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To Thine Own Self…

College portrait
Me, a few months before I entered the Big Wide World of Work

A few weeks ago, someone e-mailed me to ask if I’d do a blog post advising students how to succeed in the Big Wide World of Business.  Should they learn how to “rock that interview”?  Become familiar with the latest software applications? Et cetera, et cetera.  I was too busy to do a post when the request came in, but I’ve given the subject matter a lot of thought.

Succeed in the working world?

Learn how to make the other guy look good.  It’s not about what (or how much) you know, no matter what field you choose to go into.  It’s — forever and always — about the other guy.  Make their job easier.  Help them look like the greatest bundle of awesome that ever awesomed, and you’re guaranteed a solid spot on the company totem pole.  More than likely, you’ll score some rewards: raises, promotions, nicer Christmas gifts.

But where will YOU be?  The real you.  The authentic you.  The you that you’ve always dreamed of being – the one who feels fulfilled, satisfied, content, happy.  That’s the real challenge in the working world: is it possible to keep the other guy looking like a star without completely burying yourself in the process?

I was part of the 9-to-5 thing for 38 years, beginning just a few weeks after I graduated from college.  My dad had ingrained in me the rule that Thou Must Always Have a Job — not necessarily a great job, or even the right job, but A Job — so I was both pleased and disgruntled when a vacation at the lake was interrupted by a phone call that said Come now, and start working.  That was the beginning of almost four decades of Making the Other Guy Look Good, and watching myself become more and more buried.

See… I’m a writer.  I’m also a variety of other things (daughter, sister, friend, neighbor, consumer, viewer), but in my heart of hearts I’m a writer.  A storyteller.  I’m the most content, the most at peace, and feel the most complete when I’m writing.  When I can’t write, I feel as if I’m being locked away from a loved one.  So whenever I could, during those 38 years in the corporate world, I used little bits of time to tell stories.  A day felt like a success not if I managed to put together a pile of legal briefs or sales flyers, but if I found the time to write a page or two (or twenty).  Over and over, I searched for jobs that would allow me to write… something.  During one job interview, I was promised that I’d be able to contribute to the company newsletter.  Did that happen?  It did not.  The best I was ever able to manage was drafting boilerplate business letters — not at all an exercise in creativity.

I had a regular paycheck.  I had “a good job.”  (Actually, I had seven good jobs, not counting the soul-killing temp assignments, during one of which I had to pick up a Fleet Enema kit for a boss who seemed determined to make me feel Less Than.)  But I never felt like a success.  I tried my best to make all the other guys look good, because I was trained to fit into that age-old image of The Good Girl, the quiet, obedient helper and listening post and whipping boy(girl) — even when it was killing me.  The whole time, I kept writing.  I published two books and a long list of fanzines, shared hundreds of stories online… and no one really took that seriously.  After all, it wasn’t my Real Job.  It wasn’t the thing that brought in the cash.

Finally, I hit the wall.  I’d been looking at retirement, figuring it was still a few years off, years I thought I could manage.  But reality was looking me in the face.  I was about to turn 60, a point at which we have to admit that what remains of the journey is much shorter than what’s already gone by.  I started to ask myself, When do I get my chance?  When do I get to nurture the real me?  I didn’t know when that would be, and I started to panic.  Literally: I had a panic attack.  My hands trembled uncontrollably, and my vision got foggy.  I had to struggle not to throw up.

That evening, I decided that enough was enough.

This past May, I said sayonara to the business world, to being constrained by office hours and limited space and other people’s needs and whims.  I became my own boss.  Now, the person I’m trying to make look good is me.  And finally, I feel at peace.  I feel like I’m nurturing the person I’ve always tried to be, the one who tells stories.  Finally, I feel like a success.

