I’m taking some time to write this now because if I put it off, it’ll be next June before I find a moment, and it won’t be much help to anyone then. As a disclaimer, this is obviously my experience with having and valuing a fantastic spec (or three) in my writing portfolio. You will know people who got hired by showrunners who only wanted to read original pilots. But you will also meet writers who worked for or know showrunners who won’t hire first-timers without seeing a spec.

Why? Because your job as a member of a writing staff is to write the voice of that show — the tone, the characters, the basic elements that make that show unique. If it’s “Castle,” you better be able to nail the romantic banter between Castle and Beckett, both when they’re flirting and when they’re angry. Writing a “Masters of Sex”? Your ability to write all those complicated female voices is what will make that script a winner (if you ask me anyway). Writing a killer pilot can help you get representation and impress execs and get you meetings, maybe land you a job. But some showrunners out there simply will not hire a writer without reading at least part of a spec for one reason… they need proof you can write a show that isn’t your own creation, but rather, models someone else’s, which is what they’re hiring you to do.

Once you have that first precious staff writer job, the spec becomes far less important if not wholly irrelevant. You will hopefully emerge from that job with co-EPs, EPs, and showrunners willing to testify to how fabulous you are, and that endorsement and a great pilot to show off your talent and point of view will get you the next gig.

So what show do you spec? There are definitely places you can go to find out what the hot specs are, and if you’re following people like Carole Kirschner and Jen Grisanti on Twitter, you can find recommendations pretty easily. My advice is always this: only spec a show you love. A show you like a lot isn’t really good enough because that thing you don’t like about the show will torture you throughout the process. So spec a show you love, full stop. And maybe that is one of the shows everyone is recommending… or maybe it’s a show you catch flack for loving or that you hear no one in the industry watches. If that’s the case, you have a choice to make — take the risk on a show you love that people might not know as well or spec the “popular kids” everyone’s raving about.

Ignorance may have been bliss for me when I decided to write a spec of “The Closer,” which I adored beyond reason, for a sample the year I applied to the CBS Writers Mentoring Program. I wrote it out of pure love and the knowledge that it fit my voice to a T. I do not kid you when I tell you that a good half-dozen people who read that script said to me: “I don’t even watch this show, but I had to know how this story ended.” I don’t tell you that to brag. I tell you that to say, if your story is great and you’re writing the hell out of it, the reader will finish it! Yes, maybe someone somewhere said, “I don’t watch this show” and pushed my script off the top of their pile. But I didn’t have to write the best “The Closer” spec anyone had ever read to compete with 100 others. I just had to write the best one I could possibly write, and it stood out on its own.

A writer I know inspired this post today because she was dealing with the issue of wanting to spec a serialized show. As more and more shows take on that element, breaking away from straight procedure, it will continue to be something up-and-coming writers struggle with. This also comes into play when a cliffhanger leaves you wondering what the hell the next season of a show (even a procedural with a killer finale) will look like. So I share these two stories in case they help you.

In the CBS program, I wrote a spec of “The Good Wife,” right before half the universe decided to write one. That show has very clear serialized elements, and at the time, it involved Peter running again for States’ Attorney and Derrick Bond working with Will to take the firm away from Diane. (Damn, those folks love to fight over that firm!). I made a very careful choice (with the endorsement of my mentors) to take clear, simple positions on where those stories existed in the exact timing of my “episode,” and went forward. Yes, there was a risk that one or both stories would blow up, but I minimized them without pretending they didn’t exist and focused on showcasing the rest of the show. The spec later helped me progress deep into another writing fellowship, and no one ever had an issue with the way I handled those choices.

The following year, I had a shot at a job on a show that had a much lighter tone than most of my samples. So to even try to get a meeting, I had to prove I could model that voice. My solution was to wrestle a tight turnaround on a new “Castle” spec, mostly because I knew that show like the back of my hand and knew I could do it. Problem… the beloved precinct captain had died in the finale, and I had no idea what the show was going to do the following season. So I decided to take advantage of a precedent that had been set on the show… the captain was not in every episode, so there would be no captain in mine. That spec didn’t get me a meeting on that show, but it helped get me one for another, and the exec actually asked me about how I chose to deal with that issue since he knew “Castle” well, too. When I explained, it was clear he just wanted to know I had thought about it and not just excised a character I didn’t want to deal with, and the meeting went great.

