Writing as a full-time job didn't occur to me as an option until I was about to leave university in about 1997 - and even then I wasn't sure that writing full time for TV and Radio was even an option. It's crazy in hindsight since I'd been writing comedy sketches at school, and ran the university revue at Durham (having failed to get into Cambridge twice). In my gap year, I wrote a few scene of what I now realise is half way between fan-fiction and a spec script. It was Blackadder at the Battle of Hastings (in which Baldrick caused Edmund Blackadder to shoot the king in the eye. I was 18. Cut me some slack). Writing was clearly in my bones. On leaving uni, I half-heartedly applied for a few graduate jobs, but didn't get any. When I was asked by an advertising agency where I saw myself in five years time, I said 'Writing a sitcom for television'. I now realise that, although there are no right or wrong answers, that was the wrong answer.
|Pic from Laineys Repertoire|
I did briefly try TV production, but rapidly found out that I'm not someone who likes running around finding props, getting supporting artists to sign bits of paper or driving people around. Making tea I was fine with. And I had the honour of making tea for the hilarious and delightful Iannucci, Schneider and Baynam et al on The Friday Night Armistice.
I think I lived on about £5000 in my first year in London (which was almost all through temping). But I knew that would happen, and I knew how to live on such a tiny amount of money because I'd just been a student. I didn't go on expensive holidays, or even cheap ones, and didn't spend £100s of pounds on booze (one advantage of being a Calvinist). My general theory was I was going to be a writer, it'd never be easier than that stage of life when I'd got loads of ideas and energy, very low living costs, no dependents or mouths to feed.
I started to write some sketches for Weekending on Radio 4 and The News Huddlines on Radio 2, with very mild success. I got some sketches on Smack the Pony (like dozens of other writers) and a joke or two on Rory Bremner. Then I co-wrote show that did well at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1999 called Infinite Number of Monkeys. That helped get a sitcom on the radio, Think the Unthinkable and a sketch show, Concrete Cow - and suddenly I was earning survivable money through just writing. And then I got to write My Hero and My Family and suddenly I was half-decent money. Things have ebbed and flowed since then, but currently (ha ha) they are flowing.
Well, Lucky You
In many ways, I count myself lucky that I've never had a 'proper' job. I've scrapped and scraped by for long enough to mean that I've essentially made my living as writer. But as a writer of sitcom, I feel I've missed out on quite a few life experiences for not having had a job. I was raised on a farm and went to university and got married and have had two kids - and that's all good life experience. But an alternative career is not one of them. Many of the great sitcom writers did others jobs before turning to comedy and their writing is stronger for it.
So if you're in a salaried job right now - in the civil service, teaching or on an oil rig - you're picking up vital life experience that you can draw on for your whole career. It seems that David Croft got a sitcom out of every single stage of his pre-TV career. Good writing is truthful. And the more experiences you've had first-hand, the better.
If often say that writing, especially sitcom writing, is a marathon. Not a sprint. If you're able to have another career from your twenties 'til your late thirties and then start writing, you'll be good at it in your forties - and can write in all kinds of media 'til your seventies. That's still a long career as a writer.
So when do I go Freelance?
When you have to. When there's no alternative. When there's so much to write (that you're being paid for) and not enough time to write it with your current job. Don't quit a decent job if you're still starting out as a writer. It takes ages to get paid any serious amount of money for anything (which is why this is my most popular blog post). I could only manage it because I was a young, single man in his 20s with low overheads and cheap tastes.
When you're starting out, nobody will pay you to write anything. You need to prove yourself with a decent script. Ideally two. You're going to have to burn some midnight oil - or work 4 days a week. Or 3. There are ways of dipping your toe in, like taking a sabbatical or extended leave. Or writing between jobs. Or taking a career break. I have no idea how these things work, but I get the sense that things have never been more flexible in the work place.
A few other things to bear in mind. A writer is someone who writes. Plenty of people make a living through a combination of incomes, one of which is writing. Very few people make a living solely through writing - and I am fortunate that I'm quite good at something that is well paid. I'd be making a lot less money if I was equally good at writing poetry. But being full-time is obviously a good aim to have.
And a writer is someone who has to write. Not writing is simply not an option, so you find a way. You make it work. You're not in it for the money. You just need money to get by so you can write - because that's when you feel truly alive (and also frequently suicidal). If you're a writer, you'll find a way.
I'd be really interested to hear the thoughts and experiences of all kinds of writer if you have a moment to leave a comment (and let me know if I've said anything idiotic or patronising).