San Diego 'Star Trek' Writing Panel ReportBy Joseph Di Lella
Posted at August 31, 2003 - 1:06 PM GMT
On Saturday, July 19, Joseph Di Lella held his fourth annual 'How to Pitch and Write For Star Trek' panel at the San Diego Comic Con. In this article, he describes how the panel came about and reports on what was said at this year's event.
Running A Panel Is Like Parenthood
At first, starting your own Star Trek panel is similar to raising a child. I don't mean to diminish the significance of any mothers and fathers out there who are tending to tomorrow's leaders. But think of it this way: a birth of a child is a magnificent event, the most life-altering event in anyone's existence, right? How have my Trek panels turned from delightful events to pains in the backside, with the promise of greater things to come? Read on...
Baby Steps: The Gathering Of Great Minds
It began a little over four years ago, when a friend posed this question to me, "Why don't you hold your own Star Trek panel?" As head of the video tape department of the San Diego Comic Con, Mr. Kiperts felt it could be a fun, interesting program. So with his encouragement, professional contacts, and the ultimate recruitment of fellow San Diegan Jimmy Diggs, the most prolific freelance story contributor in Trek history, and his good friend, D.C. Fontana, Gene Roddenberry's personal assistant turned story writer and ultimately Star Trek: The Next Generation associate producer, the dream played out six months later.
On that second Saturday of July, 2000, we were pitted against the likes of Matt Groening (The Simpsons) and Chris Carter (The X-Files) in a small room outside the main corridor. Though only 45 people attended the panel, it was reasonable turnout considering the competition. D.C. spoke about Gene's dream and the art of storytelling in Trek. Jimmy addressed the task of pitching. And I? I spoke about writing a Trek book proposal and the task of finding a literary agent. We three also inspired the few bards in the crowd by asking for off-the-cuff Voyager story pitches. The Trek pros evaluated pitches and many in the audience left with the empowered feeling of, "Hell yeah, I CAN write for Trek, too."
The second year of our 'How to Pitch and Write' panel was held, sadly, without D.C. Fontana. Regardless, Jimmy came through by recruiting his close business associate and Trek writer (and Earth: Final Conflict developer), Harry 'Doc' Kloor. So in 2001, during the last hours of the programming schedule, Harry, Jimmy and I played to an audience of sixty five in a spacious room overlooking the bay. I moderated as Jimmy and Harry did their thing, giving secrets to how they developed classic storylines to such tales as, "Dr. Bashir, I Presume", and "Drone". I spoke about what I knew best: writing books and Strange New Worlds story submissions. Pitches were again taken, and the audience, once more, had a blast.
Teenage Years: Anyone Have An Aspirin?
In 2002, that's where the headaches truly began. The 2002 San Diego Comic Convention reached a new high in popularity, burgeoning to over 63,000 strong. Despite late appearances by Harry Kloor and Jimmy Diggs due to traffic problems, I was well prepared and tap danced my way through the presentation to a crowd of 125 plus (over room capacity). Still, the overflow audience and would-be writers truly appreciated the chance to pitch Voyager stories and hear about my tales of the literary side of Trek writing experience.
2003: A Trek Odyssey
Since I was regularly pitching Enterprise, I truly believed that I had what it took to contribute to this panel as both a TV and literary scribe. With this new-found confidence, I slugged my way through the ordinary and difficult roads of organizing the panel.
I recruited the amiable Eric Stillwell ("Yesterday's Enterprise", The Dead Zone), DS9 freelance writer Jack Trevino ("Little Green Men", "Indiscretion") and prolific Trek pitcher Steve Fratt. Added to the mix were regulars such as Harry Kloor, Jimmy Diggs and author/editor Keith R.A. DeCandido.
Now that you know more about the heartaches and triumphs associated with putting on a Trek panel, it's time to share with you the inner workings of those brilliant minds, and exactly what was said in this year's 'How to Pitch and Write' panel at the San Diego Comic Con. Sadly, D.C. Fontana never did show up. Regardless, the panelists entertained a lively crowd of well over 200 fans. So, let's get the show on the road, shall we?
What Are The Writers Up To These Days?
