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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…?

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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.

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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!

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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…