Progressions

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do — I wanted to be a screenwriter.  I, of course had no idea how I would accomplish that goal. Once I was settled in my new Disney job (I was transferred cross country, remember) and started to focus on the real reason I had moved, a pathway started to present itself. I enrolled in the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting. To apply I had to write 15 pages of a script.  They were 15 terrible pages as I recall, and thankfully lost in a hard drive crash in 2007.  Still, the program wasn’t exactly rigorous in its standards and let me in.  It was meant as a way for those who could not get into the very rigorous MFA program to get a similar experience and instruction for significantly less money and no degree.  For me, it was a bargain — I had a good office job and could well afford the tuition, and what I needed was some structure to learning what this crazy dream of mine was all about.

The Professional Program, at least when I took it, was two nights a week on campus.  According to the website, I see they now offer an online version of the program, and a TV Writing track, which I am now very jealous they did not have back nearly 10 years ago, but that tells you how much power TV has gained in the last decade — also, how many more jobs are available writing TV than feature films.  The two nights a week were each 3 hours – one night was lecture, which for me was Hal Ackerman, who is still there and who had just written a book, which, obviously, became our text for the class.  The second night was a workshop class of only about 10 students as compared to the 75 or so in the lecture hall.  The first 20 weeks you spent with one instructor and then you were moved to a new workshop for the last semester / 10 weeks of the program.  My first workshop instructor was Tim Albaugh, who is also still there teaching.  Tim was the one who helped me find my writing strengths and weaknesses.  He overlooked the folly in my topic and genre choice for my first screenplay (A Western, about a Chinese Man who moved to Alaska and dealt with hardcore bullying. It was based on a true story but a really poor choice for first script right out of the gate) and did his best to encourage me as a writer.

Sidebar: Speaking of Tim  reminded me of another person who had encouraged my writing at a far younger age.  His name is Brad Keefauver. Brad worked with my mother at the local newspaper office and told her of his love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. I remember his very distinctive BSI earring he wore, in part because he was the only man I’d ever seen wear an earring at that point in my life (I lived in a very sheltered midwest town). The BSI of course was for the Baker Street Irregulars, a national organization of which he was a member, having written many pieces about Sherlock Holmes.  He invited my mother to a meeting of the Peoria Sherlock society – The Hansoms of John Clayton.  My mother, knowing what a fan I was of Sherlock stories on PBS (Jeremy Brett was my first Sherlock) took me along, which is where I met Brad and admired his daring choice of ear-wear.  He gifted me a large tome of the Complete Sherlock Holmes, Annotated.  I still own the very large book, which in some years served as a way to prop up my small 13″ television.  Of late, the book has been getting a bit of a workout again, as I pour back through some of the stories and the annotations provided to suss out details from either Moffat’s fine adaptation SHERLOCK or the CBS show ELEMENTARY, a fine show in its own right, honestly, even if it has strayed more from the traditional Doyle tales.

Brad not only introduced me properly to Holmes and the wonders of that world, but within the year he gave me real inspiration. I entered a Young Writers competition at my junior high school.  I wrote a futuristic tale, told as a diary about a young girl named Sari transporting her brothers in an old Yugo across the post-nuclear war hellscape to a launch point to get them off Earth to a space station.  I placed third in the competition. One of the judges was Brad.  Somewhere in a box, likely in my parents’ garage are the encouraging words he wrote. I’ve neither time nor inclination to drive to San Diego to find them (I searched the entirety of my own closet last night, coming up empty). Suffice to say, they warmed my little 12 or 13-year old heart.  It would be many years until I would purse writing as an occupation, but that little ember glowed for most of those years, reminding me that someone thought I had talent.

So, after the UCLA Professional Program, I spent about two or three months trying to finish the second feature I had written for the program in the final semester – a comedy.  I learned quickly that while I had some interesting or quirky comedic sensibility, it was hardly mass appeal.  I grew frustrated with my lack of output.  Here I had been in a program that had required me to produce story, outline, script pages on a weekly basis and that structure was now gone.

