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The Trek Nation - Do You Have What It Takes To Write For Star Trek?

Do You Have What It Takes To Write For Star Trek?

By Joseph D. Di Lella
Posted at October 9, 2002 - 11:48 PM GMT

Here, in the first part of a new series of articles, Joseph D. Di Lella shares his secrets about how to write for Star Trek. If you've ever considered putting pen to paper on your own Trek story, or are just interstesd in the writing process for the series, read on.


Do You Have What It Takes To Write For Star Trek?

Of course you do. Yet, if your initial response was, 'No way, I'm not that great a writer,' then screw up your courage. Anything is possible if you possess strength of purpose, a solid work ethic and have the belief, as my father always says, that 'there's always a way' to achieve exactly what you want in life. Heck, writing Star Trek material doesn't take an advanced degree. It's not like re-attaching Spock's brain, right?

You may ask yourself, 'What does this yahoo know about writing Trek? I've never seen his name on a television episode credits list or on book dust jacket.' True, but it doesn't mean that I haven't submitted Star Trek teleplays to Paramount, sent short stories to Simon and Schuster or have fiction and non-fiction books in the works at this very moment. Remember, Pamela Anderson (Baywatch, VIP) was a nobody until a cameraman, working a professional football, put her mug on the jumbo-tron scoreboard. I'm simply checking phone messages daily for the contract offer. Hope they haven't forgotten my number...

While waiting for my big break, I have been quite busy. Besides working my day job, for the past three summers I've moderated a panel at the San Diego Comic Convention (75,000 strong in 2002) titled, 'Do You Have What it Takes to Pitch and Write for Star Trek?' Our panelists have included such notable Trek writers as D. C. Fontana, Jimmy Diggs and Harry Kloor. Would you like to hear about their humble beginnings?

No, none of these talented people began their careers with an advantage over others, unlike Tori Spelling of Beverly Hills 90210 [who's father, Aaron is the patriarch of nighttime television]. D.C. started as a secretary for Gene Roddenberry in the Original Series. She moved up the ranks to script consultant; eventually penning many fine episodes herself ('Charlie X,' for example). She became an instrumental force with the short-lived, Trek animated series. Later, she co-wrote the Next Generation pilot with Mr. Roddenberry called, 'Encounter at Farpoint.'

At least D.C. had an easy in with the Trek people. Not so with Mr. Diggs. Jimmy, who worked as a security guard at a local production company, broke into the 'biz' by handing a speculation script to the producer of the television show, Renegade. The show was canceled several weeks later, but the fellow Vietnam veteran didn't forget the charismatic Diggs. He referred Jimmy to Paramount Studios and Rick Berman's series, Next Generation. After a stint as a Writer's Guild Association intern with TNG, Diggs started his career as a professional 'pitch man.' Jimmy became one of the most successful story generating machines Star Trek has ever seen. To date, he has sold over eight episodes to Paramount Studio for work on Deep Space Nine - 'Doctor Bashir, I Presume?' - and Voyager - 'Infinite Regress,' 'The Omega Directive,' to name just a few).

And Dr. H. Kloor? As a fellow academic egghead, Harry earned a double doctorate at Purdue University in theoretical chemistry and physics (according to the New York Times, the first American ever to accomplish this feat at the same time). Did that help him in Hollywood, or as people say, La La land? Nope. He couldn't break the door down for a simple WGA internship with Trek. Still, Jeri Taylor responded kindly in a letter to Harry. She said, though he was the most qualified person ever to apply for the position, he didn't meet basic WGA requirements (over forty years old, of ethnic descent and female). Instead, Jeri offered him a pitch session. Harry drove to Paramount Studios, shook her hand as he entered her office in the old Hart Building, pitched an idea and sold his first story. Ms. Taylor and associates would later buy several more brilliant concepts for Voyager including 'Drone' and 'Raven.'

And me? You'll learn more about my trek into the Roddenberry legacy later. But if you're really curious, you may go to the internet, after you finish reading this intro, and look me up MSN AllExperts.com. Under the Entertainment category, look for television, then Star Trek. Turn to Deep Space Nine and look for my name, or handle, Dr. Joe. In case you're a bit lazy or too mesmerized with this brilliant piece of writing to look it up, I will say that Dr. Kloor and I have completed an in-depth book proposal focusing on lies, deceptions, secrets and espionage in the Trek universe.

