The Trouble With Specs

Charlie Chaplin supposedly once entered a  Chaplin look-alike contest—and lost. Badly. Maybe he had a cold that day…

Last weekend I shared a coffee with my friend Jeff Paul, another L.A. writer. When conversation turned to current projects, I mentioned I had put aside my pilots to work on a spec. I’d stopped writing specs two years ago, thinking that fresh material was paramount for today’s market. Hell, I’d also just rather write my own stories than fit a chapter into someone else’s. Y’know? Nevertheless, 2018 is fast approaching, and that means another year of fellowships and contests that all rely on a solid spec. So, Why not? An opportunity is an opportunity. Jeff sipped his coffee with a nod. “Specs are certainly easier to write than pilots,” he said. I agreed.

Oh how we eat our words.

Yes, with a spec you know your format. You know your characters. You know your locations, and your commercial breaks, and your recurring jokes, and, yes, you have the benefit of established through-lines and backstory. So how can a spec possibly be as hard a pilot?

A spec needs to both fit a mold and stand out—a fine line that can leave you second-guessing yourself into circles. Is it okay to deviate ever-so-slightly from your show’s tone so you can include your brilliant, Emmy-worthy ending? Or do you play it safe with something 100% form-fitting, yet uninspired? Ideally you can manage both, but even the writer’s room gets the benefit of staff meetings and script notes to to help meet the visions of Marta Kauffman, David Milch, Vince Gilligan, Ann Biderman… But you’re writing for the intern staffer at Nickelodeon; the producer you met at Starbucks; to anyone and everyone who says, “Sure, I’ll take a look.” What are they looking for? You get one chance to get it right, and you better be more right than everyone else. Good luck.

Because for all you do know (characters, storylines, act breaks…), what you don’t know is your audience. Are they familiar with every detail of The Good Place, or have they just caught an episode here and there? Are they exhausted with Better Call Saul scripts, or is yours a breath of fresh air? Will they recognize that your on-the-nose dialogue and info-dump-exposition perfectly match your show? Or will they just see on-the-nose dialogue and info-dump exposition?

Despite what everyone else says, I would argue that a spec’s job isn’t to perfectly match the show—it’s to earn you the gig. Others may say that the former leads to the latter, but even Charlie Chaplin can lose his own look-alike contest, and let’s not forget that we’re trying to impress the same brilliant minds who couldn’t decide how they felt about Chuck Ross’s “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” I’m not saying I’ll set a Cheers episode outside of the bar or try for a Law and Order without law and order, but I will tweak my show’s structure to highlight my writing strengths. Then again, my specs haven’t gotten me anywhere, so what do I know. But when the notes come back saying “The writer displays little understanding of theme,” you don’t get to rebut: “When has Game of Thrones ever been about theme!” Ultimately, it’s a crap shoot, and one with zero room for error. That’s the hard part. So how do you deal?

I think you’ve gotta make the hard decisions, write your show, accept the outcome, and move on. Win or no win, you’ll build your portfolio, and learn from the process.

If 2018 isn’t your year, 2019 is just around the corner.

This Was A Good Summer

I’m trying to get more pictures and videos added to this blog. Make it sparkly. I probably need to switch over to a .org at some point—my understanding is that WP.orgs give you way more options in customizing your site—but that will have to wait. I do not have the moneys.

In the meantime, I can still post this goodie. This is a compilation of my time on The Nina a few years ago, crewing the Mississippi River. After I left the crew, I edited all my footage together on imovie. I think I’ll add a section to this site of all my grand adventures, and make this the crown jewel.

Captain Morgan, who built The Nina, passed away a few weeks ago. Let this post be in his memory.

Who Am I?

This blog was never supposed to be about screenwriting.

Well, maybe a bit. Because I write screenplays. But when I first created, my goal was to write wandering David Perlis thoughts, and post David Perlis photos, and talk about David Perlis art and ideas and experiences.

Instead, it somehow turned into a full-force commentary on dramatic structure in screenplays. And I think that explains to a great extent my anxieties and self-doubt and overall directionless feeling these days. By the way, I’ve been filled with anxiety and self-doubt and directionless these days.

Somewhere along the way, I decided I was going to be a screenwriter. Beyond that, I started defining myself as a screenwriter. What do you do? I’m a screenwriter. What do you do for fun? I write screenplays. Wanna go to a concert this weekend? Can’t, working on a screenplay. This blog seems to be pretty good evidence of how singly I started viewing myself.

So it’s no wonder I’m feeling lost and down all the time. I’ve defined myself as something that has hardly panned out at all. No work. No pay. No WGA card. I don’t really understand dramatic structure (I don’t believe anyone who says they do), and what’s more—my enthusiasm for writing has waned considerably! I mean, I love it yes, but these days I’m far more likely to stress over a scene doesn’t work than celebrate those that do. And if these things have just become a symbol of myself, then it’s no goddamn wonder that I’m in such a rickety place.

I’ll be thirty in a few months. The twenties are a great time to explore paths and opportunities and fail…but thirty! Those who are older than I are sure to say, “Pah! You never stop learning or failing or trying new paths!” Thanks guys. But I’d still like to get some stuff figured out. Lemme tell ya, when you leave a comfortable job with wonderful people making decent money with benefits to move to Los Angeles and live out of your car eating green beans from a can for six months, you kinda question if you made the good choice.

I wonder if this whole idea of defining yourself by your job is an “American” thing. Isn’t there some old saying about American’s live to work, and everyone else works to live? Is that the problem? Anyway, I’m going to stop saying I’m a screenwriter, because the first person I need to convince is myself. That’s a literal statement. I have convinced myself I’m on a track that is my only track. I’m going to start with this blog. I’m going to post my nightly musings, and talk about my swing dance classes, and rage against the political madness going on right now. I’ll post essays and paintings, and I’ll remind myself that I like doing lots of things.

I’m not going to stop screenwriting—in fact, as soon as I hit publish on this post, I’m going to open up Final Draft and work on another project that I’ve got cooking. But it’s got to be for me. Even as I write this, I know I haven’t convinced myself of a word I’ve said, but it will be here, just a click away, for me to come back to and read if I need a reminder. Maybe you all need reminders, too.

I’m going to hit publish now. I haven’t looked back over this posting at all to revise or edit. That makes me cringe. But it’s time to let go and get on with things. So let’s get on with it.