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The Trek Nation - Do You Have What it Takes To Write For Star Trek? Part II: Short Stories

Do You Have What it Takes To Write For Star Trek? Part II: Short Stories

By Joseph D. Di Lella
Posted at October 23, 2002 - 2:46 AM GMT

In Part One, you learned about the lives of several famous Star Trek writers, what it takes to write for Enterprise, and discovered a few new insights about the creative forces driving successful writers today. In Part Two, we'll begin to focus on different types of writing that may get you noticed by the right people when placed in the proper venues. Let's start building your Trek publication portfolio, shall we?


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

Step 2: Finding Your Own Voice: Turn-Off That DVD Player, Get Off the Couch, and Start Writing

At the moment, there are three areas you may tap into to enter the professional world of Star Trek: short story, teleplay and book writing. There are other ways as well, such as publishing your work(s) with a magazine, website, fan club newsletter, etc. For our purposes, we'll focus on the three major markets.

Short Story Writing: Venture into Strange New Worlds

For the past six years, America's publishing giant, Simon and Schuster, has printed a fan-based, Star Trek anthology called, 'Strange New Worlds' (SNW). The book includes original short stories from each of the four [this year, five] Trek series. The tradition should continue in future years, if sales justify the continued release of this series. Each SNW volume is approximately 300 pages in length. The paperback sells for a modest $5.95 in the states.

Let's see by a show of hands, how many of you have submitted work for this publication? I see you in the back row. Stop trying to hide, Johnny. Why haven't you turned in your story to the Star Trek/Pocket Book Division? Oh, that's terrible. Your pet tribble ate it before you could send it off to New York? Those beasts are a voracious lot. You in the front row, our little Debbie, you're the best student in the class, what's you're excuse? You had a tummy ache from eating too much gagh the past few days? I told you not to go to that Klingon restaurant in the neighborhood mall.

And all you others? What's stopping you?

Buy the newest issue. Get a feel for the type of stories the editors enjoy reading. If the nearest bookstore doesn't carry the line, try ordering from Amazon.Com or Simon and Schuster. You can even back order publications from previous years.

Quick Rundown of Important Rules

Basic requirements:

The best way to find out about contest rules is to go to the internet and print in the following: www.psiphi.org/cgi/upc-db/feature/sn6-rules.html. This website is wonderful for fans of Star Trek in general, but in our case, gives us a link to the official contest rules.

Eligibility:

If you're a writer with two or less paid short story publications behind you, you are welcomed to enter the contest. You must live in America or Canada (excluding Quebec). You must not be an employee [or have anyone related to you living in the same household] of Viacom or Simon and Schuster.

Submission Policies:

Your original work must be 7,500 words or less, submitted by Oct 1st. Paper copies only, put together by paperclips. No staples, no fancy binding. Cover art okay, but not necessary. Disc copies not needed or accepted. You may submit up to three works, but each one must be mailed separately.

Address:

The address is: Strange New Worlds VI [VII next year], Star Trek Dept, Pocket Books, 1230 Sixth Avenue, N.Y, N.Y., 10020. Send it by Federal Express so you may confirm delivery of your parcel.

Prizes:

Awards are given to the first ($1,000.00), second ($600.00), and third ($400.00) place winners. These and twenty other 'honorable mention' winners receive 10 cents a words for their stories and a contract from Simon and Schuster.

Pick up the newest volume of Strange New Worlds for other contest rules.

Other Sources of Information: How to Write Well for SNW Editors

If you would like another great source of SNW information, turn again to the Psi Phi webpage and look for the link to the 'Psi Phi Star Trek Book Database,' specifically the page, 'Strange New Worlds Hints From the Editor (parts one and two).' This link gives you detailed information from the chief editor of SNW, Dean Wesley Smith. Mr. Smith has two 'top fifteen' lists that you should apply to your work(s). If you don't stick to the format, style and other particular rules germane to Star Trek writing, you have no chance for acceptance. He may be a stickler, but it's his opinion you must follow if you want to increase your odds for publication.

