Paula Yoo Takes Risks On and Off the Page
Paula Yoo innovates. She makes things up for a living, weaving fantasies and realities for different characters together to create a story. She is a novelist, picture book writer, and screenwriter for popular television, including NBC’s The West Wing, Fox’s Tru Calling, and SyFy’s Eureka. Her debut novel, Good Enough, was honored at the Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature (APAAL) and nominated for numerous other awards. Oh, and she is also a self-proclaimed geek of all trades who loves science fiction, history, the violin, and her cat Oreo.
A Life-Changing Risk
Over ten years ago, Yoo took a big, life-changing risk by quitting her steady job at People magazine and leaving a successful career in journalism to pursue creative writing.
“Sometimes, quitting is the best thing you can do.”
“It doesn’t mean you’re a failure. You can pursue your dreams and surprise yourself at what you can accomplish,” says Yoo. “I loved journalism…I learned so much and was proud of my work, but I took a big risk and quit. I hadn’t written a novel, yet I wanted to be a full-time fiction writer.”
Faced with financial realities, Yoo took a job teaching part-time at a community college. For the first two years, she focused on writing, writing, and more writing. Her hard work paid off when she landed a television writing gig with the Emmy award-winning series The West Wing in 2002.
Her Start in TV-Land
“TV was perfect for me. It combined the deadline world of journalism and the fictional world of books…plus, I’m a huge TV junkie,” says Yoo about her acceptance into the Warner Brothers’ Writers’ Workshop.
“Writing for TV is a collaborative team effort, and it’s like a play that gets put together. What you write on the page gets re-envisioned and re-imagined into [an] actual tangible and that’s such a creative thrill.”
Currently, she is finishing up the fifth and final season of SyFy’s Eureka, a drama about scientists in a small town building futuristic inventions.
“The entire cast of characters on Eureka was really fun to pitch stories for,” says Yoo. “I also loved how diverse the show was. We had a lot of minority characters on the show who were all represented as doctors and scientific geniuses and it contributes to breaking down stereotypes about different demographics.”
Also, with Eureka, she is trying her hand at imagining new devices and gadgets for the show’s technology-driven plotline.
Leveraging Her Korean American Heritage
Well-versed in the intersection of race and pop culture and racial politics, Yoo has been able to use her Korean American heritage to help inform ideas and pitches for a show’s characters and actors. In The West Wing, she helped write a character named Han, who was a Korean pianist.
“It’s nice to be able to contribute to my heritage,” says Yoo. “But, I see myself as a writer first and foremost. I want to tell good stories with good characters. When I write for shows, I honor and continue their vision. However, as a TV producer, I try to look for diverse actors and recommend talented Asian American actors to casting sessions. “
She writes about her heritage in her books as well. Her two published picture books are about Asian American historical figures. Shining Star follows the determination of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star who paved the path for other Asian American actors to take on more meaningful roles in cinema. Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds tells the true story of Sammy Lee, a Korean American who realized his father’s wishes of becoming a doctor and his own aspirations of becoming an Olympic championship diver. Yoo’s tales are uplifting and inspiring. They cover powerful topics in a light way.
Getting Her First Novel Published
When she writes novels, Yoo is more than just a writer. She is the director, the producer, and everything else in between. Her first novel Good Enough is about high school senior, Patti Yoon, struggling between pleasing her parents with good grades and chasing her own dreams. The story is inspired by her real life as a violin geek in high school and her own internal conflicts of what it meant to be a good daughter.
“I wrote the novel [Good Enough] as a way to poke fun of the model minority myth.
It’s a terrible, racist stereotype, but I wanted to engage it and also deal with my own angst in high school.”
“It was kind of fun to laugh at my nerdy life,” says Yoo. “Plus… kids of all ethnicities have identified with the characters. There’s a universal appeal that people understood…they got her humanity.”
Her adventurous personality has contributed a lot to her success. Aside from being a hard worker, Yoo is also very impulsive. She will try anything once. When she was 25 years old, she left for Prague on a whim. Without knowing anyone there or speaking the language, she set off on her own to spend a week at a youth hospital.
“I’m so proud I did that on my own. When I do stuff like that in my own life, it informs me as a writer,” she says. “I moved around a lot too, living in Korea, Connecticut, Seattle, and now LA. All of these experiences introduced me to diverse cultures and different regions. It’s really opened me up and made me aware of the real world. I just like to live life.”
Her willingness to take risks has helped her become a better writer, and her carefree charm bubbles over into her ability to write captivating stories. Aspiring authors and screenwriters can visit her website and blog at www.paulayoo.com.
How Yoo Overcomes Writer’s Block
Yoo does not believe in writer’s block. To her, there are so many different types of writing, whether it is working on something brand new, revising, or brainstorming ideas. When she is not writing, she is thinking about writing. She also reads 4-5 books every month to keep her mind fresh. There is an incredible discipline to her work.
After all her successes, Yoo continues to work hard. She writes all the time. In the book and television industry, writers always need fresh samples. Yoo’s current writing projects include working on a pilot script for a new television series, another novel for middle-schoolers, and a chapter book. She is also halfway through writing her first adult novel.
“I’m kind of like a machine when it comes to it. Part of it is a direct result of growing up and being very intense about the violin and practicing my scales every day. I was like an athlete but with a violin and this translated into my writing. I write every day no matter what.”
In 2009, after her second picture book was published, she hosted her own version of the popular NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to promote her book. She called it NaPiWriBoWee, or National Picture Book Writing Week, where she took on the wild task of writing 7 picture books in 7 days. She invited others to participate by offering a free signed book to anyone who joined her endeavor.
“It was a way to get rid of my own procrastination and also promote my new book. I had no idea that it would take off the way that it did. I had writers in Egypt, Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, and all over America who wanted to participate. I ended creating a huge community. I’ve done [NaPiWriBoWee] for four years in a row now, and it’s inspired younger writers too. It’s been like a family.”