The Long Reach of Kindness

When I was putting together the previous post, and looking back at my six weeks as an intern at Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was reminded of something I’d forgotten: that during my first meeting with him, TNG‘s executive producer Michael Piller told me I was to consider the writers’ offices a safe environment, a place where I could freely express thoughts, ideas, and opinions without fear of their being rejected out of hand.

I should not, he said, fear to speak up.

Easier said than done, particularly if most of your previous experience has taught you to keep your mouth shut, for fear of offending someone, annoying someone, or (worst of all, perhaps) making a fool of yourself — because of all the kinds of pain there are in this world, few of them are worse than humiliation.  Most of the time, it’s easier to keep quiet.  It’s safer to keep quiet, even if that silence means you’ll never learn anything, that you’re denying yourself the chance to grow.

Michael Piller

Michael Piller

Lately, I’ve seen some comments on the message boards to the effect of, “Freaking NEWBS.  Why do they keep asking the same questions?  Don’t they know there’s a whole thread for that?  Why do they keep bothering us?”

Because, I think, it’s not information they’re looking for.

It’s kindness.

Venturing into a new place of any kind is a terrifying prospect, unless you’re completely foolhardy, or stupid, or a nice black-and-white-cookie blend of the two.  There be dragons in new places, you know?  You don’t know the rules.  You don’t know where the trap doors are.

And you’re afraid of making a fool of yourself.

Okay, people have walked that particular path before.  They’ve asked questions and have secured answers.  But they’re not you.  Those people aren’t sitting inside your skin, wondering if you have the talent or the nerve or the luck to win at this particular new thing.  They aren’t listening to the little voice in your head that won’t stop saying, “Maybe it would be better if you didn’t try.”

Each of us was a newbie once, at every single thing we’ve tried.

And I’m willing to bet, on each of those occasions, it wasn’t information we wanted so much as we wanted a helping hand.  A moment of individual attention.  An acknowledgment that says “I see you, and I get that you’re scared.”  A big brother, of sorts: someone who’s climbed a few steps higher on the hill, reaches back a hand and says, “Come on.  I’ve got you.”

Michael Piller extended that hand over and over again.  It was at his insistence that Star Trek, alone among network TV shows, accepted, read, and considered scripts from anyone willing to fill out a simple two-page release form.  People argued; he held fast.  He’d been a young writer once — a newbie — and he remembered what that was like.  Rather than leave others to fend for themselves, he offered help.  A way in.  And once you were in, he listened.

He knew, I think, that kindness endures.

Being an ardent Trekker, I took advantage of my situation a bit too often, and crept onto the TNG set during my lunch hour.  I tried my best to stay unnoticed, but I caught the impatient eye of the wrong person.  Later on, Michael quietly stopped me in the hallway and murmured that I really shouldn’t be going over there quite so often.  It was gentle guidance — not a rebuke, not a criticism.  Just a soft, Yeah, not the best thing to do.  Okay?

779ec55cceccdcbdc7b2bff54f793d94He could have gotten the same result by dressing me down (I never ventured over to the set again), but he chose not to do that.  He chose to be kind.  He chose to address things with a smile and a quiet tone of voice.

And I remember.

So I give you this as food for thought, as well as reminding myself of what it felt like to be treated kindly, by someone who extended a helping hand.  We were all newbies once, and each time we blaze a new path for ourselves, we become newbies again.  Not looking for information so much as a big brother (or sister).  Someone a couple steps further along the path who’s willing to reach back a hand and say, “I’ve got you.”

Let’s make the world a safe environment for the newbs.  And in doing so, for ourselves.

Six Weeks Behind the Wall: Me and ST:TNG (Part 2)

Continuing my look back at my internship at Star Trek: The Next Generation from my previous post.  This is the remainder of the article I wrote late in 1991, which first appeared in the Trek newsletter Subspace Chatter.

Six Weeks Behind the Wall (Part 2)

The trip to Mexico had been a fruitful one for the writing staff, generating ten new story ideas.  Back at their posts for another week’s work (if a bit bleary-eyed) were the owners of some of the names you see on your TV screen during ST:TNG’s “top of the show” credits: producers Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor, Ron Moore, and Joe Menosky, and staff writer Brannon Braga.  None of them was at all what I had expected.  “The boys,” Ron, Joe, and Brannon, who occupy about half of the fourth floor of the Hart Building, are all very young (late 20s to mid-30s), very irreverent, and very fond of not wearing suits.  In fact, to paraphrase our friend Montgomery Scott, there be no suits here.  If there’s any kind of standard work attire at Star Trek, it’s jeans, sneakers, polo shirts in various colors, and baseball caps.  On exceptionally hot days, a pair of shorts here and there.  This struck me as eminently sensible.  I’ve always wanted to see someone do a government study of how hard it is to be creative wearing either (a) a necktie or (b) pantyhose.

Mid-morning, Mr.  Piller and Ms.  Taylor (Michael and Jeri) sat me down in Jeri’s office and explained what was expected of me.  I was to view this, Michael said, as a “safe environment;” if I had ideas, or thoughts, or opinions, I was to feel free to express them.  Nothing would be rejected out of hand.  If an idea or comment of mine didn’t work, it might foster a new thought from someone else.  I was then official invited to tag along to most of the meetings the writing staff attended, along with Pam, my fellow intern.  (Pam, who had never even watched the show before her internship began, had been at Star Trek five weeks when I arrived and was an “old hand” whom I immediately began to turn to for advice.) Michael then shook my hand, welcomed me to Star Trek, and wished me a pleasant and productive six weeks.

Ron, Joe, and Brannon’s assistant, Mollie, settled me into my office and armed me with pencils, pads of paper, and a pro­mise that one of the three idle computers perched on the conference table would be operational very soon.  To the envy of everyone on the fourth floor, I had been given the only available vacant space: “the big office,” a room destined to be occupied by a producer sometime in the near future.  Large, bright and airy, it was furnished with a cushy sofa nearly as big as my car, a similarly huge desk, the aforementioned conference table and six chairs, several file cabinets, a bookcase, three tiny end tables, and two phones.  I’d never before had my own office, let alone one this big, and I began to feel I should call someone and ask to “do lunch.”

So, as they say, let the games begin.

