Paula Yoo chats with readergirlz

During the month of September at readergirlz, we've been spending time with the one and only Paula Yoo, screenwriter, musician, and talented novelist -- a true renaissance woman. Her acclaimed new novel GOOD ENOUGH is about Patti Yoon, a talented musician who's stressing out about college applications and falling in love at the same time.

Teens, authors, divas, and other fans had a chance to ask Paula questions during her hourlong rgz Live! chat at the forum. I know you'll enjoy her honest, bubbly, and often hilarious answers, remembering that her fingers were flying because she was answering in real time:

Q. Do you prefer novel writing or screenwriting better? What do you like best about each one? What’s the most challenging thing about each one?

I would say novels and screenplays are like apples and oranges. They’re sooo different in terms of storytelling. Right off the bat, I would say I love novels the best, period. I was always planning to be a novelist and accidentally fell into screenwriting because my personality fit into this industry/business (you have to be talkative, brave, and very outgoing and able to think on your feet and have a thick skin in the TV world). So that took care of my loneliness as a novelist because book writing is very solitary.

But if I had to choose, hands down I would say I would prefer to write books only. But I do like screenwriting for the fun collaborative effort -- it’s amazing to see how set designers, prop artists, actors, clothing designers, lighting etc. -- how they all read your script and interpret it with their props/costumes/locations etc. And I think screenwriting is fun because it’s great training to make you think more about how to plot storylines and make sure the story beats are logical and compelling.

All that sort of feeds into my novel writing because novels are more loosely structured, so my TV training has helped me outline my novel plots better. And my novel writing is always more about language and voice, so that helps me when I try to create memorable TV characters and to make sure the dialogue is not cliched, etc.

Q. Which came first -- screenwriting or novel writing?

I did novels first. I accidentally fell into screenwriting in 2001 -- a friend of mine who was a writer for the show PROVIDENCE on NBC suggested I try out for the Warner Brothers drama TV writing workshop because I used to be a journalist and was writing novels/short stories. She thought my fiction talents and my ability to write on deadline would make me the perfect TV writer which combines both skills.

So my husband and I were on a camping trip up north (redwoods of california area) and I handwrote an episode of the show ANGEL. It was about a demonic possessed violin! hahahaha. I then typed it up and sent it to the workshop. To my surprise, six months later, they called me and said I was accepted into their 5 week workshop. After the five weeks were up, I got signed to an agent and landed my first job immediately on THE WEST WING and I’ve been a TV writer ever since. This is not the usual way into this industry, so I was very lucky!

Q. How is the creative process when you’re working on a piece of music different from the process of writing?

Musically, I’m mostly either playing music that was already written (classical stuff) or creating new music based on an existing song (i.e. I don’t write my own music, but I will improv solos with rock bands who have written their own music). So when I write music, it’s usually riffing off an existing melody.

Approach wise, I would say the similarities are this: In music, you have to phrase a line properly - it has to make sense music theory wise and also you have to interpret what the composer meant by their dynamic markings etc. and how the line of music organically works in the rest of the context of the whole piece. Aieeee, this is getting academic, sorry. Anyway, there are a billion ways to play the opening line of the Mendelssohn. So you have to decide what way you want to play it and WHY you’re expressing the music that way - it’s showing YOUR interpretation etc.

In writing, there are a billion ways to write, "Patti went to the store to buy some bread." You have to think of style, voice, character, motivation. All that is how I approach music, too. So the sentence "Patti went to the store to buy some bread" could change to, "Patti trudged along the cracked concrete, clutching a crumpled dollar bill she had found on the street, desperately hoping the store would have at least one loaf of bread left so she could feed her family of four for the week." HAHAHAHA. Or you could write, "I can’t stand grocery shopping with my mom. It’s so boring. Why does she buy so much bread? We never finish the stuff. It goes stale and moldy in like two days. Why can’t we just get a box of mac and cheese and call it a day?"

So anyway, I hope this sort of explains how I approach writing music and writing writing (LOL) - it’s all about the interpretation!

Q. Did the characters for GOOD ENOUGH just pop into your head and create themselves? And do they talk to you in your head, or do you just know what they'd say?

The characters popped up immediately. Here’s how GOOD ENOUGH got written. I was on a TV show that had really low ratings, so the network decided to lay off the lower level writers (myself, another staff writer and a story editor) in order to hire three more executive producers. I was without a job, unemployed for the rest of the year, and depressed as heck.

My husband said, "Why not take advantage of the free time to write that novel?" So I sat down and wrote the first chapter of GOOD ENOUGH. I ended up writing until 4 a.m. So for the next five weeks (May to early June) I wrote from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. every single day for five straight weeks in a row. I think I took two showers. LOL.

