I’m waiting on the phone to ring to find out about a project I pitched yesterday while simultaneously scheduling a pitch meeting around another pitch meeting I already have set, one that is effectively killing my original plans to attend a friend’s wedding, which leads me to answering an excellent question about money with a whole lot of words on juggling multiple projects.

Heidi writes in the comments section of this entry:

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If I may ask a question about the super secret fantasy life of a writer — how do you budget financially during the jags where you’re working flat out for free until you can catch your breath and the unexpected income arrives? …I’ve found my own 1099 income years to be sort of jarring, so I wondered.
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I’m sure there are many ways to do this. Unfortunately, I am not blessed with the “Rich Uncle” version, so I had to go about it differently.

My very first day of my very first tv show job, one of the more established writers said to me, “Save your money, kid.” He didn’t have to do that. I’m pretty sure I didn’t ask for any advice at all. Because of that, I thought, “That man is telling me something he wishes someone had said to him. He is literally trying to pay it backward.” So I do try to always save, particularly when I’m on a show that’s paying me every week. I put a lot of that away, knowing it’s my paycheck when I’m not staffed or waiting on a check from all my other writing, which pays about maybe four times a year.

Making it work while you’re working for free takes some discipline, some planning, and still a bit of luck. But it can happen!

If I’d been fortunate enough to be on a show that lasted more than a couple of seasons, I could tell you, “Residuals.” That’s one of the reasons we were striking so hard those few years ago.

Samantha Who? still plays in other countries, and is on Netflix streaming, so every once in a while a “little green envelope” comes in the mail from the Writer’s Guild that is my tiny cut of that pie. A very, very tiny cut. My last LGE was for around three hundred dollars, after taxes. I might get another one next year for less than that. But that show wasn’t on for very long, and I wasn’t at producer level. Someone more established on a show that lasts four seasons or five or is on multiple networks — those residuals keep you going during the times when you aren’t on staff, when you are “working flat out for free.”

But that’s not me, either. I’m going to try to answer your question with the four rules I keep in mind when I’m doing this job.

I’m not one of those people who will ever say to you, “You need to just give yourself permission to do something. That’s all that’s holding you back.” In my experience, if something is holding you back (something that’s not an actual human being pinning your arms to the ground or a prison guard telling you to get back into your cell), you’re probably mulling over a combination of fear and responsibility. So, no, I wouldn’t say just “giving yourself permission” will solve that problem.

In fact, I’m going to give you a little bit of applause. I bet most people don’t appreciate what an honest, hardworking, respectable citizen you are being by going, “Wait. Being a writer looks like it might be difficult and financially irresponsible. I do not want to eat cat food to be able to pay for my wifi. Hold on. Can someone tell me how it’s done before I just try it?”

That’s what happened to me, and I’m forever grateful. I didn’t get permission to be a full-time writer, I had someone say, “You know, you’ve already laid the groundwork, and at this point, I’d say you’ll be able to handle the gig financially with a couple of pointers. You want to talk about this over lunch?” These words were spoken to me over ten years ago, and they were spoken by John Scalzi. I’ve built on his advice over the years from my own experiences, but I don’t think I would have had the guts to leave the 401K-life if someone hadn’t told me I was pretty much already doing it.

Please note: at this point I’d been writing professionally and freelance for more than two years. I had a portfolio, a few steady freelance gigs, a weekly newspaper column and a website that generated ad revenue. And I was still nervous to leave the corporate world. Because I’m not an idiot, and I’m guessing you aren’t either. Thus: these rules I use to tell myself I’m somehow doing something that isn’t reckless and will still pay me ten years down the line, even though I have absolutely no control over that…. To the rules!

The biggest piece of advice I took away from John’s lunch talk: Plan your life six months out. This will be a completely different plan if you are someone who is a full-time writer working freelance, waiting on those 1099’s that never, ever, ever arrive on time, compared to a part-time writer finding time to crank out words while keeping a steady-paycheck full-time job. Take a look at your life, know what money you can expect to make, and plan accordingly.

Which leads me to another one of my rules: The only job you have is the one you have right now. Never schedule finances for your next six months on jobs that aren’t definite.

I cannot stress this enough. It’s so easy to think, “Oh, and by the fall I’ll have sold that script/article/website/organ.” But the sad truth is, no matter how far along you are on a project where someone’s like, “This will totally sell, don’t worry,” it might not. The job isn’t really real until you have put a check in the bank. And sometimes not even then! I’ve been working on shows for over three months before my first check arrived. I’ve had development deals that took over a full year before I ever saw a dime. Right now I’ve got projects that have yet to “commence,” which means people are still hammering out the contracts and while it’s something I’m eventually going to write, I’m not writing it yet, because people haven’t decided all of its terms and conditions. So I wait, and I work on the jobs I have.

