David Levien joined James Altucher to talk about writing, when you’ve done enough research for a story, and the benefits of small actions over time. David has a new book, Signature Kill, which follows Frank Behr who was in City of the Sun which James says “was great.”
The interview begins with David noting to James that his name is pronounced as “le-vean,” saying the pronunciation was “an Ellis Island thing.” Past guest Mark Cuban had the same experiences, his grandfather immigrating as a Chabenisky but changing his name to Cuban.*
In the interview David tells James that his plan always was to become a novelist and filmmaker and after years of working on projects like Rounders, Oceans Thirteen, and (one of my favorites) Runaway Jury he wanted to get back into writing. The only problem was that writing takes time.
When David first moved out to Hollywood he tried to be a writer, but says it was hard. He was working in the film industry, trying to write screenplays, but between crazy hours work and the California lifestyle it wasn’t happening. “When you’re young, you’re not writing as much as you should. You’re hanging out, you’re partying.”
A lot of us have this problem. Past guest Gary Vaynerchuk has a good five minute video to tell you “the most important word ever.”
This time of being in the room may not have directly advanced his writing career, but at least he was in the room. Carol Leifer (#66) says this is one of the best ways to start.
As he built experience, David was also building up some angst. Like plaque in arteries slowly constricts blood flow, he felt like things weren’t moving forward like they should. I “needed to do something drastic” he tells James, “so I quit.” This can be scary, stepping into the unknown, but sometimes we have to do it. Past guest Ryan Holiday (#18) wrote much the same thing when he dropped out of school to work with Robert Greene, “I was petrified of making a mistake. But then I made the leap.”
Levien went to New York and hunkered down on his writing project, turning out something that was “confused garbage” but was done. This act of finishing was a big deal, Levien saying it was “empowering.” Steven Pressfield writes that finishing is even more important, “finishing is the critical part of any project. If we can’t finish, all our work is for nothing.”
Eventually David teamed up with long time friend, Brian Koppelman (#59) to start writing together. David says he had an idea about what made a good screenplay, telling James that when he was Hollywood he read early drafts of Quentin Tarantino’s work and was blown away. Tarantino he says was “a totally unique voice” who rather than produce another Rom Com derivative was creating new things. Tarantino was applying 10X thinking.
10X thinking is what Nassim Taleb leveraged (he calls it asymmetrical thinking) and more recently Planet Money did an episode about finding arbitrage in a stock. In 2010 an investment fund was looking for other investments and began poking around a Chinese company with a Princeton Review business model; coach students on entrance exams.
There was just one problem. Their website sold no products and their building was vacant. That fund shorted the stock and make a lot of money.10X thinking.**
Tim Ferriss talked about 10X thinking in an episode with Dr. Peter Diamandis who encouraged people to not create another photo sharing, social media, pictures of your food app. Diamandis told Ferriss that people should find something that can change the world.
Returning to the interview, James asks David about the themes of his writing. James has been digging around for themes in a lot of his interviews with writers. He confronted Simon Rich (#83) with the idea that he puts absurd ideas in normal circumstances, to which Rich copped “that’s my whole gimmick.” With Ben Mezrich (#84) he brought up this idea too, noting that he finds areas “where high stakes meet gray areas.” With David he doesn’t get as clean an answer, more the macro idea to create something unique and put characters in a challenging situation. Stephen King gives a more descriptive answer, writing that starting with a strong situation, “renders the whole question of plot a moot point…the most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question.”
Not a short amount of the conversation is about poker and the Mayfair club but one thing to note was the confluence of ideas that it took to make poker poplar. Watching poker pre-2002 was like watching an NFL game a week later. Part of the problem was no hole card camera. Poker until that point was more of a summary of games and rarely a final table. New camera technology let ESPN broadcast tables as they were live. The people watching on TV finally were able to know more than the players at the table.
David says that he and Brian spent a lot of time at the Mayfair club “filling the bucket” of research before they were ready to make the movie. Take this scene from Rounders, David says they “literally saw Phil Hellmuth do this.”
After collecting everything they needed, David and Brian retreated to write the story. Good material combined with Hollywood connections sounded like a solid formula. Except it wasn’t. Despite his connections, there were no nibbles on the script.
At this time David says, “circuitously my book into a literary agent’s hands” who offered to read over it (remember that “confused garbage”, well he spent years rewriting it). A week later the agent got back to David and said he could probably sell the book. David and Brian had just finished Rounder and David told the agent that he had another project that maybe the guy could also look over, which he did. He came back to David and Brian and said, “I can sell this faster.”
People initially didn’t want to buy Rounders because it was sedentary and different. The people writing it (Levien and Koppelman) were thinking in a 10X way, the people buying it has 2X thinking. Eventually it got sold and one of the lessons David learned during this and other writing adventures was that :
In a very short amount of time per day, as long as you stick to it in a very dogged manner, you can can end up with a finished piece of work.
