Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Going Freelance

I've just listened to the latest UK Scriptwriters podcast from Danny Stack and Tim Clague. In it, they talk about going freelance and it's quite a common question. When/how can you turn professional as a writer? I thought I'd throw in my tuppence, experience and thoughts on this one, since my path has been different from Danny's and Tim's.

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
Here's the clever thing I did. I moved to London and lived with a mate and paid the rate with a temp job. Genius. Because I can write, I can type fast. I also have a suit and am vaguely polite, and so a temping agency got me bits and bobs that paid a decent-ish hourly rate. A day or two here or there. Some weeks I worked four days, others one or none. On the days I didn't get paid work, I'd write, and be secretly relieved. And I said 'no' to anything permanent because I knew that once I was on a salary, it would be very difficult to give it up. And it was easy to say 'no' to those jobs because they were of no interest to me at all. The moment I stepped out of the office, I forget all about it (except for the characters I'd met and scenes I'd witnessed).

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).


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  2. I would LOVE for you to write a sitcom set on a farm.

    To everything else, yes, exactly. Mostly I know people who write fiction, and of those, mostly they write romance, like me. Almost everyone starts by doing it in their 'spare time'. They have jobs, kids, and busy lives. They get up early to write before work or stay up late to do it when the kids are in bed. They write because they have to and one day they hope to be paid for it.

    I'm in my very late thirties but I'm still living the young, cheap and single lifestyle. I have a part-time job and a rent-free place to live. And, coming up for 2 years after I self-published my first book, my writing is starting to make money (I have a combination of books with publishers and self-published books now). It takes time and perseverance, as well as talent. There's no easy way in.

  3. Thanks for the post and all the information in it. I am learning to be a comedy scriptwriter - I am currently reading story by robert mckee, which seems to be a good resource for how to write a story and I also did a short sitcom writing course last year with Chris Head, which I learnt a lot on. As a day job, I work as a producer in an advertising agency so that’s my real life, and I write in the evenings, but I am mostly interested in writing comedy shows.

    I get what you are saying about writing because you have to - I agree with that, I write for my own amusement, so I recently launched a website of material which is http://www.fiddlingdown.com, and in order for me to gain the experience of producing comedy, I am going to turn some of these news stories into radio scripts which I will self-produce, with me and my friends speaking into a microphone. So at the moment I am following the maxim of just make your own stuff, and get it out there.

    But in order to push things forward I’d like to be around other comedy writers, and I was wondering what’s the best way to be around them? To bounce ideas off, etc?
    Do internships exist for scriptwriters? e.g. do production companies or theatres ever do them?
    Because I’ll take some time off for that if it were.

  4. I agree it takes a long time, and things are actually *starting* to happen. I find I'm very busy writing, but not making any money from it. Yet. (That's a very hopeful 'yet'!)

    I would like to ask though, JC, if you had a career now alongside the family and two kids, do you think you'd still have time and/or the drive to still be pushing to be a comedy writer? (Highly theoretical I realise, but I'd find the answer interesting)


  5. Hi Dan, Yes, I suppose it is a highly theoretical question because I specifically set out to avoid the situation of wanting to be a sitcom writer and yet stuck in different job with the commitments of a family/mortgage. Not least because after a day's work in the office, the last thing you want to do at night is write scripts, which is very hard work. I intensely admire anyone who is able to make the leap from one to the other. In a sense, everyone has their own path into this - or around it and on to something else more interesting.

    It may be that commitments being what they are, you just have to park the ambition for a while and work out how to downsize, reduce your other workload and/or wait 'til your kids get a bit older etc etc. Waiting is not the end of the world - as long as you're writing, reading, watching, thinking and plotting all the while.

    All I do know is that the writer only has the power to write a really good script - and if you write one, you will get interest and commissions/money will eventually start to turn up. Eventually...

  6. It's also worth remembering that for those of us who have come to writing later in life, writing for TV production is probably the least work-and-family-friendly avenue you could possibly pursue.

    TV has serious deadlines and lots of rewrites and if the producers like your pilot episode they're probably going to want you to write a load more of the same pronto. (OK you *might* score a gig writing on someone else's show on the back of your calling-card script if you're lucky.)

    There are lots of other satisfying routes to having your work produced. Writing a single play for theatre or for the Afternoon Play on R4, for example, where you can take as long as you like to get your script ready and you won't have to sell your house and give up your job and have your partner leave you and eventually fall into a lonely spiral of alcoholism and depression.

    Or, as many readers of this blog will know, theatre or radio sketch comedy are also very welcoming to the part-time writer.