Does that mean you have to write a new spec every year, because a story element ruins yours or because the show did something too similar? Probably — but you should be doing that anyway!

Another young writer I know said that he had one good spec and one good pilot, and wasn’t that enough? My answer is no. First off, what happens if you’re applying to one of the writing fellowships that requests supplementary material — what are you sending them for round two? And if you’re lucky enough to get meetings for representation or jobs, you may run into someone who wants to see more than one sample. I went into my first staffing season with the aforementioned specs and another for “Covert Affairs,” which I wrote to add a second lighter-toned piece to my portfolio. On several of my meetings that year, it became clear through conversation that the exec and/or showrunner had read a pilot and at least part of a spec while considering me. And I know that on at least two of the shows I’ve been hired to write, more than one sample has helped me nail down the job (though more recently, those have been pilot submissions.)

My point is, you need an arsenal of material — the more the better — pilots AND specs. If you aren’t sure what to write next, think about the shows you realistically think you could get staffed on. Do you have the right sample for that show? Do you have mostly male leads and could use a female-led script to show you can do that voice, too? Is it all twisty darkness in your pilots when you love that one show that is drama with a sense of humor? Examine what you already have and write what you need to make your material selection more well-rounded. That is not to say write everything. If you can’t imagine ever writing a medical show, don’t write a medical show spec or pilot. But if you really want to write sci-fi and don’t have a sample that will get you a meeting — write that.

I’ll close with this — one of those showrunners I’ve heard talk about wanting to see a spec from a staff writer is Shawn Ryan, who I saw at one of those awesome Nerdist panels at Nerdmelt Comics. He listed off every spec he wrote when he was trying to catch a break in this business, and I believe it was something like 15 shows. Shawn Ryan, the guy who created “The Shield”… wrote that long list of specs just to get his first full-time staff job.

So pick a show you love and write a killer spec. Then write an awesome pilot. Then enter that spec in all the fellowships you can. Then write another pilot. And if your spec gets blown up in the season finale, so be it because you are already going to be planning your next one. And your next one. And your 15th… if that’s what it takes to get you that first job.

It took me 12.

And if there is some bleary-eyed typo I missed, please forgive this tired writer — because my new job on “The Mysteries of Laura” is awesome, and our kick-ass writers’ room has been pitching and breaking like madmen and madwomen and well, I need to go to bed.

Now go write! And good luck!

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I get asked by a lot of writers who are in or are alums of the two network writing programs I completed (CBS and NBC) and by writers I’ve met in other venues about how to prep for staffing season. So I figured I’d share a little bit of my process and put it out there for folks who might be interested.

First let me say, grain of salt and all that. I’ve been through staffing three times, once without representation where I was up for one job I didn’t get; once with representation where I got unbearably close to three jobs and didn’t get any of them; and the third go around where — success! My reps and I finally got to have that fabulous “You got the job!” phone call. So this is just what I do. Maybe a different strategy will work for you. Mostly my message is: prepare. You have to be an active participant in building your career.

Since I’m getting ready to hit the trenches again, here’s a little peek into how I look at staffing, and if it helps you, great, and if not, you can feel free to give me side-eye since I can’t see you doing it.

Be prepared and have your samples ready. Samples are what get you the meetings that get you the jobs. Have samples you love and be ready to talk about them. And always be adding to your body of work. My current group of samples is made up of pilots, specs, and short stories. You never know what might work to get you in the door.

And really evaluate what kinds of material you already have when you’re deciding what to write next. Do you have samples that will service the different types of shows you might want to work for? You don’t have to write everything. Most of us have a “type” when it comes to shows. But if you want to make female-lead dramas an option and all your samples are male leads, it’s time to travel a different road. Want to write a sci-fi show? Have a sci-fi sample. Give yourself as much of an opportunity as you can.

