READER QUESTION: From 9th Grade to Hollywood…

Today’s question(s) comed from Corey Nolter, a 9th grader who’s an aspiring screenwriter working on a research paper about his future career.  Corey asks a ton of questions, so I’m just gonna dive in.  Corey– I hope these answers help… lemme know how the paper turns out… and I expect a thank you in your Oscar speech!  Here ya go…

Hi, my name is Corey Nolter and i am a 9th grade student trying to finsih a research paper for school. The research paper is about the feature career I want for my future. I would like to be just what you are a Screen Writer or someone who works in that area, However i was just wondering if you could answer these questions.

1. Do you enjoy your career? Do you ever think you have chosen the wrong path? Explain.

I love my career… and EVERY DAY I wonder if I’ve chosen the wrong path.  I know this sounds crazy… so I’ll explain.  First of all, I never question that I was born to write.  I love writing, and I’ve wanted to be a professional writer for as long as I can remember.  But this is a hard—and by “hard,” I mean “nearly impossible”—profession to have any kind of real stability in.

In almost every profession in the world, you have a salaried position that gives you a regular paycheck… and, hopefully, benefits, vacation time, etc.  For screenwriters and TV writers, that almost never happens.  And by “almost never,” I mean “never.”

Screenwriters and TV writers are freelance employees.  Whether you’re the lowliest staff writer on a TV show or the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, YOU’RE A FREELANCER.  Which means you’re never ENTIRELY sure where your next paycheck will come from, and you almost never have a job that gives you benefits, retirement packages, or vacation time.  (Most professional screenwriters get benefits through the Writers Guild, the labor union representing professional TV and film writers.  As for vacation time, well… you go on vacation between jobs.)

Now, there ARE certain jobs that provide a semblance of stability.  TV shows, for instance, are written by staffs of writers, and each person on that staff is hired for a certain amount of time.  You might be hired for 10 weeks… or 6 months… or even just one episode.  It varies from show to show (not to get too technical, but the amount of time you’re hired for usually depends on how many episodes the show expects you to work on).

But even these TV jobs are temporary.  You may get contracted to write for 10 weeks… and then not be asked back at the end.  Or you may get contracted for 10 weeks… and the show gets canceled after only two weeks.

So whether you’re a lowly staff writer on a TV show or Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriter, the life of a writer is one of agonizing uncertainty… especially if you have a spouse, kids, your own home.  After all, it’s hard to support people who are depending on you when your future is always murky.  

Of course, the more successful you are, the more work you are able to get… but that doesn’t necessarily make your job more stable.  Marc Cherry, a veteran TV writer, spent years as a highly-paid TV writer, writing on shows like The Golden Girls, before suddenly hitting a dry spell and not being able to get a job for several years.  Then, in 2003, he created Desperate Housewives and became one of television’s hottest writers.  But for many years before that, he couldn’t get a job.

I have a friend who’s a producer on Lost, and he always tells aspiring film and TV writers: “If there’s anything else in the world you want to do… anything else that interests you… go do it.  Unless this is the ONLY thing you care about… DON’T DO THIS.”

I think that’s a good thought—not just as a gauge of how hard this industry, but of what it takes, mentally and emotionally, to survive within it.  The odds against success are incredibly high… and even when you find success, you can’t take it for granted.

So, Corey, in answer to your question: I do enjoy my career… because I love TV, movies, storytelling, and the written word.  But very few days go by that I don’t wonder if life would be better if I was an insurance agent or a fireman or a librarian or a professor.  If I didn’t have to fall asleep sweating every night because I have no idea if I’d be making any money in a week, or a month, or a year.  If I knew I could give my wife everything she wants.  

The problem is this: I don’t think I’d be very good at any of those things.  Sure… I guess I could LEARN to be a librarian or an insurance agent or a professor (although trust me—I’m the LAST person you want to be a fireman)… but I think I’d be pretty poor at most of those jobs.  So… for better or worse, I’m here in.  Writing TV and articles and books and this blog… and praying—literally praying—that I can do this long enough to actually say I made a life at it.

2.How many years of education does it take for you to become a writer?

I guess the blunt answer to this is: NONE.  That’s not to say writers aren’t highly educated, intelligent people… or that there aren’t some top-notch colleges, conservatories, and grad schools out there.  I got my MFA from UCLA.  But to be honest… I don’t think any education prepares you for being a writer better than just LIVING.  

