Sunday, 10 April 2016

Writing speculative scripts - is it worth it?

There are few more exciting thrillers I've read in recent times than Simon Wood's high octane THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY, and as such I've taken it on myself to scribble out a full review of it. But, as usual, you'll find that at the lower end of this column. 

Scroll down there straight away, if you wish. But if you also fancy pondering the thorny issue of spec scripts and whether it can ever pay to take the time out of your busy schedule to write them, then feel free to head south at a more leisurely pace, and check out my own views on the matter first ...

Soo, script-writing on spec. Is it worth it?

A big question indeed.

This is a conversation I've had repeatedly with Cathy, my wife and best friend of the last 28 years and my business partner for the last four. So I'm very familiar with the arguments for and against, but even then finding a satisfactory answer is never easy (at least not at first glance).

When you're first starting out as a screen-writer, you don't have much choice. No producer is going to commission a script from you if you haven't got a track-record (these days you're lucky if they'll commission a script from you if you HAVE got one). It's amazing how much more receptive to your ideas film and TV companies tend to be if you can walk into their office, hit them with a cool pitch and then, in a single artistic flourish, lay a finished first-draft script on their desk as well (even though they'll probably not bother to read the script until you've written a concise outline and they've read that first).

But even then it's going to be a long-shot, mainly because, unless you had a consultation with them beforehand, you're not really sure what kind of project they're looking for, and even if you have had a consultation, things may have changed in the last couple of weeks, or some other writer who they may know better and therefore trust more might have come along with a similar or better idea, or maybe because you haven't developed the idea they expressed interest in the way they'd have liked you to because, you know, you didn't have a producer or script-editor looking over your shoulder while you were writing it, etc etc ...

Either way, it most likely means you've done an awful lot of work for nothing. And it won't end there.

The average  movie-length screenplay usually comes in at something like 20K-25K words, which is no small effort on your part when you're not being paid for it - and there's the other rub.

When you've invested so much time and effort into a thing, you don't want to just throw it into a drawer. You've got to keep hawking it around, which is yet more time and energy. And of course each new producer you show it to will likely be in a similar position to the first: Is it the sort of thing he/she is looking for?, have you developed it they way they'd like?, and so on.

It's an ominous prospect, and my own experience reinforces this. I'm better known these days as a novelist. But I've done my share of screen-writing. The problem is that - despite writing scripts for pre-existing television shows, where I had some success during my early days - I've only written two movie scripts which have actually progressed right the way through preproduction, been made, and have then gone out to general distribution. On the first of these, SPIRIT TRAP (2005), I was only a co-writer anyway, a first-draft script already existing when I was brought in to 'doctor' it. For the second, THE DEVIL'S ROCK (2011), I was acquainted with a talented young director, Paul Campion, who had already devised a detailed idea, had got a producer on board, and was willing to pay me to flesh it out into a script.

Neither of those projects involved speculative writing. The vast majority of the scripts I DID write on spec, however - and oh yes, there have been many - have rarely got close to principle photography, even though several have made it into actual development. For example, my screen adapation of  CAPE WRATH, my Bram Stroker Award nominee short novel of 2001, was under option for nearly nine years and has still never been made. It's been though something like 10 drafts now and has been workshopped half a dozen times, and is probably in the best shape I could ever imagine a script of mine being, but at present it sits and gathers dust. My forthcoming next novel, STRANGERS, conerning a young female detective at the sharp end of crime in Manchester, commenced life as a spec TV script called NO FURY way back in 1993; it was optioned on and off, but so much time passed on this one that in the end I saw better potential in turning it into a book.

So, on first glance - and purely coming at this with brain rather than heart, it doesn't look as if it's worth writing speculative film or TV scripts.

But you know ... are we really in this business because we are logic machines who will only type out what we are 100% sure we can sell, who will only create if there is a dead-cert buyer, who will only write what the general herd wants us to, who won't get out of bed for less than a guaranteed five grand a day?

Of course we aren't.

I don't know any writer who is successful today who hasn't at one time or another had to slug his/her way through a jungle of indifference, who hasn't ridden the blows of rejection again and again, who hasn't produced speculative work at length over many, many agonising years.

Back in 2013, at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, I was fortunate enough to chair a 'Selling Your Spec Script' panel, which among others comprised script-writing legends like Stephen Volk, Richard Christian Matheson and Peter Atkins, not to mention top London literary agent, Ellen Gallagher - all of whom were hugely positive about spec-script writing (with the obvious caveats that you have to do a proper job, you have to be professional, you have to be prepared to take an awful lot of metaphorical smacks on the nose, and so forth), all of them having done this very thing themselves multiple times.

None of the panelists felt that the difficulties you will encounter trying to sell a speculative script should put you off writing one - if you've actually got the gumption to embark on that rocky road.