Be a partner to your representative(s). I am blessed with agency and management representation from people who totally get me. I don’t generally have to explain why I like a show or a script or why I think I’m a good fit. But sometimes a script speaks to me that’s a little outside my usual box, and I know that even though it might not be the most obvious show to try to pitch me to, I have something to offer them. So I make sure to list what samples I think I have in my portfolio that might work if that showrunner is looking for a staff writer and I explain why I think I could sell myself for that job. And while returning shows are always harder to get at that staff writer level, have a list of returning shows that you’re right for, too. You never know when an upper-level writer might leave to go make their own show and an opportunity opens up at the lower level.

Know everything you can about what’s going on. It seems obvious, but you’d be shocked how often I ask writers about pilots they’ve read or liked and they aren’t familiar with who wrote them or what network they’re at. Know your game board. Read every trade summary you can find on what scripts were bought where… some only cover network buys, some cover cable, Amazon, and Netflix, too. You have to know where your jobs are so you can go out and find them.

Strategize your pilot reads. Once you know whose scripts made the cut and are being shot, take a critical eye to the list. There will be writers there you admire, writers whose shows you’ve loved, writers you just heard from another friend were kind of awesome; there will be shows you know you could write in your sleep because they fit your brand to perfection; there will be shows you know you have a strong sample for. List those shows and start reading and don’t stop till you’ve finished that group of scripts. Then list your favorites, let your reps know that if you got to be choosy, this is the group of pilots you know you’d love to work on, and get them any supporting info you can (see be a partner to your reps). You may not get meetings on those shows, but every bit of information you give your reps on what you like and why you like it will help them market you better to all the shows they contact on your behalf.

Once you do that, read the rest of the pilots. There will always be some you know you’d likely never get a meeting for… it’s not your thing, no samples that match, etc. But if you go on a general at Fox, the exec might ask you about that sci-fi skewing pilot you didn’t read because you knew you’d never meet on it… and you don’t want to have to admit you didn’t read it or fumble through a vague general conversation. The more you can engage the people you meet with, the more you make an impression on them, and that will always come back to you in a good way, even if it’s a few staffing seasons down the pike.

Always, always be polite and gracious to everyone you meet, from the gate to the actual executive or showrunner you’re going to talk to. Again, seems obvious. But I know people at the upper level and in executive suites who tune out on writers who don’t say hello and good-bye to their assistants or who act a little jerky to the security guards. You might be working with these folks soon. Be someone they want to see again.

Always be prepping. If you hear you’re in the mix for Show A and you know the creator of Show A worked on three shows you’ve never watched at all, go watch a few episodes to get a feel for what they’ve done. Sure, maybe you don’t end up getting a meeting, but if you do, you aren’t scrambling to catch up on that person’s body of work while also trying to re-read the pilot and come up with notes on story ideas or questions you want to ask. Watching more TV will never hurt you as a writer. Trust me, if it could, I’d be in perpetual pain because the sheer volume of TV I watch… oy!

And watch at least one episode of any show an executive covers before you go meet with them. That’s what they do for a living and you want to respect their hard work as much as you want yours respected. Sure, maybe you can’t be an expert, but when they mention they also cover Shows X, Y, and Z, you can have something nice to say or have a “Wow, I saw that finale. Interesting way to leave things” comment at the ready. That may not be the show you’re there to meet on, but a genuine interest in what those folks in Current and Development do goes a long way.

Be happy for all your friends who do get jobs. We’re competitive beasts whether we like it or not. It’s hard to watch people get that thing you want so badly. Sometimes you will literally lose out on a job to someone you’ve traded scripts with for notes or had Sunday brunch with. But the way I’ve come to look at it, any job I don’t get is a job that wasn’t meant to be mine. Pollyannaish? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I mean, I’m writing a blog telling you folks how to go out and get jobs I might be up for! But too many people have helped me and given me advice for me to be unwilling to share myself.

So be happy for your friends, celebrate with them, and know that when you get your job, they’ll celebrate with you.

And finally… don’t give up. Two years ago, I didn’t get two jobs back to back right before Memorial Day weekend. It was soul crushing; I cannot lie. I gave myself a day to be miserable over it. Then I entered scripts in the Austin Film Festival to make myself feel better, like I was doing something to help my career. I made the finals with one of those scripts and ended up going to the festival and having a ton of fun. I also met some writers who have become friends. Making that cut was some much needed validation and it made my inner circle a little bit bigger.

