Saturday, September 27, 2008

When to Quit

No, I'm not thinking about quitting writing. Writing is my nature, and it's what I do best. If I stopped doing that, then... well that would be depressing.

Instead, my question revolves around specific scripts. When do you give up if it's going nowhere? And what does it mean if you give up? Does it mean you aren't a good writer?

I've been writing my Dexter spec for almost 6 months now, writing and re-writing the plot points. That is about 2-3 times too long. You should be able to conceive, plot and write a TV spec in 2 months (though I think 3 months is OK if you have a full-time job). And I hadn't even started writing the script. So I decided yesterday, painfully because I've put so much time and energy into it, that I'm giving up my Dexter spec. I knew that Dexter would be a tough nut to crack, as it's one of the most complex shows on TV, but it's one of my favourites and so I gave it a shot. I came up with storyline after storyline, but very few of them really spoke to me. So I re-wrote and re-wrote, and eventually I think I got sick of it, which made me neglect my writing. If this were a film script, I'd put it to the side, turn to another script and come back when I felt refreshed, but this is a TV spec that is already approaching the expiration point, as the 3rd season begins tomorrow.

Now, it's also been difficult for me to let this script go because a point of a spec script is supposed to be that you are showing that you can write anything. If you're hired on to freelance for a show then you can't just *not* write it. But perhaps that is the point: I'm still learning. Maybe I should have done Dexter as my 3rd or 4th spec; maybe it was too much to bite off right now. I'd only written a Heroes spec before, and that is a much simpler show on many levels: plot, dialogue, structure, morality. While I feel shame for admitting this, I realize that when you're hired on a series you break story with the room, and then write the script around that predetermined story. This is another reason I think that 3 months for a spec is more fair than the 2 month limit. So what I need is a show that is more basic, at least in structure (part of the problem with Dexter is I had a lot of trouble figuring out the acts, and I found out later that the writers practically ignore acts). So for my next attempt, instead of doing a Mad Men, perhaps it would be better to write a Terminator: SCC spec.

But before I begin another spec, I need to create something. I can't go this long without writing a script, so I'm going to write a horror/comedy short that I've had percolating in my head for a while. A short script will give me some much needed creative release, but also will add another completed work under my belt. Never underestimate a sense of accomplishment!

Update: Saw the 3rd season Dexter premiere, and my spec would have been completely useless now, because my B plot was introduced at the end of the episode! At least it means my ideas are spot on...


wcdixon said...

Kewl stuff.

The last spec I wrote took 22 days from concept to completed ready to read draft. I was working up here in Canada but had interest from an LA agent and was considering moving there...but she wanted a current US show spec first before she signed me. It was an 'Angel', a show I'd been watching but was only halfway through the first season so it was still finding its legs. It was a grind but a fun write...and she signed me immediately, and it got me meetings, so it had to be okay.

Maybe a little more relatable story....first freelance writing hire i got was 'Are You Afraid of the Dark?' (actually it was 'Top Cops' but i knew the showrunner there so doesn't really Yes it was only a half hour, but from pitch to delivering a decent second draft (that they could prep) ended up being five weeks because the network moved my episode up from number 11 to number 1 after seeing the outline and thinking it would be good to kick off season.

What's my point...? Newbie writers spend too much time trying to craft the perfect spec. A half hour in 5 weeks...a decent one hour spec in around 3 weeks... WHILE working fulltime in both cases. Pound them out I say. Pound them out.

Sorry for rambling on.

Trevor said...

wow, that's even shorter than I thought! well that tells me that I did the right thing. although, did you mean a 1-hour in 5 and half in 3 weeks?

how long do you think it should take a person to come up with a spec pilot though, from pitch to 2nd draft?

I remember Are you Afraid of the Dark - I loved that show. That and Ghostwriter (which I think Jane Espenson wrote on).

wcdixon said...

No, I meant one hour in 3 weeks (when I'd already been writing a while), and a half hour in 5 weeks (but was way back when and one of my first writing gigs...a newbie more or less).

How long 'should' an original spec pilot take? As long as it takes I guess... there's no right answer really --- i suppose the point is that in tv you have to work/write fast, so you aren't doing yourself any favours in the long term if you take a year to write script, because you'll never get a year to work on the next one if it goes to production.

I'd say give yourself 2 months max.