I had just started watching this new show on FOX called HOUSE — it’s ratings were okay, but not spectacular out of the gate. I was a huge fan of Hugh Laurie from BLACKADDER and SENSE & SENSIBILITY among other things, so Julie and I were two of the few Americans who knew who the hell this guy was and actually anticipated this new medical show.  Within just the first two or three episodes, we were hooked, and I used to try to come up with great ideas for stories for this character.  It then occurred to me that I might increase my output by branching out to TV writing — I was a product of TV as babysitter in the 80’s and was well versed in all manner of shows.  In some ways, I was more adept with talking TV than I ever was talking film.  By some stroke of Providence, I decided to look at the UCLA Extension classes; I had heard they offered TV writing courses each semester, and as I was missing the structure of the classroom environment for my writing, it felt like a good option.  What sold me on taking the class, was that the entry level TV writing course was being taught by a writer who was working on HOUSE — Matt Witten.

Of course, I couldn’t write a HOUSE spec in his class — it would cause him all kinds of potential problems, so I chose the other show I was obsessed with that year – LOST.  I’m not sure what it says about me that I consistently choose high degree of difficulty for my first attempts.  I guess I like to fail spectacularly.

Six or seven Extension classes later, I got a certificate in TV Writing.  That and a dollar will buy you a scratch-off lottery ticket; it’s worth nothing to say I paid UCLA many hundreds of dollars to learn how to write TV. In the one full year of extension classes I took, I finished three TV spec scripts — the LOST spec, a HOUSE spec, which I wrote in a different class, and a COLD CASE spec.  That output was far greater than what I had experienced in the Professional Program, and I was officially hooked on TV writing.

Why am I telling you this? I guess I’m more telling myself, looking back on my journey to what brought me to where I am now.  At times I feel as if I am so far behind everyone else I know.  It’s folly to measure your success against others, and yet, I cannot help but do so at times.  There are so many factors that play into how quickly or slowly we progress in our careers and in our lives.  Some of us have setbacks, insurmountable obstacles, and others get lucky, are in the right place at the right time, strike up a conversation with the right person, make what ultimately becomes the right friends…none can be planned.  All you can do is try to take advantage when opportunity presents itself, and do your best to dodge the roadblocks.

I hope to take the next step in my progression this year.  I want this to be the year I make it over the wall and into a TV writers’ room.  It’s been a long journey, a journey that started when I was 12 years old and was delayed for many years.  I came into the business “late” by many accounts, but I refuse to be beaten.

Thanks to Kay Reindl’s retweet of Chuck Wendig’s link to a guest post on his blog, I found motivation in Kameron Hurley’s words about Persistence being the key to success.  It is often said that those who succeed in this business are the ones who don’t quit.  I honestly don’t know how I’d quit now.  Besides that, as I once explained to my father, who wondered where my line in the sand was — the point where I pack it in and go back to a nice cushy I.T. job, there is no line in the sand which I can see.  I may take day jobs here and there, but I will always be a writer.  I can never not be a writer.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I have a new pilot outline to work on.  The machine stops for no one.

Posted under randomness, writing

This post was written by Shawna on January 23, 2014

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Scribosphere Meetup

Somehow I talked myself into (and was abetted by others) to set up a long-needed meetup/reunion of screenwriting bloggers. And now, it is set. September 21 (Saturday) at 2 PM at Morrison’s in Los Feliz/ Atwater Village area (website) — primarily I wanted to get together those of us who were blogging about becoming writers or those pros who dared to blog way before Twitter existed, but honestly, anyone can come.  If you have a blog or site dedicated to screenwriting, it would be awesome to see you there.

Oh, and the pub has a lot of good whiskey. So there’s that.

Posted under blogs, writing

This post was written by Shawna on September 3, 2013

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ScreenwriterBones resurrected

Hey everybody! Phil is back!

Posted under blogs, writing

This post was written by Shawna on July 27, 2009

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Louder Shouting

Some changes are coming…

First of all, my sister Julie has been added as an author to the blog.  There’s a very important reason for that…

…she and I are now officially writing partners.

After much deliberation and discussion, and given the changes our lives have recently encountered, the timing felt right.  We’ve created a partnership agreement (more on that in a minute) and a ‘business plan.’

I’ll let sis come in here to explain who she is, what she does, why she writes…

It took awhile to get to this point.  So, we are sisters.  Who write together. The Benson Sisters aka Irregardless Productions.  TV and film.

It may seem strange that as sisters we would draw up and sign a partnership agreement – I mean, if you can’t trust family, right?  But having heard the horror stories, and wanting to make sure each of us was completely protected, especially should agents/managers/lawyers/producers/studios enter the picture, we felt it was necessary to help us sleep at night.

