Saturday, January 11, 2014

Breaking in all over again

"It's a weird business, writing. You have to keep reinventing yourself. You never "break in", you just keep moving." --me, on Twitter, a while ago.

This is probably going to serve as an end of year slash start of new year post, given the amount of self reflection, as I don't particularly want to spout on about myself for two long posts in a row. None of you deserve that, not even Hitler. Okay, maybe Hitler. That'd teach him a lesson, eh? Eh?

It's been a very strange few years, lots of ups and downs. Most of it you'll have no idea about, because I don't mention every single career thing. There's been lots of good (Cockneys Vs Zombies, Tower Block, VS Comics, Crazy For You, Girl Number 9, a Highlander audio play, Doctor Who computer game, etc), but also lots of bad (the many, many projects that don't go anywhere, or die after a draft, or fall apart when the financing doesn't materialise).

I've been doing lots of stuff in the background, "in development", a sneaky phrase which means "this might all be brilliant, or it might all just vanish tomorrow". And the bad stuff really chips away at your confidence and overall mood. So much so, I've had two movies come out within months of each other, I'm really happy with them and they did really well, but I *still* feel like I've got a lot to prove.

It's probably because of all the development. Just in the last year, I've been hired to write a brand new TV series (outlines, pitches, 3 drafts of pilot script),  an action movie (several full outlines), and a new animated series (several outlines). You'll never see any of that, because... the projects all died. Happens a lot. You get better at handling it, but it always stings, having to close the door on whole worlds you've fallen in love with. The year before that, another TV thing died that I'd spent two years working on. In a puff of smoke, that was it, just gone, and nobody ever knew it was there.

Development is tricky. You're working, busy writing, getting good feedback, but 99 out of 100 projects just don't get made. Making a new show is a huge risk, and they can't always justify it. Meanwhile, you're doing lots of *stuff*, but none of it appears on screen. People outside the industry think you've gone away, or died, or have just been writing one thing reeeeeally slowly. But you have to do it, if you want to progress your career, if you want to get your own TV show off the ground.

Also in the last year, I wrote two spec scripts, came up with two new TV show ideas (all for sale! call me!), did a rewrite for new UK horror movie The Borderlands, finished my short film Crazy For You, shot two idents for FrightFest, shot a new short film and a music video on the same day, kept working on VS Comics, got signed up for two episodes of an existing series, been co-creating a brand new show, and commissioned to write another new TV show. The last two things (and the specs) might never happen, but then again, they might.

Sustaining a writing career is hard work. You think that once you "break in", then you're in, for better or worse. But you're not. It's a constant struggle to stay employed, to stay relevant, to stay fresh. You have to keep working on new speculative material so that you're not using a 7 year old script as a writing sample. You have to show that you have the staying power, focus and drive to be worth hiring.

Basically, you have to break in all over again, every single time you write something new.

Whether that's a script, an outline, or a pitch for a job, it's a never-ending battle to prove yourself. Even then, if you hit on something you're good at, do you just keep doing that over and over again? After Severance, all people wanted from me was more horror comedy. After Torchwood and Doctor Who, all they wanted was science fiction. You have to mix it up a bit. In theory, you'll keep getting work because you're good at a particular thing. But in the real world, once you've done the same sort of thing three of four times, people start wondering if you can do anything else. We've seen that from him, they'll say. What else has he got? Can he do anything else? Is he just going to keep churning out the same thing?

You feel it yourself, too. You start a new script, and realise it's just the same structure and type of story as the last one, so you try to change it, or just abandon it. Or, worse, you finish it and hope you can make it work. You start getting irritated by your own voice, the tricks and habits you've started to see repeating themselves in your work. You decide to do something different, then you worry that maybe you *can't* do anything different, maybe you've reached the limit of your abilities. The loss of confidence makes you mess it up, and that just proves you can't do it, so you rush back to the safety of your comfort zone.

Second guessing an audience is hard enough. Second guessing *yourself* can drive you crazy.

You have a couple of bad experiences, in a row, and you have no idea if it was your fault, or if the people involved didn't know what they wanted, or if the project was flawed and nobody realised, or if it was just bad luck, bad timing, bad karma. Obviously, because you're a writer, you're convinced it's entirely your fault. We all live in fear of being exposed as frauds - maybe this time it's happened, maybe you've finally been found out. Later, you find out it wasn't your fault on one thing, but was on the other. What do you learn from that? What *can* you learn from that? Does it mean you're no good and got lucky, or were having an off day, or that sometimes things just go wrong?

