Happy Halloween.

Life of a pseudo-writer, II

October 30, 2009

Socialized medicine

One of the things about having a kid is that suddenly you MUST HAVE HEALTH INSURANCE. Like many ne’er-do-well young Americans, I didn’t have any, so Husband Guy kindly semi-rejoined ARMY to provide us with-

WAIT FOR IT-

SOCIALIZED HEALTH CARE

PAID FOR BY YOUR TAXES, AMERICA!

That’s right. You read it, you can’t unread it.

So the other day we drove to the nearest Army base so I could get a flu shot. Because of how civilian doctors here don’t have any (I guess the state underordered… or the factories overpromised, who knows.)

And what was totally weird is that going to a military treatment facility is basically like going to a normal doctor, only without all of the sucky parts.

TO WIT:

*You get seen super-quickly.
*By someone who is polite and efficient.
*And who gives you the thing you’re there for.
*At no cost to you.

PS, I DID NOT NOTICE A SINGLE DEATH PANEL… and I was totally on the lookout.

The other outstanding thing: the many wild turkeys wandering around. I tried to find pictures to share with you, but I think maybe it’s semi- or entirely illegal to take pictures without permission on military installations, and I couldn’t find any. But basically you need to picture VERY SERIOUS MEN in VERY SERIOUS HUMVEES pausing to let a flock of turkeys mosey slowly across the road in front of them.

It was Quite Good.

And now, for some more of my bullshit notes on being a fake writer! I know you’ve been waiting anxiously.

Specs vs. pitches.

So when I was an entire year or two younger and wandering around fantasizing about HOW GREAT it would be when I achieved fabulousness and got a dog, I always assumed that the fabulousness would happen because of someone being all “Oh man, I just love this thing you wrote, I would like to try to get it made! HERE IS SOME MONEY.”

HA HA HA.

I don’t think people actually buy specs anymore. I mean, I know they do, but the rate of buying and selling is so low as to not really be relevant to people like me.

I don’t even think about selling a spec. (Listen, I would be ecstatic. I would buy a dog and name it after my agency. I just don’t expect it to happen.) I think of specs as samples that tell people that you’re not an idiot, and they should meet with you, and maybe give you a shot at pitching your take on some dead project they have kicking around.

If you as a young baby-writer type person manage to transition from “chump” to “chump who just made WGA minimum”, I am pretty sure it will be because of an assignment. Not rewriting your own spec or anything like that.

But that’s fine. I assume that most of us who are trying to be film or TV writers are not super precious about our WORDS and our ART and get that we are essentially craftspersons for hire.

However – and this is, unfortunately, going to sound super precious about my WORDS and my ART – as most writers would, I think, agree, the hard part of writing is not the writing, it’s not the typing, it’s not the part where John says this and then Jenna says this in response, and then John freaks out and puts his fist through the drywall and then Jenna is all, calm down, it was just that one time, I didn’t even know he was into armadillos!!!

The hard part of writing is the part where you come up with the idea. And the world. And the characters. And then you plot it out, beat by beat, twist by turn. And all the pieces have to click into the next bit, like a machine.

All of that is hard when it is your idea.

When you’re working on your take for an assignment – and OKAY MAYBE I AM PRECIOUS, I don’t know, I’m just being honest – none of that stuff really belongs to you, and sometimes maybe the idea or the characters don’t connect with you, but you still have to do it. You still have to do all of that work. And the more you feel like this project isn’t exactly the kind of thing you would have come up with on your own, the tougher it is. But you push through it, and come up with something (hopefully) you feel okay about walking into a room and pitching.

And then you don’t get the job.