This year's panel began with casual introductions of which pies the current panelists have their fingers into. Keith De Candido has three Star Trek books coming out this fall. Jimmy Diggs and D.C. Fontana are in the second stage of pitching a series to the FOX Network, an H.G. Wells project called HMS Victory. CBS has just picked up Harry 'Doc' Kloor's new crime series tentatively called I.C.E. With hopes of making the fall 2004 schedule, Harry has been given the greenlight to shoot the pilot. Dr. Kloor, creator of the show, will be a producer and writer for the series that will focus on an American security force that deals with terrorism, drug smuggling, and high tech crime.
What's Eric Stillwell doing these days? He's the new associate producer of The Dead Zone, which has just been picked up by USA Network for another 13 episodes. In addition to his work on the Zone, Eric and I are working on book about sci-fi television shows. Two other panelists, Trek writer Jack Trevino and seasoned pitchman Steve Fratt, are currently pitching Enterprise stories. Both men are also in the Dead Zone loop and should be pitching to Piller's show in the near future.
Difficulties With Pitching And Writing
"Writing is fun - it's the pitching that's hard," said Harry Kloor. "To do it in a concise manner is the most important aspect [of the pitch]. You've got to grab the person's attention, or it's all over." All stories evolve in the mind of a writer, and it took Doc Kloor several stabs at it until the day he came up with a cool, high-tech concept. "One day I went into Brannon's office and said I've got a story you're going to buy. Seven of Nine's nanites infect the Doc's holo-emitter and create a 29th century Borg." That idea, of course, became the story known as "Drone", considered by many as one of the best Voyager stories.
Jimmy chimed in that even top pitch artists can be scooped by others. "I remember reading script status reports and seeing great ideas by people like Jack, here, and saying to myself, 'Damn, why didn't I think of that?' So I made it a point to work harder developing my ideas." Mr. Diggs playfully jabbed at Jack by saying, "And as I saw those wonderful ideas come out of the minds of Jack and Toni (Marberry), I vowed to myself, you [referring to Jack] will be mine one day," which brought a cascade of raucous laughter from the large crowd.
"I'm more like you, the fans," Jack Trevino said. "I'm not in the same league as Jimmy." Unlike Jimmy, who's a full time creative machine, Jack works a 40 hours plus work week in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Regardless of his demanding 9-5 schedule, Jack and his partner Toni Marberry penned a spec script for TNG. Executives liked it, and asked the two to pitch. Over a four-year period, Jack pitched eighteen times, his first one to DS9 co-creator, Michael Piller. By his fourth pitch, he ended up selling two stories to DS9.
Now it's a different game for the average fan like Jack to get his foot in the door. Still, Michael Piller has tried to keep the steel gate open just a bit for the struggling writer. "At Dead Zone Michael offers first time writers (people who have not made professional sales to Hollywood) the chance to submit spec scripts," said Eric Stillwell. "Each one is forwarded to an agency here in Los Angeles, and if they like it, the writer is referred to us for a pitch session."
Harry added, "That's a nice gesture by Michael, encouraging young writers." He went on to say that his first sale was a Voyager pitch made to Piller, ironically called, "The Dead Zone". In fact, Harry recently sold a story to Lion's Gate Productions, and it should be aired sometime in the next set of episode installments for The Dead Zone, either in March or June of 2004.
Conceptualization In The Writing Game
"One thing that you must be aware of is that an idea and a story are two completely different things," said literary scribe Keith De Candido. "Ideas are a dime a dozen...what you need, as a story or book writer, is a plot to hang it [the idea] on." At that moment, Harry tossed a dime at the surprised speaker. "What's this for?" asked Keith. "I'd like ten ideas, please," teased Harry.
Yet in the pitching game to TV executives, sometimes just a succinct idea or a reference to popular movie is good enough to make a sale. "Loglines are important," said Eric. In essence, presenting a great three line pitch (beginning middle and end of a story) may make a sale. "Or sometimes, you may need to pitch three paragraphs [to clearly articulate the main storyline]," added Harry.
"I remember going into Michael's office one morning and saying, 'I have this story that's kinda like, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre'," said Eric Stillwell. Piller said "Sold!", while Eric stood there dumbstruck. "But Michael," Eric said, "I haven't even told you what the story is about." Piller replied, "I don't care. I want to do a story like The Treasure of Sierra Madre."
"That happened to me, too," said Jack Trevino. "I said, I've got a story about Kira and Dukat looking for lost friends and relatives. Rene Echevarria responded, "Oh you mean like The Searchers?" Jack continued, "I sat there, a bit confused, for I hadn't seen that John Wayne movie. Rene told us to go see it and come back with a modified pitch. We did and our story, 'Indiscretion', was purchased."
