Between Two Worlds Part One: TV Writer, Shawna Benson (The 100, Emma Approved) Guest Post

It’s no secret that I absolutely love television. But until the fall when most of my favorite TV shows return, it can be easy for my newer readers to forget that aside from reading and revising my manuscript, watching TV and writing for TV are also passions and aspirations of mine and many of my readers.

So what better a reminder than to get back to the basics of what this blog is all about and give you Hollywood the Write Way, take you inside the writer’s room of a hit TV show?

The CW’s The 100 to be exact (Season two premieres October 22nd). Not only that, our guest writer, Shawna Benson also works on the hit series, Emma Approved which I know all of you book nerds love! Below is how Shawna landed these incredible opportunities and how you could too. Stay tuned for more from Shawna in part two! Readers, writers, TV lovers, dreamers… this one’s for you.

I know you.

I’ve been you…hell, I am you. And I know what you’re thinking – what in the name of Hades qualifies her to write a guest post for this blog? I’m not sure I really have the answer to that question, since I’m wondering that very same thing, but I was asked to write about my experiences working in TV and digital entertainment, and here I am. Perhaps when this is over, we’ll both know why I’m here writing this…

Television and digital (online) content. So similar, and yet so different, still. They are like two cousins – same family, and yet, if you got them together at a family cookout you might wonder what the hell the two have in common with each other. That one over there has red hair! The other went to USC while ginger boy barely got through community college…

The fact is, it’s all entertainment, or scripted content, in my case. My day job is that of the Writers’ Assistant on CW’s THE 100, but I also moonlight writing freelance episodes of Pemberley Digital’s EMMA APPROVED, with my sister, Julie. The two jobs share a lot of the same qualities – breaking story as writers in a group, for example, and yet due to their very different budgets and production schedules, moving back and forth between the two worlds can be challenging.

I started this by saying ‘I am you.’ Until this year, I was in exactly the position of every other person who is looking to break into the industry and just not making a dent. I won’t bore you with all of the various stops and starts on the long journey I’ve had thus far (but rest assured there are going to be stops and starts on your journey too – just like rush hour traffic on the 405); suffice to say, if it weren’t for those stops and starts I wouldn’t be where I am now.

You’ve heard before that one of the most important things you can do to establish a career in this industry is to make connections with as many people as you can. You never know which connection will be the one that helps you make progress toward your goals. In getting my job on THE 100, it was invaluable to have made friends with other writers, one of whom my sister and I had known for a few years and who became the Writers’ Assistant for THE 100 in its first season. She was promoted to staff writer and needed to backfill her position. She reached out to those of us who were friends to see if we knew anyone, and I offered myself up for the job, much to her enthusiastic approval. She put in the word for me, and here I am, sitting in the writers’ room, taking notes and gaining invaluable experience on a network TV show. A connection I made years ago with a fellow writer paid off in ways I could never imagine when I forged the friendship.

The work my sister and I are doing on EMMA APPROVED is also the result of relationships. Many years ago I was enrolled in a UCLA Extension Class learning to write TV scripts. A fellow classmate and I became very good friends and our friendship continued long after the class was over. We’d often discuss our scripts as we worked on them and swapped material. He decided to make the jump into developing content for the web, and I continued on my path to writing TV pilots and specs. He and I even collaborated on a multi-platform series I pitched to him after he’d had some critical success with his first self-produced webseries and was getting doors opened to him to pitch new series around town. We sold the pitch and then even resold it, though sadly the project never got made.

While we wrote that series together, he told me about another project he was working on – a modern day retelling of PRIDE & PREJUDICE he was working on with Hank Green. He had no idea if it would be successful, but he was excited to be trying something new in the medium. From that, Bernie Su created an internet success in THE LIZZIE BENNET DIARIES, a webseries that not only attracted a legion of fans but even an EMMY award! When Bernie set out to develop EMMA into its own modern adaptation, I expressed to him my appreciation for the work he had done on LIZZIE BENNET and that Julie and I would love to work with him on EMMA. When the time came that he needed new writers, he reached out to us, and we joined the team, breaking story with the other writers and writing episodes. Once again, a connection made years ago resulted in a job.

So now you’re thinking, ‘well that’s all nice and good, but what if I don’t have those kinds of connections yet?’ We all have to start somewhere. If you don’t live in Los Angeles, making connections within the entertainment industry can be really difficult, but not impossible. Leverage alumni associations of your schools, whether it is high school or colleges. Very often you can find others that attended your school and are very open to talking to current or former students of their alma mater. The internet has made it so much easier to find others with common interests and goals, as well as mentors. Websites, such as The Blacklist can be a great place to connect with other writers. They host writer run blogs and user forums, as well as provide a service to have your work seen by those in the industry and by other writers. Surprisingly, LinkedIn has become a more useful site among industry professionals. I’ve recently made connections with a few other writers’ assistants via the site – there are also discussions forums there which may be useful. Twitter is probably the most immediate and useful interface you can have with other writers. It’s easy to start following writers you like and admire, as well as find those who are trying to break in like you to form a network, including in person or virtual writers’ groups.

If you live in Los Angeles already, you are probably already attending industry events. The Writers Guild Foundation hosts many great events as well as maintains the fantastic library at the Writers Guild. If you can’t attend their events, they’ve recently started releasing some of their previous panels via a new podcast on iTunes. Another great event which serves as a podcast is the Nerdist Writer’s Panel hosted by Ben Blacker. Every month at Meltdown Comics, Blacker brings in writers of TV, film and comics to talk shop. Attending live is a great way to ask questions and meet writers (and network) at low cost. Other great podcasts include John August and Craig Mazin’s Scriptnotes and The Children of Tendu — two television writers Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Jose Molina joined the fray, dishing out actionable advice to aspiring TV writers. All are free resources you should take advantage of.

If you have a keen interest in writing your own series for the web, I recommend getting on the Tubefilter mailing list. Tubefilter hosts events which focus on the good and bad of traversing the digital landscape while networking with others who are interested in being their own producers.

I got so long-winded, I’m splitting my essay into two parts. Come back next week when I dig into the differences between working in TV and digital (web) content. Should be a doozy…

Shawna Benson is a writer and a writers’ assistant. She aspires to be more the former and less the latter in the near future. She lives in Hollywood with her sister and writing partner Julie and their adopted canine son Gideon, who is a jerk.

For more from Shawna Benson, be sure to visit her blog and follow her on Twitter.