I was supposed to be a TV writer. That was my plan. I received an offer while still in grad school to be a writer’s assistant on Roswell off an NYPD Blue spec I wrote for class. But before I could even get my head on straight, Band Geek was becoming Band Camp and I was a feature guy. I’m fortunate and lucky, and I know it. For the next six years assignment work kept me busy and away from TV (which is where it’s at), but most importantly, from writing that next all-important feature spec.
I get asked this a lot (mostly by myself): “Are spec scripts worth writing?” I mean, come on. Studios aren’t buying anything but existing franchise-able material, indies are gasping, and even if you do have something great, it has to be packaged top to bottom and get a greenlight before you’ll even see a contract.
But yes, you still have to write the spec. The only folks who don’t are way up the food chain, and they get by with a pitch, which is preferable in that you usually get an up or down vote without having to actually write the damn script. But if spec sales are down, so must be the number of people for whom pitching is an option.
So why bother? Well, if you’re hell-bent on working in features, and you can’t call the studio to set up a pitch, then you need a vehicle to get your voice, your idea, and your story out to the market. And at minimum, you need to have a fresh sample. A spec is obviously an opportunity for the unrepresented to break through. But for those who have made that first cut, it’s a chance to create energy and buzz about something new, to take meetings, hear of an assignment or pet project, and generally, declare yourself alive. The upside is it could sell. The downside is it never goes out. In between are a million different possibilities. Even in a tough market, better to have the possibilities.
I’ve been told for some time now by my own kind and patient representatives that a new spec script is a must. Like now. So, I started on project they liked about an elite preschool, and about two drafts into it, I needed a bit of additional motivation to push through to the end. And thank God we’re all in this together.
First, I made arrangements to meet my novelist pal Katrina Kittle (the adaptation for her Kindness of Strangers is next on my slate) on iChat every morning to keep each other motivated, and off facebook and twitter. We’d summarize what we’d finished the day before, state our goals for the new day, and then nudge each other now and again with a story problem, joke, or slice of inspiration. And all that started at 3:30 A.M. Pacific Time. It’s the best I could do with kids, teaching, and holidays.
Then, I agreed to race my screenwriter pal Andrea Nasfell, as she was on deadline to deliver an assignment. Despite the fact that I got off to a head start and a big lead, Andrea eventually won. Now my wife and I owe her free babysitting for a date night with her husband. It was a crushing defeat, learning on facebook that she’d finished whilst I was decomposing in a long line at Legoland, but knowing she was out there cranking away every day kept my intensity up. And that’s true on a larger scale, too. Someone out there right now, your competition, is writing better, writing faster, and may even be writing your exact idea. Pin that up over your monitor for motivation, because it’s probably true.
Beyond fear of losing, date nights, and coffee over iChat, there are obviously simpler cheats and rewards, too. Form and meet with a consistent, competitive writer’s group. Download one of those free programs that shut down your internet for however long you designate – and then actually use it. Set a schedule for checking email, internet, and social media stuff: a certain page count equals so many minutes online. Promise yourself a piece of chocolate. A shot of bourbon. A yoga class. A run. A football game, TV show or movie. Allow yourself rewards for goals achieved – but in order for that to work, you must clearly define your goals, or you’re cheating.
Spec work is really hard. No guaranteed money. No hard deadline. No harassing phone calls. No input from invested others. It’s like that line from Eye of the Tiger: “…just a man and his will to survive.” I stepped into that ring recently for the first time in a long time, got staggered a bit, lost my legs, and was glad to have friends in my corner, armed with strong smelling salts, who refused to throw in the towel.
One of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry, once told me that “people who complain about writing ought not to be doing it.” And one my favorite professors, Mark Shepherd, always says “writing beats digging ditches.” Mr. Berry’s statement might be true at heart, but it’s definitely idealistic, as I’ve never known a writer without a complaint. Still, writing is hard work, but there is obviously worse. And if it’s never been paid work for you, the only way to make it so is to finish, and finish often.