One of the biggest off-putters when it comes to writing speculatively (be it scripts, books, stories, anything really) is the amount of unpaid time you are required to spend at your keyboard. But if I was to look at this, say ... from a purely personal perspective, it would be sheer folly for me NOT to make this time available. In addition to having three ideas-folders that are, each one, the size of a telephone directory, I also have stacks of novellas, novelettes and short stories, all published many years ago but now fading into the mists of history. With the best will in the world, at least some of these have got to be script-worthy, and so as a professional writer I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't dig through them now and then and adapt as many as I could into screenplays. Hell, if the story's already written, the characters are already developed - what have you got to lose?

Ultimately, it's a matter for the individual. It boils down to how serious you are about writing. If you're in it for the long-haul, you've got to keep battering that rampart of indifference with every weapon you've got, and the more of those weapons you produce, the greater your chance of creating a breach.

The whole thing was summed up far more eloquently than I ever could by Richard Christian Matheson at the Spec Scripts panel back at Brighton in 2013, when he said:

"You have to have a really high threshold for rejection. In this business, golden opportunities turn black. You have to keep writing. There are an extraordinary number of set-backs to face. Take an inventory of your nature: where is your threshold? It's not about the one moment; it's about momentum. You have to be relentless - in a way that you're not about anything else in your life. And you do that by loving to write - so all the rejection doesn't punch a hole in you; it just makes you keep on going."

There is one other thing too. It actually COULD happen for you. It's not impossible by any means. And don't take my word for that. Look at the evidence. TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE was a spec script written by Randy Brown, which languished with no-one interested in it for 10 years, until 2012, when Clint Eastwood picked it up and made a major movie out of it. Back in 1996, Shane Black's spec script THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT sold for a mind boggling $4 million.

At the end of the day, a good idea well-written is a good idea well-written. It doesn't matter if no producer or film-maker happens to be looking for it at that moment in time. It may still find a home at some point, so it's worth doing it for that reason alone.

And if it doesn't ... or it it doesn't straight away, you've still learned something, because there's no better school of writing than actually writing - and on top of that you've got yourself a neat little calling card into the bargain.

Seriously guys, how are you better off NOT writing a spec script than writing one?

It's a no-brainer.

(Thanks to my fellow wordsmith, T.D. Edge - whose excellent website can be found HERE - for making a note of that fine Richard Christian Matheson quote back in 2013, and for granting me permission to reproduce it in this column).



An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by Simon Wood (2015)

In Simon Wood’s heart-stopping thriller, The One That Got Away, PHd student and party girl, Zoe, has some rapid-fire growing up to do when she and her best friend, Holli, are abducted outside Vegas by desert serial killer, the Tally Man. Holli dies, but though Zoe escapes, she is both physically and emotionally scarred by the event, and finds her life in ruins. In fact, it gets worse than that. With one exception, the empathetic Inspector Ryan Greening, the cops are highly sceptical – there is no evidence of the abductions and soon Zoe herself becomes a suspect in Holli’s disappearance.

At the same time, the Tally Man – a deceptively clean-cut and yet highly obsessional psychopath – is very far from being finished with her …

This novel’s greatest strength in my view is its central character. Though initially a cold and distant figure, instinctively mistrustful of all those around her, Zoe remains likeable. A former free spirit, she is distressingly damaged by her experience … so you feel for her, you empathise with her pain. But at the same time, she isn’t cowed by trauma. In fact, she is driven by it to change her life, to become a hardened survivor, and in this you cheer her – because a key theme of this book is that fighting back, while not always desirable, may sometimes be a necessity if you want to make it through (especially when, as in this case, you can find no help among the grey faces of bureaucracy that surround you).

Of course, while Zoe struggles to convince the cops that she is the victim, the real killer – cool, intelligent, resourceful and relentless – gets ever closer, finally launching a protracted and carefully planned assault by which he intends to reclaim Zoe for his collection. Tired and alone, our heroine must face and resist this deranged aggression in almost complete isolation – which, though she is no longer the panic-stricken ‘fraidy-cat she was at the beginning, is a challenge of nightmarish proportions …  

Okay, this is a straightforward and simple idea. And yes, I’ve seen it done before, though rarely as well as this. The only real problem with this novel is finding enough time in which to sit down and read it, because trust me, it’s unputdownable. It starts out at 100 mph, and maintains that rip-roaring pace all the way through, the narrative careering from one hair-raising set-piece to the next. Some minor criticisms have been levelled at it: that it doesn’t possess enough twists and turns (virtually none, if I’m honest); that any cops behaving as some of these guys do would surely lose their jobs. But hey, it’s a great read … it keeps you on the edge of your seat and keeps you turning the pages, and what else is a thriller really supposed to do?

The One That Got Away gets my strongest recommendation, though as I say it’s another one you’ll need to find time for, because once you start you won’t want to stop. 

As usual, and purely for fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if The One That Got Away ever makes it to the screen (and in this case, I’d be surprised if that didn’t happen):

Zoe Sutton – Emilia Clarke
Inspector Ryan Greening – Jared Padalecki
Marshall Beck, the Tally Man – Timothy Olyphant


  1. Paul,

    The book is under option and casting targets are being named...I'll pass your suggestions on to the producers...


    1. Great stuff, Simon. But listen ... I'm no casting expert (as if you didn't know). Will look out for further info as and when you can post.

    2. Don't start something you can't finish. :)

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.