Screenwriters: Don’t Quit Your Day Job (yet)
A slew of emerging writers often arrive at the moment when they have simply lost their patience with the day job. When they are determined that the time to quit their job has come. They’ve yet to make that big sale, or get a writing assignment that pays them according to WGA guidelines, but still… They’ve had it. They are ready to commit. They yearn to wake up every morning and write full time. To invest all their money and energy in seeing their screenwriting dreams come to life. My most consistent advice? Don’t quit your day job just yet. After all, there is a lot to be considered before you make that change, which could either serve to move your screenwriting career forward, or make writing even more difficult in the long run.
Consider your bank account
For 99% of writers out there who will make it, it is going to take 3-10 active writing and networking years – which will include contest wins, high, consistent scores from The Black List, meeting executives and continuously marketing themselves – in order to get their screenwriting career off the ground. Until that time, it will be working on spec, or at best taking writing assignments that will further their career trajectories much more so than their wallets. Therefore, unless you have a wealthy benefactor or the sort of nest egg that will allow you the runway required to get your screenwriting career on a winning track, you are going to have to develop a dependable, continuous source of income in order to support your off-hours screenwriting work.
One of the worse things a writer can do to their screenwriting career is quit their job with a financial runway that will run out in a matter of months if their writing doesn’t take off within that time (which it never does). Once the runway is gone, the writer will have to effectively abandon the writing in favor of finding a new job, then learn said new job and take the time needed to both “deliver” on the job and get comfortable with the environment. This could ultimately take the writer away from anything but a few hours of weekend writing for up to 6-months to a year at a time. Remember, building a screenwriting career is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.
While some writers lose their job and are forced to then find a new one, it is not advisable to walk away from a decent job if you will have to secure new employment in a few months time.
Evaluate your current work situation
The ultimate question is this: Is your job keeping you from your writing? Of course, if you had no job you could be writing all day long, but within the reality of having to juggle the writing and the job, are you finding a way to consistently satisfy both? One of my clients put in roughly 60 hours a week at a production company, and got no writing done when he did. Clearly, this was not a job that was conducive to building his screenwriting career. Another writer had been at the same job for 9 years, managed to do most his work pretty much in his sleep, was able to dictate his own hours (more or less), and managed to write 3-4 hours a day while keeping a social schedule and earning his salary. While the former can ultimately shackle your screenwriting aspirations, the latter is exactly the sort of job one should stick with – a job that in its own way facilitates a regular writing routine, while providing the comfort of a steady, dependable paycheck.
The freelance alternative
If a full time job is not your best solution, consider what income you can earn as a freelance or independent contractor. Studies are showing that the number independent contractors in the market is expected to rise roughly 20% over the next 10 years, as more individuals seek to set their own hours and work from their own home. Equally, start-ups and corporations alike prefer to minimize cost and liability taken on with full time employees in favor of working with trusted independent contractors. While your day job may have run its course and a change is needed, there may be an opportunity for you to transition from full time employee to independent contractor with the same or like company, allowing you to set your own hours, spend more time on your writing, sacrificing health benefits and paid time off for flexibility and a higher hourly rate.
If you are planning on quitting your job, do so at the most opportune time
While quitting your job may be the right thing for you, be sure to do so at a time that is the most advantageous. If you’re waiting on an annual bonus that is paid in the first quarter, best not to give your notice on January 1st; instead, wait until your bonus is paid before you vacate your position. While many employees are hopeful that their bosses will be “nice” and pay out partial bonuses despite the employee quitting before bonuses are due or the calendar year is up, many companies will hold back bonuses if the qualification terms of the bonus are not met 100%.
Remember: Desperation is pungent
No matter what, remember this: desperation has a specific stink, and it is pungent. Worse, industry executives can smell it from a mile away. They will not want to work with you because you need a break, because you’re about to default on a credit card payment, or because you haven’t been able to pull together enough money this month; they will want to work with you because your content is superior, because your work ethic is fantastic, and because you are the sort of professional with whom they’d be happy to develop a project over months and months. Financial stability allows the writer to remove need and desperation from their daily diet; while this diet may be motivating for a few (though likely for a limited time) it is exhausting and draining for others, causing the writer to make desperate, often wrong choices not only in the work, but ones that will ultimately stand to hinder their entire screenwriting career for years to come.