I cried when I wrote the last sentence of page 300. The first and last chapters are exactly the same from that first draft. I sent it to my agent and he sold it in three weeks. It was the first novel to sell - my other novel attempts had gotten "good" rejections (i.e. the "this is really good but not for us" type rejections). This was the first time I wrote from my heart and wrote about my own life, and the whole adage of "write what you know" rings emotionally true. So that’s how it happened. I normally don’t write this way but I think this book was special.

I can "hear" what my characters will say. It’s sort of a subconscious thing, I think. Also, sometimes it’s more practical -- I will ask myself, "Would Patti/whatever character really react that way? Does that fit consistently with her character?" For example, if I had a shy character, why would she suddenly be sarcastic? And so on. So sometimes it’s a gut level instinctual writing moment, and other times it’s literally thinking about the logic of it all.

Q. What are your writing rituals?

When I’m just brainstorming fun ideas, like, "I wanna write a middle grade novel with a boy character. What should it be about?" etc., I grab my trusty old fashioned composition notebook (and lately it’s been those trendy moleskin notebooks you get from Barnes and Noble), my favorite pens, my new iPhone, my iPod, and I head to a cafe or Starbucks or a coffeehouse and I curl up and doodle for a couple hours and read books and drink a hot chai tea latte with a snickerdoodle, my writing snacks.

Then I come home and type everything up in a coherent "treatment" where I take my scrawls, like for example (I’m making this up on the spot), like let’s say I scrawl in my notebook, "12 year old boy vampire with bratty sister" LOL then in my computer, I’ll write a one page synopsis of what that boy would do based on my notebook scrawls, but I would write in complete sentences and try to make it almost look like a pitch or query letter I would show my agent.

It’s just a great way to practice how to pitch your stories.

When I’m really writing, like writing GOOD ENOUGH or whatever, I stay at home. I usually have my tea (I’m really into yerba matte and drink it with a bombilla like the proper Argentinians do) and a scone or little pastry, I surf the web and answer emails and try to get all my To Do list stuff done first (like paying bills, errands etc.) and then I reward myself by 11 a.m. or noon with some lunch and watching Giada De Laurentiis on Food TV and then I really try to write by 1 p.m. Eventually, by 5 p.m. when I realize I’ve gotten nothing done, I make dinner, watch my favorite TV shows, and then around 10 p.m. start writing and usually that’s when out of nowhere, I write 3000 words. And I go to bed between midnight and 2 a.m.

This is if I am not working on a TV show at the time. If I’m working on a TV show, then I skip all the 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. stuff because I’m at work, and then I just write at 10 p.m. onwards. or whenever I get home from work. :)

I also have a jar of grey poupon mustard (cleaned out) with a giant red ribbon inside. This was a gift from my friend Greg who created my website because one day I called him, upset because someone had given me a mean critique of my work, and I felt frustrated that I had lost my "mojo" so he made that for me and said it was my "mojo."

So when I’m frustrated or blocked, I will open up that little jar and take out the red ribbon and wave it around over my computer. Seriously! It totally works!

Q. Can you read when you’re writing (well, not simultaneously, of course!)?

Sometimes I will take a break from writing and read. Sometimes I read books I’m researching that are similar to a topic I’m writing, or I’ll re-read a classic book for inspiration or because I want to study the tone/language etc. I tend to read a bit before I write, it’s like a warm up for my brain. I think you can’t be a writer unless you read all the time. Right now, I’m trying to turn this cute picture book poem about a mouse into a middle grade novel, like Edward Tulane or Velveteen rabbit style, so I’ve been re-reading CHARLOTTE'S WEB for inspiration because his language is so spare and evocative.

Q. What are some YA books you wish you had written?

I wish I had written CHARLOTTE'S WEB even though it’s not YA. Same with BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and TUCK EVERLASTING. More contemporary YA stuff - I read ELSEWHERE and was furious I hadn’t written that book! hahahahahaha! I looooooooved that book!

I really loved WHEN SHE WAS GOOD by Norma Fox Mazer, I thought INEXCUSABLE was really riveting, I loved WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND but that’s now considered middle grade, right? Believe it or not, I think FREAKY FRIDAY the original novel is hilarious and original, and I looooved SPEAK.

Q. What are you writing next?

I had to write a one-act play for my TV agents to use as a writing sample to hopefully get me staffed on another TV show soon. Bookwise, I am working on a new YA novel and have started outlining an idea for a middle grade series as well as my hopeful cute mouse novel. :)

If you were part of the chat, you know the fast and furious writing that comes from Ms. Yoo's keyboard, so we're expecting many more great reads inspired by the Mojo Jar. In October we're hosting author Rachel Cohn featuring (the movie's coming out, people, so what else?) the novel NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST. Stay tuned for more ...

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