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!

Advertisements