Five Tips for the Newbs…

I’m no expert on the subject of writing.  If I were, I’d be selling a lot more books.  But I’ve been at this a long time, my stories have always been reasonably popular, and I suppose that makes me a reasonably reliable source.  So here goes: 5 small pieces of advice for the newbie writers out there — the folks who are wondering how to whip their story into decent shape before they plunge their toes into the ice-cold water of indy publishing.

1)  Write what you know.  You may be dying to write about the life of a New York City detective, or an ER nurse, or a lumberjack, but if you’ve got no clue about the ins and outs of those professions, and you aren’t willing to thoroughly research them… don’t go there.  Readers who are more savvy than you are will object.  A lot.  If you’re a student, write about student life, or small-town life, or young love, something you understand right down to your gut.  If you’ve got a mundane job, write about that, or family relationships.  Don’t just “make shit up.”  Unless, of course, you’re writing Sci Fi.  Then, by all means, make shit up.

2)  Listen to people when they talk.  Everywhere.  At work, on the street, at the mall, on TV and radio.  Pay careful attention to what they say and how they say it.  Does your wife (or your mom) actually say to you, “I would like you to stop at the store and pick up several items”?  Don’t be afraid of contractions.  Develop a sweet love affair with contractions, and figures of speech.  If you’re unsure whether your dialogue sounds genuine or fake, read it out loud.  Seriously: READ IT OUT LOUD, at a pretty fast clip.  Then ask yourself: do people talk this way?

3)  “Just because” is not a good reason for something to happen.  Your characters are human beings.  Don’t force them to do things no normal person would do, just because it sounds good, or it fast-forwards the plot.  Yes, in the BBW/Paranormal Romance genre, perfectly sensible women walk away from their lives, their jobs, their friends and family to live in the woods with a pack of werewolves, but if you’re writing non-PR fiction, your readers will be a lot happier if your characters display some common sense.

4)  Don’t get fancy; just tell the story.  You may adore The Road with every fiber of your being… but you’re a newbie, not Cormac McCarthy.  Elaborate styles and fifty-cent words don’t make your story better, all on their own — unless you’re skilled at handling them, they’ll actually bury your story.  Remember the acronym KISS — Keep It Simple, Stupid?  That’s your best bet.  Don’t hit “publish” on something that’s going to prompt readers to ask… WTF?

5)  If you can’t spell and punctuate properly, find help.  I’ve read a number of times recently, “If the story is good enough, I’ll force myself to overlook the mistakes.”  But why put a reader in that position?  Particularly if you’re asking him or her to part with some hard-earned cash in order to read your story.  Take pride in your work!  Make it as perfect as you possibly can.  You might not be the best writer in the world — but you can make sure that your housekeeping is done.  Publishing a story that hasn’t been cleaned up says very clearly to the reader, “I didn’t care enough to make this look its best.”  If you can’t afford an editor, offer to swap skills with somebody.  Offer to beta-read their story.  Offer to mow their lawn, or paint their front steps.  Do whatever it takes to present the best possible product to your potential customers.

A final bonus tip:

DON’T GIVE UP.  Don’t let anyone tell you, “You’re not a writer.”  If you’ve got a story to tell, tell it.  Then tell another one.  And one more.  As one of my writing mentors instructed me years ago: WRITE YOUR FACE OFF.  With practice, you’ll get better.

I promise.  :)

One thing leads to another…

Scan

A page from the script that got me the job at ST:TNG

We’ve all heard the saying “The longest journey begins with a single step.”  True enough… but what’s interesting to me this morning, as I sit in my quiet living room, listening to the birds chirping and enjoying a cool morning breeze, is that most of the time, we have no idea where that journey will take us.

From the time I started to put “me” and “writer” and “television” together, my dream was to work in Hollywood, helping to put together one of the TV shows I loved.  I worked doggedly at achieving that dream — at least, as much as a small-town girl with limited funds and a nervous nature could do.  I wrote letters.  I churned out scripts by the boxload.  I asked favors of a number of kind, generous people (who granted most of them).  But years went by, and I was still sitting in my tiny home town, watching TV and dreaming.

Then I read about a one-of-a-kind opportunity being offered by the producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  At a time when every TV show on the air was refusing to look at unsolicited material, ST:TNG had opened the gates.  Fill out a simple release form, they said, and we’ll read your script.

So I sent them one.  And they offered me a job.

A dream job.  The one I’d fantasized about for half my life.  I was working in Hollywood, surrounded by actors and writers and crew members and fancy sets and a million different flights of fancy.  But I discovered as my internship unfolded that this wasn’t a good fit for me.  Writing on demand, long hours, having your work completely rewritten by someone else…  Yes, the money was good, if you could manage to land a full-time gig, but you’d run the risk of your show being canceled after a few episodes.  Add to that the fact that I was terrified of nearly everyone (I have issues with authority, whether it’s real or perceived), and I couldn’t imagine myself ever succeeding as a Big Time TV Writer.

