Magic Bullet: Query Letters, TV Pilots, and Mad Men, Oh My!

I had this e-mail exchange after posting my last article on query letters, and I think it has a number of useful tips and bits of information for writers. Printed with permission, with all identifiers removed, as well as the writer’s actual logline and story elements, per his request:

Dear Michael,

I recently read your article on query letters, and found it quite valuable. I’m about to embark on a hunt for a manager, and I was hoping you would comment on my query letter in progress. Any help would be greatly appreciated. I look forward to hearing back from you.

Cheers, K

Dear [name of manager],

I’m an agented name of agent screenwriter in search of a manager. I thought you might be an excellent fit because [find a reason, such as he/she has sold work similar to mine, or ... ???]

I’ve had a number of sales and options, including a sale to Universal, Name of Script … I just sold a script that’s being shot this December, Name of Script … and I co-wrote a feature that is currently in pre-production, Name of Script. Previously, I’d won a number of big screenwriting contests, including a Disney Fellowship. As a writing sample, I would like to send you my spec pilot for a one hour drama TV series — Name of Series.

My grandfather was the General in charge of military intelligence for the British forces during WWII, and I grew up listening to stories of how he and Winston Churchill plotted to defeat the Nazis. I’ve also had a lifelong love of old radio shows from the 1940s. From these seeds sprung the idea for my series, Name of Series.

Logline.

Please let me know if you’d like me to send the script. Or if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call me. Thank you very much.

Cheers, K

K,

Thank you for your e-mail and kind words on the article. As for your query, here are my thoughts:

caa logo

Owners of the "Death Star" in Century City

As counter-intuitive as this sounds, I wouldn’t mention that you have an agent. I would not always say this, but your credentials are already so strong that you don’t need to. Having sold one major script is enough, and winning the Disney Fellowship is enough — so both of these elements are definitely more than enough to pique interest.

Now, why shouldn’t you mention you have an agent? Basically, if you have an agent, or (more especially) if you have a manager, and you are looking for the other one — it will seem odd that you are going out on your own to get them, and not working through your rep.

As with most industries, ours works on favors and relationships, and if I’m a manager with a great writer I believe in, and he tells me he wants an agent (or vice versa), it gives me some juice and power to take that script out to agents — and whoever I hook the writer up with will owe me for bringing them the client. So, for most people (and unfortunately our industry is full of cynics), it will look like either your agent doesn’t believe in you, or your writing ability, or (and this brings up a new point) doesn’t want to work with/share a client with another rep. So, it can look like a red flag to people that you are sending the query to. Since you don’t need it (you already have an impressive resume), I would take out the reference to your current agent. Does all of that make sense?

Next, I would take out the second sentence (why the potential manager is an excellent fit), as again, you don’t need it, and it’s just like every other letter they’ll get. Instead, start with a bang, and hit them with something they don’t normally see, which is the first sentence of the second paragraph. Just off the strength of what you say in the second paragraph, you’ve closed the deal. No need for more. Which brings me to my last comment:

You kind of lost me with the rest of the query. Your personal history seems MUCH more interesting and commercial than the logline of the story you actually wrote in your pilot. Right now, it’s a “who cares?” kind of hook. I’m sure you could rewrite it to be a more exciting hook. (The question to answer is: What are the high stakes?) But to put that logline next to your personal history? It makes the idea sound even less commercial than I’m sure it actually is. Does that make sense? It could be the best, most exciting pilot ever — but its current logline does it no favors.

Are you trying to break into TV? I’m assuming that’s why you wrote the pilot. I would strongly suggest you write a spec episode of a hot show, similar in tone to your pilot, in order to better your chances of getting staffed. I hope this helps, and always feel free to ask me anything.