Success Stories

At the SD Comic Con 2002, I met a nice young man named, Charles Skaggs, a former SNW contest winner (Vol. III). His work, titled: 'Doctor's Three,' was awarded [by Star Trek Communicator Magazine in the article, Prescribed Reading: "The Top Ten Dr. McCoy Stories You May Have Missed"] as one of best stories ever written about the beloved doctor on Kirk's Enterprise. I wish I could bring it up on the web right now, but legal rules prohibit me from doing so... but that doesn't mean I can't discuss why it was published.

What separated Charles's story from the other 3,000 SNW entrants? Simplicity written to perfection.

In brief, Charles's story starts out with Dr. McCoy, well over one-hundred years old, travelling by shuttlecraft to Jupiter Two Station to visit Dr. Zimmerman, designer of the original holographic medical program [This template was later used on Voyager and simply called, Doctor]. McCoy is sent by Starfleet Medical to consult with Zimmerman and evaluate the overall effectiveness of the hologram. As you can guess, McCoy is not too pleased with a hologram posing as a physician.

To the Enterprise's doctor, the holo-program is just another machine meddling where it shouldn't. Emotions build during the story through early conversations between Leonard, the defensive programmer and the arrogant hologram. McCoy is finally forced to deal with his own limitations and faces the advent of technology replacing man. In the end, the reader is treated to a wonderful portrayal of a lonely, aged man searching for a way to not only imprint his values on the hologram's program, but ultimately, leave his mark for humanity's future journey's into space.

Remember, it's not the techno-babble or glorious battle scenes that make the audience applaud Trek author [unless, of course, you're twelve years old]. It's how the characters handle the strain, pressure and unfairness life offers up that draws in the audience into the inherent drama of the piece. Science fiction, or in our case, the Star Trek universe, is the backdrop for stories of the human condition. If done well, audiences never forget the morality lessons in such Trek episodes like, 'Timeless' [Kim and Chakotay sacrifice themselves to alter the timeline and save their crew, in Voyager], 'City on the Edge of Forever' [Kirk watches helplessly as Edith Keeler dies so humanity can survive, in TOS], 'The Visitor,' (Jake devotes his life to finding a father lost, in DS9], and 'Inner Light,' (Picard learn the intimate details of a civilization as he lives out another man's life, in TNG).

Let's break down Charles Skaggs's story to see what made it a winner, okay?

Character and Story Development

Easy question: Why did Skaggs focus on the Leonard McCoy character? Simple answer. Charles chose 'Bones' because he is his favorite member of the old cast. Charles feels comfortable with the character, and identifies certain eccentricities about him better than, say, a Mr. Spock or James T. Kirk. As an author, if you don't write about something or someone you know well, the piece comes across as artificial and forced.

Looking at it from a Star Trek author's standpoint, by picking Dr. McCoy as the central character, we have an emotional, but rational and intelligent person for others to play off. By placing him outside The Original Series (TOS) universe, Charles gives Leonard the chance to interact with other Star Trek generation characters, like Voyager's Dr. Zimmerman and a similar character to the ship's, Doctor. Clever move.

The story idea is marvelous, but kept simple. Skaggs asks the question, "How would Leonard McCoy react if Starfleet Medical installed holographic doctors in deep space stations and on starships on distant space missions?" You see, it addresses an ethical and medical problem posed [and already established] in the Trek universe. As a short story, we're not talking big-time dramatic, all-out fireworks battle, like the war between the Federation and the Dominion. Remember, one only has 7,500 words. Often, it is the articulation a minor problem or question that makes for the richest and best reading.

By posing the basic question, Skaggs stories allows himself to investigate McCoy's character flaws and strengths [as a human being and as a professional]. The organic tension developed between McCoy, his attaché, Zimmerman and the holo-doc characters is nicely done and superbly written.

I doubt Charles thought of it, but the story reminds me of Jimmy Diggs's Deep Space Nine episode, 'Dr. Bashir, I Presume?' Remember? Tensions arise when Zimmerman uses Bashir's profile as the template for improving the holo-doc personality, but this leads to the discovery of Julian's genetic enhancements. Both Skaggs and Diggs's stories ask the basic question, "What human qualities does it take to be a healer?" If a writer asks a fascinating question or places his/her characters in situations that bring about compelling problems, most stories practically write itself.

