Sarah Heyward (aka Shiny) is someone who fully understands the significance of a good ’90s TV show as well as the stresses of crafting a perfect 140 characters. In a nutshell, she’s a writer, tweeter, and all-around gifted person. Whether she’s writing about Marnie being the “bad friend” for HBO’s Girls or “Movie Jobs That Probably Don’t Exist” for Hello Giggles, Ms. Shiny sure does shine!
MC: When did you start writing for your enjoyment?
SH: I always wrote little things my whole life. As most little girls do, I wanted to be a movie star, but everyone always told me that I would end up being a writer. I didn’t know why they were all saying that and then, of course, I ended up being a writer.
My sophomore year of college I wrote my real first short story. I wrote a little three-page short story to apply for a creative writing class. I was so positive I wasn’t going to get in; I didn’t even check the list of who got in when they put it up. But then someone told me that I got in and, literally, two months later I was switching my major so that I could eventually write a creative thesis. From then on I knew that I was going to be a writer in some form.
I wrote fiction all through college and then I went to grad school for fiction writing. I was writing short stories and imagining that I would write a novel at some point. Then, while I was in grad school, one of my teachers, who was a novelist and a bit of a screenwriter, thought that I would be good at screenwriting. He put it in my head. For some reason it had never occurred to me, even though I loved TV and movies. He got me in touch with an agent in LA who sent me a bunch of movies to watch and scripts to read. When I was leaving grad school, and it came time to choose between staying an extra year to teach and work on my fiction writing or moving to LA to become a screenwriter, I made the decision to move to LA. I completely switched tracks from fiction writing to screenwriting.
What did you learn at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and how has it helped you with writing on Girls?
Iowa was amazing. Everyone there is either writing fiction or poetry. They really don’t talk about screenwriting and as I said I wasn’t even thinking about screenwriting quite yet. I think mostly what I learned was from being surrounded by so many talented and creative people. The friends I made at Iowa are the smartest, most talented, people I’ve ever met. And being in a community where everyone is like that, and everyone is writing all day, everyday, [was amazing]…That’s what influenced me the most…
Were your parents supportive of you wanting to have a career in the arts?
Yeah, they were really supportive. My dad worked in TV news for most of my life and my mom was a writer, so they both were very into that. There was no hope at any point that I was going to become a doctor. It was never like, oh I should be a doctor or a lawyer but I’m going to try my hand at this writing thing. It was more like, well, this might be the one thing that you’re good at so keep doing it! They’ve been really, really helpful and supportive. I’ve been lucky compared to some people whose parents either don’t get what they’re doing or don’t think they should be doing it.
You write a lot about ’90s TV shows (which were obviously the best era of TV). How did those shows influence you or how do you think watching TV in general as a kid influenced your writing?
[Sarah laughs] I write a lot about those shows in essays online and certainly they’ve influenced that writing because I’m analyzing every minute of them.
But in terms of the writing we do on Girls—Girls is pretty different from any other TV show right now and not [very similar] to anything from the ’90s either. But we definitely reference old shows all of the time. As soon as we started writing, Lena [Dunham] gave us a million shows to watch. On an average day in the writers room we talk about everything from Mary Tyler Moore to My So Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Seinfeld, obviously Sex in the City. We’re constantly referencing old TV shows because at this point TV has been around long enough that everything sort of has “been done.” It would be silly not to be thinking about that and trying to figure out how shows did certain things well, how they didn’t do other things as well, how we can improve on the model they’ve established; all of that. I would say we reference TV constantly.
How did you get involved with Girls?
That was a really, really lucky thing. I moved to LA. I needed a job where I could write on the side and I lucked into a personal assistant job for this writer/director. (She was lovely; I worked with her and her family for about a year.) Her kids were getting older and she was kind of using me as a babysitter. I told her that I didn’t want to babysit anymore and she was like, “Oh, okay, well then I don’t really have use for you.”