We’ve already got a battleplan to get some material completed and out the door.

Next step: World Domination.

Posted under writing

This post was written by Shawna on May 28, 2009

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The ‘Why TV’ Meme

Thanks to BooM, Kira has tagged me with a meme.  Thankfully the question is simple:

What made you want to be a TV writer? Was there a defining moment? Was it an awakening? Did you always know?

Let’s start at the beginning.  I know a lot of you are new to my blog, and since this is a the new home of my blog, I think it’s as good a time as any to talk about why I write, why I blog and answer the meme of ‘why TV’ while I’m at it.

Everyone has their story of when they started writing.  One of the things I was really good at as a kid was living inside my head.  There were days I walked around my high school, imagining I was *really* Sam Beckett of “Quantum Leap” inhabiting my body, trying to put right some problem so I could ‘leap out’.  Or there were the days I lived out my own little plays in my head of building a time machine to jump between parallel worlds, and the machine I built allowed me to travel into the Star Trek universe.  I actually wrote that story down.  I researched a timeline.  I wrote in my friends, gave my story complications, actual plot. 

Before that I wrote an earnest tale about a young girl charged with the task of getting her brothers and sisters to safety in a post-apocalyptic landscape…by driving a Yugo cross country.  That one won me an award in junior high.  My best friend growing up and I wrote all sorts of strange stories for ourselves, including partially improvisational plays we staged in her basement, all of them based ever so loosely on British costume dramas and mystery stories we’d seen on PBS.  (I fear that some of them live on video and could someday be used as blackmail against me.  So be it).  All of this and I still didn’t realize I wanted to be a writer.  I just thought I was really out of touch with the world and maybe even had a propensity for fan fiction.

Flash forward many years, circa 1998.  I was living in Florida, on my own, no family, no friends in close proximity.  I started blogging before blogging was “cool”.  I kept an online journal, and I found myself talking about TV and writing a lot.  Meanwhile I secretly envied my sister as she chose a path of pursuing her dreams of working in the entertainment industry.  True, I was technically working in the industry…but in the most remote way possible.  She was going at it head on, and I knew she would succeed where I had never even tried.

One night over Teppan dining a work friend asked me that question: “If you could go anywhere, do anything right now, what would you do?  Money is no object.”  I thought about it for about a second, and the answer surprised me.  “I want to write movies.”

The thought had never been verbalized so strongly, and it never felt more right than when I had said it.  And yet, it sounded so ridiculous.  I was 24 years old, working as a PC support technician, sitting in Orlando, Florida, and I wanted to write movies.

But my friend said the most perfect thing in response: “Well why don’t you do that?”

And I didn’t really have a good answer as to why not.  I mean, of all of the things I could have chosen to say in answering the most open-ended question one gets — “What would you do?” I picked something that took a) no money (not really, not like say, traveling the world) b) no immediate need to move and c) could be done while still keeping my day job.  Making a career of it, training, moving, all of that wasn’t needed.  All it really takes to start each time we sit down to write is imagination and determination.

In 2001 when the Twin Towers fell, my world seemed so closed in and small.  I felt small.  In the three years since my bold proclamation that I wanted to write movies, I had written fifteen horrible pages of a screenplay, no idea what I was doing, other than I had gotten one book (Syd Field’s) and tried to teach myself how to use a macro someone had developed for Microsoft Word.  And yet, right when the world seemed the smallest to me as if it would choke off what little life I felt I had, it opened wide.  My sister was disaffected with her life in Chicago, and after much soul searching and heartache that year, in 2002 we both resolved to move to Los Angeles and start doing what we wanted to do with our lives…make movies.

I still wasn’t thinking about television, even though it should have been obvious to me that I had passion for it.  I loved films, but I LOVED TV.  I knew what show was on when and on what channel all the time.  I kept grids of programming, long before having a DVR so I knew when to tape shows and what to watch live.  I would mark up the Entertainment Weekly Fall TV preview with notes about this new show or that, carefully weighing decisions on what I would invest time in watching.  I still ended up watching just about everything, good or bad.

But I had my mind on writing films, since that seemed possible from my home in Florida, where TV obviously did not.  In July 2002 I visited Los Angeles to help my sister find a place for us to live.  I was trying to get a job transfer but had no idea if I’d get one or not.  She had just spent a couple of months staying on a friend’s couch looking for an assistant job and landed one.  And yet, I felt so alive , actually doing things.