Sometimes, the best Trek stories are simply a combination of two tales previously told. "When I pitched 'Yesterday's Enterprise', I was thinking of a way to combine 'City on the Edge of Forever' and 'Mirror, Mirror'," said Eric Stillwell. "By luck, I pitched it the same day Denise Crosby (Tasha Yar) had just had a meeting with Rick Berman, asking if they could write her into a show." Eric's idea of Picard's Enterprise-D meeting the Enterprise-C with Tasha back on board, was the perfect story at the perfect time.
Eric went on to say that when he gave his impromptu pitch to Piller, the producer said, "Great: now go off and write it." Eric and his writing partner wrote the treatment (a story outline of about ten pages). But when he returned it to the office, the writers were under a tight time line. Crosby and Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan) had only a one-week window to shoot the show. "So the writers had only about eight days to finish the teleplay before Thanksgiving break." Eric wishes he had the chance to write the teleplay, but he understands the restrictions placed upon freelance writers in Trek.
In pitching, sometimes great minds do not think alike. "You think of something, they think of something," said Harry, "and it's the nexus of the two that must come together. Several times, you must make up something completely different than you came in with to make the sale." Jimmy Diggs added, "Harry and I have tap-danced our way to several sales that way."
"It's the same with writers pitching stories to editors and publishers," added Keith. "If they say, oh you mean that, you've got to be flexible and go with the flow. In the prose process, the outline is the key." The proposal's length doesn't matter - it can be 10 pages ot 60 pages, but aspiring authors should always remember on thing: "You don't write the book first."
In fact, according to Keith, a great book idea may sometimes become a moot point. Why? A writer may make a sale to the TV series earlier that season, unknown to an author, thus going against or replicating the idea. If it's the same idea it's called parallel development. An author can build off that story. For example, Keith has just written a story that explores what Captain Kirk did for the seventy years between his apparent death in the Nexus and when he met up with Picard to stop Soran. If it's contrary to the author's work, well, it's just called bad luck. The author must scratch his head and come back with a completely different story.
Pitching To Enterprise
Having been detained by miserable traffic that morning, Steve Fratt finally joined the panel. As he rushed up to take his seat, Steve took a few questions from me, the moderator. "Why do they keep asking me back?" Steve mused. "I'm not sure, because what you see here is a poster boy for Star Trek writing futility. Really, they must like something about me, because they keep asking me back."
Steve has pitched to three Star Trek series over the course of the last several years. And though he's come very close to selling many times, he believes his time is about to come with Enterprise. "It's a tough sell, but I love this ship," Steve said, indicating his fondness for the franchise by playfully handling a model of the Enterprise-C.
"This season, they want weird stuff in the Expanse. But you know, it's a tough sell because they've heard all the stories before," Steve said, referring to the 500 plus hours of Trek seen on television over the past 36 years. "You've got to go in and give 'em something they've never heard before, and that ain't easy. Or make an amazing pitch using just three words, like a friend of mine did with, 'I, Borg'. The three words? 'Single-minded Borg'."
Opportunities For You?
As Jimmy mentioned earlier that morning, the Writer's Guild of America Internship Program is probably the best way to land an insider's position with the series. "If you a person of a disadvantaged, protected class (non-Caucasian, female or over 40 years of age) it might be your only shot," added Jimmy. "Brannon Braga started as just a regular intern, and he never left," said Eric.
During their internship, an aspiring writer has six-weeks to follow around the writing staff, and learn the process of developing stories pitched from people like Jimmy, Harry, Eric, Jack, and inevitably, Steve Fratt. Details can be found at the WGA web site.
In the book world, Keith mentioned the Strange New World (SNW) competition. This is the contest where fans may submit a short story (7,500 words or less) for any of the five Trek series. "Pocket Books is looking for new, fresh voices," said Keith, "and this is the best way for a beginner to get in." In the past, several Trek authors got their start as SNW writers. "You don't make as much money as my colleagues here, but it's an opportunity you can't pass up."
The last half hour I left open for audience members to pitch their Enterprise ideas to the panel. The top two winners received mini Star Trek Nemesis posters from my personal collection, autographed by panel members. And though the discussion and pitch session could have gone on for the rest of the afternoon, we had to stop.
What Did I Receive From the Experience?