As you can see, how you begin your journey into the realm of Trek is not set in stone. A bit of writing practice is a necessary ingredient, but it doesn't make up for real-life experience, smarts or guts. As 'Doc' Brown told Marty McFly in 'Back to the Future, Part III,' 'You're future hasn't been written yet - so make it a good one.'

How can you join in on all the fun? My role as your writing teacher, one I've prided myself in the college and public setting for over fifteen years, is to help you develop the 'smarts' part of the equation. It's up to you to obtain the experience, and ultimately, demonstrate the courage by completing one or more writing projects. For now, you need a schema, a paradigm, a model to help you jump start your trek career. I call the plan, Dr. Joe's Top Five Hints on How to Get Noticed in the Trek Universe. For $500,00 please send check or cash in my name, via this website, to Christian. Just kidding. Still, donations are gladly accepted...

The 'Top Five' areas you need to master are:

  1. The Creative Writing Process: How to Generate an Original Idea and Act Upon it

  2. Finding Your Own Voice: Turn off the DVD player, Get off the Couch, and Start Writing

  3. Selling the Idea: Placing Your Work With the Right People and in the Proper Venue

  4. Networking: Rubbing Elbows With the VIPs or Getting in through the Back Door

  5. Self-Reflection: Re-Evaluating your Failures and Successes

Believe me when I tell you, I'm not a big shot. I'm just an everyday 'Joe' like you. Except, I have a plan of action in the works; a method I've been utilizing for the past few years. Will I be a celebrity, a literary giant in the Sci fi industry like my idol, Ray Bradbury? Probably not. But that doesn't stop me. I still shoot for the stars. I suggest you do the same.

Dr. Joe's Top Five Hints on How to Get Noticed in the Trek Universe

Step One: The Creative Writing Process: How to Generate an Original Idea and Act Upon it

You Call Yourself a Writer?

What are your plans for the day? Work the 9-5 shift? Then what? Rush home for a dinner with the wife and kids? After the pot roast and potatoes settles, you need to spend time churning those creative juices, and as Lt. Commander Data would say, 'burn the late night petroleum products' on your next Star Trek masterpiece. Unless, of course, you're watching a new Enterprise episode or other Trek rerun till midnight.

Seriously, I know, we all work at jobs we hate and live in situations that are all too time-consuming. Still, if you have only fifteen minutes a day, say three days a week, you can start the greatest adventure no person has ever gone before. How? By examining the inner recesses of that crazy and complicated thing resting inside the cranium - the human brain. Remember, what Q told Captain Picard in end of, 'All Good Things...?' The journey to your own existence is much more exciting than doing mundane activities, even the mapping of the stars. I know, you have to worry about that upcoming promotion and who fed the fish today, but as a writer, you must start somewhere. Is spending fifteen minutes a day exploring ideas for Star Trek writing projects really that much to ask of you? If it is, then stop reading RIGHT NOW.

Creative Writing is a Not an Easy Task

Now that we got that lecture out of the way, I see we have committed Trek writers amongst us. Good. Where should we begin?

Oh yeah, writing is a creative act. You must love the act. Like all good writers, you must suffer for the act because it takes more than fifteen minutes a day to become a proficient scribe. You didn't think you'd produce anything outstanding in that limited amount of time, did you? That was merely a test of your resolve.

Sure, it's a pain to punch in all those letters on the keyboard, it may even give you a chronically sore wrist or elbow, but that's only part of the payment in becoming a decent writer. It's the grueling outlines, rough drafts, and re-writes that truly tests a writer's soul. Mental anguish, frustration, non-recognition, it's part of the trade, friend. But at least you're in the game, right? Playing with the big boys, instead of sitting there, watching TNG's 'Data's Day' for the thirty-fifth time. So no more talking about writing a story one day. Do it. Now.

By the way, did any of you catch the newest TV reality show called, Celebrity Bootcamp [held on the Camp Pendleton marine base located here in San Diego, California] on FOX, September 30th? Television stars and music entertainers like David Faustino (Married With Children), Tiffany (former teen singer), Coolio (rapper), and Tracy Bingham (Baywatch) found that winning $50,000 was more a mental strain than a physical grind. As a semi-finalist, the former Baywatch actress and model nearly beat-out the tough guy rapper for the grand prize. How so? Bingham has what it takes between the ears. Plus, she has heart.

