Saturday, August 11, 2007

Time management and juggling skills needed

Re-read Alex Epstein's excellent Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box over the weekend. Like most books about writing for television, it focuses on the North American market's needs, wants and tendencies. [Alas, I've still find a British equivalent that's as entertaining, informed and informative.] Nevertheless, the best tomes from across the Atlantic always have a section in the middle that deals with issues about characterisation, some structural stuff and a few gems about avoiding bad dialogue.

Alex Epstein also maintains a blog called Complications Ensue that's full of helpful hints, tips and personal experiences from like in the trenches of TV writing. His latest posting is about time management and features two sentences that hit home for me. Firstly: It's always good to have [multiple] irons in the fire ... but you don't want to be all over the place creatively. Absolutely. As a freelance writing I have to switch between comics, journalism, novels, radio drama, non-fiction books and speculative TV pilots at the drop of a hat.

Yes, it's all writing, but it's all different writing. Different craft skills, different lengths, different styles, different storytelling conventions, different voices, different styles. And that's before you divide each medium into individual genres. A Nightmare on Elm Street novel reader has wildly different expectations to a Warhammer novel reader, just as a science fiction script written for 2000AD needs to push different buttons to an action adventure comic yarn written for The Phantom. It's a bit like driving different cars: you have to mentally adjust your seat every time you change storytelling vehicle.

Here's the other Alex Epstein epigram that caught my eye: you never want to be in a situation where you have to write faster than you can write your best. Ain't that the truth. Any freelance scribe out there will have a war story [if not several] about pitching for half a dozen different jobs and all of them get commissioned, all with the same or similar deadlines. Writing for a living is a famine or feast business, where you get turned down far more often than you get commissioned. But there's always the danger of having too many irons in the fire, of getting over-committed.

I've been guilty of this more than a few times in the past, and the work I produced suffered as a consequence. What seemed like a feast of work can easily turn into an arid famine because you pissed off the people who commissioned you by trying to do too many different things at once. Be honest with them [and yourself!] about what you can realistically achieve while maintaining quality. Do they want it tomorrow and finished, or next week and good? Chances are, they want it tomorrow and good, but they'll settle for next week.

If they can't wait, a good commissioner will go elsewhere to find the work but they should still respect you for being honest and upfront about the time you need to do quality work. If your work is gone enough, they'll come back again. Deadlines are always negotiable, but you need to do the negotiating at the moment of commissioning, not one week or one day before deadline - and never after the deadline has passed. There's a word for writers who do that, and they don't keep getting work for long unless they're a certifiable genius.


Jason Arnopp said...

Painful though it is to turn down work, I'd rather do so than deliver something (a) below-par or (b) several days late.

Turning down work means there's a chance the commissioner will come back. Accepting work, then making a mess of it, means they almost certainly won't.

Lucy said...

Amen to that my brothers. Wishful thinking re: deadlines is the enemy of all freelancers. Though postal strikes can also fuck you over, as I nearly found out recently.

David Bishop said...

Young lady! Language!

Lucy said...

Sorry Dad >; )