Why you don’t get the job

Well, first, it’s of course entirely possible that it’s because you’re just not good enough, or because you pitched something totally lame. (I do not mean to give the impression that I think that I am For Sure Good Enough or anything like that.) But I think the following factors also sometimes come into play:

*There are not that many jobs to begin with.
*Not all of the jobs have money attached anyway. (Think of these as “jobs”, if you will.)
*You are going to be up against lots of other people for the same job. Or “job”.
*On account of how I’m a cynical jerk and I used to work for people who did things like this, I sometimes sort of suspect that the job/”job” is actually mostly the executive generating meetings to justify his or her continued employment (“See, boss?!? I’m developing with both hands! WATCH ME TAP DANCE.”) and not really about how the company totally wants to reboot a Michael Biehn movie from 1989… you know?
*Some of those jobs/”jobs” will be at studios where stern edicts have come down from on high about how the company can hire anybody they want so long as the person is on this list of six pre-approved A-list writers, GUESS WHAT, BABY WRITERS, YOU ARE NOT ON THAT LIST.
*Most of the time, even with your very best efforts to nail the story that you think best fits the company’s idea, you will get it wrong. You will pitch the executive a version that just doesn’t trip the story switch in his or her brain.

And there’s just not much you can do about that last part. Even though occasionally the executive will kind of act as though you should have known better, I don’t believe that’s true. You swung and you missed, them’s the breaks.

PS: For TV writers, based on what my friend K. has said, it’s the same but worse. You go up for baby staff writer jobs, but those jobs barely exist anymore, so you’re now not just competing with all the other baby writers, you’re competing with people who held supervising producer spots on some award-winning cable drama, but who have lowered their quote to survive. You are probably not going to win out against that person. Not because you’re not as good, but because, you know… if you’re the showrunner, and you can hire “great writer” or “great writer+five years experience on a show”…

Not getting the job can be kind of tough.

Not like lying around on the couch sobbing, tough. And usually I guess you probably don’t care in a very immediate, personal sense, because it wasn’t your idea and it wasn’t your big passionate thing anyway.

But a few times I have pitched something I genuinely loved. And to not get those is kind of… I don’t know, APPARENTLY I AM PRECIOUS ABOUT MY WOOOOORDS.

(Listen, if you weren’t lame and sensitive, you wouldn’t be a writer to begin with, so WHATEVS.)

I don’t know what the answer to this is, or if there even is an answer. I think that maybe it has something to do with Zen archery:

You have to just I guess get super good at it and then also literally not give a rat’s ass if you hit or miss. So you do your very best, you get genuinely passionate about the story, you LOVE what you came up with. And then you detach completely. Ego death. Not only can you not care that you might not get the job, you can’t care that you came up with the best character EVER and he’ll never see the light of day, you can’t even write about him, because none of it belongs to you.

Please let me know if you find a way to do this.

The worst thing about pitching on assignments.

It can suck up all of your CREATIVE LIFE JUICES and leave you this crazy drained husk of a person where you never work on your own stuff, you just stare into space and panic and try to come up with a Fresh And Original Twist That Is Almost Exactly Like Taken, Yet Different, so you can go pitch on it and not get the job.

Apropos of nothing.

Look, if you’re a writer you’re probably kind of dorky and weird, or you wouldn’t be a writer. Remember that speech on 30 Rock where Jack tells Liz that she “…Got into this business because she’s funny and she’s weird and she’s socially retarded.”? Like that!

Here’s the thing you have to wrap your brain around: people who have offices with doors in Hollywood are mostly also quite weird (but don’t realize it, THEY NEVER EVER REALIZE IT) and fingergunsy and the kind of people who tell you stories about themselves that you know are supposed to impress you, but you never understand WHY.

Like the stories are always about how they went cave-fishing in El Salvador with some communists. And then they pause and look at you. And you go “Wow! Communists, huh?” and that is THE EXACT WRONG RESPONSE, YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO TALK ABOUT SPEARFISHING, JESUS H CHRIST.

