PrimeTime: 8 Great Books to Help You Break in … and When to Write a Novelty Spec

Today’s first question comes from David …

David responds to my July 11th post, where I talk about the hot Jersey Shore spec that made the rounds this staffing season. David asks:

Was the Jersey Shore spec a parody, or straight-up “here’s what an episode might look like”?

It was a parody — Vinny and The Situation find a corpse in their room and try to cover it up, taking him to their tanning salons, etc., à la Weekend at Bernie’s. (At one point, Snookie even tries to have sex with him.)

Writing a “novelty spec” like this can be a really effective way of getting attention … if well-executed.

A few years ago, two writers wrote a spec of the Mary Kate & Ashley Olsen show (I can’t remember which one) … called “Mary Kate Misses First Period.” It read exactly like an episode of the show, but the premise was: young Ashley had gotten her first period, but Mary Kate hadn’t … and Mary Kate was confused — why didn’t she get her period, too?! In the end, it turned out … Mary Kate was pregnant. The script was raunchy, irreverent, offensive, disgusting, and blue.

A bloody good spec?

Yet while this obviously wasn’t a “speccable” show … and the story the writers told was not a story the show would’ve ever told … the script never betrayed the characters’ voices. It was simply written to be an irreverent, subversive showcase of what this writing team could do, of how they saw the world.

I won’t mention the writers’ names, but the script got them TONS of attention and helped launch their career.

So in that case, writing the novelty spec worked.

On the flip side, a few years ago, when I was working as a development exec, I read a spec “Taxi” in which the taxi (I can’t remember who was driving), picked up various sitcom characters: Jerry and Elaine, Will and Grace, etc. … And it was awful. There was no actual story — just a series of encounters with different characters — and while the characters were clearly, and intentionally, out of their elements, their voices never sounded authentic.

I passed on the script — and we never met, or worked with, the writer.

So writing a novelty spec can be a fun, clever move … if done correctly. But if done incorrectly — it can backfire.

Our second e-mail today comes from Cassie, who asks …

Can you recommend a book or two on how to break into the film industry? Film is my passion and I would like to pursue it in any way that I can.

Great question, Cassie. There are some phenomenal books out there … and some total stinkers. But I’ll do you better than listing one or two … I’ll give you eight!

However, since this is a TV-writing blog … and I’ve spent my entire career in TV (which is totally different than film) … I’m gonna list my favorite books for breaking into the TV industry … many of which will also apply to film.

Here ya go … I hope these are helpful! …

Small Screen, Big Picture: A Writer’s Guide to the TV Business, by Chad Gervich (yours truly) – Yes, I’m listing my own book first … not out of some shameless opportunity to self-promote, but because — quite honestly — this is the only book out there that deals specifically with the business of television and how to break in. There are some outstanding books on TV writing and other aspects of having a career (I’ll get to some in a moment), but one of the reasons I wrote this was because so few writers truly understand the makeup of the TV industry: the difference between networks and studios, how shows are bought and sold, what happens in a writers room, how TV financing affects shows creatively, how networks schedule shows on their air, why certain shows live or die … and, ultimately, how to use all this information to break in. It also includes extensive job-hunting advice and resources.

Hollywood 101: The Film Industry – How To Succeed in Hollywood Without Connections, by Frederick Levy – At 11 years old, Hollywood 101 is a bit dated … but it still offers a ton of valuable information about the various jobs and positions in Hollywood, from production designers and assistant directors to producers, agents, and execs. It gives a pretty good birds-eye view of how Hollywood works and movies get made, including how to land your first job.

Getting It Done: The Ultimate Production Assistant Guide, by Joshua A. Friedman – No matter your age or previous job experience, you will — like it or not — begin your Hollywood career as a production assistant: running errands, stocking the fridge, making copies, fetching coffee. Getting It Done is a terrific guide to being a P.A.: the various duties, people you’ll meet, paperwork, on-set information, wages to expect, and job-finding advice.

The Hollywood Assistants Handbook: 86 Rules for Aspiring Power Players, by Hillary Stamm and Peter Nowalk – Whether you begin as a production assistant or not, you will eventually, undoubtedly, work as some type of assistant: a writers assistant, an agent’s assistant, an administrative assistant. As witty as it is informative, The Hollywood Assistants Handbook is a fun how-to guide to surviving what is often a grueling and demoralizing — but totally necessary — stepping stone in your career.

The One-Hour Drama Series: Producing Episodic Television, by Robert Del Valle – Written by the line producer of series like Six Feet Under, Glee, and True Blood, this is a wonderful up-close look at physically producing a TV show. The world of TV production can be chaotic and confusing … but even if you’re at the first-step of your career, working as a PA or runner, this book is a great way to familiarize yourself with what’s going on around you. It doesn’t offer actual job-hunting advice, but read this book and I promise — once you have that first job — you’ll know much, much more than the other employees at your level.

Desperate Networks, by Bill Carter – This isn’t a how-to book or practical guide. Rather, it follows high-powered execs, producers, and showrunners through one development/pilot cycle of a TV season … telling the story of what shows make it and what shows don’t. (If I remember correctly, it’s the 2003-2004 season). If you’re interested in writing, producing, or developing TV, this is a frighteningly accurate and insightful peek behind the curtain.

Inside the TV Writers Room: Practical Advice for Succeeding in Television, by Lawrence Meyers – Meyers interviews various top TV writers and showrunners (Jane Espenson, Chris Brancato, Neal Baer, Bryan Fuller, etc.), asking them for insight and advice on topics like “How To Be a TV Staff Writer,” “Why That College Degree Matters,” and “How To Break In.”

Show Me the Funny!: At the Writers’ Table with Hollywood’s Top Comedy Writers, by Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis – To be fair, I haven’t read this book … yet … but I literally ordered it this afternoon on Amazon, and it comes highly recommended from my friend Sam, who’s a writers assistant on a hit show here in L.A. The book has a unique premise: It gives an identical show idea to various screenwriters from Sherwood Schwartz to Phil Rosenthal, then explores how they each develop it differently. It may not give you insight on how to break into the business, but if you’re interested in developing TV shows or movies, it’s a great glimpse into the development process.

Also, I haven’t read every book out there … so if you guys have other recommendations, please feel free to post them below or shoot me an e-mail. I’m sure Cassie and other readers would love to hear more suggestions, and I’m always on the lookout for good books!

In the mean time, if you have other questions, please e-mail me at chad@chadgervich.com … or Tweet me @chadgervich … or post them below.

6 thoughts on “PrimeTime: 8 Great Books to Help You Break in … and When to Write a Novelty Spec

  1. Kayde

    Also, two of my favorite screenwriting books are Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder, and Writing the TV Drama Series: How to Succeed as a Professional Writer in TV by Pamela Douglas.

  2. Kayde

    The One Hour Drama Series: Producing Episodic Television was the biggest waste of money and paper in my entire college career. There are 15 typos in the first 25 pages. It’s hard to take a book like that seriously when the author/editors obviously didn’t.

  3. patti meyers

    I’m reading Phil Rosenthal’s book You’re Lucky You’re Funny which spells out just what it’s like to write and run a show like Everybody Loves Raymond. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to know what it’s like in the Writers Room of a hit comedy show.

  4. Taylor

    4 Great books on screenwriting (for feature films): Screenplay by Sid Field, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Your Screenplay Sucks by William Akers & Advanced Screenwriting by Linda Seger.

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