Thursday, January 28, 2010

Should I Have a Plan B?

Dustin writes: I'm having a dilemma right now between how much I should focus on my vocation (TV writing) and my plan B career. How common it is for there to be writers who are staffed after having a previous full-on career? And I don't just mean day-job, but careers like lawyers and mid-level office managers, marketing, etc.

I moved to Los Angeles right before the writer's strike, and unable to find any job in Hollywood, I ended up moving into the marketing industry. What started out as a day job assisting a publicist turned into something I became very passionate about. I was still able to write, but definitely did not make as much progress in terms of improving quality and producing pages as I have now that I've been laid off, or, I imagine, as I would bagging groceries at Ralph's. Again I'm looking for work, and this time really focusing on getting a job in the industry. But the only calls I'm really getting for interviews are coming from the marketing side.

I know there is no correct answer in regards to how hard important it is to work in the television industry as an assistant (specifically writer's assistant), but if a paycheck and the economy pulls my day-jobbing completely away from the industry and I end up developing a career in marketing, I worry I'll never get to where I really want to go. How common is it for TV writers to had full on previous careers? Am I just stressing out for nothing? I am writing nearly every day after all.

I definitely understand where you're coming from - and I think we all have a lesson to learn here: when your original plan doesn't work out, you need to formulate a new plan to keep moving ahead with your writing career (I definitely had to).

As for whether writers have had other careers first: Yes, absolutely. Sometimes it's actually seen as a positive thing because of the unique perspective you'll bring to a show. Criminal Minds showrunner Ed Bernero has even gone on the record saying that he doesn't like to staff people who have come straight from film school or assistant jobs and haven't had the "life experiences" of another career. I don't think you should worry about this, since every writer has a different background. What you should worry about is whether pursuing another career will sidetrack you.

Here's my take:

1. Try to find an industry job. In the beginning, these really are the best day jobs for aspiring writers. I think this is essential for the learning experience and the contacts you'll make. If you never have an industry job, how do you plan to get your scripts inside? Some people are lucky enough to have really strong contacts without toiling as a PA, assistant, etc. - but most of us aren't.

2. If you can't find an industry job, find the job that will pay you the most money. Life in LA is expensive, and you want to be able to experience it without going into massive credit card debt. For you, it sounds like marketing is the way to go. But always be on the lookout for that industry job, because of all the reasons I listed in #1. I blogged before about an interview with TV writer Scott Rosenberg, who quit his industry job to be a truck driver. But he did work in the industry first. If he didn't, I bet he wouldn't have had the connections (or knowledge) to transition from truck driver to TV writer. You need to position yourself in the best way possible, and do everything you can (whether it's applying for fellowships, attending events or studying your craft) to succeed.

3. Always be writing. The downside to some industry jobs (like working on a show) is that 12-hour days will get in the way of your writing. You have to figure out the right balance. You say you're writing nearly every day - so it sounds like your marketing gig is a good day job to pair with writing on the side. I would probably only opt for the Ralph's idea if it wasn't.

4. Don't get stuck on autopilot; keep re-assessing how your plan is working out. If you spend three years in marketing and you don't feel any closer to being a paid TV writer, it might be time to make a change. Same thing if you work 12 hours a day on a show and haven't been able to finish a script.

Lastly, Dustin - whether you want to give up on TV writing and pursue a career in marketing is completely up to you. Do what makes you happy. This business is too hard, too frustrating and too time-consuming for people who don't really love it.

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Mar said...

gotta agree with do with makes you happy.

i went to a panel once with actors (that's what i aspire to) and david hyde pierce from 'frasier' was there. he shared a story with us about a teacher who told him that if he could do ANYTHING else, you SHOULD DO SOMETHING ELSE. if you can be a doctor, a dentist, a teacher, you should do it.

but if you wake up every day wanting to be an actor (or a writer, or a marketer) and you can't see yourself being anything else -- then do it.

obviously if you have a family to support or other things to keep you out of debtors prison, it's harder to make choices to follow your passion. if you don't? you gotta do what makes you happy.

Dan Williams said...

Good advice.

I left university after getting my M.A. in English just so I could get some "real world experience" and so I wouldn't get too caught up in academia, because my goal was to become a writer.

The job was in an office of a life insurance company. It taught me a lot and most of it concerned the real motives why people do things in such an environment. Which was good, for a writer.

But there were two problems. First, I just couldn't seem to master writing technique fast enough. So I had to keep working at understanding the craft before I could produce good enough work.

Second, I was a fish out of water. Getting promoted didn't really interest me. So after a few years, you realize you have to move on, to make room for somebody who really belongs in that office.
But for a while, the paycheck is good.

I think a way to accelerate learning the craft, is to focus on writing scenes, keeping it really simple.

For example: a character enters a setting with a goal. There is an obstacle. The character gets around it or not. Cut to the next scene.

In this way, you can produce good, competent work, and you'll improve as you continue to study craft.

If you've got the desire, you've got the talent. For a few years, a day job is okay.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that one of the unifying characteristics of people who achieve great things is that they DON'T have a plan B. Their singular focus is on perfecting their art--whether it be music, acting, or writing--and they often never consider whether they will fail or not.

Someone said to me once that you're either a writer or you're not. I think that's true. While it may not be realistic for everyone to forgo the financial security of a 9-5 job, I would venture to guess that the vast majority of folks who achieve greatness are those who commit most of their waking moments to whatever their life's passion happens to be.

Sasha said...

Having a "Plan B" is essential to my sanity--as is having a "Plan C," "Plan D" and "Plan E." I'm just a schemer like that ;)

But all my plans are just different paths to the same goal. As long as my ultimate goal stays in the forefront of my mind, and all my immediate goals are only in service of that ultimate goal, I feel good about what I'm doing. Every time I consider a new opportunity, I chart how it would act as a stepping stone toward my ultimate goal (for me, that means I ask myself: how would this internship/deal/job/class/purchase help me one day write for TV?). Eyes on the prize, right?

The hard part for me was actually in finding and especially in *accepting* the appropriate ultimate goal for me. By the time a person is twenty-two or -three, she's probably shown interest and gained experience in some particular subject for *years*--and I was no exception. But for a while (five or six months), that particular subject (TV, and fiction in general) was disconnected from what I thought of as my "ultimate goal" (to be a lawyer). The disconnect was horrible and painful, but now that I've rectified it (screw law), I'm so much happier--and am doing better in life altogether.

So I guess the point is: whatever you do is fine, as long as you never forget who you are, what you need, and you have a viable plan to get it. :)