According to Pam, my soundboard and fountain of advice, the most interesting meetings I’d attend were the story break­ing sessions.  With the entire writing staff assembled on the mismatched, comfort­able chairs in Michael’s office, the story in process would be broken down into an outline of sorts, detailing the action to take place in that episode’s teaser and five acts.  This is done with colored markers on a large white erasable board hung alongside Michael’s door.  As new kid on the block, I would be the lucky one to wield the markers.

I soon discovered why the new kid gets this job.  Uncapped, those pretty colored markers emit fumes.  And since the board is tucked into a corner of the room, the fumes tend to linger in a nasty, airplane glue-like cloud.  After ten minutes of inhal­ing marker fog, I began to forget how to spell “Data.” I suppose I should have run straight for my union representative to complain about hazardous working condi­tions… and might have thought about doing that, except that I was too busy writing down the details of the now famous “Unification” episode.

Michael and Rick Berman had put together a twelve-page synopsis of the two-episode story.  Over the course of several hours, we broke this down into sections.  (Well, they did.  I watched and listened, and sucked up fumes.) What was Sela’s plan? Why did the Romulans need those stolen Vulcan ships? Ideas were tossed around the room that never made it to the screen, including a Picard/Data/Spock escape that involved a takeoff on every escape plan ever hatched by the classic Trek crew.  Captain Picard, Spock would suggest, might you not try to seduce Sela? That sort of thing always worked well for the other captain of the Enterprise.  Everyone in the room loved the idea, but it only lasted through the first couple of drafts of the script.

Once the outline had been completed, Jeri went to work on “Part One” and Michael on “Part Two.” Since the episode was to be aired in November, the scripts had to be produced very quickly, and it’s a tribute to Jeri and Michael’s talents that the finished two-part story undoubtedly rates as one of STING’s best episodes.

I also sat in on several pitch sessions, where writers from a broad variety of backgrounds tried to woo Michael with their story ideas.  Not quite surprisingly, all of them were men.  (Among the ST:TNG writers/producers, Jeri Taylor is the only woman.  The female freelance writers also seem to be a distinct minority and, as far as I can tell, there’s only one female director, Gabrielle Beaumont.)  One of the hopefuls was a student from the college Michael had attended, one a successful writer of science fiction novels, one the writer/director of a series of low-budget movies.  The student presented an idea for a “Q” episode that piqued Michael’s interest, and he was encouraged to develop it further.  The rest of the proposed stories were firmly, but politely, rejected.

Near the end of my internship I had my own opportunity to pitch story ideas.  Having been “on the inside” for over a month, I knew what sort of things would be automatically rejected.  Carefully avoiding those, I put together my four best ideas for “character-driven” stories, each focusing on one or more members of the Enterprise bridge crew.  My presentations were just the right length, and well done, according to Joe and Brannon.  Nevertheless, each one got a thumbs down.

Not that I had really expected a different result.  That parade of established writers hadn’t come up with anything useable.  And day after day, sitting on the huge, soft sofa in “the big office,” I’d plowed through the pile of unsolicited (“spec”) scripts sent in to ST:TNG from around the country, from people like me, in response to the same magazine articles I’d read.  In six weeks I read about sixty of them.  I recommended about ten as containing a nugget of something that might be useable.  Only one script struck me as useable as is.  ST:TNG receives something like three thousand spec scripts per year, and mighty darned few of them go anywhere other than being returned to the sender with a nice “thanks but no thanks” letter.  So when my turn to pitch came along, I was fully expecting the response to be “no.” Probably that makes me a pessimist… but I suspect that if I’d gone in expecting a “yes,” I still would have gotten a “no.”

But heck, I was being told “no” while sitting in the office of the executive producer of Star Trek.  Which certainly beats being told “no” via mail, sitting on the sofa in my living room.

And what about those opinions/ideas/thoughts that Michael had encouraged me to speak up with? After many days of nervous silence, I managed to produce one.  The writing staff was examining the latest draft of “The Game,” in particular a climactic scene where Worf is instructed to capture the alien woman Etana’s ship in a tractor beam.  There would be no on-screen response to this move from Etana or any of her crew.  Excuse me? I said.  We’d already seen that Etana was quite fixed on taking over the Enterprise.  If things suddenly turned against her, wouldn’t she respond? Somehow? Fire a few shots? Try to break free? At least curse a little? Nope, I was told; the scene’s focus is on the Enterprise crew.  I left the meeting murmuring, “I still think she ought to do something.” Whether it was because of me or someone else, Etana did ultimately do something.  In the final, aired version of the scene, she appears on the viewscreen and indignantly demands an explanation from Picard.  So, in a sense, that small bit feels like “my” scene.

Although I seem to be the only one who thinks so, more interesting than the story breaking sessions (and with the advantage of being fumeless) were the periodic pre-production and production meetings, held across the “street” in the Cooper Building.  Presided over by Rick Berman (another person I never saw dressed in anything other than jeans and a windbreaker), the producers, the director, the writer, and representatives of each of ST:TNG’s many departments gather around a large conference table, and go through the week’s script page by page, discussing what’s needed in terms of cast, costumes, sets, props, and special effects.  Most of these meetings take a couple of hours and boil it down to the repeated voicing of one question: “How much will it cost?”

(Why doesn’t ST:TNG have more planet-side shows? More aliens with something other than a weird forehead? More space battles, more new ships, more special effects? Costs too much.  Every tidbit you seen on the screen goes into the episode’s budget.  New sets.  Adapting old sets.  Captain Picard’s new jacket.  The pound cake seen in the background of Wesley’s welcome home party in “The Game” cost several hundred dollars.  Heck, I would have baked them one for twenty bucks.)

As the new kid here, too, I set up a folding chair in the corner near the door and sat with pen in hand, ready to listen and learn.  The meeting hadn’t quite officially begun when Pam nudged me gently and nodded toward the doorway.  There, peering into the room with a wide grin on his face, dressed in Starfleet uniform (minus the jacket) was Jonathan Frakes.  I smiled.  He smiled back.  Mr. Frakes and I crossed paths nine times during my internship; on the eighth occasion I worked up the nerve to introduce myself and got a cheerful “Welcome to the Enterprise!” in response, along with a warm handshake and another one of those killer smiles.

