Seven Itchy Years (my writing thus far…)
“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” –Richard Bach
They say it takes an average of about seven years to become a writer. If that’s true, the good news is that I’m about due. The bad news is that at no point during those (almost) seven years have I felt the tiniest bit patient about it. And a thought troubles me. If it takes an AVERAGE of seven years to become a writer, it must take some people more. Here’s hoping I’m average.
I had the good fortune/foresight to put together a sketch comedy troupe back in 1999, and we played together for nearly five years. It was the kind of experience you don’t want to repeat and yet you are infinitely happy to have gone through. (Like circumcision.) Want to know if your writing is robust? Stand on stage and try to get laughs with it. Live. You will learn to make your dialogue sharp and vigorous. And short. Do this with several other people, all with different styles, and you’ve got yourself free grad school.
But things change, and when they did so for me, I spent the customary time asking myself what I was doing and where I wanted it to take me. I had collaborated on a couple of screenplays–the ones you have to write in order to teach yourself how it’s done, the ones that are a bit too autobiographical–and dabbled in musical theater. And of course by then I had created plenty of sketches.
I decided that the collaboration part of creating comedy was a big part of what I enjoy. Professionally, collaboration means television. And television means moving to L.A. That meant it was to leave my drama teaching position for something a easier to leave at work each day. My evenings needed to be about me and my writing. What’s the next logical job for a drama teacher? Why, electrical systems test engineer at Boeing, of course. But I made the move, and now I could prepare my writing samples while saving up some money to make the big leap.
So I did the research and discovered how the first thing you are supposed to do if you want to write for television is create a spec script. A spec is a writing sample you create that takes the shape of a hypothetical episode of an existing show. The idea is to show a potential employer that you can write in that show’s voice.
Conventional wisdom says that you shouldn’t do a sample of a show you’d like to work on, but rather of one that is similar. If you want to write for CSI, spec a Law and Order. If you really want to write for The Simpsons, spec a Family Guy. The idea here is that no producer is ever going to believe you did a good job capturing the voice of THEIR show. After all, that’s their baby, and you couldn’t possibly do a good enough job caring for their baby. You instead want this producer reading how you handled some OTHER show, one not so near-and-dear.
Personally, I think you should pick whatever show you want, and give little concern to who may or may not read your script down the road. Breaking into TV writing as a newbie with no connections is so ridiculously hard, exactly which show you wrote is the last of your worries. The odds that your first opportunity will be on your target show are tiny. Plus, you probably need to win over a manager or agent first, anyway. They’ll read whatever you’ve got.
As for me, I went with Scrubs. In retrospect, that was a good choice in that has a particularly unique voice, and also because it jibes with my own sense of humor. If there was a downside, it was the fact that Scrubs hasn’t traditionally had the highest ratings. I have run into a fair number of people who can’t appreciate my spec because they don’t know the show. Aim for something people know.
Scrubs spec in hand I was ready. Oh, wait. Not yet. Some seminar or book or web page meanwhile told me not to contact anyone until you have a second spec. The logic here is that your first spec might have been a fluke, so you want a back-up. Plus, you can show off your ability to do shows with varying styles. I opted to create a South Park.
Two scripts finally ready, I packed as many possessions as I could into my crappy 1990 Toyota Celica and made the trip.
Time to query agents and managers. I had a decent number of responses from that first round. My sketch background, some awards, and carefullly prepared loglines made me look decent.
However, I learned, the industry had changed. That’s not how it’s done any more, I heard. Where once people wanted spec scripts showing ability to write in other people’s style, now the goal was writers who had a strong original writing sample. Like a play or a movie or a pilot script for a new series. Once the advice was that you should never write a pilot, because only seasoned professional writers would ever have the chance to pitch one. Now it’s the vogue writing sample. (Note that you should still not have any delusions of pitching it. It’s just a sample.) The idea is that in this way, showrunners can see what original ideas a writer brings to a project. Somehow this trend has to do with reality TV and the shrinking number of sitcoms on the air. I don’t understand how.
Anyway… Time to write something new. So I generated an original sitcom pilot called Fat Guy, Hot Wife. I sent out another round of query letters, and this time heard almost nothing. Sigh.
I’ve given up, in all honesty, trying to follow any particular strategy. Now I just try to write as much as possible and meet as many people as possible, and I hope that someday one of those people will like one of those writings. Hopefully sooner than seven years from now.