If, or should I say when you put on your own Trek panel, you will not receive money from the convention programmer, I guarantee that. Still, there are other aspects of running your own panel that may make you quite satisfied. For example, as I wrapped-up this year's panel, a dozen or so audience members caught me at the stage and asked to buy my 'How to Pitch and Write Star Trek' handbook. That was quite an exhilarating experience. One man purchased the book, and he told me that my series of articles inspired him to leave New York and live out his writing dreams in Los Angeles. I was dumbstruck. I jokingly replied that I hoped he wouldn't hold me responsible if things didn't work out.
At the autograph table, I sold a few more copies of the handbook. As I spoke with Eric and his wife, Debbie, I was approached by a young man, no more than sixteen, and his mother. "Dr Joe, I'm so glad that we caught you," he said. "May I interview for my cable access show?" As his mother set up the camcorder, Eric and I answered a few questions for fifteen minutes. At that moment, I realized that I had made an impact with young Trek writers. The teacher in me felt uplifted, I assure you.
Later that day, I met with my pitch partners in the hotel bar. We came up with a few ideas that will knock 'em dead at our next pitch session at Paramount. Which as I write this article, is today. Please say a little prayer for us, okay? But perhaps the best moments of the weekend was the last day of the convention.
On Sunday afternoon, I sat at the autograph table, hoping to sell another handbook or two. A middle aged mother and her son walked up to the table. She wanted her boy, now a Stanford undergraduate, to break away from his studies more and enjoy life. Since he was a big Star Trek fan, she hoped the handbook would inspire his creative juices. We spoke for nearly forty five minutes. As the college kid and his mom walked away from the table, I knew that my work might just inspire a talented writer. And as a writer, that's a memory that should never be forgotten.
I sincerely hope you will have your own special Trek moment one day. Whether it's holding your own panel, winning a SNW writing competition or seeing your pitch idea produced on Enterprise, shoot for the stars. Gene Roddenberry did, and where did it get him? I think you know that answer.
Can you create your very own Trek panel? Of course you can. It just takes a lot of patience, the right connections and a large amount of stupidity, I mean faith, in everything working out just right. For all you faithful out there, I've written a list of factors you should consider to put on a great show.
- Figure Out Your Own Specialty: Are you a writer at heart? A special effects wizard? A producer? Whatever your specialty area, you can create your own panel. You don't even need experts from Enterprise or any other Trek series to attend. As long as you know more about your specialty area than the next person, you're a qualified speaker. Still, it couldn't hurt to have someone big on board, and would make for a better draw.
- Contact Key Players:If you have friend of a friend of a friend of hot shots in the Trek game, give 'em a call. Ask if he/she can organize a phone call or email contact for you with an actor, writer or production person on a current or previous shows. If that doesn't work, try the Internet. You might be able to make contact that way. Please, don't pester the poor people, but if it works out, all the better for you, right? And if that method doesn't work out, you could still try contacting people from the literary side of Trek. If there's a Trek author in your home town or nearby, try and reach them through their publishing company.
- The Appropriate Venue: You have a well-established or new convention in mind, right? Good. Check early with the programmer to see if you may present a panel. I'm sure, with your salesmanship abilities, you can convince anyone why you're the best person around to hold a Trek panel. Remember and believe that you're their bread and butter. You are the reason why fans attend the convention: because of your expertise or ability to draw in the big names.
- Prepare, Prepare, Prepare: Organize early-on what areas you'd like to cover in your talk. Will you be simply a moderator or an active participant? What would you like your experts to discuss? Make sure everyone is on the same page. Most importantly, make sure that you have made travel, hotel and parking arrangements for all your guests. Sometimes the convention organizers may spring for part or all of the tab of the special guest(s). It's worth a shot to ask. Try and get them there a day early, if possible. Don't get caught with your pants down with fellow panelists stuck in airport security, highway jams or filled-up parking lots.
- Expect The Worst: And if someone doesn't make the panel? Prepare for an alternate way of delivering the goods (information) yourself or by the wisdom and life experiences of other panelists.
Inspired? I would love to hear from anyone who makes use of these suggestions. And remember, I'm available to speak on 'How to Pitch and Write Trek' anywhere in the world. If you pay my airfare, hotel bill and the $50,000 appearance fee (wink, wink).
Joseph Di Lella is the author of the Do You Have What It Takes To Write For Star Trek? series of articles.