The rest of the cast I encountered during my handful of visits to the set.  Patrick Stewart I found to be the most gracious of the seven: friendly, receptive, and ready with a welcome for each new visitor.  When archivist Richard Arnold brought over a group from England for a tour of the set, Patrick spent several minutes chatting about his various acting roles and invited them to return to the set after their lunch in the studio commissary.

Michael Dorn I met both as himself (in white shorts and one of the ubiquitous polo shirts) and as Worf.  His latex and makeup Klingon features are applied so carefully and with such detail that, for a moment, if you allow that “willing suspension of disbelief” to take over, you can almost believe you’re addressing the Enterprise’s security chief and not a completely human actor.

The same care has obviously been taken with the dozen odd sets that make up the U.S.S.  Enterprise.  Visiting the set of M*A*S*H several years ago, I was disappointed with how phony everything looked close up; lots of paint and plywood (Even the “ground” was plywood, covered with a thin layer of dirt.) The Enterprise is composed of a lot of paint and plywood, too… and plexiglass, and wall-to-wall carpet, and molded plastic.  Smooth surfaces.  Pastel colors.  The observation lounge and the captain’s ready room are connected to the bridge, exactly as they appear to be on screen.  Nearby, a long, curving corridor connects engineering and sickbay.  Prompted by Richard Arnold, I walked down that corridor with my eyes directed straight ahead and squinting a little.  Yup, with a bit more of that “willing suspension of disbelief .”

I would rather have suspended the way time has of escaping unnoticed.  My last day at ST:TNG featured a lunch at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles with Ron, Joe, and Brannon, after which they invited me to come back for a visit “and bring us ideas.” I hope to take them up on that offer.

A couple of months have gone by in the meanwhile, during which I’ve relocated from upstate New York to Los Angeles.  The word processor on which I created “Bond of Loyalty” now sits about twelve miles from Paramount, and I’ve been avidly looking around for something to turn into a Star Trek story.  Or two.  Or ten.  If things manage to fall into place, my name might someday appear in those “top of the show” credits.  If not, I was still “behind the wall” for six weeks.  I was a part of Star Trek.  As a Trekker, I couldn’t ask for more.

Well, maybe I could…

———————–

Coming next… looking back on that one-of-a-kind temp job from where I sit these days!

Six Weeks Behind the Wall: Me and ST:TNG (Part 1)

I’m here, in large part, because of STAR TREK.  My first attempt at “publication” was a self-produced fanzine, a Classic Trek novel that sold a hundred copies – a very small success, really, but one that convinced me that other people were interested in my stories.  I produced that first ‘zine back in 1987-ish, and followed it up with several more.  Then, in late 1990 I took another bold step in my writing career, with no great hope of getting anywhere.

Little did I know.

I wrote the article that follows at the end of 1991.  It was first published in the Trek newsletter Subspace Chatter (Vol. 1, No. 12).

Six Weeks Behind the Wall (Part 1)

When someone offers you the moon, do you turn it down?

I had to answer that question six months ago, shortly after my return home from the bi-annual Seatrek cruise.  When Jeannie, the receptionist at my office, buzzed my desk to say I had a call, I thought nothing of it; my old and battered phone was in frequent use, though most of the calls I received during any particular day turned out to be for my boss.  This one probably would be, too.

“This is Carol,” I said.  “Can I help you?”

An unfamiliar, but warm and friendly woman’s voice replied, “This is Jeri Taylor, Supervising Producer of Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

And a small voice in the back of my head said, “Ohmigod.”

Back in December of 1990, following the guidelines I had read in a number of magazines, I’d submitted a script to ST:TNG called “Bond of Loyalty,” a sequel to the first season episode “Conspiracy.”  Before mailing it off, I read most of the script aloud to a group of my friends who pronounced it “excellent,” but the same magazine articles that advised writers how to submit a script also advised that the odds of having it accepted were remote at best.  Could ST:TNG possibly be interested in my script???

Nope.  Sorry.  In Ms. Taylor’s words, “that story just doesn’t do it for us.”

However, she told me, the producers had been very impressed with the quality of my writing.  If I had more ideas for stories, I could call her office at any time to arrange to pitch those stories over the phone.  She also mentioned in passing that ST:TNG had a continuing internship program whereby (at the invitation of the producers) a novice writer could work at Star Trek for six weeks, watching, listening and learning.  Since I lived 3,000 miles away from Paramount Studios, she thought the logistics involved might prevent my taking part in the program, but thought my work was good enough that she wanted to at least make the offer.

I thanked her for that, agreed that I was a long way from Hollywood, and said I would be calling very soon to arrange for the phone pitch.

That was at 2:30 p.m.  A few minutes later, the wheels in my head started turning.

Six weeks working at Star Trek?  They were offering me a chance to work at Star Trek???

The hell with the logistics.  I’d walk there if I had to, and live in a cardboard carton under a freeway on-ramp.  At 6:00 the same afternoon, I called Ms. Taylor’s office back and said, “Is that offer still open?”

Yes, they told me.  It is.

“When do you want me?” I asked.

Fifty-nine days later, on Friday, August 2, with my friend and fellow Trekker Crystal at my side for moral support during my first brief “say hello” visit, I drove onto the Paramount Pictures lot.  Outside the wall that surrounds the studio is a collection of run-down houses and small businesses.  Inside is a huge complex composed of soundstages, office buildings, carefully maintained garden areas, a street of “New York City” neighborhood building facades, a large parking lot and about 1,600 people.  It’s home to Wings, Cheers, Hard Copy, Entertainment Tonight, Brooklyn Bridge, Dear John, The Arsenio Hall Show, and several other productions.

And, of course, Star Trek.

Our destination was the William S. Hart Building, a small, four-story structure tucked into a corner of the lot.  Inside, on the left-hand side of a short, narrow hallway, was the office of Michael Piller, ST:TNG’s executive producer.  We’d been told to look for Kim, Mr. Piller’s assistant, and we found her in the tiny outer office of Room 107.  Kim welcomed us to Star Trek, offered us something to drink, and parked us in a pair of chairs alongside Mr. Piller’s door.  The ST:TNG writing staff, she explained, had gone off to Mexico for the weekend to brainstorm, so I wouldn’t be able to meet anyone that day, but she’d be more than glad to give me “stuff to read” if I was sure I wanted to waste my weekend reading.  No problem, I said, though I did wonder what Kim’s “stuff” amounted to.

