Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Balancing writing and your day job

Michael writes: I know the industry is very difficult to break into. I've read your posts about the different PA/Agency/Writers' Assistant jobs, which confirms information I've got from an EP I contacted through my alumni network, but, knowing myself, I can't realistically see myself balancing the 10-12 hour/day average with good-quality creative writing, especially over any kind of long haul (especially when one factors in after-hours networking.) I was wondering if you could sketch out a in a little more detail just what the life of an aspiring writer looks like — how many years on average (I know there's a lot of variability and luck to go along with plain hard work in this field) in the "aspiring" category, and how one keeps it rewarding.

This is a great question - and as you might predict, it has a complicated answer. Many assistants on shows do work 10-12 hour workdays...but know that not all Hollywood jobs are this intense. Two of my friends currently working on shows work more like 9-hour workdays. When I worked as an assistant at the agency, I worked 9:30-7 with an hour and a half (!) for lunch, so an 8 hour day and 40-hour workweek. Overtime was expressly forbidden. Some assistants with busier bosses had to log unpaid overtime to stay afloat, but I didn't. I didn't make much money - and I wasn't able to write while I was on the clock or at lunch (for a number of reasons), but I got a fair amount of writing done on nights and weekends. I even had time to drink enough at Happy Endings to add contacts in my phone like "Brian Republican Valley" (oh, to be 22). Here's the ironic part of it all: today in my life as a blogger-tutor-reader, I generally only work 20-30 hours a week - but I honestly don't know if I get much more writing done than I did when I was an agency assistant. I can write at three in the afternoon if I want to - but I can also redeem my CVS Extrabucks and see if Sebastian Stan is at the gym (two of my favorite activities). I bet a lot of readers with full time jobs are really jealous of my odd lifestyle and the fact that I rarely set an alarm in the morning...but it's not as fantastic as you might think. Sometimes I don't speak to other humans until 8 pm. Buying your own health insurance is hella expensive. And writing is still hard.

I guess it all comes down to priorities. If you really want to be a writer, you will get the writing done, even if you're working 10-12 hours a day on a show. I think you have to be realistic about yourself, getting in the writing when you can and knowing that you will have prolific periods and rough periods. Sometimes you will wonder if you're totally batshit for pursuing this career. I think you have to indulge yourself a day or two of "this sucks" and then get back on the horse. I would still try to get a Hollywood job, even if it's super time-consuming, because the knowledge and connections will be invaluable. Just make sure you keep writing so that you'll actually have a sample to hand over when someone important asks to read your stuff. Joining a writing group gave me the deadlines I needed to stick with writing in the beginning. You can also use the Fellowship deadlines to motivate you. Ideally, you won't always have super long hours - and shows all go on hiatus, which could enable you to catch up on writing full time (or at least full time minus shopping and gym-celeb-stalking) while collecting unemployment for a while.

As for how many years it will take before you can stop slaving away all day and writing on nights and weekends...this really varies, depending on how fast you can crank out scripts, how good your writing is and how long it takes you to get your stuff to the right person (be it manager, agent, producer, etc.). But don't feel like you're sending yourself to prison when you take a day job. If you no longer feel your job is worth it, you can quit (like I did) and try something else for a while. You just can't expect certainty or security if you're heading down this path. Even after you sell a script or get staffed, the balancing act isn't over.

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Chris Drzewiecki said...

I was fortunate enough to just land an office PA/ assistant job at a mid-major studio. The work is easy, I get to talk to everyone in the company (because I deliver their mail/packages), but I also have like 3 hours of downtime in the afternoons to sit in my tiny little office and write on the clock. It's not a bad gig but one I reccommend to an aspiring writer like myself.
Twitter: @cjevy

Unknown said...

For a while, when I first moved to California, I had a retail job. The hours were doable and it provided me a lot of time to write and direct and it was easy to get time off and really did give me a lot of freedom.

But ultimately I decided that I didn't want to spend 8 hours a day, using my time and energy, doing something that wasn't going to contribute to my career.

So, I quit and sought out any other opportunities that would help me get into the industry. I interned for a while, that internship led to another, and that one led to a job and now, I'm the Director of Digital Media for Anthony E. Zuiker, the creator of CSI. It's a tough job, with long hours but I get to spend my day working towards a career in this industry (whether it's directing or not). At night, I go home and write for a couple hours and get up the next day and do it again.

I'll say this though, I've found so much benefit to having my day job be something in the industry than before when I was outside of it. And I see it with my writing partner, who doesn't work in the industry. There's a sense of missed connections, of being outside the loop and I've gotten far more opportunities working within the industry than I ever did outside of it.

That said, I'm sure it depends on the job. Ultimately, the decision is up to Michael but I knew that, if nothing else, I didn't want to spend 8 hours a day working towards something that wasn't going to get me a career in Hollywood.

Unknown said...

Really great blog, and very timely for me! I have a web series in development at the moment. It's on a small scale of course, but I'm effectively the showrunner which means I'm in the amazing position of going into an office and writing and/or having production meetings all day long. Dream come true.


While it's all looking really positive there's always that chance at this point that it will fall through or at least be delayed. This means that I have to keep writing my spec stuff and working up ideas etc just in case I'm in the position of needing a job in a couple of months.

Writing all day then coming home and writing some more is absolutely incredible in so many ways, but it's also frazzling my poor little brain! I was definitely more productive on the spec/new ideas front when I was a secretary - there are plenty of days when my brain has thought all it's going to think for one day, which was less of a problem when I spent my days typing crushingly dull legal documents!

So, it never ends. I used to think that once I was paid for writing I would be able to take weekends like a normal person... maybe one day?!

joy...! said...

Thanks for your blog! It's a great read and I can relate a lot as I'm an aspiring TV writer myself. Keep it up!

Unknown said...

I love your blog! I'm 19, in college and aspiring to write for tv. This helps me alot considering that I live in NC with little to no opportunities.
I always hear "write as much as you can" but by write what do you mean? Should I write a script or ideas? Do i edit these scripts or just move on and write more, looking back at my progress?
Also do you have any tips on writing or how to tell a good story?

I apologize if these questions seem a bit obvious but I've never written anything before.
Now I'm in the process of beginning a scripted show for my college tv station where I'm executive producer and I have a team of writers to help me but they are unexperienced as well.
twitter: @ebonydanae

Steve Dunham said...

I've never come close to making a living from writing, so it's always been something I do as an extra part-time job. I wrote a book about editing (my main occupation) that was published last year, I wrote newspaper columns once or twice a month for about ten years, and after studying screenwriting, I've written one screenplay a year for the past three years. (Haven't sold any of those yet, but I am hopeful.) I don't think I would have the energy to do it on the side if I didn't find it to be fun (mostly fun). In answer to Ebony's question, even though it may be too late to help her personally, I'd recommend a course or two. Many years ago in college I took a two-semester course in journalistic writing. We students wrote for the college newspaper, and we wrote a lot, and I learned things that I still use today.