Wednesday, March 12, 2014

5 Questions with an Assistant to a Feature Writer/Novelist

Christopher Ming is the writer's assistant to a feature writer and novelist. His website is On Twitter, he's @thisisming.

1. How did you get the job? 

In August 2013 I told my current boss, an agent, that my dream job was to work for a specific client. I spent about 10 - 15 hours brainstorming different ways I could add value to his business, and pitched him 3 suggestions by email. I offered to do any or all, on my own time, for free.

That got our working relationship started. He was always perfectly clear -- he appreciated the help, but there was no guarantee he'd ever be in the position to hire me.

The point being: there was never a job opening. He wasn't looking to hire, he didn't ask for anything. I studied his business and found ways I could improve it (there are always ways), positioned myself to do so, and did it for free.

It took 7 months before he made me an offer.

2. What are the basic duties of your job?

There's the typical assistant stuff, of course -- scheduling, handling email and requests and acting as the liaison between him and various agencies.

It's research heavy as well -- he'll send me questions about a project, and I'll go find the answers. Because he works on books, features, and TV (we're trying to get his first show on the air -- fingers crossed) there's always some reach to do.

A chunk of my time (I'd say 30%) goes towards what I was doing before -- identifying places to improve the business, then doing it. My boss doesn't assign this. I'll spot the issue, and once I get traction on a solution, I'll let him know, "hey, this is something I'm working on."

Quick example: I wanted to build up his web presence, so I start handling his website and his social media. I notice another writer, in a similar genre, is doing some really interesting work. So I reach out to that web master/social media person and we begin emailing. She sounds like she'd be happy to help, so I hope we'll have a phone conversation soon. Then, I let him know that this is in the works.

To be clear: I realize this autonomy isn't easy in many jobs. I think it's how you present yourself in that initial pitch. I presented myself as someone who's always looking to solve problems and add value. So I have the freedom to do it.

3. What are your hours like? Do you have time to write when you're there or do you do that in the off hours?

My hours are, frankly, awesome. 90% of the time I work from home, so I structure my hours to my preference. (This will change when we get a show.) Any of my own writing, I do first thing, so I wake up at 5:30 every weekday and start writing by 6.

As best as I can, I batch my work into two distinctive parts: creative work in the AM, administrative work in the PM. Things like research and examining business opportunities, I handle in the morning. When it's time to deal with scheduling, emails, and executing ideas, I do that in the afternoon. The downside is that technically, I'm on call 24-7. The phone is always on. However, that's not unlike other Hollywood jobs.

I realize this level of independence isn't applicable to everyone. What I've found (with all my bosses) is that the most important thing to communicate is: your investment in their success and failure. When they know you're as invested as they are, they'll trust you to do your own thing. You don't need to be micromanaged. This kind of emotional investment can't be faked. They'll smell it on you. Either you're 100% committed, or you're not.

4. What's something you've learned from your job/boss?

That the key to building a world is research. You have to know every square inch of your world. The research has got to ooze from every pore of your script: settings, characters, dialogue, tone. If you're just winging it, it's going to come through in the writing. Do your research.

5. What advice would you give someone who wants a job like yours or wants to succeed in a job like yours?

Two things:

Find where you can add value, and then go do it. If you want to learn from someone, if you want to work for someone, figure out where they could use help, then execute. For free. You don't need to get paid to help someone, especially if it's someone who inspires you, whose career you aspire to emulate (hopefully both are true if you want to work for them).

How do you find where to add value? Research. What's true for building worlds (see question above) is the same for building your career. Sounds simple, right? But is it easy? No.

For any person you aspire to work for (you should have a few), have you:

Read their entire body of work? Books, scripts, articles, blog posts?

Are you up to date on all the news on them - not just what you find on Deadline, either...I mean, have you dug through 10 Google pages worth of material, combed through their entire Facebook fan page, and through every Tweet they put into the universe (or that they're mentioned)?

Did you read the books they said they read? Have you watched the films that influenced them?

Have you read every single article they were profiled in, or interviewed?

Have you watched every video on Youtube of them: giving a commencement speech, an Interview, or doing a red carpet interview?

For me, this research -- not including reading his books -- took almost 15 hours. The result? I wrote one email. But it was the email that got the attention I needed.

That's part one. Part two, also one word: Patience.

People's general lack of patience astounds me. There are so many moving parts, so many things working against you, and so much competition, the stars need to line up for you to land that dream job. If you're not patient, it won't happen.

I think we read stories about these wunderkinds: the David Karps, Kevin Systroms, Lena Dunhams and Zac Efrons...and we think: why haven't I reached that level of success yet? Plus, it's all compounded by the social media we consume, where everyone inflates their level of happiness and success by, oh I don't know, a factor of bajillion… We forget about the David Chases, the Michelle Ashfords and the Vince Gilligans of the world -- extremely talented people, all who took time to build their careers.

Luck plays a big role in grabbing your dream job, too. However, by adding value, and by being patient, you create more opportunities… until that one day you're "lucky" enough to get an offer.


Benjamin Davis said...

Sage advice from such a young man.

Rachel Upshaw said...

Great interview, especially the part about patience... Glad to learn about his blog too!