She came back a few minutes later with a 9-inch stack of paper: the ST:TNG Writer’s Guide, the Technical Manual, a collection of episode synopses for Seasons 1-4, and the scripts for the first ten episodes of Season 5.

Oh, the pain.  The hardship.  The torture.

If you’re at all like me, you’ve bought some of those same items at conventions and curled up in some quiet corner with them, like a foodaholic with a box of chocolate donuts.  Kim was now handing them to me with the same wary air as if she’d asked me to spend my weekend reading the L.A. phone book.  But by the time I returned to Paramount on Monday morning, I had delightedly plowed my way through the entire stack.

To be continued tomorrow…

 

Venturing in a new direction…

I’ve written romance before – the relationships between my characters have always been front-and-center in my fiction, whether that’s friendship, brotherhood, parent-and-child, husband and wife, or boyfriend and girlfriend.  In fact, I devoted a TON of words to the growing relationship between Dean Winchester and a woman he helps rescue from a trio of murdering ghosts in my Supernatural fanfiction.

pic 9But as far as my Amazon-published work goes, readers know me best for family drama, and horror.

So this is brand-new territory: a “sweet” romance set in springtime Cape Cod.  (“Sweet” meaning there’s no cussing, and the sex happens offscreen.)  I spent almost six full weeks writing, and editing, gathering opinions from beta readers, and editing some more – and when I hit “Publish” this morning, I was pretty nervous.  Is all that effort going to be worthwhile?  Will readers be as receptive to the story of a paralegal and a convenience store owner as they’ve been to the continuing saga of a family trapped in an underground silo?

Time will tell.  And my fingers are tightly crossed!

Here, there, and everywhere

palos verdes

Palos Verdes, CA

When I was 24 years old, I decided to move to California.

This was no small undertaking, you understand: I was born and raised on the other coast, and no one in my family had ever ventured any farther west than Texas.  (That would be my dad, and his adventure came courtesy of the United States Army.)  But for years, California had called to me – Los Angeles in particular.  I had a gas station map of Greater L.A. tacked to my bedroom wall, and spent a lot of time studying it.  I knew which freeways led where.  How far Burbank was from Santa Monica.

It was the place I wanted to be.  The place my heart said I needed to be.  So the summer before I turned 25, I packed my belongings into the massive trunk of my first car (a ’72 Chevy Malibu with two different-colored seats and no air conditioning) and went there.

carlsbad caverns

Carlsbad Caverns, NM

That first trip proved to be premature; after four months I gave up and came home.  But some years later – prompted by the offer of a writing internship at Star Trek: The Next Generation – I gave L.A. another try, and this time it became my home.  For 11 years I was an Angeleno, a resident of one of the most famous, and arguably the most gossiped about, cities in the world.  While I was there, I lived through the riots that followed the Rodney King verdict (during which I spent a harrowing night alone in a motel).  The Northridge earthquake (no damage to my home, but all my belongings ended up on the floor).  The murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman (8 blocks from my apartment, in a neighborhood I often took Saturday afternoon walks through) and the subsequent White Bronco Chase.

After the internship ended, I worked at a major record label, an international bank, a law firm, a gift manufacturer, and an art museum.

I watched a variety of TV shows and movies being filmed – one of them, right outside my apartment.  I ran into Florence Henderson (“Carol Brady”) in a frozen yogurt shop, Lindsay Wagner (the Bionic Woman) in an elevator, Maria Shriver in a hallway, Jay Leno in a burger joint, and Leonardo DiCaprio in the mailroom of the aforementioned art museum.  I stood near the red carpet at three movie premieres (at one, I shook hands with Courtney Cox; at another, I got a wave and a smile from George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez).  I attended an awards dinner and ate prime rib a few tables away from Jim Carrey.

book signing

My first book signing

And because I lived in L.A., I was able to attend a fan convention for Quantum Leap, the TV series for which I’d been writing fan fiction for a couple of years.  When a friend discovered that the editor of the QL tie-in novels was a guest at the event, she told me firmly, “If you don’t go up and introduce yourself to her, I’ll kill you.”  You could accuse me of being easily swayed… but I obeyed.  And was chosen to write two of the tie-ins.

At the end of those 11 years, because my parents were getting older and I felt the need to own my own home (something that’s not do-able on one salary in SoCal), I again got into my car… and came home.

I started thinking about all of this when a co-worker told me she’d been doing the same job, in the same place, for more than thirty years.  There’s a lot to be said for that; she’s got some rockin’ seniority.  But for me, as a writer –  seniority’s got very little cachet.  In those same 30 years I’ve driven cross-county twice, and I’ve traveled from the Northeast to the Northwest, and from the Northeast to the southern tip of Florida, courtesy of Amtrak.  I’ve seen 41 of our 50 states.  I’ve been to the Grand Canyon, the Oregon coast, the Rockies, the Everglades, Mexico and the Caribbean.  I’ve been splashed by Shamu at Sea World and came close to barfing on Space Mountain at Disneyland.  I’ve climbed a sand dune a couple of miles of the Trinity atomic bomb test site.  I’ve ridden to the top of the Space Needle and I’ve stood among the giant sequoias.

grand canyon

Grand Canyon

In addition to the jobs I mentioned above, I’ve worked at two oil companies, two more law firms, an insurance company, an advertising and sales office, and a department store.  I’ve been a guest speaker at two fan conventions, and helped organize three more.

stallions gate

Stallions Gate, NM – near Trinity

I learned how to live on my own, three thousand miles away from my family.  I followed my heart, when almost everyone I knew thought was I was doing was crazy.  The second time I moved to L.A., I didn’t know anyone there.  I had no refuge to run to if something went wrong – but I chose to listen to my heart, not my head.  I chose to take a chance, and to widen my horizons.  Rather than remaining in one place for the long haul, I chose to become a rolling stone – to get out there and see what I could see (and do).

It went well, in the long run.  Sometimes, it went really, really well.  If I’d remained at home, I never would have met that tie-in editor, and never would have had those first books published.  I wouldn’t have been able to stand in the tiny bedroom where Abraham Lincoln drew his last breath, and I wouldn’t have been able to walk the Grassy Knoll in Dallas.  I wouldn’t have seen Graceland, and I wouldn’t have been able to walk down to the beach on my lunch hour and watch the surf roll in.

