WRITERS’ ROOM 101: The Post-Upfronts Blues

Eric Haywood has spent over a decade writing for network and premium cable television series including ABC’s Private Practice, Showtime’s Soul Food, NBC’s Hawaii, and the Fox drama Empire. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricHaywood.

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If you happen to be a regular reader of this column, and you’re reading these posts in a timely fashion as they drop every other Tuesday, then by now it’s mid-May 2015, and this year’s network upfronts are over. Gone. A thing of the past. The major network shows are pretty much fully staffed for the year, and that means one of two things: you’re either among the lucky few who landed a coveted writing job (congrats!) or you aren’t (sorry…). Unfortunately, there’s no real middle ground; it’s a true either/or situation.

Rejected ScriptsIf you’ve been staffed, and it’s your first or second job in the business, this particular post isn’t for you. Every other “Writers’ Room 101” post has been written for the express purpose of helping you navigate the early stages of your writing career…but not this one. This post is for everyone who didn’t get staffed.

In a perfect world, each and every writer who participates in the annual staffing season rat race would land a gig – any gig, even if it’s not their dream job. And yet, despite the never-ending proliferation of new networks popping up like weeds, and streaming services moving deeper into scripted programming, there never quite seems to be enough work available for all of us at the same time. So some writers get job offers – some even get multiple offers over the course of a single staffing season – while others get none. You might’ve even had a killer meeting for a new pilot that was in contention, and things went so well, the showrunner assured you right there in the room that she’d hire you if her show got picked up to series…and then it didn’t get picked up. That happens, too. There’s simply no way to predict how things will shake out.

And to make matters worse, as you look around the post-upfronts landscape, it probably feels like everyone you know got staffed. That super-talented writer you met at an industry networking event? Staffed. Your former co-worker who could barely form a coherent sentence in the room? Staffed. The showrunner whose last three series all tanked right out of the gate? Development deal.

You may even find yourself commiserating with a writer friend about how neither of you got staffed this time around, and how Hollywood is stupid and everything sucks and why do we willingly submit ourselves to this torture every damn year? And then, a few days later, your friend is excitedly announcing the to world that she got a last-minute job offer out of the blue and starts on Monday. Um…yay?

Trust me, I’ve been there. And I’m not going to sugar-coat it: not landing a job when you know you’ve done your level best can be pretty soul-crushing. But this is the career path we’ve chosen, and sometimes things just don’t work out in our favor for reasons completely beyond our control. It’s an occupational hazard. Welcome to the wonderful world of being a freelancer.

So now what? What’s a writer to do? Just sit back and just wait a full year for the 2016 upfronts to roll around? Keep your fingers crossed in hopes that there’ll be a staffing shakeup somewhere, and a new opportunity will suddenly open up? Or just say “Screw it” and put off figuring out your next move for as long as possible?

Regardless of how you choose to deal with your particular brand of post-upfronts blues, rest assured that all is not quite lost. There is some good news. A silver lining, if you will. After many years of career ups and downs, I’ve come to learn that there’s something every frustrated, unemployed writer can do at a time like this. Something that’ll help you in more ways than one…but you have to actually do it, or else it won’t work. Ready? Here goes:

Write another script.

That’s it. That’s all.

Don’t get me wrong: take a moment before pulling yourself out of the dumps if you need it. But after that, you’re going to suck it up and get back to writing. You’re going to write a new pilot, and it’s going to be better than your last one, and that’s how you’ll put this year’s miserable staffing season experience behind you.

It sounds simple, I know. But let me assure you that this is by no means a fluffy, lift-your-spirits bit of self-help advice. Nor is it some tough-love motivational speech. You’re going to write another script for two reasons: one, you need brand-new writing sample. Period. So why wait to get started on it? And two, you need to remind yourself why you wanted to become a television writer in the first place.

Again, I say all this because I’ve used this advice myself. And it helps from a practical standpoint as well as an emotional one.

If your agent and/or manager is worth their salt, they’ve already carpet-bombed the town with your current writing sample, which is most likely an original pilot of yours. That means, even though you didn’t get hired, lots of executives and showrunners have already read you. So the next time your name comes up, they’ll want to read something new. You can only recycle the same script so many time before it gets old, although there are some rare instances where older spec scripts “come back from the dead” (I’ve been there, too).

But you can’t rely on that. It’s in your best interest to generate a new piece of material and deliver it to your representatives even if they don’t have any solid leads for work at the moment (remember what I said about staying ready?). A potential employer might call tomorrow, or next week, or next month, looking for a new sample of your work. And if you don’t have it…well, you know the rest.

And then there’s the emotional component. After facing a round of rejection from several shows and/or networks, it’s not uncommon to question whether or not you have any talent at all (been there as well). But here’s what you’re doing when you do that: you’re allowing people in the position to hire you to define you. Pro tip: DON’T DO THAT.

Immersing yourself in writing a new pilot forces you to shake off that staffing season hangover and laser-focus all your attention on creating a world and the characters that fill it. And you need that. You need to remind yourself that you’re good at this. True, you may not have the job you wanted or the paycheck that comes with it, but the moment a killer scene or line of dialogue passes from your brain to your fingers to the keyboard to your computer screen, if you’re anything like me, there’s a certain rush that’ll come over you. You know the one I’m talking about. And that’s something no network or showrunner foolish enough to not hire you can ever take away. Keep chasing that feeling until the script is done.

So this year’s staffing season didn’t end the way you wanted. Believe it or not, it happens to all of us sooner or later. That’s little consolation, but you still have the ability to take matters into your own hands. You can’t make them hire you, but you damn sure can try to make them wish they had.

Get to writing.

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