Now, this does NOT mean you can just drift along and expect to get writing jobs.  Writing is hard work that takes years and years of practice, growing, trial and error—both in and out of school.

What it DOES mean, however, is that writers—first and foremost—write about people.  And life.  And the world around them.  So your first job, as a budding author, is to get out in the world and study it.  Read everything you can: books, screenplays, biographies, graphic novels, song lyrics, magazine articles, poems.  Observe people around you… study relationships in your own life and how people connect to and communicate with each other.  Keep a journal.  Travel.  Take interesting jobs.  Talk to strangers.

I know this sounds like hokey motivational-speaker stuff, but it’s not.  As a writer, your job is to tell stories or create images that reflect the world and its people.  So the more you ABSORB the world and its people, the better writer you become.  Look at the world’s great wordsmiths and storytellers… Ernest Hemingway, Woody Allen, Aimee Mann, Carl Sandburg, H.P. Lovecraft, Kurt Cobain, Virginia Woolf… whatever genre or medium they work in, they move us because we read their words and say, “Wow… I’ve felt like that.”  Or, “Yeah, I’ve felt like the people in this story.”  Or—when it’s REALLY magical—“Oh my God… this writer ‘GETS’ me!”

So the short answer to your question, Corey, is: yes, a writer needs a lot of real education: both book-learnin’ and life experience.  But where you GET that education depends on how you learn best.  Maybe you learn best in the structured curriculum of a top-notch school or university.  Perhaps you learn best hopping trains and seeing the world.  Maybe you learn best by getting a real job, living in the real world, and spending your nights reading books and writing your own stuff.  Everyone’s different… but the tools and skills needed for being a writer aren’t.

3. After College is it tough to get noticed in your area of work?

Extremely.  Competition is incredibly, ridiculously high in the field of film and TV writing.  After all, there aren’t that many movies
or TV shows each year, but there are MILLIONS of people (in L.A. alone, not to mention scattered about the country) vying to sell a film script or get a job on a television show’s writing staff.

To make things even harder, jobs aren’t always given out simply on the basis of talent.  Landing a job is a combination of being skilled enough to get the job, having experience working in the industry, and knowing the right people (most jobs are gotten by knowing friends or associates doing the hiring).

This doesn’t mean it’s impossible… or that there are thousands of hugely talented writers walking around looking for work.

Personally, I’m a big believer that cream rises to the top and most truly talented, focused writers get where they want to go.  Although to be honest, I don’t know if there’s any real truth in that… or if I just convince myself of it because– well– if you don’t believe that, it’s hard to remind yourself why you keep trying.  Either way, I guess what I DON’T believe is that the world (or even Hollywood) is full of incredibly talented writers who just can’t get their break.  Most people who aren’t working aren’t working for a reason.  Maybe they’re not good enough yet.  Maybe they haven’t networked enough.  Maybe they don’t understand the business well enough.  Maybe they don’t live in L.A. (like it or not, it’s almost impossible to be a working film or television writer anywhere but Los Angeles).

Having said that, I DO think that there are many ways of making a living as a professional writer and storyteller.  Write plays and stage them yourself.  Write amazing profiles or features for magazines and newspapers.  Publish a blog.  Do stand-up comedy.

I say all this not to discourage anyone from pursuing screenwriting or TV writing, but to say that “getting noticed” is often something out of your control… and there are many ways to scratch your writing/storytelling itch besides making TV shows and movies.  Not to mention… if you write a great stage play or a powerful short story/article, you may grab the attention of Hollywood anyway.  And it often seems that people only “get noticed” once they stop worrying about “getting noticed.”

I guess the ultimate truth is: while OBVIOUSLY your goal is to be a
working screenwriter, able to use your writing to support yourself,
your lifestyle, and your family, you need to be pursuing screenwriting
because you LOVE writing, and you LOVE storytelling, and you LOVE
pairing together words and images and actions… not because you’re
dazzled by the lights of Hollywood or visions of dates with starlets or
hopes of hanging out with Brad Pitt.  Which, sadly, is why many people
come out here– writers, actors, directors, you name it.  Yet at the
end of the day, those that succeed in getting noticed are the writers
and artists who work and sweat themselves to the bone… spending every
waking minute perfecting their craft, immersing themselves in the
industry, making and nurturing business relationships, etc.  …so when
they finally DO get their break, they’re prepared– creatively,
mentally, emotionally, professionally– to seize the opportunity and
make the most of it.

