THE BLOG

Three Is the Magic Number

09/24/2013 06:00 pm ET

Recently I was walking from my production company's offices on the Fox lot when my friends Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, creators of How I Met Your Mother, came around the corner. They were walking with a younger writer -- and halted, wide-eyed, at the sight of me.

"That is so weird!" Craig said. "We were just instructing our friend here on the Three Things."

"This," Carter said, grandly indicating me, "is the originator of the Three Things theory."

The younger writer shifted uneasily. "Yeah, I'm still working on it," he muttered, the confession of a humble pilgrim. Craig and Carter nodded at him sternly from either side.

I should explain the Three Things. I should also explain that I am hardly anyone's guru. I am a typically desperate member of Hollywood's increasingly desperate creative community, flailing to launch the worthy projects of great writers. The Three Things is just my conviction that every one of those writers should always be working on at least three things at once.

Of course, this makes some mathematical sense: given the current landscape of grudging movie studios and fickle television networks, given the spontaneous combustion of seemingly promising ventures and the unconscionably long processes of bringing even luckier "go" projects to life, we'd all be idiots to throw all our efforts into one precious venture. But it's about more than just gaming the system with volume: it's about staying emotionally sane with balance. Pouring yourself exclusively into a single creative work -- one beloved show, one buzzworthy screenplay, one surefire pilot, one can't-miss pitch -- leaves you vulnerable to being shattered at any time by a single bit of bad news. Even two projects is too few, leaving you just two bad phone calls or dismaying emails away from the terror and despair of an utterly blank slate. Tricycles were built for safety, to survive a random bump or puncture without careening into a painful crash. Unicycle: not so much. Establishing a healthy creative life in Hollywood is about the long haul, about expecting the sudden blowouts that will certainly befall your projects and engineering ways to keep rolling despite them.

The problem is that there has always been a swollen romance attached to the obsessive creative pursuit of one thing. I myself lived off that romance when starting my professional life as a novelist in New York City. It took me two years of romantic and obsessive effort to write my first book; four to deliver my second; over half a decade to render my third. And in the midst of each off-kilter, all-encompassing, tunnel-visioned attempt at singular creative perfection, I was inspired by the tradition of authors like Marcel Proust, who spent 14 years penning Remembrance of Things Past, the last three from his sickbed, in a feebly heroic effort to complete a lone masterwork before he died. However, what I've learned in my ten years in Los Angeles is that a viable writing career here in the twenty-first century does not depend on just how hard, long and single-mindedly you're willing to bleed for one cause. If Proust wrote in Hollywood today, his overall deal with Warners would have been terminated after 18 months and an HBO show "in the same area" would have been announced on Deadline and killed his book. Speed, diversity, and wide-ranging ambition are crucial in a town where the forces against creative completion are lined up like snipers at a shooting gallery. The key, now more than ever, is to always have more projects underway than any vicious sniper can kill.

After all, I recalled after watching Carter and Craig and their dutiful apprentice walk off, How I Met Your Mother was in fact their second-position project the year they developed it. Their primary pilot was a much surer bet for a more likely network -- until it was unexpectedly killed.

Yeah, that's the thing about our business. The Three Things, at the very least. May we all find safety in our numbers, and find sanity amid the naysaying madness by having as many great ideas as we can.