As my dad puts it:  I’ve done a lot of stuff.  I’ve covered a lot of miles, every one of them useful to me as I step into becoming a full-time writer.  People I’ve met, things I’ve done – they all go into the big blender in my head, and I think they help make my stories richer and more interesting.  Much more real, I hope.

And I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Chatting with Will Swardstrom

Back with another author spotlight, featuring the authors of the Silo Saga fanfic – as well as a wide spectrum of original work! This time: Will Swardstrom, whose Ant Apocalypse is climbing the Kindle charts. You can find his author page right here.

ddeb5659574f0ad8986c6c_L__V380005273_SX200_While I’ve been getting my e-publishing career underway, I’ve met people who’ve gotten into writing fairly recently, while others have been at it since they were first able to pick up a pencil.  What’s your background?

Well, I was born at a very early age…

Okay, seriously…I’ve loved writing for a long time and have always had dreams of being an author. After college I worked over six years at the local newspaper. I definitely was able to improve my writing chops during the time, but writing thousands of words each day about school boards, tax laws, high school football, and many other topics really takes it out of you. Coming home in the evening and writing more was really daunting. It wasn’t until after I went back to school to become a teacher that I was even in the position to have time to devote to writing. Once I’d gotten my bearings as a teacher, I was able to spend time each day last year writing a book, my debut novel, Dead Sleep.

Now that we’ve met you… how about introducing us to your favorite character, out of all the fictional people you’ve brought to life?  Did he or she pop into your head, carrying the story along with them, or did you have the story first and create the character to make the story happen?

My favorite character? Wow…to some it may seem a bit of a cop-out because it’s my fan-fiction story, but Mary, the protagonist (antagonist?) from The Veil is probably my favorite. The story may be set in Hugh Howey’s world, but Mary and all her faults are entirely my own. I knew I wanted to write a WOOL story after I’d seen WJ Davies have Hugh’s blessing on The Runner. But, the story stewed in my mind for a while until my novel was done. That really gave Mary a chance to develop before I put her on paper.

Do you have an in-house beta reader?  A spouse, parent, best friend?  Is it tough for you to find people to read and help shape your story?

My first beta readers are some of my fellow teachers, who just so happen to be English teachers. There are three fellow teachers that I really relied on for my first book. In fact, I had tried to go with some other friends of mine that I knew loved books, but when it came down to actually getting feedback from them, it was like pulling teeth, but I work with some great people at my school and they were fantastic. Then, since I’ve gotten into the LOOW (League of Original Woolwriters), I’ve been able to use some of them for beta readers as well. It hasn’t been tough so far, but I may be the exception to the rule.

Stephen King has a lot of writer protagonists, while John Grisham writes about lawyers.  Are many of your characters a reflection of you, or of people you know?  Do you stick “close to home” with your stories, or venture as far out into the universe as you can get?

So far, my main protagonists have been Jackson Ellis (Dead Sleep) who is a newspaper reporter, Rick Waters (Ant Apocalypse) who is a teacher, and Mary Welcher, a resident of the silo. So, yeah…I have followed King’s lead on that. I think once I get more comfortable in my writing, I probably will venture further out.

Do you have a favorite theme, or favorite kind of dilemma to throw your characters into, or would you rather blaze new ground with each new story?

I would really like to explore new ground and new ideas with each of my stories. Some major questions I’ve explored are: What does it really mean to be human? (Dead Sleep), How far would you go to protect your family? (Ant Apocalypse), and Are there mistakes that are unforgivable? (The Veil). Certainly there are more themes and questions I ask and readers may even be more aware of them than I am.

Many of the Silo Saga entries, and much of the original fiction inspired by Hugh Howey’s Wool novels, are multi-part stories, prompting readers to keep buying each new entry.  For the people reading this who are most familiar (and comfortable) with reading a complete work – how would you encourage them to buy a piece at a time, with the promise that more will follow?

Well, my work, The Veil, is a stand-alone piece. But, as I was finishing it, I had some fantastic (I hope) ideas for a sequel. Does the story stand on its own? It sure does and that’s what I intended. But…is there a place I can go in a sequel? Oh yeah.

I think, ultimately, authors need to make sure the story works by itself. Readers can deal with cliffhangers, but tell a story in the process. For me, as I’m writing my two sequels to The Veil, I plan on having a cliffhanger of sorts at the end of Part 2, but the main story I’m telling in that book will be finished at the end, leaving another complete story to be told in Part 3.

Be honest: did you have any clue what fanfiction was before Hugh Howey started talking about it?  If you did, had you read any fanfic, or written any yourself?

OK…I knew very little about fanfiction. I had a high school student a couple of years ago that liked to write Harry Potter and Naruto fanfiction and she took a lot of flak from her classmates for it. Then, when I found out 50 Shades of Gray was originally Twilight fanfic, I really had a bad viewpoint of it. It took reading WJ Davies’ The Runner and then Greatfall by Jason Gurley before I could really embrace it.

A lot of the people who’ll read this are fanfiction writers themselves, but they’ve only been able to publish their work not-for-profit, at Live Journal, AO3, or Fanfiction.net (all of which can be an excellent training ground, and a great way to gather feedback on your stories).  Since you publish at Amazon, what’s the advantage for you as a writer, and how would you encourage other good writers to consider taking the leap to Kindle publication?  (Aside from the money, since none of us has been raking in any serious cash just yet.)

I really am not familiar with a lot of fanfiction sites, but I would say that being able to say, “I’m a published author through Amazon,” goes a long way when I’m talking to family and friends. I have made so many great friends in the process as well. Just like Hugh Howey says, writers don’t need to be antagonistic towards each other, we can cooperate. Luckily, I stumbled into a great group of writers that I can bounce ideas off and gain support along the way. It isn’t just publishing on Kindle, but it is finding other authors that you can trust along the way. If that comes through a fanfiction site, great.

Here’s a typical interview question: what’s your usual “I’m putting on my Writer hat now” scenario?  Early morning or late evening?  A long stretch of uninterrupted time, or a few minutes grabbed here and there?  A quiet room?  Music playing?

Whenever I have time, but it is usually about 9 or 10 p.m. when my daughter has gone to bed and I have a few moments to myself. There are so many distractions that I have a hard time focusing on writing until after my family is in bed.

