How Beau Willimon writes House of Cards

‘Don’t write. Instead, go do something that will make you happy.’

‘You’re still here? Congratulations, you’re a writer. You’d crawl through the desert to tell a story’.

Beau Willimon wrote for theatre for twenty years. Four years ago he had his big break when Netflix purchased two seasons of House of Cards. At SxSW 2015, he gave us some insight on how he writes the episodes. Moreover, he encouraged everyone to keep writing, even though your work isn’t recognized yet. “The important dramatists from a hundred years ago are forgotten. So will you, hundred years from now. But remember, we’re standing on their shoulders. Future writers will be standing on yours.”

Writing House of Cards

Willimon’s team members come from different backgrounds. “I need people around me who have different ideas than me”, he said. “I have a diverse team for a different voice, a unique voice. I want the diversity of imagination.”

Willimon’s team consists of  six writers, a writing assistant and a script coördinator. He works with them in an apartment with high ceilings and natural light. On the first day of writing a season, Willimon uses the first two hours to tell his team where the new season should head.

Beau Willimon at SxSW 2015, photo by Yuki Kho.
Beau Willimon at SxSW 2015, photo by Yuki Kho.

The Bible

After Willimon shared the big idea, he and his team spend six weeks on writing ‘the bible’. That’s a 60 to 70 page document which contains the most important storylines – the heart of the series  –  to which they’ll continuously refer while writing the episodes. There’s a grid in the bible in which every main character and subject – like ‘America Works’ or ‘Russia’ in season 3 – has its own row. Every column reflects an important step in the storyline. When filling the grid, they start with filling the last column. In other words: they start with the end.

After running the bible past Netflix, Willimon and his team write the complete season episode by episode. Every episode gets its own theme, like ‘good statecraft’ or ‘betrayal’. Willimon calls it a ‘trial and error game’. “It’s like throwing pasta against the wall and see what sticks. Of a 1.000 ideas, 990 are bad, eight are mediocre and only two are great. Most of the time in the room is spent failing’.

‘I’m going to die’

Not that Willimon let’s the failing take him down. “Every morning I think: ‘I’m going to die. That’s actually a comforting thought, since the day can only get better after that. Moreover, failure is a sign you’re taking a risk.  It’s what makes the process rich and valuable.”

So now you now how Willimon writes House of Cards. But actually, he considers this knowledge quite useless. “There’s no schematic approach to writing. You can’t reproduce the process. Even I don’t want to know how to write the next House of Cards season. You have to figure it out for yourself. That’s the beauty of the process.”

The talk show I always wanted to organize

When the Russian impressario Sergei Diaghilev (1872 – 1929) staged a performance with his Ballet Russes, he sometimes asked Coco Chanel for the costumes. Jean Cocteau wrote the scenario. Pablo Picasso painted the decor. Igor Stravinksy composed the music. Vaslav Nijinsky danced and George Balanchine choreographed.

Just picture that for a moment. All these giants working for the same ballet company. I’d love to organize an evening about the Ballet Russes. Not just to celebrate how ballet can bring all these art forms together. But also to use the company’s big names to attract a new crowd: young people who may have never visited the ballet, but who’d give it a shot when they heard about these unique collaborations from the 1920’s.

That’s why I joined the Steering Committee of the Dutch National Opera & Ballet’s Young Patrons Circle. I know, it’s a mouthful, but our mission is simple: getting people between 21 and 40 interested in opera and ballet. We’ll do this by organizing events around the performances and trips to other companies all over the world.

The Young Patrons Circle of the Dutch National Opera and Ballet

I feel like this is a logical next step for me after organizing Literaturfest, a Dutch literary talk-show where three guests would talk about their favorite book. During our live shows in Amsterdam, we interviewed Donna Tartt about Charles Dickens, Gary Shteyngart about Vladimir Nabokov, Chad Harbach about David Foster Wallace, David Sedaris about George Saunders and Edgar Keret about Kurt Vonnegut. Guest couldn’t just freely use references that half the audience would miss, they really had to talk about what they liked about the book itself. This made it an accessible yet intelligent talk show about literature. Here’s an example:

Ever since then, I enjoy interviewing connoisseurs about their art forms in such a way that everyone can follow what they’re saying. I hope to offer the audience and myself a set of references that helps us in learning to appreciate fine arts.

