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Janese Taylor introduces herself as a southern girl at heart, originally from Georgia, that now lives in North Carolina. “My mom will tell you I started writing short stories when I was around six or seven years old and never stopped. In my free time, I like taking dance breaks and pretend I’m a backup dancer for Beyonce; I lie – I pretend I’m Beyonce. For fun, I read scripts; you learn so much from reading other’s writings. Although I write in ALL genres, I love writing Sci-Fi”, she tells us.
Best known for writing sci-fi, she has written multiple scripts along with different genres. In this interview, part of a series, the screenwriter opens up to Zaftyg about writing, her process, and her goals.
You wrote the television pilot Mantis. Tell us more about it.
The Recy Taylor true-life story heavily influenced Mantis. It didn’t help that I watched the Recy Taylor documentary around the time Harvey Weinstein’s scandals broke. I immediately went into the mind-space where some women carry post-traumatic stress from dealing with either past assaults, harassment, or micro-aggressions. I thought the world needed a Punisher (the comic book character) who would come in and dole out punishment to the men who would be guilty of societal ills toward women and children when the justice system fails them. I wondered what that superhero would look like, and Mantis was born. My lead character does not have any superhero powers, but her vigilantism was born out of her past trauma, affecting her daily life. The series is a mix of Revenge and Alias but with a Black female lead. The pilot starts with my lead protagonist, Shayla, saving a group of sex-trafficked teenaged girls from a Russian syndicate, who put a price on her head, interfering with Shayla’s plans for revenge against the three men who harmed her and caused her sister’s death.
What originally attracted you to screenwriting?
I wrote stories all my life but never considered myself a “writer” until a friend in the film industry called me a writer at a screenwriter event. There I networked and met a few screenwriters, one who wanted to know if I would be interested in co-writing a live-action Thundercats script. I jumped at the chance. Although I had no idea how to write a script when I was a little girl, I loved the Thundercats cartoon. Now, around this time, you should be asking, how big of a nerd is Janese? Easy answer, I’m a big one. But I digress back to this Thundercats script; again, I had no clue how to write a script. So, I started reading scripts, and I bought the book How to Write Scripts for Dummies and Save the Cat and jumped headfirst into the first two acts of our live-action feature. Around this time, my writing partner disappeared for a few months, and when he resurfaced, he told me, crestfallen, how he heard that a big studio had already bought the IP to Thundercats and was working on their own live-action script. I filed away that script but realized I had fallen in love with screenwriting’s creative process.
What’s a typical work week like?
My creative workday starts in the evening; after signing out from my day job, I pull out my laptop and start working on any fresh ideas or works in progress. Often working late into the night, or I could spend an entire weekend working toward the two most beautiful words in the screenwriting world, “Fade Out’.
What writers have influenced you and why?
Octavia E. Butler was an African American science fiction author. I believe I was around eight or nine years old when I read her book Wild Seed, the fourth book in her Patternist series, and I was hooked from there. The other writer who heavily influenced me was Gene Roddenberry, the original Star Trek series creator. I already outed myself as a nerd, so naming the Star Trek creator solidifies it. After becoming a fan of the series, I researched and learned all I could about Mr. Roddenberry. I wanted to know how he came up with the future technology, the world(s), and how he made the future look rich in diversity, not only with the different aliens but the different cultures. His show influenced how I wanted to write and what I wanted to write. To this day, one of my dreams is to write for one of the Star Trek installments or create a series equal or better.
What makes a great story?
What makes a story great is its relatability or the unexpected “something” that has you sitting on the edge of your seat or interesting/complex characters who pull you deeper into the story. If you write a story with all three of these things, you have hit the writer’s holy grail.
Do you have any writing rituals? Things you do before, after, or during your process?
