How to Let People Take Over Your Baby, or, Sunk CostsComplications Ensue
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Saturday, May 01, 2010

A few times in the past few years I've had projects that interested people who could make them happen, who saw them differently than I did.

As a writer, you always have the option of blowing these guys off. It's your project, and if you really hate the thought of someone else reshaping your material, you can always say no.

Of course, then, it may not go. It is quite risky to walk away from the enthusiasm of someone who can make your project happen. Enthusiasm is rare. People who can actually make it happen are much rarer. But still, even when you meet someone with both, if that person wants to change the material, every creator's natural impulse is going to be to try to persuade them that the material is perfect the way it is.

It's normal. But it's not necessarily wise.

Here's how I try to think about it: if this weren't my material, and I was asked to make the changes, would I be thrilled to be hired on board?

Say you have a fabulous science fiction idea set on a spaceship, and it turns out no one wants spaceship shows. You really think the material would work best on a spaceship. But the question you have to ask yourself isn't, "Would I rather write this on a spaceship?" but "If I were asked to write this in a contemporary city, would I be thrilled to do it?"

One common human error in all walks of life is to consider the sunk costs. You've spent $10,000 fixing up your car and it just threw a rod. If your car simply threw a rod, you'd probably junk it -- the engine is ruined. But having spent $10,000 already, you don't want to face the loss. So you have a new engine put in the car, to "save" your $10,000.

Say you've spent ten years writing a novel or script, it's a flawed idea, it still doesn't work, and it's not selling. It would take three months to make it presentable. Last night, you had a great idea, you see the whole thing, and you could write it up in three months. If you had the bad and the good idea just yesterday, you'd never bother with the bad idea, you'd just bang out the good idea. But you've spent ten years on the flawed idea, so you keep working on it instead of the good one.

All human beings have the impulse to throw good money after bad, or good efforts after bad.

But it's wise to ignore how much energy or resources you put into something, and simply consider where you are now.

Don't ask yourself, "Is this the future I wanted for my project?" Ask, "If I were asked to come on board this project now, how would I feel?"

Often, the answer is, "I would be overjoyed."



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