You pitch for a writing job, a huge job, one that would jump you up to the next level of the industry. You don't get the job. Was it because you weren't good enough, or because they heard about one of the things that went wrong, or because they think you can't do that sort of thing? Or, more likely, because they just preferred someone else's "take" on it? You can't help but think that it's the end of your career, any time anything like this happens - it's finally happened, and you're finished. Until the next thing, of course. And there are a LOT of things that you don't get. Every time you hear about someone else getting a job, you think everyone else is doing better than you, you're being left behind.

One day, you start writing something, and forget how to write in your own style, your voice. You're trying to break away from the things you've been relying on, suddenly hyper-aware that everything sounds the same, sounds too *you*. You agonise over anything that might be too similar to that old style. But then you need a line in that style, so you put it in, and worry that you're falling back into old habits. Is that bad? Good? You have no idea. You've lost your voice, and can't figure out how to get it back. You write something totally out of your comfort zone, just to force yourself to do it. Gradually, you figure out how to do that one project, then the next one, then each one in turn. You still think every job is a fluke, that they're just waiting to discover you can't write, you never could.

You keep trying to figure out where your career should go next. Every six months or so, you analyse your life and decide what the next set of goals are, and how to go about achieving them. Then you'll have to go and work on that, too. It's like a non stop job interview, a constant tightrope of worry, anxiety. You'll wake up with your stomach churning, worried about where the next job is coming from, if you'll be able to pay the bills next year if nothing comes in this year, if you can still write, if you have any good ideas left, if people think you're yesterday's news. Every time there's a chance something might go well, your writer brain immediately thinks of a hundred ways it could go wrong. You worry constantly. Writers are insecure, so you can't help it. And because any project genuinely *can* fall apart at any moment, you can never relax. All the while, you're pitching for jobs, having meetings, networking, staying outwardly positive, trying to get your face out there and stay on people's minds.

When you don't get several jobs in a row, it affects your mood, makes you grumpy, irritable, doom-laden, difficult to be around sometimes. You blame yourself for every single, tiny little thing, you get *furious* at yourself for being such an idiot. You are always your own harshest critic. You work 7 days a week, because you worry that you're not writing enough material. The stress makes you lie awake at night thinking about even more ways that things could go wrong. You get fatalistic about everything, bitter. It's easy to be bitter, much easier to believe that everyone else is corrupt or stupid, rather than just accept that you had some bad luck and made some mistakes. If you've very, VERY lucky, you have an amazing partner who keeps you on track and stops you getting too maudlin, who sits you down and talks you through the difficult stuff and how to face it together, rather than bottling it up silently where it can fester.

You do another career evaluation, finish everything you're working on, and for once, decide to write something because you want to do it, not because other people want that from you, or because "it's a good time for this sort of thing", or because it might sell more easily. It goes well, and you feel like you've started again from scratch. And in a way, you have, because you're relaunching yourself with a brand new project. It's exciting and scary at the same time.

You have a couple of good experiences in a row, people seem to like your work, but your writer brain won't let you relax, it just thinks it's the calm before the storm - surely something is bound to go wrong sooner or later. You get a new, very cool job, but still you're worried that they'll kick you off, hate your work, and end the project just as you've fallen in love with it. You have another good experience, and things look positive for the future.

But even then, you can't help but worry. You never allow yourself to relax and think everything's going to be okay. Because you never really "break in". If only it were that easy. You always, *always* feel like you're still on the outside, looking in, as if everyone except you has got it figured out.

Thankfully, at the moment I'm in one of the good stages. I've had several great experiences in a row, working with some really lovely, clever people, and am proud of the work I'm doing. I'm being careful not to take on too much work so that I can focus on what I'm doing now. The short is touring festivals, the new short is almost ready, my spec scripts are done and will soon be unleashed. And I'm hugely grateful to be doing what I love. Don't get me wrong, this isn't me complaining - I'm incredibly happy and lucky to be in the industry! I'm well aware of that. There are always ups and downs, in everything. But I think it's important to share the bad as well as the good, to keep it all in perspective.

I'm also in that career evaluation stage at the moment, working on the next phase, figuring out where I need to be. I have some solid plans and goals, and have been working very hard to achieve them.  So that I can "break in", all over again, just like with every new piece of work. The worry is still there, it always will be. Writers are just wired that way. But hopefully the positives can temporarily drown them out.

So that was 2013 (and 2012, 2011...) Normally I do an end of year blog post, but every time, the lessons are the same: enjoy the good stuff, learn from the bad stuff, work hard, and be nice. And always have a spare printer cartridge.

Here's to 2014, trying not to worry so much, and making things happen.

I'm serious about the spare printer cartridge.