Wednesday, October 8, 2008

When your spec becomes obsolete

Erin writes: Early in the summer I wrote a spec for THE OFFICE (I know...overdone, it was my first). I put a lot of time and effort into it and was really proud of the result. I heard a few days ago that the season premier was essentially based on the same premise as the spec I wrote. So...gone from the portfolio. Have you ever experienced this? Do you think it would work to re-tool some of the meat of the episode into another episode or format?

This sucks! It did happen a little bit with my FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS spec - not so much that they did exactly what I did, but the show evolved so much that my episode was way in the past. It's also even more frustrating if the show you spec gets cancelled! (Farewell, Seth Cohen.) That's why you should try to spec popular shows, but when they're in seasons 2 or 3, if at all possible.

For your problem, I think it really depends on two things: how closely your ep resembles the real one, and how much work it is going to take to re-tool it. If you feel like the plot is SO close that you need to throw it all out, and/or it's close to the same amount of work as writing a new spec, I would say you should just move on and write a totally fresh one. Maybe keep a couple jokes, but create a new plot. But small similarities are okay. In fact, you might feel redeemed knowing that your thoughts were right on track with how the show's actual writers think! And remember that agents and execs don't have time to watch every single episode - so there is a chance they might not see the one that resembles yours. But if it's an identical really big plot point in a serial, or if it's an identical case in a procedural, I'd be wary.

I think an important thing to remember is that you should ALWAYS be working on something. Specs WILL become obsolete no matter what. Honestly, I have been hearing PILOTS PILOTS PILOTS from everybody. They show off your voice a lot more than specs do. If it's your first script ever, write a spec. Pilots are way harder. But if you've already got a spec or two, go for a pilot. Especially since the fellowships and workshops that require specs have deadlines starting in the summer, any spec you write now will probably be obsolete then. I'd advise writing a pilot now, and then starting a spec in the spring.

Also, don't think your obsolete spec needs necessarily to be "gone from the portfolio." If someone reads your work and likes it, s/he will undoubtedly say, "what else you got?" I know of a writer who was asked this question 4 or times, and then was hired off her obsolete THE PRACTICE spec, which was the 5th script she handed over. It's not okay to have an obsolete spec be your first sample. But your 5th? Sure.

And lastly, think of it all as practice. Nobody's first script is mind-blowing. Okay, maybe yours is, and I hate you. But you will learn a lot and grow as a writer with every script you write - so keep going. I also like to remind myself this: If you wrote funny stuff before, you'll write funny stuff again. Same goes with good stuff. Don't be afraid of starting fresh if that's what you have to do.

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JimCripps said...

Sounds like solid advice.

What I hate is being psychic, writing stories that eventually (say, ten years or so) come out in print or on t.v., without ever letting said stories see the light of day.

(Eh, what a stupid comment I made.)

Josh K-sky said...

I've written a Friday Night Lights set after the cut-short end of Season 2. Having watched Episode 1 of Season 3, it's pretty clear that it takes place before the beginning of that Season. Events have moved on, but it's not contradicted--it could easily fit in the continuity. In your opinion, safe to keep? Especially because relatively fewer people will have seen the new season on Direct TV?

Amanda said...

safe to "keep?" of course. now write something else. :)

Greg M said...

Interesting. I found specs *much* harder than pilots--I abandoned several specs back before I wrote the one for "Reaper," and I still feel like two of my pilots are stronger than the "Reaper."

(I co-wrote a "Lost" spec script a year ago with a friend which was promptly made obsolete by the season 4 premiere; of course, due to the co-writing, it's not all that usable anyway.)

Of course, I've also written a number of plays, so maybe that has something to do with it...

Erin said...

Thanks so much, Amanda. This is really good advice. Always be writing simple, but so important to remember.