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BALLS OF STEEL™: Writing Survival - Cheating With Benefits

Between specs and your 9-to-5 nightmares, why not cheat on your medium? Freelancing can cure that nagging desire to see your writing read by others, and help finance that pesky food-and-shelter habit.

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Unconditional love. For better or worse, in sickness and in health. Through sleepless nights of anxiety and glorious days of passion, you cling to hope, trying to make that love go the distance. But something is missing.

Maybe it’s time to cheat … on your screenwriting.

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How? Embrace your dreaded day job.

Wait …. STOP! Don’t click over to Chad Gervich’s column yet … give me a shot here.

Many of you have been groaning to me on Twitter about being stuck in a job from hell and wanting an escape. But maybe your job can actually help your writing.

The obvious answer is to become a freelance writer. You can learn a lot about screenwriting by putting your scripts aside and writing those quick, sexy articles that push you to the edge for a few hours in the afternoon, leaving you glowing and satisfied.

No, I’m not talking about erotica … though there’s a business in that too. I’m amazed how many screenwriters and novelists I’ve met this past year who write saucy stories on the side via anonymous names. You have no idea what a Western can be turned into. Just sayin’.

Back to cheating …

Freelance writing helps both my scripts and my professionalism.

First of all, articles keep me writing every day. That alone has an enormous value. My writing mind is being exercised.

Story is story, even if it’s only a few paragraphs.

Whether it’s a 500-word article or a 110-page script, you have to hook them. In a script, readers usually give you five pages, but in an article, you have to grab them in the first paragraph or they start skimming.

Once you grab them, you need to keep their attention.

Stick to telling the facts in a most engaging way possible. Typically, that’s with your unique voice. If you’re snarky, don’t be afraid to show it.

When I submitted my first article to Writer’s Digest, Confessions of a Tweetaholic, the then publisher, Jane Friedman, responded that while it was a quality, well-researched piece, she wanted my unique, original voice – “the one only you have.”

That was the most valuable lesson I’ve ever gotten, and I now apply it to all of my writing.

Freelance also hones your professional skills, starting with querying.

Unlike screenwriting, you query a publication before you’ve written the piece. Imagine that. A promise there is a given audience for your work before you even write it. A writer’s nirvana.

Researching newspapers and magazines is much like researching production companies. You’ll be a super sleuth in no time and be able to use those tricks when your scripts are ready to go out.

Just like being a writer-for-hire in L.A., in freelance you’ll have deadlines, editors, and notes on your work. It’s a great practice in taking feedback and getting used to someone changing your words.

There are many similarities, but there is one big difference – MONEY!

Freelance writers actually get paid. Shocking, I know, but it’s true. I photocopied my first check and framed it. Another benefit is once you have received payment for your writing, you now have a home office tax write off. Holy payroll, Batman!

However, when I started my freelance career, I wrote for free in order to get published clips to use as samples of my work. It’s easy to find sites that need writers.

But don’t do all that work without some form of compensation. I asked the sites I wrote for to give me recommendations on my LinkedIn page in lieu of cash. It didn’t pay my bills, but it was gold for attracting editors. I used my free work to build a foundation for my future paid work.

Even if you aren’t getting paid, treat the job as if you are. Submit a quality piece on time, because meeting a deadline is key. So many freelancers get fired because they can’t consistently submit on time.

The practice of timely submissions is paramount in screenwriting as well. You might as well get used to writing under pressure.

Above all other benefits, the biggest for me is validation of my writing. I write so people can read my words. It feels good to be published somewhere and have my words move people. After all, isn’t that why we do this?

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When writing scripts, there are days the task seems endless. It can take years to feel you nailed a story. But I can finish and polish an article in a few hours. Completing a piece gives me a sense of satisfaction I carry to my screenwriting, and a shot of adrenaline that helps me push through those tough writing days.

Having said all that, I’ll be honest, freelance isn’t easy. Constantly pimping yourself is exhausting, but that’s part of a screenwriting career too. It helps me toughen my skin.

But freelance isn’t the only day job that helps your screenwriting.

Maybe you’re stuck behind a desk somewhere in a tiresome job you loathe. Think about how you can draw something from it to help your writing. Sometimes the answer is right in front of you.

Sales is a great way to hone your pitching skills. I used be in sales. Trust me, I wanted to poke my eyeballs out every single day, but I needed money. People who are seemingly sweet in real life will say the nastiest things to a salesperson right before they hang up. That’s some great dialogue to put in your file.

If you have a desk job in an office, use the opportunity to watch people. I am the resident voyeur at my local Panera, but you can do the same in your 9-to-5 prison. Notice people’s conversations, and use that in your dialogue. Or eavesdrop at the watercooler and listen to first-date horror stories. It might just be a romantic comedy waiting to be written!

Every single thing you do during the day can add to your writing skills, even going to the supermarket for a gallon of milk can turn into a voyeurism jackpot.

At the very least, you should have a website for people to learn more about you and your work. Writing blog posts is satisfying, and a great way to test a topic for a screenplay. Short stories are another angle. They can be published and adapted.

Perhaps the best way to cheat on your screenwriting is to take a break from writing and live your life. Get out from behind the laptop every once in a while.

Refresh your brain. Discover new things. Explore unknown worlds.

Once you step away from your writing, you might even fall in love with it all over again.

OK, now you can go read Chad’s column. While you’re at it, check out all the other great columns on the Scriptmag site.

Share in the comments any jobs you've had that helped your screenwriting. The stranger, the better.

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