How Chaucer led to Hollywood

Teresa Blackman, A & C Editor

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Sitting in her 15-passenger Chevy van, Shannon Valenzuela checked her email every five minutes. While waiting for her son to finish flag football practice, she was also waiting for an announcement. When the email finally came, a few minutes early, it blew her away: she was a semifinalist in the Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest.

A few months later, Valenzuela won the contest, visited L.A. and now has a script out for consideration in Hollywood.

Valenzuela becomes visibly more animated as she talks about screenwriting. It is something she has always wanted to do. Last summer she applied to the competition because, unlike other competitions, this one offered one-on-one coaching with a scriptwriting consultant to all semifinalists.

“Writing is a practice. It’s a craft, especially with screenwriting. One of the things I love about screenwriting is how highly structured it is, it’s incredible: on page five this needs to happen, on 25 this needs to happen,” Valenzuela said. “It’s actually very fun to work with and it’s like writing sonnets, you have to work with the structure and it forces you to be so, it pushes you into stretching yourself.”

The contest began with a logline (a one or two sentence film summary) about a female archaeologist who recently made a discovery. Valenzuela’s 15-page submission became a sci-fi, Indiana Jones-like tale of a scholarly adventurer (who Valenzuela thinks would be well played by Emilia Clarke or Alexandra Daddario).

Valenzuela has been writing since she was a child. She graduated from the University of Dallas in 2000 with a degree in English and Classics and was married a week after graduation. That year she moved with her husband to Notre Dame. She studied for a Ph.D. in English; he attended law school.

There she both read Chaucer and medieval literature and had three kids; she even remembers her oldest child sitting in his car seat in her Anglo-Saxon class.

Her interests in mythology, history and language that prompted her to study here still inspire much of her present writing.

Valenzuela moved back to Dallas in 2005 to teach at UD for a few years while finishing her Ph.D. Now, three kids later — she has a total of six, ages three to 15 — she has returned again to teach at UD and balances teaching Dante with raising children and winning screenwriting contests.

Before winning the contest, Valenzuela published her first book in 2011 and then two more in the following two years. Her winning screenplay fits the sci-fi style of this Silesia trilogy, which tells the story of a female assassin turned freedom fighter and, according to Valenzuela, is “a skewed retelling of St. George and the dragon.”

In May, Valenzuela hopes to publish the first book in her new Origin series, which, like her previous books, will be published through her own micropress, SisterMuses. She and her sister, a fellow UD graduate, decided to found the press after both had dabbled in publishing.

Valenzuela wakes up at 5:45 a.m. every day, makes lunches, gets her boys out the door by 7 a.m. and the girls by 8 a.m. before she heads to UD to teach class and then pick up her girls. In the afternoons she attends to the “most pressing” work on the top of the pile, whether that’s grading papers or writing her own stories. Despite this busy schedule, Valenzuela finds time to dedicate to the stories she so values — a value she credits to UD.

“The understanding of the importance of story as a way of understanding the human experience, and the idea that stories both have a teaching component to them,” Valenzuela said. “But also that it’s meant to be fun and entertaining. It’s something that’s really important to me.”

And as she balances teaching, writing stories and the madness of raising a family, Valenzuela realizes that perspective trumps any organizational method.

“The biggest thing is to keep perspective,” Valenzuela said. “The to-do list is never going to be completely checked off. I do as much as I can do, as long as I keep my focus on the priority at the present time, things will get done when they need to get done.”

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