TV writer, mystery novelist pens ‘Killer’ Hollywood career

A child of storytellers and a lover of theater, Sheryl J. Anderson intended to go to New York and “starve for her art” like all the good playwrights tend to do. Her story turned out much differently when she found herself in L.A., writing for television, eventually earning major geek cred with a gig on witchy cult TV series “Charmed.”

Sheryl has accomplished that rare feat so many writers dream of — making a living from her craft. She’s worked hard to make that happen and tackles every project with a passion that is infectiously motivating.

During the course of a varied, versatile, and vibrant career, Sheryl has produced an original TV series; written plays; scripted one of those Hallmark-style, guilty-pleasure Christmas movies; penned a series of mystery novels inspired by “Sex and the City;” served as mentor and cheerleader to many other artists and scribes; and intentionally championed other women in the industry.

All of this while raising two charming and talented geeks, indulging her love of musical theater, as well as Star Trek and Star Wars (“You do not have to choose!” is her motto.), and recently jumping into the world of cosplay.

Below, she reveals the secret to writing a good screenplay, advice for aspiring writers, her thoughts on the #metoo movement and why fans should go easier on their favorite creators. Get ready to learn something. 

You’re a veteran TV writer and novelist. You’ve said it was your “childhood ambition” to be a writer. Where did that desire originate from?

My parents were gifted storytellers, so creating and presenting or performing stories has always been part of my life. They taught us to read early, and reading was often a family activity. Mom and Dad also took us to the movies and to live theatre; we were stationed in the Washington, DC area when I was in high school and college, which meant a lot of great shows at the Kennedy Center, National Theatre, Arena Stage, and other wonderful DC theaters.

You discovered a love of theater in college and studied playwriting. How did that shape your destiny as a writer?

I was already a theater lover when I went to college. I acted in shows throughout school. What happened in college was that I shifted my focus from acting to playwriting. Louis E. Catron, my playwriting professor, was a wonderful mentor and gave me a foundation that I still build on today. But for all the great artistic guidance he gave me that was specific to playwriting, he also gave me two jewels of wisdom that I treasure: “Great works are not written, they are rewritten” and “It is a writer’s responsibility to be well-read.”

What prompted you to pursue television writing?

When I graduated from college, I thought I’d go to New York and starve for my art (thank you, Oscar Levant in “An American in Paris”). But a dear friend who had come to Los Angeles and started working in television told me, “Come out here. The weather’s better and the money’s better.”

I arrived in Los Angeles intending to be a feature writer, but I started working at a television production company and started studying television structure. I wrote some television spec scripts, my agent sent them around, and I eventually got freelance assignments which led to staff jobs.

What do you like best about working in this medium?

I love working in the writers’ room — spending the day with other writers, collaborating and challenging each other in order to come up with the best possible story.

What is most challenging about it?

Writing television is marvelous creatively, but it’s grueling creatively and emotionally. And there’s no security. But I love it more than any other job I’ve ever had.

You started out on comedies, including “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose” and “Dave’s World.” Tell me about those early days in your career.

I started in half-hour with no preparation, no guidance, no mentor. It was a baptism by fire, learning how to navigate the protocol as well as the mechanics. Fortunately, I worked with some terrific people, learned the ropes, and had a great time. There are few things in this business more exciting than being on set, with the actors and the writing staff, and coming up with new jokes or story fixes in the moment.

The cast of the original “Charmed” TV series.

You also wrote for the witchy late ’90s supernatural drama “Charmed,” which earns you major geek cred. How did you get that gig?

When I first left half-hour, my agent told me I needed to write hour specs. I wrote several, and my agent submitted my “X Files” and my “Ally McBeal” to this brand new show called Charmed. That offbeat combination struck a chord with the executive producers. I was on the show the first three seasons.

What was it like writing for that series, which was a forerunner for so many supernatural dramas that followed?

It could be very intense, but it was also a lot of fun. I worked with some supremely talented people, and we told some great stories. I loved all creating the demons and their backstories. But I also learned a really important lesson on that show: We would work so hard on the magic/procedural part of the episodes, but what stuck with people were the emotional moments between the sisters.

Can you tell us any insider info we might not know about “Charmed”? (Spill all the secrets!)

Nope. I’m pretty certain all the secrets are out.

Did the “Charmed” crew have a feud going with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”?

