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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

From the Mailbag: TV Spec Writing

I am writing a television spec and am perplexed about a few things.

First, how long should a show have been aired before writing a spec for it?

Second, I heard I should wait until the show is in its third season, but then I find that the third season will be its last. So, how fast should I be churning these specs out? Maybe I am writing too slowly? I come up with ideas and then read in the trades that the show is being cancelled. I try to cut myself some slack since I am still learning (as a newbie, not to be confused with the pros and the continued learning curve).

At this rate, I fear I will have no current episodes by the time I get there.

-Perplexed in Pennsylvania


This is a great question. Having current samples as TV writer is a constantly moving target.
Yes, a spec of an existing show should be the first place to start. Especially if you are new to TV, you should attempt to spec a current show first to help you understand TV pacing and structure, as well as voice.

An ideal spec script will be in a genre similar to a show you'd like to write on, in a tone similar to a voice you can write well. The old adage is true, never spec a show you want to write for; those showrunners will RARELY (mainly NEVER) look upon your idea of their show with warmth and open arms.

So, if I want to write for "The Mentalist," having a solid "CSI" or even "Medium" as a spec will help me. If I want to write for "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia," having a good "Weeds" or "South Park" come in handy.

Because shows aren't around as long anymore, it's safe to say that if you choose to spec a show it should have had a successful first season, and at LEAST a second season order. The trick here is just to write something that executives and showrunners are likely to have seen. An obscure show does you no good.

Also, I'm a big believer in taking a risk and trying to write a spec BEFORE something is a massive hit, because then everyone has a spec of that show. From what I've heard, executives are sick of "Gray's Anatomy" and "The Office," - and now's the time to bury that "My Name Is Earl" spec, while you're at it. Right now the market is also flooded with "The Mentalist," "Mad Men," and "30 Rock specs.

I wrote a spec of "Gossip Girl" early in the first season of the show, knowing and hoping that it would change some of the tides in terms of tone and genre of CW programming. I got lucky. I could have just as easily been wrong, in which case I would have learned a valuable lesson and maybe that's about it. That's the nature of spec writing. Sometimes you hit, sometimes you don't. It happens to everyone.

You should be updating your spec pile every year. If working writers think an old "Friends" or "Alias" spec is going to help them, they're probably not working on a show right now. Keep current. Which shows are coming up the pipeline? May is when the majority of orders happen for new serieses; a majority of those will fail in the fall. But, quietly over the summer, both "Nurse Jackie" and "True Blood" got picked up for another season - two for "True Blood." Read the trades and learn which shows are getting good ratings, good reviews, awards nominations, etc. Understanding the business will help you get better at predicting the turning of the tides. Choosing a spec should involve finding a good creative match for you in a relevant show.

Also - and not to add any stress to a confusing situation - the emphasis these days is more on original material than spec scripts. Don't get me wrong, you have to have a spec script or three in your back pocket. You never know what will come in handy when. They are a necessary evil in TV. Also, don't quote me on this, but the majority of TV fellowships require a spec script as an entry for their programs. So mastering a solid spec is absolutely necessary.

But once that's done, the real work begins. Lately, you can't get an agent anymore on a spec script. Actually, from what I've seen with my circle of up-and-coming writer friends, getting staffed FIRST is the only real way to get an agent. But don't worry about that yet.

What you've got to do is write an original pilot. Again, write in a genre that you'd like to write in in the future. Don't write a procedural murder show if you really want to write half-hour comedy. The point of the pilot is to distinguish yourself from the pack. Show that you understand the form and structure of TV at its basic level, and then use the platform of the pilot to make your voice shine.

What's a personal story to you? A world that you have great access to? What's different/special about your voice, your take on things? All of that should come through in your pilot. Showrunners want to hire VOICES in their rooms. Executives want to find new TALENT. Audiences want to see a WORLD they've never seen before. They can't tell all of that from a spec of "Criminal Minds," so help them out. Write a pilot that makes it undeniable what a gem you are.

If that feels too daunting at first, try your hand at a one-act play. I've gotten more than my fair share of mileage from a one-act I wrote. It's a simple way to get your feet wet in the land of original writing. Keep it simple, and let your characters and their voices shine. Again, another opportunity to show who YOU are.

Yes, it's a lot to take in. Being a current TV writer requires an arsenal of projects and getting that built up is not easy. But if you think that's hard, try writing a 60-page script in a week, because that's the job you're signing up for.

Happy writing!

Margaux Froley

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