Just a few years ago, ER staff writer Shannon Goss was contemplating giving up her dream of working in Hollywood and moving back home to Oregon.
She hadn’t found the right fit, yet.
Goss got her first writer’s credit working as a freelance writer on an updated version of the classic Dragnet TV show in 2003. But success was short-lived as she worked on the show for just one season. And for the next three years she found it difficult to get meetings with producers that could offer her another writing position.
In the interim, she passed the time working for a photographer, while continuing to hold on to her dreams of writing for Hollywood.
Then about a year ago, Goss got the chance to work as a researcher for a pilot script being penned by veteran ER scribe Joe Sachs. Although the pilot script wasn’t shot, the work renewed her interest in TV writing.
When Sachs returned to ER, he helped bring Goss on to the show as a staff writer.
During a holiday break from picketing in front of the major studios with fellow striking members of the Writer’s Guild of America West, Goss took time to talk via phone about her work as a staff writer for ER, growing up in Oregon and finding the right fit when it comes to working in the industry.
And you think, ‘How can they be fired? They are amazing writers!” But a lot of things have to fit — and sometimes it’s not a good fit.
ASIANCE: What ethnic heritage are you?
Shannon: I’m half-Japanese, half-Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English.
ASIANCE: Where did you grow up?
Shannon: I was born in Honolulu, but grew up in Northern California and Oregon.
ASIANCE: How did where you grew up affect your outlook on life?
Shannon: When I think about my upbringing, I mostly think about Oregon. I was there for about 10 years from when I was seven until I left for college. That’s what I identify with — and part of the reason why I wanted to move back. I relate to the way of the life, the values, and the people up there. I grew up in Junction City, a small town outside of Eugene. L.A. is such a different place. I’ve adjusted to it. I’ve made really great friends here and there are things about it that I really like. But when I think about who I am — I am an Oregon girl at heart. My personal and political beliefs and how I view the world is definitely a result of my middle class upbringing and the influence of living in Oregon. But at the same time I have strong ties to Hawaii as well. While I didn’t grow up there, because my extended family is there, it, too, feels like home. There’s something to be said for the Hawaiian way of life!
ASIANCE: Where did you get your education and training?
Shannon: I went to college at the University of San Diego. I was a sociology major. About a year after I moved to L.A. I realized I wanted to pursue writing. In hindsight it made sense because even from when I was in middle school I remember enjoying writing. That was always part of me. In college I mostly wrote papers so there wasn’t a creative bent to my writing. But even after college, just on a whim, I took a screenwriting class and another creative writing class. So looking back it makes perfect sense. But it wasn’t until I came to L.A. that I thought, ‘Oh, this is something I could potentially do as a career.’
ASIANCE: What was your first job in the industry?
Shannon: I worked in TV publicity at Warner Bros. and that was the easiest move for me to make from my previous job in the Alumni Relations office at the University of San Diego, for having no industry experience, but at least having some applicable skills. Into my second year in publicity I realized I wanted to focus more on writing.
ASIANCE: How did you land your current job as staff writer on ER?
Shannon: The head of the publicity department was contemplating leaving the department at the same time, so he identified with me wanting to do something different and he wanted to help. I felt like if I wanted to write for TV, I needed to go work on a show. He said he would help me get a writer’s assistant job, but at the same time one of the other publicists was leaving so he offered me the promotion. He basically said, ‘If you want the job, its yours.’ I spent that weekend thinking, ‘Am I stupid to turn down a job that would essentially double my pay? Is that foolish, or is that me sticking to my guts and following my dreams?’ I knew I didn’t want to take the job because I knew while I could make that my career, I didn’t want to. And it would be even harder if I went on to be a publicist and at some point turned back around and became a writer’s assistant. So I passed on the job and ended up getting in touch with some people over at ER and they had some new writers coming on that needed assistants. One of the writers I was hired to assist was Joe Sachs, who worked to bring me back this year as a writer.