There wasn’t a direct feud between the writing staffs (when I was there, anyway). We certainly kept an eye on what they were doing; it would be nice to think they were keeping an eye on us. I do remember getting notes from the network and being told that I could not have Cole roll the head of a human across the floor because it was too distressing. I said, “But Buffy kicked a guy’s head off last night.” The network executive replied, “That wasn’t a guy, that was a demon.” So I asked, “If I change the victim to a demon, can we still roll the head?” The answer was yes, I did, and we did.

There’s actually a “Charmed” reboot in the works. What do you think about that?

I wish them all the best. It’s daunting to redo a show that people are so passionate about. But the people doing the reboot are very talented, and I’m anxious to see their take on the concept.

You also wrote for the short-lived “Flash Gordon” series that debuted in 2007. What was that like?

This was one of the best experiences in my career. Peter Hume, the showrunner, is a brilliant and funny guy; we’d worked together on “Charmed” and I was thrilled to work with him again. The staff was small (five of us), but we worked well together and we worked hard together. There was some tension with the network originally about what the show’s focus should be, but we really found our stride. I believe we would have gotten a second season, had it not been for the WGA strike. I have pictures somewhere of us turning in the season finale 13 minutes before the strike started.

Do you enjoy writing for fantasy/sci-fi shows or do you prefer stories more based in reality?

What I care about most is telling great stories. That said, I love genre. The original “Twilight Zone” is one of my key influences, along with the work of Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Stephen King. But I also grew up watching procedurals with my parents, so I like those, too. (I remember my dad calling me and saying, “There’s this new show called ‘Law and Order,’ I think you should check it out. I think they’ve got something.”) I’m looking for interesting worlds to visit: Isn’t that why we all read and watch?

 You created and executive produced the crime/family drama series “Ties That Bind.” It aired on UPtv and was filmed in Canada. That’s quite an achievement! Tell me about what went into creating and producing the show.

I had written a movie for UP, and it had been a very good experience. They were exploring getting into scripted series and invited me to pitch. They were interested in a family drama with a procedural element, so I worked up ideas in that area. I pitched my favorite to my manager, who loved it. So I pitched that one to the network, and they loved it and chose to develop it. We developed the pilot story and arcs for the season over several months, and then I got the green light to write the pilot script.

They then ordered 10 episodes. I hired two other writers and a slate of freelancers, and we wrote all 10 episodes before going up to Vancouver for production. I was in Vancouver for the entire shoot (we did 10 episodes in 62 days, which is very fast) and most of the post-production (I did some of the final mixing by Skype from Los Angeles, which worked because my team still in Vancouver was amazing). From initial pitch to the first episode airing was about 18 months. It was an incredible experience and I still cherish the people who were on the journey with me.

I imagine there’s something special about producing your own show.

It’s an honor and a blessing. I was very fortunate to have a terrific, hardworking cast and crew who really got into the show. Producing television — especially with a short schedule and a tight budget — is really tough. My attitude is, we work too hard not to enjoy ourselves while we’re at it. I do my best to make sure people know they are heard and valued in the process.

I heard it was a priority for you to hire women to work on “Ties That Bind.” Why was that important to you? 

When I started working in television, many executive producers would tell my agent, “Thanks, but we already have our girl.” Many writing staffs had only one woman writer — if they had any women at all –and most men shrugged that off.

Those proportions have improved over the years, thank goodness, but we still have a lot of work to do to bring more talented minorities to the table. The most effective thing I can do is write memorable characters for women and people of color, and then hire writers, actors, directors, and other artists from those communities.

Sheryl J. Anderson with the teenage cast of “Ties That Bind.”

What has your experience been as a woman writer in the notoriously male-dominated world of Hollywood?

Sadly, I have my own #metoo moments, and I recognize that there is a tremendous amount of work to be done to make women safer in our business. I have worked with men I would cross the street to avoid, but I have also worked with men who are collaborative, generous, and delightful.

What would you like to see change in the industry?

I’d like to see the momentum continue to create meaningful equal opportunity and pay, and safer working conditions.

Do you have any thoughts on the recent “inclusion rider” speech best actress winner Frances McDormand gave at the Oscars?

I am not educated on the particulars, but I think it’s a wonderful concept. We need to create paths of opportunity for people to enter and rise in the industry.

What’s the secret to a good screenplay?

A dynamic and engaging story, told with emotion and conviction, that embraces the visual aspect of the medium.

