David Benioff (right) and D.B. Weiss
David Benioff (right), a graduate of UC Irvine’s master’s program in fiction, and D.B. Weiss, his friend and fellow executive producer of “Game of Thrones.” Photo by Helen Sloan / HBO

Before he created “Game of Thrones,” the fantasy TV series that’s earned stellar reviews and legions of diehard fans, David Benioff, M.F.A. ’99 was an aspiring writer enduring his share of rejection.

His second novel was turned down by 34 publishers. (He counted.) His first? Benioff was so dissatisfied with the manuscript that he never sent it out. He once submitted a story about a computer virus to a literary magazine and received a note from the editor saying, “You have a bright future … at Microsoft.”

How the winds of fortune do change. Today, Benioff is a sought-after screenwriter, novelist and producer. In July, he and D.B. Weiss, his friend and fellow executive producer of “Game of Thrones,” were nominated for a 2014 Emmy Award for outstanding writing for a drama series. (The Emmys will air at 5 p.m. Monday, Aug. 25, on NBC. “Game of Thrones” has received 19 nominations, the most of any drama.)

Benioff’s at the top of his game, and his success comes as no surprise to those who knew him when he was honing his talent as a graduate student in UC Irvine’s prestigious M.F.A. Programs in Writing.

“David is a rare creature, seemingly born a writer and storyteller. This, in my experience, is uncommon,” says Geoffrey Wolff, UCI professor emeritus of English and past director of the M.F.A. fiction program, who was one of Benioff’s mentors. “Novelists typically develop very slowly. Unlike bravura sprints of poetry by youngsters, long-form prose is long-haul trucking. David put in the long hours, but he was far down the road [to mastering the novel] when he set out.”

While at UCI, Benioff completed The 25th Hour, his thesis and first published novel. It later became a feature film, for which he wrote the screenplay.

“This is a wonderful book, and I am proud to have been associated with it,” Wolff noted in a letter to Benioff after reading it. “When we first met, during your visit to us, I knew that you were a keeper, and that you knew where you meant to arrive in fiction, and that you certainly had the wit and probably the stamina to get there. But I didn’t know – nobody can predict – how far and fast you would move ahead. This novel is an extraordinary performance. I am dazzled by its seriousness, so often comical on the surface, and by its exquisite workmanship.”

Benioff met Weiss, co-creator of “Thrones,” while earning his first master’s degree, in Irish literature, at Trinity College Dublin. The show features dark themes, morally ambivalent characters and a Tolkienesque fantasy world – the mythical land of Westeros.

“A crappy way of describing it would be ‘The Sopranos’ in Middle Earth,” Benioff once joked. After the series launched, it became clear to critics and viewers that “Thrones” was much more. Among its many awards and accolades, the show has already won 10 Emmys, two Golden Globes and a Peabody.

Benioff also has written screenplays for “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” “The Kite Runner,” “Troy” and other films, and he’s the author of a second novel, City of Thieves,as well asWhen the Nines Roll Over (and Other Stories). He and Weiss recently took on their first feature film project – writing, producing and directing “Dirty White Boys,” an adaptation of a novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stephen Hunter.

In an interview with Marrie Stone on KUCI’s “Writers on Writing” program, Benioff offered tips to those hoping to pen a hit screenplay or the great American novel: “My advice to screenwriters is to read more screenplays, good screenplays – ‘Carnal Knowledge’ and ‘Chinatown,’ to name a couple. We’re told as novelists to read, read, read. But I don’t think scriptwriters are given the same advice, and it’s a shame.”

And his tip for novelists? “Get into the discipline of sitting down to write,” he said. “There’s no other way around it.”

Here are more thoughts from Benioff.

On getting a master’s degree in fiction writing at UCI:

“I do see value in the M.F.A. programs. For one thing, I was able to study with some incredible writers – Ann Patchett [and] Geoffrey Wolff, to name a few.