Of course, there ARE certain things that almost definitely need to happen– certain stars that do need to align– in order to have a shot at getting noticed as a screenwriter:

•  You need to be living in L.A.

•  You need to have strong writing samples that prove you’re a talented writer

•  You need to have a good network of professional contacts (which usually means living in L.A. for many months or years)

•  You need to have experience writing so an employer knows what you’re capable of

•  You have to be the right writer for the right project at the right time… or have the right project/script/pitch to sell at the right time (i.e., you may be the world’s greatest romantic comedy writer, but if an employer is looking for an action writer, they’re not going to hire you—no matter how good you are)

•  You need to be in the right place at the right time when someone is hiring (i.e. it’s easy to lose out on a job to someone else simply because… frankly… they happened to be there when the space needed to be filled)


4. After getting noticed is your work environment tough or enjoyable? Like hows the staff,crew,project,ect.

Like all jobs, I find this TOTALLY depends on the people you’re working with.  You might get a job on your favorite television show ever… but if you dislike the people you’re working with, you’ll be miserable every day of your life.  On the other hand, you could take a job on a film, series, or project that seems horrible… but if you connect with and love the people around you, it’ll be a blast.

5.Is their any on the job training involved?

TONS.  In fact—kind of going back to your education question—I’d say the best (maybe ONLY) way to learn how to live, work, and survive in Hollywood is simply to dive in and start DOING IT.  Hollywood has a very different work culture than almost any other industry, and no matter how many classes you take or books you read, you won’t understand it till you’re in it.

Understanding Hollywood’s culture—and how to navigate it—is especially important for writers… because unlike costume designers or propmakers or makeup artists, we don’t produce something “physical.”  Sure, there’s a script, but we’re basically sellers of storied and ideas, which are ephemeral, emotional, even psychological.  So while half of our job is being able write, to put words down on paper and move people, the other half is being able to socialize… to pitch ideas, collaborate, take criticism, offer criticism, etc.  

And while it sounds like much of this is simply innate and understanding how to be a nice, polite person (which is true), it also involves immersing yourself in Hollywood to learn the industry’s vocabulary and communication techniques.  I.e., how do you break a baby?  When should you beat a joke?  Who’s the second second?  How do you take the note behind the note?  

On one hand, this is all industry jargon that’s easy to pick up; on the other hand, these are all skills or bits of knowledge that aren’t really available until you’re on the job.  Which is why I always recommend people begin their Hollywood career at the bottom, working as a production assistant, doing grunt work on the set of a film or TV show where they can observe the processes and practices around them.

You can click here to check out an earlier post about getting a job as a P.A. (production assistant).

6. When writing does your company or advisor, give you any special equipment?

Not really—primarily because, as writers, our number one piece of equipment is in our heads!  If you’re working on a TV show, your company will often give you an office, desk, and computer… although most writers I know use their own computers.  Also on a TV show, the writers will all work together in one room called the “Writers Room,” which is equipped with a large table, chairs, and several dry-erase boards on which to write ideas and stories.

7. How long is a usual shift? and is their overtime?

This depends on the job.  In movies, most writers don’t go into an office… ever.  They write from home, or their own office, so they set their own schedules.

On a TV show, however, there IS an office.  Most writers start their days around 10 a.m., but the end of the day is different for each show.  Most TV writing staffs wrap up around 6:00 or 7:00.  A small handful have been known to have solid eight-hour days (Everybody Loves Raymond was famous for this.)  But many TV writing staffs work incredibly long hours, sometimes until midnight or later.  Many sitcoms, for instance, shoot an entire episode in one night… beginning around 5 p.m. and ending anywhere between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.

And unfortunately, no—there’s usually no overtime.  TV writers are contracted to write a certain number of episodes.  If they finish those episodes ahead of their deadlines, great (although this never happens); if they need more time, fine… but they don’t get paid extra.

Movie writers are paid per project; they get paid when their script is delivered to the employer on deadline, regardless of how many actual hours they pour into it.