I went home crying and emailed the few “grown up” contacts that I had in LA at that point, one of whom was this woman Jenni Konner. She said, “Oh, I need an assistant for this pilot I’m producing. It’s called Girls. It would just be a three-month job; we don’t really know what’s going to happen. You’d just be assisting me while we shoot the pilot”
So I was like, perfect. I had seen Lena’s movie, Tiny Furniture, and loved it. I was really excited about her work and took the job. And then, while we were on set, Jenni and I were talking about my fiction writing and Jenni was saying she’d never read any of it. She asked me to print out one of my stories. I did and she was reading it, then put it down to go do something. Lena walked over and picked it up and was like, “What is this?”
Jenni came back and said, “Oh, that’s Sarah’s. She writes, you should read it!” (she’s the most supportive person in the world).
Lena took it home and read it and she hired me two or three weeks later.
Oh, my gosh.
It was amazing! It was the luckiest circumstance in every way. From getting fired from that first personal assistant job to Jenni leaving my story on a chair was amazing.
That’s really awesome. So, you started out as a Staff Writer for the first season and now you are a full-fledged writer. Can you talk about how your job changed last year?
All of those titles are relatively meaningless—it’s all Writers’ Guild regulations. You’re called a staff writer if it’s your first year on a show. You automatically get promoted if you’re on the show for a second year to Story Editor. Then the third year you’re Executive Story Editor, and so on. In terms of what you are doing, it doesn’t change that much year to year until you get up to a much higher level. I think next year or the year after (theoretically, if Girls went on) I eventually become a Co-Producer. Then in addition to making more money you have more responsibilities like having to be on set longer. So, for me personally, the first year I wasn’t on set—when they were shooting—maybe one day a week, where I now go to set every single day.
Girls is unique because every writer is on set all day; we’re writing it; we’re watching them shoot it; we’re making changes as they go. The writers are all really involved in “the making of” process.
Last season you co-wrote “Bad Friend” with Lena. What was it like to collaborate on an episode? Do you guys talk and write together or do you divvy up scenes?
The way it works is: all the writers sit together at the start of the season. Lena of course has a bunch of ideas for how she wants things to unfold. We riff off of those and brainstorm. It’s very loose and fun; everybody’s telling stories and pitching a million ideas for the season. Then, we start shaping it, like: what’s this character’s arc going to be, what’s going to happen at the end of the season, what’s going to be happening with Hannah and Adam? And so on. From there we get more and more specific until we have a vague outline of what’s going to happen in each episode. This is all still fully as a group. Then they pick who is going to write each episode and at that point each person starts writing an outline.
When Lena and I were writing “Bad Friend” we got together and brainstormed an outline of how we wanted the episode to look. In that case, we split scenes. It was half and half; she gave me two of the characters and she took the other two. We passed the script back and forth I’d take my turn adding jokes or even editing the whole script. And she might do the same. At the end of the day Lena, of course, has final say and way, way more influence over the script than anyone else. It was very collaborative; she’s great at collaborating. She’s really generous, open minded and fun to work with. (Plus, we’re about the same age, so she’s my friend and it’s fun to be sitting in a room with her brainstorming ideas.)
I co-wrote another episode with her for season three and we did it a little differently. I went of and wrote a draft of the whole script and the she took it and made changes and we passed it back and forth that way. It depends on her schedule and what’s easiest for how we’re running the show that year.
What’s your writing process in general? That’s kind of a heady question. [I laugh]
[Sarah laughs] I’m a big outliner. I really like to know what I’m doing before I sit down to write it. I find plotting and make sure the structure makes sense, the most boring part for me. I love writing dialogue. I love coming up with jokes and funny little details. So, whether it’s a short story or screenplay, I try to get all of the planning out of the way. Then I write what we call a vomit draft, which is where you’re not changing anything as you go or correcting it. Just filling dialogue even if it’s as lame as:
-“How are you?”
-“Good. How are you?”
Stuff you would be SO embarrassed to show anyone. But then there is this magical thing that once the pages are filled—even if it is with total crap—it’s so much easier to go back and go through each scene and make the dialogue better. It’s a neat way of avoiding the blank page writer’s block thing.
