|Writing Your Own Lottery Ticket
Everybody does it, sooner or later. But nobody talks about it. Here, finally, are the secrets for writing spec scripts, spoken by those in the know.
Television staffing season is upon us. Agents throughout town are funneling hundreds of scripts to TV writer-producers with the hope that when the music stops, their client will have a chair at the writers' room table. Every office and desk overflows with writing samples. Bleary-eyed executive producers hope they can somehow mine those piles for a vein of gold. Agents continually hunt for any opening for their clients. They cram those same hundreds of scripts to network and studio executives, to anybody willing to read their client's work and recommend them for a staff job-or, at the very least, a freelance script assignment.
So why exactly are all those trees dying? What's on all those neatly formatted, triple spell-checked pages? Many of those scripts are produced screenplays, teleplays, and stage plays. But most are not. Even though they might tell stories using characters we see every week on TV-Meredith Grey, Gregory House, Tony Soprano-these scripts exist in a netherworld. They will never be produced. They will never be read by a cast, filmed, or shown to an audience. They are writing samples only, to be read by gatekeepers and showrunners. They are called specs.
Recently, WRITTEN BY convened a panel of writers, agents, and executives-all deeply enmeshed in the world of specs-to discuss this ever-growing mountain of lottery tickets. The panelists were:
Glen Mazzara: former executive producer The Shield, currently developing pilots for 20th Century Fox Television.
Photo: Tom Keller
Photo: Tom Keller
Photo: Tom Keller
Photo: Tom Keller
Photo: Tom Keller
Marcy Ross: senior vice president of Current Programming, FOX.
Brad Sterling: literary agent, Innovative Artists.
Jane Espenson: writer-producer, currently with an overall deal at NBC Universal.
Rebecca Dameron: staff writer on the F/X series Dirt.
Tamara Becher: a script coordinator “trying to hustle her first staff job.”
What Is A Spec?
Glen Mazzara: What exactly is a spec? When I was trying to figure out how to break into the industry as a TV writer, someone explained to me that a spec TV script is your version of an episode of a show currently on TV. You pick a show that you like, that you feel you can write, and write your version to show as a writing sample. It has no connection with the actual series. Chances are you won't send it to that show; they won't ever read it-but it's a calling card. So for me, a spec is like an actor's showcase-you're showing your chops. What's been your experience?
Jane Espenson: Spec scripts are the currency of the town. It's a writing sample in the shape of a script. When you refer to a spec as “your version” of a show, I want to make sure people understand that doesn't mean a reinterpretation of a show. It has to read as if it's an actual produced episode of a show. You have to demonstrate chameleonship.
Marcy Ross: It's always great to see that someone understands the nuts and bolts of scriptwriting and can have even a pedestrian understanding of a show's characters. That's the first layer. Then the second layer is when I'm sitting down to read 50 scripts, what are you going to tell me that's new about the character or gives me a heightened sense of reality or situation?
Jane Espenson: A spec has to be two different things. It has to read as if it could be produced, and it has to be different. So it's an odd little dance.
Glen Mazzara: Give a plug for your blog.
Jane Espenson: JaneEspenson.com, yes, that's my blog. I started out thinking it was going to be sort of “here's the inside scoop from the writers' room” but quickly realized that you can't talk about anything that happens in the writers' room in public. The public wouldn't stand for it. They don't need that in their lives. So it quickly turned into a sort of advice column about how to write spec scripts. I wrote a ton of them when I was starting out, and I felt like it was something I understood. Every entry starts with a tip on how to write your spec and ends with what I had for lunch.
Glen Mazzara: I find that most scripts are competently written. It's a bell curve, and you hope your script is at the front end. It's not enough to just write a show-you need to write something extraordinary. But then there is a line where you cross over into something gratuitous, something that is violence for violence's sake or just not fitting with the show. Where do you find the line?
Marcy Ross: If it's self-consciously clever or outrageous, I give kudos to the attempt. But if it's not fitting in the spirit of the show, it's a little bit of a turnoff.
Brad Sterling: It just has to separate itself from the rest. That's the hard part because if you make it too much like a produced show, then it doesn't feel inventive or original enough. But then if you go too far away from a produced episode, it doesn't feel like a show anymore. So it's a balance.
Who Writes A Spec?
Glen Mazzara: Given all of that, who writes a spec?
Rebecca Dameron: Anyone who wants to write for television has to write a spec. I know people who have been co-executive producers who haven't worked for a year or two that have written specs.
Jane Espenson: New writers and experienced.
Rebecca Dameron: Yeah, both.
Glen Mazzara: Writers trying to cross over from the feature world into TV would have to show they can master the TV structure.