As the beginning Trek writer, think of yourself as a marine-in-training trying to pass a writing bootcamp. And me? A drill sergeant. Your worst nightmare.

I Want to be a Real Life Star Trek Television Writer

Are you tough enough to handle a tour in the real world of Trek writing? Imagine yourself in the charming, but crumbling Hart Building on the Paramount Studios lot. Let's say you're a current Star Trek staff writer for Enterprise. Could you begin each week, knowing that after eight days of shooting and two days of rest, you must come up with another great idea? If that's not hard enough, you and your Trek colleagues must complete another sixty-page teleplay the following week. FYI: A teleplay consists of a three to five page teaser, plus five acts of ten to twelve pages Do that for twenty four episodes. Then, get it approved at various staff and executive levels. Yep, Trek writers don't have it easy.

Regardless, the current Trek group work as a team. The initial story idea was either developed by a in-house, staff writer or a pitch artist. It was approved by Berman and Braga, then sent over to the writer's building. At first, the main concept is 'storyboarded' (story concepts broken down into acts and scenes on a white board for all the writers to see and scribble on). Depending on whose turn it is to write, or if someone desperately wants the chore, a solo writer or two member team is assigned to complete the teleplay.

After the first draft of the script is completed, it is gone over by the staff. Soon, Brannon Braga and Rick Berman receive it. It's then returned to the writer(s) for revisions. Like a ping-pong match, serve (revised script) is backhanded (returned) to the B & B executive producer team. Of course, they slam it back to the writer for a winning shot (approval). The script supervisor, who has ultimate say over language usage, grammar and other niggling technical points of reference over Star Trek continuity eventually sends the final draft to the producers. Collaborative efforts may be difficult, but it produces the stories you've loved over the past thirty-five plus years.

I'm Stuck for an Idea, so How Should I Begin?

As a free-lance writer, often in solitude, it's even tougher. If you're alone in your study or in a library, how do you, the writer, come up with interesting ideas and story concepts? You could bide your time, waiting to steal them from a friend, significant other or family member. More likely, you must find a new twist on an old idea. Wasn't it Shakespeare who said that there are only so many distinct plots? It's the turn the screw, the slight askew perspective that makes a ridiculous idea a fantastic one.

Jimmy's Little Secret

I don't think I'm out of line if I give you one of Diggs's secrets. In our San Diego Comic Con discussions over the past three years, Jimmy has said that if you're stuck for an idea, look at old movies to jog your mind from a stand-still position. It's worked for the most prolific, free-lance idea man in Trek history.

For example, has anyone seen one of Jimmy Stewart's classic movies, 'Flight of the Phoenix?' The pilot (Stewart) has to crash land his old weathered, cargo plane in the middle of the hot and dangerous Sahara desert. With only a few days of reserve food and water for himself, navigator and his handful of passengers, the never-say-die movie hero turns to a German passenger who claims to be a aviator designer. Methodically, the young man builds a prototype. It's only before the test run that the madman admits he is a merely toy plane designer. Stewart doesn't trust the design, but what choice does he have? Doesn't matter, for the plane takes off beautifully, with a little ingenuity from the cantankerous pilot, and flies the to the nearest village.

Now, think back to Diggs's Voyager episode, 'Rise.' Tuvok, Neelix and others are stranded on a planet with a useless shuttlecraft. To make the situation more dire, the planet is bombarded with asteroid showers, kicking up enough dusk to endangering the well-being of troupe. What can they do to escape? Why of course, fix up an old abandoned mine tether and ride it 300 kilometers above the planet. Thanks to chef's determination and pseudo-expertise, the group attempt to ride the tether to escape the atmospheric conditions that prevents Voyager from locating them. It's only after a few problems arise that Neelix admits he's built 1/10 size models in his homeworld. Our Voyager twosome eventually escape in the tether's carriage pod, but not before some unbelievable plot lines, poor direction and convoluted stories angles nearly make watching the show unbearable.

Forgetting the major production problems for a moment, do you see the connection between 'Flight of the Phoenix' and 'Rise?' Separate, each doesn't seem to have a lot in common, but the basic dilemma posed in both is exactly the same. Stranded innocents, no way out. A so-called expert comes to the rescue to save the day He turns out to be a phony, but somehow, the hero makes it all work out in the end. Jimmy simply 'turned the screw' and sold himself a story idea that landed him a $15,000. Plus, never ending residual checks.