Do you feel screenwriters get enough recognition and credit in Hollywood?

No, they don’t. We’re often a disposable commodity within the industry. And outside, I’m surprised how many people still — despite the Hollywood journalism industry — don’t understand that actors don’t create their own characters or dialogue.

Who are the screenwriters who have influenced you or that you admire?

Leigh Brackett. Billy Wilder. Robert Bolt. Albert Hackett. Rod Serling. Donald Ogden Stewart. And my influences come from the stage, too, particularly Shakespeare, Christopher Fry, Lillian Hellman, and Noel Coward. And then there’s my all-around champion, Dorothy Parker.

“Christmas Solo,” Kailey Schwerman/Up

You’ve also written in a genre that has become increasingly popular with viewers: Hallmark Channel (or Hallmark Channel-style) movies and Christmas TV movies. What’s it like to work on those projects? Is there really a formula for each of these types of films?

The Christmas movie I wrote for UP last year, “Christmas Solo,” was a reunion with a lot of terrific people from “Ties That Bind,” so it was like a homecoming.

My experience with Hallmark has also been enjoyable (the movie, currently in pre-production, is slated to air this summer). Hallmark doesn’t have a formula, but they do have a brand and they are dedicated to growing it. They know and respect their audience, and I respect that. I also really enjoy the executives I’m working with at the network; they are smart, funny, and collaborative.

Another of your impressive accomplishments is penning a series of novels, the Molly Forrester Mysteries. So many readers of No Man’s Land are huge mystery fans. Is it as glamorous as it sounds to be a mystery novelist?

I don’t think any kind of writing is glamorous. It’s perplexing and frustrating and draining, right up until the moment that it’s glorious and beautiful and surreal. And then it goes back to being perplexing. Dr. Catron used to say there’s a difference between people who want to be writers and people who want to write; I think glamor is mainly an illusion the former have. Now, when you’re Gillian Flynn or James Patterson, there’s probably glamor, but I think that has more to do with the success than with the work.

Why did you decide you wanted to work in this genre?

I’ve always loved mysteries. I watched mystery movies with my parents when I was growing up; my dad loved Bogart and my mom loved the “Thin Man” movies. I read Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Encyclopedia Brown as a kid, then moved on to Agatha Christie, Mary Stewart, and Norah Lofts. I remember starting to write a novel called “The Secret of the Swedish Locket” in sixth grade. I don’t remember why I didn’t finish it, nor do I remember the secret.

As for Molly, a friend of mine called me and told me her book agent was looking for a very specific project: “Sex and the City” does a murder mystery. I pitched her a character I’d been developing for a television pilot and she loved it. She introduced me to her book agent, I pitched it to him, and that led to the four Molly mysteries.

Were you inspired by any other mystery writers?

The writing staffs of the “Law and Order” universe.

Has being behind-the-scenes in Hollywood influenced your view of fandoms at all?

I do get a little frustrated when fans take an “I could’ve done a better job” attitude about a film or series, because it disrespects the work of all the people who labored months or years to do the best job possible. As the adage goes, no one sets out to make a bad movie.

I tell my screenwriting students, “What I wanted was …” is not constructive criticism; “This worked for me because …” and “This didn’t work for me because …” is. We all know the internet makes it way too easy to take easy shots at other people’s work (and not just in media). If you are really a dedicated fan, take the time to be thoughtful and articulate about your feedback.

Overall, however, I’m impressed by the investment and dedication in fandom; when you create a world in a movie or series, you want people to embrace them. Having just attended WonderCon, I marvel at all the expressions of fandom — cosplay, art, clothing and jewelry, writing … It’s terrific, and I hope to one day create something that evokes that kind of reaction.

You’re one of those rare fans of both Star Wars and Star Trek. “You do not have to pick” is your motto. What are your earliest memories of each of these series?

My father was a naval officer and I loved watching Star Trek with him. The crush I developed on Walter Koenig didn’t hurt. I recently had the opportunity to interview D.C. Fontana about her time on the show, and it was an epic thrill for me.

My mom, brother, and I saw “The Empire Strikes Back” the week it opened; my dad was at sea, and I couldn’t wait to tell him about it when he got home, because I knew he’d love it. Hyperspace blew my mind. When my kids first saw the movie, I couldn’t explain how amazing it had been originally, because of the leaps visual effects have taken since then.

Which incarnation of Star Trek is your favorite and why?