Actually, my favorite place to write so far is the dining room table at my in-laws’ home. I don’t know why – it just is.

Go ahead: ramble!  About writing, meeting other writers, the publication experience.

Wow. This has been an amazing journey. I published my first short story on Amazon in late May and now have four works in total for sale. I have a lot of things I want to do and finding time to write and read is the biggest thing.

The most important thing I learned was to just keep writing. It wasn’t something anybody told me – you really have to learn for yourself (so why are you listening to me?) but when I was writing Dead Sleep, I took three weeks off to help my wife with something at school. Starting back up was hard, but I knew if I didn’t I’d regret it forever.

Get out there and write!

If you’d like to follow me on my journey, I’m on Twitter — @wswardstrom and my blog is willswardstrom.wordpress.com and my Facebook page is www.facebook.com/wswardstrom.

Chatting with Fredric Shernoff

Continuing my series of interviews with fellow writers – this time I’m talking with Fredric Shernoff, whose Amazon author page is here.  Like yours truly, he began his writing career with sci fi and Batman… definitely a couple of inspirational subjects!

d9155ab70b2c0a82390bd1_L__V354789563_SX200_As I’ve gotten my e-publishing career underway, I’ve met people who’ve gotten into writing fairly recently, while others have been at it since they were first able to pick up a pencil.  What’s your background?

I wrote my first story (a sci-fi short) in second grade. It became a big deal and was presented at a school board meeting as an example of what children should be encouraged to do. Unfortunately, many teachers didn’t take the hint and my creative writing was discouraged more and more each year after that.

I wrote Batman fan fiction in a notebook while I was away at overnight camp and a short story for an assignment in 11th grade English but that was it. This year, I had some free time and decided to try to write something to satisfy myself and all the family and friends who had been on my case about it for years. That became Atlantic Island. During the writing process I researched self-publishing on Amazon. That’s how I learned about Hugh Howey and Wool and the fan fiction that was starting to pop up around it. I took a brief break from Atlantic Island and wrote a Silo story called Angels of the Earth. At that point I decided I’d found my calling and I was in this for good.

Now that we’ve met you… how about introducing us to your favorite character, out of all the fictional people you’ve brought to life?  Did he or she pop into your head, carrying the story along with them, or did you have the story first and create the character to make the story happen?

I have many favorites for different reasons, but I will say that Sam Lucas, the mayor in Atlantic Island, was my favorite to write. He’s a man who was born in to a challenging life but overcame it in a big way. Through those early struggles and the impossible circumstances of the book, Mayor Lucas remains steady, focused and a good man. Of course, things don’t often go well for genuinely good people in stories.

Do you have an in-house beta reader?  A spouse, parent, best friend?  Is it tough for you to find people to read and help shape your story?

I relied mostly on family and a few fans I picked up through my fan fiction. It’s become easier to get feedback as I’ve become more established.

Stephen King has a lot of writer protagonists, while John Grisham writes about lawyers.  Are many of your characters a reflection of you, or of people you know?  Do you stick “close to home” with your stories, or venture as far out into the universe as you can get?

The characters in my stories are all different types of people from all walks of life, but my protagonists are often extensions of myself. I do believe that it’s challenging for a person to get into the headspace of someone very different than himself (or herself). Theo (Atlantic Island) is the idealized version of me in high school. He’s lost and confused like I was at that time, but events conspired to drag out of him the person he always had the potential to be. On the flipside, Uriel (Angels of the Earth) is the hopeless romantic I was at a point in my life, but seen through the critical lens of someone who looks back on those years and says, “what was I thinking?” I had one “true love” obsession during my teenage years and that provided framework for the story, but I also pined after and dated other girls throughout that time. I also eventually moved on. Uriel has his one girl and that’s never going to change for him.

Do you have a favorite theme, or favorite kind of dilemma to throw your characters into, or would you rather blaze new ground with each new story?

I’d much rather explore new situations. I keep my focus on the characters and I love to figure out how they will get themselves out of a new predicament. My current project is a time travel novel and that provides so much room for unexpected dilemmas. My concept of the time stream is just littered with pitfalls and traps and my protagonist keeps meddling with the past even though he’s constantly trying to avoid doing just that.

Many of the Silo Saga entries, and much of the original fiction inspired by Hugh Howey’s Wool novels, are multi-part stories, prompting readers to keep buying each new entry.  For the people reading this who are most familiar (and comfortable) with reading a complete work – how would you encourage them to buy a piece at a time, with the promise that more will follow?

I’m not the most experienced with multi-part stories, but I think if the pricing makes sense and the first part really hooks the reader, it can be a great way to go.

Be honest: did you have any clue what fanfiction was before Hugh Howey started talking about it?  If you did, had you read any fanfic, or written any yourself?

I knew what it was but I hadn’t read too much. I like alternative takes on famous comic book characters (currently loving DC’s Injustice story) and I enjoyed the Wicked series which was based on Wizard of Oz. I’ve learned since that there are so many different types of fan-fiction and that the Internet is full of some great work just waiting to be discovered.

A lot of the people who’ll read this are fanfiction writers themselves, but they’ve only been able to publish their work not-for-profit, at Live Journal, AO3, or Fanfiction.net (all of which can be an excellent training ground, and a great way to gather feedback on your stories).  Since you publish at Amazon, what’s the advantage for you as a writer, and how would you encourage other good writers to consider taking the leap to Kindle publication?  (Aside from the money, since none of us has been raking in any serious cash just yet.)

I hope that publishing through Amazon gives a little credibility, though the work still has to deliver on its promise or people will demand a refund. The best thing about it (though still a major challenge) is that Amazon’s system rewards success. You have to scratch and claw your way into the spotlight but once that happens Amazon will often help move an author the next rung or two up the ladder.

Here’s a typical interview question: what’s your usual “I’m putting on my Writer hat now” scenario?  Early morning or late evening?  A long stretch of uninterrupted time, or a few minutes grabbed here and there?  A quiet room?  Music playing?

Depends on the book or the scene. I write sad scenes at night, in the dark, with mood music playing. Action or fun scenes I write any time of day and usually I prefer to be in Barnes and Noble or Starbucks, out among the people.

Go ahead: ramble!  About writing, meeting other writers, the publication experience.