You guys are finishing the third season soon. Can you say anything about it? I’m dying… I seriously can’t wait for the new season.
[Sarah laughs] I can’t give any spoilers. We have been saying that this is the season of awkward pants for Hannah.
We’ve seen a lot of dresses and rompers, but we are going to see a lot of pants this season.
This is just my opinion, but it has taken a very natural progression. The girls are growing up in real life and on the show. More serious jobs, more serious questioning of their futures, more serious relationships, getting out of relationships. Once you’re a few years out of college that stuff becomes a little more serious.
Would you ever like to be the “Lena” of a show? The creator, star, etc.
I don’t know about star, but certainly create! Lena is amazing, so cool, and inspiring because when I met her she was literally 24 and to see what she could do with being a young woman, creating the show, and having so much success from it. And from a pure writing standpoint it’s awesome she gets final say. She can imagine something and then it’s filmed. I’m totally into that and would love to have my own show at some point. But starring in it is a different story! [Sarah laughs]
[I laugh] Well, you also write for Hello Giggles. What do you enjoy most about contributing to that site?
They give you a lot of freedom to write about whatever you want. It could be two in the morning and I could say to my boyfriend, “Why do so many horror movies take place at a sleepaway camp?”
Then I can write a Hello Giggles article about horror movies that take place at sleep away camp the next day. In that sense it’s very freeing. When I first started with them it was a great way to take a break from screenwriting and stream of consciousness to write a pop culture essay. They’re super feminist and supportive of women and trying to get more voices heard and all ages. I really like what they are doing. I’ve also made a lot of friends through the site, which is cool. It’s been really fun!
Any tips on being an awesome Tweeter like you?
[Sarah laughs] For me, I try not to tweet too much, because it drives me crazy when people tweet like fifty times a day. I save a lot of tweets in my draft folder, which is probably against what twitter stands for. If I’m not sure I’ve gotten the wording right or I’m sure about a certain joke I’ll save it and look at it later. Or if there is a few days when I’m blocked and can’t think of anything to tweet I’ll look at my drafts. Twitter’s actually where I get writers block the most because it feels like you have to be so clever and short. It’s a lot of pressure! [Sarah laughs]
Yeah, I definitely agree. It’s a stressful process.
[Sarah laughs] I also get obsessive about like, Oh it’s been five minutes and no one has favorited it. I NEED to delete this tweet! That kind of really self-sabotaging thinking.
Preach!! [I laugh] Well, What advice do you have for aspiring television writers?
My first piece of advice is probably upsetting for some people to hear but it’s: move to Los Angeles. There are definitely rare exceptions to this, so I’m not going to say that no one outside of LA is ever going to be a TV writer, but it’s 10,000x easier when you’re living out there. Because everyone you are meeting is in the industry (for better or for worse) and you’ll get job opportunities from going to a party. You’re surrounded by people who are doing what you’re doing and interested in what you are doing.
There is also so much more movement. For example: you’ll start in an entry-level job as an assistant and then you’ll meet someone who knows this person who is starting a new TV show and then you’re the writer’s assistant on that. I don’t think that type of movement can happen in any other city.
Once you are in LA there is a pretty clear path you can take.
- Getting an assistant job
- Trying to get a writers assistant job (which means you are in writer’s room when people are writing their TV shows)
- Make friends with the writers and start showing them your writing, because if they need a staff writer they will think of you.
There is definitely a path that I didn’t totally follow, but it works for a lot of people.
The other big thing—and this is such a cliche—but be sure that you are writing enough that you have samples to show people the second they ask to see your writing. When I first got to LA I had all of these stories, and it ended up working out with Girls, but people would ask to see my screenwriting all the time and I had nothing to give them. To my younger friends that are just starting out I tell them, “Okay, finish this, then start a pilot, then write a movie. Finish off the thing you are writing and make sure you have enough that when a cool grown-up with an awesome job tells you they want to read your writing you can send it to them right then.” For way too long I was not able to do that. ♦