Jane Espenson: In a similar way, an established writer who is on, say, an off-network 'tween sitcom, might want to write a spec if she's interested in getting hired on a different kind of show. If you want a jump in your perceived-prestige level, a spec can help.
Marcy Ross: And the comedy writers out there who have no shows to write on, all have to write their spec drama scripts because they're running from comedy to drama.
Glen Mazzara: Tamara, you're not currently on staff, but you are writing specs, hoping to break into the business. You have a spec House and a CSI. Those are your calling cards. Describe that hustle for us and how it works.
Tamara Becher: When I started writing a spec, I thought the actual writing would be the hardest part of the process. Now that I've finished a few scripts, I'm finding that the real challenge is figuring out what to do with them once they're done. I've been fortunate to cross paths with Jane, Glen, and Brad, who were all generous enough to read my material. But how do I get my material out to other people? Then I've got to decide whether it's better to start another spec or write an original piece.
Deciding Which Show to Spec
Glen Mazzara: Once you've decided you need to write a spec, how do you decide which show?
Tamara Becher: If I don't really like the show I'm trying to spec, it's going to show on the page. That's why I always choose to spec shows that I'm a fan of, as opposed to trying to spec a show that's considered a “good” show to spec.
Jane Espenson: I have read specs where it's clear the writer doesn't respect the show they're writing for and you can feel it on the page. That would be a bad mistake. I don't know how you go on a staff of a show and don't bond with the show. I always bond with the show.
Marcy Ross: You have to.
Jane Espenson: And so should a spec writer. They should be in love with the show they're writing as much as possible.
Glen Mazzara: Brad, I'm sure representing writers means you help writers prepare their specs. I'm sure that they ask you to counsel them in making decisions: What do I have to write? What do I need next? And being in the marketplace, you know what producers might be looking for. I'm sure every producer wants to look at something different when deciding who to staff.
Brad Sterling: Absolutely.
Glen Mazzara: How do you advise your clients when they're saying, “Oh, my god, I'm still out of work-what do I write now?”
Brad Sterling: It depends on what they have, if the specs they have feel old and dated. People want to keep submitting scripts for shows like The Practice and Six Feet Under, and they're just hard to read now because the shows have been gone for so long. So I've been getting people to write new specs. Then we talk about shows that they already have, or shows that they like, and then try to figure out something that works. If there just isn't one, then people write plays, they write features, they write spec pilots, and original scripts. More and more, they do shows like Entourage and single-camera comedies that might work for Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives, shows like that.
Glen Mazzara: So the goal is to pick a show that can showcase as many of your talents as possible, from dialogue to character work to plot. People build up an arsenal of specs because, if you write a procedural, like a CSI, you might want to follow it with something lighter, like an Ugly Betty to show you can do comedy. I ended up writing nine specs-way too many.
Jane Espenson: Ugly Betty serves as an hour spec while still having the feel of half-hour comedy.
Marcy Ross: Ugly Betty makes a great spec for comedy writers. Bones is another great sample for someone with comedic writing chops. We can learn a lot about that writer because they can show their ability to do procedural story and comedy.
Glen Mazzara: That's why you would take a show like Bones, not necessarily because it's your favorite show but to showcase your talents. Rebecca, you've written existing shows.
Rebecca Dameron: I have a spec Deadwood and a CSI: Miami.
Glen Mazzara: Writing a Deadwood was probably a risky choice. I loved it, but Deadwood's where you'd show a lot of violence, show a lot of character work, use coarse language that wouldn't fly on most shows. Do you find that choice turned off network readers?
Rebecca Dameron: I think it turned people on. I don't know, but the sex and violence was fun to write.
Marcy Ross: And also we love it coming from women. That's huge when a woman can write a kick-ass action script. We're always looking to have more women on writing staffs.
Rebecca Dameron: I feel like now I'm more calculated when I consider what to write next-how it could show another side of my writing, develop my arsenal. Right now, I'm writing a Grey's Anatomy. With the Deadwood, I just loved the show and wasn't ready to say goodbye to it. I wanted to keep living in it, and I felt like I had some good stories for the characters. When I started, a mistake I made was spending too much time on things I liked but that weren't necessarily true to the show. I also forgot to try to insert my own voice into my specs. That's something people compliment me on now. Even though a spec should stay true to the voice of the show, you can also showcase your views as a writer by the kind of stories or themes you want to share. With specs now, I try to imagine what would be the best episode I would want to see. What is the greatest conflict for the characters? I don't have to worry about budgets or locations or time. I can go where I want to go with it. It's important in a spec that even while you are true to the voice of the show, the stories that you want to tell, or stories that you want to get across, need to be there.
To read the rest of this roundtable, purchase a copy of the April 2007 issue of Written By.