From TV Writer to Novelist: The Hollie Overton Interview
I knew of Hollie Overton long before I met her: She was one of those writers whose name you start to hear, and often. She graduated WB’s TV Writers Workshop. Got staffed on a number of shows with other writers I knew. Taught at Script Anatomy, my favorite LA-Based TV writing program. We even connected on Twitter, as you do. When I finally met her in person over a year ago at a networking event I wasn’t disappointed: She was instantly warm, positive, insightful. Make no mistake about it: While she is sweet (it’s her Texas nature, after all), Hollie is also a force. So when Hollie shifted gears and released her instantly-successful novel BABY DOLL, I was eager to learn all about what brought her to this point. How does one go from a once-questioning actress to working writer with success in multiple formats? Hollie told me all about it in the following interview.
You are a Texas native – when did you come out to Los Angeles, and why?
Hollie: I grew up in Texas, but I always wanted to be an actress. I moved to NYC right after high school and attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After a few years of waiting tables, auditioning and doing theater for no money, I started to realize that the odds of a tone deaf actress with two left feet making it on Broadway was highly unlikely. My mom encouraged me to move to LA and I’m so grateful that I took her advice. I’m also glad that I was young enough not to be intimidated. It is really hard to make it in LA but if you’re willing to put in the work and take the time and endure all the setbacks, it can happen. I had lots opportunities to audition for TV but in the end I just wasn’t good enough as an actress. I’m okay with that because writing is a much more natural fit for me. When I think back, I realize how much anxiety acting caused me. Of course I wished I’d realized that earlier but my acting training definitely informed my writing.
What brought you to writing?
Hollie: I always loved writing as a kid. I scribbled stories in journals. I was on the high school newspaper and won awards in journalism, including a state competition. But I never really considered writing as a career because I was so focused on acting. The more frustrated I grew with my success level as an actress, the more I turned to writing to feed the creative beast. The greatest challenge as a writer was finding the courage to share my work with others.
You got your start as a television writer. How did you break into TV?
Hollie: I broke into TV when I was accepted into the Warner Brothers Writers’ Workshop. Most of your readers are very familiar with the WB Workshop, but for those that aren’t, it’s a training program for TV writers that trains you in the ins and outs of being a staff writer. I call it TV writing boot camp because it’s an all-encompassing educational program that tests your stamina and your desire to do the job. WB invests a lot in getting you ready for the job, teaching you the ins and outs of the business, what it’s like to be in a writers room, how to get an agent/manager, etc. It’s very competitive and I feel fortunate that I was selected and given the opportunity despite being quite inexperienced.
Gotta ask… why television?
Hollie: I started writing features but it wasn’t a natural fit. The business had already started to inch further away from smaller character driven indie movies (what I love writing) and was focusing on big action tentpoles. When I started writing TV in 2008, celebrity showrunners like Shonda Rhimes, Matt Weiner and Vince Gilligan were making TV the place to be. But it was my first mentor, a writer named Stephen Susco who really planted the seed that TV might be where I belonged. Stephen has an amazing resume (The Grudge, High School, etc.) and in 2006, he hosted a contest to raise money for his hometown library in Pennsylvania. The prize was a yearlong mentorship. That was life changing. Not only did he read countless scripts and give notes, but he encouraged me to try TV. I signed up for a TV writing class at UCLA extension and never looked back.
What did you like the most about writing for television? What did you like the least?
Hollie: I truly love the collaboration. It’s the best thing in the world to be in a room with smart, funny, insightful people and be able to bring stories to life. There’s also an immediacy in TV. You write something and three or four weeks later, you’re on set filming it. It’s like being a kid again except this time I get paid for making up stories.
The downside to writing for TV is that I’m very much an all or nothing type of person and when you’re on a show it can be all-consuming. You want to succeed, you want to contribute, which means that you have to always be prepared. You’re constantly thinking about the show and thinking about pitches and the episode you’re going to write. I’m getting better, but it can be difficult finding balance with my “show life” and my real life.
When did you decide to explore writing a novel, and why?
Hollie: It wasn’t really a conscious choice. I just started writing with my main character Lily in mind. I kept thinking it might be a character sketch for a feature or a pilot. When I finally stopped writing a few days later, I had ninety pages. It actually took me awhile to admit to myself that I was writing a book. I felt intimidated by tackling something as daunting as writing a novel. But eventually I realized that a novel was how I would best be able to tell this particular story.
How is the process of writing a novel different than writing for television?
Hollie: To me, it’s not all that different. I’m still exercising the same muscles in TV and writing books. You still need a compelling plot and dynamic characters. You still have to create tension and layers, subtext, etc. The biggest difference between writing TV and writing my first book was that I didn’t outline. I sort of found the story as I went along. I’d never do that if I were writing a TV or film script. Structure is just too important. But with a novel, you have more freedom to explore, to see where the story is going. You can run into trouble (like I did) when you get halfway through and you’re not quite sure what story you’re telling. When I got to that point, I had to go back and outline the last half of BABY DOLL. When I started writing my 2nd book, I made sure I had a loose outline, so I didn’t find myself in that situation again.
