“The code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules.”First, there's no great secret to writing. You write stuff, you try to make it as good as possible and you send it to people.
Barbossa, Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003).
While you wait for them to reject it, you write something else. You collect rejection letters. Some of them will include advice or guidance, or even ask you to send something else. Then, if you're both good and lucky, you might get some work. If you don't muck that up, you might get some more work. Slowly, gradually, you get more.
You keep writing, trying to make it as good as possible and sending it to people. The rejection letters still come...
Then there's what I wrote three years ago:
Nobody owes you a jobAnd also try to:
Really, they don't. Even if you know them, even if you bought them drinks, even if they employed you before. Even if your idea or finished story is the most fantabulous thing in the universe. When they say "no", they mean it. Don't hang on like a stalker ex. You just walk away.
Likewise, if they say, "That sounds interesting - email me," or "Can you write that up," that's code for "Go away just now." Don't continue to harrass them about your brilliant idea; you're just making them less likely to love it. Especially if they're in a pub or anywhere else not on duty. They don't owe you this. And it's really very creepy if you're still following on their heels, explaining your brilliant idea, as they go to the toilet.
(This happened to me once. Well-meaning bloke still pitching to me while I was having a pee.)
Make it easy
James quotes the great Wil Wheaton's "Don't be a dick". And that's true. Be as not like a dick as you can be. (I see various people at least raising their eyebrows at me of all people saying this.) But also make things easy for the people you are working with, and also those people you're not. It's a small world and you never know when you'll bump into these people again, or what position they'll be in. You don't want to be the difficult genius who makes everyone's lives just impossible. Be the perfectly competent workman who can just get on with the job.
That doesn't mean just doing whatever they say. If you think something's wrong, you say it; you get to argue your case. But if whoever's in charge then makes a decision, you kind of have to abide by it. No use storming off or shouting at them. They're the ones in charge. As it will tell you in the contract you signed.
You don't want to have to surrender your genius? Well, you'll have to produce it yourself. Good luck! You want someone to stump up the cash and make your writing into a real thing? Then they get a say.
Don't get comfortable
Once you've been doing this a while, once you've found your style and "voice", make sure you're still stretching. Try different styles, try different voices. The broader portfolio of things you can do, the more likely you'll stay employed. But also (and perhaps more importantly) the more you stretch and hone your writing. As one editor told me recently, when it feels easy you are doing it wrong.
Pay the rent
There's this idea of writers in smocks in garrets, all booze and syphilis and frustration. I know people who've lived off food parcels, or been late on a deadline 'cos their word processing kit got impounded by bailiffs. Get a day job if you need to. Get one that involves writing if you can. (Again, writing adverts and labels and speeches and jokes all stretches what you can do.)
And don't carp on at your editors, like it's all their fault. Especially when they pay you on time. You don't want to give them the impression they employ you out of pity rather than 'cos you're good.
Call for back-up
I've got an accountant, know a few lawyers and have used their sage advice quite a lot. It's much easier to chase madly late payment. One time I was several thousand pounds out of pocket at Christmas, and had to get a lawyer involved. Having big guns on your side is good because they have to start taking you seriously.
(I don't, though, have an agent. I don't need one for what I do at the moment; it's all take-it-or-leave-it fixed rates and conditions. It's haggling over that stuff which - I think without having one - that an agent is for. They have the awkward conversations so that you don't have to. They're not there to edit your stuff or tell you you're brilliant (though the good ones do that as well).
You don't have to be a writer. Or rather, you can write just for yourself. So if you're going to make a go of writing for a living, just remember that it's your choice. 'Cos if it's just like any other daggy old job, you might as well get one with more regular payment and hours.
- Do as you're told
Write what you've been asked for, to the word count and deadline. If that's ever going to be a problem, say so in advance – your editor should never have to chase you.
- Ask questions you don't know the answers to
What's the point of writing something that only confirms what you already know? Even if you're explaining something, make sure it includes something you didn't know when you started.
- Avoid lies
There's an internet eager to catch you getting things wrong in your writing. But also, don't lie about the work you've done or people you've worked for. Older freelancers might say they faked stuff on their CVs early in their careers but these days it's much easier to check obscure references.
- Be skeptical not cynical
- Let meaning choose
If you haven't already, read George Orwell's Politics and the English Language, which is such a brilliant manifesto for good writing.
- Say yes to work if you can
At least when you're starting out, you don't know what a job might lead to and it's also good to be the person editors go to when they get stuck.
- Add something that's just you
Sometimes called "added value", there are 100 other hacks queued up to take off you, so what makes what you do unique?
- See people in person
You're more likely to be kept in mind – and get more work – if people see you in person. That doesn't mean stalking your editors, but an occasional meet-up is good (and often involves drinkies). Also, many people who don't work from home think you're getting away with something if you do - and, of course, you are.
- Always have a notebook on you
And use it. Bit of stories, bits of dialogue you overhear, things you see in the news. Partly it means you'll retain these gems, but also you'll free your brain to think of more ideas.
This includes listening to yourself, honing your instincts about what works and what doesn't. Paul Abbot described Russell T Davies as making “good choices” in his writing
- Keep up with paperwork, contracts, invoices
- Show don't tell
- Use the medium
If you're writing TV, write something that couldn't be a film. If you're writing audio, write something that couldn't be a novel.
- Write something every day
If you're going to sell out, at least a good price. (That one from my late Grandpa.)
You often get told when you're starting out that you need to develop your own voice in your writing. And while that's true, I'm not really sure how you do that other than to write lots of stuff. So don't worry about the voice, just keep writing.
It's not just the writing
Punctuality, reliability and how easy you are to work with are all important. This happens a lot: an editor says they need a freelancer. People in the office suggest people who do good work: A, B and C. “But A is annoying to sit next to,” says one of the subs. “And B never makes the tea,” says one of the designers. “C bought us Percy Pigs!” remembers the posh chap in marketing. Freelancer C gets the job.
The only power you have as a freelancer is to turn work down. So you've little control about where your career goes or the sorts of work you might do – you can pitch for stuff, but you might not get it. When I started out, a wise man suggested writing a long list of everything I quite fancied writing, big and small, likely and fantastic. Once you've got that list, you can work out which items need to come first. For example, you (now) won't get to write a Doctor Who book until you've written some other books – so get on with those other books. You won't be asked to write an episode of Doctor Who until you've written some other TV – so get on with your spec script.
Your own stuff
I wish I'd been told this at the start rather than slowly working it out. I love writing spin-off stuff – and it's made up a lot of my career, But the stuff that will make your name and give you most satisfaction is the stuff that's completely your creation. (It's also the stuff that's most likely to make your fortune, since you don't have to share or hand rights to anybody else.)
Ideas are the easy bit
Don't be precious about your ideas. Having a good idea is like spotting someone pretty. The hard work is getting them to go out with you.
Don't fuck the fans
It's easy to exploit people who like your work. They might buy you drinks or ask advice or want something more personal than an autograph. It's not you they want but your status, your validation for their investment. So don't take the piss. You're not required to give them time, but at least be polite. If you are going to conventions and things, remember that it's work. And most importantly, make what you're writing worth their time. Fans should make you try harder.
You are not important
You're judged by your work, so make that work good and let it speak for itself. Also, watch how you deport yourself online – Twitter, Facebook and blogs are also you writing. What do your entries there say about you as a writer? People who might give you work are likely to google your name first - will they be impressed by what they see? Don't be dooced and don't be a dick.
You can also read James Moran's advice on writing from back in 2008.