Hollywood powerhouse screenwriter/director/producer Jessica Bendinger (Stick It) is adding another title to her credits: author. Her young adult novel The Seven Rays—a paranormal coming-of-age story that delves into love, friendship, family, and the supernatural—will be released by Simon & Schuster on November 24th. A former journalist for SPIN and MTV News, Bendinger got her break writing the hit movie Bring It On. Other screenwriting credits include Sex and the City (season 4), The Truth About Charlie, First Daughter, and Aquamarine. Bendinger speaks with Write On! about her writing process, the challenges she faced writing her first novel, and more.
Have you always wanted to write a book?
I read a lot as a kid, and books were such a huge part of my growing-up process—as a person and an artist. I kept being pulled by the form.
I had wanted to write a book for a while. … It was back in 2001, when I first said it out loud. And then in 2006 Simon & Schuster called and offered me this book deal. They said, “We’d love for you to create something for us. We think your connection to the audience is good.” And I asked, “Can I write anything I want?” And they were like, “Sure.” So I said, “If you put that in the contract that I can write anything I want, then I will do it.”
To their credit, they kept their word. It was like complete creative freedom.
Did you know early on that you wanted to be a writer?
Yeah. It came very naturally to me.
I was the only child of divorced parents. … My parents split before I was three years old. My mom moved to New York, and my dad lived in Chicago, [and the rest of my family was] all over. … I had very young, busy parents—they had me when they were in college—and there were a lot of babysitters and a lot of moving around. I started daydreaming to fill in the gaps. … I knew that my safe place was in my head.
I think at first my writing tendencies came out because I was a bit of an exaggerator and a liar. I didn’t quite know the difference between fact and fiction, when I was very young. I thought talking—telling stories—was like playing. Then people started saying, “You can’t lie. You have to say you are telling a story.” So, I learned.
How did you get your big Hollywood break?
It’s a little more of a 10-year overnight success-story.
I worked at SPIN magazine when I was an undergraduate at Columbia, and I started getting published. I knew somebody at MTV News, so I started writing at MTV News. Music journalism—I loved music and I loved writing—was a natural fit for me. Then I got into producing packages at MTV and directing music videos at MTV on a really low budget … and then the music video kind of industry bottomed out, and I had to find gigs. … So I started supporting myself with any freelance writing that I could get. … It was definitely hand to mouth. And then I started writing spec scripts in 1994.
My friend sold a TV show in France and got me a gig writing scripts in English and then they translated our scripts into French, which sounds more exotic and fun than it was. It was a great learning experience and I got a lot of confidence from it. I wrote hundreds of produced pages in a short period of time.
I came back to the states and was like, “I am going to write a movie script. That’s what I wanted to do originally, and I am going to give it a shot and I’m going to write something that’s so me and my sensibility and my point of view. And if it gets rejected, I will know that it was not meant to be, and I’ll move on.” So I made my deal.
I wrote a spec called, Hit Girl, which was a black comedy about a mousy, depressed girl who decided to make herself over into a glamorous, hit woman with disastrous and comical results. It didn’t sell, and I was devastated. My agent asked, “Why are you devastated? Everybody wants to meet you.” And I’m like, “Who cares? I’m broke and my big deal in my mind failed.” So he said, “No, I don’t think you understand. Everybody wants to meet you. They love the writing.” I said, “What?” He’s like, “You have like 40 meetings scheduled.”
I didn’t know the business at all. I thought if it didn’t sell, it was over. There weren’t all the guidelines and books that there are now about the business of Hollywood.
He said you should come up with some ideas. You should pitch them.I got flop sweats trying to come up with an idea. And I came up with the idea for Bring it On.
I ran around to every producer and every studio. Every studio kept having me back, and that meant they were afraid to pass. Even though it wasn’t selling, my pitch was getting better and I was getting all this free advice in the process.
Finally I sold it. After the 27th or 28th pitch, it might have been more. And that was Bring It On!
How did develop the book idea?