I had started subscribing to Creative Screenwriting that year, intent to learn all I could before moving to L.A. and it was that year they announced that they would sponsor a screenwriting expo.  As soon as I saw the announcement, I emailed that work friend and said “I want to go to this.”  It was being held in early November, and I knew that if I was going to have a shot at getting my relocation approved, I’d need a plan.

So it was with some saved vacation and a very large bag, I packed up and went to Los Angeles to go to the screenwriting expo.  I had no idea when I’d return to Florida.  It could be when the expo was over, but I had a nebulous idea to pitch to my bosses that I could be useful working in California for the weeks between my vacation and Thanksgiving.

And they bought it.

And that’s when the groundwork was laid.  The position I wanted was posted within a couple of weeks of my “visit” and I pushed to get interviewed.  Thanksgiving came and went and I was still in Los Angeles, still working remotely.  I prepared for the idea that I might not get my transfer and would have to submit my resignation.  I was ready for it, even if I had no idea what I’d do if that happened.

Fortune smiled upon me, and the week of Christmas I got the word — the job was mine, and the company would relocate me in January.  Right after the holidays I flew back to Florida to pack up my stuff and moved West.

The following year I started down my own path, pursuing my own dreams by enrolling in the UCLA Professional Screenwriting Program. Based on the UCLA MFA in Screenwriting, I felt it was the best way for me to jump start my training, jump in and learn, learn, learn. So I did that for a year, writing two scripts for the program, and then felt directionless once more. I was frustrated that I wasn’t able to improve my abilities very rapidly. Everything I read and heard was that you need to write a few scripts to not only figure out how to do it properly, but to really find your own voice. If I was going to keep writing features (and I was not a speedy writer by any count), it was going to take a long time to get in the game, and I felt that time was not on my side. I had just turned 30 and I felt the first real pressure that my age may count against me in this career aspiration.

So I thought about how I could get more scripts written more quickly…shorter scripts…television! I started taking UCLA Extension classes for TV Writing and my new path emerged. I still intend to write a feature or two, but I have never looked back from the decision to write TV. Once I started cranking out specs, my writing started to improve more quickly, and I realized I really liked writing for TV, for most of the reasons others have already stated.

While I was contemplating how to answer this a strange little thought occurred to me that I had never pondered before. Most of those stories, those improv plays and the prose were written very episodically. I wrote to entertain my friends, and I’d write a “chapter” during study hall, and I always had a cliffhanger to keep them guessing until the next chapter, so I guess I was already trained for act breaks without even knowing it. I also really loved naming my chapters which now is like naming episodes. I suppose if I wasn’t writing TV I’d try my hand at movie serials…well, if anyone still made them.

So, that’s ‘why TV’. It wasn’t a thunderbolt, but like most things, something that crept up on me and then felt completely right when I did it. I can say that the moment I knew for certain that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life was when I went to pitch my pilot for the first time. I didn’t care whether they’d want to buy it in the room or not, I was just so happy to be living the dream, and that feeling was one I didn’t want to lose ever.

And I still feel that way – living the dream. I may not have ‘made it’ yet, but I know I will and I’m already doing the things I only imagined. Not a bad way to live. 

Posted under blogs, writing

This post was written by Shawna on August 29, 2008

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Visiting Valhalla, or "I went to Austin and all I got was this kickass t-shirt"

Let the gushing begin! I doubt you’ll find a negative review of the Austin Film Festival anywhere on the ‘net. What you will find are a lot of bloggers who make the annual pilgrimage seeking wisdom, friendship, free alcohol and a few Hollywood contacts.

This year, things felt a little strange. And I wasn’t the only one feeling it.

Gone was the desperate need to talk to everyone “important” in the room. Vanished was my anxiety over cramming as much as possible into my trip.

This year, I relaxed. And I had very dry skin. But, you don’t care about the dry skin, I know what you’re wondering.

“Why, oh great aspiring TV scribe, were you so relaxed?”

For starters, this was my second trip to Austin. It really does feel like coming home when you walk into the Driskill Hotel bar and plop down on one of the supple leather sofas. More than once I did said plopping and sighed audibly. There’s something incredibly relaxing about sighing and plopping.

While in the Driskill bar post-sigh/plop I experienced the following (not in order, one thing about Austin, events of the few days get jumbled around).