A Failure Turned Into a Success?

Two years ago, I submitted an entry to the SNW contest. The story, titled, 'Naomi's Nightmare;' is about Voyager's contact with wormhole beings posing as Starfleet personnel in a fictional, but believable earth setting. Ms. Wildman's new-found, telepathic prowess leads Janeway to the discovery of the sentient aliens and their dangerous trap.

I adapted the story from a speculation script (teleplay) sent in as part of my WGA intern application I submitted several years back. The concept was fine; its execution, acceptable. The teleplay had a thumbs-up from Jimmy Diggs, who recommended me to Bryan Fuller (at the time, staff writer for Voyager) for the writing internship.

So, what's the big problem in translating a teleplay into a winning short story?

A sixty-page teleplay does not necessarily become a decent short story; especially with contest restrictions. I struggled with word count, and by doing so, gutted the best scenes of the teleplay for my SNW story entry. Why didn't I just write something else? It was late August of 2000, and I was flying to Europe. I wanted to keep myself busy on the twelve-hour flight. If you're a white-knuckle flyer like me, you've got to keep busy.

By forcing the issue, (because I had too much time and ego invested in submitting a piece of writing to Simon and Schuster), my submission was not accepted. But that's okay, because I learned what not to do the next time for SNW. Authors must not be lazy. Stories should be fresh and written from a new muse, not forced from a stale, old source. Essentially, if the idea doesn't move you, don't waste your time to write it.

This year, with Charles's editing assistance, I developed two stories; one, a Voyager, the other, a TNG entry. This year, I conceptualized my projects like writers do in pitch sessions. If you can't explain the concept in one line, the idea isn't clear enough. Thus, my story question was a simple one: If the Dr. Moriarty hologram escaped to the Delta quadrant, what problems would he pose for Janeway's crew? Without giving details away, I devised a way for him to reach Voyager, endanger the ship with their mortal enemy, and expose the Doctor, Paris and Seven to the hologram's more sinister plan.

The story wrote itself in four days.

The revisions took six weeks.

Which leads me to another critical point about writing for SNW. If you have a great idea, don't rush it. I read a few entries in the Discussion Board of TrekToday that alarmed me. A few gung-ho writers planned to pen-off a story on the weekend, submit the piece by express mail on Monday to Pocket Books to meet the Tuesday, Oct. 1st deadline. Well, I applaud anyone's determination to work into the wee-hours of weekend nights, but not if it means destroying a great idea. REVISION is the key. COLLABORATION is another important element to composing a nicely polished story. I'd hate to think that someone out there had the winning entry, but because of simple grammar and organizational mistakes, didn't make the first cut.

For those who sent a stamped addressed envelop with this year's entry, take any constructive criticism Mr. Smith sends your way in a positive manner. Learn from the mistakes. Show the piece(s) to friends who may give you different critiques you may not have realized you needed.

Start the new SNW stories for next year, now. Write a list of say, twenty or so concepts you'd like to explore. Go back to them every week or so over the next few months. Cull out the top five. Start the writing process. Collaborate with a friend as a co-author, if possible. Eventually, cut the five to three by outlining or writing a few rough drafts. If by April or May you don't like any of them, go back to the original list [see why you should never throw away original notes?] and start writing other stories.

You should have each story completed by late August, or at the latest, the first week of September. I did hear a rumor about a winning contestant submitting his/her story just in time by the Oct. 1st deadline, but don't push it. Don't wait till late August to start your stories, like I did in 2000.

For those of you who did submit stories this year - best of luck. We'll find out in December, if any of us receive the congratulatory phone call or letter from Dean Wesley Smith. If not, there's always next season...

Enough about short stories. Let's hear where you can make the big bucks in the world of Star Trek book writing... in the next part of this series. The next instalment will be online soon here at TrekToday.

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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