Maybe that tactic won’t work for you, but whatever you need to do to pick yourself up when you don’t get the gig, do it. Have someone else help pick you up if need be! Because endurance wins this race. After I didn’t get those two gigs and another one a month later, I went to work on the pilot that did get me a job last season. And even though that show got canceled, I came out of it and went right back to writing.

That’s all you really have control over in the end. You keep writing, and you keep being sure the right job is going to come. And on the days you forget… ask someone to remind you. It helps, believe me!

Good luck!

I know, I know, I disappeared from the blog!  The overtime at work combined with the awesome-but-hectic Writers on the Verge schedule has kept me hopping, but I was determined to write some kind of entry before the year was out.

I’m not a resolution type of person.  I feel like I set goals all the time, and they don’t get bogged down with the implications of January 1st and a new year, so rather than think about what’s to come, I thought I’d take a minute and think about the five best things I did in 2011.  Some of them were fun, some were about hard choices, but all of them helped make this a huge year of change and growth for me that I am incredibly grateful for.

1.  Mother’s Day at the Greek

My mother isn’t really a concert person, but I felt a very strong urge to do something really memorable for Mother’s Day this year.  I was worried that when I proposed my great idea, she’d turn her nose up at the whole concept of coming to LA for a girls’ night out.  So imagine my surprise when she said yes… and not only agreed but was excited about the prospect.  So I scored us tickets to Wavefest at the Greek Theatre, which in a few short years of patronage has become my favorite LA concert venue.

We had our moments to be sure… she does not like having to walk anywhere, and it’s always a walk, even from the new unstacked parking, and she refused to stand still while I tried to find our way back to the car, leaving me terrified she’d fall in a hole along those terrible dirt patches and make me rush her to the hospital (both typical conflicts when Mama Levy and I are out together; that’s just how we roll).  But those little downs were nothing compared to the ups.  She thoroughly enjoyed the E Family, one of the main draws because we both love Sheila E.  And then she became an instant fan of Macy Gray, who is a phenomenal live performer.  It was a great night; well worth the effort it took to make happen; and a memory I know I’ll hold on to forever.

2.  Farewell Modesty Blaise

When I was 13 years old, my mother bought me my first Modesty Blaise book… “Last Day in Limbo.”  She bought it largely because she was tired of hearing me go on and on about some clearly important moment in my teenaged life and sent me off to find a book to read so she could enjoy her own trip to the bookstore, and since it was the only book I asked for, she couldn’t say no.  Neither of us knew that she was introducing me to my favorite fictional character of all time.  In the years since, I have hunted down both classic copies and new printings of every Modesty Blaise adventure and even have a collection of some of the comic strips.  But a few years ago, one of my best friends bought me the final collection of Modesty Blaise short stories, and while I tore through the majority of the book within a week or two, I left the final story unread, knowing that the end was really the end.

But this year, I was in this great groove of finishing things and moving on and letting go (more on that later,) and so I picked up “Cobra Trap” and finally… finally… read the last story.

It was a little heartbreaking to be sure, and I am incredibly sad there will be no new Modesty tales to come.  And yet I’m so grateful that Peter O’Donnell made the choice to end his character’s story in his own way and let her go.  Because one of the main reasons I’ve always loved the way he writes her is also the main reason I think no one has made a good adaptation in film or TV of the material… everyone else focuses on Modesty’s badassness–her criminal history, her physical strength, her ability with weaponry, her use of sex to get what she wants.  But O’Donnell always perfectly balanced all of those elements of Modesty with the very complete woman who survived a hellish childhood and emerged determined to live a full life.  She loves, deeply, built herself a family of treasured friends because the world had stolen away whatever biological connections she’d once had, and her later life, spent largely saving strangers and her loved ones from all kinds of nefarious characters, is rich and as often tinged with laughter and the ridiculous as it is shrouded in danger.

But now I know how Modesty’s story ends.  It suited her.  And thanks to the vivid books he left behind, Peter O’Donnell has made sure that just like Sir Gerald and Willie Garvin, I can always find her when I need her.

