The below is a guest blog from working writer Greta Heinemann, producer on NCIS NEW ORLEANS, winner of the Final Draft Big Break Contest, once a CBS Mentoring Program participant, and Humanitas New Voices Prize recipient. Greta is repped by UTA and Bellevue Productions, and while she did write it from the point of view of a writer working on a television show, I think it offers tons of useful bits for anyone juggling a job and writing, whether the job is writing in the room or on assignment, or working in the non-industry world…
Four years ago, I got the opportunity of a lifetime. My continuous and tireless efforts to break into the industry and become a working (as in paid) TV writer finally paid off: I was given the slimmest of slim shots: Come aboard the writing staff of a TV show. The show was CBS’s hit show NCIS: New Orleans. A CBS procedural that produces 24 episodes a year and shoots, as the title might suggest, in New Orleans. It was my first gig meaning, if I wanted to convince people that I was worth keeping around, I had to give this job my utmost best and then some more. I made it my mission to be the first one in the office and the last one out. Work 24/7 and whenever there was a bomb blowing up somewhere, I was there to soften the blow on my EPs. Even if that meant literally keeping a go-bag in my car and putting my life on hold to fly to New Orleans at a moment’s notice. My mission was (and is until this day, although arguably in slightly less extreme conditions) to support my EPs in whichever way I can.
The reason why I sentimentally look back right now is because I learned an unexpected lesson in the past four years: Once you work on the staff of a TV show, 45 weeks out of the year, 7-days a week, 12+ hours a day, and travel to set for 10+ weeks, all while juggling a family and personal life… You eventually find yourself wondering: IF I’M A PAID WRITER, HOW COME I DON’T FEEL LIKE I’M WRITING ENOUGH?
This feeling began nagging at me sometime along the way. If I remember correctly, on a late-night flight to New Orleans. I was writing and producing 3+ episodes of television a season, but I found myself creatively exhausted. I felt like I hadn’t written from my heart in a long time. It’s normal considering we use our brains trying to please somebody else’s creative instincts, but no matter how much I enjoyed and appreciated working on my show, I knew that I was on a slow-boat to creative crazy, if I didn’t step out of my NCIS box every once in a while to write something different.
At first, that concept felt like a dirty idea. Like writing something outside my show’s confinements would be cheating or disloyal to those who were kind enough to give me the opportunity. But the more I contemplated, the more I realized that doing so was actually my responsibility. As writers, I believe, it is our responsibility to stoke our creative fires at all time. Protect that little thing that gives us passion and drive, because if we don’t, we eventually burn out and are of no good use to anybody, from the network to our EPs. The challenge lies in finding a responsible, respectful way to go about writing these passion projects that doesn’t distract from your responsibilities on the show. Many working writers have 3+ months of hiatus time in a year and can follow their passion then, but in my case the job was running year-round and thus, the need a day-job and a night-job mentality arose. Before I was a paid writer, I worked a day-job and wrote at night. I gave that day job all I had, and still found time to write on the side. Why wouldn’t this concept work now that I was a working writer? Treat my staff-job as a day job that I was fully committed to (and still would work around the clock for) while also finding time for passion projects on the side. For upper level writers who’re contractually allowed to develop, it’s the norm to pitch and sell shows, writing the drafts all while they’re on staff. Why wouldn’t I be able to do the same?
I spent the past 3 years trying. Sometimes to mixed, sometimes to exciting results.
Productivity, time-management and discipline look different for every writer, but since everything looks better in a bullet-point list, here are 10 strategies that I found helpful to write more as working writer.
1. Identify and be clear about your intentions
My intentions for working on other projects on the side were always about continuing to develop my craft and nurturing my voice in addition (not in exclusion) to my show. I wanted that warm, fuzzy feeling that you get from too much whiskey and a late-night typing session, because that passion inevitably gave me more creative fuel on my show. If you work on a show that is a sure “cancel” and your reps need a new piece of material to get your next job, the intention behind your efforts might be a whole different one. Either way, it is proven that clear intentionality is the key to setting priorities right and consequently achieving your goals. I go as far as to set an intentional focus for every day as it reminds me why I am doing what I’m doing and what exactly needs to get done.
2. Discuss your intentions and schedules with spouses/partners
That’s a hard but necessary one. I have a lovely spouse who’s got a real-world job (aka not entertainment industry) and even though she’s the most supportive person I know, she occasionally struggles to understand why on earth – in addition to my already demanding job – I’d want to spend my weekend behind my computer. That can lead to confusion and frustration… and to me trying to do everything, but in the end, nothing right. So, I try to be upfront with her as much as I can about my writing ambitions and timelines and I try to be truly present when we spend quality time away from my writing. I call this one, a work in progress.