Because of the length of time it can take for different projects to reach completion, I’ve upped that six-month idea to one year. I think of my finances and my workload one year ahead.

What I do is: Juggle like a motherfucker.

For example, let’s take a look at my next year, as it stands right now.

Turns out in spite of my ridiculously awesome ability to type funny words straight from my vagina, I did not get staffed. Please, a moment of silence for that, as I put in a valiant effort. I had meetings. I had a lot of close calls. There were moments I was having to schedule my work for the rest of my year to include the possibility of a two-hour daily commute. But I didn’t get staffed, so: new plan.

I’m sitting next to the printed manuscript of my latest novel. I’m going through it for edits, and it won’t be the only time I’ll do that. In about a month I’ll be doing it again, with notes from my agent and editor. I’ve been writing it for many, many months now, but you won’t see it until at least a year from now. That means I’m not going to get much money from it (ever) as I work on it (but also ever, because books don’t pay much when you consider they take around a year or two to make), but it is the biggest time-sucker of my life. [“Hey, is that why when I told you I read your latest book in less than three hours you made that sad face?” — you | “Yes. But thank you for reading because otherwise I wouldn’t get to write them” — me]

I’m also sitting next to the latest draft of my pilot script. I turn that in next week, wait for notes, and then do another draft, possibly another after that and then I wait to see if they want to film the pilot late in the summer. Which means come August, my life either changes dramatically, or not at all.

I need to turn both of those projects in, not just because they are due, but because that’s how I get paid. In theory, I should spend my days working all day long on both of them. But that would be a very bad idea. I would only do that if I want all my finances to potentially come to a grinding halt right about the time the pilot script gets a pass. I have to look ahead and make sure that a good fifty to sometimes eighty percent of my day is spent hustling to get the next job. Jobs. Opportunities. That’s what the hustle is for. A chance to try for a job.

So I’m pitching. When staffing season ends, the pitching season starts, where writers meet development execs and discuss ideas/concepts/areas/material that will hopefully lead to a development deal or a script order. I tried explaining this to my mother yesterday as I was going to a studio pitch with a producer I’ve been working with, but the fact that the studio had the same name as a network and yet I wasn’t pitching a network, nor was I taking a meeting where at the end of it someone hands me a tv show kind of blew her mind.

“All that work, and in the end all you’re getting is the chance to have another meeting, but with more people there?” she asked. Which made me have to go, “Yes.”

It’s not that easy to get a script deal when you’re a “mid-level female writer,” although I will say being an author makes people think I’m fancy. If you want to be a tv writer, I highly recommend being some other kind of writer first, because all tv writers know we are all lying, asshole hacks with self-esteem issues. Any other kind of writer is much more impressive, not just to us, but to the people who work with tv writers and long ago figured out they are all kind of lying, asshole hacks with self-esteem issues.

Sorry for the tangent. These pitches I’ve got on deck, some of them I’ve been working with producers for months and are now waiting for the “networks to open,” an image that always makes me think of someone setting up a Monopoly board, going, “I’ll be banker.” Any (or all, but no, it won’t be all, because the odds are slim no matter how awesome the project) could “go,” meaning I scored another gig, collecting $200 from that Monopoly banker. Then I will schedule that project into my next year of work, along with the projects that are still in the drawing-up-the-contract phases, which will eventually (but I cannot predict when) “commence,” which is when they fall right into my lap. And then I will reschedule the plan again. This is called success! This will all finish in the fall, right around the time lots of people who did get staffed will find their options running out on their contracts, which means sometimes means people are let go, which means potentially more meetings for me on shows, potentially rescheduling the plan yet again.

I think of my desk as the conveyor belt. I send something out knowing how long it’ll take to come back with notes, or how long it’ll be before we meet again, or how long I have until it’s finished (it’s never finished — my god, I’m writing a pilot script about the book I wrote in 2004 and 2005, you guys. I’ll never stop writing the word chlamydia. I have done this to myself.)

Juggling is all about knowing how long it takes you to do something, combined with how long it takes others to do something. I’m a quick worker. It comes from my years on the grind at TWoP. While I was writing two or three recaps a week plus monitor a forum and run pamie.com, in order to to pay my bills I had to also write anime scripts, do coverage for a production company, and probably a few other projects I don’t even remember anymore, in addition to balancing the free work world of spec scripts, pitches to lowest-level people, general meetings, helping a friend punch-up a script, and crying into a pillow after seeing my account balance, pissed off about my lack of a rich uncle.

Sound hard? It is! That’s why every writer you know has that face.