I’ve been a published author for about half a year. It’s been one of the most exciting, confusing, educational times of my life. I’ve met great people who do so much to help one another succeed. Fan fiction writing as part of Kindle Worlds connected me with people at Amazon who have been supportive and encouraging. I’ve become a better writer throughout this process and I’m able to write faster than before while still (I hope) preserving quality. The biggest challenge, which probably exists no matter where you publish, is to take a very big, macro view of your success. I have had days where I sold over thirty books with no effort on my part to advertise, and thought that I should probably clear my schedule for the meetings with publishers, agents and interviewers that would surely follow. Then I had days where I sold absolutely nothing and thought, “I’m completely done in this industry.” Those days are outliers and if there’s one thing to remember in this business it’s this: do not base anything on the performance of outliers!

Chatting with David Adams

One of my goals for this blog is to publish an ongoing series of interviews with fellow writers, introducing you to a group of talented people you might not otherwise have the chance to meet and get to know.  You’re welcome to comment, ask questions, make requests, whatever!

First up: David Adams, whose Amazon author page is right over here.

809_900As I’ve gotten my e-publishing career underway, I’ve met people who’ve gotten into writing fairly recently, while others have been at it since they were first able to pick up a pencil. What’s your background?

Hello, I’m David Adams, author of the Lacuna series, the Insufficient Wool-fanfiction series and the Kobolds series, and I hope that the beginning my answer is identical to the one everyone reading this will eventually give.

I started with fanfiction.

More specifically, with Star Trek fanfiction written as part of Starbase 118′s UFOP group, one of the longest running Star Trek play-by-email groups around. The group, along with its monthly writing challenges, gave me a lot of the feedback, criticism, experience and inspiration to write my own things. I took what I liked about Star Trek, removed what I didn’t like (where are all the Chinese people?), and I wrote Lacuna.

I’ve been writing all kinds of things, though, going back further than that. I’ve been writing stories since I don’t even remember when. As soon as I could. But that’s where it all started, really. Combine that with an adolescence wildly misspent playing Dungeons & Dragons and every video game under the sun, and you have me.

Now that we’ve met you… how about introducing us to your favorite character, out of all the fictional people you’ve brought to life? Did he or she pop into your head, carrying the story along with them, or did you have the story first and create the character to make the story happen?

“So I see you have many beautiful children,” she says, “tell me, which one is your favourite?”

Oh God.

The answer to that question is that, well, my favourite changes depending on my mood, what I’m writing at the moment, what I haven’t touched in a while, and so many other factors and variables that giving a consistent answer is… difficult. But here goes.

At the moment, my favourite character is probably Ren, from Ren of Atikala. Next month it might be Turner from Insufficient, then back to Captain Liao for a spell.

How I make characters, though, is strange. Some come into the world with everything they need; backstories, personalities, favourite colours, etc. Others need time to grow. I find it depends a lot on the perspective used. Third person tends to be more about the world and the things in it, while first person is more about a character’s personal journey. Of course, Insufficient breaks that rule pretty hard, but that’s what rules are there for; to be broken. Assuming, of course, you know the rule exists in the first place and why you’re breaking it.

Do you have an in-house beta reader? A spouse, parent, best friend? Is it tough for you to find people to read and help shape your story?

Yes I do, my long time mate Shane Michael Murray, author of the frankly awesome The Orc of Many Questions. He’s living in Japan now, but that doesn’t stop me throwing books at him non-stop. Somehow he keeps up.

Poor bastard.

Stephen King has a lot of writer protagonists, while John Grisham writes about lawyers. Are many of your characters a reflection of you, or of people you know? Do you stick “close to home” with your stories, or venture as far out into the universe as you can get?

Often characters are the anti-me. I’m male, but I have exactly one male protagonist. Either way, everyone I write tends to be warriors, fighters, military personnel. Strong characters. I’m a civilian. I cry during romance films. Jeez.

Magnet, aka Mike Williams, is probably the closest to me. I wanted to be a fighter pilot when I was a kid, and his goof-ball, self-deprecating, ‘fiction is stranger than life’ attitude is remarkably similar to my own. I’d like to think I’m prettier than he is, but how he looks on the outside is probably indicative of how I see myself, so eh.

Do you have a favorite theme, or favorite kind of dilemma to throw your characters into, or would you rather blaze new ground with each new story?

My modus operandi regarding writing is to try to create likable, relatable, interesting characters and then do horrible things to them.

When I die and go to Hell, I’ll be punished by being a character in one of my own novels.

That said, I’ve noticed with a hint of uncomfortable realisation that I tend to focus on matters of sex and reproduction a fair amount. Magnet debates marrying his girlfriend, Liao gets pregnant, Ren shuns her people’s ruthlessly pragmatic ‘organised reproduction’ and Turner is one of only a dozen or so females inside a Silo. It’s rarely the focus of the story (Turner being an exception), but it’s certainly present.

Not sure what that says about me (probably that I got started in fanfiction… hyuk, hyuk, hyuk) but there you go. Now you all know my dark secret.

Many of the Silo Saga entries, and much of the original fiction inspired by Hugh Howey’s Wool novels, are multi-part stories, prompting readers to keep buying each new entry. For the people reading this who are most familiar (and comfortable) with reading a complete work – how would you encourage them to buy a piece at a time, with the promise that more will follow?

I make an implicit promise at the end of the story that the series is going somewhere.

Liao gets pregnant at the end of Lacuna and James is missing in action. Insufficient ends with Turner and the other females hiding out with their supporters in the depths of their Silo. Ren of Atikala ends with Ren being betrayed and turned over to an evil dragon. These things (I hope!) tell the reader that, no, things are not done yet. We’re just starting. The best is yet to come.

Be honest: did you have any clue what fanfiction was before Hugh Howey started talking about it? If you did, had you read any fanfic, or written any yourself?

As outlined above, yeah. For all my life. Star Trek is the birthplace of fanfiction — and the smutty kind, too. I grew up around slashfic of all kinds, to the point I just kind of consider it normal.

A lot of the people who’ll read this are fanfiction writers themselves, but they’ve only been able to publish their work not-for-profit, at Live Journal, AO3, or Fanfiction.net (all of which can be an excellent training ground, and a great way to gather feedback on your stories). Since you publish at Amazon, what’s the advantage for you as a writer, and how would you encourage other good writers to consider taking the leap to Kindle publication? (Aside from the money, since none of us has been raking in any serious cash just yet.)

