One Can Only Speculate
There is an old vaudeville era joke, about a man who tries to sell an axe. It's a very special axe, he explains to his prospective buyer, because this is the very axe that George Washington used to chop down the cherry tree.
"Of course," continues the seller, "it's had three new heads and four new handles, since then."
This joke came to mind while mulling one of my impossible screenwriting dreams: to sell, and have produced, the first screenplay I ever wrote.
That screenplay, written on speculation, has undergone many more changes, over the years, than the famous George Washington axe that huckster tried to sell. In fact, in many respects, it barely resembles its original incarnation.
One of the more positive roads which have been opened by the internet is that of enabling novelists to self-publish, market and sell their work. Were that not the case, my own book might never have seen the light of day.
While screenwriters also enjoy the advantages of internet marketing, allowing us to reach more prospective buyers much more readily than in the past, it falls short, in that we still must rely on agents, producers and studios to make a sale, just like in the old days.
And, just like in the old days, the most valuable tool at our fingertips is the "spec" script. In order to be noticed, we must write. In order to have our work produced, we must write well. After that, persistence, luck and timing determine our fate.
While the underlying dread of spending weeks, months or even years on an effort that may never be seen by more than a handful of people can dampen a screenwriter's motivation, the added benefits cannot be overlooked. Only by writing continuously can we improve. So, if our spec script's ultimate fate is to sit on a shelf and gather dust, it doesn't mean it was all for naught. It means our next script will be better, and the one after that better still. Practice does, indeed, make perfect. Beyond that, there also comes a sense of achievement, a growing confidence in one's ability and an increasing comfort in mastering a challenging writing form.
So, maybe it isn't George Washington's axe, but after three new heads and four new handles, it's probably a better axe than it was to begin with.
Today's excerpt from "The Blue Collar Screenwriter and The Elements of Screenplay" takes a further look at the screenwriter's best friend: The "spec" script.
The “Spec” Script
The term "spec script" means you're writing it on speculation, and that means, you'll spend a lot of time and energy doing work with no promise of any reward at the end, aside from personal satisfaction. Maybe, it'll sell, maybe it won't. Maybe, it'll serve as a great writing sample that will lead you to a paid assignment. Maybe it won't.
I can tell you what it will do. It will make you a better writer.
Every script you put behind you provides an education, whether or not it ever gets produced. A half-dozen spec scripts that go nowhere can be just what you need to take your talent to a level that finally gets your great American screenplay on the screen.
If what you want to be is a professional screenwriter, you must remain diligent; constantly married to your keyboard, constantly churning out new work. It takes commitment.
The great satirist Art Buchwald once told the story of a man who wanted so much to win the lottery, he prayed every night for it. Each evening before bed, he would fall to his knees and beg God to "Please, let me win the lottery!" Finally, after months of this, he was in the midst of his ritual prayer, when he suddenly heard a big, booming voice from out of the heavens:
"Give me a break! Buy a ticket!"
The hapless fellow in Art Buchwald's story discovered that God himself couldn't determine his fate. Winning the lottery requires an investment. In that case, it's only a buck. In your case, it's time, effort, commitment, dedication, brain-drain and sweat equity. And, a little talent doesn't hurt.
Unfortunately, some aspiring writers see their first spec screenplay in a "lottery ticket" light.
"I'll dash out a great story," they imagine, "submit it to the market and wait for fate to sweep me up in its arms and propel me to fame and fortune!"
Okay, anything is possible. Maybe, they'll write that script, land a major agent from ICM who will get it directly to the green-light guy at a big studio, make a quick sale, deposit a huge paycheck and revel in glory on opening night as Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep bring it to life on the big screen, (probably in 3-D) amid whispers of Oscar nominations. Maybe, it will happen that way for them.
Or, maybe they'll win the lottery.
If you submit your spec script to an agent, and he likes your work, one of his first questions to you will be "Do you have more?" Maybe, it took you a year or two to get that first hot script sharpened to perfection. It can't take you a year or two to write the next one, but it has to be at least as good.
As you may have gathered from this excerpt, our spec script is only the first step in a screenwriting career which encompasses a varied and complex set of requirements. Writing a screenplay does not make one a screenwriter, any more than pouring drano down a clogged sink makes one a plumber.
Yet, every journey must start with a first step. For a screenwriter, that first step is a "spec" screenplay. Don't be afraid to take it. It can lead you to wondrous and exciting new places.
Robert's book, "The Blue Collar Screenwriter and The Elements of Screenplay" is currently available at:
Amazon digital and paperback
Barnes & Noble
Amazon digital and paperback
Barnes & Noble
A professional screenwriter for more than thirty years, Robert Gosnell has produced credits in feature films, network television, syndicated television, basic cable and pay cable, and is a member of the Writers Guild of America, West and the Writers Guild of Canada.
Robert began his career writing situation comedy as a staff writer for the ABC series Baby Makes Five. As a freelance writer, he wrote episodes for Too Close for Comfort and the TBS comedies Safe at Home and Rocky Road. In cable, he has scripted numerous projects for the Disney Channel, including Just Perfect, a Disney Channel movie featuring Jennie Garth. In 1998, he wrote the Showtime original movie, Escape from Wildcat Canyon, which starred Dennis Weaver and won the national "Parents Choice Award." Robert's feature credits include the Chuck Norris/Louis Gosset Jr. film Firewalker, an uncredited rewrite on the motion picture Number One With A Bullet starring Robert Carradine and Billy Dee Williams, and the sale of his original screenplay Kick And Kick Back to Cannon Films. Robert was also selected as a judge for the 1990 Cable Ace awards, in the Comedy Special category.
In 1990, Robert left Hollywood for Denver, where he became active in the local independent film community. His screenplay Tiger Street was produced by the Pagoda Group of Denver, and premiered on Showtime Extreme in August of 2003. In 1999, Denver’s Inferno Films produced the action film Dragon and the Hawk from his script. In 2001, Robert co-wrote the screenplay for the independent feature Siren for Las Vegas company Stage Left Productions. His feature script Juncture was produced by Front Range Films in March of 2006.
Robert is a principal member of the Denver production company "Conspiracy Films." He is frequently an invited speaker for local writers organizations, served on the faculty of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference in 2002, and in 2007 was chosen to participate as a panelist for the Aspen Film Festival Short Screenplay Contest. Robert regularly presents his screenwriting class "The Elements of Screenplay," along with advanced classes and workshops, in the Denver area.