So…what advice would I give to a student who’s about to enter the working world?  Do you need to “rock that interview”?  Do you need to become a master of the latest software?  Sure.  Go ahead.  Do that.  But at the same time, be aware of the most important person on your team: yourself.  If you ignore who and what you really are, you’ll never be content.  You’ll probably start marking time, and complaining to your family and friends that Oh my f-ing god, I HATE MY JOB.  Which isn’t to say it’ll be easy to find work that fulfills you – or at the very least, doesn’t make you want to walk in front of a moving train.  Chances are, you won’t find a job that makes you want to hurtle out of bed in the morning…but do look for something, somewhere in your life, that gives your soul a chance to speak.  Find time for that.  MAKE time for that.  Write.  Draw.  Compose.  Sculpt.  Garden.

Something.

That’s how you succeed.  That’s how you’ll survive.  And with luck, you’ll find the right opportunity to shine on your own terms while you’re still sane enough to enjoy it.  So go forth, young Skywalkers, and make the other guy look good.  But don’t ever lose sight of yourself.

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Quick tip for newbie writers: it’s all in a name

My dad’s told me many times that he and my mom chose my name very carefully.  I was originally going to be Karen, but our neighbors had their baby first… and decided she was a Karen.  So I became Carol: a name that’s tough to misspell, and tough to make a nickname out of, both of which were important considerations to my dad.  When my brother came along a few years later, my parents took one look at him and decided that the name they’d chosen didn’t fit him, so they switched his first and middle names.

name badgeNew parents face that same situation every day: what to name this new little person?  Something old-fashioned, or quirky?  Something that will sound professional, suited to someone who becomes a lawyer or a doctor?  Or something that will say, “This person is a LOT of fun to be with”?

It’s no less important to choose the right name for your characters.  If you pick the wrong one, it won’t ruin someone’s life, or make them the target of ridicule — but just as it does in real life, saddling your fictional “child” with a name that’s too fussy, too quirky, too old-fashioned or too complicated will give the wrong impression to your readers.  A story about a married couple named Ralph and Ethel will attract different readers than a story about Tyler and Alexis.  (Think about it: without being told anything else about these four characters, how old would you guess they are?)  It’s fun to play against type with names — and it can give an extra layer to your character — but unless you plan to build that into the story, it’s best not to name your high-powered business exec “Timmie” (even as an homage to your best friend from grade school).

baby me
Not-Karen!

Speaking of friends: be wary of naming a character after someone you know.  If that character drinks a little too much, is unscrupulous in their business dealings, or cheaters on their partner — that won’t go over well if others in your circle (or your friend’s, or family member’s) look at your story and go, “OMG! Is Dave really having a little sump’n-sump’n with the girl in IT?”  Or, “Did Cathy really have a baby when she was 15?”  Along those same lines — you may loathe that guy down the street, the one who loves to blare music all night long and hasn’t mowed his lawn in ten years, but it might come back to bite you if you name your serial killer after him and include enough shared characteristics that your other neighbors can easily identify him.

Long story short: treat those characters like your babies!  Give them the best start in life that you can.  Get to know them for a while before you send them out into the world, and make sure their names fit them like a glove.  If you’re lucky, they’ll end up being as memorable as Scarlett, Harry, Ebenezer, Huckleberry, and Katniss!

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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.  🙂

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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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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.

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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…

 

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It’s what I am – what I do…

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

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

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

Oops.

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

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

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

Don’t I want to be enriched?

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

And I write.

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

Most of it fanfiction.

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

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

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

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

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And the road continues…

road small

Back when I started this merry dance, all I needed was a pen and a sheet of tablet paper.  For years, that was enough — and it was also enough that I was the only one who read my stories.

Fast-forward through time: the manual typewriter my dad bought at a yard sale.  Then, a little electric typewriter.  Word processors ranging from useful to brain-killing.  And, finally, a computer.  And the World Wide Web.

“Simple” is no longer good enough.  These days, writing brings with it the need for a professional-grade cover.  A website, a Twitter feed, a Facebook page.  A mailing list (which, at present, has no members).  I’ve gone from a readership of one, to a readership several hundred strong, from something like 20 countries around the world — yet by many people’s standards, I’m not a success.  Those people tell me I have a long way to go, and that I need to work my butt off for every inch I gain.

But the storytelling is still the same.  It’s me, in a quiet room, listening to my imagination.