What is Baby Doll about, and what inspired you to write it?
Hollie: BABY DOLL is a thriller about Lily Riser, an identical twin who goes missing at sixteen years old and returns home eight years later with a terrifying story of abuse. It’s about what happens next, to Lily, her daughter, her mother, her twin sister and her abductor. I felt inspired to write it after watching news stories about Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man, who kidnapped three women and held them captive for ten years. They finally managed to escape and while the media focused on the more salacious elements of the crime, I kept thinking about the girls and their lives after they came back. As an identical twin, my sister Heather and I are best friends. I couldn’t imagine losing her or how we’d survive being separated. That really was the inspiration for the main characters and the jumping off point for BABY DOLL.
Why did you decide to write it as a book, rather than a pilot or a screenplay?
Hollie: Hollywood stories about women are often perceived to have less value (see Ghostbusters remake and the furor over it). I love writing about strong powerful women overcoming obstacles, not just stories about women falling in love. I’d written a pilot with my sister about two young women, searching for their missing father. My agents liked it but we were told no one would buy it because it wasn’t a love story and no network will make shows about young girls not searching for love. And it’s true. If you look at the networks, no one is making an all female True Detective or a female Stranger Things. So I was already feeling frustrated by the fact that the stories I wanted to tell weren’t being valued in the TV space. But I was also tired of writing things just as “samples” which is what you do when you’re trying to get jobs. You get all these notes and all this creative input and at the end of the day there are a million reasons why a script doesn’t sell or execs don’t want to read it. I decided I wanted to write something just for me, not something for the market or something to sell. I wanted to experience joy at sitting down to write again without any voices in my head, telling me to make it more commercial or more edgy.
Tell me about the process of completing your book, and finding your publisher. Was your agent helpful in this pursuit?
Hollie: I truly had a dream experience on the road to publication. I know it’s not easy for many first time authors so I’m grateful for that. Once I finished writing the manuscript, my manager Adesuwa McCalla and my TV agent, Lindsay Dunn were instrumental in getting BABY DOLL published. Lindsay connected to me Eve Atterman, a book agent in the NYC office. Eve was amazing. She read a draft and really saw the potential. She had fantastic notes, which I addressed and then we took the book out to editors and sold it in the UK, US and multiple countries. I feel fortunate that I have such passionate, encouraging reps who really believed in BABY DOLL and my future as a novelist.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the journey to publishing your first novel?
Hollie: I think somehow the stars aligned and the journey to publishing (knock on wood) has been a great one. But I don’t want any of your readers to think my writing career hasn’t had its challenges. I’ve experienced a mountain of rejection and struggles, especially in my TV career. I’ve had shows cancelled. It’s been hired to get hired on a new show and I spent several years out of work. One year I had six showrunner meetings and didn’t get a single job. I’ve had pilots fail and I’ve battled my own insecurity as an artist. It’s about never letting those disappointments knock you off course. What matters to me is that despite all those setbacks, I still kept writing and pursuing that next opportunity.
Do you feel like you have to choose between novel and television writing, or can the two compliment one another? I really do love writing both. They allow me to flex different muscles.
Hollie: Right now I’m writing on a show and completing my 2nd novel. It’s not easy finding the time to do both, but you learn to sleep less. Whenever I get discouraged and feel overwhelmed, I think about Oprah. You can’t build an empire without lots of hard work. And as long as I’m allowed to tell great stories in both mediums, I’m going to keep doing it.
Does having a book published give you an edge in the screenwriting world?
Hollie: I’ve gotten some meetings I don’t think I would have gotten before Baby Doll was sold but it remains to be seen how much of an edge it will give me. I hope it does!
What is coming up next for you?
Hollie: I’m promoting BABY DOLL (available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and wherever books are sold). I’m writing on the 2nd season of Shadowhunters on Freeform (formerly ABC Family). I’m completing my 2nd novel, THE WALLS which will be out next year. I also teach and consult at Script Anatomy, helping other writers develop their work and break into the business.
Do you have any advice for young writers who are deciding whether to write in the television or novel space?
Hollie: There’s merits to both. I think if you’re passionate about TV and film, and you have a great idea that seems uniquely suited to TV, write a TV pilot, submit to contests, get it out there. Writing a script requires much less of a time commitment than writing a novel. But Hollywood’s current obsession with intellectual property (IP) makes novels a lot more valuable these days. They want something with a built in audience. It’s all about the best way to tell the story and how you think will serve it. The best part about the industry right now is that it doesn’t matter what format you start in. Look at Shadowhunters. It began as a book series, became a movie and now it’s a TV show. All that matters is that you keep writing. If you have a great idea, and you create something from it, good things will happen— I’m living proof.
Hollie Overton, a Texas native, now calls LA home. A TV writer, Hollie is currently a Co-Producer on Freeform’s “Shadowhunters,” and she has written on “Cold Case,” and “The Client List,”
Hollie’s debut thriller, BABY DOLL was recently published in the US, UK and eleven other countries. For more info, visit Hollie at www.