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10/12/2007: Today: A Guest Speaker
Greetings from Beautiful Vancouver, Gentle Readers. I'm up here because they're shooting an episode of Battlestar Galactica that I wrote. It's all very exciting and a little bit cold. Anyway, my time is limited, so I decided to invite in a guest speaker. Friend-of-the-blog Marcia is very experienced as a Writers' Assistant, and I decided to go to her with the question that so many of you keep asking me about pursuing that job. Take it, Marcia:
So, Jane tells me you want to be a writers' assistant. I'd beg you not to, what with all of you being my competition, but if you can't be dissuaded... then let's talk. I'm sure your first question is, "How do I get a job as a writers' assistant?" Good question. But before that, let me ask you one. Do you really know what the job entails, what you're getting yourself into? Being a writers' assistant kinda stinks. It's the worst job ever. I'll give you the top three reasons why:
1. The pay is just enough to get by and more hours than you can imagine.
2. It'll never be the job you pictured when they handed you your diploma back in college. Not even close. A sentence you're sure to mutter under your breath: "I'm so glad I worked my tush off for a first rate education from a four year institution for this."
3. You'll be expected to sit quietly by as you watch a roomful of people do exactly what it is you'd cut off both of your hands for a shot to do (and that's a big sacrifice considering you need those hands to keep your current job.)
Even worse... there's nothing I'd rather do. Well, other than get staffed, that is. But being a writers' assistant is a walking contradiction. As much as it's incredibly frustrating, it's also the best education on being a writer and what being in a writers room is all about that you can get. Though it's 50-50 whether or not you'll be learning how to successfully run a room versus how to run a show into the ground, it's all valuable. It's all experiences you'll be able to cull from when you write the next great American sit-com or the next great American drama. Either way, take it all in. And never complain. I'm constantly surprised by the number of writers' assistants I cross paths with who have nothing but bile for the writers in their rooms. And nothing but disappointment for the career they have chosen. These are the ones who didn't know what they were getting themselves into. The ones who never thought they'd be doing the job for more than a few seasons. Sure, there are those lucky writers' assistants who end up landing their first gig on a show that becomes a hit, where they're quickly promoted after a season or two to staff writer. But this, my up-and-coming comrades, is not the commonplace. It's the exception. Let me just say this clearly now: being a writers assistant in NO WAY guarantees you will be staffed.
Along the same lines, it's in no way the only way to get closer to that first writing job. Many people take the assistant route. Writers with development deals are usually guaranteed assistants in their contracts. This is often an opportunity to put in your time with a writer who could end up selling a pitch and running their own show, which gets you one step closer to the room. Not to mention earn yourself a mentor who might read your specs and give you notes and gentle nudges in the right direction. Also, the agency route has worked for some. End up on the desk of a literary agent, and you'll have the opportunity to meet and form bonds with all sorts of writers, as well as develop relationships with current and future agents who could someday represent you. But if you're sure that writers' assistant is the path for you, here are a few necessities to being a good one. Don't even bother looking for a job as one if you don't possess the following:
1. Make sure your typing skills are honed. This may seem obvious, but new writers' assistants are frequently shocked by the fast pace of a writers room. Nothing will get you fired faster than an inability to keep up, causing notes to be incomplete and basically useless to the writers. That includes being adept at spelling and punctuation. Often, the writers assistant's computer is connected to a large TV monitor so the writers can see what you're doing, and nothing distracts them more than your errors.
[NOTE FROM JANE: THE TV MONITOR IS NOT GENERALLY USED IN THE WRITERS' ROOMS OF DRAMAS.]
2. Study up. Be an expert at one of the two most popular scriptwriting software programs, Final Draft and Movie Magic. I have found Final Draft to be the most common, but Movie Magic would be number 2. If you're already a pro at one, it wouldn't hurt to have a cursory knowledge of the other, if only to be able to convincingly lie when you're asked in an interview. Also study up on MAC and PC operating systems. The computer in the writers' room tends to be whichever the show runner prefers, so be prepared to use both. [NOTE FROM JANE: MOST OF THE SHOWS I'VE BEEN ON HAVE USED THE WRITERS' ASSISTANT AS DE FACTO TECH SUPPORT, EXPECTING THEM FIX ANY COMPUTER PROBLEM THAT CROPS UP.]
3. Thicken your skin. A writers' room is a place where writers need the freedom to pitch any and all ideas, including the outlandish, the shocking, and the sexually explicit in order to have something to temper down for air. It's not a room where one should feel censored. Censorship is the antithesis of creativity, so a cringe, a self-righteous stare, or any other form of judgment on your part is a bad idea. It gives you what some writers would call a bad "room vibe." I'm not saying prepare yourself for a hostile work environment, but don't expect a normal one either. If you don't think you can handle that, walk away now.
You're probably saying, "I get it. I hear you. It's not all cake and ice cream. But I already know I'm sure. I want this. How do I get the job?"
Since I know act breaks, I think that's a good place to end for today. More from Marcia next time!
Lunch: Mmm... it's the catering truck at the set! I love the catering truck! Lamb and coconut cream pie.