So now I hope to do the same with the Dutch National Opera & Ballet. I’ll keep you posted on future events. Maybe that evening about the Ballet Russes will be in the cards.

I’ll leave you with a ballet video that went viral this week (how encouraging). Watch Sergei Polunin of the British Royal Ballet dance to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church”. David LaChapelle directed the video and Jade Hale-Christofi choreographed the dance.

P.S. If you’re interested in the Ballet Russes and you haven’t this biography of Diaghilev yet, please do so. It’s an incredible account of how Diaghilev literally used everything he got to organize performances. One of the most inspiring books I’ve read in my life.

Bringing journalists and technologists together on February 18th

On February 18th, my colleague Dimitri Tokmetzis and I will talk about how we try to encourage members of De Correspondent to share their knowledge.

We’re invited by Eva de Valk. She organizes Hacks/Hackers, a meet-up that should bring journalists and technologists together. I’m a big fan of this idea, since journalists alone can’t figure out the future of their profession. They’ll need the people who are actually building the new platforms for journalism.

Hacks/Hackers is part of an international organization with chapters worldwide.

Hope to meet you there! Practical info:

De Correspondent and reorganizing a journalistic platform – Hacks/Hackers – Amsterdam (Amsterdam) – Meetup.
Wed Feb 18, 6:00 PM. At the Silk offices, Spuistraat 239-3, Amsterdam

 

Why I won’t be late to any party anymore (thanks to bitcoin)

Today we are pleased to announce that Coinbase has raised $75 million in Series C financing, the largest funding round to date for a Bitcoin company. This brings our total capital raised to $106 million.

I wonder whether this news will cause the buy price of bitcoin to climb.

I use Coinbase to buy bitcoin. Big fan actually, but lately I’ve started associating it with nosediving. When I bought bitcoin, I think the buying price was around 300 euros, now it’s a mere 180 euros.

In 2011, I worked as chief digital at NRC Handelsblad, a Dutch newspaper company. During that time, almost every developer there bought bitcoin. Had I done so too, I would’ve been close to a millionaire now.

(I’m afraid those developers sold too early, by the way)

Bitcoin, my personal history of shame
Bitcoin, my personal history of shame

Bitcoin pushed me over the edge: I’ll never come late to a party anymore. It happened to me with Twitter, I joined in October 2007 after laughing about it for months. Right when the happy days had ended. And it happened to me with bitcoin. My current policy is to try *everything* that my friends or colleagues consider worth while and see whether it has value for me too. Also, I subscribed to Product Hunt.

As for bitcoin. Smart people like super VC Fred Wilson are believers and I’m impressed by the possibilities of the blockchain and how it can help us to identity ourselves online (without selling our souls to Facebook). I joined in because bitcoin just wouldn’t disappear, and that intrigued me. Is this currency and the technology behind so grand that mere mortals like me won’t understand? So I don’t mind the low value. I just see it as a stake in the future of the web.

I guess that’s the main reason I don’t want to arrive late at a party anymore. It’s not about the money or the number of followers, I just want to understand why these services (or currencies) are so loved by people I know.

Richard Linklater’s films are like therapy

This weekend, I watched three films in a row: Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) & Before Midnight (2013). I had heard about this trilogy, but never got around watching it. Then I found out director Richard Linklater also directed Boyhood (2014). I wanted to see whether these three movies would also captured ‘love’ in the way Boyhood captured the ‘start of our adult lives’.

The Before-trilogy revolves around Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) who meet each other on a train to Vienna. They fall in love right away and Jesse invites Celine to hop off the train in Vienna, even though she’s headed to Paris. She does. What happens in the next eighteen years, is something you should find out yourself.

Part 1 made me feel old, part 2 made me feel glad for the choices I have made in own life and part 3 prepared me for what’s next.

Linklater’s films are like therapy. They help you reflect on your own life and make you realize some of the best things are already behind you, and that you should have enjoyed them more. I don’t regret this, it will just help me appreciating the current beautiful things in life more.

I guess all art helps you reflect on your own life, it’s just that Linklater isn’t very subtle about it. He doesn’t ask a lot from his audience, and I could really appreciate that on a binge-watch Saturday night.

‘Self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others’

Last night I finished reading Joan Didion’s classic essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). I especially liked the first stories about the stranger side of American society, which she wrote for The Saturday Evening Post. She sings praises for John Wayne, who many considered old-fashioned then, and explains America’s fascination for airplane tycoon Howard Hughes. But the essay that really made a lasting impression, the one that still comes back to me a week later, is On Self-Respect:

“The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others — who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without.”

It serves as a constant reminder that ‘character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.’ You can read the essay on the site of the magazine it originally appeared in: Vogue.

(Photo of Didion taken by the great Jill Krementz, copy/pasted from the Writers at Work collection.)

In response to @ev: these are our metrics for success

I want to go as far as saying that this article by Evan Williams alias @ev – who (co-)founded Blogger, Twitter and Medium – is already a classic, even though it appeared online today.

Because I haven’t seen anyone else explaining the difficulty of measuring the success of a new media company in such a clear way as Williams does.

He shares a great example from his own experience:

Medium had its biggest week ever last week — or so we might claim. By number of unique visitors to medium.com, we blew it out of the park. The main driver was a highly viral post that blew up (mostly on Facebook). However, the vast majority of those visitors stayed a fraction of what our average visitor stays, and they read hardly anything.

That’s why, internally, our top-line metric is “TTR,” which stands for total time reading. It’s an imperfect measure of time people spend on story pages. We think this is a better estimate of whether people are actually getting value out of Medium. By TTR, last week was still big, but we had 50% more TTR during a week in early October when we had 60% as many unique visitors (i.e., there was way more actual reading per visit).

TTR is essentially the least worst metric for Medium, Williams writes. And he concludes to say how hard it is to find the right metrics for your new media company.

De Correspondent’s metrics for success

At De Correspondent, we focus on three metrics. We trusted, like Williams says, ‘our gut’ by determining them. Because we’re a subscription-based outlet, this is probably a lot easier for us than for a service like Medium.

  1. How much people sign up for a membership every month (which costs 60 euros a year).
  2. How many members read at least one article per month.
  3. How many members stay with us after year one.

The last couple of months, the average of new members is around a 1,000 per month. And 60 percent of our members read at least one article per month (when logged in). 80 percent of the members don’t cancel their subscription.

Our goal for 2015 is to double the growth of new members per month and to improve the user experience of our platform. We need better navigation, dossiers and, yes, a search feature other than Google. These improvements will hopefully lead to even more active members and a lower cancel rate.

How to become an effective writer. These five steps worked for me

I used to spend too much time on writing. Sometimes it took me a whole day to write a post of only 500 words. When I look back on these days of toil, I realize the actual writing had only cost me around an hour. The other hours were devoted to staring at the screen and relentlessly editing the article. My mistake? I had mixed two writing processes:

  1. the writing process
  2. the editing process

I think the second process is easy to get started with. It feels like a job that has to be done. A check mark in a box. But the first process, the writing itself, is a different matter. That’s what they’ve invented procrastination for. That’s why there are so many web sites and magazines about productivity. Coming up with the right story and words is incredibly hard.

No, let me rephrase that. Getting in the flow for coming up with the right story and words is incredibly hard.

I used to allow all sorts of things to distract me while writing. My phone and desktop notifications were obvious culprits. But the biggest distraction of all didn’t seem like a distraction. Actually, I thought it was part of my productive behavior.

Well, no.

Because there’s nothing more distracting during the act of writing than editing.

I behaved like a menacing editor

You might recognize my old behavior. I wrote a sentence and hit the period key. But before starting a second sentence I already found my cursor back at the second word and replacing it with a better synonym.

I kept repeating this. I behaved like a menacing editor criticizing every sentence seconds after I had written it down. No wonder it sometimes took me a day to come up with a short blog post.

By separating the writing and editing process, I’ve become an effective writer. No more staring at blank screens. No more cursing at my text. I get in a flow and the words just come streaming out.

Here’s how I work these days.  Continue reading How to become an effective writer. These five steps worked for me

Finally watched ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’

Last night, I watched this documentary about Aaron Swartz (1986 – 2013). He was the co-founder of Reddit, RSS and the Stop Sopa campaign.  Impressed by how relentless this wunderkind lived. Basically he died because he wasn’t interested in the start-up money and fame, but pursued his ideals for a better world. Both a very tragic and inspiring documentary.

(Thanks to Tim and Erik for the HT)