But this is hard because:
It seems brutal when you’re toiling in obscurity. (Tweet This)
Rounders came out in 1998 and it led to other movies for Levien, most notably Oceans 13 where he says the filming was “just like Entourage.”
After all the movies he felt a pull to get back to writing, telling James, “when you’re doing something creative, you have to find different ways to say fresh.” David needed to rest one creativity muscle and train another.
James has – aware of it or not – been giving creativity advice in the form of idea muscle training. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “creativity is associative memory that works exceptionally well.” This happens because, in Kahneman’s words, of our System 1 thinking. System 1 can do a lot of stuff, like being creative, but it does not like to expend any extra energy. As such, it pulls together the easiest connections available. You know the Super Bowl is coming up, so finish this word: ___ball.
What did you say? I’ll note my guess at the end, but if it was something affiliated with the game that as your System 1 answering the question and moving along to this paragraph.*** What happened in our mental attic was that you were primed to think about a certain sport, and because that was present in your mind, you drew one word for the blank rather than another.
This all comes back to idea lists, idea sex, and the daily practice because in those actions we build up the connections our System 1 can make. It’s like exploring the woods and forming paths between the trees so that the next time we are in the woods we can navigate quite easily.
During his return to novel writing, David listened to Personal Power by Tony Robbins to help jump start his creativity. In his interview Koppelman mentions Tony Robbins and both used The Artist’s Way too.
For David, a moment of enlightenment occurred when he discovered that his commute into the city was a prime time to write, so instead of driving he hopped on the train and began writing. “Form followed function” and eventually he ended up with a book with tight chapters and quick pacing. David had to fight resistance to not write though, and resistance is tough. Steven Pressfield coined the term and writes:
Most of us have two lives. The life we live and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.. Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be.
David uses an app metaphor, he had to do was “nudge the ball along.” When Pressfield writes about Resistance the ball is at rest and the laws of physics apply to it, keeping the ball at rest until an outside force acts on it. David broke Resistance with a nudge. His story had been simmering a long time, but not until he had his first child did he feel ready to write it. Stephen King says that these are the best ideas, commenting that he doesn’t record ideas and trusting the good ones to stick around.
The end of the interview is all about writing and telling stories, something that David also says differs between visual scenes and the written word. “A movie has to be on rails” he tells James, whereas a book can explore something, whether it’s 200 or 800 pages. Simon Rich told James the same thing, “a book can just be” and Alex Blumberg (#84) found that even the middle ground of radio can’t translate the same way and making TV “is such a gigantic pain in the ass.”
David and James wonder how franchise crime writers do it, turning out a book every year. Before drafting these notes I had no idea, but wow was I missing out. This article on Grantland about Lee Child was incredibly rich. To get a book done every year – to which he is “never late” – Child “writes from noon until six or seven p.m. During that period, he drinks around 30 cups of coffee, eats stingily, and chain-smokes.”
The other big bright name on the bottom of the cover is James Patterson who has a different strategy, he has a stable. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Patterson says that he writes an outline which a co-writer then contributes to. After that, the co-worker sends his work over every few weeks and Patterson decides, “This is terrific, I love the way it’s going,” or “We’ve come off the tracks somehow.”
The interview ends with the guys talking about how TV has changed and gotten more complex. There is actually a book about this idea – and one that predicated Lost and The Wire – Everything Bad is Good For You. If you need to make the case that Halo is good for you, this is the book. No need if you watch Parks and Rec, that show is good for everyone.
Part of what makes these shows great is the extra large arcs that they have. David is currently working on a concept for Showtime, and while he hasn’t written them out, he tells James that they have an idea about where the show might go. Craig Turk, showrunner of The Good Wife talks about the different arc they have:
Here’s what the first season looks like, and here’s what the second seasons looks like, and here’s what season five looks like. Because ideally when you sell a television show, they want to know they’re going to get a hundred episodes out of it and get to syndication. So, you want an idea that sort of, you know, that’s potentially that rich. I don’t think in the history of television it has ever gone that smoothly, and I’ll give you an example. At the beginning of the year we sketched out, what we’ll do, what’s the season about? Then we’ll do arcs for characters, and then we’ll break it down to episodes. And we’ll have ideas for cases that we want to do, things we read in the newspaper, things that, you know, we saw on Colbert, anything that sort of strikes you as something that would be interesting and rich as a takeoff point.
Thanks for reading. Let me know what I missed, muffed, or mistook, @MikeDariano.
* This is an interesting idea, if you have good information about why, how, and other details about people switching names when immigrating I would appreciate knowing about it.
** Parts of the Tony Robbins (#62) book focus on the financial angles of 10X thinking.
*** Football! That was a crappy experiment if you got anything but that.