3.  Writing. Portfolio. Explosion.

Considering there have been years where I worked upwards of 65 hours a week, I used to feel pretty darn good about myself if I got one solid spec out in a year, let alone two.  So this year, thanks to the inspiration from the CBS Writers’ mentoring program and the demands of the NBC Writers on the Verge schedule, I got myself kicked into a new gear. (It didn’t hurt that my life just demanded I cut back on work hours and hover somewhere around a much more livable 48-hour-a-week range).  So I will exit 2011 with four specs and three pilots and two other pilots in stages of plotting and/or outlining.  And I can’t wait to see what my brain and keyboard conspire to come up with next.

4.  Balance, balance, and more balance

I was born with a workaholic gene, and while it has been of fabulous use to me during the years I was working my way through school or taking on a ton of responsibility that required a lot of sacrifice at my various jobs, it has tended to make it hard for me to just throw my hands up and say “yes, I want to do that” sometimes when my friends want to run out for a spur-of-the-moment happy hour or when a great opportunity for adventure appears out of nowhere.

This year, I made a promise to myself I’d do better; and I did.  I found enough Saturday evening dinners and Sunday morning brunches to stay in touch with my incredible friends, I got better at texting for the friends who love to communicate that way, I gave in and bought the last-minute tickets to see Idina Menzel (also at the Greek) for my birthday because I deserved it, and even if I had to cut down a workout from 60 minutes to 30 because of some other personal or work demand, I gave myself credit for doing the 30 minutes and stopped lamenting what there wasn’t time for.

Balance made some very hard days in 2011 much easier to endure because I had the reserves to get through them.  It made it easier to come to terms with letting my baking business go because my writing career is simply demanding too much of my attention (which is to be celebrated and enjoyed, believe me!).  And when a day was really bad… I let it be bad.  Because I knew the next day, I could take a deep breath and start all over again and maybe that day would be better.

I’m going try to do even better in 2012.  I sense some travel in my future… because in 2011, I also FINALLY got a passport.  Yeah, I have no clue how that never happened before, but now it’s time for some stamps!

5.  Embracing the New

This past year has brought so much new into my life… new demands, new people, new interests.  And I am welcoming it in and trusting that who and what are meant to stick will and that everyone and everything else will provide the lesson meant to be learned and then become a part of my past.

If you know me, you know that’s kind of revolutionary in my way of thinking.  Because new isn’t always my favorite thing.  But this influx of energy and experiences has been so important to me this year, giving me chances to be there for others, to find out how can I payback some of the kindness that’s been given to me, to enjoy the strength of some new shoulders to lean on when I need them, and to broaden my universe through the relationships that have come my way.

 

There’s a promise of a lot new to come in 2012… beloved nephews who are now old enough to drive, a niece who owns a wedding dress and is eyeing a “Mrs” at the front of her name, and another staffing season looms.  So thanks, 2011, for all that you brought to the party.

2012… what you got for me?

 

Once, an acquaintance of mine overheard me telling someone a story about my favorite football coach.  When I was finished, she asked, “how exactly does someone end up with a favorite coach?”

I explained to her that football is one of the true deep loves of my life, and that while I admired many players and had a few beloved teams, yes, I did have a favorite coach because he’d not only changed the way I looked at the game, he’d changed the way I look at my life as a person and as a writer.

Tony Dungy is a man who lives in faith, and I respect him immensely for it even if my own relationship with it can best be described as “rocky” and “under construction.”  But he’s one of those people who walks the talk that comes out of his mouth, and as such, he coached both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts in the manner in which he lived… quietly, thoughtfully, earning respect by giving it, and by instilling a sense of discipline in those around him.

He didn’t scream at people to get them to do what he wanted, he didn’t curse at officials or badmouth management, even when he had good reason.  In fact, there were times I kind of wanted to see him lose it, but just when you’d think Coach was finally going to lay into a player who was putting self ahead of team — one of the biggest sins you can commit in Dungy football — he’d just get this look of utter disappointment on his face.