Michael

————

Hi Michael,

Thank you for your excellent advice! I never would have thought to NOT mention that I have an agent, but I now see why it’s a bad strategy. Name of Series is the sample I want to send out because it’s my newest, and probably best, work. I’m aware that it’s a tough sell — all TV series specs are, but especially a period piece like this one — but it’s still a great sample. I’ll have another spec feature written in a month or two, so do you think I should wait before querying managers, and give them a choice of samples to read? And yes, I do plan to write a TV spec of an existing show once I’ve finished my feature. Possibly Mad Men. Do you recommend any shows as especially good spec choices these days?

Cheers, K

K,

I completely understand. Let me help you craft a more engaging logline. Are there any big set pieces in the pilot? Are there any twists or interesting/unique bits that people would hear about and say “I want to tune in to see that!”? Without knowing any of that, I might change the logline to something like this: [my version of his logline].

With that revision in mind, it will make it easier for you to see how to write your query if I just tweak the one you sent. I would tweak it to be something like this:

Dear [name of manager],

I’ve had a number of sales and options, including a sale to Universal Name of Script, and another script I sold is due to shoot in December. I’ve also won the Disney Fellowship, as well as a number of other major screenwriting contests. My most recent script is a spec pilot for a one hour drama TV series — Name of Series:

[My version of his logline].

My grandfather was the General in charge of military intelligence for the British forces during WWII, and I grew up listening to stories of how he and Winston Churchill plotted to defeat the Nazis. This inspired me to create Name of Series.

I’m currently looking for a manager to represent me, so please let me know if you are interested in reading Name of Series.

Cheers,
K

As you can tell, I cut out all the fat, got right to the point in the first sentence, and went for the jugular. The logline was similarly short and sweet, but should pique interest.

mad men

As M.C. Hammer says, "Don't spec this ..."

As far as hot pilots to write, I would NOT write a Mad Men spec. Everyone and their brother is writing Mad Men specs these days, as it’s a writers’ writer’s show. I might write a Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead spec. You can find out more about which shows are hot right now to write, and which one is closest in tone to your pilot, here.

Looking forward to working with you further,

Michael

———-

K,

I found myself curious last night, and I took a peek at your pilot. While I think the opening is one of the most stunning openings I’ve read in a long time, as with the query letter, you steadily lose steam after that because you’ve packed too much unnecessary stuff into a small box. I have a great number of thoughts about the pilot, but my chief concern is you’ve taken an opening scene, with a great new world that stuns us, and then made a number of writing decisions after that which take away and detract from the possibilities and potential of the opening. Have you ever heard the term “enter late and leave early?” You’ve focused 90% of this pilot an origin story that adds up to a great big “who cares?” — especially after such a stunning opening scene. The world you tease is so much bigger and greater than the plot you chose to focus on. Instead of starting from 0, and spending the pilot getting to 60, instead you should start going at 60 miles an hour and keeping your foot on the pedal the whole way through.

pedal to the metal

Pilots = pedal to the metal!

Even more importantly, you need to bring more of the opening scene’s world into the pilot. The more you can bring all of that into the pilot, the better — it’s your best stuff and your most intriguing and audience-grabbing stuff, and it happens for just a few pages at the beginning, and that’s it. If you’re going to do a big show like the opening shows us the potential for, you gotta let your mind go bigger, and get just as creative with every little detail as you did with that amazing opening.

Anyway, that’s my two cents, and just a couple aspects of your pilot I would seriously address before sending it out.

Best, Michael

———–

Michael,

Thanks so much for the comments. I must confess, my confidence in the script was shaken a bit by your comments. I had thought it worked the way it is. I’m going to have to do some major re-thinking in the next while. I felt I needed a big opening in order to hook the reader right away. However, I’m now wondering whether opening with such a big scene, taken from late in the season, is a mistake. It may set up expectations for a big-scale, action-packed series, when the tone of the series is actually closer to Mad Men (but with the addition of supernatural and war elements).

