BALLS OF STEEL: Writing Survival – Cheating With Benefits

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Unconditional love. For better or worse, in sickness and in health. Through sleepless nights of anxiety and glorious days of passion, you cling to hope, trying to make that love go the distance. But something is missing.

Maybe it’s time to cheat … on your screenwriting.

How? Embrace your dreaded day job.

Wait …. STOP! Don’t click over to Chad Gervich’s column yet … give me a shot here.

Many of you have been groaning to me on Twitter about being stuck in a job from hell and wanting an escape. But maybe your job can actually help your writing.

The obvious answer is to become a freelance writer. You can learn a lot about screenwriting by putting your scripts aside and writing those quick, sexy articles that push you to the edge for a few hours in the afternoon, leaving you glowing and satisfied.

No, I’m not talking about erotica … though there’s a business in that too. I’m amazed how many screenwriters and novelists I’ve met this past year who write saucy stories on the side via anonymous names. You have no idea what a Western can be turned into. Just sayin’.

Back to cheating …

Freelance writing helps both my scripts and my professionalism.

First of all, articles keep me writing every day. That alone has an enormous value. My writing mind is being exercised.

Story is story, even if it’s only a few paragraphs.

Whether it’s a 500-word article or a 110-page script, you have to hook them. In a script, readers usually give you five pages, but in an article, you have to grab them in the first paragraph or they start skimming.

Once you grab them, you need to keep their attention.

Stick to telling the facts in a most engaging way possible. Typically, that’s with your unique voice. If you’re snarky, don’t be afraid to show it.

When I submitted my first article to Writer’s Digest, Confessions of a Tweetaholic, the then publisher, Jane Friedman, responded that while it was a quality, well-researched piece, she wanted my unique, original voice – “the one only you have.”

That was the most valuable lesson I’ve ever gotten, and I now apply it to all of my writing.

Freelance also hones your professional skills, starting with querying.

Unlike screenwriting, you query a publication before you’ve written the piece. Imagine that. A promise there is a given audience for your work before you even write it. A writer’s nirvana.

Researching newspapers and magazines is much like researching production companies. You’ll be a super sleuth in no time and be able to use those tricks when your scripts are ready to go out.

Just like being a writer-for-hire in L.A., in freelance you’ll have deadlines, editors, and notes on your work. It’s a great practice in taking feedback and getting used to someone changing your words.

There are many similarities, but there is one big difference – MONEY!

Freelance writers actually get paid. Shocking, I know, but it’s true. I photocopied my first check and framed it. Another benefit is once you have received payment for your writing, you now have a home office tax write off. Holy payroll, Batman!

However, when I started my freelance career, I wrote for free in order to get published clips to use as samples of my work. It’s easy to find sites that need writers.

But don’t do all that work without some form of compensation. I asked the sites I wrote for to give me recommendations on my LinkedIn page in lieu of cash. It didn’t pay my bills, but it was gold for attracting editors. I used my free work to build a foundation for my future paid work.

Even if you aren’t getting paid, treat the job as if you are. Submit a quality piece on time, because meeting a deadline is key. So many freelancers get fired because they can’t consistently submit on time.

The practice of timely submissions is paramount in screenwriting as well. You might as well get used to writing under pressure.

Above all other benefits, the biggest for me is validation of my writing. I write so people can read my words. It feels good to be published somewhere and have my words move people. After all, isn’t that why we do this?

When writing scripts, there are days the task seems endless. It can take years to feel you nailed a story. But I can finish and polish an article in a few hours. Completing a piece gives me a sense of satisfaction I carry to my screenwriting, and a shot of adrenaline that helps me push through those tough writing days.

Having said all that, I’ll be honest, freelance isn’t easy. Constantly pimping yourself is exhausting, but that’s part of a screenwriting career too. It helps me toughen my skin.

But freelance isn’t the only day job that helps your screenwriting.

Maybe you’re stuck behind a desk somewhere in a tiresome job you loathe. Think about how you can draw something from it to help your writing. Sometimes the answer is right in front of you.

Sales is a great way to hone your pitching skills. I used be in sales. Trust me, I wanted to poke my eyeballs out every single day, but I needed money. People who are seemingly sweet in real life will say the nastiest things to a salesperson right before they hang up. That’s some great dialogue to put in your file.