A Leonardo daVinci You're Not

If you're not a big movie lover, then I suggest you generate an idea the da Vinci way. Remember this famous Italian from your high school history lessons? Inventor of the helicopter? Painter of the beloved, Mona Lisa? In 1998, Michael J. Gelb wrote a best selling book titled, 'How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci.' Gelb points out seven of da Vinci's principles to gaining the most out of life. I believe they apply for the aspiring writer as well. The seven areas, we as people and writers must work on every day of our lives are: curiosita (curiosity), dimostrazione (demonstration), sensazione (sensations), sfumato (a willingness to embrace ambiguity), arte/scienza (development of balance), corporalitia (cultivation of physical grace), and connessione (recognition of interconectivenees of all things).

By applying these life principles, a writer can find him/herself more alive and ready to begin creative writing process. I could go further in-depth about these worthwhile notions, like a self-help guru, but I will not at this time. Just remember, if you demonstrate curiosity about life and try to keep a well balanced approach to your emotional, mental and physical well-being, you should find yourself at the starting blocks all good writers need to reach every morning or evening (which ever time you devote to writing) when they approach their craft.

Start Writing: Moving From Point A to Point B

Let's say you have more than fifteen to thirty minutes to spare for your writing today. You're outside, sitting under a tree in the springtime, with pad and pencil, jotting down story ideas for season three of Enterprise. Or you've decided to write a short story or a book proposal. How do you begin the journey? With a nap, a margarita, a game of Frisbee with the family golden retriever? Doesn't mater, as long as you find your quiet spot, you're ready to start writing.

When the urge strikes me, I never know. It may happen in the morning, after I wake up from sleep, but not ready to brush my teeth or feed the five kitties. For Ray Bradbury, this is his best time of day, when the conscious mind can't put the clamps to the unconscious state. For you., it might be in the shower. Or travelling to work on the bus, trolley or train. Just have a pencil and a piece of paper handy.

When the perfect idea strikes like a lightening bolt on a Swiss mountain top, I often scramble to grab anything, like a napkin, a bank or store receipt, and jot down the idea. The notion could be a question rather than a concept. I write it down. I sometimes begin an outline of the story or book idea. Then, if I like the concept later that day, I take a piece of paper to flesh out the interconnected pieces of the jig-saw puzzle.

But I never throw notes away. Even if I find them a bit filthy, with that afternoon's crusty lunch remnants, I keep them in a safe place. There may be something in the original writing that pushes your mind in the same direction it was hours earlier. Don't throw anything associated with your first idea away - ever - even after you've finished a writing project. That's my motto and I'm stickin' to it.

What's Next?

Okay, you've conquered the most difficult part: creating the central idea that will carry you into your project. Whichever it may be (play, story, book, etc.), you must now continue to write. Are you an outliner? Fine. Or do you simply like to write, beginning to end, without stopping. That's a good habit too. Wherever gets you going without self-recrimination or self- censorship is super.

Whenever I finish that first paragraph, page, or chapter, I remember what my old 12th English said: 'All good writing is re-writing.' For my 512 page Ph.D. dissertation, I rewrote many sentences several times over. Key ones, 18-15 times. I re-arranged important paragraphs 12-10 times, I even re-ordered critical pages 9-7 times because I added or subtracted key ideas to long treatise. As a Trek writer, you don't need to be this meticulous, but you must be thorough.

Collaboration

When you're ready for an audience, find a trusted companion to go over your work. And as Bradbury says, 'If they say your work is no good, they're not your friends.' In other words, go to a trusted pal, who is literate, who can give you a decent collaboration on your in-progress or completed first/second/third draft. Take the words to heart, or not, but don't be too defensive. After, pass the work along to another trusted person (former teacher?) for their 'critique' (not criticism, but a constructive way of looking at grammar, organization and style). After you've incorporated the relevant advice, you're ready to approach the appropriate party(s) in terms of literary agents, editors and studios.

In the Next Article...

Before we talk about agents and publishers, lets go more in-depth about just what type of Trek material will get you noticed in the publishing or television world. Step Two: Finding Your own Voice and Step Three: Selling the Idea will be in the next installment of this five part series.

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Joseph D. Di Lella is a freelance writer and pannelist at the San Diego Comic Con. He can be reached via this page at AllExperts.com