writing

Too Many Voices…

I’ve been meaning to post for… well, six months now, which is probably enough time to convince you that I’m a terrible blogger. At the very least, an unreliable one. And you wouldn’t be wrong. Slapping a couple of random thoughts up on Facebook (usually accompanied by a random photo of something) is one thing, and putting together an essay that I figure other people would enjoy reading is a whole ‘nother one.

But blogging is nothing compared to putting together a new book for publication.

gray lake crop

Last fall, I ran out of juice. I had several new stories underway, but couldn’t put together the ambition to work on them. Time went by, then more time went by… and I’d made no progress. Then, after the holidays, I had a sudden burst of inspiration and put together all the pieces for a brand-new series. I zipped through first drafts of the first three books, bought the covers, laid out a publication schedule… and then I ran out of gas again.

Why is that? you might ask.

Because the world is full of voices. People with suggestions. People who were happy to tell me just what worked for them. People who posted their sales numbers, which are up in the stratosphere compared to mine. People who were complaining about one thing or another (or a lot of things). That’s a LOT of noise, particularly for an introvert who’s easily overwhelmed by too much input — and it resulted in my completely running out of gas again. I wanted badly to publish these new books in April and May, but every time I looked at them, my heart would sink. The whole world started to look like that picture of the lake I included up above: gray and stormy. Not only couldn’t I envision publishing anytime soon, I couldn’t envision publishing at all.

Then a friend suggested, “Listen to your heart.”

Which is what I wanted to do all along, but other people were telling me I was wrong. Telling me the choices I’d made wouldn’t work, that I should tinker and juggle and cut and redo. Buy different (and much more expensive) covers. Good advice, maybe — for someone who’s not me.

For me, writing is very personal. Most of the time, I’ve done the tinkering and juggling all alone, without offering anyone else the chance to weigh in. Usually, I’ll reach a point where I can look at the story and say, “This is finished now. This is the best way I can tell this story.” At that point, I hit “Publish.” Some of the stories have done very well, from my perspective, at least. Others have faded nearly into oblivion. They didn’t work for the readers.

Would they have worked better if I had let other people weigh in, and followed their instructions? Maybe. But for me, part of the heart of the story would be gone. The story would have become a group effort, and not just the product of my struggling writer’s soul, the story I needed to tell, in its own time, in its own way.

I’m going back to that now. I’m going to turn these new stories loose and see what happens. They may fail; they may succeed to a degree that makes me smile. Either way, they’re true to what I wanted them to be.

I figure that’s worth a lot.

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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 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…