And his players would tell us in interview after interview… disappointing Coach Dungy was the one thing you never wanted to do.  I remember one player saying he begged coach to yell at him after getting into some off-field trouble, but that calm voice remained steady, and the player said he’d never felt worse in his life.

I’ve often posted on Facebook after an episode of “Friday Night Lights” where fictional coach Eric Taylor was especially awesome that every kid should have a Coach Taylor.

Every kid should have a Coach Dungy, too.

Coach had lost his job in Tampa for not having the killer instinct, but found a job in Indy because Jim Irsay wanted a man to lead the Colts on and off the field, and he more than got his money’s worth.  And still those rumblings began again, because every year it seemed the Colts just had to finally be ready to win it all and then every year, they came up short.  So there it was… Dungy will never get them to the Super Bowl… Dungy’s too conservative… too nice.  Dungy doesn’t have the killer instinct…

Then the world reminded us there were more important things than trophies and win-loss columns.

When James Dungy took his own life at 18, Colts fans mourned with the Dungy family as best we could, but we all knew that they were facing a tragedy we couldn’t even begin to imagine.  And yet there Coach stood, delivering a eulogy for his son that celebrated the gift of the 18 years they’d received with James, and somehow lifting up everyone around him on what was surely one of the most difficult days of his life.

And then Coach went back to work, and the Colts didn’t make it to the Super Bowl.  In years past, that would’ve left me cussing out my television and hating on whoever had beaten them, wishing them defeat at someone’s hands so they could get what they had coming.  But in January of 2006, when the Colts went home, it felt like a relief… Coach could be with his family, the players had time to grieve the kid they’d known so well, and we could all just take a moment to hope that everyone left behind who had loved James would be okay.

The next year, Coach Dungy returned to his team, and the Colts returned to the playoffs.  But there was no week off in the 2006-2007 playoffs, no dominance that screamed the Colts were a shoe-in for the AFC title game.  First there was a wild card game against Kansas City; then the Baltimore Ravens, who routinely made it their life’s work to beat Peyton Manning to a pulp, but somehow… a win; and then… the New England Patriots, who lived to destroy the Colts’ playoff dreams.

The Colts were behind the majority of the game, and I couldn’t imagine that the team and the fans had come this far to not make it to the promised land once again.  My heart ached a little at the thought of watching Coach Dungy have to shake hands from the losing sideline again… not after he’d come back, not after what his family had sacrificed for him to have another shot at the big game.  And then one of my closest friends, who is also a huge football fanatic, said to me, “Just have a little faith.  You know they can do it.”

So I had a little faith… and just said over and over again, “they can do it.”

And they did.

Now I’m not trying to take any credit for that… no magical thinking here.  What was more important was the reminder from my friend.  The Colts had done everything the way they believed was right for them… they had followed Coach Dungy’s lead, held firm to their philosophy of how to win, and they had earned that win with every second of hard work they’d put in all year… in all the years since Dungy had come to Indy… through that final whistle.

Their belief was rewarded even bigger on February 4, 2007, when the Colts took home the Lombardi trophy and made Tony Dungy a Super Bowl winning coach.

And what in the world, you ask, does all this have to do with me, my life, or writing?  Well, it has to do with what I learned by watching Coach Dungy walk through his coaching life back from his assistant days with the Minnesota Vikings, which is where I first became acquainted with his coaching philosophy.  You don’t have to be the loudest, you don’t have to ignore everything else in your life except the job, you don’t have to listen when people tell you that you have to change who you are to get where you want to go if you’re sure who you are is the best person you can be.  You can instead keep working and moving forward and doing what you believe in your soul to be right.  And even if it takes a little longer… it will still get you to where you wanted to be all along.

This last year of my life has been filled with more excitement and optimism and more stress and disappointment than any year I’ve lived so far.  I like to think of it as the featured roller coaster in “Niceole Land,” and the ride is poised to continue.

But when it starts to feel like… well, like the downs are little more frequent than the ups… I think about Coach Dungy and how he got to where he wanted to be by doing the things he believed in his soul to be right.

It might take a little longer… but I’ll get there.  And I’ll still be me when it happens.

If you want to read something both entertaining and full of inspiration, pick up “Quiet Strength” by Tony Dungy.