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Thursday, November 27, 2008

What I've Learned - A Year Later

I've been an 'official' writer now for about a year, maybe two, now. I mean 'official' in that even though I haven't sold anything or had anything made, I have started putting 10+ hours a week into my writing alone - let alone my accumulated time on Ink Canada. There's been a serious effort to jump into my chosen career.

Over on the boards, Karen's been trying to create a FAQ to help all the new members out (we're up to 635 as of this writing!) so I sat down to try and think of the questions I had a year ago. I started wondering what questions I could give solid answers to as someone who's never worked in the industry. Nevertheless I started writing anyway and came up with 5 that were burning in my mind back then and tried my best to answer them with the perspective I've gained.

Turns out, listening and learning has paid off quite well. And I think what I've come up with is something I feel really good about - even just in the realization that I did have answers to my questions. I'm re-printing my post from the site here. Please feel free to let me where I'm off base.

If there's one thing I've learned as an unabashed newbie it's that the only true crime is not asking the questions that're on your mind.

There are more than a few people here willing and ready to answer your questions - and I'm sure we haven't answered every possible question just yet.

To try and get the ball rolling, here are some of the newbie questions I had when I first came into this (about a year or so ago):

1) When do I get to run my own show? (yes... I swing for the fences...lol)
2) How do I break into the Industry?
3) How do I get an agent?
4) Do I need an agent?
5) Will someone steal my idea / Is _____ a scam?

And this is what I've learned so far:

1) You get to run your own show once you can prove that you can run a multi-million dollar company. Writing a great idea is nice and all, but can you hire/fire/manage people on a daily basis while steering the ship and maintaining business relationships and attending meetings and re-writing everyone else's scripts? Can you prove to the people with the money that you can do this?

2) You break into the industry through tenacity. The one common thread in all the people I've talked to is that no one gave up. Every single person who broke in - and stayed in - the industry kept on kicking on doors long past the time they were slammed in their faces. If you want to have an idea of what breaking in is like, take a summer job as a door-to-door salesman. (I've done that and... yeah...) You have to be able to look rejection in the eye, nod, swallow your emotions and go to the next house. You are selling yourself. So A) make sure you have a quality product and B) don't be afraid to sell it. And I guess C) would be: Don't be a prick. The hard sell rarely works - 9 times out of 10 people will pick the less-experienced person they can work with over the asshat with the genius complex and a single wicked script in their pocket.

3) You get an agent in a lot of the same sort of fashion. A quality product and a quality sales pitch. You're hiring an agent (yes, they work for you - if you can convince them to get on board first) to help sell you. If they know that either A) you're making the job easy by having quality work or B) you can sell yourself (thus also making their job easier) then you're 2 steps ahead of the game. They get 10% of what you make so you have to convince them that they're going to be making a decent wage off of you (ie. you're worth the effort). It's all very symbiotic when it works well - so I'm told. I'm still agent-less myself - but I'm working on getting one so... we'll see.

4) Do you need an agent? In the States, yes. No one will look at your stuff unless you're represented. Simple as that. Too many people fighting for the same pie - and getting an agent is supposed to be the 'first rung' of the ladder. Getting an agent doesn't mean you necessarily 'get' work - it means you have someone out there selling you and expounding on your brilliance while you're doing the thing you do best: writing. They oversee your deals (especially in Canada) and help make sure you're not getting screwed. They also have an idea of what's 'in' right now and should be able to tell you - in no uncertain terms - what you should be speccing and which stations are looking for what. They're your eyes and ears - agents - in the industry.

5) a) Stealing an idea rarely happens in this day and age - or so I'm told. I'm not going to say it doesn't ever happen - I've talked to a few people who've made convincing arguments. But I will say this: Write it. Whatever idea you have floating around in your head is no good to you there. Put it on paper, get it on lock. Even then - depending on what it is - there are lots of people that will get their on their own. It happens. I wrote a spec for the Border dealing with the FLQ only to find out that season 2 they'd already come across that idea. It happens. It's a concept. It's also a reality of the business so you better learn to suck it up now. The number 1 rule I've learned do NOT be precious with your ideas. Especially in TV. If worried about losing the one you have then you're probably worried that you won't come up with anything else that's just as good. If you're worth your salt as a writer there will always be more ideas. From what I'm told, people rarely get hired for the ideas in their head so much as how they go about expressing them. Can you take that idea (or someone else's) and tell a damn good story with it? Yes? Good. Then prove it. Then prove it again. And again.

5) b)The classic case of 'if it seems too good to be true, it likely is' is so much more relevant when you become a writer. I don't know how many times I've been on Craigslist and seen 'looking for scripts!' followed by something mysterious like 'send loglines to' another non-informative hotmail address. Are they all scams? I can't say. I know I've heard the ol' 'friend-of-a-friend' tale about someone answering one of them and it turned out to be a jackpot (like MGM or something). But for the most part 99.9% of legit businesses are not going to post something on Craigslist. Especially not in that format. I may be wrong here, but in my limited experiences, whenever I've written to them (and I've answered a few of those calls) they're always shady. Always.

Anyways, hope that helps. I'm still learning a ton and a half - hell, I'm still trying to break in myself. But I'm coming at it from the perspective of going in eyes open - learning what I can, as much as I can.

In closing, my best advice - what I try to do every day: Get out there and knock on doors, meet people, learn about the business and the people who's lives are intrinsically tied to it. Look at situations through their eyes whenever you can. Gain perspective and understanding. Ask questions. Remember: Rejection is a speed bump not a brick wall.

Cheers to all my fellow newbies - lurkers or otherwise,

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