Monday, July 31, 2006

Hurry Up And Wait... (Or the Freelance Writing Experience)

That's a pretty apt description for working on a film set, but it can also apply to writing a freelance script for an existing television series.

Most TV series these days have all their episodes written by their writing staff. It makes sense, especially with series that have complicated interwoven storylines and multiple character arcs (Lost, 24, Grey's Anatomy, etc.). And its next to impossible for a freelancer to know all that info without the benefit of being in the writers room all the time. But TV series that are more anthological or stand alone in design (House, Stargate & Stargate Atlantis, the CSI's) are more condusive to a freelancer parachuting in and writing an ep.

I recently wrote and delivered the outline for an existing series. It was a lot of work, but relatively painless. The show formula was fairly straightforward.

But allow me some muttering...

They really should restructure the Writer's Guild payment percentages. Generally (at least in Canada), they go down as follows:

10% on signing

20% on (EDIT:acceptance) delivery of outline

50% on delivery of first draft

20% on delivery of second draft

Of the last three freelance scripts I've written, the bulk of the work was at the outline stage. You have to break the story, research everything, map it out, add details to the point of it almost being a script, and in the case of those three freelance scripts - sprinkle in dialogue throughout the outline so that once its all said and done, the writing of the draft is not much more than plugging in the rest of the dialogue. The last one hour I wrote took me two months and four drafts of what ended up being a 23 page outline (TV one hour scripts generally end up around 50-55 pages). Once the outline was approved, the writing of the first draft took me a day and a half. Yet you see the payment scheme, and I feel they should be flipped - 50% for outline...20% for first draft...IMHO.

Anyway, when hired to write a freelance episode, generally it goes like this. You get a call, you meet/speak with the showrunner/head writers...sometimes you pitch them an idea, but most times they have an arena they want you to explore and some episode goals already worked out for you. And then you go away to write, usually ushered out the door with an urgency to it all..."We need this right away!"...Can you get to us by the end of the week?"...and you press pedal to the floor and deliver.

And then you wait. And wait. And wait.

I always ask for a reply to my email/delivery stating its been received and is in the machine. And when they respond, its generally accompanied by a note: 'Thanks for getting this in. Things are a little nuts here right now, but we'll get you some notes back end of the week/ASAP.'

Now, having spent a fair bit of time on the other side of the fence...I have a pretty good idea what 'Things are pretty nuts here' can mean, especially if a series is already shooting. Fires are always burning. Scripts in immediate prep and production always take precedent. For those on the frontlines, it's like a fast moving almost out of control train - even if going well.

And then there is the network...

What never seems to be calculated into the equation of timely feedback are the 'network notes'. Once your outline has been vetted and tweaked by story dept. it has to go to the network. Expect to add at least a week to any sort of schedule of the story dept. receiving notes back from the network. And hopefully network likes it, if they don't - the story dept. then has to try to fix it and resubmit to the network and wait and see if they like it now. You as the freelancer generally never see these notes or participate in this process....but you have to wait for it all to go down.

So as I sit around and 'wait' for notes on this outline I delivered about two weeks ago, the brain starts to swirl...

Did it suck? Do I suck? (maybe)

Do they hate it? (heard that before)

Does network hate it? (been there, done that)

Are they drawing straws to see who is going to tell me I'm fired? (had that happen...only once thankfully)

Has series/characters changed dramatically? (as in your story is now redundant or irrelevant because story dept. rewrites of scripts prior to yours changed direction of arcs, relationships, etc. -all out of your control obviously but now the story dept. is wondering what to do with your story...major overhaul usually ensues)

Are they busy on more pressing issues? (see above, production stuff)


And it can be any of these reasons, but generally it ends up being none of the above - it's just a time/priority thing, and you needn't have sweat it...

....just when they said we'll get you notes by the end of the week, they should have said end of the month.

SONG&ARTIST? - "The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part."


DMc said...

Hey WC,
I wouldn't stake my life on this -- but isn't WGC payment triggered by DELIVERY, not ACCEPTANCE?

Isn't that the point?

wcdixon said...


point taken...I believe you're right - my point was more about the percentages anyway...

Though sometimes they'll 'accept' and begin processing payment, but ask for another pass to clean it up...

Callaghan said...

Tom Petty.

Funny, I hear all the hassles, and yet I would still give my cat's left ear for my first freelance script gig.

Heart Of Darkness said...

Do you suck? Hey, what did you tell ME- it's only constructive criticism, designed to make you better! If you wont let me beat myself up over this, how can you? Set an example - and follow it!!!!

Now, that I've been the grownup, lets get back to our natural roles: What show, what show, what show???? :)

Systemaddict said...

Of note on the Song- Tom Petty, as mentioned...

If you haven't heard it, Highway Companion is pretty solid, came out this week. Very good album, I recommend picking it up...Sounds like good ol Petty