Monday, December 6, 2010

Reader question - Writing a big-budget writing sample

Claire asked:

What are your thoughts on ambitious projects to really show off your voice vs realistically-might-be-bought-from-a-first-time-writer?

If the initial goal is really to be noticed, surely a big budget period epic will serve your writing better if that's what you really want to write, rather than coming up with a low budget containable thriller or something for the sake of it. Or would the big budget period epic risk making the new writer look as though they don't understand budgets/the market and therefore unprofessional?

When I see a big-budget period epic spec from a first-timer, usually only one thought passes into my head: "Ugh. This will be a waste of time that can only result in a PASS." It's pretty much as you describe in your latter sentence.

The market for period pieces? Dead. D-E-A-D. Unless you're hired on assignment I wouldn't write one because it will probably be a waste of your time.

Writers are typecast as much as actors are. If you submit a writing sample that's some 16th Century epic drama, it's probably not going to do much for showing how you might write a thriller, or a romantic comedy, or a horror film. As a writing sample, all it really shows is how well you write that sort of period drama.

On the outside chance that the writing is superb - and I'm talking "can't-put-this-down-I-have-ever-reason-to-PASS-and-move-onto-something-marketable-but-I-can't-stop-reading" superb - yes, you might be invited to submit another spec script

But guess what? All that means is that the other spec you send them is going to have to be more in the vein of what they want. And honestly, if you had something that they were more likely to respond to on its own, why on Earth didn't you submit that first?

Sci-Fi is another genre that's risky to spec, but at least there's more of a market for sci-fi than for period epics. If my two specs were 2012 and Robin Hood, I'd lead with 2012. I know that I personally would probably be more likely to give a recommendation of "Let's see what else they've got" if their submission was a marketable genre (if not for a newbie) than if it wasn't much of a viable project at all.

Ambitious projects are only worth writing if you've really got the goods to pull them off. Most of the time, a writer will need to have been around the block for a while before they've reached that level.

For some other thoughts in this vein, I'll direct you to these two posts:
Everyone starts somewhere, so don't insist on being pretentious right out of the gate.
Everyone starts somewhere - even Undressed has distinguished alumni.


  1. Do you feel that way about period action spec like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or a story that made someone like Cleopatra into a superhero?

  2. Ha, right now I'm writing a PERIOD SCI-FI, so I'm really screwed.

  3. Is it correct to assume that anything other than present day constitutes a "period piece" simply because of the production cost of recreating a different era? Or would something set in the 1970's or 1980's be better received than a story set in the 16th century?

  4. Emily - the Cleopatra as a superhero thing? Totally feel that way. Most of the time they read as cheesy or campy and probably would never work in a million years. The Abe Lincoln thing probably stands a good chance of reading the same way. When it was an original kind of idea, I think the novelty might have helped get attention. With "Pride, Prejudice & Zombies" and the ilk all having gotten a lot of attention, that particular subgenre has been robbed of its uniqueness.

    Period action specs MIGHT be an exception provide we're not dealing with a straight up Braveheart or Troy type thing. Like if you've got Trojans vs. Martians, maybe it would do something for you. Trojans vs. Spartans? zzzzzzz....

    Subtexter - yeah, "period" is anything that's not present day. The budget is only one part of the reason why these things aren't hot - audiences just aren't going to many of these, and it seems like the further back the film reaches, the harder it is to hook the audience. Something set in the 60s might get by on nostalgia factor (even so, I can't think of too many successes that have been period films). Anything pre-WWII is going to be a hugely hard sell.

    I see some writers who try to recapture their childhood by setting stories in the 70s and 80s. Many times, these stories could be transplanted to the modern day with little that's lost. If there's any way to tell your story in the present day, do it.

    I once read a comedy that was set in 1978 for no reason other than that was when the writer was the age of the main character. If you took the date off it, there'd be little to tip the reader off that it was a period piece, so I wanted to say to the writer, why are you making this harder than it needs to be?

  5. That's really helpful thank you. The spec that got me my agent & my first couple of commissions was set in the 1920s, and a lot of people commented that it was great to read something a bit different and ambitious - though to be fair I am here in the land of period drama! Useful to know there is no point in trying the same trick to crack the US...