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Friday, August 01, 2008

I had a chat yesterday with a friend of mine who's freelancing. The development guy at a company she's worked for has left. She had considered, but kind of rejected, talking to them about the job. She was concerned that it might be hard to get back into writing from being a development person.

There are a couple of legit concerns here, and some misconceptions, I feel.

A development job takes time away from your writing, true. If you aren't disciplined, you can spend your weekends and evenings reading scripts.

However, a dev job is not a network job, where you are inundated with material and spend your work days in meetings. Few independent production companies get so much readable material that it can't be read in an hour or two a day. The key is to triage. When I was a development guy, I read good scripts in half an hour. If a script wasn't grabbing me, I gave it 15 minutes. Or, if it didn't come from my boss, 5 pages. I spent my weekends and evenings -- and many lunches -- writing.

A development job may also represent a commitment. The company probably wants to know that you won't ditch them two months later for a staff job. You might need to agree not to staff for a bit. Unless you are in imminent danger of staffing -- and in August, you are not -- you can give them a six month commitment. It may not even come up.

You certainly wouldn't need to ditch a development job for a free lance script. Just write the thing at night. That's what I did.

On the other hand, you get some major benefits from a development job that will help your writing career almost as much as your writing will.

First, you make contacts. You talk to agents. You talk to network people. They get to know you. You get a sense of what they're like. You can tell the real agents who hustle for their clients from the "commissioning" agents who just take a cut of deals their clients find.

You go to lunch with people. You drink with people. You get yourself sent to Banff, or Cannes, or the AFM, or Sundance. When later on your script comes over the transom, you're not a stranger.

Second, you get a sense of the market. Unless your parents are in show business, you probably have wrong ideas about what networks and production companies and studios are looking for. After you've sent a couple dozen projects to the network, and heard back frank feedback about why they don't want them, you'll have a much better sense of what floats boats at the various networks and among the various execs. This one doesn't get speculative fiction. This one prefers execution-independent shows. This one thinks she has a sense of humor, but doesn't. This one is really smart and wants really fresh stuff. This one is really smart but has a dumb boss, poor thing, and you have to wonder how she gets up in the morning.

Their feedback will be honest because they're not worried about hurting your feelings and they want you to send them stuff they'll like. My first book, CRAFTY SCREENWRITING, came out of my observation as a development exec that my company couldn't do a thing with a "good" script; we needed a script with a hook, whether good or not.

Don't worry about there being a stigma against development people. It is understood that everyone in a development job would rather write for a living, or produce, or both. Everyone understands that people need paychecks. While being in a development job suggests to people that you aren't making a living writing, so does sitting at home not making a living writing.

Unless you're supporting yourself writing, don't be afraid to take a show business job in a different part of the equation. You could do worse than to work as an agent, a development person, or a producer, or as an assistant to any of those. Your scripts will get a little better from your exposure to other people's good and bad writing. But they'll get a lot better from your exposure to the marketplace.

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