I find a comfy spot, turn on my Spotify, open my laptop and get to writing. I usually work off of an outline, but sometimes, I start typing. Everyone has their routine or ritual, but the only thing that counts is the writing. After I finish my first draft, I have beat down the urge to send it out and have everyone read it and tell me how great it is and what a genius I am for creating such a phenomenal script (this has never happened in my life). I try to sit on the first draft for at least a full week before I pull it out and read it with fresh eyes. I also read it backwards – starting from the last page forward, and it helps me catch bad dialogue and spelling errors. Once I have done a hard review and re-write, I reach out to some other writers (usually folks who are better writers than myself) to see if they would mind providing me feedback. Once I receive their feedback, I again put the script to the side and give the feedback time to percolate my creative juices before deciding to start on the next re-write. This process can go on for a while unless I’m under a deadline or until the only feedback I receive is, “I don’t see any issues with the characters, plot, or dialogue.”
Do you have any tips on how to overcome writer’s block? Or how to beat the pesky procrastination?
My suggestion to overcome writer’s block is to start reading other scripts or stories within the same genre as your script. Usually, for me, this sparks my creativity. I turn off all social media, my phone, and my television (unless it’s a Golden Girls marathon), or I give myself a deadline to hit “Fade Out,” and I stick to it. Sometimes, none of these tricks work, and I spend way too much time reconsidering my life choices in pursuing a writer’s life. When this happens, I allow myself to feel all my feels and sooner rather than later, my creativity comes roaring back to life, or it trickles in like a blocked water pipe. Either way, I’m happy because my happy place is writing.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in screenwriting?
DON’T DO IT!!! No, I kid. If screenwriting is your dream, do it! I would tell a novice screenwriter to read scripts, read many, many scripts – especially the types of scripts in the genre you would like to write. Then pick up a book on screenwriting to help guide you in the mechanics of writing a script. Next, find or create a writers group of writers who are better at the craft than you and learn all you can from them. Lastly, build real friendships or relationships with other writers in the industry because writing is a challenging and lonely job, and having friends who understand what you are going through and can encourage you to keep going, is priceless.
Who you are as a writer and how did your career experiences help shape you and make you the kind of writer you are and will be?
I’m a writer who feels representation matters and diversity in films and t.v. shows are imperative. So in my scripts, you will find characters representing different races, handicaps, or sexual orientations. Thus far, my experience as a writer is learning the all-important lesson of writing what you want to see on screen, not what is popular at this time.
What are the struggles in the industry for a black female screenwriter?
The false sense of inclusion. I don’t feel this is only a Black female screenwriter issue; many writer rooms still are a cis-white male-dominated field. The doors to getting into those rooms are still tightly closed, with the old guard in place to keep diverse writers out. There have been minor changes to improve this lack of inclusivity. With the call for scripts that include diversity, many white writers include diverse cast in their scripts without genuinely understanding that character’s culture or background, leaving us with more stereotypical characters or even more white savior plots than we need. Often, diverse screenwriters, scripts or stories are critiqued or dismissed because they don’t feel “real” because of the over-saturation of the white male perception of these different cultures is so ingrained, the truth often feels fictional. This is not to say; white writers cannot write diverse scripts; many have, and have hit it out of the park. It just leaves diverse writers wondering if our stories told in our words will ever be as popular and in-demand.
Of all the things that you’ve done, is there one that you’re really proud of the most?
I’ve learned how to accept critique of my stories and provide helpful feedback to other writers. As writers, we all want to believe what we’ve written is genius, and some of us find it hard to hear that the baby (our story) we just birthed needs work. Mantis was my second script after the Thundercats script I had ever written. It was a mess. It needed many re-writes to get it to its contest-award winning shape that it is in now. I’m happy I never gave up on writing, that I stuck to learning the craft and implementing what I learned in writing Mantis in my other scripts.
What are you working on?
Currently, I am working on a horror feature called To the Bone – Under suspicion for her husband and daughter’s death, a housewife takes it upon herself to protect her youngest son against a creature she thought was town folklore. After that, a Sci-Fi feature called Gratis – after stealing their alien slave masters ship, three friends must fight to survive a contingent of alien ships sent to capture them and an alien monster they unknowingly set loose once they boarded the ship.
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