3. Start a Journal/daily planner to declutter your brain
To create time and head-space to accomplish anything outside my room’s hours, I had to first identify everything that needed to be done. And trust me, if you actually write down all the commitments you juggle as working writer (your show, your personal writing, your family, maybe a work-out routine…) it gets overwhelming quick. That’s why I started to develop a daily planner/journal specifically designed for my writer’s needs. Using it every day, helps me identify my different responsibilities and tasks and further helps me set intentional focus and priorities. It also reminds me of the “why” and keeps me sane along the way. You can check out my Writer’s Journal here: www.writerswrightjournal.com
4. Beware of multitasking
I don’t think I’m a great multitasker. If there are too many things floating around the orbit, I get overwhelmed and ultimately nothing gets done. So, I learned that I can tackle one passion project outside my day job. Two is stretching it. Three is often times the point of diminishing returns. Therefore, I like to plan in a way that only has me running on two tracks. Once my passion project has reached a certain milestone (think draft complete) I can pull up another passion project while my agents read…
5. Find your productive time
I’ve never been good working late nights. I get mushy in my head and even though my writers’ room hours have always been decent, I can’t count on a specific wrap time, once I’m home there are family responsibilities waiting, and around 8pm I’ll always choose WATCHING a TV show over WRITING a TV show. My solution to making time for my passion projects was to get up earlier. If I rise at 5am (it’s not pretty, but coffee helps) all my distractions, including my lovely puppy, are still asleep. That leaves me with up to 4 hours of writing time before I need to hit the road for work. That is a big chunk of time to get a whole lot accomplished in. Working parents, I’ve noticed, come into the office right after their child’s school drop off. That leaves them with 2 hours of working time before the room starts up – and since parents are so much more efficient, they probably get the same amount of work done as I do in 4. Also, with more experience on the job, I’ve gradually found ways to claim my weekends back, shifting draft-reads and research chores to week nights, I’ve managed to protect one weekend day for my personal writing and one weekend day for my family. The key seems to be to make it a consistent habit.
6. Use holidays, episode gaps and hiatus time wisely
I usually plan my year in quarters since, in our volatile industry, planning far beyond that really makes no sense. I sit down and sketch out how my responsibilities on the show lay out. When do I owe an outline? A draft? When do I shoot? Then I look at the opportunity-gaps to slot in my personal projects. I’ve also found it helpful to plan relay-race type hand-offs. Meaning, while my showrunner reads my draft for notes, I’ll get a personal document ready for notes from my manager and friends. Then I address my showrunner’s notes, while other’s read my personal work for notes.
7. Write drafts fast, not well
I need to be in different mindsets for my staff job and my personal projects and it takes quite some brain gymnastics to switch from CBS crime procedural to, say, historic-sci-fi- romance. That being said, I always find revising a script much easier. So, I try to write my personal, passion project drafts as fast as I can (over a long holiday weekend i.e.), and then revise scene-by-scene, as those little blocks of time are much easier to be found.
8. Use your commuting time
Los Angeles is one never ending traffic jam and I spend about 2 hours a day in the car commuting. Audiobooks and podcasts seem to be the go-to advice for writers, but personally, they don’t really work for me. I try to fill my 2 hours of dead time with life-related honey-do’s (call the insurance broker) and, since I tend to write and get creative thoughts listening to music, I also use playlists to get my head out of NCIS New Orleans and into my personal writing. This often leaves me energized and inspired by the time I arrive at home and motivates me to put in one or two more hours, while my wife watches “This Is Us.”
9. Don’t let your experience get clouded
This is maybe a little woo-wooo, but if I decide to write something for myself that gives me joy, I do my best to protect exactly that. What I mean is, I consciously refrain from over-developing these things with my reps, because if I don’t, I inevitably end up trying to please another master. I also try to remember that this project is supposed to be fun and that I shouldn’t beat myself up if it’s not moving as fast or fluent as I’d like it to. Admittedly, though, I rarely succeed in that.
10. Never forget that you owe your job
This is not productivity advice, as much as common sense. Yes, sometimes I’d rather focus on my own work and get lost in it, but the job always goes first. To me, it’s not acceptable to write my own stuff at work or run around the office telling everybody how awesome my pilot is. I mean, I wouldn’t hire that guy…
You can learn more about Greta’s passion project, the Writer’s Wright productivity journal for writers, here: www.writerswrightjournal.com
You can read my interview with Greta in my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES.