Welcome to Dumpsville, population: you. Getting fired from a writing gig – or being told they won’t be commissioning you again – is never fun. Sometimes the end is a blessed relief after weeks or months of miserable, fruitless toil. Other times it’s a bolt from the blue, and that’s much worse.
Some freelancers just get months of radio silence and delays until, eventually, they realise there isn’t another job coming their way. I’ve been fired from a writing gig, but I’ve also been a commissioning editor, dispensing with the services of other creatives. So, why do writing commissions go awry?
1. Losing your voice a.k.a. death by a thousand notes
A lot of writers have an eager to please tendency, particularly at the start of their careers or when entering a new working relationship. It’s natural to want to make the person paying you happy – that way they might employ you again. But there’s a danger in bending over backwards to satisfy the wants, needs and whims of others. If you’re not careful, you will lose the thing that actually got you the job – your voice as a writer.
You want to please, so you accept a note that makes your story less interesting, less distinctive – less you. This is easy to do, and so hard to resist. But you have to believe in your narrative, even on a continuing drama where none of the characters or storylines came from you. You have to fight for the key moments that make it distinctive. But pick your battles wisely or you run the risk being reason number two.
2. Too high maintenance a.k.a. don’t be an asshole
Yes, you have to fight for story moments in which you believe. But don’t fight notes just for the sake of it. You might be able to get away with throwing your toys out of the pram
if you’re an A-list scribe laden with awards, but mere mortals need to play nice. Nobody likes dealing with high maintenance prima donnas, they’re a pain in the neck.
If a writer is talented enough, those who commission them will tolerate bad behaviour – for a while. But acting out can get you a bad reputation and word spreads fast. Writing is a small world, and even smaller in areas like comics or audio drama. Piss off one or two people, they tell three others and that’s you out of work. So play nice. And be especially nice to assistants – they will be the ones who’ll be handing out work in future.
3. A servant of too many masters a.k.a. just say no
Self employment oscillates between famine and feast – you’ve either got no paid work, or find yourself with too much. It’s hard to say no, especially if you’re coming off a lean spell or you’re just getting started. But what happens if all the jobs you’ve been chasing suddenly get commissioned. You can almost guarantee they’ll have clashing deadlines. Then you have to make a decision: how honest are you going to be?
You can stall and keep all the plates spinning for a while. But work yourself too hard and your creative output will suffer. [So will your health, and your relationships. Remember that long after this particular job is past, you’ll still want to be on speaking terms with the people who supported through the lean times.] You can’t satisfy everyone, but you can ruin good working relationships by trying to do too much. If it’s all going wrong, come clean and admit the truth. Sensible commissioners appreciate honesty.
4. You can’t always write what they want a.k.a. failure to communicate
Sometimes when things go wrong, it’s not your fault. You did your best and still you couldn’t satisfy everyone above you in the creative food chain. Maybe the messages you needed weren’t getting through. Maybe those in charge were unable to communicate their creative vision. Maybe they didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Maybe they were the asshole and you were just getting defecated on. It happens.
Just because someone has a position of authority and control of a budget, that doesn’t mean they have a clue what they’re doing. They might be in the wrong job, they might have been promoted too soon or beyond the limit of their abilities. Sometimes you’re just roadkill on their journey to oblivion. So be it. If regime change happens when you’re in the middle of a job, hang on tight – the ride’s about to get bumpy.
5. You suck a.k.a. and you smell, too
Sometimes when things go wrong, it is your fault. This is the reason nobody wants to hear, but it can be just as accurate as reasons one through four. Maybe you weren’t ready. Maybe you’re writing in the wrong genre or medium. Maybe you don’t have the craft skills yet to pull off what you’re trying to write. Maybe you’re okay, but the story you invented just isn’t worth the candle – not all stories deserve to be told, not all great ideas turn into great narratives.
If you’re worried that reason number five might be your reality, then you have to face the harshest of questions – are you a good enough writer? Hard as it is to get that first gig, it’s securing the second job that proves you’re a professional. Job number two proves that job number one wasn’t dumb luck, a fluke or serendipity. Your first job is about losing your professional writing virginity. The second job – that’s where you prove you’ve got what it takes. So go and do it. Onwards!
DAVID BISHOP is an award-winning screenwriter, author of 20 published novels and a former editor of acclaimed British anthology comic 2000AD. He writes for Doctors on BBC1, Nina and the Neurons on CBeebies, and too many other things to mention. He is represented by Katie Williams at The Agency in London. Follow him on Twitter here.