Finally, on pitches:

Obviously, I don’t actually get these jobs, so my insight is of uber-questionable value. But for what it’s worth, here’s pretty much everything I know:

*You must know every beat in the story. You can’t just go in with a premise and your act breaks and your major turning points. You need to know it soup to nuts, even if you end up skipping over the second-act subplot in the meeting.
*Get to your inciting incident faster. In fact, see if you can’t lop off your entire first act and just start in the middle of the story and catch us up as we go. For some reason I think that easing us into the story works on the page in a way it doesn’t when you’re telling it out loud.
*You must do them faster. When you’re just writing specs at night after your assistant job, you can pretty much take as long as you want. When you’re going after assignments, you need to be able to turn a really comprehensive outline around in about a week or ten days. That is very difficult. I personally have found it surprisingly impossible. I don’t know if I have the kind of brain that can do it, frankly. (Which leads me to think that maybe there’s a Don-Draper-style personality successful screenwriters have. Or something.)
*Yes, it is going to suck to come up with big set-pieces and then dump them into your mental shredder. I think you just have to get over that.
*The actual sitting there and pitching is kind of weird and unpleasant, unless you are a writer who is also an actor (I’m guessing). I am NOT A PERFORMER at all. I do not like pitch meetings. I am just not naturally comfortable trying to sell things, or saying things like “And then we have this fucking awesome chase sequence where our hero disembowels a guy using a goat he found by the side of the road…” …see: how I am not like Don Draper. But I have found that it does get easier. You just have to accept that it’s awkward and lame and plow through it.
*At the end of your pitch most executives will rewrite it for you. Sometimes they have really great ideas. You should steal those. But sometimes they are telling you in an elaborate way that they really disliked your pitch and you are no longer in the running. Sit there and smile and nod, Liz.
*It is super-easy to just chase assignments and not do your own work. Super-easy. My main regret from this year is that I got too sucked in to pitching. If I had it to do over again I would not pitch on less stuff, but I would, somehow, find more time to work on my own specs. I feel like that’s the only way you don’t lose your mind.

That is all for now! I have, I think, one more installment in my BORING NOTES ON BEING A FAKE WRITER series. (EXCITED?!?)

PS: I do hope I don’t sound grouchy and bitter. I know exactly how lucky I am to have gotten even this close to the brass ring. I appropriately grateful. I just figured I’d write this stuff down on the obscure off-chance it would be useful to someone just starting out.

Your pal in the Finger Lakes,

Elana

Life of a pseudo-writer

October 20, 2009

This post is not really about anything ridiculous!

OKAY WAIT, let me get the ridiculous things out of the way first:

1) Just in case I mention this later, I am telling you now so you won’t be WILDLY STARTLED – I am having a kid. I periodically get very “Oh man, what if after I have a kid it turns out that it’s like that Breeders song, MOTHERHOOD MEANS MENTAL FREEZE, and I stop being funny?!?” and Husband Guy says things like “Have you noticed that you are still kind of a jerk about the same things you would previously have been a jerk about, like when the doctor was all “Here is your baby on the ultrasound!” and waiting for you to get teary-eyed and instead you were all “Good lord, check out the size of the skull on that kid.”?

But- anyway, just so you know!

2) In conjunction with the above, I have come cross-country to visit my in-laws, who live in the Finger Lakes. This trip immediately multiplied the number of states I have been to by about four hundred.

Also, I have now experienced WAFFLE HOUSE. My husband is from the South and I guess people who are from the South think that Waffle House is The Best. In spite of my fascination with chain restaurants, I just did not get Waffle House. I mean… why does everything come with a pickle slice? (And I say this as someone who really likes pickles. AND IS PREGNANT. I am a pickle’s target demo!)

Other things I discovered on this trip: Arizona is really beautiful and also partially on fire. And FULL OF ELK who want to jump out at your car and pick fights with you! Apparently. According to the signage.

The Grand Canyon is really big. So big that your brain can’t really process the scale of it, and you think things like “I wonder why the other rim is kind of green and fuzzy” and then you realize that the fuzzy green bits are TREES and then your brain goes “…!!!! Shit, man!”

New Mexico is full of signs that say things like “FEED THE OSTRICH” or “CACTUS MOCCASINS FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY”.

