Before embracing screenwriting, I used to be an author. I had twenty novels published, although chances are you won’t have read any of them unless you have a fondness for particular branches of licensed fiction [Doctor Who, Judge Dredd, etc].
As a tie-in author I always wrote to commission. Back then, I thought the sole purpose of crafting stories was to share them with as many people as possible. When I turned to screenwriting, I discovered that isn’t always the case. I found out about the spec.
Seems to me the vast majority of speculatively written screenplays never get made. Often the challenge for writers is not getting their spec made, but simply getting it read - by producers, development executives, agents, script editors – by anyone.
Knowing that a spec will likely go unmade can be demotivating. Why pour your heart, soul and countless unpaid hours into a script destined to remain unseen, unmade? Because a great spec can get you noticed.
It might help secure representation from an agent, or a trial on a continuing drama series if that’s what you want. It could get you among the finalists in a high profile competition, like the Blue Cat contest in the US or the Red Planet Prize in the UK.
The freedom offered by a spec can be a double-edged sword. Do whatever you like, but the further you venture from the mainstream, the less chance your story will find an audience. Indeed, it’s possible to create a spec designed solely to win competitions.
[By the way, if anybody needs a heartbreaking but potentially expensive script for an animated short film, I’ve got one called DANNY'S TOYS. It’s won awards, you know.]
Even if you’ve got a regular writing gig, nobody wants to see what you wrote for someone else. They want to see your original work, to experience your voice as a writer. So developing a new spec is a necessary evil to keep your portfolio fresh.
I suggest one way of tackling a new spec is to see it as a chance to rediscover the joy of writing. When your passion becomes your career, your way of paying the bills, it’s too easy to forget why you wanted to be a writer in the first place.
Of course, once you’ve written your new spec, there’s the need to get feedback from trusted readers. And then rewrites. And more feedback, and more rewrites. Eventually, finally, the day comes when you have to release your beloved creation into the wild.
Sending out a new spec is like being a pushy parent at some weird beauty pageant. You watch helpless as your creation goes out to demonstrate its passion, its beautiful lines, what it has to say about the world. Be grateful there's no swimsuit section.
As a recovering author, I miss the certainty of knowing my stories will get printed, bound and distributed for sale. There are no such certainties with a spec, but it’s still your ambassador to the world, so make it the best you can. Onwards!