But, listen. You have to juggle. You have to do lots of things at once because the free projects don’t pay any money, and you have to do all sorts of free projects before any of them make money, which is why you’ll probably have a “job” (or two or three) before you get “work” that pays money. And once you finally land a gig that pays a little bit of cash, you’ve walked through your first door. It gets a little easier there, but it’s not over. It can be another year before you get another gig, and in that time you’ll have to do even more free work. So when you’re doing planning out your six months or your year, make sure you plan out your week. Figure out how long each project will take, and slot it into the time you have devoted to writing. Make sure you will have some kind of finished product at the end of at least some of these projects. Don’t just take on other people’s pitch ideas. Pitches disappear into thin air and often never do anything again. Make sure you’re still writing specs or manuscripts or whatever it is you like to write, so that you can have those things “out there” working for you when you are “in here” writing like a lunatic.

Which brings us to the final rule: Write every day, and be your own dick boss.

When you’re juggling, you have to give yourself deadlines. I always give myself earlier deadlines than other people give me, because I will work until the very last second I’m allowed. If they made a show on Bravo called Top Writer, during that final countdown I’d be standing at my laptop whacking keys, looking up at the time going, “UGH! UGH! I’M NOT READY! NOT READY!” but then I’d run out of time and of course it was totally ready, I just couldn’t stop tinkering with it.

I’ve given myself multiple deadlines for various projects, but I also know that I can’t sit here for eight to ten to twelve to sixteen hours a day, doing nothing but writing and editing. My brain starts to hurt. Some days the words won’t come, and I will end up on the couch watching an HBO documentary designed to punch me in the stomach. Sometimes I’ll intentionally find something related to what I’m working on, so there’s inspiration. Exercise helps. Getting out of the house to see a friend who is feeling equally lost and frustrated helps. Going to see theatre or a movie or getting on a roller coaster also helps. Shift your view. Imagine the finish line. There are all kinds of ways to fill your non-writing time.

But that can’t be every day. That can’t be every day! Hey, really. That can’t be every day. You can’t always be thinking, waiting, researching, surfing, roller coastering. You have to sit and you have to type, and you have to keep the conveyor belt running with your projects, always sending something up and out, or nothing will come back around and then you will have no money and there will be no green envelope, no commencement check, no callback, no project. You will run dry. Working from home is a challenge to some, I know, because the XBox is right there. Use it to play Last.fm, and spend your time writing. You can’t be a writer without all the writing. If you’re a writer who isn’t writing, you’re just a breather.

The trick to making all of this free work and paid work work for you is to remember that you aren’t just budgeting your finances. You’re budgeting your time. You have to honestly judge your ability to handle multiple projects, how to best budget your workload, and then plan accordingly.

I wrote all that and the phone still didn’t ring, so I’m going to go work on my script. Because even if that phone eventually rings with a no, I’ll have something at the end of this day with words on it.

20 thoughts on “Making it Work While You’re Mostly Working for Free

  1. Margret Atwood’s number 7 out of 10 rule for writing.
    7) You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality.
    This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. –
    Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

  2. wait, so you’re saying i shouldn’t have just put my life savings into turning my dining room into a basketball court?

    you’re being slightly dishonest here, because you failed to mention your lucrative gig playing roller derby.

    1. True, I forgot to mention I get paid in bruises and torn ligaments. Talk about residuals!

      Your dining room basketball court still has me speechless. It deserves its own episode of Cribs.

  3. Wonderful, I have so much respect for writers. I love books, movies,& TV and none of these things would exist without writers. It can be such an isolating job so I’m glad the internet & other writers exist so you don’t all go mad.
    I’ve read your book GIC twice now so hopefully the repeat reads make it slightly more bearable.
    I’m making my husband read this so I can convince him to send out his work to someone who is not me. :)
    Keep up your juggling because the output that we get is awesome. And it’s all about us right?!

  4. Whoa – this is all such awesome advice and perspective for any creative freelancers. You should sell this to colleges to add to their lesson plans for film school and creating writing majors. And also as a handout to give to parents when you don’t have the energy to explain it all.

  5. Brilliant post. I love how you demystify the TV writing process while acknowledging that it is still all rather mystifying even when you’re in the middle of it. But am I crazy that even with the uncertainty and all the “no”s, that it still sounds kinda like fun?

    Anyway, I’m really pulling for Why Moms Are Weird to get the go-ahead, and I can’t wait to read the new novel. I promise to take at least four hours over it.

  6. Fantastic stuff. And virtually all of it also applies to my career in literary translation. It is indeed, a scary roller coaster on a daily basis. But I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do what I do, and I love it, even when I hate it.

  7. “You can’t be a writer without all the writing. If you’re a writer who isn’t writing, you’re just a breather.”

    I’ll keep that in mind when I put off writing for ‘researching’ and coming up with ideas. Thanks for this article! One of the best and practical tips for writers.

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