8. Do you and others follow by any schedual or routine to get the writing done in time?

Well, as I said above, movie writers are on their own to get their work done… although their employer may build certain “touchstones” into a project’s schedule.  In other words, if you get hired to write a horror movie that is due on July 1st, the company that hires you may want character descriptions by April 25th, a sketchy outline by May 1, a more detailed outline by May 7, a first draft of the script by June 1, a second draft by June 20, and a final draft by July 1 (that’s a SUPER tight schedule… but as an example, you get it).

How the writer budgets his or her time in there is up to them, but I think most writers like to have their own specific routine, whether it’s writing late at night or getting up early, running 5 miles, eating breakfast, and then writing at Starbucks.  But most writers find that having a specific routine helps train their writing muscles to work.

In television, however, where writers come in to an actual office, work together, and have tighter deadlines (because they need to shoot an episode each week), it’s a much more structured process.  As a team, writing staffs work begin thinking about what “larger” stories and themes their TV show wants to tell… stories that span many episodes and weeks.  I.e. on The Office, the Jim and Pam saga has spanned years.  Desperate Housewives tells a new mystery each season, and that mystery plays out over several months.  

The writing staff then brainstorms what individual story events, or “beats,” need to happen in order to bring these larger stories to life.  (I.e., if your TV show is telling a season long story, or “arc,” about a girl named JESSIE deciding to leave her fiance, we need to see several things: Jessie and her fiance together, Jessie being unhappy with her fiance, Jessie deciding to leave her fiance, Jessie deciding how to break up with her fiance, Jessie preparing for the break-up, Jessie actually breaking up with her fiance, Jessie in the aftermath of the break-up, etc.)

The writing staff then spreads these events over the course of a season, where each becomes the basis for—or even just a part of—its own episode.  Each episode is then outlined by the staff, then assigned to an individual writer to write.  Once the script is written, the writ
ing staff often rewrites the script together, in the Writers Room, all at the same time.

Because TV shows must get an episode on the air each week, they are often under very strict deadlines to have outlines, scripts, and “shooting drafts” finished by specific deadlines.  So if the writing staff’s process is too slow, they’ll quickly feel the heat and pressure of being off schedule… and that slows down everyone else from the costume designers to the directors to the set-builders.

9. Is it nice to see a piece of your work transfer into televison, books, or magazines?

Yes!!  It’s awesome!!  I am by no means Hollywood’s most successful writer or producer, but I’m proud of the work I’ve done… and even though I’ve written articles and produced TV episodes, it’s still a thrill to see my name on screen or my byline in print.  It’s a little bit of validation telling you that this thing you love, this thing you set out to do, this dream you cling to because you’re afraid there’s NOTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD you’re capable of doing… isn’t just a hoax.  And believe me… most of the time, you’re pretty sure it’s just a hoax.  So seeing your name in print or on-screen is an INCREDIBLE feeling!

10.What is the average salary range for this position?

Salaries vary from job to job, and a writer’s salary on one job may be different from his or her salary on the next job.  It’s the writer’s job (or his agent or lawyer’s job) to negotiate his payment each time he gets hired… and, hopefully, to get an increase from the last job.  An entry-level writer probably gets paid only the minimum payment and may make $60,000-$70,000 per year.  Mid-level writers can make $200,000 per year.  And experienced showrunners, or head writers, can make well over a million dollars a year.  But it’s hard to give a specific average salary because so much depends on the show, the network, the level, and the experience of each particular writer.

The Writers Guild, however, does mandate certain minimum payments.  The minimum for writing a single one-hour drama episode of television (like CSI or Law & Order), for instance, is $31,748.  For a half-hour (My Name Is Earl, Two and a Half Men), it’s $21,585.  Movies have a similar structure.  You can download the Writers Guild’s “Schedule of Minimums,” which details minimum payments for many kinds of film and TV writing HERE.

Anyway, I hope all this helps, Corey!  Good luck with the paper… and definitely write back and lemme know how it goes!

Chad

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One thought on “READER QUESTION: From 9th Grade to Hollywood…

  1. Dan

    I understand TV writers get paid per episode they write (usually 2 a season, no?). Do they also get paid week-to-week for time spent in the writer’s room breaking stories and punching up the other writer’s drafts?

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