  • I sat on the arm of one of those awesome couches, reading my Blackberry. In a sort of weird half plop onto the sofa, sliding down the leather to a mostly horizontal position, Kyle Chandler walked past and said “I saw that.” I giggled like a giggling thing who has just seen an incredibly HOT man walk past her in a smokin motorcycle jacket. Really, I have a whole new appreciation of leather after this trip.
  • While lounging on a couch, again, mostly horizontal, tap tapping away on my lappytop, Oliver Stone cruised by. No one else noticed him. He was wearing this white suit that seriously looked like he’d raided the costume trailer on the MIAMI VICE TV show.
  • I was hanging in the lounge when Scott Richter, incredible writer, fabulous guy, came breezing through after the awards banquet. I jumped up off the couch (which, I think we’ve established by now, is no small feat considering how awesome these couches are) and asked him the BIG QUESTION: Well??? (Okay, that may not seem big to you, but it’s all about context. Had I given you the rest of the conversation it would have been something like ‘Dude, you totally are a finalist for the teleplay competition! You rock beyond all belief! You’d better tell me the minute you find out that you won this thing with your pinky finger and your Grey’s Anatomy spec.” Well, it was far less surfer dude when I said it, but you get the idea) So, I asked, “Well???” He smiled wide, and that’s all I needed. It was epic, man.
  • I watched Terry Rossio twirl his girlfriend around as they danced. That was beautiful.
  • I ran into Will Bingham, winner of the FOX show ON THE LOT over the summer and a friend of my sister’s boyfriend (side note: said boyfriend was also in the top 50 for ON THE LOT, but got cut in the top 32. He and Will went to FSU together and Will was in his short/trailer which BF submitted to OTL to get on the show. Yes, there were a lot of acronyms in there. Deal.) It was a bit weird as I was rushing through the lounge, and I turn to look at a guy standing there, and my verbal diahrea took hold and I shouted “Will!” He looked up, and I realized how stupid I was — he’s never met me. He’s met my sister though, so I introduced myself and he relaxed, possibly realizing that I was not some weird reality show stalker.
  • I ate a lot of Clif Bars. I highly recommend the new Nectar Cherry Pomegranate.

I’m sure there was more, but like I said, total jumbled blur. I did revel in Brett’s success with that Nicholl thingy, basked in the glow of the super successful Julie O’Hora there as a panalist and professional screenwriter, and celebrated the new release of
Deborah Chesher’s
book Everybody I Shot is Dead. It’s a fantastic book. Buy it at the link above.

There’s more to say, but not right now. It was a fabulous trip made more fabulous by my friends, these great people (and I’m not forgetting you, Ryan, Thomas, Tina, Theresa, Ann, and those I met for the first time).

Let’s do this again next year. When, hopefully, I’ll be a panalist.

Posted under Uncategorized

This post was written by Shawna on October 17, 2007

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Contest deadlines looming

Austin Film Festival has already passed, but other teleplay competitions deadlines are coming up fast. A quick recap:

ABC/Disney Fellowship: The big kahuna of teleplay competitions, the program selects somewhere between 10-15 fellows in the feature, drama and sitcom categories combined for the one year program. Deadline: July 1st

Screenwriting Expo: Believe it or not, I actually had some pull on getting this one started. Several people (including myself) annoyed the contest organizers to add a teleplay competition for this year. They have heard our whining and come through for us. Top prize is $1000 for both half hour and one hour categories. Don’t let me down, guys. Enter!! Early Bird Deadline: July 1st, Regular Deadline: July 31st, Midnight Oil: August 14th

Warner Brothers Writers Workshop: The program is being ‘revamped’. Website should have updates by July 1st.

Slamdance: fox21 sponsored pilot competition (half hour $30 and full hour costs $40). They also have options for coverage and multiple readers for the contest (costs extra). Grand prize is a blind script deal to develop a tv series. Early Deadline: June 25th, Regular Deadline: August 21st

Posted under writing

This post was written by Shawna on June 25, 2007

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She’s alive!

I pronounced her dead two days ago, but she started blogging again yesterday. I like getting fast results like that.

Things They Won’t Tell You in Film School.

And all was put right in the world. Except Nathan Fillion still doesn’t have a TV show. Dammit.

Posted under blogs

This post was written by Shawna on April 26, 2007

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