“What the M.F.A. program did was give me time to focus on nothing but writing. And while I know there are people out there who can handle a job and keep writing (Khaled Hosseini is one rare example who kept writing while practicing medicine), that’s not easy for most of us.

“While I was in the program, I was teaching undergraduates, which paid for my time there. And being around that kind of intellectual stimulation was very exciting. So it gave me time and focus and access to amazing writers.”

Source: Interview with Marrie Stone on KUCI’s “Writers on Writing”

On why he decided to adapt George R.R. Martin’s series of A Song of Ice & Fire novels (the first of which is A Game of Thrones) into a television series:

“Someone sent me the books, and when I first got them, I thought they were joking because each one is about 1,000 pages. So they sent this massive package; they’re big doorstop tomes. And so there’s no way I’m going to read all these books. What [were] they thinking …?

“But I figured I should at least read the first 60 pages of the first one so that I [could] politely pass on adapting them, and I got hooked. … I got completely addicted. As my friend D.B. Weiss, who’s my partner on the series, said, ‘They’re like crack on paper.’

“It’s not the kind of traditional fantasy where it’s the epic conflict of good and evil. The characters in George Martin’s books … even the so-called good guys … all have shades of gray.”

Source: Bibliostar.TV

On writing scripts for film vs. a television series:

“One of the things that’s always kind of frustrating, writing feature scripts, is there’s always so much time pressure on it. You’re trying to tell a story in roughly 100 script pages, and that doesn’t allow for a huge amount of character development.

“It means that it’s almost like a short story. Everything’s got to be so concise. You’re constantly cutting, cutting, cutting. And so the idea, the attraction of having this massive canvas [“Game of Thrones”] [is that] you can take these characters – characters that we loved from the books – and have years to spend on them and to get to know them and to tell their stories with … time and patience. …

“A lot of series don’t have a real sense of narrative arc. With this one, we had a pretty good idea where we wanted to go from the beginning. We had no idea if we’d get to take it there. We still don’t.”

Source: Vanity Fair, April 2014

On the perils of being married to a screenwriter:

“I annoy my wife [actress Amanda Peet] constantly, because we’ll be watching TV in bed together, and I’ll say, ‘This is about to happen.’ And then usually it does. And she’s like, ‘Oh, my God, how’d you know that?’ It’s only because this is what I do for a living.

“You start to see how the sausage is made. And when you’re surprised by it, it’s just that much more gratifying. So whether it’s reading a book like George’s or watching something [like] “Breaking Bad” or “The Returned” …, there are things that happen … that you’re like, ‘Whoa!’ There are things that happen that completely surprised me. And yes, it makes you even happier than before, because it’s harder to surprise you at a certain point.”

Source: Vanity Fair, April 2014

On becoming a good writer:

“My advice is to find yourself a good first reader, someone willing to wade through your various drafts, give you the bad news when necessary, and duck when you throw bricks at their head.

“Also, instead of reading the various books on writing, read real books. I don’t know if you’re a screenwriter or a novelist or what, but it’s far more helpful (and entertaining) to read six good scripts than one lame and dogmatic how-to manual on screenwriting.”

Source: BBC

On not squandering one’s talent:

“I have this friend who I went to college with – brilliant writer. I always thought he was the best writer among us. And now he barely has written a word.

“Every few days, he writes me these gorgeous emails. And on the one hand, I’m so happy to receive them; they’re beautiful and poetic. And on the other hand, it makes me so angry that his talent is going to waste.

“He always says he’s waiting for inspiration, or he’s stymied because he can’t write until he feels he really has some insight or some phrase or something important to say. We’ve been having this debate for years and years, and I’m so frustrated with him because it’s just wonderful talent going completely to waste.

“You can’t wait for inspiration. It’s rare. It happens, but it happens so infrequently that if you rely on it, you’re doomed.”

Source: Interview with Marrie Stone on KUCI’s “Writers on Writing”