Letters from America: How to Write for Television

originally sent 14 Feb 2004

Well, the first script is finished, so I thought I’d update everyone on what I’ve discovered about how the TV & Film business works in LA.

Over here they just call it “The Industry”.

I’m concentrating on TV, so I need a minimum of two spec scripts for current TV series, preferably three. My completed spec is for a show called “The Dead Zone”, based on the Stephen King novel.

Spec stands for speculative – no-one’s going to pay me for these, they’re simply a sample of my writing ability. Proof that I can string words together in an effective and entertaining way. I need as many scripts as possible to show my range.

You never send a spec script to the show it’s for. There are a couple of reasons for this.

1) The showrunner and writing staff know their own show inside out. They’re more likely to pick up on any minor inconsistencies in plotting or characterisation.
2) Mostly, they’re not allowed to.

Let me expand on 2) for a moment. America’s quite a litigious place. Let’s say that I’ve sent in a script to someone and they reject it because it’s written on toilet paper in crayon, doesn’t feature any of the main characters, and is a crossover with EastEnders. Later on another writer sends in a script with a similar plot (but without the rubbish bits). This one, they make. If I then sue the company saying “They stole my idea!”, they’ve got – at the least – an expensive court action.

So no-one reads scripts for their own shows that aren’t pre-vetted by an agent (which proves at least that the writer is a professional) in order to prevent the litigation question ever arising.

What you do is this: you write your spec scripts, then send them to other shows in the same genre. So my “Enterprise” spec can be sent to the producers of “Battlestar Galactica” or “Stargate”. But not to “Enterprise”.

Once I have several spec scripts, I can start sending them out to various shows.

*If* they like the writing, then I’ll be invited to pitch them ideas for stories that I think would make good episodes for their show.
*If* they like a story idea (and they don’t already have a similar show in the works), then I’ll get commissioned to write a story outline.
*If* they like the story outline then I get a chance to write a script for the show (also for money).
*If* they like the script, and they like me, I may be offered a job on the show.
*If* they have the cash. And all the writers’ slots for the year haven’t already been filled.

That’s a lot of ifs.

Staffing season here runs from March to June. Which is quite handy, because that’s when my money runs out.

So I need to get another two scripts done by the end of March, at which point I start marketing the hell out of myself to shows I want to write for.

So it’s still a journey of a thousand miles. But I’ve taken the first step.

5 Replies to “Letters from America: How to Write for Television”

  1. Good advice there. I currently have spec scripts being looked over. It’s not a quick process is it?

    It’s good news for my local hardware store though as I have now bought their entire supply of tenterhooks.

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