[The blog is on the road this week. Herewith: a re-run of one of the best-received posts, “Specking It.” Back next week!]
I moved from New York to Hollywood in the mid-eighties. This was the era of the “spec script”–a concept that has been of great use to me on many fronts beyond screenwriting. It might help you too.
An endangered species
Today the spec script is beyond endangered; it’s just about extinct. Tinseltown’s bread and butter for most the past decade has been the pre-branded, franchiseable blockbuster–Spiderman, Iron Man, Transformers. I can understand that. It costs so much in today’s environment to make, market and advertise a feature film (and a flop can be so catastrophic), it’s no wonder that the studios want to rein-in the downside as much as they can. But in those heady days of the ’80s, when spec writers were stars in their own right and Variety seemed full of stories of Joe Eszterhas and Shane Black pulling off yet another million-dollar score, the town was frothing with screenwriters working “high concepts” and hoping to “pop an original.” I know; I’ve still got a closetful.
What is a spec script anyway?
A spec script is a screenplay written entirely on speculation. Without a deal. Without an advance. The writer nuts up and goes for it. He bangs out the whole thing on the come. Like a developer builds a spec house. All or nothing. Sell it and make a killing or crash and burn.
There’s a halfway version of specking called pitching. In a pitch, you don’t actually write the script. You pitch it verbally to a financing source–a studio, a producer, or a director or actor’s development company–hoping to get enough of an advance to pay the rent till you write the damn thing. Pitching was and is an art form. Some guys can pitch like Sandy Koufax but can’t deliver the actual product; other writers are sensational on the page but freeze up in meetings.
The real specker doesn’t even do meetings. She just writes it. This is tremendously healthy and honorable. Here’s why:
The joys of specking
First, specking takes cojones. It requires balls and it builds balls. What the writer is doing (and this goes for any artist or entrepreneur who takes a flyer on anything) is betting on herself and her talent. The Muse loves that. Nothing is more wholesome for the writing soul or for the big writing muscles.
Second, specking teaches resourcefulness. Because you’re not partnered with any entity with the right to a say-so, you have to make all the creative decisions yourself. What’s the theme? What’s the inciting incident? How do we get out of Act Two? This is tremendously liberating and empowering.
Third, specking is fun. Few of us, unless we’re rich or marvelously resourceful, get to envision our own movie and then go out and shoot it. But specking a screenplay is the next best thing. Because when you’re writing that movie, you’re directing it and scoring it and casting it too. You get to make the exact movie that’s in your head–even if your head is the only place it ever gets screened.
Lastly, if you sell a speck, you get a payday. Maybe only a modest one–but a jackpot is a jackpot. You get to validate yourself within the purest form of meritocracy: what Stephen Colbert would call the verdict of the marketplace. But, satire aside, a score in the hardball world is tremendously heartening for us writers, artists and entrepreneurs who have toiled for years on a diet of rejection, isolation and disappointment. As Ruth Gordon, who was 72 at the time, said when she won her Oscar for Rosemary’s Baby: “This is very encouragin’.”
So hats off to spec writers and artists and to anybody who’s crazy enough and gutsy enough to put their money on themselves and roll the dice. You may be deluded. You may wind up in a pool of blood by the side of the road. But no one can take this away from you: you did one of the hardest and bravest things that any entity capable of consciousness can do. You leapt from the known to the unknown–deliberately, boldly, and in full cognizance of the risk. I salute you.
Writing Wednesdays are my favorite Google Reader time of the week. 🙂
Like you mentioned, writing a spec script is very similar to being an entrepreneur. Even with market research you never really know if the product you release will be successful.
There is a possibility we will fail in whatever we set out to do. But it’s a given that we will regret not doing it if we give in to Resistance. We can’t Resistance, win!
Thanks for writing this blog Steven.
That is “We can’t let Resistance win!” (oops!)
Several years ago I decided to write a script on spec. It was a crazy idea, since I had never done much writing of any kind, and had no contacts in Hollywood. But I went out and purchased a word processor and a couple of screenwriting books anyway.
To my amazement, I finished it! Then came the sad realization that it would never sell. But I submitted it to writing contest and made the finals. It wasn’t a bad screenplay. But what was the point? Even if it had been great, I wouldn’t have been able to sell it. But the experience of writing that screenplay gave me the confidence to try writing a novel—eventually, some years later.
In 2006, I created a website and began to write a serial mystery novel. All I had was the first couple of scenes. Yet I promised the world I was going to deliver a novel. Crazy. But I finished it. And I got great comments from my readers. So, I wrote two more novels and two novellas that same way.
My new book will not be posted as a serial. So the pressure is off—which is not necessarily a good thing. I probably should have been writing a chapter instead of posting this comment. Resistance. Guess I’d better go back and re-read The War of Art. 🙂
Thanks so much for Writing Wednesdays!
You are so right on about this.
For us freelancers who spend our days writing, designing, shooting, illustrating other people’s stuff, having a spec project on the side lifts the soul. Could turn a buck, too.
My son sent me a link to your site today and this article was the first I read. I make my living from what I publish on the web and have been struggling for years with what to say when people ask “So, what do you do?” Building websites isn’t really the right answer although I do that. I make money from Google and Ebay is to technical.
I think I am a Spec Publisher may finally get the message across; at least to folks who know what a spec builder is.
Enjoy your blog. Love your War of Art book. Thank you for your efforts.
May the Muse be with you.
Very inspiring. Thanks Steve.
Maybe Specking It is the writer’s equivalent to sliding out as far as possible on the limb. It either gives away or catapults to higher heights. An uncomfortably exposed place to be. But I agree that it is there great work can be produced. Outside the comfort zone. Something to strive for.
Thank you for writing this piece. It has inspired me to slide out a bit further along the limb, and leap further out into the unknown.
ditto: “This is very encouragin’ ” xxx
Hi Steven – presumably it’s similar to practice: ie you write one poem, and then another and another .. similarly with articles, posts etc .. you improve: yes a book may take some time longer, but you could start with chapter by chapter, or outline – expand – add ‘meat’ .. etc
Thank you – Hilary Melton-Butc her
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories
Thank You Steven. I keep a copy of every Writing Wednesday cause I love them. I realise I am a Speck Songwriter, put my head on the line with every song I write…..You have to love it otherwise you wouldn’t do it.
Thank You Thank You Thank You Steven……Your re-runs are a good reminder. 🙂