I’m a TOS (The Original Series) girl. I never got into the others on a meaningful level.

Are you a fan of Disney’s efforts to give Star Wars new life?

I’ve enjoyed the movies thus far, and I’m intrigued to see where they go next.

Do you secretly love one of them more than the other, even a teensy, weensy bit?

You do not have to choose.

One of your major obsessions is musical theater. What are some of your favorite productions?

Last November, we saw “Hamilton,” “Spamilton,” and “Something Rotten.” That was a pretty terrific month. Other of my favorite memories are Alan Cumming and Emma Stone in “Cabaret,” staged at Studio 54; the original Broadway production of “The Wiz”; the original road companies of “Les Miserables” and “Jesus Christ Superstar”; my daughter’s turn as Maisie in “Seussical”, my son playing Galahad in “Spamalot”, and the production of “The Fantasticks” I stage-managed in college.

I understand you write annual plays for your church with geeky themes, such as “Doctor Who.” How did you become involved with that? Tell me all about it!

When I joined the congregation, I had co-written two books of chancel dramas, which I shared with the pastor. The youth director, who was also the school’s drama teacher, reached out and invited me to work with him on a 10-minute drama to add a fun message to the midweek services during Lent. (I should probably explain that I’m Lutheran, and the Lutheran church decided, several years ago, that Lent did not have to be somber throughout in order to be a proper observation of Jesus’ sacrifice.)

Over the years, the dramas lengthened and evolved until we were doing full “episodes” of a “series.” I’d write a 40-ish minute episode based on the Gospel lesson for that week, and the commercial breaks included the Scripture readings, praise songs, and commercials where we adapted classic commercials into spiritual messages (“Ask your pastor if Grace is right for you”). We selected topics from pop culture, and it was always fun to see the kids in the congregation trying to figure out which character was Jesus and which was Satan.

Over the years, we did series ranging from “Doctor Who” (Jesus is a time lord, right?) to “Law and Order” (“Law and Order: Jerusalem”) to “Lost” (Who will get you off the island?). We started off with students playing most of the roles, but as they got older and as adults saw how much fun they were having, our casts became multi-generational.

You’re the mother of two very creative and talented geeks. Tell me a little about them. What geeky activities does your family enjoy together?

My daughter just graduated from college with a degree in costume design. My son is a freshman in college, getting his BFA in acting. They are both also talented writers, and I love discussing story with them. In fact, my daughter is working as my assistant, and that includes her giving me notes on my scripts and covering books for me as I look for new projects. We enjoy watching movies and series together, recommending books to each other, and creating stories of our own.

What’s the secret to raising brilliant geek children?

God blessed me with great kids. I read to them from the womb, and, as they grew up, their father and I shared the books, comics, and movies we loved with them. But they sparked to a lot of stuff on their own, and we encouraged them. Now, they lead me to great new work. And I love getting their perspective on classic material as well as new. But the most important thing for me has been to respect what they get passionate about and then find out why they feel that way. Often, I become passionate about it myself.

I heard you recently did your first cosplay. What was it and where?

The kids and I went to Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con last October. I was Joyce Byers from “Stranger Things.” My favorite moment was when an Eleven ran up and threw her arms around me and “wept.”

Do you plan to do any more cosplaying?

My daughter and I just went to WonderCon (my son had rehearsal for Ren Faire). And we’re already planning for the three of us to attend Anime Expo in July. My daughter is a costume designer, so I’m very excited to see what she thinks we should do next; we’re discussing some fun mother-daughter options.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m developing a family drama and pitching two genre shows. I have a variety of other projects in more embryonic states.

Do you have any dream projects that are on the back burner?

I have two pilots, one I’m writing with my daughter and one I’m writing with my son, that have had to take a back seat to projects with firmer deadlines. But we work on them as much as time allows.

What’s your advice for writers who aspire to be awesome, seasoned Hollywood veterans like you?

Ha! Not exactly how I’d describe myself but …

Be fierce and resilient.

Write what moves you, not what you think will sell.

Take notes with grace, humor, and a grain of salt.

Don’t be afraid to rewrite.

Don’t measure yourself against other people. Measure yourself against your goals.

Watch and read everything, and learn from it. But don’t be so critical that you lose your joy.

Have people in your life who are supportive. Have people in your life who will give you honest feedback. If you are fortunate, these will be the same people.

Get off the internet and get back to work.

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