Paula Yoo – Writer: The West Wing/ Eureka/ Supergirl
When did you realize you wanted to work in television?
Originally, I never dreamed of working in television. I just liked to watch TV. I was an English major at Yale, and my dream was to become a novelist. Which did thankfully happen – I am a published children’s book author and YA novelist. My books include the YA novel Good Enough (HarperCollins 2008) and my latest children’s picture book biography is Twenty-Two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank (Lee & Low Books, 2014).
But before I sold my first book, I was a journalist. After graduating from college, I attended Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. I then worked as a reporter for The Seattle Times, The Detroit News, and PEOPLE Magazine.
While I was working at PEOPLE in Los Angeles, a TV writer friend casually suggested I should pursue TV writing because I loved writing fiction but was also very good at deadline writing, given my journalism background. She said TV writing was like fiction writing with strict journalism deadlines. Plus, she knew I watched a TON of TV.
I couldn’t get that idea out of my head. During a summer vacation camping trip, I impulsively decided to write my first TV script ever. I bought a legal pad and handwrote an episode of one of my favorite shows at the time, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off series Angel. I then typed it up on my computer after my camping trip ended and sent it off to the Warner Bros. Television Writers’ Workshop for drama writers. To my shock, Warner Bros. called a few months later to say I had been accepted into the program!
As soon as the program ended, I was signed to an agent. I was very lucky and grateful to have my first TV staff writer job on the fourth season of NBC’s The West Wing. So that’s how I got started in this business!
What advice do you have for college students who are looking to pursue the television industry?
I actually want more advice myself! I am always learning and growing as a writer with each job in this industry. My advice is to remain positive and work hard, because this industry is very competitive and has long, demanding hours. I also strongly advise aspiring TV writers to write ALL THE TIME. Obviously your job responsibilities come first – but once you have finished a script deadline for your job, be sure to carve out time to work on your own craft. Because this industry is very capricious and unpredictable, you always need fresh writing samples for the next gig… and hopefully that one pilot spec sample that could be “The One” and become your OWN TV series. As a TV writer for other shows, you also have to be able to mimic that show’s voice and tone. But always remember to hone your own voice for your own passion projects – you are the only person in the world with your particular point of view and life experience. Use those unique qualities to create a fresh new voice and vision for your own future TV series!
What was your first job in the industry? What did you learn from it?
My first job was as a staff writer for NBC’s The West Wing. Unlike most other TV writers, I was older when I started out in TV. Many writers start out right after college. I spent the first ten years after college as a working journalist. My unusual background was what helped me get hired on this show. So I was definitely a novice and had no idea how a writers’ room worked, or how TV shows were made. I was thrown into the deep end of the pool and had to work hard to stay afloat! My background as a journalist helped – I’m used to observing and quickly learning how to adapt and bond with an interview subject, so I used that to figure out how to survive this industry! I learned a lot from this first job in terms of writing craft issues, especially dialogue, which is a totally different type of writing style from books. It was an honor and privilege to work for this acclaimed show.
Something you wish someone had told you about the industry?
I wish someone had told me never to be discouraged during the TV staffing season frenzy. The rejections can be brutal – but never take them personally. Instead, learn and grow from these rejections and move forward. Today’s rejection could be tomorrow’s future job offer. This has happened to myself and other friends, where we were passed on a project the first time around, only to be offered that same job later when room opened up on staff! Whenever you are rejected from a job, take that time to WRITE. It’s hard to write when you’re unemployed… I am also a K-12 certified substitute teacher in the public school system because I need to keep working between TV jobs. But I always make sure I carve out time to write a fresh spec script. The times when I would substitute teach and write were really depressing… until that new script I wrote got me hired on a new show! I always think about Tim Allen’s line in Galaxy Quest when it comes to TV staffing season – “Never give up, never surrender!”
What is your writing process like?
My writing process is similar for both writing books and scripts. The first stage is just to THINK. I will read and re-read books or watch certain TV shows before writing a book or script because reading good writing helps influence your own process. I then brainstorm ideas and figure out basic story structures. The most important writing usually happens during the time you are NOT writing but just thinking. Writing is a very reflective and introspective process. It’s vital to get to that “quiet space” in your head to let a story – and the voice and the characters and emotional journeys – develop. Afterwards, I will do the famous “vomit draft” where I just write a terrible first draft. To me, the real writing is the REWRITING of a script or book. But you can’t get there if you haven’t FINISHED a rough draft. So finishing a rough draft is very important to my process.
However, because I’ve been working forever in both books and TV, I sometimes find myself NOT doing the “vomit draft” and instead just slowly cobbling out a scene or a page here and there in a very careful and thoughtful manner.
In other words, my writing process changes constantly. It just depends on the project and my mood. And if I’m hungry or not. So I have learned not to beat myself up if I find myself writing a project in an unusual manner because every project is different. So I guess I don’t really have a “set” writing process. My process is more organic – I let the project dictate the process!
How has your time been working on Supergirl?
I started writing for Supergirl in May 2016 for the second season. It is such an honor and privilege to write for this show that is both family friendly AND empowers young women with positive images and storylines. The writers’ room is filled with incredibly talented and super smart people whom I also consider my friends. We have a very supportive and caring group of writers – we all work hard together as a team to put forth the best show possible every week. I’m also honored to work with the show’s amazing cast and production crew. This is that rare job where you actually look forward to going to work every day!
How was it in the writers’ room to work on an arc that has been so important to so many people? How did you all approach Alex’s storyline and eventually decide to handle it the way you did?
It was very exciting when we were told by our show’s creators, Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg and Ali Adler about their idea for Alex’s storyline. I applaud our show creators for addressing LGBTQIA+ stories and issues in a positive and compassionate manner. Many young people and their families watch our show, and we are grateful Alex’s storyline has had such a powerful and positive impact on our LGBTQIA+ youth.
What’s your favorite thing that you’ve ever written? (From The West Wing, Eureka, or Supergirl)
I am very proud of the episode “Han” from The West Wing, which aired in 2003. I am Korean American, and I wanted to write a diverse storyline involving a North Korean pianist who wants to defect at the White House. Peter Noah and Mark Goffman wrote the teleplay, and I received a Story By credit. It meant a lot to me to have diverse Asian characters onscreen, which was rare back then. (Things have improved since then for Asian Americans in front of and behind the camera, but I believe Hollywood still needs to work hard to showcase even more diverse media representation and inclusion).
What shows made you fall in love with television? What shows are you currently loving?
I am an aging Gen Xer, so wow, I can’t even begin to list all the TV shows I’ve watched over the past 200 years. But seriously, I would say some of the classic shows that I worshipped back in the Mesozoic Era (haha) included all the Star Trek series (I’m a diehard Trekkie/Trekker), especially Star Trek: The Next Generation. I also love character-driven dramas, and I LOVED thirtysomething in college. I even bought all the DVDs of that iconic series! I am also a huge horror buff, so of course I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Off the top of my head for current (or recently finished) series, I loved watching shows like The Walking Dead, Westworld, Black Mirror and Mad Men. And of course, let’s not forget all the shows I’ve worked on (including Mozart in the Jungle, Defiance and Eureka) plus the awesome lineup of Supergirl, The Flash, Green Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow on The CW! As an Asian American, it has also been a thrill to see such shows as Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken, and Master of None. I’m sure I’m missing a ton of shows, but this is what I could think of off the top of my head.