I recently had the pleasure of speaking on a panel at the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!) to address undergraduates interested in pursing careers in film and television production. It was odd to be in a position of any authority, but in my years since graduation I have learned enough to be helpful to those who are just getting started. As I gave what little bit of wisdom I could, it occurred to me that some of the ideas that I and the other TV/Film vets were offering to these fresh faces were the same things veteran authors have been saying to us newbie writers.
1. No one cares what you WANT to do, until you show them what you CAN do. Kids, do not, let me say it one more time, DO NOT walk into your interview for a production assistant job and tell the coordinator that you want to be an Executive Producer. Guess what? No one cares. When you've proven that you can work sixteen straight hours without complaining, arrive to work fifteen minutes early for your six AM call time, remember how many raw sugar packets the director likes in her coffee (It's zero, dummy. She doesn't use sugar), and show up to work with the worst cold of your life and manage to keep your germs to yourself, then maybe someone will ask you what you hope to do someday. I know it sounds harsh, but it's the truth.
Doesn't this also have to apply for writers? I'm not agented, so I'm just assuming here, but I can't imagine that a prospective agent cares about aspirations for fame and glory if the manuscript isn't done, the edits aren't taken seriously, the deadlines are missed and the platform is nonexistent. Hey, little writer, you want to be the next Nora Ephron, but your manuscript is in shambles and the only one who reads your blog is your mom? Well, good luck with that. Proving that you can do the work is the first order of business.
2. Find your angle. On one of my first jobs in the television industry I made up the position that then became mine for almost a year. I was working on a children's show and there were about thirty kids at a time who needed constant supervision. "Hey- it sure does look like you guys need a kid wrangler." I said to no one and started wrangling kids. I was good with kids, so I went for it and before I knew it, bam! I had a regular gig.
Maybe as writers, we don't have to sacrifice our eardrums and sit in a room with thirty over-amped, competitive, and creepily adult stage kids, but we do still have to find our angle. I've heard it repeatedly. Find your voice. Find what makes you connect with readers in a way the others don't. We have to find our "in'.
3. Speak up, but don't say nothin'. Networking is important while making your way in production. No one gives a flying fig about your resume and you will almost never be hired because of it. If, however, someone says, "Sure, I know Joe. He's a great guy" well, then go ahead and start planning that vacation you'll be taking at the end of the project. The key is to avoid being a schmoozy creeper who is constantly trying to work someone. You have to give something; a recommendation, a favor, hell, just a funny video that passes the time during a lighting change, to make people remember you as someone who added something to their days/weeks/projects/lives.
As writers, we learn the same thing while we're trying to build a readership. It's not enough to just say, Hey- I wrote this. Read it. We've go to give value to our readers. So, yes, you do have to speak up to let people know you exist, but you can't just make noise. You have to say something real.
4. Don't just pay back, pay forward. This one I didn't say while I was talking to the undergrads, but I wish I had. One of my fellow panelists told the audience to "be nice" which is solid advice. I wish I had added, be nice to everyone. Don't just suck up to people you think can do something for you. Don't just make your boss happy. Make your fellow crew members look good too. Sure, it's important to show gratitude to someone who helps you achieve a goal, but it's also important to be the person who helps someone else achieve her goal.
Writers, this goes for us too. We have to (and from my limited experience, are pretty good at) support other writers. We have to follow back, "Like", retweet, leave comments, add reviews and otherwise help our fellow authors spread their works and build their audiences and we can't just do it because we expect others to do the same for us (though you're kind of a jerk-wad if you don't). Without the support of our fellow writers, we're left to hoping that we find a really kick ass agent and/or publisher who is going to take on all of the responsibility of promoting our work. Again- good luck with that.
The bottom line- it takes a lot of hustle to achieve a big goal. You have to give your all, all the time and keep trying when things don't go the way you planned.
And, because this is what I sing to myself when I feel like I'm getting things done, it's time to quote Pharrell/Jay-Z, "I'm a hustler, baby. I just want you to know. It ain't where I been, but where I'm about to go..." (Quit singing there. That song gets pretty gross pretty fast.)