Thursday, March 29, 2007

Don't give up the day job

In response to Jaded's questions in previous post.

Under no circumstances would I advise anyone to give up a job to try to start a career in screenwriting. Unless perhaps you get on the new BBC Writer's Academy where at least you are guaranteed a year of work.

Building a career does take years in the vast majority of cases. So write in your spare time and don't even consider giving up your job until you see a steady stream of commissions coming in. Even then think hard about it. You will have no regular pay cheque and no job security. It isn't for everyone.

A career involves making contacts, proving you can do the job and a large slice of luck. Mainly being in the right place at the right time with the right script. It takes talent and pereseverence and business sense. And while you are starting out the commissions will be thin on the ground. TV is a specialised and expensive business and many Producers are loathe to use brand new writers on their shows because mistakes can cost many thousands of pounds as well as screw up the shooting schedule.

No one can actually say 'I'm going to be a pro writer' It's not like being an accountant where you pass a few exams and off you go. Talent does play a large part but there are many other factors. There are lots of talented writers out there who don't have careers. There are simply no guarantees.

You can shorten the odds a little if you snag a good agent, and I think that's the way to go if you can. But remember, lots of people think they can write. I could give a long list of editors, directors and even an exec producer who decided writing was easy peasy and that would be their new career. With one exception they have returned to their own jobs and the sanctuary of the monthly pay cheque. It is TOUGH out there. And that is what you have to be prepared for. Make sure you have the talent for it. Then dip your toe in the water to see if you have the skills needed and the personality for it. Then and only then, have a think about whether you want to try to make a career out of it.

Would I do it again knowing what I know now? Probably, I'm fit for nothing else.


Jaded and Cynical said...

Thanks for the response. And thanks for the clarity of the advice.

Danny-K said...

- "No one can actually say 'I'm going to be a pro writer' It's not like being an accountant where you pass a few exams and off you go. Talent does play a large part but there are many other factors. There are lots of talented writers out there who don't have careers. There are simply no guarantees." -

So true. Succinctly put, Dave. Think I'll try something easier - anyone for brain surgery? I'm short of customers at the mo' so I can do you a good discount.

potdoll said...

What about the luck bit. everyone says you need luck. is luck something we are born with? Do you think we create our own luck?

English Dave said...

Jaded - welcome, it was a good question

Danny - looking at the notes in front of me right now, brain surgery might be required

Potty - I think you can make your own luck. Being in the right place at the right time isn't always a happy accident. With research and networking you can make sure you are in the right place at the right time, the rest is down to how well you exploit the oppertunity. That's when talent and hard work come into play. Sometimes it is just dumb luck though. For example one of my early gigs came about because a film producer who was interested in my script shared a flat with a TV producer, who picked it up off her coffee table and read it. I got a call a couple of weeks later, had a meeting - which I dilligently prepared for -and a month or so later was commissioned. Then again, if your work isn't out there being read by as many people as possible those happy accidents won't occur.

potdoll said...

ah, yes. it's sinking in.

thanks lovely!

Jaded and Cynical said...

Okay, so a guy I respect says it takes ten years to build a career.

Then I visit Artful Writer where the consensus seems to be that, having taken 10 years to get established, you're washed up at 40.

And then today - as if I weren't discouraged enough - I go to the IMDB homepage and find an article about an Emmy-winning writer who's now living in a homeless shelter in Cleveland.

At least no one's giving me any false hope.

English Dave said...

Jaded, ten years is on the long side. And it depends what you call established. There is Jimmy McGovern or Paul Abbot established in that they made a good living for years writing soaps and now are established as creators of shows. In most cases I'd say it takes 3 to 5 years to go from zero to steady commissions. Zero being the first time you write fade in. Depends on how committed you are. If it takes you a year to write a script then screenwriting isn't for you. Even with another full time job that smacks of a hobby rather than a burning desire. So breaking in and established are two different beasts. Mainly because established is nebulous. There is hot and not hot.

johnk said...

Coming a bit late to this conversation, but just to give an alternative view...
I used to be in the journalism game. Decided on a career change. Discovered a couple of things quickly:
1. If you do a brain-heavy creative job as your day job (no cheap jokes about journalists, please), then that doesn't lead to productive output when you get home (actually, with the long hours, I was lucky if I managed to eat when I got home, never mind writing). And yes, I tried something like the Adrian Mead "five minutes a day" thing. Didn't work for me.
2. Writing on the occasional day off just doesn't work that well. Takes too long to get back to where you were (on a feature, anyway). Doesn't matter how many outlines you have written, or how many index cards, half of it lives in the head. Yes I did get a script written, but it took months. I decided that if I was ever going to reach the standard I thought I might be capable of, I'd need to work at it full-time.

If you think that giving up the day job is the best way, given your own circumstances, go for it. Just plan it.

Save up so you have money in the bank. Have a detailed plan and timetable. Make each day count. It's your new job. Be realistic. Set time limits. Don't spend money. If you stick to a diet of Tesco Economy baked beans, you can make a little go a long way.

That what I did, anyway (apart from the beans thing). And I'm not a kid, I'm 43, and I'd been a journalist for the best part of twenty years (editing local newspapers by the time I finished). Yes it's a big risk. But as we all only get one shot, best make it an exciting one.

And if it doesn't work out, well, that's life. But at the moment, I feel more alive than I've felt for years. And in the end, that really is what it's all about.

This is getting long, but one other thing. Before you give up the day job...write one script, your very best effort, and find a way to get people who know what they're doing to read it. Pay a well-regarded script reader/analyst if you have to. If they say it's rubbish, re-assess. If they say it's way above average for a first script, go for it. In between, it's a judgment call. But going full-time won't help if you have absolutely no talent for writing. That's the toughest part of the decision, and the one where you need help.

And whatever you do, don't spend all day reading the interesting screenwriting blogs that litter the web.

English Dave said...

Welcome John and thanks for your comments.
Firstly I'll come clean and say that I, through circumstances, wrote full time almost from day 1. I got an agent with my first script. I then made just about every wrong decision I could make, and it was nearly 3 years later before I got my fist paid job. I'd like to think it might have been sooner if my chief mistake hadn't been deciding I only wanted to write features. There are only maybe a handful of writers in the UK who make a living just writing movies.

Talent only goes so far. You also need drive and determination and a thick skin.

I would also say I think it would be better to have written more than one script before making such a decision. How do you know you have another one in you? [I mean in general, not you!]It's a bit like the music industry. Full of one hit wonders who never made it past that difficult second album.
But as you say - if you are willing to take the risk and it won't have a lasting harmful effect amd makes you feel alive, then it is difficult to say don't do it.

I adnire your pluck John, good luck.