North Texas is full of giant crosses! Like there’s some kind of company that makes and sells huge-ass metal crosses, and if you are a really serious Christian of a particular type I guess you buy them and put them up on your land… to make some kind of point about Jesus, or post-industrial design.

(Speaking of Jesus, I saw many semi trucks with signs reading things like “HIS NAME ISN’T THE MAN UPSTAIRS, IT’S JESUS CHRIST”, which strikes me as a really odd place to make your stand. “This far! NO FURTHER! I HAVE HAD IT WITH THESE BASICALLY RESPECTFUL BUT OVERLY FAMILIAR REFERENCES TO THE LORD.”)

Arkansas’ state motto should be “EXPERIENCE OUR MOISTNESS”. The air there was so wet I kept having panic attacks. “AHHHH WHY IS EVERYTHING SO DAMP. GET IT OFF GET IT OFF.”

(However, they make up for it by frying the heck out of all kinds of fish and serving it to you in little baskets with delicious sauces, so they’re back in my good graces.)

Virginia is startlingly gorgeous. Like, really – why do you think the pioneers left there and came West? Having just made the opposite trek, I feel secure in stating: BIG MISTAKE. BIG, BIG MISTAKE. Wait until you get to North Texas, you guys.

…I am skipping states in there. But anyway! Yes. Here I am, in the glamorous Finger Lakes, where it is COLD and there are DOGS and trees and you can go apple-picking (good times) and watch the alpaca stampede (I am looking forward to this quite a bit) and buy pumpkins from honor-system farm stands and nobody locks their doors.

***

So here is the not-ridiculous part of the post: I have been thinking back on this past year of pseudo-career as a young pseudo-screenwriter. I mean, I kind of am a screenwriter in the sense that I have been able to con Manager Guy and Agent Guy into representing me, and I have specs, and I go on a lot of meetings, and people in those meetings seem to think that I am a Real Writer, and like sometimes the assistant will be all “Elana?!? Oh man, it’s so good to meet you, I loved your sample!” – which makes me think that they don’t realize that I am just some chump off the street or whatever.

BASICALLY: I am a screenwriter, but only in the sense that I am expected to function as though I am one, with the writing and the meetings and the being available all the time and the pitching, etc etc. Of course I am totally clear on the fact that nobody is paying me, so it’s not like I’m a REAL screenwriter. You know? It’s just like I have this weird full-time job I don’t actually make any money doing.

I have a couple of friends who are in this same place, and I was talking to them recently about what’s going on. We all had many of the same comments. So I thought I would write them down and post them on the internets and maybe someday in the future some young baby writer will happen on them and find them useful.

OR NOT. But it’s my blog and you can’t stop me.

Here, in any event, are some things I have noticed, a couple at a time, because I am not organized enough to cram them all in one post:

I have been to the mountaintop, and I have seen that there are like fifteen more mountains beyond it.

When you are a young writer-type person, you think that for sure getting an agent or a manager is going to be a huge deal, you will basically have ARRIVED. And you know – I am not going to pretend that it doesn’t put you ahead of the curve. Because they call people for you and tell them that you are an up-and-coming genius and they should totally meet you. And people listen to them, so that’s pretty cool. And I also don’t want to be disingenuous about how, when you’re not-repped, it seems like this huge obstacle, this MOAT staring you in the face. But my experience has been that you get repped and then realize, OH WOW, that’s just the first tiny step, you may be closer to your goal, but only in the sense that you had NO IDEA HOW FAR AWAY YOU WERE AND NOW YOU KNOW.

It’s kind of like, you’re on this uphill hike, and every time you think “Oh! THERE IT IS! THE PEAK!” you realize that it’s actually just a narrow ledge of a plateau. And you stand around there for ten minutes as you absorb, with no small amount of horror, the fact that the actual peak is still miles and miles away. And then you take a breath and set off for the next leg of the trek, and eventually you go “Whoo! THERE IT IS, the PEAK!”

And then you realize that you’re a sucker and you just did it again. And it goes on like that for some time.

The odds are so much worse than you think.

