Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Story Vault: Living the Dream

Thought it might be useful to drag this out of the vault (November 2005) as I'm preparing a post about 'giving up the dream': when to know to call it a day after years of no progress or countless rejections or just plain fatigue. It sounds a bit of a downer but it's not really. But to help you get in the mood, here's the more positive vibe of giving up the day job to follow your dream of being a writer...


Q: I was thinking about taking the plunge and going freelance doing some script reading and giving myself time to write. And I was wondering if you had any advice on the matter.

It's very exciting taking the plunge but also very daunting. Getting work as a feature scriptwriter is nigh on impossible in the British market. It takes a lot of graft and years of momentum to get that lucky break (unless you write that great genre script that lands in the right place at the right time: you do hear about people doing this but it’s a bit like getting four or five numbers in the lottery, the real jackpot is the Hollywood sale). There are more opportunities writing for TV but similarly getting into a position where you can be considered for the jobs can prove quite tricky. Getting an agent will help in this area however.

As a start, script reading offers invaluable insight into what people are writing and how they're doing it. Most of the spec scripts are mediocre but the ones being made usually have a certain edge, or quality, or professionalism that is important to recognise and implement in your own work. Basically, when I started reading, I wanted to learn everything about writing a script and see what was out there - what was selling and what wasn't etc so when it came to my own work, I'd be one step ahead (it's worked but not in any high profile way, yet).

However, while script reading is great, it is poorly paid and it takes up a lot of time. When you first take the plunge, reading will be the only outlet to actually pay the bills (that is if you’re lucky enough to get work as a reader). The standard rate nowadays for ‘coverage’ (a script report) in the UK is £45 and some pay £50 (like the Film Council). It's the £50 gig you want as reading 4 scripts in a week is £200. Not much but enough to pay the basic bills (very frugal living indeed). Reading 8 or 12 scripts is not uncommon, and more money obviously, but fatigue may set in especially if you're busy writing your own scripts or cursing level 22 of Crash Bandicoot on the PlayStation.

If you do have the opportunity to get script reading work, my advice would be to take advantage of all your contacts to get as many reading gigs as possible (in my heyday, I was reading for Pathé, Working Title, WT2 and Miramax) as this will help to keep churning over, and perhaps get a few other sideline jobs to maintain something that resembles a salary (script editing, teaching etc). Of course, the key focus is writing your own work so it's important to establish a routine and discipline which enables you to read scripts but write your own as well. I pretty much read in the morning and write in the afternoon. It's not set in stone but it helps if there are lots of scripts to read in any given week (I read much fewer nowadays as my writing opportunities increase but will do a glut of reading if I have the time or if money’s slow in coming through).

All this talk is all very well but life is more complicated than just saying ‘I’m giving up my job and going to be a writer’. There are numerous considerations and practicalities involved, all unique and with varying significance to each person who’s about to go freelance. Is my wife going to hit the roof? Will my girlfriend stand by me? How will I buy food and clothes for my two year-old son? Who will pay for Dad’s medical treatment? What is the least I can earn that will ensure I can pay my way? How can I guarantee some sort of income? Will I ever socialise again? What will my friends think? How am I going to afford the wedding? Will I miss a payment on the car? On the loan? Should I sell my flat/house? Maybe I should move back in with Mum. Should I move to Hollywood? Am I nuts?

There are no easy options but despite it all, the dream of writing for film and/or TV will usually win through, and will guarantee its own set of problems and frustrations as the effort inevitably takes its toll on your life and relationships. But fate will sometimes offer you a glimmer of hope or keep a leg in the door of destiny so that all your effort and sacrifice (and those of your loved ones) hasn’t gone to waste. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes talent and it takes luck. A crap shoot of determination and chance that will either make or break you but will nearly always be worth the effort, no matter what the outcome.

Making the decision to go freelance, no matter what profession, is a risky and exciting prospect. But it’s essential to have a good idea of what’s ahead of you or what you’re up against if you’re going to realise your dream. And if you do realise your dream, be happy that you’ve “made it” rather than be disillusioned and unhappy by your choices, or the reality that greets you.

“They don’t want you until you have made a name, and by the time you have made a name, you have developed some kind of talent they can’t use. All they will do is spoil it, if you let them.” Raymond Chandler (in a letter to Dale Warren, 7 November 1951).


Lucy V said...

Okay, I've been TRYING not to be the first one to comment, honest, but maybe everybody's still at work and it's just you and I who are freelance and can do blog stuff during the day outside lunch hours etc!!!

Going freelance IS frightening - for a while I was the sole breadwinner in my house AND pregnant (my husband was a student last year) - these were LEAN, LEAN TIMES.

But it's worth it, big style. Though I teach 6.5 hours a week, this is only to get me out of the house else I go a little strange - I juggle script reading with a multitude of tasks: I do alot of editing these days for people, but also treatment writing! I read people's screenplays and condense it for them when they haven't the time or inclination to do it themselves. Being freelance definitely means being inventive.

Also - never inderstimate a bit of corporate writing. I've done some great stuff, like PC games and some mega-dull stuff like leaflets and prospectuses, but all writing is writing in my book and therefore much better than a slap in the face with a wet fish or alternatively working in an office.

Paul Campbell said...

What's up, Danny?

Surely, you're not thinking of throwing in the towel?

Not that you wouldn't have my support if that's what you want to do. And not that it doesn't actually take some guts to admit it's not working out.

But, not you, Danny? Not yet? Not now? Surely?

Lucy V said...

Of course he isn't Paul - if Danny admits defeat then all hope will be lost for the rest of us and we will surely die like the dogs we are...

Anonymous said...

I believe going freelance is the best thing you can ever do IF you know in your heart of hearts that you are already or have the potential to be a very good scriptwriter. If you have that confidence and self belief, if you're prepared to multi-task, to do a good job on what will sometimes be bad projects (at least at first) and to hustle and write every day like you still have a boss looking over your shoulder.. then you have nothing to fear. Because better than average writers are very rare - one knock-out script WILL get you noticed. But you have to have very very high standards and be able to be extremely self-critical and supremely confident at the same time. Not easy, but not impossible.

Anonymous said...

I'm going for the slide gently out of full-time employment into full-time writing in several easy stages. I'm about halfway there at the moment, with the promise of finally being able to make the full jump early next year.

I'm far too used to my little luxuries (like food and heat) to leap before the money is there. I'm not the struggling artist type, I don't have the temperament. I've been poor and hungry, I didn't like it and I'm not going back, you hear me? I'm not going back.

Danny Stack said...

No, I'm not giving up on anything. I'm just prepping a post on 'when to realise it's time to pack it in' which forces you to ask some uncomfortable questions (and I am, of course, familiar with the sentiment, especially after the barren summer, whoo-yeah).