Our biggest advantage is our biggest disadvantage. The expectation of quality.

If someone sees a story for sale on Amazon, there’s certain expectations that the story will be good. It’ll be a decent length, relatively free of typos and errors, and will be entertaining. This is good: it reassures people that the couple of bucks they’re going to spent will be worth it, and that they’ll be entertained. If not, there’s Amazon’s no-questions-asked refunds policy and that dreaded, ego-crushing 1-star button.

The only problem with that, of course, is that your story has to be good. It has to be professionally edited and well formatted, it has to be compatible with a wide range of devices and readers, and it has to be priced competitively. It has to have a super professional cover. It should have a print edition available. Etc.

If someone doesn’t like your Fanfiction.net story, they’ll stop reading and that’s it. If someone doesn’t like your paid, Amazon story, well… they’re more likely to leave bad reviews, or seek a refund, which is essentially a “bad review”. There are lots of reasons for returns, but when you see them for yourself, that’s just how they’re seen.

But that desire for quality pushes you. It makes you a better writer. Getting a 1-star hurts, it does, but I read all my negative reviews. I read them far more often and with more care than I do my 5-stars, which I read once, smile, and move on. I learn what people didn’t like. What made them dislike the story, and I fix it; either in a new edition of the same story (rarely), or in a sequel (more commonly). I learn. I adapt. I grow.

When you’re charging for a service you have to make it good. It’s the best motivator for quality I have; making sure that what I write is good enough to sell.

Here’s a typical interview question: what’s your usual “I’m putting on my Writer hat now” scenario? Early morning or late evening? A long stretch of uninterrupted time, or a few minutes grabbed here and there? A quiet room? Music playing?

Long stretches, either in bed with my laptop or in my office on my Mac. I need to be away from distractions and I need to be warm, fed and caffeinated. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s just the nature of it.

Don’t rush if the words aren’t coming out. Let them come at their own pace. A late book will eventually be good, but a rushed book will be bad forever.

Go ahead: ramble! About writing, meeting other writers, the publication experience.

Oh God, what a journey.

I’ve been living off my book royalties for a year now. It’s not quite sustainable; I saved up a bit of cash to do so, and it’s now clear that it’s time I went back and got myself a real job. But what a year.

I met Hugh Howey in person when he was on the Gold Coast earlier this year, and it was a blast. I loved it. If he comes back, I’m definitely getting him pizza like we planned. :D

The e-publishing scene is just beginning. Just beginning. We’re on the precipice of something really great here, and now’s the time to get publishing.

Technically it was a couple of years ago, but never mind that. Now’s as good a time as any.

Go. Write. Publish. Enjoy. Life’s too short and too awesome to be spent kicking yourself because you never got to tell that story that you always wanted to tell.

You know the one.

It’s what I am – what I do…

A few months ago, a smiling friend handed me a carefully folded-up page she’d torn from the newspaper. “I thought you might be interested in this,” she said. “It’s about a writers’ workshop.”

I thanked her, then sat down to read the article. The workshop was local, which was a plus. Coming up soon – another plus.

To participate, you must have been published in four literary journals.

Oops.

It brought to mind all the people who’ve told me over the years, “I don’t watch television.” The ones who wouldn’t touch a Stephen King book with a ten-foot pole. The ones who take such delight in feeling that they’re “better than” all that.

Sorry, world. I’ve never been published in a literary journal – haven’t even been considered by one. I don’t read them, or even ponder them as I pass them by. Me? I’m a literary lowbrow, and a fanfiction writer. My Kindle is full of showbiz biographies, Fringe and Psych tie-in novels, the memoirs of escapees from polygamist colonies, histories of the Hatfield-McCoy feud and the doctor who popularized lobotomies and the Johnstown Flood, John Grisham and Dean Koontz novels, the musings of Bill Maher and William Shatner, Wool fanfiction, and… oh yeah. Stephen King.

Don’t I want to read to learn something? Be enlightened? Sure I do. (Ask me for some random facts about the Johnstown Flood.)

Don’t I want to be enriched?

I’ve been writing fanfiction since I was ten years old, because my mind has never been able to accept That’s all there is. I wanted more stories about my favorite characters, so I wrote them, starting off with a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook. I wrote until my hand ached. After my dad invested $20 in a manual typewriter (the bounty of someone’s yard sale) and insisted that I learn to type “so you’ll have something to fall back on,” I hammered out stories until my family begged me to stop. Through word processors with three lines of memory and fancier word processors that froze dead in the middle of revisions, through four generations of computers, I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.

And I write.

At a rough guess: ten novels, a couple of dozen novellas, sixty teleplays, two screenplays, and eight hundred short stories. Some of it a struggle, most of it a joy.

Most of it fanfiction.

Most of it, as Stephen King likes to say, “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.”

Which isn’t to say I rival The Master of the Macabre in talent, or persistence, or even sheer word count. I’ll dare to say, though, that I might rival him in the sheer joy I take in what I do. My stories will never make me financially rich, though they’ve earned me some remarkable perks over the years. The unlikelihood of ever earning a fortune from what I do doesn’t make it any less worth doing – or make me any less proud of having produced that enormous pile of work.

Literary journals? You can keep those, and that “better than” attitude.

I’ll be over here with my sack of fries, pounding out my fanfiction.

Coming soon…

woolgathering_cover-3Those of you who are familiar with my Silo Saga work probably also know the names David Adams, Ann Christy, WJ Davies, Thomas Robins, Frederic Shernoff, and Will Swardstrom — a wonderful group of authors who back in August invited me to join them as a member of the League of Original Woolwrights.  Since then, we’ve served as a sounding board for each other both in good times and bad, and I’ve gotten to know each of them as a friend.

What’s that got to do with you, you might ask.  Well… we’re all involved in an upcoming anthology of WOOL-related stories called WOOLGATHERING, to be published for the benefit of the NaNoWriMo organization.  It’s a terrific collection, covering life in the silos from Day One and running many years into the future, and I’m delighted to be a part of it.

Stay tuned for more information about the book, and the various authors involved in it.  I’m hoping to chat with each of them here in this space, so that you can get to know them and their work as we all continue our trek through the world of indy publishing!