Skip to main content

Writers' Room 101: If You Stay Ready

In my last post, I left off with a quick little reminder that, even when you’re employed as part of a television writing staff, it’s still a good idea to remain focused on writing your own scripts on the side.

In fact, I’d go farther than saying it’s a “good idea.” It’s actually critical to the ongoing success of your career. And it brings to mind an old expression – one that’s actually not specific to writing, but helpful nonetheless – that I think sums up this notion pretty perfectly.

“If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.”

Some of you may already be familiar with this phrase. But for those who aren’t, let me break it down. Simply put, “If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready” means that if you’re prepared when an unexpected opportunity presents itself, you'll never have to waste lots of precious time trying to position yourself to take advantage of that opportunity. Because by the time you do, it’ll probably be gone.

As this concept applies to writers, you have to remember that you’re essentially a freelancer at all times, even if you’re currently working on a show. The show could get abruptly canceled. You could get fired. Your show’s episode order could get reduced, leaving you facing unemployment a lot sooner than you were expecting. Anything’s possible. And even if you’re not on a show at the moment, a potential job offer could literally fall from the sky and drop right into your lap at any given moment (okay, not literally, but you know what I’m saying). Maybe you’re at a party. Or out at the movies. Or putting gas in your car. And suddenly, you run into someone who happens to be willing and able to help put you in the running for your next job.

But if they ask you to send them a copy of your latest writing sample, and you don’t have one, then what? Are you going to tell them to wait until you’re finished?

Well, technically, you could. But who knows? By the time you get back to them – a week, a month, or (yikes) six months later – maybe the job’s already gone to someone else. Why? Because you weren’t ready.

Realistically, the vast majority of these out-of-the-blue opportunities won’t end up resulting in a paying job no matter what you do or how prepared you are. But that’s the nature of the business. The unpredictable nature of being a freelancer means you still have to put your best foot forward each and every time. And that requires preparation.

If you’re already in the middle of writing (or rewriting) your latest project, that’s fine. No need to panic. But that means you should already have a current piece of submission-ready material available at a moment’s notice. Maybe that script isn’t a perfect fit for the potential job that's suddenly come your way, but it’s certainly better than nothing.

Don’t get me wrong: if someone’s staffing a dark superhero show, and all you have are a bunch of multi-camera sitcom pilots, well, maybe that’s not the job for you. But it’s also no reason to be caught unprepared, because the very next phone call you get might be from someone else who happens to be staffing a multi-camera sitcom, and they’re reading people immediately. This is where you’ll get the jump on all those other writers who’ve been working on their dark superhero pilots. Things tend to balance out that way.

But none of this matters if you’re simply not prepared. In the age of smartphones and cloud computing, there is absolutely no reason for you to ever leave home without a PDF of your latest writing sample just a few thumb-clicks away. Not ever. Period. Let me repeat that being prepared is no automatic guarantee of success. But being unprepared can and almost certainly will cost you.

So here’s my one piece of actionable advice: Got a smartphone or tablet? Good. Got Dropbox, or some other method of cloud storage? If not, get it. Upload your writing samples to the cloud. And take comfort in the knowledge that your next chance encounter or random phone call will end with you confidently saying, “Hang on…I’m sending you my pilot right now.” An alternate method is to simply e-mail your scripts to yourself, but depending on how cluttered your inbox is, this could be more trouble than it's worth.

Quick story: one day I was out running errands and my agent called. A certain single-camera sitcom was about to start staffing up for its new season, and the showrunner was mainly interested in reading comedy pilots as opposed to drama samples. My agent asked me, “Do you have anything funny?” (FYI, don’t count on you agent or manager to have memorized every single thing you’ve written. They’re only human, and they’ve got lots of clients, and those clients have lots of scripts. Don’t take it personally.)

I froze. Did I have anything funny? I drew a blank. So I asked how long my agent thought they’d be accepting samples. “Maybe a week, week and a half,” he said. My mind instantly went into overdrive. Could I run home and bang out a good 30-page dramedy pilot – from scratch – in ten days? Because it was either that, or just accept that this opportunity was one that I’d have to let pass me by.

I told my agent to let me search my files and I’d get back to him when I got home. And moments after hanging up, I suddenly remembered something: I had single-camera comedy script that I’d written a few years ago as an exercise but never did anything with. I’d forgotten all about it. Jackpot.

So right then and there, I opened the Dropbox app on my phone, found the script, and e-mailed it to my agent. All within two or three minutes. Whew. Bullet dodged.

I ended up not getting the job, but that isn’t the point. The point is that I got the proverbial out-of-the-blue phone call and had something ready to send instantly. I didn’t have to wait until I got home, I didn’t have to search through my computer in a panic trying to find it, and thankfully, I didn’t have to kill myself pulling a week of all-nighters trying to crank out a whole new script for a job that, in the end, never even materialized.

But I would have if I’d had to. Because in an industry as competitive as this one, I can’t afford to let a possible job offer just sail past home plate without at least taking a good solid swing at it. And neither, I’m guessing, can you. So even if you’re not willing to take my advice, consider what author Malcolm Gladwell said in his 2008 book Outliers: The Story of Success: “Achievement is talent plus preparation.”

Okay. So you’ve got the talent. That’s half the battle. But are you prepared?

Stay ready.

Get more advice in Madeline DiMaggio's book
How to Write for Television