Perhaps I should mention the tone [of the series] in the query letter, to avoid false expectations? Maybe say something like “in the vein of Mad Men and Carnivale (or Lost)”? Should I give more of a sense of where it’s going? Or should I have a one-page attached to the script to explain things and show the season arc? Anyway, I’m going to put it aside for awhile, letting your comments sink in, before I attempt another draft. Thanks again for the excellent feedback, and for taking time out of your busy schedule.

Cheers, K

———-

K,

Before I start, I wanted to make sure you knew (since I don’t think I mentioned in my e-mail) how great of a writer you are on the technical level. You really impressed me with your writing skills. You remind me most of a former client and friend whose biggest weakness was making things far more complicated than they needed to be. Once he saw how overcomplicated he was making his plots — once he got the elegance of a simple plot with extraordinary characters, theme, story world, and dialogue, he got an agent, sold his first script, and got his first studio assignment.

If I were to give you one more piece of advice while you take the time to step back and think about my feedback, it would be: Don’t overcomplicate it. The whole thing about (XXX), especially, is interesting if you were writing a novel — but is just one more detail (among an e-mail’s worth that you just wrote) that are unnecessary to the core of what your story CAN and SHOULD be.

As with every pilot someone creates, you have to answer this basic question: Who will watch this? What are the channels this show could actually air on, and how would you market this series? If you’re going for Mad Men, you’re shooting yourself in the foot with all the supernatural stuff, and with all the alternate history stuff. If you’re going for alternate history and supernatural, you’re shooting yourself in the foot with trying to make it Mad Men. (Typing your spec as a Mad Men show will just keep you further away from ever seeing this actually get made. Right now, every spec and pilot out there have this logline: “It’s Mad Men on a train” or “It’s Mad Men in the fashion world,” etc. etc. etc. That Mad Men was bought was originally a once in a lifetime shot that AMC took. And it’s probably hardly ever going to happen again, so if you join the thousands of other Mad Men wannabes, you’re shooting yourself in the foot — especially since there’s such a great big world you’ve created that you’re not even tapping into. Just more to ponder.)

In answer to your first question about cutting the opening, if you were to make this a Mad Men-type show of alternate history WITHOUT the big set pieces you opened with, you’ll have no chance in hell of selling this. Alternate history pegs you in the SCYFY realm, which, even when keeping costs down, is more interested in big, creative, entertaining stories, not low-concept, character-driven shows like Mad Men.

mad men tv

Mad Men specs are getting as old as this TV

So I would absolutely NOT cut out the wonderfully captivating opening. A show that has that kind of set piece, creativity, and originality would sell. If you can bringing more of that into your script — I can sell that.

——–

Hope you enjoyed that exchange, and that you got some good info out of it. Almost as much info as you’ll get out of: Your Four Quadrant High Concept Inspiration of the Day

Quick Note: I will be teaching a couple classes at this year’s Screenwriting Expo, one of which will include offering one-on-one mentoring on-site for writers looking to develop and focus their script ideas. Shoot me an e-mail at michael@scriptawish.com if you’re going to be at the Expo and are interested in reserving your own 20 minute block of time.

Previous Articles: How to Get Your Script Read By Industry Players How to Write Studio Quality Dialogue How to Write Studio Quality Action Lines How to Write an Industry Bait Logline How to Write an Industry Bait Query Letter How to Determine if Your Movie Concept is Commercial

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3 thoughts on “Magic Bullet: Query Letters, TV Pilots, and Mad Men, Oh My!

  1. Dave Vaughan

    It appears to me that your evaluations and your advice is spot on. That covers the query letter. We have the letter in the hands of the agency. Why would they open the envelope. What makes my envelope want to be opened when there are probably 100s coming in every day?

  2. John Washco

    Great advise as usual Michael. Thanks for the E-Book you sent out also. Great reference material. I went through a couple of highliters when I read it. Give me a call when you have a minute to discuss SGW.
    Chii Miigwetch.
    Swasho Banance (aka-John)

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