WRITING SAMPLES: THE BASICS.
HAVE TO HAVE THEM. WHAT THEY ARE. HOW TO WRITE THE ONES BEST FOR YOU.
The most important thing you can do to become a working writer is generate great WRITING SAMPLES.
MOST IMPORTANT POINTS HEREIN: 1) Be ready with your samples because one day opportunity will knock and you can't say 'Need another month to finish that sample you've asked to read, cuz mostly I've been smoking weed cuz I'm scared.' 2) WRITE BOLD. Do not fall victim to Good Girl syndrome. Write big , bold, edgy, distinctive so your sample sticks out from the pile and your personality screams from the page.
Your writing samples are your way in the door. These samples are often called ‘spec’ meaning ‘speculative’ as in, you write them without being paid to do so with the hopes they will lead to you being paid. Like how a young Michael Bay made a spec Pepsi commercial and he parlayed it into becoming Present-Day Michael Bay (tm Paramount). This is an historic fact.
But what should my samples be? Start here: do you want to write TV or film? If you have zero interest in TV, don’t write a TV sample. HOWEVER, if you are interested in TV, it doesn’t hurt to write a feature sample. Wait, what? Yes, listen: In television, you are being hired to lend your voice to someone else’s voice. In order to hire you, executive producers/network executives need to have a sense of who you are as a writer. They assume you can learn the structure and character voices of their particular show — but can you do the un-teachable? Do you have an ear for dialogue? Do you understand what makes a satisfying story? Are you funny? Do you write wrenching drama?
You need to have at least two original samples of which you can be proud. For tv: A feature and an original TV pilot. A play and a novella. If you want be hired on one-hour drama TV shows, your samples should reflect that sensibility and the same goes if you want to be writing for animated Fox shows. For features, it’s best if you write two features and make them different. Like, if you want to be writing Big Dramas, maybe one feature is a period piece biopic, and the other is a contemporary crime drama.
TRULY THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE RE: WRITING SAMPLES: Always be ready. We’ve told you about how the early days are the hardest days, because you’re burdened with student loans, you’re receiving zero payment and zero validation for writing you’re doing at night and on weekends. It’s hard to keep your eye on the prize. It’s tempting to think of moving back home. But at any moment, without warning, the first door will open for you. The first door is that first person of influence who says ‘I’ll read your work.’ This person could be an agent, or the brother of an agent, or a working writer themselves. They are going to give you great advice, recommend you to an agent, recommend you for a job. They are bringing your samples inside the castle walls.
This moment can go one of two ways: ‘Hey, I’ll read your work.” Says Person of Influence. You: ‘I’m stunned with gratitude. Um, it’s not ready yet, so can I give it to you in like… four or five weeks?’ Person of Influence shrugs, having already lost faith in you as a serious writer and now seeing you as one of the 90 pseudo-writers who doesn’t understand the amount of work required to make it in this business.
OR: ‘Hey, I’ll read your work,” says Person of Influence. You: ‘I’m stunned with gratitude. Um, I have several different samples. Would you like to read an original feature, an original TV pilot or my Togetherness spec?” Person of Influence smiles, impressed with you and eager to look impressive themselves when they pass along your info to their friend the agent. “I’ll read the feature. Email me.” You email them the feature IMMEDIATELY along with a note expressing your undying gratitude. You do not ask them for notes. You do not ask them for anything more than what they are giving you already, which is several hours of their time.
Obviously, scenario 2 is better. And this requires that you are always ready. That your samples are, as soon as possible, as great as they can be. That you haven’t lost sight of your goals in favor of alcohol or sex or all the other goodies Los Angeles has to offer.