Still, I decided to stay in California, and went back to writing fanzines.  Which led to meeting the editor of the Quantum Leap tie-in novels, which led to publishing two of the tie-ins and becoming a “real author.”  It also led to my being exposed to a lot of people I would never have encountered back in my little home town: people from countries around the world.  It led to my being at the fringes of the riots that happened after the infamous Rodney King verdict.  It led to my apartment being trashed by the Northridge earthquake and its many thousands of aftershocks.  It led to new friendships and new challenges (among them, working for a spoiled-rotten Beverly Hills divorcee) and five years at an art museum.  It led to a richness of experience I wouldn’t have had if I had said “no” to that job at ST:TNG.

The whole business of writing revolves around answering the question “What if…?”  But LIFE revolves around that very same question.  Some thirty years ago, I considered buying a small house a few blocks from my parents, a cute blue bungalow surrounded by trees that my dad would have helped me purchase.  If I had said, “I want to do this,” it would have been a done deal.  Instead, I took a different path, and spent more than a decade soaking up experiences that weren’t available here at home.  I’ve chatted about this before, and I probably will again, because it’s something I ponder a lot.  “What if…?”  Where would I be now, if I had bought that house?  What would I have accomplished?  What would I have seen, and who would I have met?

Would I be here now, writing an author’s blog?

What if…?

20 Years Ago This Morning…

… I was enjoying a quiet night’s sleep.  It being a Sunday night/Monday morning, I imagine I went to bed pretty early, so I’d be refreshed for work the following day.  I’m sure I was asleep at 12:15 a.m.

Just eight blocks away from my apartment, a couple of people out walking their dog discovered a bloody, nearly decapitated body lying on the sideway in front of a quiet condominium.  When the police arrived, they discovered another mutilated body.

Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

Like nearly everyone else in the country, I followed the events of the following year minute by minute.  As the cousin of someone who was shot to death by her enraged spouse, I understood the pain the Brown and Goldman families were going through, and I was astonished and not a little furious when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty, something that endures to this day.  A few months after the end of the trial, on Thanksgiving Day, a friend and I went to Westwood to take in a movie — and to our amazement, O.J., his children and his entourage were standing in the theater lobby.  “Do you want to get his autograph?” my friend asked.

No, I most certainly did not.

20 years have gone by.  To my relief, O.J. Simpson doesn’t look smug any more.  He’s sitting in prison, exactly where he should be — because I’ve never doubted for one minute that he was the one who, in a fit of blinding rage, slaughtered the mother of his children and a young man who was there only to return a pair of glasses.  The one who murdered, and ran, and took careful steps to cover up his guilt.  And looked smug the whole time, because he was the world’s golden boy, and I think he was pretty sure that, as Nicole had predicted, he’d get away with it.

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If you look at this little map — my apartment was located where the green arrow is.  If you trace slightly to the north, you’ll see the word “Ralph’s” (a supermarket).  The white line that the word “Ralph’s” straddles is Bundy Drive.  Easy walking distance from my place, a walk I often took on weekends and nice afternoons after work.  It was a quiet neighborhood before June 12-13, 1994, and I imagine it’s gone back to being so.

That night, I was sleeping quietly eight blocks away.  That I was oblivious to what was happening made me very sad back then, and it still does.

RIP, Nicole and Ron.  You are not forgotten.

You have to start somewhere…

First storyYears ago, my mother told me, “Don’t ever throw out anything you wrote.”  You have to like that kind of optimism — apparently, she thought my situation was something like Stephen King’s, and I’d be able to resurrect something that would become The Next Big Thing.

Maybe she was figuring they’d want to include it all amongst my papers in the library at Harvard.

Her advice aside, I haven’t saved everything.  I pitched a bunch of my Starsky & Hutch scripts, there being absolutely no market for those.  And those old drafts of things?  Out they went.  I have a tiny house with limited storage, and clutter makes my nervous system… nervous.

I did keep one particular jewel, though: the very first story I wrote, back at the tender age of 11.  A huge fan of the Batman TV show, I decided I could write some adventures for my favorite hero.  That being… no, not Batman.  ROBIN.  My little 11-year-old heart went pitty-pat every week for the Boy Wonder, and when I sat down to put together the episode I’d like to see, it of course included a love interest.  (Cue a few choruses of “Hello, Mary Sue”…)

I’m thinking my mother might have read it.  I don’t think anyone else has, up till now.

I had nice handwriting, right?  As for the quality of the writing — as the title of this post says, we all have to start somewhere.  I was tickled pink with my little endeavor.  And the rest…  Well, yeah.  It’s history.

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.