode of Working Overtime, our previous one, as far as knowing once you’re into deep weather, it’s something you should give up on or keep going on. It’s just a tough question and sometimes it can be very like Self-Flagellating. Yeah, totally.

S1: I mean, it’s also psychological. Maybe one day on the show will come up with some easy questions. But it seems like we do.

S2: Like.

S1: So much of this is like, I just really want to do this. I really want this to work out. Like, I.

S2: Think the easy episode will just be like June talks about her pen collection or.

S1: Something like that. Make it so.

S2: I mean, I want the episode. I want it so bad. I’m so interested in both your and Isaac’s extracurricular, quote unquote activities that I’m like, trying to push aside it, just becoming that I know it won’t. And I promise listeners that we will keep addressing your questions. But my Parasocial relationships with student Isaac are also on the.

S1: Line, just so you know. Karen, right back at you. That’s all the time we have for this episode. But before I go, may I suggest that one of your highest creative priorities should be listening to working every week? And if you like the show, don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have ideas for things we could do better or questions you’d like us to address, we’d love to hear from you. You can send us an email at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at three or 4933w0rk.

S2: And if you’d like to support what we do, sign up for Slate Plus at Slate.com Slash working, plus you’ll get bonus content, including exclusive episodes of slow burn and Big Mood Little Mood, and you’ll be supporting what we do right here on working.

S1: Big thanks to Kevin Bendis and to our series producer Cameron Drewes. We’ll be back on Sunday with a brand new episode of Working. And in two weeks we’ll have another working overtime. Until then, get back to work.