If you have a desk job in an office, use the opportunity to watch people. I am the resident voyeur at my local Panera, but you can do the same in your 9-to-5 prison. Notice people’s conversations, and use that in your dialogue. Or eavesdrop at the watercooler and listen to first-date horror stories. It might just be a romantic comedy waiting to be written!

Every single thing you do during the day can add to your writing skills, even going to the supermarket for a gallon of milk can turn into a voyeurism jackpot.

At the very least, you should have a website for people to learn more about you and your work. Writing blog posts is satisfying, and a great way to test a topic for a screenplay. Short stories are another angle. They can be published and adapted.

Perhaps the best way to cheat on your screenwriting is to take a break from writing and live your life. Get out from behind the laptop every once in a while.

Refresh your brain. Discover new things. Explore unknown worlds.

Once you step away from your writing, you might even fall in love with it all over again.

OK, now you can go read Chad’s column.  While you’re at it, check out all the other great columns on the Scriptmag site.

Share in the comments any jobs you’ve had that helped your screenwriting. The stranger, the better.

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8 thoughts on “BALLS OF STEEL: Writing Survival – Cheating With Benefits

  1. Dan

    That’s encouraging to read. I’ve started a blog on education, since that’s the field in which I work, and I do feel that sense of accomplishment you describe here.

    When I get good feedback, which actually happens, it reinforces that I can write, and the screenplays take center stage once again.

  2. Captain

    Jeanne you are my teacher, thanks
    The job I had that made me really want to polish my writing skills was that of a high school shop teacher. I got all the kids who couldn’t excell in the regular classroom. I MOTIVATED them by writing notes on the back of their test papers. For example: Dear Jimmy if I were grading you on writing, grammer, and spelling you would flunk, but todays test is about plumbing and you are the smartest kid that I have ever tested. Tell your English teacher that she may fail you in her class but I’m going to tell you all you need to know to be a world class Plumber. That is: “Hot on the left. Cold on the right. Shit don’t run up hill, and the Boss the man is a MotherFkR”. This kid is a man now, owns his own company,and earns a six figure income. He carries my note in his bill fold. Our written words have an earth changing affect on people lives. I’m glad I gave serious and appropriate rebuttal to the notes the other teachers wrote. (true story)

  3. romona robinson

    I work at an investment bank — I actually generated one of the drafts I’m working on because of it. There is definite truth in keeping your ears open to eavesdropping on conversations at work.

    My leaning to the right at my desk paid off as it sparked an idea for a script that has evolved towards another level after putting it away and dusting it back off.

    Kudos for another great piece JVB.

  4. Jonathan Peace

    I have a confession also. For the past five months I’ve been cheating as well, writing freelance for a UK based hobby company called Mantic Games. At first it was just some short stories based on their fantasy tabletop miniatures game Kings of War, then they asked for some colour text to accompany shots of their models in their online store and then… Well, let’s just say they asked if I’d consider a new project. A big project.

    All those previous stories, background and articles had been written out of pure passion (I’m a gaming geek) as well as a very healthy discount in their store (I now have huge armies of Undead, Orcs and Elves to paint). I didn’t ask for payment, just rolled with the words, revelling in developing a game world that would inspire others.

    And my screenwriting has benefited greatly as well. Its like seeing the script with fresh eyes.

    So I heartily recommend a few extra curricular activities.

  5. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Absolutely, Ian. I owned a motel and restaurant for 15 years before I started writing. I wish I kept a diary during that time. Priceless stories, like when a guy tried to commit suicide by jumping out the window…. from his ground floor room! I had some real winners stay with me. But yes, observing is often the only way to survive the long day of a job you hate.

  6. Ian

    I’m actually at two part time jobs right now. One of them is pretty terrible but I have been listening to peoples conversations and watching what people do. And if there is down time, I even read about screenwriting.

    At my last full time job at a real estate company, it was the worst working experience of my life. Thank god I’m not their anymore. But it opened my eyes to how some people can be real assholes and try to belittle you to make themselves feel better. It showed me another world that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. It’s definitely something I will be using in my future work or base a character off of one of my bosses.

    Observing is the best way to learn.

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