ASIANCE: Would you say that’s kind of the business? That there are no overnight successes?
Shannon: On TV, it’s about finding the right fit — being on a show where you really fit in with the people, with the tone of the show. You always hear stories about people that go on to great success and at one point in their career they were fired from a job. And you think, ‘How can they be fired? They are amazing writers!” But a lot of things have to fit — and sometimes it’s not a good fit. It took me a while to find what I consider a good fit for me and that’s the job I have now.
ASIANCE: Define what a TV staff writer does?
Shannon: In TV that’s the entry level writer position. So most people start as a staff writer, and then from there it’s story editor, executive story editor, co-producer, producer, supervising producer, co-executive producer, and executive producer. If you’re on a show and you’ve been on a show for a while, working year after year, the hope is that every year you bump up another level.
ASIANCE: What is it like working on ER?
Shannon: On our show we’re pretty collaborative in that we spend a fair amount of time in the writers room. We have certain beats that need to happen in every episode because we are serialized to a certain extent and there are continuing story lines. Prior to getting my first script assignment, my role was basically to, along with everyone else on the staff, give notes on every outline that the writers put out, every draft that’s put out. We give notes as a group. We watch dailies together as a group. We screen episodes as a group. So, that for me is a great learning experience. Then once I got my assignment I was responsible for pitching some kind of story, but it’s also very collaborative and supportive in that we talk about a lot of it in the room. So I can go in with an idea and come out with something that’s much better based on our conversations.
ASIANCE: How do you get a script credit? Is that difficult?
Shannon: Staff writers may or may not get a story or script. It depends on the show. I did get a script assignment but unfortunately, I was in the middle of my revised outline when we went on strike.
ASIANCE: If you could change just one thing about the industry, what would that be?
Shannon: Right now, it would be that the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) return to the table so we can negotiate a fair deal and everyone can return to work.
Putting the strike aside, I think one of the most challenging things is, and I don’t know how to change this, is just to get the proper access. I really thought I would be moving to Oregon right now. And I’m so glad that I’m not because I have this job that I love. But I think at the end of the day, it is survival of the fittest. If you’re the last person standing that’s how you’re going to get the job. You have to continue to work your contacts, make connections and keep up with people because it’s so competitive. There are so many people and so few jobs.
ASIANCE: On a lighter note, what’s your favorite TV show besides your own?
Shannon: What has quickly jumped to the number one spot on my Tivo is 30 Rock. I didn’t watch it from the beginning, but my sister got me into it. And now its hands-down the show that every week I make the time to watch. It will never stay on my Tivo for long because I will usually watch it that night or the next day. It’s so funny and Alec Baldwin is so great. It’s really well-written and hilarious.
ASIANCE: Is comedy something you’re interested in working on?
Shannon: I like the funny. I appreciate people that do it well. I think for me when I write I like to infuse a little bit of humor in it. But my humor tends to be a bit more slow paced which means it fits better on a one-hour show. I don’t think I would do well on a sitcom because there is so much pressure to have setup, punchline, setup, punchline — and I don’t think that’s what I do well. I have great respect for people who do that well because I think it’s really difficult.
ASIANCE: What inspires your storytelling?
Shannon: I’m probably a perfect example of write what you know, which is what people always say. But what I enjoy as a viewer and what I also enjoy as a writer is slice of life. A one-hour show that I like that’s a perfect example of this is Brothers and Sisters, which is very dialogue driven. It’s based on the characters and the relationships between those characters.
ASIANCE: What advice do you have for beginning or aspiring screenwriters just starting out in the industry?
Shannon: I think the most important thing besides persistence, which you absolutely have to have, and a great arsenal of writing samples, is to get in there with whatever job you can get, as a PA, or a writer’s assistant. If you want to be a TV writer I feel like that’s the best way to learn how a show is run. And you can make great contacts.
Ed Moy is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. His writing has appeared in Asian Week, Asian American Film.Com, Asiance Magazine and Monolid Magazine.