I think I have only fairly recently realized just how terrible the odds are that I’m going to make it. I do not mean to sound defeatist. I think of it more as – my friend K., who is a TV writer and is in the place I am and is also basically a genius (I mean, you guys, she is really-really-really good), told me that a Real Writer friend said to her something like, “Listen. You’re in the place now where everyone else is as good as you are. And now it comes down to sheer dumb luck.”

And that’s how it seems to me. I have done the work. I learned to write. I have learned how to take meetings and not seem like a huge dumbass. I am still not a great pitcher, but I’m not the worst, either. I am actually a pretty good writer – not the best ever, but I think I’m good enough to do the work without embarrassing anyone seriously. Blah blah blah. Fine. That’s all great, until you realize that, HOLY SHIT, now it’s you and ninety-seven other guys up for the SAME JOB.

THERE’S ONLY ONE JOB.

AND YOU’RE ALL GOOD ENOUGH TO GET IT.

It comes down to something that isn’t talent or drive or persistence. Someone’s going to get that job, but it may or may not be you.

(I think about Bull Durham a lot.)

(I also think about how nobody even knows the name of the guy who comes in behind Usain Bolt. He might as well not exist.)

Nobody tells you about the money.

A number of months ago I had a meeting with a pretty successful young director (I mean, the guy works. Do you know how rare it is for directors to work? If you’re feeling bummed about your odds as a writer, AT LEAST YOU’RE NOT TRYING TO DIRECT.) and he told me this story about how when he was working on his first studio feature, he hadn’t actually gotten any checks yet, and he had to go in to work and basically eat only the free food in the kitchen, like oatmeal and Cup-a-Soup.

And yet he couldn’t really tell anyone about it, because he was this hot young director, right? And finally he cracked and told his agent that, um, he was literally broke, could he maybe get part of that first check now…?

And it was awkward. Because nobody wants to talk about that. Because we are all weirdo Victorians who are pretending that we don’t ever think about filthy lucre.

For a number of years I worked pretty happily as an assistant, and wrote on my own time. It was FINE. I sort of miss it.

I guess I assumed that when I started to Make It as a writer, that would probably start with someone, I don’t know, buying my spec. Or else I didn’t really think about it in much detail. The point is, I never gave any thought to the fact that the best-case scenario, really, is that you will at some point have TOO MANY MEETINGS to have a job. (This is true for the people I know who are assistants… and most of the people I know are assistants. I assume that if you have some kind of job where you work at night or have super-flexible hours, this will be a different issue for you.)

So then you quit your job, and go on meetings and come up with pitches and outlines and stay home and read novels to pitch on and movies to pitch on. And that becomes your job. And you live on your savings for a while, and it’s fine.

But unless you are independently wealthy, you’ll probably run out of money long before you run out of general meetings. Of the people I know who are on this hamster wheel, one is living on cashed-out home equity, and another is married to someone who’s giving her her shot.

(I am also married to someone who is giving me my shot. I have spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about what people do if they don’t have huge savings accounts or a supportive life partner. I don’t know what the answer is. I am not exaggerating when I say that I don’t know how I would have pulled this year off if I weren’t married to a guy who is willing to do things like “Get a job not in his field and pay the rent so I can stay home and write”. I don’t really know what else to say about it, because it’s a very generous thing to do, you know? It is humbling to be the recipient of that kind of niceness. Of course it will all pay off for him when someday he needs a kidney… but still.)

And I don’t think people talk about this, because talking about being broke is TOTALLY UNCOOL, so I guess that people you have meetings with naturally assume that you are pretty fabulous, a real writer, blah blah blah. Once I had a meeting with a really very fancy executive, and I pitched him something, and then he went off on this tangent about how writers made so much more money than executives, I was making more money than he was JUST BY SITTING THERE. And finally I said, very mildly, that I didn’t actually make any money writing… and he kind of waved this off, NOT GERMANE TO THE CONVO.

(More points later, once I turn in the thing I am supposed to turn in. YES.)

Your pal in the Finger Lakes,

Elana