Pearls of Wisdom from Working Writers: WHEN THE HARD WORK BEGINS
We’ve heard it said a million times: When you finally break in, get an agent or manager, staff on a TV show, have a feature spec go out to market, or land a writing assignment, that’s when the hard work begins.
Not every writer shows up as elegantly as she wants to when the pressure mounts. Not every scribe is able to take on professional tendencies overnight. To put it simply, it can be really, REALLY hard.
With that in mind, I turned to some of my working clients and friends and asked them:
What are some of the pressures of being a working writer?
Moises Zamora, who completed a season (each) on AMERICAN CRIME and STAR before creating the Selena bio-series for Netflix, on which he is also Head Writer, shared: “Nothing is guaranteed. You can’t stop hustling, not even if you have a full team of reps, or are already writing for a show. Continue to cultivate relationships and, most importantly, continue to write.”
Greta Heinemann, who is currently finishing her 4th season on NCIS NEW ORLEANS had this to offer: “That totally depends on where you’re at in your contract/career, who you work for and what show you’re on. In the early stages I’d drive myself crazy about contributing enough smart stuff to the room. Then I’d drive myself crazy about whether or not I was writing the right stuff. Then I had to withstand the pressures of on set “producing,” i.e. writing forensic-clue scenes on set with the cast and director waiting for the sides… and then finally — keeping your overall career in mind — there’s also always the pressure of staying relevant beyond the show you’re currently on. Come to think of it… what isn’t a pressure? Even ordering fucking lunch is a walk on the tightrope ;)”
Melissa London Hilfers, who sold the spec features UNDONE and UNFIT, and is currently hard at work on the JAGGED EDGE update assignment told me: “There are so many. When you’re working on assignment, there’s pressure to please everyone, make sure everyone feels heard, while still following your inner voice. Bigger picture, there’s pressure to want to put things out in the world that will have a positive impact. Sometimes that’s simply providing entertainment (which is important!) but it can also be wanting to tell untold or under-represented stories. Telling stories on behalf of others is its own kind of pressure.”
Having just finished her second season on FOX’s LETHAL WEAPON, Eileen Jones provided: “Time and balance! How can you both do the job you’re paid to do, but still write what you’re passionate about, assuming those aren’t always the same thing? How do you create space in your life to be engaged, both intellectually and emotionally, in multiple projects at the same time? This is definitely my new challenge.”
Not everyone feels the pressure. Bob Dearden, currently on iZOMBIE, had this to tell me: “It’s honestly a pretty easy job, once you’re in. The pressure comes, in my mind, from finding consistent employment, because it’s such a crapshoot from one job to the next. And from just wanting to do a decent job on something to which your name will be attached, to impress your bosses, etc. But it’s just TV, so in the end I think if you don’t realize how lucky you are to be doing that for a living, you’re probably off your rocker.”
Nora Nolan, who last year was on NBC’s TRIAL AND ERROR and is now bringing the funny to Netflix’s PARADISE P.D. told me: “The “hiatus” or periods of not working are something to get used to. Showrunner/staffing meetings can feel very high pressure because you’re not sure when the next one will come along. Relationships matter an enormous amount so day-to-day in the room can feel like a lot of pressure to perform.”
Josh Renfree, a feature writer repped by Bellevue Productions, who recently completed his first writing assignment told me: “Learning that when you have deadlines, and are under contract and getting paid to meet those deadlines, you can’t use all the usual excuses for not sitting down at the keyboard. If you’re stuck, find a way to write through it. Being a paid writer is still a job, and you can’t just show up when you feel like it.”
Successful novelist and working TV writer (currently a Writing Producer on CBS’s TELL ME A STORY) Hollie Overton had this to share: “The hardest part about being a working writer is the constant hustle to land that next job. You have to keep creating so you have fresh material. It can be very frustrating having to prove yourself over and over again. The other challenge when you’re a working writer is that you have to keep writing. There are no excuses when writing is your job. Earlier this year, I was working on a show and finishing my third book. I was dealing with some stressful situations at home, and struggling creatively. I wasn’t feeling inspired at all. If I were writing for a hobby, I could’ve taken time off, but that wasn’t possible. There were deadlines I was obligated to meet. When that happens, it’s not fun, but you can’t make excuses, you just have to write through it.”
Richard Lowe, who recently completed his first season as staff writer on GOD FRIENDED ME had this to say: “Making sure you’re doing your day job. Often times you’ll have to learn what this means to your showrunner on the fly, so understanding how to be flexible and where to help is important. Also, putting aside all my own personal projects was hard, but it was very important to me to just focus on the job.”
Last but not least, off of his first full season on CHICAGO MED, where he previously got the coveted freelance, Paul Puri shared: “Well I largely stepped away from another career for this career, so the lack of job security is always a concern. The other side is that working on story all day every day means there’s less energy to write new spec material. First world problems.”