Once upon a time, landing a staff writing job with a spec of ER or Picket Fences was de rigueur. Not so much these days. Show runners want to see original pilots, backed up by features or plays or short stories, but they will not read your Law & Order spec.
So, are spec worthless?
Hold on. First, let’s define some television parlance. In TV land, a spec refers to a script that’s a speculative episode of a television show currently on the air. It’s not meant to get produced, only to served as a writing sample. An original pilot is the script of a brand new show; it’s not based on an existing show. You could try to sell this pilot script to producers and studios — someone might buy your script and make it into a TV show; it happens. — or you might only be using it as a writing sample.
To complicate matters further, you can write a pilot “on spec” or as an “assignment.” Writers usually pitch first, and if the idea sells, they then write the pilot as part of a paid assignment. If you stink at pitching, or if the idea is “execution dependent,” then you might write the pilot “on spec” in the hopes that the finished script will show off your brilliance and land you a fat paycheck. Let’s not even touch new pilots based on, or adapted from, existing materials such as books, comics, movies or even older TV shows (such as The Twilight Zone, Battlestar Galactica and The Odd Couple).
For the purpose of this post, spec = script of an existing show and pilot = script for a new, original show yet to be produced.
Now, where was I? Ah, right. Back in the day you could write a crazy Friends spec and agents, managers and producers would come knocking. Today, talk to anyone in the industry and they’ll tell you that a spec is worthless.
Why? One, there are just too many shows out there. Maybe your show runner didn’t watch Justified so they can’t judge your sample. Two, everyone is obsessed with your original voice. They want to see your idiosyncrasies. They want to know what makes you special. Did you grow up the daughter of a lobster trapper in Maine? Then they’re gonna love your heartwarming family drama about a goth girl that falls in love with a boy that has lobster claws for hands (Ian, let’s develop this). Will they read your Hart of Dixie spec. No. Sorry. Your spec is worthless.
Easy there, TS.
That’s not entirely true. A spec is not worthless. They still serve a purpose. If you’re applying to one of the popular fellowships offered by CBS, Disney/ABC, NBC/Universal or Warner Brothers, they will want to see a spec of a show that’s on the air. Heck, the WB goes so far as to publish a list of acceptable shows to spec.
WB won’t let you spec Agent Carter this year.
Granted, ABC and CBS want you to submit a spec and a pilot, but the common denominator is the spec. Also, lots of reputable TV writing contests accept specs, like Austin and Final Draft.
In fact, at this very moment, I’m writing a spec of The 100 that I’ll submit to fellowships and contests. In past years, I’ve speced (or is it “specced”?) The Americans
and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
Three of those have landed me in the quarter finals, or better, of a lot of contests and a few fellowships. While I haven’t won any of those (yet), I think I can offer at least a few pieces of advice regarding specs.
First, in today’s highly serialized world, do yourself a favor and set your spec in last season’s mythology. Don’t go further back because readers will think you’re recycling an old piece of material. Conversely, don’t try to keep up with the current season because there’s always a chance the show might steal your thunder. Last year I was ready to start an Arrow spec where I’d introduce Cupid but stopped the second I heard that the show was planning to add Cupid to the cast.
The one exception might be if you’re doing a procedural show. If you’re writing an NCIS spec and there are no major cast changes, you might be able to use that script as a sample for at least a couple years.
Second, you’re writing a spec episode, not fan fiction. Make sure you use the characters, settings and tropes properly. This isn’t the time to recast the supporting characters as the leads, or to kill off a beloved love interest. Avoid writing a new ending to the season that just wrapped or the first episode of next season. That’s fan fiction. That only proves that you believe yourself superior to the writing staff. Find an idea that could slip right in the middle of a season.
That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be bold. Be bold. Do something big, but not something contrary to the nature of the show. Think of that tired story of the scorpion and the frog. A scorpion will always be a scorpion. Your Agents of SHILED spec should not read like an episode of Portlandia just because Kyle MacLachlan guests in both.
BTW, I had the idea of writing an Agents of SHIELD / Portlandia crossover using Kyle as the Mayor of Portland so back off.
I know I make writing a spec sound like a chore but I love writing specs. I love having fun with another person’s toys. I dig playing in another creator’s sandbox. It’s one of the reasons why I think I’d be excellent on a staff.
Me, I’m gonna keep writing a spec a year until I no longer have to. Fellowships and contests, do you hear me? Not yet? Then keep an eye out for my submissions until you finally accept me, or I get staffed, then I can serve as a mentor to the next generation.
Also, yeah, I’m gonna keep writing a new pilot every year, too.