I had this idea a while ago about a girl who sees things and she gets Lasik surgery to correct it. And then it gets worse—the Lasik surgery actually does the opposite. It really works in that she is now seeing the invisible world. I loved that hook. Then I started getting deeper into that idea. And it took me to this magical crazy place, where you can’t believe what’s coming out of you. I loved that surprise and not knowing the answer and getting to be on that journey as I was writing, and having it reveal itself to me. It was so cool.
Did your experience with screenwriting assist you in your writing process for The Seven Rays?
Screenplays are a lot easier than novels, and I probably wrote the equivalent of 16 screenplays in two years in terms of pages for the book. I threw out a lot of stuff. I made a lot of mistakes. I had never written a novel before. I had no experience at all, other than writing screenplays and creative non-fiction.
It was really tough. I was working on notes for a long time. I did all these long-hand notes. That was Thanksgiving 2006. My car was robbed and all of my notes were taken out of my car, so all this groundwork I had done was stolen. I was really depressed about it. I thought it’s another sign I am not supposed to do this—or I am pissing somebody off.
After I recovered from my depression over the loss, I had to regroup. I had to start over. And I did. I gave my first draft very proudly—thinking it was practically done—to my editor, and she was like, “So, I heard screenwriters have this problem…” Not the first words you want out of your editors’ mouth. And she said, “Setting for you is INT. KITCHEN — DAY. Setting is so much more important in a novel, so we need to work on your chops as far as setting goes, because you’re rushing.” It made perfect sense. In screenplays less is more, so it was a big learning curve for me. … The Seven Rays is still a very visual book.
Do you outline?
I do outline. I really resist it. … I’m a little bit of a rebel. I think I can reinvent the wheel, but I can’t.
I have this very stubborn attachment to creative enthusiasm—and what I naturally want to write about—and it gets me in trouble every time, because you end up going down these rabbit holes that can’t get out of, that you have to edit down and write your way out of.
I am a firm believer in the vomit draft and the bad draft. I need to write imperfectly in order to get anywhere. My editing brain is so dictatorial, if I didn’t give myself permission to write badly, I would not write a word.
Did you intentionally write your book in this genre? Or is it what came naturally to you?
I didn’t know what genre it was going to be.
When I wrote Bring It On, I knew it would be comedic, but I had a tone-thing that’s kind of unusual: it’s satiric and it also has heart.
I still don’t know what genre The Seven Rays is going to be, maybe paranormal romance. ….It’s a hybrid of a lot of different things, so hopefully that will make it fresh for a lot of people.
You have a coming of age theme in a lot of your projects.
I call it a “coming of consciousness” theme. I think this is what distinguishes me a little bit. I don’t think that I write movies for young people—I know that’s who ends up seeing them and loving them—I’m just writing for people. Even if your 14, you’re a person at a certain place on your journey.
Everybody is at a different place in their lifetime. I am writing for human beings, not a demographic. … I just want to write something really entertaining for whoever picks it up.
Should writers be diverse in their work?
No. I think you should be true to who you are as a writer. I don’t think about diversifying at all. It never even occurred to me
I write what I am most interested in and am most enthusiastic about. For the book, I got an opportunity to explore a different genre that I probably wouldn’t be offered a chance to explore in Hollywood.
I just wanted to write a cool story about an interesting person going through an interesting experience.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
So much. I was so invested in what other people thought, I definitely have the disease to please to my own creative and personal detriment.
As screenwriters, you have to please studios and you have to please the financiers. …And the book is a real coming out opportunity for me to really try and be okay with pleasing myself—for better or worse—and find artistic compassion for myself. These are ideas I am into. It’s personal, but hopefully it also has a universal appeal.
Know thyself. It’s the only way you can be of service to who you are.
Anything to add?
If you can write from your enthusiasm—if have a natural affinity for something—it’s not work. That’s the big secret to life. It’s a blessing too if you know that.
I struggled at times with forgetting with what I enjoy. And, when we forget, we sometimes end up sleepwalking a little bit. It’s so nice to be awake to what makes you happy. And then to make a living at it, wow. It’s even more incredible.
Tags: Author Q&A Bring It On Debra Eckerling Fiction Jessica Bendinger Screenwriting Simon & Schuster Stick It The Seven Rays Write On! Writing Young Adult